Art Moves in Germany (Core Course Week, Part 2)

(Part 1 here)

Thursday, February 6th

I forget my toothbrush, somehow. And my hairbrush. I won’t figure this out and be able to fix it until later tonight, rifling through my backpack on the fifth floor of a hostel in Hamburg, Germany.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. My core course’s study tour begins after I slip off the darkened grounds of the folkehøjskole at 5:45am, “Misirlou” pumping through my headphones to keep me awake. Our class takes the tour bus down a road with creeping mist and yellowed grass; then a nausea-filled ferry ride over the German border; then the bus again. Then we’re in Lübeck, a picturesque town surrounded by waterfront blocks and old steeples. It could be part of Copenhagen, only the signs are populated by umlauts instead of the slashed-through “ø”.

The cafe my lunch group goes to won’t take any non-German credit cards, so I jog a block over to get euros from a bank. As the bills slide out of the machine, I’m surprised at how much I’ve missed their colors and close-to-USD denominations from last semester. The holes in the center of Danish kroner coins are definitely cooler, though.

Lübeck waterfront

Brian split our tour into two parts – an “Apollonian” one for harmonious activities, like the fine arts, and a “Dionysian” one centered in the energy of the crowd, culminating in a Hamburg football game. Starting from Apollo’s side, we’re here in Lübeck to take in Marienkirche–St. Mary’s Church–and see if it still “works” as an art piece in speaking to us today.

We gather around a gated-off area inside, where a bell rests, shattered, in an indentation in the brick floor. Both bells fell from their places in the church’s two spires during an air raid in World War II, which also caused a historic medieval tapestry to catch fire.

One of the broken bells of St. Mary’s. (Photo credit: Paul)

The most quiet class seminar we’ve ever had happens here, done in whispers outside the gate–on why the bell was preserved like this, what kind of losses it might symbolize. Erik comments that the bell shows that for just one night in 1942, it might have seemed to the people of Lübeck, even in this place of faith, that a God wasn’t there.

St. Mary’s sanctuary

I walk the full church hall, feeling some of my worries from Wednesday return as I try to get it. I see all the cues–the high ceilings, the suspended wooden cross, the glass–and appreciate how beautifully they’re arranged. But Brian has spoken about how for those living during the church’s construction in the Middle Ages, St. Mary’s would’ve been the center of their lives–literally, with everything else in town pointing towards it–and a reflection of the divine itself. I’ve been taught that these things represent something sacred, and why, yet this church will probably never hold the same significance for me which it did for that community. Maybe that’s a deeper layer of loss.

Another bus ride finds us by the afternoon in the neighborhood of St. Pauli, Hamburg, where smokestacks rise up in the distance and every lamppost is covered over in a thousand raucous stickers. DIS covers our trip to Marblau, a Mediterranean fusion restaurant, for dinner; Rebecca, Tess, Maya and I talk over the meal about ABBA and terrible young adult dystopia books we once loved.

Marblau’s fig and pancetta pizza

Keeping the Apollonian mood going, we end the day with baroque music at the city concert hall. I’m nodding along with the first half of the show, but all the pieces seem to run together after intermission (albeit melodiously). Clearly, this is something else which should be working for me today but isn’t; half our class looks rapturous in the row behind me when it’s time for applause. My music taste really must be rotting my brain.

…then again, there’s an involved exploration on the walk to the city bus of whether we could’ve had an equal artistic experience by singing through the “Mamma Mia!” musical. In “Myth and Reason”, everything’s fair game!

Friday, February 7th

Breakfast is served at a pizza place next to the hostel, but contains no pizza; then we’re up and off on the train. The railway map looks like thirty colored earphones tangled in a pile, and somehow makes the Danish zone system seem simple.

Hauptbahnhof, the central train station in Hamburg, shot from the escalator.

Brian situates us on the first floor of the art museum, the Hamburg Kunsthall–hey, kunst, a Danish-German crossover word! We’re at the center of an art history ring that starts somewhere in saintly iconography and makes a lazy arc on over to the 1950s, and have gathered around this piece, “Der Mann im Stock” (“the man on the floor”), by Ernst Barlach. It reminds some of us of piety; others, struggle; others, old age. Brian thinks it works, and Heidegger thought a lot of Barlach’s pieces did, too.

“Der Mann im Stock”

Like at St. Mary’s, we’re free from guided tours or museum headphones, and have some time to engage with the art in our own ways. (We’ll write reflections about pieces that we were drawn to, like at the Glyptotek, when we return.) Renee and I get lost on a walkway between the contemporary exhibits in the basement and an entirely separate building, barely making it out in time for lunch. Maya and Erik tell us afterwards that, apparently, all the good Impressionist stuff was on the other side. “There were paintings that you see in art textbooks!” Erik will say at dinner, whipping out his phone to show examples.

The afternoon is set aside for an “art walk” around Hamburg, featuring the pieces mentioned in our class readings and discussions. As we progress, I realize that it’s also a chronological walk through history. First comes the tall, monumental pillar engraved with a mother and child, commemorating the “40,000 sons” of the city who died in World War I.

The Hamburg waterfront

In a nearby park, we contrast two pieces from the following war. On the left, a commemorative stone associated with the Nazis features figures that seem to have marched out of a propaganda poster (as Gus points out), with a text glorifying self-sacrifice in battle. Further down is an art piece made in response, portraying the victims of World War II bombings; the people are disfigured and dying, but seem more human. It’s a dialogue that forces you to walk the full length of the path.

Then, a stop at the home playing field for St. Pauli’s football club, a team known for their distinctive pirate logo and open-minded fans. (Brian kindly surprises us with matching skull-and-crossbones fan pins!) Nearby looms a former bunker from the second world war, currently a dance club, soon to be a hotel.

Throughout the route, Brian points out gold solpersteine, or “stumbling stones“, positioned carefully between the ordinary sidewalk tiles. Each brick memorializes a resident of Hamburg who was persecuted or killed under the Nazi government; they’re often placed near each person’s home. It’s sobering, yet with a bittersweet undercurrent of (for lack of a better word) hope. Someone points out that, while these individuals were dehumanized during their life, we can remember their loss today by their full name and address. For the rest of our time outside, our eyes are peeled to the ground, seeking out names.

Our final dinner is at the restaurant Nil. “Wow, mange tak–” –thanks very much– “–DIS,” Rebecca laughs, when we learn of its Michelin-starred status. Nora, a member of DIS’s administrative staff who’s on tour with us, jokes “I’m not even sure if I know how to eat this?!” as she scrolls through the menu on her phone.

We figure it out–plus, on our side, Gus, Travis, Chase and I make the happy discovery that unlimited bread is included on the tab. Mid-meal, Loren kicks off a conversation about whether people always picture deities in their own human image, which I guess was the sort of thing that was bound to happen when you shoved everyone in our philosophy class at the same tables.

Appetizer: salmon with pesto and lentils

A few groups go out into the city to dance to techno music; I’d love to join them, but the sniffle I’ve been nursing since the beginning of the week has morphed into a full-on state of Being Sick. There’s one Greek myth where a group of sisters, the daughters of the king Minyas, refuse to join Dionysus for his festivities because they’re weaving. In retaliation, he infests their looms with ivy and makes them turn on their children. I wonder what, hypothetically, Dionysus’s stance on forty-eight-hour colds would be.

Saturday, February 8th

At least two other people fall to sicknesses worse than mine during the weekend. We’re all offering up pain medicine and cough drops, making pharmacy runs, helping each other with luggage. Who knew that, during a weekend in Germany, stomach pains and sore throats and general sleep deprivation would be the some of the things we’d bond over most?

Everyone makes it back on the bus, though, as we go to our last artwork–St. Nikolai Church, the tallest building in the world when it was reconstructed in 1874.

Tower of St. Nikolai

The tower is stunning–you really have no choice but to crane your head up. And I suppose it’s so stunning that it erases any memory of the historical context or information from class I walked onto this site with. Wow, I think, if this is the steeple, the sanctuary must be just as well-built.

There is no full sanctuary.

Over the unfailing sounds of the church bells–which cut Brian off twice during our class conversation–we learn that most of St. Nikolai collapsed during Operation Gomorrah, the Allied bombing campaign on Hamburg during World War II. Today, the site is preserved as it was, to paraphrase one plaque, as an “argument against war”.

In both the observation tower and a museum in the church basement, displays explain not only the tragedy of the bombing for the church, but the actions within Nazi Germany which escalated the war to that point. Can I think of an American museum display I’ve seen that recorded history with that kind of nuance? I come up short.

Bells of St. Nikolai

Outside St. Nikolai and the bells, the surrounding area’s been rebuilt and modernized since the destruction, and it’s quiet on the street, save for rushing cars. On the grounds, I have no choice but to enter the world the church preserves of a tragedy in 1943. And I begin to grasp at a stronger idea of how to tell when something “works”.

After this last visit seems like a strange time to get Dionysian; I still feel like I’m in the world of St. Nikolai when I step on the bus. The walk to the football game, which takes us through a forest, is a good transition. “This is much more exciting,” someone points out, than being dropped in a stadium parking lot.

I’m not sure if the members of “Myth and Reason” fully become one with the crowd–more than once we have to consult with Brian to tell the Hamburg club apart from their rivals, who also have a blue logo. Everyone’s on their feet, though, for the two goals that Hamburg scores to win the day, when a collective roar floats up over the field. I bob my head along to the intensely choreographed chants of the home team’s fan section, who have special permission to cart in massive drums. On the way out of the park, some overenthusiastic German fans photobomb our group picture.

Now bus, ferry, bus back home to Denmark, the rides passing in a blur of sleep. In a tunnel on the way to Copenhagen, the lights streak a champagne-color, and the silhouette figures of everyone at the front of the vehicle glow. On the train to Roskilde, it’s just me and Loren again, ending core course week the way we started it–talking still. About travel and our long-distance commute. About whether, in a place like Hamburg, you ever can–or should–separate the present from the historical past.

Somewhere in my notes I have a comment scribbled from class, some qualifier for art. If you couldn’t have a realization about living or a shift in perspective without having seen a particular piece, it must be truly great. I can’t speak too soon, but I think this specific study tour opened up things for our class that wouldn’t have happened without it. Mange tak, DIS. For real.

Header image: “The Wanderer” (Apollonian) stands in front of the sticker wall at the FC St. Pauli store (Dionysian).

Art Is Dead? (Core Course Week Etc., Part 1)

Tuesday, 1/29

There are certain phrases that sound perfectly normal after a few weeks in another country. Only when you remove yourself from the moment can you realize how lucky you are–how ridiculous it is–to be able to say them.

Like when I was abroad last semester, knee-deep in Attic Greek homework, and leaving the apartment: “I’m going to go sit on the Acropolis for a while and clear my head.” Or the way we give each other directions to places in Copenhagen: “It’s by the castle. No, not that castle, another one.”

Or more recently: Tuesday, when everyone from DIS is out on our folkehøjskole floor common room, and Loren leans over and says, “Hey, Claire, are you ready for Germany?”

“What?”

“You know, the study tour?”

“Yeah, I know–that’s next week?”

“Yeah!”

Yeah. You know. Just heading on over the border into Lübeck and Hamburg for three days. For a field trip. Normal stuff.

“…of course!”

Saturday, 2/1

I barely catch the last train that can arrive at Copenhagen Central Station by 8:30am–the time of my visa appointment in the city. The DIS Roskilde folkehøjskole group takes up half the top floor of the bus shuttling us over to the government building. Inside, we wait on line to scan our fingerprints and get our passports reviewed; outside, it’s grim, and it rained at some unidentifiable point. My phone’s camera still finds rainbows everywhere.

At the Royal Danish Library cafe, I struggle to parse this week’s Kierkegaard readings over a croissant. As a break, I go up to the top floor, five stories above, for the “Grand View” of the waterways.

My afternoon’s free, so I cross the waterfront bridge; I want to figure out how to reach the inviting brown-gold spire I see every day over the skyline. (When you’re not navigating by castles in Copenhagen, you’re using spires.)

The building is Vor Frelsers Kirke–the Church of Our Savior–over on Christianshavn. The sanctuary inside turns out to be just as stunning as the tower:

Nearby are canals and vein-like streams, along with a marshy park that grew over a set of fortifications first planned by King Christian IV. I take the escalator down into the subway home, and a musician plucks out an acoustic version of (fittingly) “Love is All Around“.

Sunday, 2/2

Three hours inside the National Museum of Denmark…and I don’t even make it to the Vikings.

I guess I should’ve anticipated feeling overwhelmed–there’s four floors in the museum, spanning thousands of years of Danish and world history. I spend most of the afternoon lost in the “peoples of the world” section, particularly the room that plays both ancient and contemporary music from different cultures. I also pass through the rooms of 18th-century Denmark, learning about divine rule and festivals and persecuted folk beliefs. (There’s an uncanny number of traditions that end in some warning about becoming a single “old hag”.)

Back in Roskilde, our floor celebrates a DIS-double birthday weekend! Malobi and Zach cut the first slices of a tangy lemon cake and open the cards that we all signed on Friday night. Keeping with national birthday tradition, a mini-Dannebrog (Danish flag) is put out on the counter for decoration.

Around midnight, a crowd of enthusiastic Scandinavians and DIS students congregates in ROFH’s Orange Room–named for the fluorescent shade that coats the chairs, ceiling, and wall–to watch the Super Bowl in real time. I last a half-hour before calling it quits, but several Americans make it til three or four in the morning, planning to sleep while in transit for their own DIS trips the next day.

The first quarter begins, to a packed house

Monday, 2/3

Happy Monday! Art is dead.

Or is it? Our goal as a class this strange week–Core Course Week–is to figure it out. For the next three days, all our other classes have been waived for four-hour sessions (with lunch breaks) and a field study in “Myth and Reason”. Then, on Thursday morning, we’ll all leave for our “study tour” to Germany together.

We’ve got quite the match-up to judge, too. In one corner, Hegel argues that we’ve turned to use science and reason as our ways of understanding the world, and art can never hold the kind of power for us that it did for ancient people. In the other, Heidegger pushes back, writing that art can still have something to say about what it means to be human. And then there’s Nietzsche, who makes a guest star appearance in our reading during class to wail that everything sacred is dead (or so he claims).

Brian asks us if we think there’s any art left that has fundamentally shifted our understanding of the world, and hesitant answers crop up: cathedrals, Mad Men, Harry Potter. Maya suggests punk rock, and Brian agrees, saying that those bands are often more interested in the spirit and beliefs they play in than the world’s ideas about quality: “They’re just like, ‘How do you do this?'” Miscellaneous guitar noises ensue. “‘Oh, OK. Cool!'”

Coincidentally, I was listening to this the night before…

The train’s late after class, spoiling my evening plans to track down a helmet before the biking shops close. But I stumble on a huge mall in downtown Roskilde which somehow contains every Danish outlet store I’ve learned to recognize so far:

Not pictured: Netto, 7-Eleven (not technically Danish, but close enough), ALDI, etc.

I buy a whiteboard at Arnold Busck for our floor–the suggestion for a place to doodle and leave messages popped up at our last meeting–and, embarrassed, ask the cashier for “Engelsk?” (English?) when I don’t realize she’s offering me a bag.

The common room is eerily quiet that night when I go to put the board up–no trap music, no laughter. Nearly all the other DIS students have their study tours at the beginning of this week. I stay up too late working on Tuesday’s readings and a blog post; by the time I go to sleep, the first news from the Iowa caucus has started rolling across social media.

Tuesday, 2/4

Our class hasn’t quite killed off art yet, but we spend a lot of time today talking about ghosts–the “spirit” of people; the way places feel haunted when they don’t mean something to us anymore. Brian projects images on the board of some of the creations we’ll be visiting in Germany, and each time, asks the question that will become infamous in our class–“Does it work?” Does it still have something meaningful to say?

Erik, Sarah and I order food at Sandwichpigen, AKA “The Sandwich Girl”–a popular DIS lunch spot because of their student discounts. We check out a basement-level cafe-bookstore that’s caught Erik’s eye, only to discover the literature is entirely French-language. None of us know French, so we scan spines and call out authors we recognize.

Den Franske Bogcafes Efterfølger

During dinner at the folkehøjskole, ROFH student Eskil animatedly tells me about football club rivalries and fan fighting when he finds out our class is going to a game in Hamburg. “Do people in the United States have fights like that about sports?” he wants to know. I admit he might get better answers from another DIS student–like Aiden, who seems to not have missed a single American football game since we’ve arrived. But I know enough to tell him about the frenzy in the streets in Philadelphia after the Eagles won the Super Bowl last year. Eskil assures me our class will probably be fine, and won’t run into any “hooligans”.

I have my longest Danish conversation thus far with the toddler of a visiting teacher, leading with “Hvad hedder du?” (What’s your name?). The rest of the evening is for helping with dishes and doing a last round of laundry before the trip–“practical matters”, as Brian might say.

Wednesday, 2/5

A holiday! The Dannebrog hangs from Christiansborg and (in a tinier form) off of buses alike. Our class meets up at Cafe Katz for coffees and refreshments before our field study; there, Rebecca figures out using her phone that it’s Crown Princess Mary’s birthday. Brian laughs–he’s got dual Danish-American citizenship, but it’s still hard to keep track of all of the royals.

Today we’re visiting the Glyptotek, with a goal of taking pictures of art that we think–you guessed it!–“works”. We have to upload our images and reasoning as a discussion post online before the week ends. Paul and Nicole both bring real cameras, cementing their status as two of our class’s Legit Photographers.

An uncomfortable realization hits me when we’re given free time to roam the halls. I’ve always loved going to museums like the Glyptotek, but usually because of the beauty of the art, or what it tells me about a certain time period, or because I like playing Mythological I-Spy like the classics nerd I am (“Hey, Amazons fighting Greeks on a vase!”). All well and good, but when’s the last time a piece of art really changed my worldview? Is art dead to me?

I like the memento mori message of the piece I end up using my assignment, though I’m still not sure if I feel it, or if it really sinks in.

“Death and the Maiden” by Elna Borch

The afternoon is my last time for a little while to be fully present in the city, and I want to soak it in, get a full sense of the spirit. I start on Strøget, the longest pedestrian street in the world, keeping an eye out for lamppost stickers and churches.

On Skindergade Street, where “Myth and Reason” meets, I browse around in Accord, the used vinyl store (despite not owning a record player). Eskil and I talked on Tuesday night about records in Denmark after I said how surprised I was to find three different shops for them in Copenhagen. He said that the “hipsters” were helping to bring them back, before imploring me to listen to Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd (one of my big rock blind spots) in its entirety. Records, he explained, helped him listen to albums like that as a whole, without feeling tempted to skip tracks. I get a little of my optimism about art back–maybe, if you approach it in certain ways, it’s more likely to “work”.

I end in the University of Copenhagen library, where stained glass circles line the walls and burnt candle stubs mark the tables. (In Denmark, candles are welcomed almost everywhere!)

It’s a night of arrivals and departures in Roskilde. The common room springs back to life as people return from study tours; Zach brings home a spongy cake that tastes like bananas. In my room, I roll up jeans in my backpack, throw in my passport, wonder how our class will get by this weekend without a lick of German language knowledge (that I know of) among us. I sleep less than I should.

(Part 2 later this week…)

(Header image: Loren, in the middle of some crushing revelations about art, strikes a pose in front of the Sphinx sculpture at the Glyptotek.)

Growing Places

August. That’s the instant sensation of entering the glass hothouses at the University of Copenhagen Botanical Garden. The doors swung shut behind me, and I was enveloped in that feeling of steamy sidewalks after the rain, of nights reading on my front porch. It’s 40 kroner ($4-6 USD) for the walk-through; if only it were free, I’d be there on all the days I feel homesick for sunnier weather. (Though, given the six-weeks-with-a-snow-day streak at college last winter, I’m sure I wouldn’t find much escape in Pennsylvania, either.)

Last Sunday, my housing friends Rachel, Sydney, and I met up at Social Foodies–a cafe that also funds aid projects in Denmark and across Africa–and all stole from the bag of flødeboller (Danish chocolate-marshmallow treats) that Rachel had made for a DIS-sponsored cooking class there. We took the subway down to the garden and spent an afternoon basking in the greenhouses, which feature orchids, palms, cacti, and exotic plants. Outside, we passed by the hills and lawns that form the remainder of the green space; I’m sure they’ll make great picnic spots in a few months.

“I bet this is the most elevated surface in Copenhagen…
…hey, you should put that on your blog.” –Rachel

First Field Study

Like greenhouse plants, it seems, we all thrive as students in particular environments. Leading up to my education class’s visit to a K-through-9 school, we broke into groups to talk about the best and worst teachers we’d ever had. Complaints were vented. Memories were shared. We agreed as a class that the great teachers in our lives somehow struck a balance between being supportive and authentic while challenging us.

Would any educators at our field study mirror our ideal teachers? Early Wednesday morning, I caught a bus, then a train, then the subway with Vicky (another folkehøjskole floormate who’s in my class) to see. Our school was on Amager, a large island directly opposite Copenhagen–also home of the university I head to on Mondays for my Kierkegaard class. Many students at our site rely on public housing or other assistance; nearly all of them live a five-minute walk or bike ride from the building.

The street outside our field study school

I sat in on a 9th-grade social science course with classmates from DIS, and was surprised by how much it reminded me of my mandatory high school personal finance requirement–right down to the ThinkPad laptops and supply-and-demand graphs. But the class ended on an innovative activity that hadn’t been a common practice in my own freshman year. As students clustered up to research different countries’ economies on their laptops, their teacher explained to us that they were working in the “cafe model”: each group would teach another group about their findings, and then the second group would present them. It’s easy to throw out a ten-minute spiel about a topic, blink, and forget it (guilty). It takes real understanding to bring someone else up to the same level of comprehension as you.

After joining up to reflect with other groups in the class, who’d shadowed younger classes, administrators led us on a walking tour of the school. Unlike the windowless, blocked classrooms I’ve often had, this building incorporated lots of glass, wood, and natural light. There were even live birds in an enclosure in the front hallway–we all did a double take after realizing the soft cheeps we heard weren’t coming from a speaker.

Growing plants near the science wing of the school

Observing educational design might’ve been the point of this field study, but I think I learned more about teenagers. Even halfway across the world, they’re still the same, in all their TikTok-quoting, mid-class-stretching, spontaneously laughing glory. What’s remarkable is that, because Danish public schools split cohorts by birth year rather than ability, the kids in that social science class have been in the same courses for nearly ten years. They really know each other as individuals, and I could sense it in the cadence of their conversation, even in Danish. Vicky would point out to me later that by the end of the class, at some point, everyone had raised a hand to speak.

Bondegården

When our field study ended, our professor Heidi offered to take us over to a local playground, Bondegården–with goats. Ninety-nine percent of our class followed her there with no hesitation.

Besides the petting zoo animals–kids can also visit with chickens and pigs–Bondegården is one site of the suttetræ (“pacifier tree”) tradition. When Danish children outgrow their pacifiers, their families tie them to branches, sometimes adding decorations or handwritten notes. Heidi told us that her daughter, after her own visit to another tree, received some gifts from a “pacifier fairy”. (A cousin of the Tooth Fairy, maybe.)

In another area of the playground, by a zipline and a labyrinthine castle playset, we came to towers, several feet high, that children had independently built with wood and nails. (No pictures for privacy reasons–imagine a structure the height of the castle below. Ten-year-old me would’ve had a blast.) I remembered the “adventure playgrounds” I’ve read about in England, where kids are free to play and experiment without helicoptering supervision.

I was struck the whole time, both on this playground and in our field study site, at how much trust surrounded these children. Young kids, unaccompanied by a teacher, were scattered working around the common space when we first went in the school. They looked at our big, loud abroad-student circle with curiosity, and then went back to their assignments, uninterrupted. Later, a physics teacher we ran into had no reservations when explaining why one of his students wasn’t in class the day before a major paper. She’s at home, working, he told us (to paraphrase), because it’s too distracting for her here and she wants to focus.

The greatest example of trust, one I won’t forget soon, came when we turned out of the playground. “Do you see what’s over there?” Heidi asked, pointing a finger over the fence demarcating the gravelly path from what could’ve been a vuggestue (“cradle room”, nursery service). A dozen black strollers were on the lawn, in view of the window–but with no one outside next to them. We offered up the correct answer, shocked, as Heidi grinned: babies, sleeping.

…Meanwhile In Roskilde

Back at home, it was a good week for conversations with ROFH people. Between my first shift on folkehøjskole kitchen duty–chopping rutabagas, potatoes, and carrots–and nightly dinner, I’ve heard about hip-hop’s influence in Denmark (explaining the Run-D.M.C. graffiti I found at our field study site), the annual summer music festival in Roskilde, and Danglish (Danes’ tendency to slip between Danish and English). On Saturday, a handful of us gathered with a visiting teacher for hyggeligt (nice, hygge-filled) rounds of board games, ping-pong, and table football. I’m starting to catch the basic phrases I’ve picked up in Danish language class in conversations–that game night, there were many “unskyld“s (“I’m sorry”s) after an impromptu Expo marker throwing war.

It has now fully sunk in that I have been in Denmark for three weeks. I feel unsure whether I have yet done anything in particular, or just observed a lot. I’m also now realizing how much time my commute from Roskilde can swallow–especially in the last week, when I took a short hiatus from biking (for safety’s sake) and walked the twenty minutes to the train. Plus, I’m not a fan of building an impenetrable first-month friend group, but it has been harder to meet more DIS students when I vanish from Copenhagen at 4pm most days.

Later this week comes my study trip for my core class–a bus trip to Hamburg, Germany (!)–and, though I’m counting down the days, I’m hoping I’ll have enough time to grow to the fullest where I’m living here, too.

A gloomy day at the Roskilde Fjord, where I biked to last weekend

Crash, Chairs, Classes, Cafe

“You made it through the first week! Did you do anything? Did you do anything scandalous? Well…you should!”

–one of my professors

I fell off my bike! Does that count?

This week started off with a bang–literally, alas–when, after a horrible skid into the bike path on the way to catch my train, my nose hit the sidewalk. While I was relieved to find out I didn’t break any bones or need stitches at the hospital in Roskilde, I had to stay home the rest of Monday–missing what was shaping up to be an exciting Hegel-Kierkegaard double-header of discussion between my two philosophy classes. (That’s not sarcasm. I’m a nerd with so many questions to ask.)

After yesterday’s naps and ibuprofen, I’m feeling fine. If anything, I’m grateful this accident showed me yet more examples of the kindness of my neighboring Danes–the man who drove me back to the folkehøjskole and gave me paper towels, the hospital staff who were able to check up on me in English–as well as from DIS housing friends who offered me help. I also now have a cool scar; my reaction to discovering this in my post-crash daze was not disgust, but wow, this is going to look so punk.

(NB: NONE of this reflects biking safety in Denmark–only my own clumsiness. If you’re here or coming here, PLEASE take advantage of the cycling culture!)

Chilling out in my room for the day with the curtains drawn gave me lots of time to draw bad comics.

Even a residual headache can’t dull the memories of last week–that first real week, the safety guardrails of orientation lowered down. I spent last Wednesday as a tourist, wandering in the area around Kastellet–a five-pointed castle fortress–in a rare burst of morning sunlight. I climbed up a hill at one of the points and looked down on St. Alban’s, an Anglican church; I left the other four (and the church itself, which was closed off for Communion) for another day.

Realizing I was by the waterfront, I walked out to the Little Mermaid statue, reasoning that there couldn’t be that many visitors for her on a chilly morning in January. I was very wrong–but angled my camera in such a way that no one could ever tell:

Right up on nearby Bredgade street is Designmuseum Denmark (free admission for students!). I hung around there into the afternoon, pacing through rooms of bicycles, pottery, accessibility devices, furniture, recycled materials imagined into new forms. And chairs–one long exhibit of chairs with flickering automatic lights in front of each model, like the back hallway of a spacecraft. I felt in over my head at some points–the museum’s collection stretches back to crafting from the pre-industrial era–and was happy whenever I ran into typography and image, my favorite touchpoints of design. Post-museum treat: a cinnamon snail (the Wednesday special) at St. Peter’s, the oldest bakery in Copenhagen.

Typically, Wednesday is reserved for DIS’s out-of-the classroom “field studies” for each of my classes; on that day, I lucked out with a free morning. From now on, though, the rest of my schedule is locked in–I bid goodbye to the pop-up sessions and 3pm jetlag naps of orientation. On Mondays, I take the subway to the south campus of the University of Copenhagen for “Kierkegaard’s Authorship”, a class which has already spawned some pretty heady conversations. In the words of our professor Brian*, Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish existential philosopher whose writings we’re studying, is the kind of thinker with ideas you return to “when it’s 2am and dark and you’re in bed staring at your hand. What is this hand? you think. What does it mean to have a hand? Who am I?

Not quite a 2am existential breakdown, but here’s what an evening walk home from the train looks like in Roskilde.

I also have Brian for my core course, “Religious Mythos and Philosophical Logos”–which, as of an executive action on the first day of class, has been shortened to “Mythos and Logos”, or “Myth and Reason”. (Cue a sigh of relief from us all, who kept tripping over the first name during icebreaker games.) We spent week one reading ancient Greek creation myths and excerpts from tales like the Odyssey, trying to piece together what relevance these stories had in the societies of the people who originally told them.

Last Tuesday, I went to the Ny Carlsburg Glyptotek museum’s weekly free day, and pored over their collections of Egyptian, Greek and Roman antiquities. What new things, I wonder, will I learn about the worldviews of the people who made these pieces by the end of the semester?

*Keeping with a Danish practice of informality, all my teachers here go by their first names.

Spending dusk in the Roman statue hall at the Glyptotek.

Great, sweeping stories–ones that could be the backbone of a nation–also seemed to be the theme of the first week in all my other courses. In “International Advertising”, we watched promotional segments from around the world, talking about which cultural narratives they were made to reflect. My “Learning in Scandinavian Classrooms” professor said you can’t think about what makes a good education without also considering what makes a good citizen. (I want to push back on this a little–could there be education towards an even greater good than a “good citizen”?–but we’ll see where I stand at the end of the semester.) Between my increasingly less mangled attempts at pronouncing the “ø” in my Danish class, we began talking over where the language fits into the country’s national history.

A lot to mull over–but not too much. Last week closed out on Friday with a fun “cultural assignment” scavenger hunt for that last language class. My group researched and walked the Kongens Nytorv (“Kings New Square”) area, taking documentary selfies at important sites (including Nyhavn, the famous canal of the colored houses, at the bottom left). We each got 100 Danish kroner (around $10-12 USD) to use at the “best coffeeshop” we could find in the area. I’m no coffee connoisseur–I actually spent my kroner on hot chocolate–but I’m willing to vouch now for Cafe Ermanno, which kept us dry after the drizzly final leg of our adventure.

In between: I picked up flyers for Studenterhuset (a student union/activities hub for anyone attending college in Copenhagen), an international church, and DIS’s film club at Activities Fair night. Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology re-tellings kept me company on the commute from Roskilde into the city and back. I had an involved dinner conversation with Danish and Norweigan ROFH students about California wildfires and Scandinavian fjords. I was selected to be a DIS student blogger! (Look for my face, sporting an action movie villain gash, on their website very soon.)

And tomorrow morning, it’s Wednesday again, and I do have a field study. I’m waking up at 6:45am to leave Roskilde and observe a Danish public school with my education class! Stay posted, and I’ll let you know if I scare any kids into always biking with a helmet on.