Back in the fall, before I revived my blog from its untimely death, I wrote an article for the Tufts Traveler magazine, which is exactly what it sounds like. They had a Scandinavia issue, and obviously I had lots to say on the topic. In light of my ever-present nostalgia and slowness in writing other blog posts, here it is.
Coping in Copenhagen
Before I left for Denmark in August of 2009, I got many different reactions when I told people where I was studying abroad. Among the most common were:
“Better bring a warm coat…”
and, my personal favorite: “Whoa! A semester in Amsterdam!”
Note to all: Amsterdam is an hour and a half away by plane and is the capital of the Netherlands. I spent my semester in Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark, where marijuana and prostitution are most certainly not legal, and I am writing to enlighten you about one of Europe’s undiscovered gems.
Copenhagen is one of Europe’s oldest cities, and it shows in the unique mix of old and modern architecture scattered along the canals, cobblestone roads, and pedestrian streets. The school I attended was located on one of the oldest streets in the city, in an 18th century building that would never pass American safety regulations. However, the rickety staircases narrow enough for only one person to pass at a time, the wooden beams supporting the ceilings by a thread, and the stone walls are what make the Danish Institute for Study Abroad (DIS) a completely different experience than attending school at Tufts. My professors were all working professionals, so therefore they could offer life experience that a strictly academic professor may not have, and they were all Danish, though fluent in English, luckily for me. The class topics were very interesting, as they often take views on issues from a European as opposed to an American perspective. However, I would be lying if I said that my primary focus in Copenhagen had been my studies. First of all, my program encourages travel as experience: we never had more than three weeks of class without traveling, which might possibly be the most valuable experience of all. And second of all, I left late-night at Tisch, office hours, and stress about grades behind for four months for that exact purpose: to gain some life experience, and I couldn’t be happier with my decision.
Living in Europe presents a wealth of opportunities simply unavailable in America. In my semester in Copenhagen, I visited castles almost weekly, drove to Germany for the night (because you just can! It’s right there!), attempted to survive on the Danish diet of pastries and beer, befriended the Danish queen’s personal sailors and got a tour of her yacht, went on a weekend cruise to Norway, got free health insurance, read too many Hans Christian Andersen stories, visited a bar made entirely out of ice, spent more money than I would care to admit (the exchange rate is significantly less than favorable), rode a Segway at quite possibly the strangest science park in the world, volunteered at the International Olympic Committee’s conference in Copenhagen and stalked more Olympians than you can imagine, saw real Viking ships and more windmills than I could count, and generally fell in love with Europe.
Nevertheless, I would also be lying if I said that my experience in Copenhagen was easy. Living in a foreign country presents its own challenges, some difficult but most humorous. Following is my list of top five lessons I had to learn the hard way:
1. Danish is quite possibly the most difficult language in the world to pronounce. Not one thing is spoken the way it looks. Danes take great pleasure in making fun of Americans who try to pronounce one of their traditional desserts: rød, grød, med fløde is worse than our hardest tongue twister – I am not even going to try to spell it out phonetically because I simply cannot.
2. There is something in the water in Scandinavia that makes every single person tall, blond, fit, and attractive. It makes one American student feel quite inferior sometimes.
3. The sun gets lower and lower in the sky every day as the temperature drops, and by October it was no longer light out when I wake up for school. By the end of my time in Copenhagen in December, it was light from 9 am to 3 pm.
4. Forgetting to look both ways in the bike lane as well as on the streets can be dangerous – bikers are vicious and will not stop if you get in their way.
5. The Danes don’t have a word for “please” or “excuse me”, and therefore they are vicious on the bus or the Metro. People found me quite rude when I got home since those words had simply fallen out of my vocabulary.
I quickly realized, however, that even the “negatives” about my study abroad experience are hardly negative at all. They are the experiences, the best stories, the events that cause endless laughing fits on the bus resulting in the ever-placid Danes staring at you, and the things that I will never forget. If I could offer one piece of advice to Tufts students, I would encourage you – no, implore you – to study abroad.
I began to consider Copenhagen for study abroad by accident, since it is one of the few institutions in Europe with a public health program, but soon I began to realize, after my decision was made, that Copenhagen was my destiny. Not only does Denmark’s national flower also happen to be my favorite (the daisy), not only did Hans Christian Andersen, the Danish contribution to the literary world, create the heroine of one of my favorite movies of all time (The Little Mermaid) and publish his most famous story, The Ugly Duckling, on my very birthday in 1834, and not only was Denmark in the answer of two Jeopardy questions the night before I left (I took it as a sign), but the Jumbo in Denmark is reserved for the highest order of knighthood and has quite an interesting story.
One leisurely afternoon, while taking a walk through the Botanical Gardens and a stroll through Rosenborg Castle, I happened to notice while passing through the crown jewels a necklace made entirely of golden elephants. I almost had to do a double take: why on earth would the royal family wear a necklace with elephants on it? I began a conversation with the nearby guard, and following is my best attempt to relay the story of the Jumbo in Denmark, as explained to me in very broken English:
Before the Reformation in the 1500s, the Virgin Mary was used as a symbol of the Royal family and symbolized a high level of knighthood. Following the Reformation, Christianity was downplayed in administrations all over Europe, so the Danish Royal family basically had to choose a new symbol. Supposedly, fighters for Christianity used a "warrior elephant" of sorts to defend the honor of Christianity, and thus Danish Jumbo became the symbol of the Order of the Elephant. Also, elephants apparently symbolize purity and chastity (news to me), which was a nice corollary to the Virgin Mary. Today, the Order of the Elephant is bestowed upon members of the Danish Royal family and upon important foreigners.
Then the mystery was solved. Jumbos have been a part of Denmark’s history for years! The guard was curious as to why I inquired, so I happily explained the story of our Jumbo to her, circus, death, and all. Seeing Jumbo everywhere – on so many buildings, on the royal jewelry, even on the organs in churches – made me miss Tufts endlessly, and it made my heart ache to think of life in Medford going on without me, but I simply could not put a value on the experiences I had during my abroad semester. Copenhagen is an amazing city unlike anywhere else I have ever been, but it remained a comfort to me to have Jumbo around wherever I went - I know he was watching out for me, and maybe he can encourage you to pay this wonderful country a visit. I promise it would be worth the exorbitant amount of cash it would require.
Rød, grød, med fløde. As much fun to say as it is to eat.