Looking Back on Denmark

Hello, it’s been quite a while since I’ve posted! I figured I should do one last round-up post for my semester abroad with DIS. I’ve been home in Brooklyn, NY, for over a month now, and am grateful to say that I’m doing well. For a few reasons entirely unrelated to my time abroad, my adjustment back home was somewhat stressful – I returned to some difficult family events (we’re all well now), a scary situation in New York , and an unidentified sickness that lasted for two weeks (I know, I know – my test came back negative for coronavirus, but my symptoms were suspicious, to say the least… I don’t know what I had and probably never will). But passing that first difficult period, I’ve only felt grateful that we all came out unscathed. I’ve been back fully swinging for the past few weeks, and all the people I know are safe at the moment, neither of which I take lightly. 

In any case, this isn’t my focus here. The upheaval has certainly been extraordinary, and these are events no one expects when they embark on a semester, let alone one abroad. I hardly processed my exit from Denmark until I was already gone, but in the past few weeks I’ve been looking back with amazement at the life that recently was. There are certain streets that pop back into my mind with startling clarity, and I’m sometimes shocked to remember how it felt to walk down Frue Plads and hear only Danish. Can you believe all that happened?

Taken from the boat to Fanø

It’s impossible to get wrapped up in the regret of lost time when the world is in crisis, and the only thought I have now is that I’m so glad I got to study abroad, even if only for two months. I had the most wonderful time in Copenhagen. It held the pinch-me days that melded into weeks, and an easy excitement with the world that I understood implicitly was particular to a time in my life – a prescient feeling, in retrospect. I had seen this as an opportunity to throw myself into a new place and see what happened, and surprising myself, I fell into a true love with the whole of it. There were challenges, of course: I got lost, I had to really force myself into social boldness initially, and I never got the push/pull door pattern right when entering stores. The biggest satisfaction, though, comes from taking a chance and seeing it pay off even more than you expected.

I was finally getting a feel and fascination for Scandinavia around the time I left, whether it be around some of Copenhagen’s real issues with immigration and gentrification, or Denmark’s deep commitment to gratitude and simple joys. It turns out the covid-19 crisis taught me the most about differences between my abroad and home countries. We were all privy to Denmark’s centralized testing and contact tracing in our last weeks in Copenhagen, and I remember feeling quite safe in the government’s hands. When I got home, I read in an article from The Atlantic that the Danish government was spending 13% of their GDP in mere weeks so that companies could keep employees on the payroll, essentially “freezing” the economy to prevent larger costs later. I was floored. While no country has yet achieved a perfect welfare system, I understood there the difference between a government that exists for its people and one that simply exists. Back at home, I watched the U.S.’s flagrant lack of central organization, inaccurate communication, stingy test budgets, and warlike hospital zones, and realized that these realities were not inevitabilities but a choice our country has been investing in for a long time. Covid-19 ultimately exposed deep structural inequalities in the U.S.. Seeing life in Denmark gave me permission to believe in other options.

I learned many other things abroad – so many wonderful and light things, I should mention – but one of the biggest was recognizing my international privilege as an American. I had wanted to study abroad to disrupt my American centrality, but it wasn’t until I got to Denmark that I realized I could only “disrupt my centrality” because my culture was, obviously, already central. When you’re abroad, you become helpless in a lot of ways. It can be jarring to both recognize the power you have in being able to speak English almost everywhere, while also accepting that you’ll have to rely on others in this new place. Looking back, this is part of the process, and a truth you’ll face if you’re paying attention. Lean into the discomfort of knowing it’s a privilege to be able to immerse yourself in another culture for the sake of learning about it, and be grateful for those who care enough to help you learn nonetheless. Take what you learn openly, and make use of it later.

And so the DIS semester is nearly over now. I have a robust finals schedule, which I am definitely procrastinating on through this blog post (lol #help). In spare time I’m listening to a lot of music and cooking my way through the entire Bon Appetit catalogue. I’d expected this semester to be my last big trip overseas for a long time, but I’m realizing I’ll have to go back eventually; how could I not? I loved the water in the canals and the rye bread and the cafes, the ease of the transportation system, the public trust and the hot dog carts, and board game cafes. I’ve written about all this – you already know. In my last two weeks in Copenhagen, I made it out to the Danish Museum of Art and Design (free for students!), a few more lunch spots, and a field study to Dragør on a lovely, sunny last day, just a few more good memories. I was planning on ranking the best hot chocolates of the city in a later blog post, but I may as well post the winner now: it goes to The Living Room, conveniently located two blocks from DIS. Potent, creamy, perfect stuff. 

On our Danish field study to Dragør, we took a walking tour to learn about the Danish fisherman who secretly ferried 700 Danish Jews to Sweden during the Nazi occupation in WWII — and the history is more complex than the common narrative suggests. This is the last fishing boat from the rescue that is still in use today.

Hot chocolate from The Living Room, which is very very good.

Of course, what I miss most from Copenhagen are all the people. It was very sad to leave behind the wonderful friends I’d made and all our grand plans, and my visiting host family who I had looked forward to spending much more time with. I’m hoping to see many again (looking at you, New Jersey buds!) and will be trying to stay in touch. Global pandemics certainly have a way of reordering your priorities. We should all center people first: in our friendships and families, in our communities, and in our economies and governments. It’s kind of the only lesson you need to learn, and you learn it everywhere.

Vi ses, København

One Comment Add yours

  1. PedroL says:

    Copenhague is a wonderful city, quite expensive though… stay safe in New York! greetings from Lisbon, PedroL

    Liked by 1 person

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