Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Love story

Right from the start, this semester is becoming a love story...between me and Copenhagen. (And very appropriately, the boys have adopted "Love Story" by Taylor Swift - which they scream at the top of their lungs at all hours of the day - as the theme song of the semester.) It amazes me that people here can walk through the streets as if they were passing nothing more interesting than white washed warehouses and cement parking lots. For me, every corner turned presents a photographic opportunity and I look at every building as if it were a sight to see. Even the nearly permanent ceiling of dreary rainclouds isn't a purveyor of gloominess, but instead makes the city feel even more European. Already I know that I will never be able to do Copenhagen justice by trying to capture its essence in words or photographs. Living here feels something like a combination between coming home and falling in love. To say the least, I have a bad case of broken record syndrome, saying "I love this city!!!" every time I step outside. The cobblestones, fountains, green copper domes, bicycles, and statues that greet me as walk onto the front step are only a few examples of the many things that say "Todo, we're not in Kansas anymore."

Copenhagen is like the goose that lays golden eggs, a somewhat unexpected source of riches. Before I came here, I thought of Copenhagen as a city lacking in the grandeur of the "big" cities of Europe: Paris, Amsterdam, London... but in fact, its more of a well kept secret. Without the big name, Copenhagen has been preserved from the veneer of tourism that so often seems to cheapen travel. That being said, I have been a very successful tourist this past week, getting my fill of sight seeing (which requires no more than wandering with a camera) and shopping.

Of course, like in Kiev, I've made sure to get the full Copenhagen experience, nightlife included. Skindergade's prime location has been a key facilitator in visiting several bars and clubs in the area, which are open and full every night of the week (Danes are big believers in drinking.) Because we're so close to DIS, a lot of the places we go tend to be packed with Americans, but my roommates have applauded me on my ability to meet the only Danes in bars packed with Americans, which I do by seeking out and befriending the bartenders and club owners (not bad connections to have.)

I was sick this weekend with a cold and fever, which put a damper on my fun, but now my friend Jordan, who I went to high school with, is visiting before she goes back to school at St. Andrew's in Scotland and luckily I'm healthy again and having a great time. But the highlight of Jordan's visit is yet to come...we're going to Amsterdam for the weekend with about 15 other people. (Oh I love Europe....when else can you say that you're going to another country for a quick weekend trip?) But we have many more fun things planned before Friday, including ice skating in the middle of the city.

I would say, for being only a week in, not too shabby....

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Culture shock? Not what you'd expect...

As I prepared to study abroad, I received countless briefings on the dangers of culture shock. The pre-departure orientation seemed less of an orientation than a chance to scare us out of studying abroad, complete with dire warnings against parasite infested water and men with machetes. Of course, none of that really applies to Copenhagen, seeing as this is a city where people feel safe leaving their babies in their strollers outside as they have a meal in a restaurant and I'm pretty sure I'm safer here than I am in Minnesota. At this point, however, I feel like all of the warnings were for nothing. Maybe its because I've traveled a lot, or because I was in Kiev before coming to Copenhagen, or even because Denmark is not exactly exotic, but I seem to have skipped over culture shock completely...well, no, not completely. For me, the shock has not been against my American culture, but my Macalester culture. Because of where I live, I feel almost as if I am getting more of an "American college experience" here than I do at school.

To say the least, life has dealt me a great hand this semester. Other than the ordeal with the internet, I have no complaints. I am living on the fourth floor in Skindergade 40, a quirky building where everything - including the stairs, windows sills, and ceilings - is at a slant and everyone is prepared to have a good time. Only 2 minutes from the best shopping, bars, clubs, and (most importantly, of course) our classrooms, Skindergade is the envy of all unlucky students who have hour commutes. I share my apartment with 9 people officially, 6 girls and 3 boys, and 19 people unofficially (the 10 boys on the floor below us appreciate having nice girls who can cook on the floor above them.) We have very quickly become like a family, the 6 of us ladies serving as wives, mothers, sisters, girlfriends, etc. as we try to maintain some sort of order and provide the useful skills of cooking and cleaning (not without a price of course, we often get free groceries out of the deal.) After the first night when some of the boys from the floor below came up asking us how to boil pasta, we quickly fell into a routine of group dinners every night....which have all turned out delicious. So, here we have shock #1: living with people and eating somewhere other than a cafeteria.

One of the weirdest things to me (or perhaps I should say...most "shocking"?) is the number of "greek" people here. Now, I am not talking about Grecians, we have those at Macalester; I am talking frat boys and sorority girls. Take the floor below me, for example, which has been renamed "the frat shack" because 8 of the 10 guys belong to fraternities at their respective schools...a little bit different than Mac where a greek system would be very passionately rejected. Along with the greek people comes a greek way of life...including lots of parties, almost always on my floor. This of course, has been a great time and a great way to meet people, but I still am having a hard time learning the ins and outs of "greek life" (which comes with a very hefty vocabulary.)

Shock #3? Americans! Coming from a school where being a pure-blood American who speaks only one language is a rarity, finding myself amongst so many Americans is very bizarre. Not only can I pronounce everyone's names (which are very straightforward...Jessy. Chris. Jeff. Megan.), I can have also have conversations without feeling bad that I don't speak 12 languages and haven't lived on every continent (but of course, no hard feelings Macalester...I love my internationals.) This, I should have expected, seeing as one of our pre-departure exercises was to think about all of the international students we knew at our school and then try to get to know some of them so that we would have experience with people from other countries...Well, if you're at Macalester and don't know people from other countries, I would have to guess that you have been locked in your dormroom and have really bad social skills.

My classes have thrown me for a completely different kind of loop...they're huge! And by that, I mean they have 60 people. Yes, state school friends, you're probably rolling your eyes at this, but the largest class I've ever taken had 45 people in it and was a physics lecture class. I have gotten used to classes with 20 people max, sitting in a circle facing each other having a discussion for an hour and a half. That's another's been awhile since I have seen so much of the backs of people's heads. And not only are the sizes different, but I'm taking classes over completely different subject matter than I have for the past 2 years. Not that I don't love learning about things like nationalism and genocide, but I it will be nice taking classes on things like advertising and corporations. And, maybe its a bit sad to be saying this, but I am so excited for tests! My brain will appreciate the break from 20 page papers. Shock #4: changing it up.

So am I culture shocked? Yes, maybe a little bit...but the Danes have had very little responsibility in that.


Again, the internet isn't seeming to be on my side. Even though they say that the networks set up in my building, named after Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, are supposed to be working...they aren't. So, I find myself, yet again, using the DIS computer lab; so this post may have to be short. Therefore, I figured I would put a little bit of my information out there in case anyone wanted to call, Skype, message, or mail me.

So, first things first. If you want to mail letters, send it to this address:
Room 318
Skindergade 40
København K

And for packages:
Shelby Fields
c/o DIS, Denmark's International Study Program
Vestergade 7
DK-1456 København K

My phone number here is +4530973163 and my skype username is shelby.fields . Also, while I'm over here, I will be checking my Macalester email, which is

Also, the time difference would be good to, I am now 8 hours ahead of CO and 7 hours ahead of MN.

Any other information..just ask!

Friday, January 23, 2009

Paka Kiev! Hejsa Denmark!

Internet at last! I've been in Copenhagen all week and and just now we're being connected to the real world...barely. Every few minutes I hear one of my flat mates groaning as their connection fades out, slows down, or stops we'll see if I get lucky.

A year's worth of adventures have happened in the past week, and there's no way that I can get it all down here, but I'll do my best. I guess the best thing to do would be to backtrack and do a continuation of my time in Kiev.

During the last 3 days in Kiev, I had eaten pure lard, had full fledged body language conversations, butchered both Russian and Ukrainian, and destroyed my feet dancing until 6am in 4 inch heels.

If the first half of my time in Kiev was all about the history, then the second half was fully dedicated to experiencing Kiev's social scene...and by that, I mean the nightlife. Thursday night, Ira took me out to her favorite club, Patipa, for its weekly R&B/Hip Hop night, where I was introduced to the European way of going out, which doesn't conclude until around 5:00 or 6:00am (very unlike Minnesota where everything is closed by 2:00). Not only did we meet up with some of Ira's old friends from school, but we managed to befriend an entire group of Nigerian rappers who wanted to make us mixed tapes the next day.

But, instead of taking them up on their offer, Ira and I spent Friday night hanging out at one of her friends' apartments, which was probably my favorite night in Kiev. There, I was the only American and without any Russian skills, had to make due with gestures and random Russian words I learned over the week to communicate with the ones who didn't speak English. Either way, everyone got a kick out of initiating me into Ukrainian culture and trying to teach me random Russian phrases, so nevertheless, it was a night full of lots of laughing.

The last day in started not at a church or a club, but at a shooting range. Where Ira showed me up by making about 95% of her shots, while I got laughed at by the Ukrainian instructor in Russian because I only made about 50%. Never having shot a gun before, I spent the whole time terrified that I would miss something between the instruction and Ira's translation and wind up shooting a person rather than a target...I left the shooting range shaking...

Again, the night was full of dancing. But this time, it began at the ballet, where we saw the one act ballets of Carmen and Sheherezade. Not only was the dancing incredible, but the venue, the Kiev opera house, was breathtaking. Of course, we ended the night dancing at a 3 storied club called Arena with all of Ira's friends. It was a perfect ending to an incredible trip.

With each day, I grew to love Kiev more . The buildings, the fashion, the night life, the language (every sign posed an alphabetic puzzle)…what’s not to love? I was asked many times "why are you here? Why would you come to Kiev?"...but despite the skepticism behind these questions, I loved every moment and will be returning again. (Plus, I made a promise to Ira's mom that I would come back after taking some Russian...and I don't want to break that promise.)

Monday, January 19, 2009

Well, here I am, in Copenhagen and I can't believe the time is already here to start my semester abroad! Although, they haven't yet set up internet in my housing, which means this post will be very very short (full update on the rest of my time in Kiev coming soon.) This post is just to say that I'm here and its fabulous!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

After nearly 24 hours of traveling - complete with very interesting seat mates on my various airplanes including a narcissistic Pennsylvanian, a devout Southern Baptist student missionary, and a loaded German businessman who had one too many opinions about what is wrong with the US - my arrival in Kiev was, to say the least, surreal. Meeting Ira at the airport, I almost felt as if I had simply returned to Minnesota, and the cold wintry air and snow-covered landscape did little to hinder that illusion. However, I was quickly jolted back into my post-Soviet reality as I watched the Cyrillic alphabet float past me on storefronts and billboards, passed dozens of soviet-style apartment buildings, and confronted monuments to a Soviet past. There is something about the traditional fur caps and parkas that adorn so many of the passersby that immediately makes me feel as if I have taken a step back in time. Not to mention, the golden onion domes that rake the skyline serve as constant reminders of Kiev's hundreds of years of orthodox history.

I have found myself laughing more than once at the many "isms" of Europe and Kiev that are both familiar and new to me. My first real reminder that I was "no longer in Kansas (aka the USA) anymore" was the techno music that greeted us first thing in the morning that we got into the car, and as I have pointed to ornate buildings asking Ira "what is that?" expecting to hear that it is a library or that it houses some sort of government ministry, I have to laugh at my unfamiliarity with old architecture as Ira informs me that they are "just buildings." More than once, I have felt like I am in a crash-course of Ukrainian culture and I am sure that Ira is already getting tired of my endless questioning. I have learned that parking on the sidewalk is ok (and often preferable to the street), yellow lights come before red and green lights, and that vodka really is no big deal.

So far, we have been to 3 churches; St. Michael's, St. Sophia's, and the Kiev Lavre church. The first two were very similar, both old and beautiful, their interiors adorned with depictions of orthodox saints and topped by the classic golden onion domes. Ira's prefers St. Sophia's but the way that St. Michael's, which is a beautiful periwinkle color, caught the evening light was rather magnificent. Visiting the Lavre was a different experience altogether. Instead of being a single cathedral with a couple of outside buildings, it was an entire complex that had been built and used by monks. The most unique feature of the lavre is the network of caves that the monks dug out and lived in beneath the men's cathedral. To say the least, going down into these small tunnels to see the remains of hundreds of saints and monks encased in glass coffins, with tiny candles as our only source of light, was nothing short of creepy.

Driving through Kiev is like a constant history lesson, and more than once Ira and I have both commented that we would be making Professor von Geldern proud as we discuss the implications of Soviet cultural and political policy on Ukraine. Multiple times a day we pass through Independence Square, where the Orange Revolution of 2004 took place, and yesterday we visited the Iron Lady, built in the 1970s in commemoration of World War II.

Luckily, I have had Ira as a personal tour guide, chauffeur, and translator in all of this; without her, I have no idea how I would manage here. Only 3 days in and I am frustrated by the fact that my 6 years of Spanish is not doing me any good (obviously). Therefore, I have begun attempting to make sense of the Cyrillic symbols, getting easily confused by the fact the a 'B' makes a 'v' sound and a 'P' makes an 'r' sound, as well as trying to broaden my non-existent Russian vocabulary (which has led me to decide I will take up Russian when I get back to Macalester so I can at least have simple conversations with the people around me when I come visit again).

Despite her translations and commentaries, Ira could do little to shield me from the complete cultural immersion I got last night; AKA dinner with her entire family at her grandfather's birthday party. Not only did I realize how helpless I am without any Russian/Ukrainian language skills, but also got to learn several cultural nuances: carnations are the only flowers appropriate to give to a man; you can only pour an alcoholic beverage into a glass if it is on the table, not in someone's hand; you suck on pickled tomatoes; and when making a toast, the last person you cheers must be a man, but not your husband. As for food, I ate enough to feed an army as I tried dish after dish of traditional Ukrainian food, most of which I can't pronounce and had never heard of. And of course, as it was a birthday, each adult gave a toast or two, after which everyone drank vodka without flinching at all, as if it were apple juice (I stuck to champagne, which was in no short supply.)

Of course, not everything has been unfamiliar. Tuesday night we went to a basketball team between Kiev's leading club and the Skyliners from Frankfurt, Germany. Kiev won, and it was a lot of fun, especially since I can understand basketball, no matter what the language. And last night was the first of our nights on the town, which we spent at Buddha Bar, a bar/restaurant/lounge, which had the perfect ambiance to give me a taste of the city life I've been craving. And today, there will be lots of one of my favorite cultural activities: shopping!

To say the least, the fun is just beginning...what a semester this will be :)

Friday, January 2, 2009

In exactly one week and a day I will be headed off on a fabulous adventure; my starting point: Kiev, Ukraine. Being an International Studies major, I'm required to study abroad (unfortunate, I know) so this semester I will be doing a Media Studies program in Copenhagen, Denmark as a part of the Danish Institute for Study Abroad (DIS) and this blog will be my way of documenting and reporting my experiences.

My plans regarding this semester have changed many times, therefore I am settling for the thrill of the unknown and will be packing extra memory cards, a "Let's Go Europe!" travel book, and some great stiletto heels for nights out on the "towns" of Europe to help me along. But, me being me, I do have a tentative agenda and some trip ideas as follows:

January 11th: I leave Denver to visit my lovely Mac friend Ira in her home town of Kiev.
January 18th: I say goodbye to Eastern Europe and head to my semester home in Copenhagen.
March 21st: I head off to London on a week long Study Tour with my Media Studies group.
March 28th: This CO girl will be shredding up the slopes of the French Alps for a whole week.
April 4th: Who knows? But I will have a whole week off of school with Europe at the tips of my fingers.
May 15th: Finals are over and I will be headed off on five and a half weeks of backpacking.
June 22nd: Goodbye Copenhagen and hello USA.

Somewhere in there I am hoping to find my way to visit friends in Belfast, Brussels, Paris, Rabat, Madrid, Sevilla, St. Andrews, Amsterdam, and Istanbul...along with adventures to unknown places with unknown people. Of course, the semester won't all be traveling. I will be taking 5 classes in Copenhagen: News Media in Transition, International Advertising in a European Context, Creative Industries, Photojournalism, and Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Political Conflict. As I understand, most of these classes will be taught by professionals and will use Copenhagen as a classroom through field studies on Wednesdays. I have also applied to volunteer with an NGO or school and am excited to be hearing back about that.

As for my living situation, I still have not heard where I will be living but I am hoping to be assigned to one of the student apartments (I will keep you posted.) And although I didn't sign up for a host family, I have already been assigned a Danish visiting family who I will get to spend time with throughout the semester. The parents are Claus Andersen and Birgit Svensson and they have 3 kids around my age, who I am very excited to meet.

Every day that this trip gets closer, I realize that my long-time dream will very soon become a reality and I'm sure that the next week will fly by as I shop, pack, and say good bye to the US. 8 days and counting...