Monday, February 23, 2009

10 observations from a watchful eye

I'm no anthropologist, but I thought it about time to record some of my findings about Danish culture. Many times I have been asked if I feel like I'm missing out on learning about the Danes because I don't have a host family, but I have found that being even the least bit observant pays off.

#1: Danish Fitness:

A few weeks ago, I decided to do something to counter the effects of my sloth-like behavior since arriving in Copenhagen and forfeited the 999DKK to join a gym just a few blocks away. After the first few days of getting my muscles used to some sort of physical activity, I began noticing some subtle, yet interesting parts of Danish fitness behavior. First of all, shorts and baggy t-shirts (my usual work-out attire) is out while stretchy pants and running tanks is en vogue for active Danes. Second, while in American gyms are full of 40-somethings trying to cope with mid-life crises, it is rare to see anyone above 30-ish in the gym (at least in the Fitness World that I frequent.) Also, Danes seem to take a lot of down time during their workouts, and not just as between sets breathers. Not to say that I’m always the energizer bunny, but I feel that breaking a sweat is part of the point of going to the gym, and I’m used to seeing people pumping iron like there’s no tomorrow.

#2: Nudity:

In the US, it’s not uncommon to see saggy older women baring it all in the locker-room at the gym, but here, even younger generations are less modest about their bodies. Of course, I’ve heard dozens of times about how differently nudity is treated in Europe, but that still makes it no less of a shock when it’s staring down at you from a billboard or used as part of a TV commercial.

#3: To market to market:

I can’t speak for the outlying regions of Denmark, but at least in Copenhagen, there is no such thing as a super- anything…there are no supermarkets and definitely no super-Targets or Walmarts. Here, grocery shopping is not a once-a-week activity where you stock up like you’re awaiting the apocalypse. Instead, Danes stop by the local Netto or Irma almost daily. In addition to that, environmental consciousness extends into the grocery stores as well, where you have to either bring your own bags or pay for a new one (something that I also saw in China last summer), cutting down on the amount of plastic bags floating around.

#4: Fashion:

Copenhagen has been called “the Paris of the North;” very modern, European, beautiful, and fashionable it is still very Danish and its Scandinavian roots hold firm, something that shows through in Danish fashion. While it is definitely true that Copenhageners are fashionable, they remain en vogue in a conservative, non-ostentatious way. With black the prevailing color and scarves the dominant accessory, girls are typically wearing a combination of leather boots, tights or leggings, long shirts or dresses, and peacoats and guys in tight jeans graphic tees and checkered scarves.

#5: Street Etiquette:

When jostled on the sidewalk or squeezing past someone in the aisle of a store, never will you hear a Dane say “sorry” or “excuse me.” More than once, I have had to bite my American tongue to keep from giving away my foreignness.

#6: Service:

I feel like in the US you can’t go into a store without being berated by the sales people trying to get you to sign up for their credit card or notice their latest promotion. At the very least, you get asked if you’re finding everything ok and if you’re needing assistance, there is almost always someone at the ready. Here, without the promise of commissions or tips driving salespeople or servers, service tends to be very slow and impersonal.

#7: Children:

There are kids everywhere! My theory? Denmark’s social-welfare system leads to less work which lowers the demand for daycare and increases the amount of parent-child time…not a bad deal.

#8: Couples:

Maybe another explanation for the number of kids around is the number of couples. While walking down the street, I have noticed that most people are walking in twos. And it seems that Danes are less commitment-shy, and seem to begin pairing of in early high school.

#9: No reservations:

One of the first things I was told about Danes before coming to Denmark was that they were a very reserved people, but thus far I have only noticed the opposite. Yes, Danes aren’t prone to small talk across a cash register, but once approached, they are more than friendly. For example, lots of times when you ask a Dane for directions, they won’t stop at trying to explain the way and will actually take you to the place that you are trying to find. Or when going to someone’s house for dinner, you are treated like an old acquaintance or family member and the meal will last as long as the conversation, which is rarely shorter than 4 hours.

#10: English:

I have yet to meet a Dane who does not speak English; and by “English,” I do not mean English that is hardly discernable through a thick accent and muddled grammar and vocabulary, but English that often times is better than mine. And yet, Danes never fail to warn you that their English may not be too good and that you should not hesitate to correct them. (I guess that just goes to show a bit of the infamous Danish modesty.)


The initially faulty internet connection, sticking doors, and awkwardly close quarters seemed fair dues to pay for the prime location and great company of living in Skindergade. Even the small ocean that has taken up residence in our bathroom and the frequent untriggered fire alarms seemed (almost) acceptable…and maybe even a touch endearing. But as light bulbs have burned out, black outs have displaced entire floors, and small waterfalls have made their way through our ceilings from the floors above us, our lenience has gone from genial to exasperated rather quickly.

In a way, maybe the trials and tribulations of Skindergade life are serving as a substitute to the obstacles faced by those with host families; while they are struggling with Danish dinner-table etiquette, we are wondering why you have to frequently dump water out of the dryer; or while they are maneuvering the intricacies of Danish environmental consciousness, we are attempting (and learning) to cook sans oven and with only an assortment of mismatched utensils at our disposal.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think anyone here would trade our living situation for anything. If being able to wake up at 8:23 and still make it in time to an 8:30 class isn’t enough, avoiding strikes on the bus lines and hour long commutes, having Copenhagen’s best entertainment at our fingertips, and the undeniably beautiful cityscape right outside our door leave us with little but superficial complaints. And, as I said before, being in good company makes Skinder-life all the better. Well past the stages of the inevitable freshman syndrome that comes from being in a new place with new people (where everyone hangs out with everyone simply because no one has anyone), we are still close as ever, sometimes more like a family than merely a group of friends. Our days are punctuated with early morning doggie piles, family-style dinners, and ongoing card games, movie nights, religiously followed TV shows, and mildly unsuccessful homework sessions.

Of course, along with our family-like bonds come family-like bickering, wrestling, and provoking (it’s not such a rare occurrence for those coming home at 4 in the morning to do whatever they can to wake everyone else up). The girls have done what they can to teach the boys the most basic of domestic skills and yet the ever-present mess in the kitchen has been a cause for verbal abuse (met with excuses that they're used to living in a frat house) and Cinderella-like Sundays.

Naturally, I say this all in good fun and high spirits and I couldn’t feel more lucky when considering my living situation. These Skinder-woes can’t even be considered bumps in the road, just parts of this fabulous experience.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Everything looks different by sunlight

After four weeks of cloud cover, yesterday's sun brought warmth and a new light to the city that I have been getting to know so well. The already pedestrian-saturated streets were full of people slightly less bundled and slightly more cheerful; vendors and street performers seemed to have multiplied over night; and shops and cafes doubled their capacity by putting tables outside for those clearly anxious to shed their winter gear and make an early debut to the sun-bathing season (although it's still a little early for that.)

And little did we know that this beautiful sun was setting the stage for a beautiful Valentine's Day because as the sun warmed our skin, the Skindergade boys were setting up to warm our hearts. Us third floor girls had spend the week harassing the boys to plan something for Valentine's Day, feeling that we had paid our dues in cleaning and cooking (as we have served as stand-in maids, mothers, and wives) and deserved some display of their affections, But, after meeting many protests at every mention of Valentine's Day and many accusations that we were "ducking them" by not including them in our Friday night girls' night, we approached Sunday with low expectations...which were soon to be exceeded. Thinking that, at the most, we might each receive a "blomster" (also known as a flower) as a toke of their affections, we were surprised to be to told to be in the kitchen at 3 o'clock sharp, making sure to remember our shoes, socks, coats....and blindfolds? So, sitting with scarves wrapped around our faces, we were informed that we were being sent on a scavenger hung and would shortly be receiving our first clue. We removed our scarves to find that it was not being delivered by the typical Hallmark cupid, but by two of the boys wearing nothing more than bright pink mankinis.

After nearly dying of laughter, here is what we read:
Clue #1:
Here's a treat for our lovely ladies,
Don't worry, this won't lead you to an abandoned baby,
It's a hunt for our love, you will find
Check your mail, if you don't mind.

So...down the stairs we went and in our mailbox found:
Clue #2:
Our internet sucks, and that's not cool,
The place you'll be heading next is in school,
Take a walk, if you can,
Go to the place where our travel plans for the 'dam began.

Easy enough...we trekked down the street to the DIS computer lab where we collected:
Clue #3:
Cheap wine is the way to go,
We always have fun and that's fo' sho,
Go to the place where our nights begin,
Buy some Vina Morena and dig in.

A little trickier, but we knew just where to go...the wine aisle of Netto, our grovery store of choice...and sure enough, hidden between the wine bottles:
Clue #4:
We all love to dance, we all know that,
The next place you'll go is classy unlike our frat,
Put on your tutus and dancing shoes, too,
Go to this place and you'll find your next clue.

Hmmm...this one almost deceived us, but only for a second...and off we went to the Royal Ballet where clue #5 was stuffed into a display case outside:
Clue #5:
Owen plus Vanilla Ice can be found dangling here,
Lace them up, have no fear,
The hunt is almost over, your presents away,
A line of stallions, we are your dates.

And as we skirted the edge of the skating rink that sat across the street from the ballet, we saw our boys sitting outside of a cafe; balloons, flowers, and champagne in hand. After giving hugs and toasts all around, we laced up and slipped and slid across the ice, surrounded by beautiful Copenhagen.

What a perfect Valentine's Day.

I said's cold in here!

Sooner or later I will have a post cataloging the top hang outs we have discovered since being here. But for now, I wanted to give a brief shout out to one hot spot, or cold spot, rather, that we visited Friday night; and that would be the Absolute Ice Bar in Hotel 27.

After night after night of going out in a group of about 20 of us, the girls decided to have a night (or at least part of a night) to ourselves. So we made reservations and found our way to the infamous ice bar, a bar made completely out of ice blocks harvested in the arctic. Kept cold 24/7, 365 days a year, the ice bar is a younger sibling to the famous Ice Hotel in northern Sweden, where everything down to the glasses drinks are served in is made out of ice. For a cover charge of 150 DKK, you get to spend 45 minutes in the ice bar, dressed in designer parkas. We had been told it was disappointing, but, being easily fascinated, we thought it was fabulous and had a fabulous time! (Especially after befriending the bartender and getting to spend an extra 45 chilly minutes.)

Of course, the boys were upset that we left them behind, so we met them later in the night to dance until 5 am...but the ice bar was definitely a great warm up, or cool down, rather, for the rest of the night.

Monday, February 9, 2009

It's Worse than Parallel Parking

Copenhagen is known to be one of the safest cities in the world. The high standard of living and low crime rate combined with the Danes' friendly and honest nature gives the city a security that is very rare in today's world. However, the streets of Copenhagen hold a surprising danger. And that would be bikers. "Look both ways before you cross the street" is a phrase we all had drilled into our heads from a young age, but what we were taught to look for was cars. Here, cars pose less of a threat to pedestrians than bikers who ride as aggressively as if they were driving a pimped out hummer.

Commuting is an integral part of life in Denmark where gas and car prices are outrageous due to high taxes, parking spaces are few and far between, and an environmentally friendly conscious leaves little tolerance for wasting natural resources. Along with a traditional public transportation system, a network of bike paths parallels every main road in the city. For Copenhageners, bikes are the new cars, and in many regards, they act as if is no difference between driving a car to work and riding a bike. Instead of tennis shoes and iPods, bikers are equipped with high heels and cell phones. Traffic rules apply. Bike models range from something like a one person coup to a family sedan, complete with an attached buggy for bringing the kids home from school.

Bikers are no pedestrians here, and just as you would never step in the line of an oncoming vehicle, Copenhagen gives you a heightened awareness of biking traffic. Stepping out into a street unawares of an oncoming biker will, at the least, entice a great storm of bell-dinging and Danish cursing; and, more than once, I have heard the stories of Americans who, slow on the uptake, have been in pedestrian-bicycle collisions.

May I introduce: Denmark.

Here is my travel record thus far: Kiev, Copenhagen, Amsterdam...Århus? Never heard of it? How about Odense? Probably not...but if you were in Denmark, you would recognize these 2 cities as the second and third largest cities in Denmark; a deceiving statement, seeing as Odense's population of 150,000 barely exceeds the American standards of a large town. But, after spending the past month traveling some of Europe's capitals, it was about time to get to know my host country a little bit better.

Therefore, I set out with my fellow CMMers to take on Denmark's wild west, embarking on a study tour to the peninsula protruding from continental Europe, also known as Jutland, and Copenhagen's neighboring Island, Funen. We began our trip wet and bedraggled. Dragged out of bed at 7 in the morning to wait in the snow before climbing onto a bus for four hours did not leave us very presentable for our first visit to the the Danish School of Journalism in Århus where we were given a lecture about the academics of journalism in Denmark and the Danish approach to news journalism versus other European and American approaches. And by the time we finished our next lecture at Medietska Medier, a newspaper conglomerate of Danish local papers, where we heard the doomsday tale about print media for the second time that day, we were cramped, cranky, and ready to blow off some steam.

Thus, the thought of visiting the Åros Modern Art museum was not met with too much enthusiasm...until we were given a sneak preview to the not yet opened 'Enter-Action' exhibit. To say the least, I have very little knowledge of or appreciation for art, especially so-called 'modern art' (how is a canvas of blue paint art?)...and yet this exhibit not only caught my attention but inspired lots of 'oos and ahhhs' from my un-artsy mouth. Each 'piece' was more a marvel of creative technology than what one might consider art....but if this exhibit was a display of the direction that modern art is going in, then I expect that art museums will have to begin expecting a drastic increase in visitors. We got to meet the artists of all of the pieces, who explained their work to us (a very engaged audience with mouths hanging open and cameras at the ready.) One of the pieces, for example, consisted of 2 robotic wheelchairs who had emotions and were capable of interacting and even communicating with the audience. Another piece was a digitalized wall that flashed phrases taken from internet chatrooms at random (very cool, but at the same time alarming and somewhat creepy.) My favorite piece was a room lit by 300 lightbulbs, each flashing at the rate of a heart-beat taken from an observer.

That night was spent at a hostel in Århus, which we all compared to our experiences at summer camp. And though Århus is no København, we explored the city by night, eating some of the best burgers I've ever had and playing cards in a student bar with our trip leaders.

The following day began at Koldinghus, Denmark's oldest castle and finished with a tour of TV2, Denmark's prime TV station located in Odense, where we got to see a live broadcast of the 4 o'clock news. That night was also spent in a hostel, which was slightly more hotel-like than the previous one. The real exploration of Odense took place the following day on a 2 hour Hans Christian Andersen tour that walked us through all of the main sights of the town and finished at another museum (where we were much less impressed by the so-called modern 'art' on display.)

Needless to say, it was a very full weekend, and we all found that we were a little homesick for our home in Copenhagen. Arriving back at Skindergade and my Skindergade family was, needless to say, a wonderful homecoming and the trip helped me appreciate both Skindergade and Copenhagen even more than before. Nevertheless, it was very nice to meet you on to the next adventure.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Skindergade in Amsterdam

We set out 14 strong, clad in northface and uggs...a mass of completely clueless Americans ready to blunder our way through Amsterdam. Our impromptu trip came at the price of much head scratching and direction asking. But with the help of Paige’s Let’s Go Europe! and tour maps collected at various locations around Amsterdam, we faired pretty the very least, we returned to Copenhagen with as many as we left with to repopulate Skindergade (12 of our 14 were members of floors 2 and 3.)

Less than a week ago, someone had the brilliant idea: let's go to Amsterdam! 1 turned into 5 who turned into 9 who turned into 12 and eventually, with no further planning than booking tickets and a couple rooms in a hostel/hotel, 13 DIS students and one St. Andrew's girl were headed to take on the streets of Amsterdam. In true Skindergade fashion, our hotel turned out to be in a prime location: 2 blocks from the infamous Red Light District, 2 blocks from the best shopping street, 15 minutes from the Central Station, and in the dead center of Amsterdam's gay district. Also in true Skindergade fashion, we said "bring it on Amsterdam!" and hit the streets as soon as we settled into our simple but sufficient accommodations...finding our way awkwardly through the maze of "coffee shops" and gay bars. Not used to such a strange and wild city after our meek and mild Copenhagen, we found ourselves arguing about the names of Dutch bars on street corners: "Arc bar?" "Arkvard?" "Ardvark!" ...etc.

Saturday morning, already dazed from our adventures in Amsterdam, we decided to be cultured and found our way around Amsterdam by taking a canal tour; stopping at the I AMsterdam sign, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam Diamond Museum, and Anne Frank Huis. Despite our status as "student travelers" (which would usually indicate a tight budget), we treated ourselves to a 3 hour, 3 course meal in a castle from the 1400s...not very friendly to our wallets, but so worth it. Post-dinner, we strolled through (well, more like skirted) the red light district...but at our first sighting of flesh and lingerie, we sought haven in the gay bars from the night before. (Amsterdam clearly shifted the boundaries of our comfort zones.) Even for Amsterdam, we managed to make a scene...seeing as Rob and Owen went bedecked in Eurotrash gear: glasses, chest hair, and striped shirts included.

14 people is too much to handle; therefore, Sunday we split up to see Amsterdam on our own agendas. I went with the girls, choosing shopping and wandering over museums and sex shows. However, when we found that the Amsterdam shopping scene was below par, we found ourselves meandering deep into the Red Light experience which words cannot describe. Every door and window offered menus for every type of sexual appetite; doorways poured marijuana smoke into tight alleys; and storefronts offered every type of x-rated or illegal item that would never make it past customs. To say the least, we were all feeling a mixture of repulsion, awkwardness, and amazement at the fact that a place like that actually exists. Surprisingly, despite the dozens of naked girls (both real and photographic) lining the streets, the 5 of us girls received our fair share of cat calls. And, despite the rainbow flags and signs for gay cinemas, the Red Light District offered much less of a selection for homosexuals than the area surrounding our hotel.

Despite being uncomfortable and cold (it was about 10 degrees and windy) we managed to laugh a lot, buy some heartshaped sunglasses, and eat "traditional" waffles and french fries. After eating Wok to Walk - amazing take out Chinese food which we frequented throughout the weekend - for dinner, we caught a taxi then a train then a plane then another train and arrived back in Copenhagen; which, after traveling to the other side and back, has become (for all of us) home sweet home. The general consensus? Amsterdam: great for a weekend, Copenhagen: great for a semester.