Friday, March 27, 2009

Living the life

London: Better than I remembered.
Oxford: Better than I imagined.

It will be a couple weeks before I can write a real post about the past few weeks, it will take me longer than I have to do any justice to the great time I've had. But I will say this: as soon as I get back to reality, I will be doing whatever I can to find a way to live here in the future.

Now, with 6 hours down and 13 to go in the Stansted Airport, we have used everything from inflatable pillows to towels to stake our claim of the most comfortable looking benches in the seating area that we have conquered. I will soon be doing my best to make myself comfortable with my backpack as a pillow to await tomorrow morning when I will board a plane to Venice and be off on my Mediterranean adventure. Maybe this college-student-backpacking-through-Europe thing is a little bit uncomfortable, but at this point I don't think life could get any better.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

A Week of Culture

They always say that the tourist experience is different than the local experience, and I strongly believe that. I never experienced New York like I did with a New Yorker, and I’m sure Kiev would have been completely different had I been there without a native. Not only do you get to see the local dives and “live like the locals do,” but you often avoid the not-worthwhile tourist traps and experience the real value that a place has to offer. The interesting thing about my experience with Copenhagen is that I came here as a tourist, or at least as an outsider, and yet I have yet to act as one. Yes, I have done some sightseeing, been to a museum or two, and visited the most popular shopping areas, but I still fall very short of doing the things that every tour book screams are MUST-Dos in Copenhagen.

This being said, I find my way of culturing myself in Copenhagen preferable to lines at ticket counters, landscape paintings, and rooms full of old furniture. My approach has been to toe the line; I can’t exactly say I have been getting the truly local experience seeing as I have been exploring sans locals, but I haven’t been acting as the typical tourist might, either. Last week, for example, was jam packed with Copenhagen culture: a mix of high and low, chic and quirky, upbeat and relaxed. On Monday, Kanika and I attended the test screening “Love at First Hiccup,” a romantic comedy based on a Danish movie produced in the 90’s which turned out to be a Disney Channel movie gone wrong, to put it nicely. Tuesday I opted for the high culture and went to the Royal Ballet Theater with Caroline and Jessie to see the Danish Royal Ballet perform Romeo and Juliet. Although, it is hard to say whether or not the ballet was good; to say the least, if the ballet had a nosebleed section, our noses would have been bleeding heavily, seeing as we were in the last row of the top balcony and our seats resulted in us watching an empty stage for half of the 3 hour long performance. With midterms a-comin’, Wednesday was spent attending to my studies, but by Thursday, we were bringing in the weekend at Kulor Bar, dancing the night away to what seemed to be the same techno-pop song on repeat. Friday was a similar story, except this time the venue was LA bar and the musical genre was American classics. Saturday brought a change of pace with sleeping in until noon and a 3 hour breakfast consisting of eggs, toast, and banana pancakes drowned in Nutella. Stomachs full but hearts light, we had a girls date to see Slumdog Millionaire where we had a lesson in language barriers: Hindi dialog subtitled in Danish epitomizes the phrase “lost in translation.” A dinner of shawarma provided a nice intermission before heading off to a funk show at Christiania, very funky and very Christiania. And of course, no week of culture is complete without a museum visit, but a free visit to the Glyptotec on Sunday afternoon solved that, as well as any need to see sculptures from Mediterranean Empires for a very long time.

Local: not quite, tourist: no…I’m somewhere in the middle, but life couldn’t be better.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

I am an addict

I got my first taste of Europe when I spent three weeks in the UK and Ireland when I was 12 and since then, can’t seem to satisfy my cravings for more stamps in my passport (and all the things that that entails: new places, people, sights, cultures, photographic opportunities, foods, languages, memories…you get the picture.) Well here I am, 8 years later, on my third European adventure…and it has barely begun. In a little over a week I will be headed off on my 3 week long spring break (tough life, I know) which will start with a week in London, the birthplace of my globetrotting addiction. Under the auspices of my second CMM study tour, I will get a chance to revisit the usual sights – Big Ben, the Eye, Buckingham Palace – but will also get the chance to explore London sans chaperones. From there I will head south, to spend the majority of the remainder of my trip in the warmer regions of the Mediterranean. Though I won’t have the chance to travel to the hotspots of Rome and Florence, I will get at least a taste of Italia by visiting Venice, Cinque Terre, and finally Alghero on the island of Sardinia. If the sights, food, and wine aren’t plentiful enough, I will have little to worry about because my next two stops, Barcelona and Porto, will surely have enough paella and port wine to satisfy any appetite. Finally, before returning back home I will take a jaunt up to Paris.

Of course, my traveling won’t stop there. The end of my semester will be jam packed with possible trips to Brussels, Iceland, Bornholm, and Oslo before I head off on another 5 week adventure (if I haven’t gotten my fill yet.) I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Europe is fantastic for any level of thrill seeking; the endless possibilities of cool places to go befuddle even the biggest planners. Hours spent searching Google and learning the ins-and-outs of Ryanair and EasyJet still leave too much still to be discovered…so here I go, passport and Let’s Go Europe! at the ready. We’ll see where they take me.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

10 Observations...Installment #2*

#1: The tortoise and the hare
One critique of Americans is that we never slow down; we are always on the go and in a rush to get from one place to another. I have always been a fast walker, even by American standards, but my “rush-factor” is exacerbated by the fact that strolling seems to be the norm here, at all times of the day. Now, there is no downtown financial district in Copenhagen like you find in most American cities, so maybe this observation would be different if I were to find myself in the middle of a lot of Danish businessmen, but per my experience, I seem to be the hare in a race of my own.

#2: Business casual
Danes’ walking speed, however, is not the only representation of the more easy-going Danish attitude. One of the most shocking examples of this is the fact that what we consider “business casual attire” tends to be just “business attire.” The be-suited businessman hurrying through the crowd, blue tooth in place and heart attack pending is a rare sight in Copenhagen. In place of Armani 3 piece suits, boardrooms witness CEO’s in Diesel Jeans and sport coats. Do you think it has something to do with striving for an egalitarian society?

#3: Danish language
I opted out of taking Danish classes while I’m here - scared off by the fact that not only is Danish difficult to learn, but only 5 million people speak it – but even those who are taking it don’t seem to be having much luck. For us non-Danish speakers, the rules we stick to are: 1) a word never sounds how it looks, 2) cut out about half the letters and just let the rest fall out of your mouth, and 3) just realize that you will almost always be wrong. It is actually quite a beautiful language, but only when spoken properly (and that's the tricky part.)

#4: MIA
One of the classes I am taking is at København University (KU), meaning that, unlike my other classes, I have a class with Danish students. The interesting thing about this class is that Danish students don’t like to come…perhaps this is explained by the fact that the entire grade is based on a final exam at the end of the semester which is only based on the readings…either way, teachers are always impressed by American students’ attendance habits. (And American teachers get upset when students ditch…?)

#5: Respect the Sabbath
I came slightly prepared by the fact that Minnesota’s blue-light laws force things closed at earlier-than-usual hours, but being from a country where you can find just about anything at any time or on any day, I was surprised to discover that most places close by 5:00pm, almost nothing is open 24-hours, and that, by law, nearly everything shuts down on Sundays. How’s that for a day of rest?

#6: Blomsters
The saying goes "a rose is a rose is a rose" or "a blomster is a blomster is a blomster" (when substituting the Danish word.) I'm not sure that by saying Copenhagen's streets are lined with blomsters brings the right picture to mind....but the blomster stands on almost every street corner bring beautiful splashes of color to the dreary streets of Copenhagen in winter. Who knew that some flowers could mean so much?

#7: Hippies at heart
Here, environmental friendliness isn’t a trend, it’s not something you do as a symbol of your liberalness, and it’s not just for people who wear Birkenstocks (I’m not sure any Danes wear Birkenstocks, actually) and tie dye, it’s just something you do. When you go to the grocery store you bring your own bag or you buy one there, people ride bikes or take public transport, all the outlets have switches, plastic bottles are literally reused (just like they used to do with the glass Coke bottles), and cans and bottles can be recycled at any grocery store for cash back (1 DKK per can, 3 DKK per plastic bottle.) America…please take a leaf or two out of this book.

#8: The price is...wrong
Copenhagen is not the place for a poor college student. Even with the dollar rising and a budget in place, my wallet and bank account are in need of some serious resuscitation. With cups of coffee costing $8 a pop and $10 pints of ice cream, it’s easy to say that Copenhagen is an expensive city.

#9: Rain rain go away
It seems as if I’m moving to progressively darker and gloomier places. From Colorado, with its 300 days of sun a year, to Minnesota where the winters are long, cold, and dark, to Denmark where blue sky is a rarity. But, one of the perks of the seemingly perpetual gloom is that even a small glimpse of the sun feels like a gift. And as we start moving from winter into spring, the noticeably lengthening days seem to be a crescendo towards a promising spring.

#10: Quiet city
One of the token sounds of big cities is the siren, but in a safe city like Copenhagen, the need for an emergency vehicle seems to be few and far between. City noises are common sources of complaint to city-goers, and while Copenhagen is far from a sleepy city, it has nowhere near the amount of noise disturbance as your typical city. While New York’s soundtrack might include traffic, yowling cats, and angry pedestrians, Copenhagen’s would have street violins and accordions, chiming church bells, and the occasional techno beat.

*I want to make sure it’s clear that my observations are based on my personal experiences and surroundings in the center of Copenhagen; therefore, they may be slightly biased and may have been different if I had been living in a different area of Copenhagen (I am writing as a casual observer and not an anthropologist.) I appreciate the corrections I have received from those who are reading my blogs and I apologize if anything I write is misinformed, please continue to make me aware of any mistakes. Thank you!

Lessons the DIS way

So yes…I have been here for 8 weeks and, seeing as I have not yet written any posts about the school part of my semester, you are all probably wondering if I am really studying abroad, or if I am just taking a really long vacation. Well, I would say that it is a little bit of both. To say the least, anything away from the rigors of Macalester can be considered a vacation. My semesters are usually spent hurrying from one thing to another, where every minute is scheduled and hundreds of post-its fall victim to the scribblings of my to-do lists. Now, for the first time in a very long time, I have time to breathe, to relax, to have fun…and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Why would I cross an ocean to spend my time with Microsoft Word and a highlighter?

This being said, just because I’m not refining my paper-writing skills or improving my IS vocabulary does not mean I’m not learning a lot. It is all about trade-offs. Now, Copenhagen is my library and Europe is my classroom; instead of papers, I write blogs; my all-nighters are due to dancing instead of cramming; I’m more worried about proving myself in the kitchen than in the classroom; I research traveling destinations and hostels rather than revolutions and international codes of conduct; my planner is full of flight schedules rather than test dates….not bad.

Of course, it’s not all fun and games. I rush out the door every morning, coffee in hand, for my 8:30 classes. I take notes, give presentations, study for tests, and meet with groups for projects. I do readings, realize I’ve done the wrong readings, and read again (the compendiums aren’t always very straight-forward.) When I put it this way, it probably sounds pretty similar to what you would find at any college…but the fact of the matter is the structure of school here is very different, even if subtly so, to what I’m used to.

For example, my teachers are professionals rather than PhD’d professors whose life is to teach and to research. Readings are gone over point by point in class, instead of serving as theoretical background for class discussion. And for that matter, class discussion is minimal; it has been a long time since I’ve faced the blackboard and stared at the backs of people’s heads (this is when I wonder how we can be graded on “class participation.”) I am currently in the biggest classes I’ve ever taken, with head counts of a whopping 60 students. And one of the best things? No 20 page papers this semester.

Wednesdays are dedicated to field studies, where we go with our classes to different places in Denmark as a way of seeing in real life what we are learning in the classroom. This could be going to a business, a newspaper, an NGO…a club? Yes, last weekend my Creative Industries class had a field study at Vega, one of the largest clubs in Denmark. We started with a tour and a discussion with a Vega staff member and then finished by watching a concert of the Danish band Small. (It was quite an odd experience to be out clubbing with a professor…beer and dancing included.) To say the least, the phrase “Copenhagen is your classroom” is no joke.

Neither is “Europe is your classroom.” As I’ve mentioned before, we went on a short study tour in Western Denmark for my News Media in Transition class and will be heading out for our long study tour to London in a week and a half. And if that isn’t enough, merely living and observing in Europe/Copenhagen is enough to supply lessons for a life time, even if it's not in the typical way.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Settled in

Traveling is uncomfortable. There is nothing glamorous about wearing the same thing 5 times before you wash it, eating things you can’t pronounce and feeling sick the rest of the day, using body language as your main means of communicating with the people around you, or taking the wrong public transportation and spending hours finding your way back to the starting point. And yet, these are the things that make traveling exhilarating and liberating by breaking the bounds of the comfortable and routine. So what happens when you unpack the suitcase, stop needing a map, and get comfortable? For the first time in my history of traveling I am able to give some answers to that question.

The other day I was walking back from the gym and as I passed my favorite Shawarma shop, I realized that my days of walking through Copenhagen as a dumbstruck tourist are over. As in any city, there will always be new places to see, new things to learn, and secrets to be discovered. But I can now tell you how to get to the Norreport station (and pronounce it correctly); I know my favorite brand of yogurt in the grocery store; I can tell chicken from turkey just by reading the packages; and I can pick out my favorite street performers on Strøget. I may not know all the ins and outs of Danish transit but I know the rules of buying and using a ticket; I no longer need to convert everything from kroner to dollars; I know not to jay-walk; and I can use military time without my brain cramping up. I bring my own bags to the grocery store; I know where to return my bottles and cans; I no longer have to analyze my coins in order to hand over the correct change; and I am less afraid of getting hit by a bike. Of course, there is still plenty learn and lots to observe, but with 8 weeks behind me and 15 weeks to go I am happy to say that I am rather comfortable.