Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Too much has been happening!

First of all, I apologize for the very long amount of time with no entries. It has been a VERY busy three weeks since I've returned from my travel break, and it's probably going to get even busier from here on out, but I'll make an effort to jot down a few thoughts from my remaining days in Denmark.

Here are a few quick points of interest:

1. Travel Break: amazing! I learned a lot about EU politics while visiting Brussels (more on this later?), and had a great time in the various cities I visited. Here are pictures: Brussels and the Hague, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Munich, Prague, and Vienna.

2. Watching the American elections from Europe: enlightening, wistful, and inspiring. The day of the election, I had the opportunity (along with a few other political science students) to be a guest speaker at Rysensteen Gymnasium, a high school in Vesterbro, near DIS. The 50 or so students (who were there voluntarily, packed into a tiny classroom) amazed me with their attention to detail and knowledge of the American political system. I came in expecting to explain the electoral college system yet again (as I have to more than a few Danes, who end up utterly baffled). But the very first question was: "Do you think the Bradley Effect will come into play in this election, and why or why not?" The following questions from the sea of hands were equally well-informed. I was floored and impressed - most American high school students have no idea about most of the concepts the Danish students were eager to discuss. The world really was watching this election with a tremendous investment.

That night, I got together with some other poli sci kids at my friend Erin's kollegium (dorm-like housing shared with Danish university students). We're 6 hours ahead of EST, so we stayed up until the morning watching the returns and coloring in a huge electoral map. The mood when Obama won was so intense! All the Americans went nuts (I won't pretend there's much diversity of opinion among those of us who have come here to learn how a social welfare state works - this has been confirmed by informal polls in some of my classes). All the Danes (who stayed up in impressive numbers with us) went nuts too, and we all cried, and the Danes (while crying) took pictures of the Americans crying. I've heard reports from various other friends abroad that there was spontaneous dancing in the streets in cities across Europe. I'm kind of sad that I wasn't at home to experience the feeling there, but I learned so much from watching it here.

(Election party pictures!)

3. More about America: I visited my host sister Zenia's fifth-grade class (plus two more classes at her school) a couple of weeks ago to present about America - mostly to help them practice their English. I showed them some pictures from Seattle, some of my other favorite places around Washington, and Garfield (my high school). When I was brainstorming the presentation, I had no idea what to talk about - where do you start?! - but I ended up mostly discussing the education system and summer vacation, things the students were particularly interested in.

At the beginning of each presentation, I asked the class what they knew about America. Here are the results:

Class #1: Burgers; Coca-Cola; Barack Obama; Orlando Bloom; Hollywood.
Class #2: Burgers; San Francisco/Golden Gate Bridge; Barack Obama.
Class #3: Barack Obama.

One 10-year-old girl in Class #3 asked me if I was worried that Barack Obama would get assassinated! What do you say to that?! I told her that I hoped not, and she said that a lot of Danish newspapers were worried that he would.

At the end of the presentation, a girl came up to me and asked me to write my name on a notecard. I thought it was for an assignment they had to do about the presentation or something, so I wrote my name really clearly. But then another asked me to as well... and I realized I was signing autographs! And then the whole class lined up and gave me hugs! We shared flødeboller (chocolate-covered marshmallowy cream balls) and they had fun teaching me to say "vi vil være venner" (we will be friends). It was possibly the cutest thing I have ever experienced.

4. It snowed here this week! And I biked through it and felt REALLY Danish! But now it's mostly gone.

5. Happy Thanksgiving! I'm celebrating tomorrow with Dean's host family, who are attempting to make a Thanksgiving meal. They are incredible cooks, so I'm sure it will turn out great, even if it has a Danish twist. Oh! And that reminds me - a couple of weeks ago was a Danish "holiday" called Mortensaften, or "Morten's Evening," in memory of St. Morten, who was forced to become a bishop and hid in a barn to escape. The noise of the geese gave him away, so now you traditionally take "revenge" on them by eating a goose (or a duck) on that evening! (The duck was delicious.)

More to come soon (if finals aren't too crazy!)

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Travel break time!

I'm leaving in just a few hours for:

Brussels (Oct. 12)
The Hague (Oct. 16)
Amsterdam (Oct. 17)
Barcelona (Oct. 21)
Munich (Oct. 24)
Prague (Oct. 27)
Vienna (Oct. 31)
And finally back to Copenhagen (Nov. 2).

The first two stops are with my program (European Politics and Society). We're visiting EU Parliament, NATO, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, and various other politicians.

I'll try to keep this updated as I travel!

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Travels every which way

This is my first weekend home in about a month! It's kind of nice.

Here we go! The first trip was with my European Politics class. We visited southern Denmark (specifically, Lolland and Sønderborg) and the northern German province of Schleswig-Holstein (Lübeck and Kiel) to learn about border region development - specifically, the role that EU development funds play, and how they are obtained.

The EU has wildly increased in size in recent years, and we heard from both Danish and German officials that dealing with the bureaucracy in Brussels to secure funding - designated by the EU for projects which span borders and increase political and economic integration - means putting together a lobbying office (and, of course, having the resources in the first place to do that), something which I'm fairly certain was not an intention when this fund was created.

The project in question was the recently-announced Fehmarn Bridge, a 32 billion kroner ($6.5 billion US) link between Germany and southern Denmark (specifically, the route to Copenhagen) that will be completed in 2018. Denmark will benefit far more from this bridge than Germany does, because it will have better access to all of Europe, whereas Germany will have better access to... Scandinavia. Germany has, in fact, refused to pay for any of it. The EU is funding 15 percent after some hardcore lobbying, and Denmark is paying the rest with bridge tolls north of $100.

Apart from our meetings with various regional representatives, we also had time to explore Lübeck, including its famous marzipan factory, and Kiel... ok, not so much to do in Kiel. We also had a very fun night in Sønderborg (multicultural experience: ordering Italian food from a German/English menu in Denmark). We visited Dybbøl Banke, the battlefield where Denmark got hardcore whooped by the Germans in 1864, which is supposedly still a huge part of Danes' national identity and the beginning of their "turning inward," after realizing that their hard power is basically nonexistent. Very interesting to see the large number of people flying Danish flags in this part of Jutland, which remained part of Germany from the time of the defeat until post-WWI. (Making up for lost time?)

The next weekend, I went on a bike trip to the island of Bornholm with a DIS group of about 100. It's way out east in the Baltic Sea, located between Sweden and Poland, actually, but Danish territory. The only way to reach it from Denmark is by a 6-hour overnight ferry (now that was a fun time). Dean and I biked about 100 km over two days, and had ridiculous amounts of fun!

On the first day, we visited Dueodde, the white dunes and beaches at the southernmost part of the island, where the sand is apparently the finest in the world. It was definitely fun to play in, but the water was very cold, so we continued on through some cute little hamlets and Almindingen, a big forest. We eventually reached the famous, Crusade-era round church at Østerlars. It was well worth the 10 kroner to see the inside. There are three other round churches on Bornholm, which are thought to be linked in mysterious and intriguing ways to the Knights Templar, although we did not find out the details.

By Day 2, we were both quite sore, so we did an easier route up the north coast of the island. We visited Hammershus, the medieval castle/fortress ruins at the very northern tip of Bornholm (absolutely beautiful), and stopped at a smokehouse in Allinge on the way back. Bornholm is famous for its smoked herring, and I was totally ready to not leave the island until we found some. The smokehouse was right on the water, so it was very hygge (cozy) to look outside at the stormy sea while eating an extraordinarily hearty meal of buttered rugbrød (Danish rye bread), onions, an egg yolk, and a whole herring, which had a small mountain of salt piled on top of it. Oh, and the Bornholm dark beer, too. Yum!

Aaand... this past weekend, I went on another DIS adventure trip, this time to southern Sweden. We biked about 45 km the first day up to Kullaberg Nature Reserve, a peninsula in the Kattegatt Strait, and back. Not as many cultural stops as Bornholm, but the Swedish countryside was absolutely beautiful, and the lighthouse at the tip of the peninsula had great views. We had the opportunity to check out Ladonia, a 1-sq. km. micronation that an artist has founded within the nature reserve. You'll have to look at the pictures to believe this - the dude has built ridiculous driftwood and rock sculptures all over a beach that can only be reached by a hike of about an hour. You have to climb through a tunnel of ankle-twisting driftwood goodness to enter the "kingdom," which kind of resembles a castle. The artist claims 13,000 citizens (although no permanent residents), and one can become a noble (you pick your own title) by paying him $12 on his website.

The second day, we canoed on a river that passed through lots and lots of farmland and, finally, Ängelholm. It was very soothing, except for the whole paddling-against-the-wind part.

Picture time!
thern Germany photos
Southern Denmark photos
Bornholm Day 1 photos
Bornholm Day 2 photos
Sweden photos


Tuesday, September 16, 2008

A long one. Maybe pretend it's two posts? :)

Hi everyone!

I've just returned from my European Politics and Society study tour to Jutland and Northern Germany, so I have a lot to talk about (and think about)! I'll write another post about my experiences soon, but today I wanted to catch up on an interesting part of last week.

One of the really nice things about DIS, my program, is that it incorporates field studies as a regular part of each course. There are no classes on Wednesdays, when these field studies take place. Tomorrow, I'm visiting the Danish Red Cross, which is responsible for housing and acclimating new immigrants to Denmark during the very first stages of their arrival, with my Migrants, Minorities, and Multiculturalism class. I've also, uh, gone with my entire Health Care in Scandinavia class to a pub to study Danish smoking habits (and enjoy some nice, free Danish beer).

But the most enlightening visit so far, with my Danish class, has been to... a gymnasium.

I've been asked many times by friends back in the States about how Danes feel about the American elections, specifically the McCain/Palin ticket. The answer I've been giving is that nearly all follow it intently; US policies have no small impact on the lives of people around the world, and this is a nation with 87% voter turnout in the first place. Most are completely befuddled about Sarah Palin. ("What? Why? How?") After talking to a few Danes, I've come to realize that it's the American identity politics that are the confusing part. Denmark is going through some interesting times right now with immigration (mainly from Muslim countries) and nationalism/xenophobia, which warrants another post later, but the electorate (93% ethnically Danish) and politicians are mostly homogeneous, and the socialized systems contribute to a sense of a classless society. (I'm not one to evaluate the truthfulness of this, but I've heard it said many a time during my three weeks here.)

Our walk to the gymnasium took us through the neighborhood of Hellerup. Hellerup is the setting of the TV show "2900 Happiness," the Danish equivalent of "Beverly Hills 90210," because it is a "well-off" part of town. But no manicured lawns here - to be honest, it looks pretty much just like any other quiet residential neighborhood I've seen in Copenhagen, except for maybe a few houses having three stories instead of two.

The gymnasium our class was visiting was actually not a fitness center, but a high school - that's what they're called here in Denmark. Gymnasium roughly encompasses ages 16-19, although many take a year or two off in the middle, and the schooling runs partway through what we'd consider college. ("University" here is a combined bachelor's and master's program.) There are many differences between the American and Danish school systems, but when our class walked through the doors of Øregård Gymnasium, we all felt instantly like we were back in high school. Dozens of gorgeous and well-dressed (and mostly blond) people were staring unsmiling down at us, and we felt totally out of place... until we actually met them. They were SO nice! Sophie and Josephine (who showed me and Dean around) told us that "Danish boys are just shy" and that they weren't trying to isolate us. It was just all of our assumptions doing that to ourselves! Aww, studying abroad...

Anyway, the Danish students asked us about high school life in America ("Is it anything like Mean Girls?"), and wondered what American teenagers do after school. "Well... many stay after school for a few hours at sports practice, and the others are rehearsing performances or planning events or working on projects, often until late at night... things they enjoy, but many do it so they can get into college."

The students were shocked: "Don't they have to prepare exercises for classes?" (Danes join sports leagues and clubs unaffiliated with their schools, and when they apply to university, they submit only their GPA.)

"Yes, that comes afterwards, and then you sleep for five or six hours."

"That sounds awful!"

Which led to a discussion of all the other things that affect getting into college: "Well, you have to go to good schools, but the funding is configured in such a way that poor neighborhoods have poor schools, which is a big reason the class structure is so rigid... Then, it helps if your parents went to that college too, or especially if they gave it lots of money... Then there's the cost itself... And even if you go on a scholarship, you're still going to be at a big disadvantage if you're a person of color or your parents didn't go through the same educational system."

Their response: "But... that's not FAIR!"

"Nope. Not really."

How stereotypical is it for some kid to go study abroad in a European welfare state and come back all high-minded and idealistic about US domestic policy? I feel like a lot of us here are trying to check ourselves from being that kid. I can't count the number of times I've been in a class that's discussing some successful Scandinavian policy and someone's been like, "That's great, it works really well here, but it wouldn't work in the US because... it's too big." Or, "The national culture is different there." "People aren't ready for it." This always makes me feel a little conflicted, because I don't want to be that kid, either, but at the same time, being here has really brought home how astounding the income inequality (as a manifestation of everything else, including health and education systems) is in the US. And it's hard not to make comparisons that end up favorably for the happiest place on Earth. Denmark is far from utopian, but some things just work better here, and I wish they worked better at home, too. Is that just unstudied idealism?

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The vs. The

Tonight at dinner, Dean's host parents, Ole and Solveig, were telling us about how Danish teachers of English spend several lessons on the difference between "the" and "the." No seriously - apparently, we English speakers are supposed to say "thee" before a word beginning with a vowel and "thuh" before a word beginning with a consonant. I thought about it and realized that I did indeed do this (and have never given it a thought in my life.) Dean, however, doesn't think he follows this rule. (Which I've also never noticed.)

Do you do this? Do you notice when other people do or don't? Are English teachers here wasting tons of their students' time? (That's what we told Ole and Solveig.) As an added complication, most English teachers in Denmark teach British English. Maybe it matters more there? Insight??

Sunday, September 7, 2008

“Danish is not a language. It’s a throat disease.”

The above quote is from one of my political science professors. And my throat definitely has been suffering endless contortions ever since the night of August 22, the whole of which was spent sitting on the floor of Sea-Tac Airport after our direct flight to Copenhagen was canceled because of mechanical problems. (We ended up flying out the next day… through Atlanta.) When a few of us DIS kids called our host families to change our pickup plans, we told them to meet us at the Amager campus of DIS, which we pronounced like it rhymed with “manager.” We noticed that one of the Danes sitting nearby was laughing at us. “Amah,” he said. “Not a-ma-ger.” He then patiently fielded all our questions about how to pronounce the names of where we lived and the people in our host families. (This saved us a LOT of embarrassment later!)

Last night my host family served rødgrød med fløde, a thick berry syrup with cream, for dessert. This phrase is supposed to be the ultimate test of foreigners’ Danish pronunciation, as, like most Danish words, it sounds ABSOLUTELY NOTHING like it looks. I just thought for a minute about how I might “transliterate” it, but I just can’t. The last word sounds something like “fleuuge,” but that’s all I got. (It was delicious, by the way.)

Danish, apparently, is the third-hardest language in the world for English natives to speak – after Chinese and Arabic. The biggest problem, besides the 9 vowels (a, e, i, o, u, y, æ, ø, å) that are pronounced in 32 different ways depending on their proximity to other letters, is the haphazard and mysterious dropping of consonants. Pronouncing the first consonant in a word and then slurring together all the vowels thereafter is quite often nearly correct. For example, the town where I live, Roskilde, is pronounced “ROHS-kil,” with the L very soft and the R guttural, like in Hebrew. Good thing I didn’t have to take a cab from the airport!

Anyway, this update needs a picture. Today I went on a DIS-sponsored tour of Frederiksborg Castle, built in the 14th and 15th centuries by the royal family (almost all Danish kings are named either Frederik or Christian, by the way. No Hamlets). The royal family no longer lives there, but coronations and weddings are still held there, and the “Order of the Elephant” (kind of like a knighthood?) is bestowed in the chapel (Bill Clinton received this when he visited). Pretty architecture is all well and good, but the highlight of Frederiksborg is definitely the adjoining baroque gardens:

Thursday, September 4, 2008

First week (plus)

Wow! I definitely should have started writing this a week ago. Where to begin?

Well, I am living in a small, bucolic, suburban town called Roskilde that is about ten miles west of Copenhagen. (Fords – sound familiar?) Except Roskilde is actually way older than Copenhagen itself; Absalon, the bishop of Roskilde in the 12th century, actually chartered the small fishing village of Havn himself!

Every morning, I commute about a mile by bike to the train station, then a 30-minute ride on the “regionaltog,” and finally another half-mile walking. The bike culture here is amazing! Cars (taxed 105% on the first $10,000, and much more if it exceeds certain amounts) are prohibitively expensive, not to mention gas (11 kroners per liter, roughly $8 per gallon). My Danish host family doesn’t even own a car – how many suburban American families do you know who can say that?

As Thomas Friedman and many others have glowingly observed, this is a culture that has unselfconsciously practiced for years the eco-friendly habits that are just now becoming a self-righteous vogue for Americans. (Yes, the thing about the two-speed toilets is true!) Walking through the streets of Copenhagen, you’ll notice that most commuter bicyclists have half-flat tires and no gearshifts, not to mention performancewear or a gazillion reflective things (Dad, I can’t wait until you see this). Instead of driving the kids in a minivan, Mom or Dad puts them in a sort of cart attached to the front of the bike. Once they reach seven or so, they ride their own bikes unaccompanied to school. Fortunately, most bike-riding does not take place in streets with cars (far too dangerous). In the city, all arterials have a bike lane, and I don’t mean those lame “sharrows,” which privileged drivers to dangerously cut me off several times this summer on my way to work. No, they have a lane all their own, separated from the car lanes by – you guessed it – bike parking. And on smaller streets, they have their own “second sidewalk!” See below, in Roskilde:

The most interesting thing, by far, has been experiencing a decidedly advanced nation that, in many (refreshing) ways, lacks the "convenience culture" of the United States. For example, Danish grocery stores are open for limited hours on Sundays, but in a stripped-down way: no fresh produce, understocked shelves. This has something to do with the nationally mandated 37-hour workweek. But also: who needs to buy their produce specifically on Sunday? Why not just another day, and prevent the trucks from having to ship it out fresh on what should be the drivers’ day off? Also, most buildings in downtown CPH are built in the neoclassical style, meaning they are all mostly four stories high, and you bet there are no elevators in buildings only four stories high. Take the stairs!

As a student of the European Politics and Society program here at DIS, most of my classes inevitably have much to do with the European Union – specifically, its core issue of sacrificing sovereignty for collaboration and economic benefit. Although I know it’s a bit of a stretch, I’m starting to look at Danish culture through this lens, too. Denmark is well-known as one of the original welfare states; its citizens see 50 to 70 percent of their income taxed away in return for universal health care – excuse me, I think I meant “quality, affordable access for all” ☺ – as well as unbeatable workers’ benefits and infrastructure. (And much more). Obviously, this wouldn’t even begin to fly in today’s US political culture, so why does it work here? How are people trusting enough of their government’s policies that they’re willing to pay prices that are made up mostly of taxes for things such as gas? The only somewhat satisfactory answer I’ve heard so far is that in a nation of only five million people, there’s no such thing as lobbying or pork – all benefits are spread pretty much evenly throughout this close-knit “tribe.” Plus, the Danish parliamentary system ensures that leaders never have too much power for too long. But that can’t be all. Obviously, I have a lot of learning to do.

I miss everyone! Please keep me updated on your lives!!


P.S. More pictures coming soon! Ok, here is one. This is me and my friend Steph, this one time we entered a storybook. (At Kastellet, Copenhagen's star-shaped fortress. The windmill was very heavily guarded. It seemed important.)