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Looking Back at a Semester Abroad in Copenhagen

Carly CopenhagenThe American students leaving for their semester abroad, in a mass migration every year, are looking for very different things. My experience as a vegan D1 athlete studying counterterrorism in Denmark was probably not typical. As a student at the Danish Institute of Study Abroad, I travelled to Western Denmark, Dublin, and Belfast with a program called Terrorism and Counterterrorism from a European Perspective.

Though I was confident that I was smart, curious, and responsible enough to live in Denmark, it ended up taking more effort than just the skills I already had. Anyone can go abroad, but to enjoy almost every moment of the semester and get the most out of my investment took a tenacious and proactive effort on my part.

People say college is the first time you truly live on your own, but I’d say it is study abroad. College is like the game little kids play when they pretend to be adults, serving each other plastic food from the plastic kitchen in the basement while parents cook real food upstairs. College lets you feel a bit like an adult while still acting like a child.

Without the resources and cushioning of my university campus, my semester abroad was the first time I truly lived on my own. Sure, I could call my parents in an emergency, but only if that emergency happened after 2:00PM my time. Living on my own in a foreign country meant no student health center with my medical records and insurance card on file. Spraining my ankle turned in to an unintended field trip to the hospital to experience socialized medicine for myself. When I got food poisoning, I could not walk into my mom’s room to tell her I threw up. I cleaned the communal bathroom sink while the toilet stared me down and mocked me for missing.

Taking care of myself meant being hyper-aware for my own safety but also for my education. My terrorism class travelled to Carly Belfast Street SignsStreet Sign in BelfastNorthern Ireland to study the history of sectarian conflict and the I.R.A. Our days were spent walking the alleyways of the city where we read propaganda from both sides of the conflict between the Catholics and Protestants. I watched the victim of a violent assault, head wounds freshly wrapped, order a pizza in Belfast, under the glow of lights from the police vans. I travelled with classmates who were as eager as I was to understand how violence can become a cultural norm -- a more powerful experience than all my lectures on the Prisoner’s dilemma.

Keeping up with my normal routine of rowing before or between classes, I realized how much I’d relied on my dining hall for my chosen lifestyle. I couldn’t swipe in to the dining hall for a quick and easy meal paid for by invisible currency on my student card. Grocery shopping in the U.S. was more an errand than an activity itself. But in Denmark, I needed to allocate enough time to forage for nutrients, especially since I’m not the typical omnivore. The same products I knew at home stood before me, but masked by the hieroglyphics of the Danish language, so walking through each aisle was a sensory overload. A few times, employees spotted the bewildered eyes of an outsider and asked me in English if I was looking for something in particular. Most of the time, my squinted eyes were hunting for the obscure health-food specialties. “Almond flour?” I asked the eager teen making twice my state’s minimum wage. I was usually offered almonds and flour, and figured it wasn’t worth asking for organic crunchy unsalted almond butter.

My zealot veganism ironically started in Denmark, a country whose primary export to the US is bacon. Inspired by a contagious biking culture, I was excited to be part of the Scandinavian sustainability model. Denmark is aiming to run on 100% renewable energies by 2050, and I was captured by the passionate commitment to rethink energy sources, starting with my own carbon footprint. I did not expect to enter such a niche subculture, a cult united by soy chorizo, and leave with a poster that says “If it’s not your mom, it’s not your milk,” which will ward off unwanted carnivores on my college dorm door this semester.

Carly BikeBiking in CopenhagenInstead of going to the bike shops where all the Americans were renting their bikes, I tried to live like the locals and rent a bike off the Danish equivalent of CraigsList. A man named Claus sold me a “bike” to be delivered by a man named Gizmo, who I waited on the street to meet along with my roommate for added security. Gizmo had apparently come earlier than our arranged time, which I discovered when I found a bike with backward handlebars and no brakes on the sidewalk. This bike matched the picture I’d seen online about as much as a Tinder profile using The Rock’s body. It would have saved me time, angst and a Paypal account to rent a bike from a reputable dealer. But I did get to practice lawyer skills and advocate for myself as if I was an adult. Gizmo will never know that I’m just a 20-year old girl trying to save 200 kronor for cinnamon rolls. I politely demanded my money back using a few new Danish words, and realized that when I was sure enough of myself, adults would actually listen to me and respect my demands.

Selecting Copenhagen for my semester abroad turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made. I evaluated cities like I would people, seeking out the spectacularly unpretentious ones that don’t go out of their way to impress anyone, unlike Paris and New York. I wanted to find a place that was unapologetically itself, with the unsubtle and bold character that marks Danish humor. As a student in the U.S. capital, Copenhagen called to me because it is not at the forefront of American minds as a Carly Superkilen ParkSuperkilen Park in Copenhagentourist destination or a pertinent European epicenter in news and U.S. politics. That meant I knew nothing about Danish culture and had no preconceived understanding of Danish politics or national identity. Copenhagen is full of surprises and contradictions, making it difficult to label.

I had looked for a city that fit my personality, so I didn’t end up travelling every weekend like many of my classmates. Like loving a person, I didn’t want to love my new home only for its shiniest moments, like the most perfect cloudless days swimming in the Baltic sea. The frigid Danish storms threatened to sweep my 5’3” frame off my pink bike on the windiest of days, and I surrendered to the Scandinavian winters to learn to enjoy the great indoors.

It was a fine balance to seek out things that scared my parents and me but weren’t dangerous … like travelling by myself. That set me up for Thanksgiving dinner at a B-rated Chinese restaurant in the Red Light District of Amsterdam.

Avoiding travelling in a pack like many of the American students abroad, I braved a hostel where I was the only girl in a dark room of 20 beds. My miserable experiences with surprise visitors in a smoky apartment rented through the bankrupt European version of Airbnb “Yes Student” were well worth the pain. I sought to avoid hanging out with the same familiar people, eating the foods that were most comfortable, taking the classes that looked easy and shying away from speaking the language. Despite this independence, abroad accelerates friendships faster than a kindergarten recess. In fact, there’s no stronger bond than three girls getting locked out of their Airbnb leaving us to adapt and problem-solve until the sun rose over Berlin.

carlyhikeHike in Bergen Studying abroad in Denmark granted me the time and opportunity to reflect on my own sense of national identity. I would like to incorporate the European pace and work-life balance into my own lifestyle. Nonetheless, hearing many Europeans label Americans with blanket assumptions created by today’s news, I realized that as much as I fit in to to the culture I experienced in Scandinavia, I have a strong affiliation with an American generation that seeks to reshape our national image and our face to the rest of the world.

Carly Glickenhaus is a junior at Georgetown University on the Lightweight Rowing team, where she is studying Economics and Security. She studied abroad at DIS: Study Abroad in Scandinavia in a European Counterterrorism program.

 

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