Reflections on study abroad, one year later

In exactly 38 days – not that I’m counting – twelve JMU students will meet me in Copenhagen for a class on happiness in Scandinavia. To help prepare them and get them psyched, last week I asked students from last year’s class to come talk to my new crop.

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Last year’s class in Stockholm

I wanted to let the conversation flow naturally, but just in case no one had any burning questions, I asked them to prepare responses to these:

  • What do you wish you could’ve done more of while in Scandinavia?
  • What were your favorite memories?

I’m not sure what I expected them to say, but I was startled and touched by their responses, which I asked them to email me after. Here are some:

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“My favorite things to do were to find a restaurant I liked or a building or something like that and just stay there for a while (versus trying to see and do every single thing). It was cool to use this time to really savor and soak it up. In Lund, for example, I laid in the grass and just hung out by that large church for a large part of the afternoon and I think it was more enjoyable than running all over the town. I still felt like I got a good feel of Lund without seeing every single street and building.”

“I really enjoyed riding around Copenhagen aimlessly on those motor bikes, wish I did it more.”

“Two of my favorite memories from the trip included the bike tour and our visit to that bakery in Lund. The bike tour gave me a lot more information about Malmö while I got to explore the city like the Scandinavians do, which was a blast. That bakery in Lund was indescribably good. I dream about their pastries and breads sometimes…”

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Those unforgettable treats.

“My favorite memories were two conversations I had with two men in Stockholm. One was an artist and I bought one of his paintings, he was from Russia. The other was a street performer from New Zealand. I also very much enjoyed our free day in Denmark when I walked around in Christiania. That entire day was great because I was by myself and able to soak in my surroundings without any distractions.””Sitting at a restaurant by a river in Copenhagen was cool because I got to watch a festival and a mother and son came to my table and chatted with me. And talking to the old guy on a bench!”

“Lund, walking around, eating at the bakery, getting strawberries there! It was so much fun hanging out with the people in our group and eating such delicious food. Lund was so vibrant- I loved all of it. Even going to the botanical garden.”

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Spoiled forever by Danish strawberries.

“One of the big things I regret from the trip is not planning for more spontaneity. Even if you’re a compulsive planner, you’ll have more fun if you make time for random activities that are done on a whim. I wish I had found a way to arrive in Denmark early like some of the others had. It seemed like they really got a better feel for Copenhagen since they had more free time there.”

“Things I regretted not doing more of: Interacting with the people who lived there, even if it was just waiters, etc. And spending so much time at night emailing or connecting with friends at home (I didn’t do this a lot, but I could’ve been doing something else instead!)”

“So my favorite memories from the trip were things that we said “when in _______.” (Copenhagen, Stockholm, etc.) In the sense of, if we’re having any doubts about doing something because it costs money or we’re tired or whatever it may be, we would say that as a way to remind ourselves that this is probably a once in a lifetime experience.”

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When in Stockholm, you celebrate Midsommar…rain or shine.

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I was happy that the students didn’t voice major regrets, but was even happier to hear about the things that ended up being their most cherished memories. They were, for the most part, pretty small things: a unique and delicious food, talking to locals, walking or cycling around aimlessly. Not one person listed visiting a top tourist attraction as a favorite moment. Like Anthony Bourdain said, “It’s never the Eiffel Tower and Louvre you remember for the rest of your life.”

None of this should have surprised me, of course. Their favorite moments were not unlike my own: Biking around Copenhagen, feeling – almost – like a local. Early morning runs through parks and around palaces. Getting lost, then seeing something familiar and almost feeling my mental map get filled in with a new connection. People-watching by the water. And, yes, eating those pastries and berries.

These really are among the best moments of travel, but we just don’t always realize it. We overestimate the importance of the “must-sees” and neglect to think about how to be truly present in more ordinary moments. I think it’s because we can’t always plan for them. They tend to – or maybe they need to – arise spontaneously.

But we can set the stage for them. As some students said, they wished they had spent less time online, had structured their time less, been more spontaneous, talked to people more, and used their free time differently…lessons I could learn, too.

So, this time around, I’ll remember what I just learned from my former students, encouraging my new ones to wander, to explore, to observe, and to just be. They can write their term papers when they get back to the States.
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For my money, there’s nothing finer.

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