Study Abroad in Scandinavia: Week 1

We are a week into JMU’s Exploring the Good Life in Scandinavia and have been centered in wonderful, summery Copenhagen all week.

Day 1

For the first time, we’re working with the Danish Institute for Study Abroad for housing, activities, classroom space, etc. The day started with a huge group meeting for all DIS participants at the building that used to house Copenhagen’s circus (?!) and is now a too-fancy-for-us concert venue.

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We toured our classroom and facilities, which are perfectly located right on the main shopping street (the Stroget).

We had a great guest lecture from a DIS professor and learned many things. The most striking may have been to toughen the kids up young. Here they have forest kindergartens (“learn to be cold and uncomfortable, learn to climb trees and use knives”), and fairy tales with non-Disneyfied endings.

Afterwards, we wandered over to Kongens Have (the King’s Garden at Rosenborg Palace), and to Nyhavn for the requisite group photo. Today had a lot of classroom time but was also a good orientation to the city.

 

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Day 2

Our 10 a.m. class started with a hop over to Sct. Peders Bageri for what some say are the best cinnamon buns (a.k.a., cinnamon snails) in the city, available only on Wednesdays.

This provided an easy segue into the day’s topic: savoring. When are we most present and grateful in a given moment? When is this easy and natural and when is it difficult? How can we be better at this, both in everyday life and in our travels? (Naturally, this leads into a discussion of technology, photography, and social media and whether this stuff helps or hurts our savoring ability.)

To bring mindfulness to life, Joe led us through the raisin meditation. For the first time ever, we had an entire room of raisin lovers, with no one grumbling and wondering why we couldn’t be doing this with chocolate instead.

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The afternoon took us to Christiania, Copenhagen’s second most popular tourist destination. Reactions to Christiania are pretty extreme. Some see it as dodgy and dirty, others find it idyllic and don’t want to leave. Whatever the reaction, it’s undoubtedly fascinating as an alternate way of living and as a social experiment with an uncertain future.

This was the first time I’d done a guided tour (given by a 40-year Christiania resident) and it was much better than simply wandering around aimlessly. In addition to being informative, she was as quirky and surprising as the place itself.

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The students wanted to stick around for dinner so we parted ways. My love of a great view won out over my fear of heights, so I climbed the exposed spiral tower of the Church of Our Savior. The 360 view was breathtaking and I had the place all to myself, but note the death grip…

 

Day 3

We put our mindful eating and savoring lessons to good work today on the Copenhagen Food Tour, which takes place in and around the wonderful Torvehallerne food hall. This is one of my absolute favorite outings. It hits so many marks: savoring, yes, but also New Nordic cuisine, local food, and sustainability. We also get a touch of history and subtle lessons in the culture. Our guide, Maria, is an expert and a hoot.

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We took class outside afterwards, to the nearby botanical gardens.

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Did I mention that the weather here is absolutely perfect? We’ve been extremely lucky so far! Part of me feels like we’re missing something key about Scandinavian psychology by skipping out on the cold and grey. A much bigger part of me is thrilled to be spared.

Day 4

Today’s class topic was cycling. Copenhagen is the most advanced, forward-thinking bike-friendly city in the world. Could this contribute to a high degree of happiness? And, if so, why? Is this something we can bring back with us, or does it require a certain infrastructure, climate, and topography that we just don’t have? Is driving in the U.S. just too convenient and cheap to make bikes appealing? This one is hard to place on the “can we bring it back or not?” continuum.

We didn’t have anything scheduled for the afternoon, but it was another perfect weather day. Half of us headed on the train north to the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, while others rented a boat and cruised around Copenhagen’s harbors.

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We all met up for a night at Tivoli Gardens (btw, if Christiania is the second-most visited place in CPH, Tivoli is the first). It features gardens, yes, but also rides, food, fireworks, performances, etc. etc. etc.

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Day 5

The weather was iffy for the first time, so we postponed our trip to Lund and made it a free day. Joe and I explored our local neighborhood, Norrebro, while the students had more far-flung adventures. Some took a long (!!) walk to the Carlsberg Brewery, and a few others biked out to the outskirts of the city to look for the six hidden giants. So much for the strong advice that a car is needed for these expeditions!

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That brings me to this fact: I am so thrilled, impressed, and inspired by this group’s level of adventurousness. They set out on daunting journeys like these enthusiastically but with common sense. They’re brave; they’re not afraid to get lost in a foreign city, to drive a motorboat, to follow a Danish train schedule, or to learn to ride a bike in the busiest biking city in the world (which is kinda like learning to drive on the D.C. Beltway at rush hour). AND they also manage to be prompt, prepared for class, and respectful of one another. I couldn’t ask for more.

Day 6

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Today was our bike trip to the seaside town of Dragor, 11 miles south of Copenhagen. The weather had been looking dicey but fortunately cleared up enough for us to head out.

We started out in the heart of CPH and, well, a 17-person group of shaky cyclists in a busy city is quite the project. Eventually, we left the crowded urban bike lanes and hit more relaxed Amager, the Baltic Sea, Kastrup, the airport, and – finally – adorable Dragor. We had some ice cream, some walk-around time, and then it was time to head back.

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This was probably a bit more than we bargained for – some windy spots, a few intense moments of traffic, a couple bike snafus – but we did it. 22 miles!

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Day 7

Our first semi-gross weather day (a.k.a., the typical study abroad weather). I was glad: morning rain made it a perfect movie day. We had a long class that included a new documentary, Finding Hygge. We discussed this idea of…what, exactly? Coziness, relaxation, comfort, easy conversation, lack of stress…

Hygge is a concept that is so woven into the Danish psyche that it’s difficult for them (and us) to define and discuss. And yet it’s held up as a key component of happiness here, so it’s well worth considering. What we concluded is that hygge is not showy, not materialistic, and not stressful. It requires time, intention, and cannot be forced. It has a potential dark side that we have to be on the watch for. And – with practice – it’s perhaps something we can take home with us (unlike, say, socialized medicine, state-funded college, or five weeks of paid vacation per year). And it would make a great name for my future dog, but that’s another story.

Students also shared their favorite moments via photos and I was – again – so happy to hear about their adventures, but also to hear how much they genuinely like one another, are willing to compromise, and have these hilarious moments together.

It was a very good day, although not a particularly photogenic one. But here’s my 4 a.m. sunrise photo and my ice cream.

For the evening, students broke into small groups and had dinners with Danish families around Copenhagen – which I can’t wait to hear about – while Joe and I had an unforgettable meal at Kiin Kiin.

And another week of adventures awaits!

 

 

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That time I ran with the Crown Prince of Denmark

Well, myself and 35,000 others.

Tonight’s 10K race was part of a week-long celebration of the Crown Prince’s 50th birthday. From what I can gather, Frederik likes to run and celebrate fitness, so he decided to celebrate with runs in Denmark’s five largest cities. The events are organized so that everyone can participate regardless of age or fitness level, with the goal of getting people out and moving. Walk a mile, run a 10K. Do both. Bring the kids. The point is to get out there. As he declared a year ago, “When I turn 50 years old, I will celebrate the day with a race where all of Denmark can join…A run must be a race aimed at the experience runners, but equally to those who tie their running shoes for the first time and everyone is welcome regardless of age.”

Yet another reason to love Denmark.

By chance, a few days ago I saw the Copenhagen version of the event pop up on Facebook. True to form, I signed up without a lot of forethought. But I quickly came to see that it was kind of a big deal. Like, a 35,000-person, shut-down-the-roads kind of big deal (read more here). And it was at 7 p.m. Because the earlier part of the day was taken up with OTHER royal running events (kids’ run, mile run, awards, pageantry, etc.). But why would I expect less? It was the prince.

Look, here we are:

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I’ve done over 100 races and I can say with confidence that this was one of the most memorable. There was the sheer size of it: as of a few days ago, an estimated 35,000 runners were registered (but it was probably more, as you could sign up last-minute). There was also the hoopla: huge monitors were set up to show highlights of the event as we stood in the starting corrals. Helicopters flew overheard getting footage. It was broadcast on TV. I saw the Crown Prince (for maybe half a second) as he made he way to the start, surrounded by cameramen and bodyguards, and it might as well have been Beyonce. (Apparently the Queen was out there somewhere too, but I missed that. Someone told me this in the elevator to my Airbnb. Because it was apparently A Big Deal). Once the race started, the streets were lined with fans, maybe ten deep the entire way, waving Danish flags, wearing royal costumes, and cheering. Walking home afterwards, I stood at a stoplight with some runners and fans, and one person called this a “once in a lifetime event.”

 

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It was so unique; part of me wanted to take pictures during the race. But a much bigger part of me wanted to crush it.

And I kinda did crush it – my first race with a sub-7:00 minute average, and a big 10K PR of 43:08-ish. The course was flat with few turns, there was no humidity, and the Vaporfly 4% is truly a magical shoe. This either bodes well for the Stockholm Marathon in two weeks or I just blew it. Anyway.

It was a nice change to feel like a part of something here in Copenhagen. Sure, I don’t really know much — ok, anything — about the Danish royal family. I couldn’t understand a single thing that was being broadcast in Danish over the loudspeakers before or after the race. But, like everyone else out there, I get the pull of running through city streets on a beautiful spring evening. I felt genuine excitement and cheered along with everyone else when the prince walked by. Walking home with my medal, people said what I took to be “congratulations” in Danish and I gave them a “tak” in return. It’s nice to not feel like a tourist for a minute.

Did I mention that I love Denmark?

The fastest way to feel like a local in Copenhagen

[I’m vowing to blog more.]

We arrived for the fourth year of Exploring the Good Life in Scandinavia yesterday at 7:30 a.m. Thanks to a stellar movie selection and a fussy seatmate, I got about two hours of terrible sleep on the flight. Unfortunately, we had a lot of morning and afternoon to kill before we could crash out.

After a massive Espresso House coffee, I did my favorite Copenhagen thing and got a bike from a bike share stand. These things have little motors, so you can ride them even when you’re completely drained of energy. It’s super-easy to set up an account, and there are drop-offs all over the city. To call Copenhagen a bike-friendly city is a massive understatement, and–if you’re comfortable on two wheels–riding around here feels safe and natural. I never feel more at home in Copenhagen than when I’m on a bike.

I started from Central Station and pedaled around with no real plan. If I felt lost or confused, I’d just follow someone for awhile. I ended up riding 11 miles before dropping the bike off and going to a meeting, more refreshed than I could have imagined a couple hours before.

Some of the sights were old favorites:

And some new treats too, like this adorable block-long street that I may never find again.

And this.

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