Study Abroad in Scandinavia – Week 2

[If you missed the Week 1 recap, find it here.]

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May 29

Week two began with a daytrip to the college town of Lund, in southern Sweden. This is a great place to escape the city, relax, check out the cathedral you see above, perhaps collect some data, and definitely eat some delicious cardamom buns.

One of my favorite things about Lund is a lovely botanical garden, where we had a class meeting and discussed the concept of flow. The garden’s colors weren’t as vivid as last year’s, probably due to a drought, but we still found some nice patches.

May 30

Today was our last full day in Copenhagen. We had a fairly long class, mostly on work-life integration and “busyness bragging”. Lunch was all about going to favorite places one last time: the organic hotdog cart, the bagel shop, that one ice cream/churro place, coffee coffee coffee. Dinner was a pre-ordered meal that was…hilarious.

img_0550Joe and I were staying in the Norrebro neighborhood, which was ground zero for the first night of Distortion, a massive music festival that is better described in photos. Just imagine this scene over a square-mile or two. And imagine us trying to wheel huge rental bikes through this. We were not popular.

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May 31

This was our day to travel to Stockholm, a five-hour train ride that left at 8:20 a.m. Despite a few snafus for Joe and me (a cab that didn’t show and my desperate plea to a stranger to please drive us to the station), it all went smoothly. This is always a great chance to catch up on sleep and reading.

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The students met with a DIS rep to take them to their housing, which is north of the city in a suburban area called Sollentuna (I remember this by picturing a mopey fish). Joe and I settled into our Gamla Stan (“Old Town”) Airbnb and immediately watched the previous night’s series finale of The Americans. Priorities.

June 1

Today started with a summertime must-do: a lunch cruise into the Stockholm archipelago, a chain of 30,000+ islands that stretches east from the city into the Baltic Sea. Many Swedes have summer houses and boats here (1 in 10 Swedes owns a boat) and it’s an important part of warm-weather recreation.

img_0649.jpgWeather is usually a primary concern for me on this study abroad, because so many of our activities are outdoors. But it’s barely mentioned here because we continue to be so ridiculously lucky!

 

After the cruise, we had a class meeting on the small island of Skeppsholmen. Topics were friluftsliv and the feeling of awe, both very appropriate for the day.

There was some Gamla Stan wandering, too. As a well-preserved medieval town, pretty much everything here is photo-worthy.

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We found the oldest statue in Stockholm, the “little boy who looks at the moon,” and rubbed his head for good luck.

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Without too much planned for after, we all ended up at our apartment for a very stimulating class discussion! img_0661(Okay, it was actually a show-and-tell of our wedding photos.)

June 2

Today was largely a free day for students to collect data and explore Stockholm. I had planned to run the marathon (read all about that here) and was so happy and surprised that a group of students chose to spend a few of their free hours watching and cheering.

 

In the evening, most of us went on the Stockholm Ghost Walk, a tour of Gamla Stan that gives us a dark lesson into the history of Stockholm: mass executions, brothels, doomed searches for buried treasure, and not one, not two, but three different types of the plague. And lots of restless spirits. Good fun.

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June 3

Yet another beautiful day to spend outside. We all took the streetcar to Skansen, the world’s oldest outdoor museum.

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img_0814It’s massive and has all kinds of exhibits about traditional Swedish life (imagine a Swedish Colonial Williamsburg), but the Nordic animals were the biggest hit.

 

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June 4

A big class day. The DIS facilities here are housed in the Royal College of Music. They practically require a retinal scan to access, but they’re quite nice when you do.img_0687.jpg

A bonus: the school’s metro stop, Stadion, features this:

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Stockholm’s metro is sometimes called the world’s longest art museum.

Anyway, we had a morning class meeting, a lunch break, and an afternoon guest lecture on Swedish politics from DIS professor Steve Turner, an American who’s been living in Sweden for 40 years. This was an intellectual high point of last year’s program, and was perhaps even more so this year, given the increasing frictions here and an important upcoming election.

img_0884It’s all too easy for us to leave here feeling like the Scandinavian countries are doing everything right while we are, umm, not. This lecture highlighted the complications of implementing the social welfare system and the moral conflicts woven into immigration policy. In short, it filled in some important gaps.

June 5

Our last day, already?

Today began with class. We first debriefed and discussed the previous day’s guest lecture, then everyone briefly presented their individual project findings. Our allotted two hours of classroom time flew by. We broke for lunch, packing time, and time to do all of those last things.

We met for a last group dinner at a Stockholm mainstay, Kvarnen. We finally got our fill of Swedish meatballs.

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After dinner, we searched in vain for a karaoke place. Finding none, we settled for some very non-Swedish street singing, an Irish pub, and a late-night subway ride with a fire extinguisher incident that I need to learn more about (everyone is fine).

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Last night, someone asked me to define the group in a single word. I couldn’t decide between three:

united – this group of 13 was often all together, and when they weren’t, I could never identify any cliques or anyone who wasn’t a part of things. Everyone seemed to genuinely like each other and look out for one another. I saw a ton of compromise, empathy, and good humor, even in stressful situations.

zany – I never worried about them being bored. They could create fun wherever they went, whether by killing a half hour by making their own beatbox band (complete with a few singles, an album cover, and a t-shirt design), cheering like mad at a marathon (generally not thought of as a great spectator sport), laughing their heads off at a catastrophically bad meal, and certainly many shenanigans I never heard about.  It was so much fun to be a part of this crazy crew. They reminded me to worry less and to laugh a lot more.

resourceful – they quickly demonstrated that they could figure things out on their own. They seldom needed me to point out directions or to suggest where to go. Multiple times, I realized that my suggestions were pretty lame compared to the things they’d find. They were also really good at getting things for free, like this:

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June 6

My last day here. The students seem to have taken the sunshine with them, literally and figuratively. It’s Swedish National Day (think a toned down version of the 4th of July in the U.S.). Many things are closed, my energy is sapped, and it’s suddenly 50 degrees and cloudy. In other words, it’s a good day to blog, pack, and eat one last cardamom bun.

Until next year, Scandinavia!

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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!

 

 

Why I’m Not Sad about Winter This Year

I typically get a little down every year, right around this time. The days are getting dramatically shorter, the windows are soon to be sealed shut, and my bright summer dresses have been relegated to the back of the closet. To pass the time between November and March, I’d binge-watch and binge-read and count the days until my self-imposed hibernation ends and the warm Virginia weather returns.

What changed? Well, a couple of years ago I learned about the Danish concept of hygge, and this winter, I vow to bring more of it into my life.

Hygge (pronounced – kind of – like HOO-ga) is one of those untranslatable foreign words that suggests a way of thinking that we Americans just don’t quite grasp (but a fun attempt to define it is here). It roughly translates to coziness, contentment, and lack of anything unpleasant. It can be found in quiet conversations with friends, in candles, fireplaces, snuggly robes, a glass of wine, warm blankets, or steaming coffee. A hyggeligt (the adjective form of hygge) environment is your safe haven.

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In Denmark, hygge is practically a survival strategy in the long, cold, and very dark winters. The sun goes down around 4 p.m. and doesn’t rise again until mid-morning. That means that anyone who is employed in the traditional working hours has little opportunity to experience daylight. And this deprivation drags on for months.

This sounds like a recipe for depression, yet Danes are constantly rated among the world’s happiest people. As many have suggested, hygge may play a key role.  And, unlike universal health care, generous parental leave, and subsidized college education, the beauty of hygge is that it’s something we can easily import to States.

Creating Hygge at Home

Want to have a more hyggeligt winter? Want to transform the dark, cold months into something to anticipate and savor rather than something to grimly endure? Here are some tips:

Start with a little self-experimentation. Look around your home and note what spaces and items make you feel content and at peace. What is it about these spaces? And what spaces make you feel tense or unhappy? Those might need some addressing. (Right now, there is a huge stack of books and papers under my coffee table. Every time I see them, I feel a little tense as I’m reminded of the work I’m not doing. Definitely not hygge!)

What does make me feel warm, safe, and snug are these slippers (seriously worth the splurge), these candles (not a splurge at all!), watching reruns of Gilmore Girls, looking through old photos, or reading a good novel with a lot of lights turned on. Even better if I can smell something yummy cooking. (Slow-cooker meals, therefore, are very hygge.) And that pile of books and papers? That has got to go.

Start by checking in with yourself and coming up with your personal definition of hygge. And get your family in on the discussion too! Here are some great tips for working hygge into family life.

Think carefully about the spaces you inhabit. Is your home welcoming? Warm? Cozy? Danes generally don’t go for big, sprawling spaces but instead pay thoughtful attention to details: lighting, books, meaningful possessions. Less clutter. There are no hard-and-fast rules here (but if you want some ideas, just type “hygge” into Pinterest, or check out this piece). Hyggifying your home is possible at any income level and, at most, may require purchasing a new lamp or two. You don’t need to get fancy. In fact…

Hygge is most definitely not fancy. It’s not pretentious or status-conscious. No judgment, no posturing. Cast aside your need for perfection. Don’t put off inviting people over because you still have to replace those broken kitchen tiles or perfect your recipe for coq au vin. Sharmi Albrechtsen, who frequently blogs about Danish happiness, once told me that trying to one-up or impress your friends and family with fancy food and drink is pretty much the opposite of hygge, as it doesn’t foster warm feelings at all. Instead, hygge is modest, comforting, and familiar. This recent trend, then, might just be perfect.

Don’t hibernate. Stay social. Winter can foster a real sense of isolation as we hunker down and close the world out. But Danes stay social in the winter, having small gatherings, going to snug cafes, and getting really, really psyched for Christmas. Christmas is huge in Denmark. It seems as if all of December is spent gearing up – preparing food, decorating, visiting friends. And the big event? With the lighting, music, family, friends, and traditional foods, you might say it’s hygge at its finest.

Want to read more about hygge and related concepts? Here’s a fascinating take on how people can thrive in harsh winters around the Arctic Circle (in Norway, but still). Author and reluctant Denmark transplant Helen Russell explores hygge and Danish happiness in The Year of Living Danishly. And I can’t wait to see what Danish happiness researcher Meik Wiking has to say in the forthcoming Little Book of Hygge.

 

The Pepsi 10K, one year later.

Late last summer, my angry low lumbar spine was soaking up the sweet, sweet goodness of a series of epidural steroid shots. I was told that the benefits, if any, would be gradual, but I woke up the day after my first shot feeling fresh and new and pain-free for the first time in years. Gone was my morning hobble and its accompanying grumpiness. Gone was the pain that shot down my right leg after driving for more than 10 minutes, which left a series of doctors, chiropractors, and physical therapists baffled. 

This was great, but how would running be? Tentatively, I went out to try the Pepsi 10K, a local favorite that benefits Special Olympics. It was one year ago this week. 12047030_10102333139441666_3143013651970462020_n

Mile 1 was downhill and adrenaline-charged. Hard to gauge what was happening. But by mile 2 and 3, I was sure: the pain was gone! I welled up. Running had suddenly been transformed from a painful slog (yet a habit I stubbornly refused to give up) into a source of joy again. I was ecstatic. It was like Christmas.

I did not run my best race that day. But my love of running was back. My optimism was back. And I was so grateful.

And my next few weeks of running remained full of gratitude. I kept expecting the pain to return, as these spinal shots don’t work their mysterious magic forever, so I thought of each run as a gift. My back was like Charlie’s brain in Flowers for Algernon: Enjoy it while you can! But…the pain never did return. So I kept running. And added in some other good stuff like planks and squats and a foam roller. And I kept getting faster. I broke 1:45 in a half marathon in Richmond in November. I ran a 5K PR (22:28) the next month. I broke 80 minutes in the Ten Miler in March and 1:42 at the Park to Park half in April. Sub-8 minute miles no longer felt like an all-out sprint but like something I could sustain for over an hour.

Then, simply because it lined up with my travel schedule, I dared to sign up for the Stockholm Marathon in June. I ran a 3 minute PR there in June (3:45), no wall-hitting, no death wishes. Just some backlogged podcasts and then the Hamilton soundtrack, plus sun, sea, smiles, and Swedes. What was happening?!  13307481_10208563860747915_5672304648203809910_n

I was proud and feeling quite the badass. But somewhere in all of these successes, my gratitude for the simple act of running started playing second fiddle to my competitive nature, while basking in my pain-free glory was supplanted by concern for new, minor aches and pains (Achilles, feet, blah blah, boring).

Anyway, today, I ran the Pepsi 10K again, and was suddenly reminded of the wonder and appreciation I felt a year ago, as well as all of the progress I’ve made since. (And, ok, I ran a PR, too: 46:56.)  I didn’t feel that teary, awed gratitude nearly as deeply this time – maybe that would be impossible – but the rolling hills of Owensville Road were a strong reminder. It’s so easy to forget what a gift running is, you guys. And what a gift the steroid shot can be, too.

I highly recommend both.

“The Good Life” Comes to an End.

As I write this, I’m three hours into a five-hour train trip, heading south from Stockholm to Copenhagen. A few cars up sit twelve drowsy college students who are probably alternating between napping, snacking, working on their final course presentations, and – quite possibly – reflecting on the fact that it’s almost over.

We’ve just spent the past 16 days touring Sweden and Denmark on a study abroad called “Exploring the Good Life in Scandinavia.” We have just one last evening together in Copenhagen, and then they all start to disperse: some are off to Norway, one to Iceland, another to Berlin, and still another to Amsterdam. Others are going back home, back to their parents, siblings, graduate school prep, and summer jobs. And two of them graduated last month, don’t really know what comes next, and – understandably – really don’t seem to want to think about it.

While our main objective was to study the well-documented high rates of Scandinavian happiness, we also did a Color Run, learned to make moose meatballs, biked through Malmo, and cruised through the Stockholm archipelago. We played hilariously bad beach volleyball, danced around a maypole on Midsommar’s Eve, and visited the Christiania commune just one day before it was infiltrated by cops on a drug bust. We found a cure for culinary homesickness at a TGI Fridays, laughed through a border crossing snafu at the Copenhagen airport, celebrated two birthdays, survived the rides at Tivoli Gardens, took a ghost tour of Stockholm, and sang karaoke at a Swedish dive bar. And I’m sure they would add things to this list that I will never know about. As it should be.

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What I do know is that three weeks ago, these twelve were virtually strangers, but now, I see the potential for life-long friendships. The time has been brief but intense. They’ve shared experiences that no one else will really understand. They have inside jokes and nicknames that would be lost on anybody on the outside. And they are united in the knowledge that their experiences here will never be replicated.

I hope their transition is an easy one. Because as nice as it might be to see their families and friends, to return to comfort and predictability, no one back home will really get it. They’ll try, asking questions and expressing interest at the photos and stories they are bringing home. But it’s just impossible to bridge the psychological gap this trip has created. Reverse culture shock is very real and experiencing it doesn’t make anyone an ingrate. (But the guilt associated with that belief, like “I shouldn’t feel so unhappy when I just had this amazing experience,” can actively heighten the distress.)

As for me, I’m equal parts relieved that a stolen cell phone was our biggest disaster, happy to be free and responsible only for myself, and sad to be saying goodbye to this thoughtful, curious, and hilarious bunch. A few of them, I know I’ll probably never see again. A few will be in my class this fall. The rest may pop into my office once or twice. Maybe we’ll try to put together a reunion dinner. But, the cold reality is that we will never be together again, as a group, in this part of the world. This experience will never be repeated.