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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“What has this trip taught you about yourself, as a person or as a traveler?”

I recently posed this question to my class of 13 JMU students as we neared the end of our 18 day, short-term study abroad class in Sweden and Denmark. Eighteen days may not look like much time on the calendar, but it’s jam-packed with novel and challenging experiences: sleeping four to a room, learning public transportation in a foreign city, coping with jet lag, living out of a suitcase, trying new foods, considering new ideas, and being very, very far from home. Plus, several of the students had never traveled internationally before, and most had never done so on their own.

So, if they were to stop and reflect, important insights were right there for the taking.

Here are some of my favorite responses to this question:

“I’ve learned that I love the challenge of getting to know a new place without the help of maps or cell service. It forces you to talk to locals to get help and to get lost in order to find new sights/attractions.”

“I’m much more adventurous than I thought I was. I realized I’m very open to new experiences.”

“I love to travel by local transportation rather than renting a car because it immerses you in the life of the local people of the country you’re visiting. It’s a way to see the people, but also see the sights without the worry of driving a car.”

“The more I try to hold onto a special moment, the less present I am. It’s okay to enjoy something and then let it go.”

“Exploring and wandering can be the most fun.”

“I need alone time to recharge. And I miss leisure reading–I need to make more time for it at home.”

“I actually really enjoy alone time to frolic and discover new places on my own.”

“I’m much more capable than I give myself credit for! I’m capable of taking care of myself, getting around, making friends with strangers, and dealing with all of the problems that can come up while traveling.”

“I like to spend my days in smaller groups, and I appreciate moving at a more slow, local pace, not rushing off to see all the tourist destinations.”

“After traveling to a different country for the first time, I realize that I like familiarity. There’s a lot to see in the world, but that also includes things at home, and I’m going to take advantage of it!”

“I have so much left to learn. I looked at this trip as a pinnacle and a finish line, but now I know it was just the beginning. There is a world outside to explore and it’ll take time to do it. Now I know that there’s a world to discover inside of me, too. This whole life of ours is a trip, a journey, and I cannot wait to see where mine goes.”

Travel can always teach us something — about the broader world around us, but also about ourselves. Thanks for the memories, you guys…and for the lessons you always manage to teach me.

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Did I mention that we lived for a week in a castle?

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 Toughest Best Thing I Do

It’s been two weeks since I said goodbye to my second summer study abroad class. It’s officially called Exploring the Good Life in Scandinavia, offered though James Madison University. Last year – the first time out – was hard. I mean, I was alone in a foreign country and in charge of eleven students, taking them places even I had never been before. Our hotels and restaurants hadn’t been vetted. I had never met the Malmo University staff who were to host us for a week. I didn’t understand how to use the JMU-provided Excel spreadsheet to document my expenses. I didn’t really understand how to use Excel, period. (Ok, ok. I still kind of don’t.) Shoot…I didn’t even know what I didn’t know!

Malmo bike tour.

This time, with my Excel-savvy boyfriend along and a year of experience under my belt, I expected it to be a breeze. I knew how to navigate the streets and the public transportation. I had a list of decent restaurants suitable for groups. I had class materials prepped. And everyone there speaks English. Yes, I was feeling fine.

But, guess what. It’s still hard. Like, really hard. In no other realm of life do I wear so many hats, trying to be an unflappable, savvy tour guide/professor/accountant/surrogate parent with a steel trap memory and encyclopedic knowledge of Scandinavia.

To be sure, some of the pressure I feel is absolutely of my own creation. For example, one night we were at a very fun and hip taco joint. I was required to pre-order our dinners because we were such a large group. A few days prior, I told the students they could choose between cod, steak, or vegetarian tacos. I dutifully emailed the restaurant our order, and as the food came out, I saw that it was not tacos, but full entrees. The students were pleased, actually: it looked delicious and the portions were huge. But I felt weirdly awful and incompetent. How did I screw this up? Even as I was surrounded by happy, laughing students, I seriously thought, I just can’t do this anymore.

Later, I remarked to Joe, “It’s just so hard being responsible for everyone’s happiness all of the time.” And then it hit me: no wonder I was a stress-case! Part of my job is to set the stage for happiness, yes. To create a feeling of safety and comfort and acceptance. But I can only get them so far up the hierarchy of needs. While this job does require many hats, “perfection ensurer” is not one of them.

So, this time around one of several lessons I learned was that it’s really hard to be a die-hard people-pleaser in this role. I can only control so much. Food orders will be wrong, buses will be late, it will rain at inopportune times, and wifi will sometimes be spotty. Very little of this is my fault. Self-compassion is essential. So are head-clearing, early-morning, pump-up runs. img_7488

I also learned that taking students abroad will probably always be really hard. Maybe it should be. A big group, in a foreign country, with goals of connecting, learning, and feeling safe but also challenged. It’s not something to be cavalier about.

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No one’s favorite moment.

But it’s also the most rewarding thing I do: sharing fascinating and beautiful places, hearing the appreciative and awestruck reactions of my students, helping to set the stage for new friendships, teaching techniques for happiness, exposing students to new ways of living, and maybe even instilling a lifelong love of travel. So, when I step back and big-picture it, botched food orders and slow wifi fade from view. Instead, these recent memories mesh with my first time abroad and the way it shaped me. The fact that I might have some small role in doing the same for these students is both humbling and a great privilege.

And when the students want a key class concept permanently etched onto their bodies, I have to consider it a success, right?

 

“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.

Stockholm Marathon Recap

On Saturday, June 4th, I ran my first international marathon (my sixth overall) on what turned out to be a glorious, humidity-free, 60-something degree day in Stockholm. In the weeks prior, I had an increasing awareness* of a nagging left achilles and various, undiagnosed sensations in my feet. Plus, I was probably undertrained, having done only one twenty-miler. And I had some vague memories of really, really hating the late stages of marathons, which explains why I hadn’t done one in six years. This could be ugly.

The race started at noon, which I expected to be completely jarring. However, lingering jet-lag, a penchant for getting lost wandering Stockholm, the logistics of staging a 18,000 person event, and moderate temperatures made the late start-time pretty ideal. I started in the correct pace group (about 8:30 min/mile), which was good since there was no getting past the pack of Scandinavians I was trapped in. Backlogged podcasts** got me to mile 16 and then I shifted to my inspirational running playlist*** which got me home. Around mile 24, I was more than ready to be done, sure, but somehow I never hit the wall.
The home stretch: I entered the Olympic Stadium, sure that the finish line was mere steps away, as I was already past 26.2 . But we still had to circle the track, which created some sense of ceremony but also made for a race of 26.7 miles! What?! Despite that injustice of this, I ran a three-plus minute PR of 3:45. And, I guess I also inadvertently ran the longest distance of my life.


Here’s a hodgepodge of my impressions of an international marathon:

  • I was saying how, although I had no real desire to run a marathon again until a Boston-qualifying time was a real possibility (i.e., this fall! Bring on age 40!), I wanted to do this one as a way of seeing this beautiful city where I’ve started to teach and visit every summer. Funny, then, how little I was focused on the scenery around me. It was more like, “find the water!” “don’t step on that person!” “focus on your music!” Marathon-survival mode rather than savoring mode.
  • The cardinal rules of marathoning – don’t eat anything new or weird! Rest up a few days before! – are in direct opposition to the rules of travel and exploration – eat all the weird things! Walk around and see everything! I walked 6 miles the day before and was worried I’d blown it. I hadn’t. But the temptation was there in a way it isn’t at home.
  • I don’t know if it was this race in particular or non-U.S. races, but it felt much more serious. Very few runners in costumes, no spirited bunches running for a cause, zero funny signs about pooping, loud cheering, and – mercifully – only one deafening cowbell.
  • The men all peed in a communal porta-potty thingie beforehand, which cut back on lines dramatically. Could American men do such a thing outside of Foxfield? Do American porta-potty companies even make such a thing?
  • Having the race marked in kilometers instead of miles was a mental challenge. Like, “Oooh, I’m at mile 21 already! Oh wait, that’s 21K…13 miles. Crap!” I had to stop looking at the markers. On the upside, I took some perverse joy in confusing the metric-minded around me when my Garmin chirped at each mile.
  • Course fuel: pickles, vegetable broth, coffee, cola. Glad I brought my own Gu.
  • Stockholm’s “hills” have nothing – NOTHING – on Charlottesville’s.
  • The finishers’ shirt was hot pink. European men don’t mind hot pink.
  • The post-race hot dog: the first I’ve had in years, and nothing could have tasted better.
  • If you don’t have cell service and hope to meet up with someone after the race, in a crowd of many thousands, when you’re likely to be utterly exhausted, have a fail-safe plan. Despite a plan of-sorts, Joe and I only found each other through sheer luck.

    Best cheerer and photographer ever.

  • Look who I finally saw at the finish line. 
  • If I can just slightly improve on this time for the fall, the BQ should be mine, fulfilling a goal I’ve had for almost ten years. This race was great mental preparation, as it was the first marathon I enjoyed from start to finish. No wall-hitting, a perfectly even split, and full mobility for sightseeing the next day. Oh, and I even was awake and chipper for a nighttime dinner cruise afterwards, where one of the editors of German Runner’s World said, upon hearing my time, “Oh, you’re a real runner.” That’s right.  A. Real. Runner.

* awareness is not the same as pain or injury, and is at least 50% psychosomatic.

** deepest gratitude to Slate’s Double X, Getting In, The Moth, and Embedded.

*** mostly selections from the Hamilton soundtrack, but with some Styx, Sara Bareilles, and Shakira peppered in.

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.