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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The World’s Best Bagels…and So Much More

“Arriving in Charlottesville from the lush, rural Virginia countryside, you almost feel like you’ve stepped back into ancient Rome.” – The New York Times

“Just two hours from Washington DC, C-ville (as the locals call it) offers quiet country retreats and horseback rides in nearby Shenandoah National Park, the natural beauty of the Blue Ridge mountains, as well as a wealth of history that includes the homes of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Its array of restaurants offer exceptional gastronomic variety.” – The Guardian

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Photo: static1.squarespace.com

Not to brag or anything, but my adopted hometown of Charlottesville regularly tops all the charts: “Healthiest small towns.” “Best college towns.” “Top places to retire.” “Best tennis towns.” “Best places for book lovers.” And even “America’s happiest city.”

Locals outwardly scoff and grumble about how each new accolade will bring even more people and more traffic to our ever-expanding town. But, deep down, I think we all like knowing that we’re spending our lives in a place that doesn’t suck. Hey, if Southern Living, Travel and Leisure, CNN Traveler, and so many others think my town is the greatest, I’ll happily use that knowledge to validate my life choices.

But it’s more than just validation I seek; it’s appreciation. Because as I sit in traffic, buy my groceries, and navigate my to-do lists, it’s so easy to forget that I live in a special place. So, for all of the cynicism that might accompany them, our “best-of” lists can really serve as a nice reminder of what we have going for us.

Just now, as I did my morning Facebook scroll, I came across yet another Charlottesville superlative. “The best bagels in the world are in Charlottesville, Virginia,” the piece began. True or not, I was reminded of how lucky I am to live within walking distance of some pretty spectacular carb-bombs.

I also love reading other people’s impressions of the area, for example, this piece from the Packed Suitcase blog. It’s fun to think, “People come to my hometown for their vacation.”

Need other reminders of Charlottesville’s awesomeness? For just a few, check out:

Now all this place really needs is a Wegman’s. Oh, but wait!

The Chowdown Is On

Vacations create the perfect storm for weight gain. Delicious, unusual food lies at every turn, we have a ton of time in which to eat it, and the plausible justifications for chowing down are endless:

  • “I’d better eat this while I’m here!”
  • “I came here for the food!”
  • “But I’m walking so much!”
  • “Vacation is the time to treat myself!”
  • “YOLO!”

Shoot, even our gut microbiome is hard at work against us.

Not surprisingly, people admit to gaining an impressively quick ten pounds on a week-long cruise and packing on the “foreign fifteen” while studying abroad. Tips for avoiding both abound, but maybe a small gain is worth it. No one wants to regret missing out on gelato, croissants, or deep-fried Snickers bars out of fear of gaining a pound or two, right? But that’s a topic for a different day.

I’m dealing with an unexpected and unspoken challenge: overeating at home, in anticipation of all the delicious Charlottesville foods I’m going to miss while I’m traveling. Yes, the mere thought of traveling is making me chow down. With two months of foreign travel set to begin in just ten days, I have an embarrassingly long list of must-eats. These won’t mean anything to those outside of Charlottesville, but topping the charts are:

  • The Hellboy pizza from Lampo.
  • The Bellissima pizza and world’s best nachos from Dr. Ho’s Humble Pie.
  • The El Jefe from Roots.
  • A this-barely-qualifies-as-a-salad salad from Mezeh.
  • Anything sweet from MarieBette.
  • My standard turkey and cheddar on sesame from Bodos.
  • Take-out drunken noodles and spicy eggplant from Monsoon Siam.
  • Anything from Pippin Hill, just so I can sit out and take in the views.
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Pineapple, pepperoni, and roasted garlic pizza from Crozet Pizza – CHECK!

This list comes with its own special set of rationalizations, mostly along the lines of, “But I won’t be able to have this for two whole months!”* When we have a big trip looming, looking ahead creates a sort of anticipatory nostalgia for the everyday things we’ll miss while away. This is mostly good, encouraging us to appreciate what is so often overlooked. Needing to buy new pants at the 11th hour, however, is a considerable downside.

So, forget travel weight gain — I’m not too worried about that one. Walking and protein shakes will probably cancel out the occasional Swedish cardamom bun and Hungarian langos, and a post-trip 21 Day Fix will take care of the rest. But what about pre-travel weight gain? Is this a thing, or is it just me? And…umm…is there anything important missing from my list?

 

*Do I eat these foods so frequently that a two-month hiatus is reason for panic? No, I do not.