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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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 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 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.

Charlottesville: 10 Ways to Put a Ring on It

After almost two months of traveling around Europe, I picked up a new book on my last rainy weekend here in Budapest. It’s called This Is Where You Belong: The Art and Science of Loving the Place You Live, by a fellow transplanted Virginian, Melody Warnick.

The initial draw was that I wanted some inspiration for my final book chapter (“how to craft a great staycation”). But This Is Where You Belong immediately hit a nerve on a much deeper and more personal level. Because I miss home. I’m romanticizing home. Want proof? I went on and on about it just the other day!

I want to be more engaged, to make home feel like HOME. Like, where the heart is. So I ended that post with a challenge: “What are you going to do about it?” Honestly, my fear is: Nothing. Nada. I’ll fall back into my old habits as soon as the joy of being home again dissipates.

So, to help move me from big talk to action, I thought I’d apply Warnick’s 10 place attachment behaviors to help me zero in on what, specifically, I might be able to do more of to build my attachment to Charlottesville. I even gave myself a report card.

Let’s break it down. The 10 behaviors are:

  1. The wonders of walking Charlottesville in spring

    The wonders of walking Charlottesville in spring

    Walk more. I’m very fortunate to live in one of the most walkable parts of Charlottesville. On a scale from 0-100, North Downtown gets a Walk Score of 85 (Charlottesville in general is a 58). 85 translates to “very walkable. Most errands can be accomplished on foot.” Yep. I’m three blocks from the Downtown Mall. I can walk to countless bars and restaurants, my gym, a small grocery store, a great wine shop, the post office, the library, four theatres, an arts center, two weekly farmers markets, and more. Walking just makes sense; driving does not. (And FWIW, I usually rock my 10,000 steps-per-day Fitbit goal.) Certainly, I cannot walk to work, but on days I don’t drive to Harrisonburg, I usually get in my car only if I need to go to Trader Joe’s. GRADE: A- . But this brings me to…


  2. Buy local. I love my Trader Joe’s. I love my Target. Lululemon. Anthropologie. BAY-SIC! Why do I love these generic chain stores? Fear of awkward interactions. While many people seem to be deterred from buying local because they equate “local” with “expensive,” my problem is that I fear the social interactions that can occur when people care. I can go into Target, look around, and buy nothing (err, hypothetically). The clerk doesn’t take it personally! The clerk doesn’t give a rip! It takes the pressure off. But in a local business, where I could easily be interacting with the person who carefully selected and artfully arranged the merchandise, to me it feels hugely insulting to walk out without buying something. Like, I’m entering someone’s home, sizing it up with impunity, and saying to their face, “No, I really don’t like what you’ve done with the place.” I’m probably overthinking it. I realize that Charlottesville has some amazing local businesses (I mean, hello!) and I do need to get over this weird thought process and start patronizing them more. GRADE: C

  3. Get to know my neighbors. This one is always high on my list of How to Make My Life Better. I know it would make a huge difference. And, maybe because the opportunity exists every single day, it’s something I can easily put off until tomorrow. Plus, for all of its walkability and easy contact, I swear, my neighborhood is just not social. Even the people in the five other units in my house are strangers to me. Except for the nice couple next door, no one says hello, smiles, or talks to one another. I truly don’t know why. Is it me? I need a burst of motivation here. Or something to facilitate contact. A neighborhood block party? A puppy? GRADE: D

  4. Do fun stuff. Here, I’m pretty good. Local theatre, Fridays After Five, local races, the occasional Tom Sox game. I could always do more – maybe taking advantage of all the stuff popping up at IX – but I have my share of fun. Walkability helps, for sure. GRADE: B
    Wine and music at Jefferson Vineyards.

    Wine and music at Jefferson Vineyards. Fun stuff.


  5. Explore nature. Within the immediate Charlottesville/Albemarle area, I’m getting out there. Running on the Rivanna Trail, walking the Monticello Trail, SUPing on Beaver Creek Lake, biking around the county (although less so lately; I’ve gotten scared of cars). Even yoga on Carter’s Mountain a couple of times. My commute takes me over Afton Mountain, where I get a scenic view of the Rockfish Valley. BUT: the nearby Shenandoah National Park and trails off the Blue Ridge Parkway are virtually uncharted territory for me, wonderful as they are. Yet another thing on my list that is always being put off until later. GRADE: B

  6. Volunteer. I know this research and I’ve felt the good-feels during and after volunteering. I have the time to do it. But I don’t do it nearly enough. Why? There’s the confidence problem – what could I bring to an organization? Plus, I’m often unsure how to start getting involved. Given all of that, it’s far too easy to just do nothing. These are lame excuses. (And I’d say that musical theatre is technically volunteer work, but – let’s face it – I pretty much do that for myself.)  GRADE: D

  7. Eat local. I eat out a lot and at chain restaurants very infrequently. I preemptively pine for img_5991certain Charlottesville dishes and restaurants even in advance of a trip, and I’m already agonizing over what my first meal back will be. But I can’t take too much credit: eating local in Charlottesville is easy. Toss an heirloom tomato in any direction and you’ll hit some locally-sourced something-or-other. (Now, if drink local is in this category, my grade is bumped up significantly. Local wineries are one of my favorite places to spend an afternoon and brewpubs are a close second.) I do love my Trader Joe’s standbys and I could go to the farmers markets more often and buy more local food to cook at home. But sometimes you just need your Cookie Butter and Three Buck Chuck. GRADE: B+

  8. Become more political. I vote in all the elections. I watch the local news a few times a week. I went to see Obama when he was here a few years ago. That’s about it. My politics mesh well with the majority of Charlottesvillians. I have no major gripes, apart from the notable absence of water fountains at Riverview Park. (Right?) Until something (volunteer work?) shakes me from my blissful ignorance, I’m not sure this one will change anytime soon. #notproud  GRADE: D

  9. Create something new. I have friends who create and innovate: Staff and volunteers at arts organizations. Tireless fundraisers. Small business owners. Architects. Can I bask in their glory on this one? No? Fine. The closest I’ve come is working to create a local musical theatre production or concert. And I’ve created new courses and research projects at work, but that’s an hour away, not in my immediate community. This counts for something. But without kids, and knowing that generativity (passing something on for the future; leaving a legacy) is a primary challenge of middle adulthood, this is one worth thinking about. GRADE: C

  10. Stay loyal through hard times. To my knowledge, Charlottesville hasn’t really had hard times since I’ve arrived. I mean, there’s been stuff. But it’s mostly a wonderful place to live. See this, this, and this. So, I’m happy to say I have no data on this one! GRADE – ??

Looking at this list, I see some themes: I’m very tied to the physical and material aspects of home. Nature. Activities. Food and wine. But, my overall engagement-GPA sucks. Why? Several major deficits jump out, and they all have to do with people. I don’t know my neighbors. I don’t volunteer. I’m not involved in politics, and I seldom collaborate to create something new. Why? Honestly? Introversion. Okay, mild social anxiety. Saying hi to neighbors is kinda scary. Asking “how can I help?” might result in the realization that…I really can’t help: I have no useful skills. Awkward! It’s not time, energy, or lack of interest holding me back; it’s just straight up fear that keeps me from building a greater bond with home. A pretty useful realization, actually. Something I can work with.

I’ve lived in four states on two coasts. After grad school, I felt pulled back to Charlottesville even while living in two decidedly fantastic places, Santa Monica, CA and Portland, OR. And now I choose to live an hour from my job just so I can be there. Time to get over myself and start making the most of it!

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