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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Stockholm Marathon 2018 Recap

img_0675 Yesterday was my 10th marathon and my first time ever repeating one. Stockholm seemed like a good choice for a PR attempt, since it’s flat, has low humidity, and is generally cool.

But we’ve been blessed/cursed with record-breaking warmth during this trip, weather that is ideal for pretty much anything…except this.

Although I carbed up like a champ (cardamom buns!!!), I otherwise couldn’t muster too much excitement for this race. After all, I’d run it once before, I was distracted (in the best way) by study abroad, and I knew the heat wasn’t going to lead to any personal records. To make matters worse, the race started at noon, only the hottest part of the day.

It’s hard to do a marathon when you’re not feeling it.

So, why was I doing it? Because I’d paid the entry fee? (Sunk-cost fallacy, but kind of.) Because I told people I was doing it? (Sheepish yes.) Because I didn’t want my training to be for nothing? (Naw. Extra snacks ain’t nothing!) Because I wanted the finisher shirt and medal? (Absolutely.)

For whatever reason, there I was at the start, with 18,000 or so other fools/hardy souls.

img_0725We started outside the 1912 Olympic Stadium in the open sun. I was stuck in a tight pack for awhile, which I hate. Each mile or so, there’d be an aggressive rush to the sprinklers and the water stations as we all attempted to cool down. Shade was a commodity everyone was fighting for. And this course was not the pancake I remember. Two new hills had been added, I swear.

I quickly saw my average pace fall way below goal time and my motivation fell along with it. Everything was annoying me: the people getting between me and the sponge-wetting stations, the restaurants that smelled like fried food, the spectators smoking, the booming speakers that were keeping me from hearing my own music…you name it.

Even when I could hear it, my faithful marathon playlist did nothing for me. The Schuyler sisters tried to remind me of how lucky I was to be alive right now. Michael Jackson called me a pretty young thing. The bearded lady from The Greatest Showman told me that I was glorious. Sara Bareilles really wanted to see me be brave. Nope.

But I did get through this slogfest, in a respectable-for-the-weather 3:48. How come? Because at the one-hour and two-hour marks I saw Joe (wearing the landmark: a SF Giants Dr. Seuss hat) and a big group of students cheering like their lives depended on it, in very non-Swedish fashion. Jantelagen be damned, they were loud. And they had signs. It was THE BEST.

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img_0825Then, when I thought they were done (because who wants to spend all afternoon watching a marathon?) they surprised me at the finish line, which ends with a half-lap around the stadium track.

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img_0722Did I mention that this was the best? Marathons often deliver the full range of intense emotions, but I don’t remember going from angry and alone to joyful and supported in such a short time. It makes the fact that this was not my personal best day seem very incidental.

And, whether I have them to blame or to thank, I know that this will be me. Just maybe not for a little while.

 

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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?

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.

No one's favorite.

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.