A Day in Siena and San Gimignano

Last Saturday, we had our first class trip. We left Florence for the Tuscan countryside, stopping first in Siena. This town (city?) had been on my list for quite some time. In fact, just this summer I read two books that were centered here: a memoir, Too Much Tuscan Sun and a novel, The Italian Party. I was looking forward to seeing how the place matched the images in my mind.

In short, it went over and above what I had envisioned. The views were more magnificent, the Piazza del Campo much grander, the streets livelier.

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I wanted more time to wander (maybe I’ll pop back some day, since it’s only an hour or so by train). Still, we got a nice overview during our time, seeing the financial, political, religious, and social centers of town with a fantastic local guide. We happened upon a classic car show and tried a local treat, pasta with cinghiale (wild boar) sauce.

 

Another highlight was the Basilica of San Domenico, which houses some important 13th century Catholic relics, like St. Catherine’s thumb and head on full display (no photos allowed, but view them here if you must). Apparently, it was common to divvy up parts of important religious figures for political reasons and to boost tourism (the rest of St. Catherine is in Rome).

Here’s the outside of the church, which you might prefer to gaze on.

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There was also Siena’s Gothic cathedral, made even more impressive by the fact that its marble mosaic floors were uncovered, which only happens a few times a year (I have no great photos of these, but click the link above to see some).

 

 

After lunch and free time, we rode the bus another hour or so to San Gimignano, which I’ve heard called “Tuscany’s Manhattan” because of its defining feature: 14 tall stone towers (there were once over 70). We climbed the tallest one and got quite the view.

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San Gimignano is pretty tiny, so after spending some time in the tower, we wandered, bought a bottle of the local wine (vernaccia) had a coffee, and headed back to Florence.

The weather was fantastic, spirits were high, we learned a lot, and it was a great day to experience Tuscany!

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Back in Florence, this week’s highlight (for me) was going with the art history class to Santa Maria Novella for a lesson in frescos, which called up long-forgotten tidbits from my Catholic education. Getting to go on these art outings with an expert professor is another perk of the job!

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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_0550We 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, (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). We 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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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.jpgStockholm’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!

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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That time I ran with the Crown Prince of Denmark

Well, myself and 35,000 others.

Tonight’s 10K race was part of a week-long celebration of the Crown Prince’s 50th birthday. From what I can gather, Frederik likes to run and celebrate fitness, so he decided to celebrate with runs in Denmark’s five largest cities. The events are organized so that everyone can participate regardless of age or fitness level, with the goal of getting people out and moving. Walk a mile, run a 10K. Do both. Bring the kids. The point is to get out there. As he declared a year ago, “When I turn 50 years old, I will celebrate the day with a race where all of Denmark can join…A run must be a race aimed at the experience runners, but equally to those who tie their running shoes for the first time and everyone is welcome regardless of age.”

Yet another reason to love Denmark.

By chance, a few days ago I saw the Copenhagen version of the event pop up on Facebook. True to form, I signed up without a lot of forethought. But I quickly came to see that it was kind of a big deal. Like, a 35,000-person, shut-down-the-roads kind of big deal (read more here). And it was at 7 p.m. Because the earlier part of the day was taken up with OTHER royal running events (kids’ run, mile run, awards, pageantry, etc.). But why would I expect less? It was the prince.

Look, here we are:

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I’ve done over 100 races and I can say with confidence that this was one of the most memorable. There was the sheer size of it: as of a few days ago, an estimated 35,000 runners were registered (but it was probably more, as you could sign up last-minute). There was also the hoopla: huge monitors were set up to show highlights of the event as we stood in the starting corrals. Helicopters flew overheard getting footage. It was broadcast on TV. I saw the Crown Prince (for maybe half a second) as he made he way to the start, surrounded by cameramen and bodyguards, and it might as well have been Beyonce. (Apparently the Queen was out there somewhere too, but I missed that. Someone told me this in the elevator to my Airbnb. Because it was apparently A Big Deal). Once the race started, the streets were lined with fans, maybe ten deep the entire way, waving Danish flags, wearing royal costumes, and cheering. Walking home afterwards, I stood at a stoplight with some runners and fans, and one person called this a “once in a lifetime event.”

 

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It was so unique; part of me wanted to take pictures during the race. But a much bigger part of me wanted to crush it.

And I kinda did crush it – my first race with a sub-7:00 minute average, and a big 10K PR of 43:08-ish. The course was flat with few turns, there was no humidity, and the Vaporfly 4% is truly a magical shoe. This either bodes well for the Stockholm Marathon in two weeks or I just blew it. Anyway.

It was a nice change to feel like a part of something here in Copenhagen. Sure, I don’t really know much — ok, anything — about the Danish royal family. I couldn’t understand a single thing that was being broadcast in Danish over the loudspeakers before or after the race. But, like everyone else out there, I get the pull of running through city streets on a beautiful spring evening. I felt genuine excitement and cheered along with everyone else when the prince walked by. Walking home with my medal, people said what I took to be “congratulations” in Danish and I gave them a “tak” in return. It’s nice to not feel like a tourist for a minute.

Did I mention that I love Denmark?

The fastest way to feel like a local in Copenhagen

[I’m vowing to blog more.]

We arrived for the fourth year of Exploring the Good Life in Scandinavia yesterday at 7:30 a.m. Thanks to a stellar movie selection and a fussy seatmate, I got about two hours of terrible sleep on the flight. Unfortunately, we had a lot of morning and afternoon to kill before we could crash out.

After a massive Espresso House coffee, I did my favorite Copenhagen thing and got a bike from a bike share stand. These things have little motors, so you can ride them even when you’re completely drained of energy. It’s super-easy to set up an account, and there are drop-offs all over the city. To call Copenhagen a bike-friendly city is a massive understatement, and–if you’re comfortable on two wheels–riding around here feels safe and natural. I never feel more at home in Copenhagen than when I’m on a bike.

I started from Central Station and pedaled around with no real plan. If I felt lost or confused, I’d just follow someone for awhile. I ended up riding 11 miles before dropping the bike off and going to a meeting, more refreshed than I could have imagined a couple hours before.

Some of the sights were old favorites:

And some new treats too, like this adorable block-long street that I may never find again.

And this.

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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.

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.

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.