Great Realizations

Hello. I would like to share now a zoomed-out summary of the emotional rollercoaster that was my first week. (please skip halfway for my great realization if too long to read)

Let me tell you, this was not what I expected. I think there’s a lot of pressure that comes with study abroad and the expectation that it’s going to be the best semester of your life because you’re in a great, big, beautiful place with fresh opportunities and connections to make, so why shouldn’t it be? At the same time, that’s a lot to live up to! You’re thrown into a foreign place with a bunch of people, all so excited by what is to come, of course, but there’s a lot of uncertainty that accompanies it as well. As a Communications major, I understand that it’s in our human nature to combat such uncertainty and can say that I especially do not do well with any un-knowing. I hope not to be too blunt and cause worry to my parents or family, but I also want to be realistic for any future students reading this—my first week was really hard for a lot of reasons.

Let me first say that everything came in high highs and low lows. I would feel fantastic and excited one minute and horribly depressed the next. Sometimes I loved living with a family and being removed from the city, sometimes I was very upset that I wasn’t with other students or living in an urban setting. I felt good with the friends I had made, but I felt I could never love anyone as much as I love my friends at the University of Delaware. It’s really important to be self-aware at this time. I knew I was just being impatient; I would grow to love and take comfort in the suburbs and couldn’t possibly match the friendships I had built over years in a matter of days. I just had to let go and take my time settling down.

Full disclosure, I didn’t do super well adjusting. Like I said, it was high highs and low lows. These started as little doubts and reconciliations, but over a matter of days grew to be seismic waves. By Thursday, I was sitting with a new friend, studying after class and trying not to cry because I was overwhelmed and unhappy. I felt even worse because, hello, I was in Copenhagen! I made it! What could I possibly have to complain about?? At least I was here! Also, I loved my host family so much, so why wasn’t I happy in their home? But at the same time, I had anticipated that I would have a difficult transition. If you recall from my pre-departure post, I predicted that I would need to work hard to not compare my experience to those of other students. This proved even more difficult than I had thought, as friends I had met and ones I knew from UD were making plans to check out pubs and clubs while I was lazy and exhausted, 45 minutes outside the city in a house where everyone was in bed quite early and I was still awake, jet lagged until 3am. I was envious of my friends who could cook whatever they wanted, be surrounded by other Americans, and pop out into the city at night or home during the day to nap between classes. My independence was challenged and I was struggling to find my footing.

I also thought of my friends in other cities. Why had I chosen such a random place to go? What on earth am I doing in DENMARK of all places?? I honestly never thought I would visit this country in my life. The program I had veered from at the last minute was a study abroad to Rome, one that 5 of some of my closest friends would end up being on. I wondered what had possessed me to want to be on my own making new friends rather than bonding with ones I already had and meeting more. I kicked myself quite a few times for taking such a risk.

I think another part of the reason I was thrown off is because I am usually super adaptable and can snap into place wherever I go. On the other hand, I am an intense planner and can’t always prepare myself for sudden changes. I had spent a few semesters dreaming of my time abroad and building up quite a fantasy that wasn’t exactly met at first when I got here. Don’t get me wrong, the reality is better! I am happy!! But the initial shock was something I didn’t (and couldn’t) anticipate.

Looking back now, I can barely even remember the sheer helplessness I felt. It took me a while to recall the reasons I chose DIS and my goals for going abroad. Let me tell you the story of my turning point, because honestly, I think it’s really beautiful.

 

________________________

 

My host sisters ride horses. On Friday, a week after my departure from the US, I went with them to watch their lesson and see the farm where they ride. First of all, the 20-minute trip there was incredible. The sun was setting over the countryside and the visuals were actually spectacular. I was in a car with the three of my sisters and my host mom. We passed little towns with the most wonderful houses, straight out of fairytales—squat, cozy-looking white and brown cottages with mossy straw roofs tucked away from the road with rolling fields behind them. No wonder European storytelling is so inspired.

It was a really cold day and the ground was frozen solid when we filed out of the car. Julie, my oldest host sister, had actually gotten a splinter under her fingernail earlier that day while at work and Helle was taking her to the hospital, so only Amalie, Sofie, and I were dropped off. I went with Amalie to help her get her horse ready.

This place was wild. It reminded me of a Christmas village, like the one in Philly, with lots of rows of little stands, but here in each stand, there was a horse! My host family told me there were over a hundred horses living on the property. It was insane. And also, the horses were MASSIVE, no joke—at least twice as tall as me, and then some. Amalie was cleaning her horse’s hooves and my job was to hold him steady and talk calmly to him. He was leaning into me at one point and I realized, if he tips over right now… I will definitely die. Possibly dramatic, but this horse was big. I had a good time watching Amalie work with him and walking around to stroke the noses his curious neighbors. Standing there soothing him actually had a reciprocal effect on me. The animals helped to take away a lot of my stress and I couldn’t help but think how lucky I was to experience this.

Later, I walked to the riding ring (no clue what it’s actually called) with Amalie and her horse. He was slipping on the icy ground and it was quite comical to see an animal as large and graceful as he bumbling around so much. Eventually, we made it to the barn. Sofie was already inside with her horse. I sat inside behind some glass to watch for a bit, but after only a couple minutes, got a call from one of my friends in Rome and walked around the back of the building to answer.

Here’s where my great realization happened: we were catching up, talking about our experiences so far, I took a really deep breath. The Scandinavian air is so cold that when you breathe, I swear you can feel it course through your lungs and spread to the tips of your fingers. And the air isn’t just cold—you can actually feel a difference in the quality. It breathes in smooth, unpolluted, and sharp. I felt the chill bite on my cheeks and looked out at the beautiful extending fields scattered with barns and edged by a forest. The night was perfectly clear; even though it was just past 5:30pm, it was pitch dark. I could see every star; the moon wasn’t full but cast a brilliant glow and the sky behind it was a beautiful, deep navy. It cast a deep blue hue over everything, almost like being underwater. I was so very cold, but it gave me the same sort of clarity. I was amazed by the sky because it had been so misty and rainy in the past few days that I had not seen much beyond the clouds.

The turbulence I had been pushing off for the past few days quickly faded as I explained the issues I had been having with finding a balance to my friend, and that was the last time I spoke of them. Cycling the cool, country air through my lungs changed my mindset. I remembered why I had taken the path that I did.

I wanted to go to Copenhagen because it seemed like the coolest city ever, and it is. There are castles around every corner, beautiful feats of architecture, tiny pubs and jazz clubs, so many historical sights, and unique characteristics that set it aside from other European cities. There’s an amusement park downtown, in case you needed more proof that it’s one of the neatest places to be! (Aside: I think my vocabulary for the past week has been 90% comprised of “so cool,” “interesting,” “you’re kidding,” and “wow that’s neat” because everything is!!) People here treat each other so well and have an interesting take on life because of their roots in the socialist agenda. I was hoping to learn about infrastructure here—how to pack up some things to take back to the US for a little damage control—but let me tell you, this stuff would never fly with our contemporary American Dream, nor in most places. It’s no wonder Denmark can be perceived as a utopian society (definitely a separate post).

Why did I come here alone? I don’t like to follow the group. Not trying to be a fun, quirky girl here, it’s just facts. I am ferociously independent and have no fear of being on my own. Yes, it was hard at first, but I’ve connected with a small group of people that I really feel I can call my friends already and am so excited to see where the semester takes us. Since Copenhagen is a cool city, I have a theory that it attracts super cool people. Other students that I’ve met inspire me a lot by being so intelligent, driven, and already well-traveled. I know if I had gone anywhere familiar, I would have used old friends as a crutch and ventured out less. I even made friends from UD here anyway, but in people I didn’t know before. It was nice to be able to meet expand my circle and still take comfort in the familiarity of some fellow Blue Hens. I know I couldn’t have gone wrong either way, but I am proud of myself for taking the greater risk and pushing myself more.

Academics were probably the largest thing to impact my decision. The programs here at DIS are absolutely incredible—I have travel incorporated into all of my classes, whether it’s getting to know Hans Christian Andersen by taking a walking tour of his life here in Copenhagen, jumping across the border to Germany to witness remnants of WWII with my Holocaust and Genocide class, or hiking over to Amsterdam to connect with sex workers and NGOs in Amsterdam’s Red Light District with my core course. The staff is amazing here, real-world professionals that understand what it’s like to transition from an American school system to a Danish one and do their best to integrate both. They have incredible connections to utilize for the sake of a hands-on education, another characteristic that DIS tries to emphasize. I also appreciate how they work real-world issues like poverty, immigration, and humanitarian/social justice issues into classes to give tangible examples of global impacts. I remember browsing stacks of textbooks while picking up my own, mourning internally my inability to take everything. There are such fascinating topics that could never be offered at my home institution, which was one of the final factors to tip the scale in favor of Copenhagen. I’ll probably read over this tonight to remind myself that I chose this program because of its ambitious academics instead of in spite of it as I sit down to read several dense research articles assigned for each of my classes. Know that if you sign up with DIS, it’s not going to be the blow-off semester you hear about but a rigorous, discussion-based academic setting. I’m still getting used to this and debating dropping a class so that I have more time to explore, because it truly is quite a bit of work.

A lot of studying abroad is pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone. When I met up with my new friends from UD in the program, we talked about this a lot. I used it to reconcile myself in those rocky first few days. I knew when I left that I wanted to force myself to do new things and pick up the more adventurous and spontaneous lifestyle that I had before I became consumed by planning, planning, planning. (because life is what happens when you’re busy doing that)

What else, what else… Ah yes, housing. I was glad I put home stay on my list of preferences because I wanted an immersive experience. Was it what I expected? No. My host family wanted me to be involved. They are amazing, some of the kindest and best-natured people I have ever known. I am so glad to have been placed with them. We chat over dinner for 2 hours every night, we hang out and watch TV, I sit in the kitchen and talk while Helle and Karsten are cooking, we play basketball together, I go with them to riding practice, I have met friends and family. They welcomed me in wholeheartedly and I was simply not used to being a member of a family after years of being on my own, for the most part. I had thought that I would occupy a room, eat with them a couple times a week. Never did I think my host sisters would become close friends or that I would want to spend a Friday night in with them laughing and watching movies. I have met many other Danes through the experience as well, friends of the girls and teammates from basketball (see “Getting Schooled” post). Yes, I am farther away and yes, I probably won’t be out on the town as often but honestly, I’m glad. Generally, because the blow-off semester/party atmosphere is an unfair expectation set up by study abroad stereotyping and, like I said, DIS is not a typical study abroad experience. More narrowly, 1) I know I would run out of money, like, immediately and need to save a bit for my backpacking trip at the conclusion of the semester. I can still go out, of course, but will learn moderation. 2) I have formed some really healthy habits. I eat breakfast every day… haven’t done that since elementary school. Plus, I love it! Thinking of my oats is what peels me out of bed in the morning. Also, I’m walking so much, around 6-8 miles per day. The food I eat is cleaner and less processed, I rarely snack, and I’ve shaken most all cravings for junk food. I’ve learned how to properly cut peppers, something I could never do, observed the preparation of a few classic Danish dishes, and even made a layer cake with Karsten and Sofie. Also, I sleep! This is really big for me, people from school will understand. Getting that 8 hours every night is something I haven’t done in quite some time. Danish design has an additional impact that I didn’t expect. Danes are pretty minimalistic, so the house is very clean cut and wholly clear of clutter. I can’t tell you what this has done for my mindset; I have never been calmer in my life.  Another big thing I’ve learned is how to come home and chat. I think I’ve been getting too caught up in school and really regret not spending enough time with my roommates, especially when I knew I would be away from them this semester. I tend to get into my grind, keep my head down, and often feel more like a robot or a machine than a person. I’m really glad I’ve re-learned how to be functional at home and look forward to being present with my friends and family from now on. Learning skills for life.

Sitting there under the sky, freezing my tail off, I was caught up in another whirlwind, but this time consumed in awareness, and when the tornado of thoughts set me down again, I felt nothing but peace. And that’s the underlying theme to everything, the key to my whole experience, and the last thing I wanted to reap from this semester. I was hoping to slow down my life a bit, actually. Quite contrary to why most people leave— they want a change of pace, jet setting across continents, etc. This past fall, I was feeling super ambitious at school and took on far too many responsibilities. In addition to coordinating my study abroad (a process in and of itself) I took 21 credits, added a major and concentration, took on leadership roles in a few different Greek organizations, tried to improve my social life, and coordinated a summer internship. In doing that, I neglected a lot, including my roommates (as aforementioned), my personal well-being, and other responsibilities.

I think a lot of people are looking to have a fun, light semester when they go abroad, but I just wanted something slow. (Again, need to stop comparing my experience to other people’s but I’m working on it) I want to be able to take each day as it comes, appreciate insignificant things, and be in the company of others. I wanted something immersive, people to pepper with all of my questions, a smaller group of friends to hold closer. I wanted to get myself back on track with a healthy lifestyle, including sleep. Knowing myself, if I was in a different setting, I would spend time watching TV, sleeping, or journaling alone. At home in Copenhagen, there is always someone around to hang out with and pull me out of my room. I’m also forced to maximize my time in the city and make calculated choices. I know I would be fine in any housing, in any city, with any group, but I’m so glad I am where I am.

Mom and dad, if you were worried, don’t be. It’s kind of crazy, but I am so fully at peace I can feel it in me, even my voice sounds different. Does that sound crazy? My life here is tranquil and positive. I have become increasingly introspective. The calm I feel is indescribable and I have not felt so internally still in some time. While I apologize for the length of this manifesto, I wanted to share my honest thoughts and show how I got to where I am. Study abroad isn’t the same anywhere or for any person but that’s the beauty of it; any situation in life can only be what you make of it. So here I am, just trying my best. I’m no longer afraid of the uncertainty looming ahead. I welcome it and am excitedly braced for what’s to come.

 

Okay, that’s it, goodbye.

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s