For the Spring 2009 semester, I'm participating in the Danish Institute for Study Abroad program in Copenhagen, Denmark.
This afternoon I explored the Old Town of Gdańsk. It’s so pretty! The architecture is a very Baltic-influenced style. There were hardly any cars on the medieval streets, which made them very pedestrian-friendy. Some of the better moments:
- Walking down the main square, watching all of the Polish tourists
- Noticing some sort of “Protestants in Poland” stand with a sad-looking guy handing out literature (this country is so Catholic!)
- Seeing a young guy carrying a really old mini-fridge down the street, wondering what he could be doing with such a thing and chuckling to myself, “Oh Poland…”
- Getting asked if I spoke French by one of the shopkeepers
- Ordering some pizza roll thing and a pastry and the woman at the counter pointing at the “.40” on the cash register display, insisting that I give her exact change
- Eating the roll thing of unknown ingredients and the triangular jelly-filled pastry
- Buying a gigantic water bottle for 1.99 złoty ($0.59), receiving the tiniest coin i have ever seen in both size and value (worth $0.003), staring at it in my palm and laughing for probably 5 minutes
- Walking over to a pretty big crowd in curiousity to find a guy singing and playing the guitar… and seeing the guy carring the mini fridge now using it as a musical instrument along with an old suitcase, a round piece of scrap metal, and a bucket
- Exploring the ruins of some old granaries on a little island in the middle of the river
- Being reminded of just how sketchy my hostel looks from the outside
I’ve left Denmark for the city of Gdańsk, Poland, formerly known as Danzig. It’s a city on the Baltic Sea that was once a part of the German Hanseatic League, a major trading system in Europe. Between the world wars it had the status of being a “Free City” not a part of either Germany or Poland, in WWII Germany took it back and 90% of the city was destroyed, and then the Red Army took the city. Gdańsk’s Old Town has been entirely reconstructed from ruin and it’s supposed to be beautiful, so that’s what I’m going to see today.
When I first arrived, I didn’t believe the cab driver that we were at the right hostel because the outside looked pretty sketchy, but once I got inside I saw that it was quite nice. Apparently that’s how they do things here. Two nice (and pretty, I should add) American girls were in my room last night but headed out just a few minutes ago. They go to university in Chicago but studied in Rome this past semester. The two weren’t on the best of terms and not really speaking to each other much, so one of them chatted with me for a while about what they’d been up to. I wish they’d stayed longer, but they have a flight to Germany tonight. Perhaps I’ll run into them today.
My last few of days in Denmark were amazing. I really couldn’t have asked for more. On Wednesay I visited the Our Savior’s Church in Copenhagen, best known for its spiraling tower. It was closed until just a week or two ago, which in January seemed like a shame but now more like a blessing because of the vista it offered of the city in spring. Around 65F with blue skies and a few clouds—so perfect! I could spot so many buildings and districts I knew from my class on Copenhagen and my own excursions. I went with my friend Anne, one of the Americans I’ve grown closest to while in Denmark. She soonafter left for travels all around Europe, so it was our nice little goodbye thing to do together.
On Thursday all of the Americans at the højskole (save one) went out together. We had dinner at a place called Kate’s Joint, where I had gone with Ben when he visited from England. It was a big hit and they all thanked me, which made me quite happy. :) We shared stories of our best memories living together and enjoyed the hygge (coziness). After dinner we went to a super swanky movie theater to see Star Trek. Woohoo! It was great, with something to offer everyone. I’m glad I got to see a movie in Denmark because it’s got some differences compared to the theaters in the States. First of all, it’s expensive. A ticket was 85kr, which is over $15. However, I felt like a VIP. The snack area in the stylish lobby offered beer and wine in addition to the usual compliment of popcorn and candy. Then the seats—oh, the seats! They reminded me a lot of what some rich person might put in their home theater. There were loveseats in the back row… I wonder how that works out for them. Anyway, we shared a lot of laughs and some good nerdy conversations on the train ride back.
Last night was the best. The Danes convinced the kitchen to do a barbeque, so we started out the evening with some tasty fish and sausage. During dinner the Danes kept looking around and asking where certain Americans were, insisting they show up, so we got a little suspicious. After eating, they presented all of us with awards! It was so cute, and it showed how they appreciated when we recognized the Danes who reached out to us when we were new. I won the “Most European” award! What an honor. My Zia Lelle must be right—I do adapt well to new places. Each of us went up in front of all the students to take a shot of schnapps and the Danes sang a cute traditional tune that they apparently always sing when you get together and drink schnapps for holidays and such. Something anyone going to Denmark needs to know: if you’re going to an event where you’re to be celebrated in some way, make sure you prepare some kind of presentation. We were expected to say something about our experience, what we’d learned or had come to appreciate about Denmark. My friends Judy and Bryce, the “loud Americans” did most of the talking, but afterwards the Danes asked us to say something in Danish, so I showed off my skills by saying “Jeg kan ikke lide tage toget med amerikanerne fordi de snakker, snakker, snakker.” That means “I don’t like taking the train with the Americans because they talk, talk, talk” :). It’s true—you might remember my post about how a couple of quiet Danes got so annoyed with us they changed seats. We ended the night with a fantastic party. I gave one of the Danes manning the bar my iPod and got to find out what they think is good American music. We danced the night away!
Bottle return is another one of those things that Denmark does better than America. In my home state of Massachusetts, you can get 5 cents for bringing a bottle or can to the local grocery store. With the amount being so low, hardly anyone bothers. Many people recycle through their municipal trash pickup, but it’s also common to throw plastic bottles in the trash, where they will likely end up in a landfill. Here in Denmark, they make it more worthwhile to take the extra effort to recycle by giving 1 kroner (around 18 cents) for glass bottles and aluminum cans and 1.5 kroner (around 28 cents) for plastic bottles. It works by adding 1 or 1.5 kroner to the purchase price. Even though I technically already paid the $5.70 I received today, because it was refunded to me later it feels like I earned it. I realize it’s a little psychological trick, but I don’t mind! I think it’s a neat system.
For pretty much everywhere in the world besides America, May 1st is International Workers’ Day. The idea originated in America with the workers’ push for an 8 hour work day, but in later years the day became a symbol of the Soviet Union so we replaced it with Labor Day in September.
Some of my Danish friends suggested that I head to one of the big parks in Copenhagen to take part in the May Day celebration. When I got there I realized that I had vastly underestimated the number of people that would be there. It was Denmark’s biggest party! Musical acts performed on several stages and political leaders gave speeches while thousands of Danes drank, smoked, and hung out. The political groups ranged from the mainstream to the fringe. The Red-Green Alliance’s tent was pretty full (even though they’re the smallest in parliament), and the Socialist People’s Party tent was totally packed (they’re very popular with the youth, 13% voted for them), but the Social Democrats had a pretty small crowd (despite being the second largest party in parliament). Some of the groups would potentially be viewed as hostile in America, like the pro-Palestine organizations. There was one group pushing for US withdrawl from Korea and the re-uniting of the coutry… except under communism. I’d never seen a North Korean flag flown before. It was quite strange. Putting the extremists aside and considering the two main characteristics (copious amounts of Carlsberg and democratic socialist politics), it was quite Danish.
Last weekend I went on a trip to the Danish island of Samsø, which is powered 100% by wind energy. Actually, it’s better than that—they produce 167% of their consumption, exporting the rest to the mainland. It’s pretty remarkable, especially considering that they made the switch from fossil fuels in just 10 years. They really turned around their economy, which was facing a huge loss in jobs on their island of just 4,000 when the largest pig farm announced it would shut down. One aspect of their approach that I really like is that the wind turbines are cooperatively owned. People from the community bought shares so that they not only benefit from cleaner air and a lower carbon footprint, but also from the profit the turbines generate. It’s frustrating to compare the situation with the US, where the NIMBY-ism (not in my backyard) is so much stronger. In Samsø, our community guide said, residents would put the turbines in their front yards! The islanders, a modest people, mostly farmers, funded the wind turbines themselves—without government support. Pretty remarkable. They also use this system called district heating where the heat for your house is generated at a central plant. In their case they use biomass (we visited a place that burned straw) and solar. It’s much more efficient than having a furnace in your house (using straw was 88% less than oil) and creates fewer emissions. What I appreciated most from our guide/lecturer was his admission that they need to do so much more, especially because they still have a fossil fuel transportation infrastructure. I think that in America we are too quick to congratulate ourselves. There is so much work to do to switch to a green economy and green lifestyle.
In addition to its renewable energy wonders, Samsø is tremendously beautiful. I did 75km (45 mi) of cycling between the two days. Because the land is flat (like the rest of Denmark), it was a pleasurable yet envigorating ride. In my opinion, the wind turbines only contributed positively to the picturesque quality of the place. The endless green fields, yellow flowers, clear blue ocean, brown thatched roofs, white wind mills… like paradise. However, as our guide said, “Life in paradise is quite boring.”