Friday, October 21, 2016

Darren in Denmark-"The World's Smallest Big City"


Hej med jer!

Welcome to the land of Scandinavia, where the people are friendly, the alcohol plentiful, and the bikes ubiquitous. Here, in Aarhus (pronounced somewhat like "oar-hoose"), one can exercise in the rich, nearby forests, spend a balmy summer day sailing in the harbor or walking on the beach, pet some deer in the local Dyrehaven, or recess into the vibrant evening night life on the canal. Known fondly as "The World's Smallest Big City," with 1/6th of its inhabitants being students, I could think of no place I would rather have made an exchange abroad. It does not get much better than this.
My past two summers living in D.C. have taught me to hit the ground running, if possible. And so when my flatmates welcomed me with open arms, I didn't waste time. The 45 hours straight I spent awake from my departure in North Carolina were well worth it. Over the next few weeks, I spent every moment possible exploring the city on my new bike (the cars of Denmark), meeting the incoming waves of international students, and bonding with my 15 flatmates. In the two months I've been here, I've cultivated more meaningful relationships than I can keep count of, and have had a type of humility instilled in me only gotten from being exposed to every nationality and culture in Europe. There is so much to discover and learn that I could spend ten exchange semesters abroad and still be left in want. Between trying to learn Danish, practice my Spanish, and pick up bits and pieces of German, all while trying to learn how to cook dishes from all over the world, I'd feel completely overwhelmed if I weren't so invigorated by it all. Studying abroad has proved to be a test of cultural adaptability and resolve on a level I couldn't have anticipated. Nothing really prepares you for stepping out of that plane by yourself. Determination is your greatest ally.

Aarhus, Denmark AroS View

Copenhagen, Denmark
So, what has living in Denmark been like? Liberating. In every possible denotative and connotative sense of the word. I came to Scandinavia as an Environmental Economics student specifically to see the Nordic socio-economic model of living in the flesh. A curious (to us) mixture of free market economics, socialized medicine, and a welfare state, Denmark blurs the lines between that which we oftentimes think of as incompatible in the United States. And let me tell you: For the Danes, it works. Granted, it is far easier to achieve ideological solidarity when you are only a country of 5.4 million people. Danish students receive a non-loan stipend of approximately $820 USD per month if they meet satisfactory requirements for their degree and work a part time job (which they are also paid for). From living in the Sports Kollegiet, I can retell several experiences where one of my flatmates injured themselves and paid nothing to receive proper, timely, and quality medical attention. And do you know what is absolutely nowhere to be found on the streets of Aarhus, even in the darkest hour the night can offer? Homeless people. They have adequate provisions to keep them off the streets; all of them. In return, Danes pay taxes on a rate of 38% all the way up to the extremely rare and highest bracket of 68% on their income, and also experience high taxes on consumer goods (especially ones with sugar in them), making the cost of living quite high. This is partially counteracted with relatively high wages along with a minimum wage of about $20 USD, but nobody is making the case that the Danish people aren't paying for their social and economic benefits in some way. In the end, Denmark, and all of Scandinavia really, have a visibly enormous middle class where most everyone gets to afford some luxuries in life while enjoying a satisfactory and reasonable standard of life (NOT an opulent one). Small wonder Denmark, Norway, and Sweden all make their way to the top of the global indexes for happiest countries on the world. My anecdotal evidence confirms; "hygge" is abundant, and I've met nobody who was dissatisfied with where they are in life. "Hygge," by the way, is an untranslatable word referring to the warm feeling of happiness and contentment found in a cozy place or situation, oftentimes shared with the people you love. Think favorite coffee shop or a night out with friends that turned out so great you could never forget it. This is what it means to be a Dane. My only possible comparative framework comes, of course, from the U.S., and I've spent a long time pondering the differences and have reduced the comparison down this way: What are the goals? If the goals of a country are to emphasis innovation, competition, individuality, and wealth, then its priorities will necessarily align to match these standards of success. But if a country's goals are to champion quality of life, equity, humility, and equality of opportunity, then its priorities will naturally look much different. Both country’s frameworks are saturated to the very core of their respective systems. I would be tempted to say there is no right or wrong choice, and that happiness can be found in each system (which it most certainly can be), but I've looked into the eyes of homeless people in Greensboro and Washington, D.C. and internalized their stories, and I think the situation is more complicated than that. Is this just my opinion? Sure, you could say that. And you'd be right. Yet the same phrase has resounded in my mind over and over since arriving in Denmark: Surely, we can learn something from all of this.

Aarhus, Denmark (Cooking)
Aarhus, Denmark (Beach View)
Studying abroad has also been personally liberating. A friend of mine who was calming me during my pre-study abroad anxiety told me some very important words I needed to hear. "You get to be anyone you want over there. Nobody knows who you are. Who do you want to be?" And that got me thinking a lot about who I wanted to be. As it turned out, given how hard the last couple years have been on me, I needed to leave a lot behind. My exchange semester has brought many experiences and people to my life, but perhaps the most needed thing was the chance to leave it all behind, if only for a little while; to allow myself the opportunity to accentuate the attributes I'm proud of and redefine who I am as an individual. I suppose you can say that's another way of saying "discovering oneself," but I do think there is something unique about being dropped off on a continent where you don't know a single other soul. I'm grateful to my friend for helping me frame the experience properly. Studying abroad can truly be transformative.
Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden
Møllestein, Aarhus, Denmark
Transformative, it has been. In two short months, Aarhus has come to feel like home. I've familiarized myself with the city's culture by exploring every inch of it, have toured all of the museums and sites, and have spent afternoons socializing on the beach, having picnics and spontaneous BBQs, and have embraced the Danes' fitness and exercise culture. My studies in my discipline have brought me new understanding and the European perspective I was looking for on a host of environmental issues. I've done a fair bit of sharing and talking about my own culture, but far more listening, observing, and appreciating. And, of course, I've taken advantage of being able to travel so easily since coming here (I'm on a train bound for Stockholm seeing the gorgeous Swedish countryside rush past me as I write this sentence!). Before I return to the States, I'll have seen Berlin, Göteborg, Stockholm, Oslo, the Norwegian fjords, the Northern Lights, Glasgow, Barcelona, Budapest, and Prague. There're still so many places in Europe alone I want to see, especially with all my newfound friends telling me of their lives back home. As I said, the opportunity for discovery is endless.

Brandenburger Tor, Berlin, Germany
Dyrehaven, Aarhus, Denmark
My final message is nothing you haven't heard before. It is cliché, trite, and overstated. But it cannot be overvalued. Studying abroad just may be the most influential and important experience of your life. Don't put it off like I did. Don't be afraid of it like I was. Believe you're strong enough, brave enough, and ready like I did not. If you have the right perspective on what it could mean to you and how it could enrich your life, it will be monumental. There is a time and place, and admittedly a certain beauty, in finding solace in the now; in the comfortable and the familiar. But don't let yourself become caught in the trap of feeling like that time and place sets in after an exhilarating first year of university. The world is far wilder and expansive in all directions, and it's waiting for you to discover it. I can only hope it means as much to you as it has to me.

Göteborg, Sweden
Tak fordi du tog dig tiden til at læse min artikel! Farvel og god vind på rejsen og held og lykke i fremtiden.

Aarhus, Denmark (University View)
P.S. Here are two Scandinavian songs that I’ve really enjoyed since coming over here, if you are interested in getting a feel for the pop music scene over here. The first is a Danish artist, and the second, a Norwegian one.

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