On Poland and Habits

It finally snowed in CPH.

Long time no blog!

It’s been a long time since I’ve written something, which I guess happens now that I don’t have the pressure to do it regularly. Since I’ve written last there’s been a whole lot of nothing going on, punctured by a trip to Poland and a whole lot of experiences with the various bureaucratic limbs of the Danish state. I’ve also been doing a lot of ‘life maintenance’ (in the truest sense) and it’s been much-needed after a depressing December/January.

So, why Poland? Well, I was gifted a travel voucher by my old boss from UMass Lowell (thanks Fern!) and, frankly, Spain was too expensive for the amount I had. I really wanted to visit Auschwitz to have that experience, as I’d heard many things about how beautiful Krakow and the south of Poland are. So, on a whim after finals I booked flights and the cheapest hostel I’ve ever encountered, and next thing I know I’m flying there almost hungover after a night out wondering what I’m going to do for four days. I was traveling on my own, so I was just going to use this trip as a way to clear my head after finals and a depressing Danish winter.

Curiously, it was the first time traveling on my own where I’ve felt lonely, not necessarily in the physical or material sense. I met people on apps and in bars, I walked around the city, I visited the site of one of the greatest atrocities of the 20th century, I read books and drank Polish vodka. But for the first time in my life it didn’t quite feel like enough for a trip on my own, and I wish I had someone to share it with.

I don’t what It was this time that made it different before. Maybe it was just the head space I was in and the particular location I was traveling to? I’ve never minded traveling on my own before – it’s easy enough to keep yourself occupied and making conversation with people along the way, and there’s none of the hassle of trying to cater to the needs of multiple people. But indeed, for some reason the loneliness of traveling really hit me on this trip. Traveling on my own, certainly, but also travelling more generally.

I did a lot of things in Krakow – some of them involving work unfortunately – but for some reason nothing stands out more than this small, beautiful independent cinema I went to in the city center. They exist here in Copenhagen, but seemingly not like there where they are so incredibly cheap and affordable for a student, not to mention oozing with history. I watched this amazing film called Toni Erdmann. It was a subtly funny, three hour-long German comedy film with a great message (certainly not as excruciating as it sounds with that description!).

The film – which I absolutely loved – was about a father and a daughter, and the father’s attempts to reconnect with his daughter on her own times in a way that will make her take life a little less seriously. It was beautiful, probably one of the best cinema-going experiences of my life because of the atmosphere of the night and the time at which the film’s message struck me. Maybe it just struck me on the right night in the right mood at the right point in my life, but I really couldn’t recommend a film more.

For some reason, the combination of the film and the night was just completely transfixing. I remember walking out into the cold courtyard after the film and immediately feeling completely happy but also completely lonely, which was itself interesting and fulfilling in its own. In that moment, it was ot lonely in the sense that I wish I had someone to share the experience with – for sometimes it can almost ruin what you though was a perfect film on the first round to discuss it directly after, no? – but lonely in a more complete sense. Here the world is a great big place and I am in this beautiful little European city on a beautiful night, breathing its horrible air (did I mention Krakow has some of the most polluted air in Europe?) and wishing I could replicate that experience every night with someone when it most matters. (Maybe I should just buy an independent movie theater…) I walked around the city for at least hour, and I could have sworn everyone was looking at me, wondering what I was doing there. I was too, wondering what my place was in the universe.

Auschwitz, too, was one of those disembodying experiences where for a brief moment you feel completely connected with the universe and all its horrors. It’s hard to put in words. Seeing a lot of it for me didn’t seem real. It’s just right there, and it seems so much smaller and so much less impressive. Not that there’s anything impressive about the genocide, but simply the feeling that the world changed for the worse on such a massive scale at this very spot, and now it’s just there and decaying, you’re breathing the same year that millions of forgotten people also breathed.

Auschwitz.

Despite the loneliness of it, Krakow really stood out to me in my memory for those feelings of connection it gave me. It was one of my most memorable travel experiences. Maybe I wouldn’t have felt them if it wasn’t the right point in life, and maybe I wouldn’t have felt that way if I was traveling with others. But it was definitely a great way to clear my head, and I came back to Copenhagen ready to get re-stated on life.

The last couple weeks in Copenhagen have, therefore, been about me re-centering myself and trying to establish some sense of what a more settled life. A lot of that involves spending money I don’t really have: trying to eat better, taking care of myself, buying things I need but have been putting off buying. A larger part of that, though, has simply been trying to take care of myself and get back into more of a rhythm of a normal life. Doing things at the same time most days, going to the gym, dating more, eating better, paying attention to your own habits and behaviors, being more conscious of things.

It sounds simple, but for someone who felt completely de-centered by the first weeks of the year, it felt absolutely necessary. It’s paid off, I feel better in the personal sense going into this semester than I did all last semester, despite the many great experiences I had last semester. I was just going out and studying my ass off and not taking care of myself as much for most of the semester. I used to try to convince myself that routine was the enemy, but for me I’ve tried to find routines that work for me. This usually doesn’t mean doing the same things at the same time every day, but instead it means continuing to do a handful of things more regularly that make you happy. For me this is (for instance): reading books and long articles, watching documentaries, running, etc.

There’s a guy named Alex I met in Krakow and hung out with a bit that helps put a lot of these feelings into stark relief for me (at least for me). Talking to him for two days gave me a lot of perspective on who I’m not. I used to romanticize the idea of wandering around Europe with nothing to your name, but this guy took it to the extreme. For the last four or five months, he’d been wearing the same clothes, not really knowing where he was going to sleep each night, using Couchsurfing to find people he could stay with. He had money and took care of himself – he wasn’t destitute – but he didn’t even have a backpack. It seemed like a very ascetic life.

Sure, I agreed on the core theses of these last months of his life: that our phones drag us down, that we have too many things, that we need to actually talk with people more. But the idea of it stressed me out. Not that I couldn’t do it or that what he was saying was wrong – it was largely right! – but that there was a compromise between things. I like not having a lot things I don’t need like I do now, but sometimes I do want those things. It’s nice, for instance, to have brought my PlayStation and computer monitor over with me from America, because now even if I don’t have a lot, I can unwind by watching a nice film on a larger screen with a dinner I made myself and a glass of wine.

There’s a compromise between comfort and consciousness, and it’s something which needs to be adapted to the time and the place. We don’t need a 62” plasma, but we should let ourselves indulge with comfort while recognizing that material possessions aren’t going to bring us everything we need. Going to Krakow meeting Alex put these things into relief, and it’s made me think about things more. For me, at this point in my life, what’s the right balance? What do I need and what do I deserve? What will make me happy in the grand scheme of life but in these particular circumstances? And how I can take care of myself in a way that allows me to keep having those feelings of connection that I had on that night in Krakow? These are the types of questions I’m trying to ask myself.

In other news, I’ll be heading to Tanzania and Zanzibar in about a week. It will be my first time in Africa but almost certainly not my last. I’m looking forward to it, as I am to celebrating my 23rd birthday the day I arrive to Morogoro (a small town three hours west of Dar es Salaam) a week from Sunday. I’m sure I’ll be writing about both.

23… yuck.

Stay tuned for more stories about birthdays and my first time in Africa.

On Finishing Exams and Winter Blues

Settling back in has sucked some of the life out of me. Is is the weather? Is it the studying? Or it just me? The last two weeks have mostly involved eight to ten hours of studying per day and ‘life maintenance’, otherwise known as a consistent and concerted attempt to understand why customer service is somehow even worse here in Europe. Combine that with the bleak grey of a Danish winter and I think resettlement has taken its toll on my mental well-being. I’ve been more homesick in my first week back than I was all last semester, which is, of course, odd given that I was just home.

Finishing the term, I’m left with less certainty about what I want to do with my life and more certainty about areas of my academic life I could improve in. I’m more certain that development is a field I’m interested in, but I’m less certain about what part of that field I would like to go into. I’m more certain that I know what some of the most pressing issues are, but less certain what my direction will be and what contributions of worth I could make. I know I don’t want to do a PhD, but that I can be capable as I writer, and that I still need to work better on writing with concision and communicating specific ideas. Exams made that clear to me. I am by no means the smartest one in the room, so I will need to find the thing that makes me feel like I am.

I’m still not sure if I like the European system of exams more or less. Sure, you have a Christmas break followed by an entire month to read and prepare, but what’s the use? In some ways, it’s valuable, but after going through it I kind of just wished I had the opportunity to kill myself studying at the end of the semester and be done with it. I liked the extra time for the essays, but the time allocated to preparing for my sit-down and oral exams just psyched me out. I probably would have been equally prepared had I taken the exams at the end of the semester. In any regard, the disappointment of getting an exam that focuses on about a tenth of the material you learned the entire semester is a universal feeling everyone can relate to.

At least it’s over.

On top of this exam anxiety, I think I’ve been touched by a bit of the seasonal affective depression. To be fair, though, I have given the malaise a fertile breeding ground: I messed up my sleep schedule; I’ve been studying many hours a day; I haven’t been given myself the time to be especially social; I haven’t been exercising much. There’s been a lot of down time and waiting, so much so that I even got to the point of questioning the entire point of being abroad based on one bad day. Instead of taking personal responsibility, though, I’m going to blame it on the weather. It sounds silly, but for someone who never thinks in apocalyptic terms when it comes to their emotions, the connection to the weather seems like it might be true. Here, there’s none of the romance of the snow or the occasional sunny but cold day. It’s consistently a little bit dreary and it’s certainly not helping my mental state. Perhaps I also need a new apartment, something that’s not just an unwelcoming room adjacent to a dark kitchen and an odd roommate to come home to. I think that would make me feel more at home.

I had my last exam this morning, though, and now I’m free and can feel myself rising from the muck. The time off until my next term will give me time to reevaluate, take a break, be a tourist and get the rhythm of my life back on track after a little post-holiday malaise. I managed to book myself a free trip to Krakow with travel credit, and I think the rejuvenation of travel will be a much-needed salve. Until next semester, UCPH.

On 2016: A Cobbled-Together List of My Most Memorable Experiences

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An incomplete list of the most memorable things I could think of from 2016, a seductive year with a crappy personality.

The East Side Gallery in Berlin – One of the most flat-out beautiful and immersive things I’ve seen while traveling. Abstract but still manages to take you back and feel connected to a part of history.

Applying and getting accepted to grad school – In the Fall of 2015, I couchsurfed in Copenhagen, Denmark and slept on the couch of someone doing a Master’s in Global Development at the University of Copenhagen. The next thing I know it’s January, I’m back home in America and I’m applying to only that program. I get accepted two months after that, and a year later almost to the day from applying and here I am.

Kubo and the Two Strings – A lovely animated movie and one of the best movies I’ve seen in years, which is sadly likely to get looked over by the likes of Finding Dory and Zootopia (not that those are bad films).

CHVRCHES concert in Boston – Seeing my favorite band at the House of Blues for the second time was a great reminder of why they’re my favorite band and why I love Boston. Need to go to concerts more often than I do.
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Random overnight trips to Montreal with my best friend – The most memorable things people do are often the things that happen out of nowhere. One Monday I text a classmate I’m only acquaintanced with to hang out. It’s Spring Break, so the next thing I know we’re planning an overnight in Montreal Wednesday into Thursday, just a five-hour drive from Boston. We wandered drunk around Montreal and that’s the story of how me and her became best friends.

Hiking every week of the summer – I was more physically active than I’ve ever been this summer and hiked nearly twelve mountains, seven of which were in the White Mountains. I have really fond memories of hiking both with friends and on my own. I think my favorite memory was a long solo hike I did on the Fourth of July up Mount Monadnock and down the backside, and then back up and down the front. Really nothing more beautiful; it’s where I’m at my happiest. ‘Merica.

The Chainsmokers – Some of the only Top 40 I can really get behind. ‘Nuff said.

Thanksgiving in Europe – After arranging a Thanksgiving potluck at the University of Copenhagen, I was happy to see that nearly three-quarters of the Global Development class came out to enjoy the night with us. A smashing success if I do say so

Weather BEFORE.

An amazing month of summer and new friends in Copenhagen – The first month of my grad program was one of the loveliest months in memory. Drinking by the lakes, getting to know new friends, cycling around the city, the newness of everything, still excited to be in a foreign city, the sun is shining, learning to fall in love with my new home before the weather takes a turn for the worst.

Vacation in Burlington, Vermont – Another great overnight with one of my best friends. Beer, whiskey, driving through the Vermont countryside, donuts, improv comedy, burritos with a friend-of-a-friend’s 50-something coworkers. What more could you want?

Living in my first apartment – Bills sure are overwhelming? My non-successful attempts at self-sufficiency were nevertheless memorable for the experience of near-complete independence and the feeling that I had more control of my life. The apartment was okay, but the location close to the Merrimack River in Lowell, Massachusetts made summer nights feel very satisfying.

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Lost and drunk in Denmark – It’s a new city and I have no idea where I am because I’m drunk and cycling home to an apartment in a country I couldn’t place on a map five years before. Life is good.

Going to a meeting of the New Hampshire Democratic Party in a snowstorm – I do miss the feeling of snowstorms, which don’t seem to be a thing over here, at least like they are back home. After a sort-of bad one, it felt very appropriate and memorable to drive up to Manchester, New Hampshire with some UML Political Science people and see Bernie, Hillary, and others speak. Reminded me why politics is so exciting despite all its absurdity. Seem like such halcyon days given the current perversion of reality that is our current political situation.

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Revisiting Scotland – A lot of memorable nights with a lot of good people on the other side of the ocean. Was fortunate enough to spend three years in the Model UN at UMass Lowell, and was glad to be back in Scotland at another conference. Especially memorable are the long nights just talking in the hotel room and revisiting the Scottish Highlands. Could certainly see myself retiring to the Scottish countryside…

Starting the Gilmore Girls (bear with me…) – An actually amazing show with great characters and dialogue that isn’t just for girls. Only half way through.Presents an idealized version of New England that I can be nostalgic for despite my lack of sureness that it ever actually existed in that way…

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Working on the Bernie Sanders campaign – I had the privilege of spending about a month and a half volunteering and ‘interning’ for the Bernie Sanders for President campaign. I met new people, reminded myself why I studied politics, and reinvigorated my faith in America and humanity. The grunt work of politics is unendurable and I like Europe, but I feel guilty when there’s so much to do back home and it feels like everything’s falling apart.

Slate podcasts – Podcasts – of which I’m as active a consumer as you’ll find – got me through the 2016 election and 2016 in general. They are how I stay up to date on news and culture, and the podcasts from Slate Magazine and Panoply are the best on the Internet. I listen to stuff about comedy and politics mostly. I also recommend the Run-Up from the New York Times, Politico’s Nerdcast, The Ezra Klein Show, Maeve in America, FiveThirtyEight Politics, NPR, WTF with Marc Maron, The Axe Files, the Tim Ferris Show and Rachel Maddow for those interested in increasing their podcast diet. Do it, it’s worth it.

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Finally graduating – Feels good, huh? Especially after an all-too-quick semester of working thirty hours a week and typing up loose ends at the university.

Election party in Copenhagen – As we realized he was going to win at five in the morning, I started to cycle home knowing he’d probably be President by the time I woke up. If the bike ride home at 5:30 was any indication with its unrelenting snow/rain and dark clouds, I think there was an omen buried somewhere about the future of the American electoral process.

Halloween in Latvia – Weird nights figuring out last minute Halloween costumes and drinking with people you met on Couchsurfing in the Baltic States while on vacation with one of your new friends from grad school. What more to want?

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Star Wars: Rogue One – An amazing film experience that reminded me why I love Star Wars so much. The only thing that really makes me feel like a kid again. Real talk.

Bon Iver – 22, A Million – The best album of the year, hands-down. Nothing creates a better mood.

The 2016 election – Well, that happened. No really, I was there. “Back in my day…..” –future self

Board games in a hostel in Germany with friends – Quiet nights in a hostel in Hamburg playing board games on the floor of a hostel with your friends before you head back to university – and having a damn good time of it.

Frendz

The Crown – The best new series on Netflix and a fascinating look at the first decade of Queen Elizabeth’s reign. Can’t help but get the sense that none of it matters because monarchy is stupid, but it’s good drama and John Lithgow as Winston Churchill is about as good as it gets.

Canvassing in the back roads of New Hampshire – Listening to NPR on the morning of the New Hampshire Democratic Primary while skidding out in my car while I try to canvass and get out the vote for Bernie Sanders in the back roads of New Hampshire. Lot of “Beware of Dog” and ‘Trespass and I’ll Shoot You” signs. Good news: he won. That was a good night; regret not going to the after party in Concord.

Charlie Rose – I like interviews and am a 58-year old man who reads the New York Times at heart. What can I say?

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Laid over in Munich – A chance to breathe before the holidays and catch up on life and my thoughts. Yay for missed connections.

Overnights in Washington DC – Road trips to the nation’s capital during finals week to do emergency biometrics for your Danish visa. Memorable except for my active repression of the George Washington Bridge and the New Jersey turnpike. *shudders*

Adopting a cat – There’s nothing like winters in New England, so what do you to get through in your first winter on your own? Adopt a mean cat with your roommate and pretend like it’s fun to be around.

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The year of politics – I was more active this year in politics than I’ve been before (which is still not a ton) and got more of an education with the 2016 election than I did with an entire Political Science degree. I think I’ll look back on it with fondness despite the outcome because of everything it taught me.

Walking over the Charles Bridge in Prague – Prague is the most beautiful city I’ve ever visited and you get a sense of that history walking over the Charles Bridge. I might just move there after grad school for no other reason then it makes me smile just thinking about it and its history.

Quiet summer days reading by the river in Lowell, Massachusetts – I was semi-successful in rediscovering my love of reading over the summer. I had a beautiful backyard near my apartment and have a lot of nice memories of late mornings drinking coffee and reading a book.

Book signings in Cambridge – Nothing like an extemporaneous reminder that I need to read more. I went to see Anu Partanen, a Finnish writer, speak about her new book The Nordic Theory of Everything. It was a beautiful reminder of what we could do better in America and what Nordic life really means with all its quirks. A month later and I’m experiencing the Scandiavia she described. (Where oh where has it gone on these cold winter days?)

TA-ing for the Model UN – I was fortunate to get the experience to be a teaching assistant for the Model UN. It reminded me that I can be a leader when I need to be and that I have the capacity to teach if I really need to. Have a lot of work to do as a public speaker, but it’s certainly interesting to get the vote of confidence to see that side of the classroom. Learning and campuses are infectious – maybe I’ll still yet do a PhD? Maybe.

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NPR – I’m an audio learner. It’s easier for me to retain information I hear than information I read because I have a poor memory. Audiobooks don’t work for me and lecture’s sometimes don’t, but podcasts and radio certainly do. Discovered a love for National Public Radio in all its earnestness. (I’m officially a fuddy-duddy I would have made fun of five years ago.)

Summer nights watching Game of Thrones – Getting home after long sticky summer nights, oftentimes spent hiking, and watching GoT with or without friends is a memorable experience in-and-of-itself. Television is so compartmentalized these days that it’s special to get that collective experience of something these days. Best show on television.

Rediscovering Massachusetts – Whenever I could this summer, I tried to waste my gas by doing day trips all over Massachusetts or running in different parts of the State. Reminded me how beautiful New England is and how much I love Massachusetts in spite of a pretty overwhelming election season.

Bagel dates with friends – Saturdays. Bagels. Friends. Bagels.

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On Breaks, Exams, and Looking Forward

#NewYearNewMe #notreally #jk #lolz

#NewYearNewMe #notreally #jk #lolz

A quick note that while I am no longer employed by UMass Lowell, I will be continuing to blog here for the indefinite future. Hope that if you’re at all interested in my life or thoughts that you’ll continue to check it out. Happy 2017!

I was more ready for what returning home would feel like than I needed to be. When you’re 22, it feels like a big deal to return home after four months in another country. But it’s really not, and you do settle into a pattern of catching up with people like no time has passed on at all. Four years ago, that would have felt far off, because when you’re young it seems like you’re not maintaining a relationship if you don’t see someone for a week. But that’s not true, the scope of life simply expands.

When I think back to my childhood, I realize that every adult around me was doing the same and just letting the scope of their life expand, losing track of people for months and then reconnecting with them like nothing happened. But for a child, it seemed like time was this massive wall: everything was a big deal, everything was all-encompassing, every little thing mattered. But, time slows down, even as the pace of life speeds up. Relationships aren’t as big of a deal, nor need they be, and soon four months can feel like four weeks.

I’m in the in-between period. I’ve still got enough of that youthful 20s enthusiasm, but things do certainly feel different. The best way I can describe it is that I’m finally getting to the age where I realize that we really are all just making it up as we go along. I’m finally getting to the age where the people around me with kids aren’t authority figures, they’re people like I am who get thrown into situations and make it work because none of us really knows what we’re doing before we do it, even if we pretend. Kids are just adults-in-waiting, parents are just people, grandparents are just kids by a different name, and every single one of us is just trying to project a sense that they have everything under control. (A remarkably apt description of our current political situation, huh?) I get closer to that feeling every time I get on a plane, and especially as I sit in airports and watch people go about their lives (I’m a people watcher, what can I say?).

Four years ago, air travel felt like a big deal to me. I hadn’t been out of the country, let alone on a plane that took me across the ocean. And it felt like a really big deal. I visited Scotland for a week when I was 19 for a conference and it felt like the biggest thing that ever happened to me. “The world was my oyster,” thought the needy, non-self-aware, short, bare-faced child who had couldn’t imagine the idea that they would just let you drink alcohol at 18 in this brand-new place. Now, air travel is just like getting on a bus. It feels routine. Hopping over to a different place from where I grew up feels routine, and it’s weird to try and communicate that to people because people only understand it relatively.

Ah, to be a young boy of 19 again on their first time in Europe. (Never shaving again.)

Ah, to be a young boy of 19 again on their first time in Europe. (Never shaving again.)

In other words, I was glad to go home, and it felt big when I got on the plane, but for the first time I got off the plane on the other side of the Atlantic and really got the sense that life goes on — literally nothing had changed. It never really does. In fairness, what I try to emphasize now is that life is still very much life when you’re not in the same country, with all of the same boredom and minutiae and ups and downs of everyday life. It doesn’t make me the best conversationalist, but it’s the truth. (Least of all is there anything exotic about gray little Denmark and the shifty, quick-glance, dart-eyed, heads-down inhabitants it calls the Danes.)

In reflection after two-and-a-half weeks “home for the holidays!,” I think what I missed most about the U.S. (or at least Massachusetts) was the sheer diversity of life and experience. Not even racial or ethnic or class diversity, but the sheer diversity of people. Everybody looks different from one another (all different shapes and sizes!), everything is so sprawling, people have more aggressive conversations, there are more options, everything seems just a little more alive even in its fakeness. It would be overwhelming if I wasn’t from there and was going there for the first time, and I can see why it could feel that way to a lot of people who go to the U.S. for the first time, as well as why it seems so spellbinding even in all of its chaos. In spending more time in Denmark, I now see my values and personality as kind of trapped somewhere between the American and European temperaments – I feel too American for Europe and too European for America. Alas.

*plays a sad song on the world’s tiniest violin*

Part of the separation – which I both miss and don’t miss – is car culture. Our infrastructure isn’t such that a person my age could just not have a car, even for two weeks over a Christmas break. It would be social suicide. Not to even get into the environmental politics of it all, but the social politics of it are hugely disturbing. It affects every aspect of life; mostly in small ways, but ways you don’t really feel until you live in a big city or another country. Over the break, I was constantly in my car buzzing from place to place to do things and catch up people. It’s exhausting. I suppose it isn’t really different from just living in a big city, but there is something that feels acutely American about it about the breakdown of neighborhood and the constant shuttling around between different suburbs. (Especially in the Boston area where you get those weird long highways with a million shops on either side that they somehow expect you to turn into at 50 miles per hour and which somehow manage to all stay in business despite people constantly needing to get from A to B. But I digress.) Nevertheless, I had a good time being home and it felt good to catch up with friends and family.

Trust me, it doesn't look like this most days.

Trust me, it doesn’t look like this most days.

Now that I’m back in Copenhagen, I have to dig back in and prepare for exams. Or, rather, continue preparing, as I’m still in the middle of them. I still don’t quite get the Danish exam system or work-life pace. (It seems so balanced, how peculiar…) Every part of my body this semester has been screaming that I should be doing more and be busier than I am – especially since I’m only working ten hours week (remotely mind you!) – but that’s just not the pace of life over here. Instead of writing a 30-page paper for our final I wrote a 3300 word final (which, granted, I probably put the same amount of time into and forced me to concise down my writing, which you can tell by these unedited blog posts is rather difficult for me).

I’m at least content with the fact that my European friends also think the Danish system is especially laid back compared to other systems of higher education in their countries, and especially to the American system. (So I’m only a little bit crazy). It’s not bad, it’s just different – and probably healthier. I’ve been constantly occupied and constantly learning, but I haven’t felt stressed. Intellectually I can recognize that this is a good thing, but the American in me feels like I should be beating my head against the wall as part of the struggle to move ahead that usually characterizes the exam time of year. Perhaps I just need therapy and to work on my impatience.

The one exam I’m nervous about is the one I’m in the middle of studying for (which is still supposed to be only four questions in three hours). Fortunately, it’s the class that reminded me why I went to graduate school and why it’s worth pursuing an interdisciplinary degree, even as my inner self is screaming to remind people of the historical conditions and political implications of what we’re talking to be. It’s economics primarily – or economic theory I should say, because we leave a lot of the applied stuff to the economists – and business and geography, but I’ve learned a lot by doing it and it’s helped give in background to some of the topics I’m interested and the things I’m always learning about. (I still don’t want to learn statistical analysis through Stata, but alas it’s a good resume-padder.) I’m looking forward to exams being over and getting through the next semester, though, so I can get to the applied stuff and start looking for jobs. I’m ready more than ever to just live life.

Since it’s a new year, I feel like I should touch a little on looking forward to the year ahead. I listened to a podcast recently, which encouraged people to choose a theme for their year and then make every decision around that theme instead of making specific, small resolutions that are easy to fail at. In other words, instead of resolving to learn a new language, lose 30 pounds, or stop taking your anger out on your dog, you should aim to make your desires around a theme that has been lacking in their your and make every decision you can by thinking of that theme. With that in mind, I’ll end by listing five of my hopes for the year ahead which are related to my theme of connection.

  1. Make more uncomfortable decisions in my personal life.
  2. Think more locally – read local news, buy physical copies of things, cook more.
  3. Get settled, treat life in another country as more permanent than it probably is, personalize.
  4. Be more physical (“Think last summer, Nick, forget the temptations of Danish beer and hygge!”).
  5. Stop moving ‘bubble to bubble’: find more ways to get involved and meet people outside of those bubbles.

I fully expect that I won’t do everything I want to, but if I think of connection more in the opportunities that present themselves to be me, I firmly believe I’ll make more decisions that will advance me in the way I’d like to see my life advanced. I don’t know when I’ll next be home to the U.S. next, but until then I’m going to dig in, connect, and try to live my temporary life as a more permanent one than it might actually be.

Stay tuned for more stories about surviving exams and more vacation time (thanks, Europe!). I’m also going to throw out a Top of 2016 list (as in top things I did, learned, experienced, consumed, etc) because why the hell not.

On Layovers, Holidays, and New Years

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View from a plane.

As I write this, I am sitting in a Holiday Inn in a small town in Germany somewhere in-between Munich and the München Airport in Bavaria. I missed a connecting flight but I have free Wi-Fi, food, accommodation, and I haven’t missed seeing my family for the holidays. I think it’s what I needed to clear my head before I go home, and it’s given me a time to ready myself for the holidays, to put on some warm socks, drink a few free cappuccinos, and go for a long walk in the dark down the back roads of a country I’ve never lived in. That walk gave me some clarity and got me thinking about the last year, about the last four months and their place in my life.

I want to begin to make this point by talking about this blog. Blogging – or just writing more regularly I suppose – has been an interesting exercise for me because it’s given me the opportunity to clear my head the last several months. I like that I’ve been able to relate my thoughts to friends and family in a way they might not get otherwise, but mainly I’m doing it for myself. It’s something I’ve needed as I’ve transitioned into living in a new place, and I think more people need this kind of outlet no matter their circumstances. This is of course obvious wisdom, but wisdom that we nevertheless forget, ignore, or fail to put into practice. A lot of people write or journal or blog, and a lot of it doesn’t mean that much. But writing can reconnect you to yourself and your life and give it a continuity, so I’m glad to force myself to do that every now and then, even if I don’t publish it.

In my estimation, the point about continuity is important because it goes not only for writing but for life itself. Think about some of the best moments you’ve had. (Done?) They’re likely small, random flashes of connection that make little sense on their own, but which surprise you and make you feel connected to some sort of a larger whole. You can plan them but it’s difficult, and the chances for failure are high if you do so. Exercise. Meditation. Coffee. Good friends. Quietude. Weird moments of transcendence. Music. Hygge. (Am I Danish yet?!) These are all areas where maybe one out of ten times – if you’re lucky – you get to step outside and feel a continuity with your own life or with the universe. I had one of those moments tonight while I was walking and looking at all the Christmas lights on random German homes. And it got me thinking about the holidays and the way they make us think about our own lives.

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Holidays are a great framework to understand this idea of continuity because they are rooted in historicized mythologies of our own lives. Holidays are occasions where we find stories, distill those stories into manageable chunks, and then use the luxury of retrospect to relate them to ourselves and others. In other words, we tell stories, and in doing so we tell some lies but also learn more truths. In this way, the experience or understanding of our own life becomes as important as the lived aspect of it. I relate this to the idea of continuity because it helps to define the spirituality I have, which is a spirituality of moments we feel in connection to a larger whole, even if that whole is imagined. I think we need holidays because, unlike a lot of other traditions, they force us to think of our life more in waves and see the bigger picture. (Which I have trying to do a lot of lately.)

There’s a phrase I came up with a couple weeks ago on a long bike ride in Copenhagen which seems appropriate for the idea of continuity. That is that one of the best qualities of holidays for me is their ability to make you nostalgic for a life you are not necessarily sure you have lived. We don’t think of our lives in historical terms, at least not in the day-to-day, but we should because it helps save is from going crazy. Holidays even more so than other forms of tradition force us to take a step back and think of our lives in those historical terms, providing continuity to our year. The only way we are going to do that, though, is if we purposefully or unconsciously omit details to think of life as the sum of parts rather than the experience of the parts themselves.

I think about this and the holidays as I’m traveling home because I think this holiday type of thinking and understanding is core to my understanding of who I am more than I think it is for other people. It’s how I try to think about the world in moments where I’m down on myself. In this way, I’d say my life as it now is no more defined in the lived sense than it was four months ago, but is clearer in the experienced sense. There’s so many things I’ve gotten ‘wrong’ in my life, and things that this year didn’t solve. I don’t have a girlfriend, I worry about the same things in a different country, I lapse into the same behaviors that I find annoying or problematic, I still get way too angry at people taking their time when I need to be somewhere, I’m impatient, I use sarcasm that other people don’t understand. I mean well, but living in a new place didn’t change any of that, it never does. But it’s important to remember. This year I hope to practice patience, to give myself more credit, to spend my first full year away from home and be okay with it, to save money, to take a step back and breathe, to make less judgements, to let loose more – and hopefully I’ll do even more living moment to moment than experiencing the larger whole.

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Looking forward to getting real Dunks back home.

I know going home is going to make me doubt some of that, because of memories of my life so far that are both positive and uncomfortable. I can’t break the sense that leaving home hasn’t been as difficult for me as it was for some because the life I’m leaving behind isn’t as fully formed as it is for some people. But the life I’m living now after four months in a new country isn’t either, and I don’t know what that means. So, for now I’m choosing the experience of my last year and especially of the last four months over the living of it, because there seems to be a large gap between what I feel has changed and what has actually changed. But I can’t deny that I’m changing in some ways even though many will still see me as the exact same person. In other words, this year there have been a lot more flashes of continuity than years before, moments where it all made sense even though the whole doesn’t always make sense. I wish I could put into more concrete terms than that, but it’s difficult, and that’s what I’m feeling on this cold night in Germany as I wait to head home.

See you next year.*

* In more topical news, the new Star Wars movie is fantastic, I’m enjoying The Crown, I’m grateful for my new friends (any ‘Cucumbers’ reading this?), I’m still tired despite winding down for the year, I think I’ll pass my Global Business exam, I’m a little worried about money because of a shitty landlord and the American educational system, my neck really hurts, and I’m nervous about running out of things to do while I’m home.

On Thanksgiving and Life as Usual

“Thanksgiving: celebrating the day Americans fed undocumented aliens from Europe.”

Thanksgiving was never my favorite holiday – that falls to Christmas – but it is the most uniquely American one and one that I have a huge range of memories about. Memories like the time we went my grandmother’s house as a child and she made a ham instead of a turkey (blasphemy!), the time my stepmother used instant gravy that turned into silly putty in the saucepan (and God knows what in our stomachs), or the first time I cooked and carved a turkey on my own. Maybe it’s just the fact that I grew up in Massachusetts, but Thanksgiving has never been a time to bicker about politics and religion over mashed potatoes. It’s always been a time to slow down – a reminder of the good in both halves of my family – and I’m always happy to carry that tradition with me wherever I go.

My first Thanksgiving away from home was last year, when I went on exchange to Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland for the semester. Given the international nature of the house I lived in (everybody but a few were on Erasmus or exchange), it easily lent itself to a Thanksgiving. We did a traditional Thanksgiving, with all the sides and dishes that you would expect. I liked that, but this year I thought it would be fun to do something different, and instead I chose to host a sort of Thanksgiving potluck. This year the audience was friends and people from my class. While I was honestly a little worried, it turned out great. I’d never hosted a potluck, let alone one for Thanksgiving, so I was worried that either not enough people would show up or there wouldn’t be enough food to go around.

The bird.

The bird.

In the end, we had over forty people and – surprisingly enough – the majority of them brought something substantive to eat, not just chips or something like that. I encouraged people to make stuff from whatever country they came from, and while we didn’t end up with anything too crazy (with the exception of the Faroese dried fish that my sweater still smells like) there was some good diversity among the dishes. I of course made a turkey (the other American made the potatoes), and while it didn’t come out as well as the turkey I made last year – might’ve kept it in the oven for 20 minutes too long – it did come out pretty well nonetheless. I had more food than I knew what to do with, and everybody else felt the same. I was glad to be able to provide the classic American pastime of eating so much that you want to pass out, and some people seemed surprised to find out that this was actually true. (And no, no one wanted to go to a bar after like they said that they did.)

The hygge.

It was the first night in a while that got me feeling like it was actually the holidays. The night was, to borrow a Danish term, very ‘hygge’ (no direct translation, but it basically means cozy with good company and warm light) and it really did feel like it was Thanksgiving, despite my being 4000 miles away with a bunch of Europeans and none of the normal accoutrements of the holidays. I was also surprised to find out that despite the lack of a Thanksgiving tradition they still had Black Friday here in Denmark, which I happily chose not to take part in due to my disdain for the tradition (and my general lack of money). (I did replace my earbuds for quite a deal though! But I needed to do that anyway I guess…)

Since then, it has been feeling a little more like the holidays, and a lot of that has to do with the weather. While it is still cold, it’s less grey, and the wind has not been nearly as characteristically Scandinavian as it normally is. My favorite part of Christmas is the lights at night and the cold, but when it’s accompanied by Scandinavian wind and rain it’s not nearly as charming. So, needless to say, the clear weather has been a nice change of pace, and it’s given me some of that holiday feeling at night which makes me both happy to be in a new place and missing home. Some of the sadness and darkness of October and early November is finally giving way to new feelings of life.

The spread.

The spread.

Life here is continuing as usual, though. After a spell of traveling, I’m settling in for the long part of the semester. I have three weeks of school left, and then I’m home for the Christmas gap, and it couldn’t come soon enough. There’s a lot of group work now in my course, which I’m not usually a fan of but they seem to love it over here. The laid-back nature of the Danish educational system is very off-putting to me, and the idea that I’d do a semester-long group project with only the vaguest of ideas of how it will affect my final mark – or a 3000-word group report with no effect on my mark whatsoever, for that matter – is very off-putting to my American sensibilities. I’m excited to be done with the semester, not because I don’t like the course but because I’m excited to move on to other things.

School will slow down in a bit, but I do feel very busy at the moment given the fact that I just got a new job working as a research assistant for a professor at the university. I’m doing some work for a professor working on climate change issues, and it while it has been a little jumbled so far, it’s been interesting nonetheless. I am glad to be settled into a new apartment which will hopefully be more permanent, but added stress is now coming from the fact that the first apartment I lived at is no longer deciding to give me my security deposit back on the most dubious of grounds, and now I have to go through a whole formal complaint process to try and sort that out. The fact that I just started my new job means I don’t start getting paid until the beginning of January, and the added stress of financial considerations is never something I like to have to deal with as I’m rounding out the busy part of the year.

I’m glad to have the flexibility of being able to work that is completely independent and to be to do school at my own pace, but it can be pretty all-encompassing when you’re in the middle of it. Because my program is a lot more full-on than a lot graduate degrees, I have a lot of contact hours in combination with a lot of reading and studying – and now work – so the constantly being on and having something to do feeling can be pretty tiring. I’m starting to feel these days that while I can have the nights off I never really have the day off because there is always stuff to catch upon. I haven’t quite burnt out like I did during my Senior year of my undergrad, but I could get there pretty soon. I’m ready to be an employee of the world, where you can turn off when you are not at work and get paid for it. Isn’t that the life?

I’m not too worried about it though. One of the unique aspects of the program I’m doing is that we get to do field work in Africa for a couple weeks during the second semester, and that the second year is basically ours to make it how we want. I intend to do an internship for credit before doing my Master’s thesis. So while I am a little tired of school – and I certainly have my going straight-through to a Master’s to blame for that – I am glad I’m getting it done and that the stuff that’s different is hopefully soon to come.

Looking forward to the holidays (and forgetting about exams after that).

On J-Dag, New Apartments, Hamburg, and the United States of Trump

Home? after a long month.

Hold on for a long blog post!

One of the defining characteristics of my time in Copenhagen has been the seemingly vast number of things to do (given the relatively small size of the city) in contrast to the rapidly decreasing daylight hours and my increasing seasonal affective depression (sad!). Every day, new events in Copenhagen pop into my Facebook feed that friends are attending, and it seems like there is so much more I could and should be doing than what I’m doing daily. Given the studying I’m doing and the lack of rigidity I have when keeping to a schedule, the amount of time I can muster to do the remaining tasks and events in my schedule decreases as the daylight does.

One of the events I have managed to keep in my schedule despite this was one I was most excited to be a part of before I came to Copenhagen. The event is known as ‘J-Dag’ – the unofficial beginning of Christmas in Denmark. On this day, Christmas begins because the Carlsberg Foundation says it does. The Carlsberg Foundation is the principal owner of the Carlsberg Group – a German-style Danish brewing company which has a near-monopoly on the Danish beer market – and they throw out free ‘Julebryg’ (its Christmas beer), in addition to shipping it to nearly every bar in town. (When I say that Carlsberg has a near-monopoly on the market, I mean it: the market is saturated by Carlsberg and Tuborg – the national beers of Denmark – and the tendrils of the Carlsberg Foundations can be found in various aspects of Danish life. Together the beers of the Carlsberg group account for over 80% of beer sales in Denmark, and consequently pale lager – for better or worse – becomes the best you can find. A disappoint reality for a beer enthusiast like me.)

J-Dag is a very one-note affair, and it embraces this fact. I first read about J-Dag in one of the final chapters of ‘The Year of Living Danishly’, a book by British journalist Helen Russell. In the book, J-Dag sounded like a remarkable and festive celebration of all that was exciting about Christmas in Denmark and their beer culture more generally. People lined up in crowds to receive their free beer, and it was thrown into the crowds with reckless abandon. This was not quite the case in practice; while there was some beer distribution in the streets, my friends and I were forced to retreat to a hole-in-the-wall after being disappointed to find that little-to-nothing-at-all was happening in the streets of Copenhagen.

Bad photo, good friends.

Bad photo, good friends.

It was in that bar that the real fun began. Just when we were at the height of our disappointment, we found a seat and went back to the bar to try and salvage the night. As soon as we had done that, a group of adult human beings dressed as elves came in with a speaker playing music and more crates of beer and Santa hats than they possibly knew what to do with. They proceeded to distribute said hats and beer to everyone in the bar, and more fun was had in ten minutes than was had, or would be had, the entire night. Once that fact was set, the night only got better, and while the overall effect was not nearly as dramatic and exciting as it was in Helen Russell’s writing, it was exciting to experience the beginning of Christmas – on November 4th, mind you – in an entirely different cultural context.The beginning of this month also marked several other exciting events, two of which are worth discussing and one of which might well lead to the decline of democracy in West. Let’s start with the positive events. After two months of living in

The beginning of this month also marked several other exciting events, two of which are worth discussing and one of which might well lead to the decline of democracy in West. Let’s start with the positive events. After two months of living in Valby, an outer district of Copenhagen, I moved out of my temporary accommodation there to a place in Nørrebro, one of the innermost neighborhoods of Copenhagen, and by far the youngest, most dynamic, and most diverse. The change was refreshing: instead of being in a small, sad apartment on the outskirts of the city, I would be in a large apartment with three roommates in the center of the city. The change was immediately felt: the commute to class was shorter, the apartment was easier to study in, the neighborhood was better, and I finally felt like I was living in the big (small) city. The downside: the apartment is only for one month. (As of this writing, I have found a more permanent place in Nørrebro; there’s a two-month period in which I can stay, and then after that I have the flexibility of deciding whether I would like to stay for find a new place altogether.)

Pizza distracts me from the fact that it’s only a month.

I cannot say that I expected one of the defining aspects of my time in Copenhagen to be the constant moving and affect it has on getting settled. While I do feel settled in the emotional and bureaucratic sense, as I have discussed in previous blogs, in the material sense it has been difficult. The lack of a permanent space has meant that I have not invested in too many items to furnish my living space, and I have had to get by with only the essentials out of necessity. This has its benefits, such as being able to focus on my studies, but also its downsides, including the constant searching and the relative lack of many of the perks of a settled life. The Copenhagen housing market is very saturated with eager students and internationals looking for apartments and too few apartments to go around. It takes time, and while housing prices are not as bad as they are in many cities, you pay for what you get and the market only awards patience. There has been a lot of rejection, and I’m glad to be moving on to something (hopefully) more permanent. But who knows.

The Port of Hamburg

It’s been a busy month. Two weekends ago, after all the travel I’d already done, I got another chance to go on what I am choosing to be my last vacation of the semester. (My last hurrah.) I went on a weekend away to Hamburg in the North of Germany with some friends, and while more relaxed than some of my other trips, it was exactly what I needed. The weekend was a lot of fun, and something which I don’t often get to do a lot while traveling: not be a tourist. We just wandered around, made friends, cooked food, checked out some cool stuff, ate more food, got cold, enjoyed each other’s company and, above all, had a good time. Hamburg is a beautiful port city, something I forgot but which proved to be a refreshing part of the experience. We took a lot of pictures and mainly just did what we wanted to and screwed around, despite my best (and annoying!) efforts to corral my friends and provide some focus to what we were doing. Turns out we didn’t need it, and the weekend was all the better for it, an important lesson for me and the way I think about traveling.

Frendz

Before I end this blog, I must comment on the events of November 8th, which can only be described as, uh, unexpected. The current political climate in Europe is one of immense fear and skepticism of populism, both that of America and of that going on in Europe more generally through events such as Brexit. As such, there has been intense interest in the American election, to the extent that I feel like I have talked with friends over here about it almost as much as I have back home (albeit in decidedly different and less politicized terms).

The Election viewing party I got to attend was hosted by another American: a girl named Stephanie (the only other American in my course) who also happens to be from the Boston area. We are six hours ahead of the American East Coast and as such had to pull an all-nighter to watch the Election. We invited several of our friends over, and the fun of the beginning of the night – guess which States Trump will win! let’s watch Saturday Night Live clips – soon gave way to the realization that not only was he going to win, but he was going to win widely (at least on the Electoral Map). Once it hit 3 in the morning (9pm here) it became clear that he had the momentum. Once the final polls closed at 11, it was 5 in the morning and we were all crestfallen with the possibility of Trump being the next American President. Knowing that we all had class the next day, we decided to head home for the briefest of sleeps so that we could wake up and find out who the (likely still contested) new leader of the free world would be. Cycling home, it was the first snow of the year, and as that snow turned into ice cold rain I took it as a dark omen that I would wake up to Trump as the next President.

It’s weird, I can only describe the events of the following day as something resembling a wake. I kept getting messages and comments from people saying that they were sorry, or that they hoped I was OK. It was bleak. Nobody expected it, and even the narrow margin the polls gave her to win in the final days did not disseminate well in Europe. People expected her to win by a semi-comfortable margin, especially over here, and there was a feeling of true shock. Even reading the polls regularly like I do, the true shock was not that his support narrowed in the popular vote – which he still did not win – but that he took so many swing states so comfortable. At the same time, Brexit told us that it was a possibility.

This photo says too much.

The whole election was a populist uprising, a revolt of the white working class which we are likely never to see on this scale. The Democratic Party ceased to be an effective party of the people, and a non-insignificant amount of racial animosity and economic misfortune conspired to hand the election to a loser. Not a winner, like he likes to say he is. A loser. A pathetic, aging bigot with a Freudian penchant for authoritarianism and a centrist-alternative, exploitative form of populism that played on people’s worst fears and their worst impulses. And now we must deal with the consequences.

It’s hard not to think of the election of Trump as anything other than a disaster, especially at home but also abroad. America’s reputation in the rest of the globe will continue to be derided and scrutinized as much as it was the day after the election. The events since Election Day have done little to inspire confidence that Trump will inspire confidence as a leader or change the office of which he promised to ‘drain the swamp.’ The conflicts of interest abound, he has chosen multiple Cabinet officials and members of his administration with a history of discrimination, and – perhaps most sadly for an alleged adult man of a sprightly 70 years old – the tweeting hasn’t stopped.

It’s going to be a long four years, and I can only be abroad for so much of it. Let’s see where life leads me and, more importantly, where life leads our country.

Stay tuned for more stories about Thanksgiving and friends.

On Berlin, Prague, and the Baltics

A street view of the Old Town in Kaunas, Lithuania.

I keep needing to remind myself of is that I am no longer a tourist, but a migrant. An educational migrant, as are a lot of people in my generation, but a migrant nonetheless. A large portion of the human population in the U.S., Europe, and other parts of the world – though still not enough in my opinion – live in a country for some period, and I am now one of them. But studying in a country is different than living there, though with a long-term study course you can certainly get some sense of where the overlap is. It changes the dynamics of travel as well.

When you study abroad, you are in many senses a resident of that country for that brief time, but you are still, in effect, a tourist. You do not get settled, there is no real sense of permanence, and you never grow to feel the true scope of living where you do. In that vein, despite my having lived in Northern Ireland for three and a half months, I never felt like I lived there, I still felt like I was passing through. I went on quite a few vacations while I was over there, and despite a newfound feeling of permanence in a different cultural context, I didn’t have the feeling of my life being there.

After two months here, I feel more settled than I did during that entire three and a half months in Belfast, and it’s due in large part to the fact that I am a more permanent resident and I allowed myself to get settled. Now that I am settled, though, travel is so cheap that I feel like it behooves me to do it. I would be lying if I said that travel was not a big reason of why I chose to do it, and the chance to get to see more of the world while I study is certainly something I want to take advantage of, but also something I want to try and not do too much of. It was important to me not to do much, if any, traveling during my first month here, as I had on my study abroad. I wanted to get settled and I felt like the best way to do that was to, well, stay in the same place for a while. (I have a friend *cough Elise* who it feels like is traveling every other weekend, and I don’t want that to be me, even if it has been for the last two weeks.)

Some context for my most recent travels. Back during the summer while I was working for the Study Abroad office at my university, I made a conscious effort not to do much planning or think too hard about the fact that I was leaving in the Fall. I did only the necessary planning and left the fine details to the end, not even finding an apartment until August despite my best attempts to do so. I didn’t want to plan any trips before I got to the country, but when I found that one of the people I worked with, Kate, would be visiting her friend in Copenhagen on my week off, I jumped on the opportunity to travel with her to Berlin and Prague and booked my flights straight away. It was nice when I arrived here to have something in the cards, something I could look forward to while I did put my best foot forward during the process of becoming settled.

Kate and I; Study Abroad reunion in Berlin.

And so, it transpired that two and a half weeks ago I went to Berlin and Prague. Kate and I had not hung out much outside of work, so the serendipity of planning and going on the trip lent itself both to getting to know new people and, well, getting to know each other real. It was fun to learn more about somebody you already knew from work in the context of a vacation, and the fact that we were traveling with Kate’s friend made it all the better. I was very much looking forward to Berlin but was especially looking forward to Prague, and I can say that in this respect the trip lived up to my expectations. While I enjoyed Berlin, Prague was much more my speed as a city and is a place I could imagine living despite the complexity of the language.

Traveling to these cities was a lesson in contrasts and a reminder of what types of cities appeal most to me. I’ve always been the type that would rather have a long conversation over a beer or a coffee than go out to a club. Unfortunately, I’m eager to please (working on it) and will go to said club if the time and circumstances dictate it, but I almost never have a good time and I know that before I go there. Because of that, it seemed to me like Berlin was not especially the place for me. In Berlin, there was a lot of urban sprawl and wall art and hipster clubs, and I constantly fell like I was in a music video that was trapped somewhere between the years 1992 and the inevitable post-apocalypse of the year 2092. Prague was much more my speed because it was a prettier city that moved at a slower pace. It was much more bohemian, and more the type of place that was conducive to chatting over a coffee or beer, two of the things I most value in life.

Brandenburg Tor, one of the most famous sights in Berlin.

I did enjoy Berlin, though, don’t get me wrong. One of the things that struck me about city was how much you can still feel the communist influence, which isn’t something I necessarily expected. It makes sense of course, but when you think of Germany, the heart of Western Europe, you think of it in this vibrant and multicultural place, which it is. The past seems so distant. But that history, and especially the history of Eastern Germany, is still very recent history, and you can feel its effects. We forget this. The remnants of Berlin Wall were everywhere, and while materially they don’t necessarily live up to your expectations, the spiritual and historical impact of seeing that history up close and realizing how recent it is can be very profound. It certainly was that type of experience for me, even if the grungy, hipster, post-techno music video of a city that surrounded it wasn’t necessarily my favorite place I have ever visited. Perhaps I would fall more in love with it if I got to explore different parts of the city and truly take it in, but alas time was not on my time (I was only there two and a half days).

Compared to Berlin, the color, hills, and architecture of Prague were refreshing. It is such a beautiful city, and you get that sense through the individuality of every architectural and city planning decision that is made. There are endless series of cobblestoned streets and buildings of different colors and design that line those streets, and you can tell the immense time and commitment that went into making that the case. A big factor in that, I learned, was the relatively peaceful occupation of the city and the lack of bombing compared to other cities during the war. But then there was the communist period, which lasted nearly forty years and threatened to suppress all that vibrancy, which it didn’t despite its best efforts. (I read a great story in a book I bought about how after the Velvet Revolution threw the communists from power, the city literally put the effort in to repair and repaint all the buildings, wash away the communist influence, and, quite literally, tear up many of the pavement streets to replace them with the more aesthetically pleasing cobblestone.)

The view while walking up to Prague Castle.

The view while walking up to Prague Castle.

Despite having an even shorter amount of time in Prague – just two days – I felt like I got more out of it than I did out of Berlin. The city is a bit more tourist-friendly, which has its plusses and minuses, but that combined with the smallness and the beauty made me feel like I was constantly doing something. It was less time to get from place to place, and the lack of sprawl made you feel like you could get a lot of accomplished. We had amazing Czech food on our first night, which was better than any ‘German food’ I had, and the coffee and sights were downright pleasant. I was also reminded of how flat and grey Denmark is, and how much the color and hilly nature of the city added to my understanding of its beauty. I wish that I had more time there, and I would go back in a heartbeat.

A view of the Charles Bridge on a foggy morning in Prague.

The next weekend – poor planning, I’m aware – my friend Miriam and I went to Lithuania and Latvia. The Baltics were a region I wanted to see, mostly because I was aware of how little I knew about those countries. I knew a little about their political history through the Soviet Union and had read a bit about Estonia for some of their impressive records on issues like healthcare and voting, but other than that I was very culturally and historically ignorant of the region. When I met Miriam, now one of my closest friends here, we clicked instantly and both decided that our lack of knowledge of the region and desire to visit was the best reason to visit the reason. We knew each other for all of two weeks before we booked the trip, and the rest was history. (We tried to convince others to go for weeks, but to no avail. Alas.)

I really enjoyed Kaunas and Riga – the second- and first-largest cities in Lithuania and Latvia respectively – but it’s really hard to get a good sense of a place in just three and a half days’ time, which is what we really had to see both cities. We only had a about 24 hours total in Kaunas and 48 hours in Riga, and we used the time mostly to wander around and get a good sense of the city while doing some light sight-seeing and doing what we could to enjoy ourselves in a foreign city – which is all you could hope for out of a weekend if you have the money to spare.

My friend Miriam and I in the Old Town in Riga.

In Kaunas, we had a complete turn-around on a city that seemed dirty and under-developed (or at least I did). As we dug, though, we found the rough exterior, we found a beautiful Old Town and some of the best and cheapest food we had in a long time. We only had an overnight there – and it  was enough to see everything the main city area had to offer – but it gave us a good idea of what Lithuania was like, its history, and how far it still had to go. I had an amazing donut and got to play a weird air hockey/shuffleboard mashup game in a bar with some Lithuanian university students as well, so I guess that’s a plus.

A view from the top – Riga, Latvia.

While Kaunas was a small city built around, it seemed like, tourism and the local university, Riga was a proper city with a lot to see and offer. The Old Town in Riga is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and you understand why when you visit. The Old Town area occupies just one square kilometer of space, but there’s a lot to see in that area and beyond. The whole city is beautiful and a lot of fun, despite the weather, and we took in some good history, food, and views while getting around the city.

Riga was also for being a city where we branched out and met people so that we were not your prototypical lonely travelers. After a bad experience with a sketchy Couchsurfing host on Friday night (good reviews my ass), we got a hostel and instead used the app to meet up with people. We met a Swiss guy named Ray and a sweet girl from France named Lea who became our friends for Saturday night, and we went out on a Halloween bar crawl with them since it was Halloweekend (even though that’s not as big of a thing in Europe and especially in the Baltics). We stated at an Aussie pub (why is there always an Aussie pub?!) and had a great time followed by one of the best hangover bagels I have ever had in my life. I always try to find the best bagels when I travel, and Riga was the first city in Europe besides London that didn’t let me down. We also had a great vegan pancake buffet on Saturday, so you could say we were satisfied with the food and the weekend generally.

May have missed Halloween in Copenhagen, but we tried in Riga.

May have missed Halloween in Copenhagen, but we tried in Riga.

If there’s anything I learned from all this travel in just two weeks’ time, it’s that travel is exhausting, even for the most indefatigable of travelers. After multiple airports and bus stations and little time back in Copenhagen, my sleep deprivation caught up to me on the Wednesday after Latvia. My lack of life maintenance, my lack of thinking about my body for two weeks, and my lack of alone time, caught up to me and I basically shut down for Tuesday through Thursday. This was combined with the fact that I had to move into a new apartment on November 1st, and I was just exhausted out on life. Doing all the travel, especially in such condensed periods, made me realize how much better I need to with taking care of myself, especially in regards to my limits as an extroverted introvert. Catching up on life and settling into an apartment never felt so good.

I’m already exhausted again, but that’s a story for another post.

Stay tuned for more stories about ‘J-Dag,’ Hamburg, new apartments, and (*vomits*) the United States of Trump.

On Bad Luck, Bad Choices, and Good Outcomes

My friends are probably sick of this story, but here goes… I got into a small bike accident, and of course the world didn’t end but the circumstances and the outcome make for a good story. This story is one I’ve been meaning to put down for a while because it speaks to three aspects of any good story: bad choices, bad luck, and good outcomes, with an added cultural spin.

It’s almost cliché to say that since I have arrived in Copenhagen, I’ve become a cyclist. Getting around the city with a bike feels great, the city makes it so easy, and I now feel naked without my bike. It’s an extension of my life in the city. An example: In my typical hyperbolic fashion, I was complaining to a friend about having to walk to the metro station before my vacation last week because it was honestly the first time I’d done any significant amount of walking since I bought my bike about seven weeks ago. (I suppose it’s better than when that once might have been the case with me and a car. Oh, how I don’t miss my car like I thought I would…)

In this context I’ve taken my bike as a given, in the sense that it’s easy to get around, fatal cycle accidents are one-in-a-billion and the infrastructure is so good to support cycling that it makes the chances of something happening seem very low. Getting into a bike accident wasn’t something I thought about or considered in the way that I did getting into an auto accident, and so I was totally unprepared for its eventuality. I suppose I knew it would happen at some point, but I didn’t put a lot of thought into bike safety, bike insurance (is that even a thing?) or what the proper protocol is for bike safety before and after an accident.

About three weeks ago last Friday, I was high on exhaustion and adrenaline. I’d been out late the night before because, well, long story, and my six in the morning bed time was jolted to a halt by an alarm at 10 reminding me that I had to work on a survey research project with the study group from my course. It was one of those beautiful Fall days that are so rare in Denmark, the ones where you feel good about everything. My mild exhaustion from the night before made everything seem important even when it wasn’t – those types of mornings. I hung out with my group after we did our work, and it was a lazy afternoon where everything feels good despite your doing nothing because you are surrounded by good people. I even managed to get Dunkin’ Donuts from the Copenhagen Central Station – a first since I got here – which made me feel nostalgic for home but also at peace with my place in the universe. (The quality is better here but it doesn’t taste as good, go figure. #Murica)

I was cycling home during the late afternoon, and was about a kilometer and a half (uh, one mile or so) away from my apartment, excited for a small dinner with friends that night, when I noticed someone cycling the opposite way in the cycle lane. This isn’t normally a big deal; I guess it’s technically against the law in Denmark, but nearly everybody does it safely and for a short period at some point to get around construction or correct a navigation mistake that they have made. I didn’t think twice about it. As I got closer, I could tell the old man on the bike carrying a bag filled with bottles was incredibly drunk, so I did my best to get out of his way, eventually getting out of the cycle lane and nearly into the road when he got even closer to get around him because he had no clue what he was doing. As I passed him from the left, he lost control of the bike and swerved to the right towards me, knocking me out of the cycle and into the road.

Now, this wouldn’t be a huge deal except for the fact that it shattered my phone and punctured my front tire. I wasn’t sure what to do in this situation, and was more worried for the guy than I was for myself, given that I was young and only had scrapes and a mild sprain in my left arm. The man couldn’t even make a sentence in his own language (not Danish) let alone English, nor could he stand up on his own. I was grateful that two women who were passing by helped me out. One of them made a point to call emergency, while another helped me with the old man, who was drunk and clearly in more pain than I was. There were beer bottles broken all over the cycle lane, some empty and some full.

I noticed two children playing on scooters come from around the corner and then run away. Presumably they knew the man – who had to be in his sixties I was guessing – and ran away for help. I told the women I would take care of everything and they left. The kids came back with one of the kid’s fathers, the man’s son. The son was completely unwilling to make his father take responsibility for anything, which was made worse by the fact that I had no idea what my legal or moral standing was in a situation like this. I felt bad that the guy was in this situation, but I didn’t deserve to be treated like that in a position where I clearly has no power or leverage. I wasn’t the bad guy so why was I being made to feel like one? After minutes of questioning the son and trying to get some sense of what to do, he told me to call the police but that it would not do that much good.

Not knowing what the proper way to deal with this was given my deficiencies in Danish biking law, I really wasn’t sure if it was right to call the police for a minor cycle accident, or if there was any way of establishing liability. I was unsure of what to do in this situation, and with the guy refusing to give me his number, I acquiesced. It was a tricky situation, certainly more difficult by the fact that I was in another country with a different cultural context and unaware of what legal barriers there might be. I probably should have pressed more. I was a little shaken and put off that the guy wouldn’t even give me his number to try and fix the situation, as I felt I was entitled to at least the most minimum recourse for my tire. I went to a cycle shop down the road and found out that I could repair the tire for 400kr (about $60), so I got a receipt and went back to the neighborhood to locate the son.

This bike will play mine in the made for TV movie.

This bike will play mine in the made for TV movie.

Fortunately, I succeeded in tracking down the man, and the son was much more cooperative on the second go-round. All I wanted was someone to give me some honest sense of what they knew of situations like this, what I should do given my ignorance, and if they’d be willing to help me out with the tire. I wanted some sort of reassurance that I wasn’t crazy for tracking them down, even if it wasn’t material reassurance. I got stuck in a long conversation with the guy, which was tedious but I was grateful for because it allowed me to empathize.

Despite the son being a bit of a jerk to me the first time, I felt bad that I had to put him in this situation. He was clearly embarrassed by his Dad, who he described as his “biological father but not his real father” and was unsure of what to do in the situation. It apparently wasn’t the first time the father had caused damages to himself and to other people through his drunkenness, and the son was in over his head. The father was sorry but unwilling to meet with me, or take any personal responsibility. I knew I shouldn’t feel guilt for doing what I was doing, but considering the family situation it made me question the moral and legal grays of the situation in a way that I hadn’t before.

It was clear to me from then that I’d stumbled in on a very sad family situation, the dynamics of which were playing out through the biked accident I’d gotten into. Here was a son having to do everything to take responsibility for the actions of his own father… They agreed to pay for the tire, as well as cover some of the costs of damages to my phone outside of warranty if necessary. It was surprisingly amicable, to the point where I felt guilt for having to insert myself into the strained dynamics of this family. I sympathized, and that made it difficult for me to feel like a victim. A lot worse could have happened but didn’t, and I was just grateful the guy was OK as well. In the end, it was clear to me that I was as in-over-my-head with this minor bike accident and its consequent drama as was this strange father-son relationship that I’d become a sort of fulcrum for.

Even bad days can end in good nights, though (night of the accident).

In a dark sort of way, it was one of the first situations which made me connected to the local community, and also one of the first situations which made me realize how little I still knew about the place I was living. I didn’t know if there was a thing like cycling insurance or home insurance, let alone how much it would cost or if I should have it as a student. I wasn’t sure what the proper recourse was given the cultural context, and I knew that the language and legal barriers of pursuing it might make it more difficult. I was a bit out of my depth and not sure of what I could do to prevent that from being the case in the future.

I’m glad the situation resolved itself quickly and amicably, and I also realized how much more attention I need to pay to cycling laws, norms, and practices while I’m over. It was another example in a long string of bad luck situations for me, but it also made clear my own ignorance regarding all of this. I wasn’t a victim; I could have had more leverage in the situation but didn’t. It’s a lot more serious of a thing and my bike is my car at this point, as silly as that sounds, so I need to think of it and myself as such. I’m glad that this situation resolved itself peacefully enough that I could that away, and I’m hopeful that everything will turn out fine for the father and his son as well.

What a bizarre little window Danish life and human life that was. Even small bike accidents can teach you something about living life abroad.

Stay tuned for more stories of travels to Berlin and Prague, as well as Lithuania and Latvia (it’s been a busy two weeks).

On American Democracy and Living Abroad

I suppose it should be said, the views in this post are entirely my own and do not represent the views of the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

Perhaps my favorite thing about being abroad is experiencing your own country from the outside. In an era of globalization and digital media, that’s hard to achieve. Everybody, despite being abroad, has the ability to experience their culture from within because of the people they talk to, the social media they use, the media they consume, and the news they read. Unless you know the language and are well-settled, the modern era enables you to go online to read whatever news sources you want to ensure that your experience of the world is the one that the media is projecting to you is the one that you want it to be. This makes it difficult to let you look at where you come from with an outsider’s view.

When talking to people about where you come from, stereotypes and media ensure that sometimes the view is not always the most balanced. Because I’m from America, everybody thinks they understand it and everybody seems to have an opinion that they are often all too eager to offer up. Everybody consumes American culture, and everybody has a distinct conception of what the U.S. is from years of media coverage and foreign policy decisions. This makes it easy to get wrapped up in some of the more negative coverage, though most people of the people I have met are very willing to have a discussion of what makes America such a fascinating and exciting place, despite a lot of its flaws and contradictions (which every other country has as well). This has been true even more so in the last couple months than on other trips I have taken overseas.

Taking the critical stance when you are on the outside is important, but it can also be easy. Living abroad, no one should ever have to be put in the position of having to “defend” their country, as if it is a singular mass that you alone created. And yet because of America’s influence, Americans often find themselves in this position, even if it’s just in casual debate over a beer or a cup of coffee. It’s easy to give in to the dominant critical perspective of America when I am abroad, but setting people right and challenging preconceptions are as important as well. Change is never going to happen overnight, especially in our political climate, and there are reasons we do things the way we do. We could borrow a few ideas from the Europeans, but we are not Europe, nor should we be.

This critical perspective can be fun, though. For instance, given that I am studying development, one of my favorite observations came from a friend I am studying with: “Why is the U.S. allowed to be considered a shining example of human development when they don’t even have a system for providing universal health coverage?” Good question! The infrastructure of a developed nation is there, but the human support is lacking.  Why is welfare conditional, handed out like Monopoly Money? Why are the insufficient government services in place to address poverty hidden behind bureaucratic layers that make them impossible to find, let alone be used to improve the lives of the many? Why does our tax code, with all its exceptions, make literally no sense, and why do we incentivize people through complex tax breaks that there is no way the average laymen could possibly understand and take advantage of?

When looking at it from the outside, and with the perspective having talked to other people and lived in other places, I find that our government and our infrastructure feel like a beautiful set of pipes we built over a hundred years ago, but that we are increasingly keeping together through Band-Aids, scotch tape, bread bag ties, and Elmer’s glue. No wonder people are afraid of government: a lot of the government we do have is complex and oftentimes inefficient. The base is sound, but everything we have built on top of that base sometimes feels like it is being held together by a thread. No wonder it’s hard to get anything done.

I only came to some of these conclusions by living abroad. Studying comparative politics, history, and development for multiple years of university has certainly helped, but the experience of talking to other people and experiencing the outside world is really what has helped me to intuit, and understand on a visceral level, what all of this means. Getting my CPR (social security) in Denmark was so easy, and even as a resident I’m guaranteed a base level of health coverage means I don’t have to fear spraining my wrist (which I’ve already done since I got here, more on that later). The idea of a net makes sense to a lot of places but is absent from our debate because of an overwhelming an entrenched sense of what our national identity is and ought to be, and it’s difficult to have that conversation with others when all people really want to talk about is our election.

The one question I honestly expected to get more of was some variation of the now infamous question “What about that Trump?” OR “What do you think about Trump?” or even “That guy’s a real asshole, huh?” When I was in Scotland in the Spring, it was the height of the primary season and thus the height of Trump-mania. Consistently, and without hesitation, I would get people asking me what I thought about Trump, if I was a Trump supporter, or “what’s it like over there” like we’re suddenly a postcolonial dictatorship or barren post-apocalypse. What I would usually explain to people, politely, was that the structure of our primary system was conducive to allowing a guy like Trump to subvert the establishment and secure the nomination of a party he doesn’t even belong to, and that when you got down to it his real base, and not just the ones that follow him to the general election because they don’t like her, it’s about the same as the far-right, economic populist parties of Europe. But I digress.

Since I’ve been back in Europe, in Copenhagen, it seems like the attitude has changed entirely. People seem to get it. Everybody knows Trump is a loon, and they’re more willing than ever to engage in an honest debate about who he is, why it’s happened, and how it’s affecting the image of America to the rest of the world. The thing that has surprised me to find out over here is the extent to which everybody over here absolutely loves the Obamas. Barack Obama, to most people, is a great and honest leader who has projected an image of strength to the rest of the world. I have some issues with Obama on policy, though fully acknowledge most critics of his policy are skewed in their understanding of what he should have been able to achieve given the current political environment. However, it’s hard to deny that Obama was a great statesman, and, perhaps more importantly, a great symbol of America is and ought to be on the world stage.

The lesson I’m learning about Trump is that it becomes hard to live through your country while your abroad when the image of your country that is being projected is that of an absolute circus. It’s difficult to engage in an honest discussion about your country is with the shiny distraction that is the 2016 election. When for so long you have found yourself in the position of experiencing your country and all its quirks from the outside, it’s difficult to remind people of the more moderate America exists with all its flaws and ideals when you understand it from the inside. At the same time, it is interesting for me to try and remove myself from the technology bubble and talk to people around me about what this election looks like from the outside in, because in the end appearances do matter, and we’re doing ourselves no favors. All that being said, I am really looking forward to having an Election Night party in Europe because everyone loves the spectacle and is able to laugh at it.

Stay tuned for more stories about bike accidents and traveling to Berlin and Prague.