On Global Development and Living in an International Bubble

One of the great dangers of going abroad for school is that you end up living in what I like to refer to as the “international bubble,” which I define as moving to a new place and surrounding yourself with people who are in a similar position, which separates you a lot from the locals. This was certainly the case for me during my time studying abroad in Belfast in Northern Ireland last Fall, and I am already getting the sense that it will be the case for me here in Copenhagen as well. When I was in Belfast, I lived in a house that was exclusively for international students, and this meant that they became my primary friends and study partners, such that I did not see too much need to meet people locally. One of the problems of this is that it can shape and change your experience of the place in a way that is not directly reflective of it, but a benefit is that living in an international environment can lead you to being exposed to peoples and perspectives from all over the world. I think you need a little of both when living in an international place, especially when you are studying.

Before I engage more fully with this debate, though, let me provide some context. I came to the city of Copenhagen to study for an MSc (that is, Master’s by Science) in Global Development at the University of Copenhagen. (Surprise!) It’s a multidisciplinary degree (I still have trouble explaining this to people) similar to development studies, but focused on the merger of anthropology, economics, and geography, using political scientific methods and research strategies. And indeed, they constantly remind us of this multidisciplinary nature of our degree during the course.  I’ll talk more about multidisciplinary studies in my next post, and its relevancy for development, but suffice to say I applied because I am a big proponent of it. I also liked the flexible nature of the program and really wanted to get out of the States for a while, and this seemed to be the right program for what I wanted to do. I was determined to study in Europe, even though I told myself, and my parents that I would take a year off. (Fun fact: I applied at the last minute to this school, and only this school for this year, because I liked the nature of the degree so much, and didn’t tell my parents… sorry Mom and Dad!).

*insert stock promotional photo for Global Development here*

*insert stock promotional photo for Global Development here*

Ultimately, and especially after the first few weeks, I’m happy I made the choice to both apply and come here because I’m of the opinion that your studies reflect your reality. Let me explain. If you are studying international issues, you deserve to put yourself in an international setting – at least for a time – such that you can really understand the issues you are studying and reaffirm to yourself why you are studying them. It’s a stretch to say that day-to-day life in Denmark is much different than life in America, but the social, cultural, and political contexts are different, and that’s not nothing. To my mind, studying internationally has three concrete benefits, especially for a degree like this: (1) it allows your reality to reflect your aspirations, (2) it forces you to be outside of your comfort zone in a way that reinforces what you are learning, and (3) it allows you to make international friends and connections which will be important for your career. Given these three advantages, and the right privilege and means, it made sense for me to study internationally.

It’s my opinion that everyone should travel and live overseas for a spell. Obviously, this is not practical or feasible, especially given a variety of different life circumstances, backgrounds, and economic, social, and political contexts, but it’s a worthy aspiration. (I also believe that it could be encouraged through government-sponsored programs and public works, but that’s a fight for another day.) At the very least, everyone should aspire to live outside of their comfort zone. This can mean moving halfway across the world, but it can also mean moving to a different state, or putting yourself in a more socioeconomically diverse setting. It could even mean just wearing different socks every morning, so long as this relevant to what you want to do with your life. (Sock producers of the world unite!)

If you are studying international issues, this seems particularly apt, and for me it reinforces learning. Talking about differences in language and culture with your friends every day, you can put your degree in context. Because of the nature of the program and its content, it is a highly international course, attracting one of the most diverse student profiles of any program at the University. Approximately 3 out of 4 of us come from outside Denmark, and nearly 1 out of 3 of us from outside of the European Union. This means all of the friends I’ve made so far are from all over the world, which is useful in many ways and also fun because of the variety of opinions and stories you get to here. I’ve been fortunate to really enjoy my program so far, and the people within it, and I can’t wait to see what comes next.


I made friends, I swear!

However, while it’s incredibly exciting to be a part of such a wide-ranging group of people, it’s also surprising how insular that can feel at times. This is, as I refer to, the problem of living in an international bubble. When you study with an international group, you bond quickly and rapidly because you share the similar experience of being outside of your own context, to the point that you end up spending all your time together (studying, partying, shopping, hanging out, etc.) If you go on too long like this, you begin to almost not see the point of meeting people locally, which is where I am at. I’m beginning to get comfortable, and I am worried that this will make me complacent.

So, over the next couple of weeks I am going to go out of my way to try and pop the international bubble, so to speak; to make myself more accessible and to meet more local people. When I talk about putting yourself outside of your comfort zone, I think that it should be a constant process of constant reinvention. During my life back home, and especially growing up, I was never comfortable doing this and it often led to me being very shut-off. Now that I’m better at it, I can’t be complacent. I want to meet more people, but I don’t know what form that will take, be it local social media apps, joining a club or sports association, or simply trying to learn the language and engaging more with the people around me. All I know is that living in the international bubble is another form of living in your comfort zone, and it’s something I will need to be aware of.

Stay tuned for more stories about studying unfamiliar subjects and adapting to local contexts.

On Cycling and IKEA


Copenhagen consistently rates near the very top of cities in the world to cycle in.

Having quickly acclimated to my new surroundings, my very first step to improving my quality of life as a Copenhagener was to, of course, purchase a bicycle. Copenhagen is famous throughout the world, alongside Amsterdam, for being the most cycling-friendly city. (Indeed, it is constantly leap-frogging back and forth with Amsterdam at the top of international rankings year by year.) Trying as hard as I could to fit in obviously meant that I was going to have to bike. It’s the only way to get around the city, or so I was told. I understood this to be true, but I don’t know if I really grasped how great it is.

Early on I decided that if I was going to be using a bike for two years I wanted to actually spend some amount of money on a nice, secondhand one, which went contrary to every instinct in my body that Friday afternoon of my first week in Copenhagen. Save it for beer and food, he told himself.

Following a rather short and disappointing Immatriculation Ceremony for new full-degree Bachelor’s and Master’s students – think about it kind of like a Convocation in the U.S. – I decided to go bike shopping to fill out the rest of that gloomy day in Copenhagen. I went around to three different stores (to pretend like I was a discerning customer), went back to the second one, and then found a bike that fit my budget. I had no idea what I was doing, struggling to recall the differences that were meaningful in making a choice to buy a new bike. I decided to focus on lightweight and speed because it fit my personality, even if it didn’t make the most sense for life in the city.

In between all of that was me wandering around the streets like a mental patient trying to find a nonexistent ATM such that I could actually pay the shops, none of which seemed to accept Visa or MasterCard. By the time I actually found an ATM – I take for granted that they are on literally every corner in large U.S. and UK cities but do not seem to be here – I changed my mind about my bike and went back to the third store instead of the second one. Was I really going to spend 2500DKK on a racing bike (~US $375)? Damn straight I was. In the end, yes, I could have bought a city bike, but I opted for the silly-looking one with the tires and the blue and red racing stripes. Says a lot about me.

Lives in the city, purchases a racing bike.

Lives in the city, purchases a racing bike.

I immediately noticed a sharp increase in my quality of life. I live in Valby at the moment, one of the outer districts of Copenhagen, and thus have to traverse about 8 kilometers to get to the city center, which is adjacent to the Social Science campus where I study. (You can kind of think of Valby as the Lowell to inner Copenhagen’s Boston, though with none of the canals that the inner part of the city has.) During the Intro Days for my course at the University, I was already becoming tired of the endless back and forth commute with the train and all the hassles that go along with that (though I’m well aware people do much worse than I did and for much longer), so the bike definitely seemed like an attractive option, especially given the amazing public works the Danes had dedicated to making cycling a viable option. As someone who gets angry at humanity every time he is stuck in traffic as well, it also seemed like a practice that would soothe my troubled soul and calm me in a way that other forms of commute would not.

My first weekend with the bike was amazing. Having tried to revive my old bike and use it in Lowell this summer, I was struck by what I already knew to be true, yet had not felt in a while: cycling in America sucks, especially in a more medium-sized city like Lowell that feels built around the car. The anxiousness and fear of those bike rides came back to me during my first bike rides around Copenhagen – am I in the way? where should I ride? how is it possible to be in the way of both pedestrians and drivers simultaneously and invoke in equal parts their hatred?

Cycling in Copenhagen had none of that. Bike paths were two or three cyclists wide, present on just about every single street, and drivers and pedestrians actively yielded to cyclists like they were respected members of the pulsating traffic flow of the city (which by the way is better than in Lowell, let alone Boston). I also noticed how having a bike immediately opened up my social and school life. Living 8km away from the university is still annoying if I want to go out for drinks after class with my classmates, or go sit by the lakes, but the flow and pace of life is much better. You can get anywhere in a short amount of time, often as quick as the cars

The entire city opens up in a way that you cannot even begin to underestimate when you are just a lowly member of the pedestrian class but have no inclination or means to become part of the driving elite of the city. Over time, the amount of money I will save being away from the metro is incalculable, not to mention the fact that I’m probably a bit healthier, my quality of life is improved, and I get a bit of that feeling that motorcyclists do without the annoying theatrics of revving the engine and traveling at unsafe ideas. After a long night of studying or a fun night out for drinks with some of my classmates, I sometimes can’t help but smile on the ride back home. It’s relaxing and freeing, a time to decompress and listen to some music as you fly through the city, and the public infrastructure really is conducive to making it the only true way to get around, whether it’s between the restaurants and shops or bars, or for long-distance commuting.

Crazy idea those bikes, huh? Maybe those Danes and Dutch are onto something.

I indulge in hyperbole from time to time.

I indulge in hyperbole from time to time.

One of my first trips on my new bike was to go to IKEA in Gentofte, about ten kilometers north of the City Center. I cycled in to the city to meet some friends at one of the stations in Oesterbro and got lost, so I took my bike on the metro intending to meet them there, and then proceeded to get lost in Gentofte again (still needed a SIM card at that point). That was the real story of my first week with a bike – getting lost in a major way, finding my way again, taking for granted that I did have my way and getting lost again in a minor way, and then finally making my way again. By the time I did finally get to IKEA, I was already in a bad mood, sweating and existentially angry at the fact that I was even going to shop at this Scandinavian home decoration metropolis when I could be doing anything else with my afternoon.

So perhaps I was pre-disposed to hate my IKEA experience. Perhaps.

One of the things that most confuses me about Denmark is that Danes have all these rules they seem to implicitly expect you to understand. Rules for the shop, rules for the cycle lanes, small little rules of behavior. They are very set in their ways, in many ways, despite being a very personable and fun-loving group when it gets down to it, so you can actually observe the annoyance dawn on their face as they see somebody demonstrate how out of place they are. This was nowhere more on display than when I was in IKEA. People were observing me like I was a lab specimen, and I immediately felt like I stuck out with each little thing I did. The way I picked things off the shelves wasn’t right, the way I checked out wasn’t right, and, God forbid, I didn’t know the difference between the blue and yellow bags. (Why not just make you pay for the yellow bag you shopped with?)

Not to mention, there were huge crowds of couples and children, and the lines for the Swedish meatballs were unlike anything I’ve seen in my entire life. I was sweaty and frazzled, off put by some of the cultural differences on display in this weird microcosm of humanity that is IKEA but also spiritually angry at some of the more problematic implications of IKEA. (Look at me and my righteous indignation, huh?) Even more so than in the States, there seems to be troubling implications for individuality from the ways in which just about everyone in Scandinavia furnishes their home with IKEA. When you walk into someone’s apartment and see the same basic furniture and household items, you know that it all came from IKEA. There’s a surprising lack of diversity in the way people furnish their homes, especially when they are young and poor like us, and it leads to an eerie sense of sameness, on display when you are there shopping.

Those sandwich bags and Tupperware? IKEA. That same drying rack and laundry that everybody has? Oh, it’s the cheap one from IKEA. Those shelves? Oh yeah, I have those same ones, they’re beautiful, Sven and I got them from IKEA.

Maybe I’m reading too much into it (reading too much into things is my profession), but IKEA really is a special kind of place. Going around from showroom to showroom in an endless loop, you are stuck by the cheapness and sameness of everything, and it feels so very artificial. Perhaps Walmart and Target are no different, but the very pervasiveness of IKEA as the de facto home decorator, especially over here, is so interesting as a social phenomenon to me that it warrants attention. Not to mention the fact that it’s hell on Earth on Saturdays and makes me worry about humanity in the same way that malls do in the U.S.

Not much, but I do have a place to live.

Not much, but I do have a place to live.

Alas, these were the things I was thinking about as I carried 1000DKK worth of home items away on my impractically-purchased racing bike one Saturday afternoon. The classmates I went with had similar issues, and the memory of stealing an IKEA dolly and walking it a kilometer and a half to the metro with a large bed mat on it because we didn’t want to pay for delivery – some things don’t change in graduate school – will stick out in my mind as one of the surreal memories of my first days in Denmark. Also up there is getting lost with those IKEA items on my way back from the metro station as the sun went down, but I was at least comfortable in the knowledge that other international students from all over the planet were going through the exact same thing. And now, at least, I would have my 25-minute bike ride every morning to grumble about humanity under my breath as I cut people off in the bike lanes like the true Masshole driver I know that I will always be.

Stay tuned for stories about graduate school and the problems/pleasures of living in an international bubble.

On Loneliness

*not my own picture*

*not my own picture*

Your first night in a new place is one that will stick in your mind long after it is past, even though it is but a distant memory just a few days later. In light of this fact, it’s a shame that the first night also tends to be your most anti-climactic of your experience of a place – especially if you’ll be there for a while – leaving you with an effective impression of: This is it? How could this possibly be it? What if I just left?

(“Just kidding everybody, I’m coming home, everything’s a wash, who was I kidding right? Back to the airport, see you in the morning.”)

When you think about it, though, how could your first night in a new place not be anti-climactic? Could the wholly alien nature of moving to a new place – not to mention to a new country or different culture – ever really live up to your expectations? With vacation, you can check into the hotel, take a nap, go exploring, and head out for a nightcap before heading back to the hotel to sleep before a busy day of activity/non-activity. But in the case of moving, nothing about the experience of arrival is conducive to experiencing your new home in the proper context: you are tired, you likely have not eaten, your body is still adjusting, you miss your family and friends already. And even if you’re prepared, you’re never prepared enough.

If you are a student, the problem is likely even worse. You’ve probably only just found out where you’re going to live, and you’re likely still daunted by how you are going to afford, nevertheless get on in this new place. It’s easy to feel awash with the mixture of emotions well beyond that first day until you settle in. In other words, your first night can leave a stark impression, despite its quick fade. My first such night in Copenhagen, Denmark was one such experience, and – much as in my case – it’s easy to get off-put by the distinct and complex feelings of a first night.

The word is loneliness. On arriving to Copenhagen (København) for my first year in a new MSc program called Global Development at the University of Copenhagen, I was immediately taken by the newness of the city center, despite my having visited the city before. I confusedly sat in a Dunkin’ Donuts in Copenhagen Central Station (how New England . . .) trying to figure out after my tiring flight how I would arrive to my new, and temporary, accommodation in the Valby neighborhood of Copenhaegn, about 7 kilometers west of the city center.

(An observation: What they don’t ever tell you about when preparing to travel is the “Wi-Fi shuffle,” as I have termed it, that incessant non-stop shuffle of the unprepared traveler at a new destination to secure reliable Wi-Fi and find out where you are – how you are getting somewhere – what you are supposed to do when you get there. It hasn’t stopped as I write this, as I frantically try to get my phone unlocked through AT&T so that I can actually not get lost twice per day. A distinctly Millennial problem, but I digress.)

Upon finally messaging my new roommate/landlord/temporary two-month benefactor of a room that isn’t a box on the street, I managed to stand around helplessly outside for about twenty minutes and get on a bus on what I think is the right route (I’m of course too proud to ask for directions). Naturally, I got off at the wrong stop, walked a kilometer (ahem) and a half  to my new accommodation with two large suitcases in tow because I’m too poor/cheap/confused to order transportation, and finally managed to ring the door, sweating through and having not showered over 24 hours. (Once you reach minute fifteen of walking with two rather heavy suitcases with confusing foreigners staring at you with various levels of intensity, you definitely want to call it a day. All you want to do is brush your teeth and nap, even though your inclinations are telling you to explore the city.)

My apartment has a kitten!

My apartment has a kitten!

Settling in had a very familiar feeling, not dissimilar to when I went on an abroad program to Queen’s University in Northern Ireland. Once you finally stop unpacking, all you want to do is finally explore the city, which usually entails buying food and passing out several hours later because you are too exhausted. When walking around that first night, you are struck by the fact that you really do not know anybody. This is obvious, of course; but you definitely feel it. You are acutely aware of how different everything is, possibly in spite of all the similarities (there are many between Copenhagen and any other part of the city). The small things stick out to you the most, and they certainly did to me on that first night. The academic term is “culture shock” and it takes a, sometimes long process of acclimatization to overcome, but I don’t think that’s what that was exactly. I think that’s what will happen in a few months when I don’t know how to find a new place to live and am finally really missing my family and friends. It takes a while to settle into everything, and while it will never feel like home, it will do its closest approximation.

So, the first week is exciting, but the first night is downright lonely.

For me on that first night, the travel and the headache struck me on my first venture into a Danish grocery store. I quickly found out, in time to buy just coffee, milk and Corn Flakes, that the grocery store closes at 8. At which point I proceeded to a pizza shop and navigated ordering a weird chicken sandwich that wasn’t exactly what I had in mind, but it would do. As I carried that lonely chicken sandwich and my large, sad box of Corn Flakes back to my apartment, I was stuck by the differences between my section of the city, Valby – a close approximation of Lowell where I studied for my undergraduate degree – and the city center – a gloomier, more Victorian approximation of Boston. I wondered very seriously what I was doing with my life.

Back in my room, I sat in the half-furnished room and ate that sandwich before falling asleep on a pile of my own things and waking up with one of the worst headaches of my life just three hours later. What followed for the next night was, as a non-insomniac, one of the worst nights sleep I have received. Perhaps it was the travel but almost certainly it was the food, and next thing I know I am back and forth between the bathroom and my headache-handicapped stupor on my couch-bed for the duration of the night, using both ends of my body multiple times (I’ll spare you the finer details).

As someone who never gets sick, at least not in this way, this is alarming. But once I got through the night I realized that, as with anything, it’s not all that bad. I cannot begin to describe the loneliness of that night, though, not so much a sadness as a hollowness while you anticipate all that is (hopefully) to come. In many ways, I am grateful for nights like that at the beginning of the trip because I knew the journey would only get better from there. The next morning, I miraculously woke up on time for my course introduction, managed a long walk into the city, and somehow functioned for the next sixteen hours as I realized how quickly things can improve.

You never really get over the loneliness of that first night, or, rather, you never forget it. Having moved several times and traveled somewhat widely, this will be one that sticks with me. It makes every night thereafter that much better, which is certainly the case for me in this first week here in Copenhagen. As I sat next to the lake on my beautiful first day in Copenhagen drinking a beer with some of my classmates (which you’re totally allowed to do in public over here), I realized that the first night doesn’t matter, even though you think it does; it’s the first full day that counts.

The lakes look beautiful but they’re artificial. Really shallow and actually kind of gross when you get close (but hey).

Stay tuned for stories about cycling, graduate school, and the endless sea of conformity and cheap pleasure that is IKEA.