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.

On Crappy Weather and New Friends

Weather BEFORE.

Weather BEFORE.

Weather. We all talk about it in very banal terms, often as a placeholder for other, more meaningful conversations or a way of breaking bread with other people given a better idea, but we never usually take the time to really realize what an undue influence it has on our thoughts, behavior, and lives. I think about it even less than other people do; while the weather is always on the tip of other’s people’s tongues, it’s always at the base of mine. (Weird and creepy metaphors for 100!) That has not been the case since I arrived here in Copenhagen.

Background: I’m always the one that is under-dressed or dressed incorrectly for the weather, often because I don’t know what I’m doing with life but also because I desperately want to convince myself that weather doesn’t affect me in the same way that it does other people. (Ask anybody that knows me and common sense isn’t always my strong suit.) I’m always the person that is asked “OH, you’re just wearing that?” or “Do you want my jacket? I’m sure it would make you a lot more comfortable.” Firstly, no I don’t, so please stop asking me! But I’m incredibly stubborn as well, so sometimes I do and I’m just putting on a show. (Maybe.) I always prefer comfort to being over-dressed, and this has made me, to some extent, more tolerant of the weather but also less interested in it and less able to notice the small temperature differences that others seem to. Maybe a little arrogant, too.

I do tend to do a lot better in the cold than in the heat. Part of this is how silly and ridiculous I look in shorts (can’t be just me), but I always prefer to warm up rather than cool down. Maybe it has to do with me, at my core, being an introvert who prefers the comfort of cooler climes to the excitement of nice weather and crazy beach days, but I prefer cooler weather and have always tended to like places where the temperatures skew on the cooler side of temperate than the hotter side of temperate. For some who know me, this might seem counterintuitive given my love of going barefoot, but I would always prefer temperatures of 50 degrees Fahrenheit (9-10 degrees Celsius) and sunny to the type of weather that forces me into shorts every day. Extreme weather in the cold direction tends to be fine for me so long as it is not accompanied by extreme winds, complete and total cloud hour, and rapidly diminishing daylight hours.

So, while I am indeed an idiot, this idea of me “willing something into existence” is to some extent true in this case. Years of being improperly dressed has forced me into a tolerance for cold that seems to be much higher than that of a lot of other people, even those from a similar climate. Perhaps I do have a better system for regulating my internal management of temperature difference, but, really, I have kind of willed myself into an attitude for weather that seems more like “We’ll get through this” than other people, for whom it predominates the conversation. All that has gone out the window since I’ve been here in Copenhagen, where I constantly talk and think about the weather.

After an unusually nice September in the city (which, as I was reminded many times, was very unusual and I should be grateful for it), October has slowly begun to kick my ass. Despite going to Ireland for a semester — where I was struck by the constant rain — I was not ready. Denmark seems committed at every level to reminding you of the fact that it is a flat, grey little country and you can either accept it with all its introverted, fun-loving eccentricity and rules or get the hell out. I do respect that, and I do not mind the cold, but after your 10th straight day of cloud cover, the one hour where the winds slow down and you see a beam of light from the sky seems to, quite literally, be sent from the heavens. Seriously, it rains more than half of the week and I’m constantly looking for signs of light, not to mention almost getting knocked off my bike by wind half the days I cycle into the university.

Aside from that, though, it’s lovely. I swear. #WelcomeToScandinavia

Weather AFTER.

Weather AFTER.

All of this reminds me, though, that one of the most interesting things to me about traveling is going to cities and towns and talking to locals, and realizing that each area really does have its own personality. This personality can, in turn, be directly related to the weather. Not indirectly, mind you, but directly; correlation does in fact equal causation in this case., and the patterns of weather are very much emblematic of the types of people toy will find.

With some of our own limited knowledge of weather systems, some of it doesn’t make intuitive sense: like why, given the latitude, I experience much sharper extremes of cold in New England but don’t have all the grey, existential doom-and-gloom of flat and insular little Denmark. You can easily see the weather reflected in the people that live here. In Denmark, everything is very eccentric, precise, homogenous, shy, and orderly,; though, unlike the Swedes it seems they are not afraid to have fun. (Already picking up on local stereotypes. Ahem.) You can find evidence of this as a reaction to the weather: like in their day-to-day life, everybody puts their nose down to get through life most of the year, but then the times when it is sunny they really know how to enjoy themselves. In all of it, they seem to very much be themselves and, like the weather, you can take it or leave it. The personality suits me, I just wish it had some of the inconsistency of weather in New England, which serves to remind you that there is still a a world beyond the clouds.

One of the side-effects of the nice/crappy weather divide is, of course, the attendant change that you notice in your social life. Being new to a place, it is especially pronounced. The first month here, it seemed like every night we would just drink beer by the river, or every day we could sit outside in between or after classes and just be happy to be in a new place. I actively enjoyed my bike rides and wasn’t at all taken back by the acuteness of the wind gusts or randomness of the rain. As with any change to Fall or Winter, I knew it wasn’t going to last forever, but the shift was definitely more sudden than I was used to. After four weeks of mostly sun and sometimes nice temperatures, the weather very abruptly gave up and said see you in April.

This isn’t a bad thing, but it has meant thinking more about my days in advance. All of my friends here are still people that I’ve met in Global Development, and with the the nice weather has gone the lack of planning which made it easy to go from one thing to the next and meet new people. Now that the weather is, uh, shite, and the days are darker and colder, it makes me look back with nostalgia and rose-tinted glasses (already) at the romantic, fun-loving first month of yore. I’m already beginning to understand what the Danes talk about when they talk about hygge, because when it’s cold and getting darker by several minutes per day, it seems like the only option to preserve your sanity in between endless amounts of reading and trying to get settled and develop a routine in a new location. I was almost there, and then the weather happened.

On a serious note, I am grateful for how easy my life has been here in terms of meeting new people and developing connections. After just seven weeks I feel like I’ve developed such great rapport with people I didn’t even know two months ago. The small, structured, and focused nature of my program is conducive to that; we’re all studying the exact same things and have the same course load and schedule. It’s easy and natural, even if it doesn’t feel earned because we’re all forced into the same conditions and structure and use Facebook to mediate every social encounter. I’m still looking to meet more people locally, but in terms of the people I’ve met I’m grateful that the growth of a social life was easy and fast, if uneven. Hopefully that will continue on unabetted, despite the weather’s insistence to the contrary. (And perhaps dating is a thing I should look into as well.)

So, in order to escape my existential dread about the weather (and the price of living, I might add) and meet new people, I will be escaping to the (probably not much warmer) climes of Berlin and Prague this week. We have a week’s break from school for lord knows what reason, and I will be using it to maximum effect. I’m looking forward to good beer, castles, museums, and, just maybe, a little bit of sun.

Stay tuned for more stories about experiencing your own culture from the outside.

On Technology

One of the worst things about being a student is accepting the inevitable defeat of that moment where you realize that a document you were hoping would be saved has been lost. Be it a small homework assignment, a group report, a midterm exam, or even entire sections of an essay or dissertation, we have all been there. Even worse is when, well, you are forced to wipe your entire hard drive and lose everything because your disk has been corrupted. Only some of us have been there, but it’s painful. Such has been the case for me this last week. In addition to a variety of other documents and applications, and over 20 gigabytes of photos and 200 gigabytes of video, I lost the last blog I wrote this previous weekend and am now starting fresh with my laptop. But the blog is the least of my worries.

I had written a rather thoughtful exploration of my own reasons for studying development and the ways I’ve shuffled around my understanding of myself and what I want to do with my life over the years since I started university, and that’s probably stuff I will come back to at some point. (Summary: the follow through is okay but I’m very indecisive and could benefit from a little clarity in my understanding of who I am and what I want to do with my life; in other words, typical troubled Millennial angst.) Instead, though, I’m going to talk about the importance of technology and how I have realized how important it is to modern notions of traveling and living abroad (as well as being the source of further Millennial angst).

Starting over can be fun, but not when it’s your laptop and not when you’re still in your first five weeks of grad school in another country. For better or worse, technology both controls us and enables us to achieve so many things, and the loss of it for however long can be acutely felt in the modern day, especially if you are in a place you are unfamiliar with. I’ve always considered myself technologically literate and technologically dependent, like many others in my generation, but I’ve never considered myself an efficient technology user. Primarily, I use technology to do normal things like go on social media, listen to music, and do school work, just like others. But I’ve always felt like I’ve been squandering the opportunities technology has given me, like that I should learn how to code, learn how to use PhotoShop or edit video, or learn how to use a variety of productivity and news apps that will me make me more efficient on the computer. Instead, I’ve used it to go on Facebook, watch videos, and read some news.

In a sense, I’ve become annoyed that the only things I really use technology for are social media, news, music, and videos. In the middle of this, I’ve now realized what a fickle beast technology is and exactly how dependent I am on it, especially in this new context. I probably won’t follow through on half of these new ambitions, but the idea of being a better technology user seemed to coincide, for me, with the idea of being a more productive person more generally. Now that I’ve gotten into something of a routine over here, I can focus on being a better student and a better person in some sense. Technology is an integral part of our modern lives, for better or worse, and I should learn to take better advantage of it to improve my life rather than just distracting this to me.

In the middle of all of this came a computer crash and the realization that I know far less about technology than I could ever hope to. Just like I’d be Googling how to change a tire if I went off the room in a snow storm, I barely know what to if for some reason my computer cannot boot. You don’t realize exactly how lost you are until that moment because you know that most of your personal records and things that make you yourself are on there, as well as all the school work you need to be keeping track of.  In a practical sense the crash affected me very little and is something I could resolve, but it’s something that got me thinking about how we treat technology as a given when it is impermanent.

Running definitely clears my head when it comes to things like this.

Running definitely clears my head when it comes to things like this.

That moment for me was on Saturday, when a standard reboot to install updates on my computer wouldn’t end and resulted in the hard disk being corrupted. With some help from my roommate and a call to HP, I realized that I was going to have to reinstall Windows. The hard drive was irreparable and instead of being able to repair it, I was forced to wipe the drive and do a fresh install. All because, apparently, a graphics driver from Windows isn’t compatible with my HP laptop and somehow resulted in a computer malfunction that resulted in the hard disk being corrupted. Because Windows 10 forces these updates on you, I was helpless, and because I had only backed up some things to the cloud, I lost just about everything and am now back to square one.

What this entails in real terms is a realization that I’ve not been responsible in considering how dependent I am on technology and how being responsible and efficient with technology comes first from having the foresight to back up your computer and second having the realization that you’d be lost without the files and things that you have stored on your laptop or PC. You just don’t think that everything’s going to go South until it does one minute and then you’ve lost a bunch of memories and a whole bunch of things you need to live your day-to-day life, especially as a student. Having lost only a few weeks’ worth of work from my grad program, I’m struck by how grateful I am that this isn’t happening 18 months from now when I will be in the middle of writing a Master’s thesis. What you can’t get back, though, are the old photos and videos, or any writing you’d done that you’d actually want to hold on to. (I had written some chapters of a book over the years and am really disappointed they’re gone, despite probably not being any good.)

In my mind, I keep thinking: it’s just a computer, you’re abroad, you should be living your life and not worrying too much about these things. But, unfortunately, as a Millennial and especially as a student you are chained to the world by your computer to do many things, and when those are taken from you there is a realization of how much you need them to get by. Without the ability to use my computer to do work, I would realize how difficult it is to keep in touch with friends or family, do work, and get about. There’s a certain amount of privilege in all of this, but privilege you need to recognize and internalize if you’re going to move beyond the technology and not allow it to control you. You’re immediately handicapped, even though you shouldn’t be, and in that immediate helplessness you realize your own privilege. It’s an important realization: how important technology is to our modern lives but also how unimportant it is in the grand scheme of life and how lucky we are to have it.

From now on, I will definitely be purchasing external hard drives to back up my computer, and will realize that the first step to being an efficient technology user is to realize that you have an obligation to treat it like the commodity it is. It can go away in a flash, it’s not self-perpetuating; and we all need to realize that and think about what we can do to make sure the loss of it doesn’t control our lives. Technology should free us to do more things, not imprison us. If I can be more efficient in using technology better and using it less to do things like browse Facebook and watch videos, then maybe I can free myself to do more important and better things with it (such as keep track of the photos you think will never just one day be gone).

Definitely didn't lose all of my photos!

Definitely didn’t lose all of my photos!

In the meantime, I have also realized how technology dependent we are when traveling or living in a new country. Technology keeps us connected to people at home and serves as the basis for a new epoch of communication and relationships. When you’re in a new place where you don’t have roots, the lack of it is even more acutely felt. You sometimes don’t know how to get around, how to organize your life, or how to do things you’ve always wanted to do. You have this romantic idea that travel entails cutting yourself off from the constant flow of information and people, and in some sense it does. But when you’re putting down roots in a new place in the 21st century, you do kind of need it. Even more than when you’re home, technology opens up communication channels that are incredibly important for both being away from home and getting on in a new place.

As ridiculous and hyperbolic as some of this, I’m grateful I was able to fix my computer without too much fuss. But I’m still living with issues with it after two crashes and resets, and I know that I need to take better care of it and realize how it affects me and my place in the world. I could be negative on it, and indeed it is a sad state of affairs, but technology, and especially your PC, is something people forget they have to maintain and pay attention to. Only then will its loss not hit us so hard and we will free ourselves to spend more time detaching from it and disconnecting. Use it responsibly and take care of it and realize how important it is, but then don’t be afraid to put it aside. I know when I travel to Berlin, Prague, and Riga later this month that my laptop is something I will be leaving behind in order to better enjoy life in a new pace, safe in the knowledge that the important things I need on it will be there when I get back if I actually remember to take care of them and treat them as the commodities they should be seen as.

Stay tuned for more stories about new friends and, uh, the weather.

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.