To all who have followed my previous journeys, this one is slightly different. It takes place in a U.S. classroom and features me trying my hand at being a digital product designer. I stumbled upon this class when my Latin class was cancelled last-minute – due to low enrollment if you can you believe it – leaving me scrambling to find something to fit my schedule. In any case, I find myself incredibly thankful for stumbling upon this class because it’s opened my eyes to a whole new world, a world in which I never thought I would find myself in. And although I could probably write an entire blog post about all the interesting things I learned throughout the semester, I will instead describe my creative process for one of the projects I completed for this class.
One of the most difficult parts of the entire project was coming up with a problem to solve, a gap in the digital world in which I could pour my creative energies. The idea for this app came to me when my friend was lamenting the fact that no one was utilizing the Google Excel sheet she had prepared, dedicated to recording all the wines we purchased from Trader Joe’s. Our goal was to test all the different wines and document the price, our rating, and our overall thoughts for each. The problem was that no one was actually using the Excel sheet because, let’s face it, Excel spreadsheets are boring. It just resonates with boring, academic associations and that was definitely not the vibe we were trying to capture. So, I thought that I would create an app for wine connoisseurs and beer lovers, people who want to keep track of all the different types of beverages they’ve tried.
As I thought more about this, and with the good advice of one, wonderful ENTR 390 TA, I realized that I didn’t have to limit my app to just beverages. It could be geared for other interests like books, movies, or podcasts, really any interest that someone might want to keep a record of. I took some inspiration from the website GoodReads, a “social cataloguing” site that acts as a digital bookshelf for all the books you’ve read and want to read. The problem with this website is that it’s only for books and the design is sort of clunky and only a handful (literally) of people I know actually use it. It’s also web-based and doesn’t have a mobile app. But, to its credit, I did like the social aspect so I thought that being able to see your friends’ lists and interests could be a valuable addition to my own app.
So, I arrived at this problem statement:
Book fanatics, wine connoisseurs, and movie feigns (i.e. people who keep track of their interests) want something to make customizable lists to track their progress and commentary/thoughts/ratings in a social way so that they can keep records for themselves and also share them with friends and other like-minded souls.
And the persona I was designing for was the lovely Cecelia:
Cecelia, 26 years old, recently graduated with a Masters in Graphic Design and just employed at a start-up in LA, California. She is single and ready to enjoy life out of school. She considers herself to be a wine aficionado and a voracious reader, and wants something to keep track of all the wines and books she’s tried with her thoughts and comments. She also has a lot of friends in the area and wants to see what types of wines her friends are drinking and what books they’re reading with their recommendations and thoughts.
I tried to focus on four major functions: the home screen, where one could see recently updated lists and their friends’ lists; a profile screen, where one could update their information and connect via Facebook and Google+; the friends screen, where one could search through their friends, add friends, etc.; and a ‘My lists’ screen, where one could add and edit their own lists. Here are what some of the original wireframes looked like:
(Home Screen) (Add a List Screen)
I quickly realized, however, that making this a social app would be really complicated. During a valuable peer review session in class, my classmates kept bringing up important questions like: “What will the privacy settings be like?”, “How do you add friends? Can anyone see your lists or are they private?”, “Can you follow the lists of famous people too?”
From these sorts of questions an important lesson entrenched itself into my mind: designers have to think about A LOT OF STUFF, especially when designing for functionality and utility. So, I decided that adding the social aspect to this app would be a project for the future, when I have more of a handle on the design process as a whole. Anyways, I went back to the designing board with a simpler goal and revised my problem statement:
Book fanatics, wine connoisseurs, and movie feigns (i.e. people who keep track of their interests) want something to make customizable lists to track their progress/commentary/thoughts/ratings so that they can keep records for themselves and not accidentally try something that they’ve already experienced.
And I also needed to change my persona:
Cecelia, 26 years old, recently graduated with a Masters in Graphic Design and just employed at a start-up in LA, California. She is single and ready to enjoy life out of school. She considers herself to be a wine aficionado and a voracious reader, and wants something to keep track of all the wines and books she’s tried with her thoughts and comments so that she can have a record of her experiences and not accidentally try something for the second time and also to refer back to when giving recommendations.
This change in direction really helped me focus on designing the most important aspects of the app, which were the adding lists function, adding items within those lists, the actual list screen, and the home screen. To help with designing these functions, I had some really good feedback from classmates about adding templates for popular lists people might make while also keeping the option to completely customize your own list. Here’s what the updated wireframes for the home page and the “add list” page looked like:
(Home Screen) (Add list from Template Screen)
I tried to keep the design simple and intuitive for whatever screen I was designing. I hoped that it would be simple enough to use that the app wouldn’t require any on-boarding, which is when the app takes you through a quick tutorial when you first open it up. I did this by only including the options of going to the profile screen or adding a list right from the home screen. Later, when you have added a list, you can access it right from the home screen. I also added text captions to all the icons at the bottom of the screen and to the “add list +” button so that it would be super clear to users where they were navigating to and what they were doing in the app.
Some of the next considerations included the color scheme, font, and how to structure the actual lists themselves. For color, I wanted to have something fun and engaging but not obnoxious. For the font, I also wanted something fun but legible. I decided on ‘Herculanum’ partly because of its Classical associations but also because I thought it set the mood I was trying to capture – it was out of the ordinary but clearly legible. I also tried a few different color schemes and eventually landed one that was confirmed to be not super obnoxious from friends when I consulted them – it also made me think of warmer weather, which Michigan was in great need of at the time. I think the colors and fonts are best represented in my log-in screen:
For the actual list screen, I wanted it to be a dynamic experience. I made the upper banner a bit larger so it took up more screen and added some color effects to make it more engaging. I also decided that the items in the list would display the name of that item and it’s rating, which would make it easy to scroll up and down the list, looking for items of a certain ranking. But if you clicked on that item, it would expand and show the rest of the information. I perused the designs of some different apps and this expansion method seemed to be pretty popular. For example:
I also created an example for a book list but used stars as a rating because I wanted the user to be able to rate their items with whatever schema they felt like using. I thought this could be a cool and unique feature because a site like Goodreads has only one way to format a rating.
I think that if I had more time, I would play more with the list expansion design. I’m not entirely sure what I would do but I would prefer it to be slightly more engaging than it currently is. I wanted to avoid a spreadsheet layout but I think it could still be designed better. I let some of my friends play around with the prototype and they seemed to feel the same way. They also weren’t entirely satisfied with the color scheme. They additionally suggested that I indicate which fields in the list would actually be visible on the list page (i.e. the name and rating shown above) when the user is making a new list and include the option for users to move around the fields so they can decide what information is displayed on the un-expanded item in the list page.
Then for the second hardest part of the project: the title. I didn’t want it to be something boring like “My Interest Lists” or “Listful” or whatever. So, failing any further inspiration, I returned to my Latin roots to search for the answer. I settled on “Inventarium”, which is actually the Latin translation of list – so marginally better than the other options.
Here is the link to a demo of the project if you want to check it out:
This session’s study tour was a week in Reykjavik, Iceland and its surrounding area! Why Iceland, you might ask. Well, Iceland was first discovered and settled by Vikings in the 9th/10th century and has played an important role in Viking history ever since. A lot of the sagas recording historical events and people were written down in Iceland during the 12th and 13th centuries, greatly contributing to our historical understanding of the Vikings. So here is my record of our very own Icelandic saga.
It began with an early morning and a 3 hour flight to Keflavik airport, about 40 minutes outside of Reykjavik. The only conflict that early morning was the massive lines and huge throngs of people clogging the airport. Who would’ve thought that half of the Danish population would try to leave the city at 6:30am on a Monday. But in any case, all the tourists were being idiots and trying to que up around a pod of four self check-in kiosks, not realizing that there was a treasure trove of many kiosks only a couple of feet behind that pod of kiosks. So that’s where I went and ended up skirting around the line rather quickly. I spent the three-hour flight alternating between reading and dozing and it was quite lovely.
We reached Iceland around 10am or so Icelandic time, two hours behind Copenhagen. We had to wait for our bags for a bit and one of my classmates’ bag never arrived, which was an extreme bummer. I don’t think he had super important things in there but losing a bag is never fun and there weren’t even Scandinavian airline people at the airport to assist in locating his bag! After most of us collected our bags, we took a short bus ride to this Viking museum where we had a buffet breakfast right underneath a replica of a Viking ship. It was actually quite cool and the food was welcome after an early morning. The tiny museum also had a kind of interesting exhibit that had artistic representations of events in Norse mythology. There weren’t really signs or anything except for name plates for some of the Gods so we mostly had to guess what was going on.
After breakfast, we were whisked away to one of Iceland’s most popular tourist destinations – the Blue Lagoon! This is both an artificial and natural phenomenon, first discovered and utilized by an Icelandic dermatologist! It’s a huge geothermal pool, like a big hot-tub, that has properties very good for ones’ skin. I think the pool was created by the run-off of a geothermal power plant nearby and the silica and sulfur in the water mixed with mineral content of the ground, giving it a unique blue color.
Locals starting hanging out in the pool and when this doctor heard about it, he started prescribing it to his patients with skin diseases! We got to luxuriate in the Blue Lagoon for about two hours, putting on mud face masks and paying a vast to the steam bath. It was so relaxing and felt so good after sitting on a plane for a couple of hours. It’s a super touristy area and quite expensive but it’s a fabulous experience and understandably one of Iceland’s most popular tourist destinations. You will certainly not meet or see any locals there, however. The spa building itself was kind of weird. It felt like I was in some kind of futuristic society. We got wrist bands that locked and unlocked lockers in the locker room and you could also use these wrist bands to purchase additional things like an algae face mask or alcohol inside the Blue Lagoon. It almost felt like something out of Black Mirror and Iceland’s landscape also makes you feel like you’re on a different planet with its abundance of volcanic rock, eerily green moss, and the mountainous horizon. Scandinavian architecture is also very minimalist, which is what I picture societies in sci-fi movies look like. It was a very surreal experience.
We headed to our hotel after relaxing for those two glorious hours. It was a very different kind of hotel from the one that I experienced in Belfast. I had a roommate for one, which was nice, but our room was absolutely tiny with two twin beds and horrible wi-fi connection. Our teacher had made it seem like Iceland was an ultra-modern society with wi-fi absolutely everywhere and we discovered that this was not the case. Every single bus we took, and even a boat that we were on later in the week, had better wi-fi than this hotel. But the beds were comfortable and it’s not like wi-fi is essential for living so it was a pretty nice place to stay for only a week. We had a very short rest and chance to unpack and organize ourselves before we embarked on a walking tour of Reykjavik. It was really cold and windy, a stark contrast to the warmth and comfort we felt in the Blue Lagoon but it was really nice to be able to explore the town and orient ourselves. Our teacher took us around to see a lot of things, Hallagrimskirkja, the downtown area, the two main shopping streets, Parliament, the Cathedral of Reykjavik, and even this rock that’s said be the home of the hidden people. Apparently, Icelanders are very superstitious and firmly believe that the land is inhabited by spirits and hidden people, sort of like elves. They really take pride in their natural environment and try not to disturb it as much as possible, which is actually really awesome. They’re known to even halt the construction of roads and alter building plansif there’s a sign that the hidden people don’t like what they’re doing!I think that’s one of the best things about Iceland.
Another cool thing about Iceland is that their parliament has existed since 970 A.D., when the Althing was established. The Althing used to be a huge democratic gathering of Icelandic settlers from the entire island, where disputes were settled, marriages were arranged, and even divorces carried out! Someone told us that Iceland had the very first democracy in the whole world, which I guess is true if you totally forget about Ancient Greece. Their Parliament building is also not what you would think it would be. Most European buildings of state are massive and meant to be impressive but the Icelandic Parliament building looks like it could be a small, local bank or a library or something like that. But I think the Icelanders are more low-key about architecture and stuff like that, they don’t seem like they try to be more than they are, which is kind of refreshing.
We also saw City Hall, which is a totally different building, and the tourist information center, both located on this small lake in the middle of Reykjavik. It was here that we witnessed true Viking savagery in the form of a duckling massacre. There were a bunch of cute little ducks following their mom on the small lake before us, many of the students even commented on how cute they were, etc., etc. And then, as our teacher was trying to tell us where the University of Iceland and the National Museum were, the seagulls above started dive-bombing the ducklings, snatching them right from the air! We shouted in dismay but couldn’t look away from this unfair battle between species. The mamma duck tried to protect one last child from this savage attack but failed. We all stood open-mouthed, staring in horror at the lake where everything had become calm once again, the mamma duck back to swimming towards her original destination. I started laughing because that’s how I deal with sudden tragedy, others were also laughing, probably trying to conceal their horror like I was, while others wiped away a tear or two that had slipped down on frozen cheeks. No one saw this coming and our teacher kept reminding us of this event for the entire week, which got very old after the first couple of times. So that was our introduction to Reykjavik!
We ended our first day with a soup and salad buffet at this Indian themed restaurant. The soups were absolutely amazing, our appetite regained after the massacre. One of the guys, who I still don’t think is old enough to be in college, downed seven bowls of soup after being challenged by another one of the guys, even shoveling in a salad to end his gluttonous feast. But anyways, I enjoyed my meal and was very satisfied with the soup. I love soup and apparently the Icelanders do too! Every soup we had was exquisite and now I’m filled with the desire to try to make soups when I get back home. The rest of the evening was on our own, so my roommate and I decided to go back to our room and relax. We were absolutely exhausted and it was quite a busy day!
We had to wake up relatively early for the day’s activities but it was okay because the hotel’s breakfast buffet made up for everything else it lacked. There was a waffle maker, pancakes, eggs, sausage, skyr (Icelandic yogurt that’s similar to Greek yogurt), fruit, breads, meats, fruits, and veggies. It was quite amazing. We split up into two groups after breakfast, one group for horseback riding and the other for hiking in a lava cave. We had to sign up for one of the activities previously and by the time the paper reached me, all the slots for horseback riding were taken. I was sort of bummed but hiking in a lava cave seemed just as cool and the day’s weather made it seem even more appealing. It was pouring rain and really cold so at least I was going to be under the cover of rocks and ground! It was about a 40 minute drive to the cave, which is newly discovered. It’s a baby lava cave, formed only about 1200 years ago. We got to learn a lot about the geology of Iceland, which I discovered is a main attraction for most tourists. Iceland is the youngest island in Earth’s history, formed only about 12 million years ago! It’s the closest example we have to what other planets with the beginnings of life would resemble, and gives researches a better idea of how Earth itself was formed. So that’s pretty cool! Our tour guide in the cave also taught us a lot about how lava tubes are formed and pointed out the features of the cave that indicate how its structure was formed. Our guide was pretty funny and is actually from Greece, moving to Iceland after meeting an Icelandic man. Why she left sunny and warm Greece for cold and rainy Iceland, I’m not entirely sure. But she loves it, as she is a geology and spelunking kind of gal.
One of the coolest parts of the lava cave was when we had our silent, dark moment. Our guide turned off all the artificial lights so we could ‘see’ and hear what the cave would have ‘looked’ and felt like prior to human intervention. I put see and look in quotations because it was the darkest dark I have ever experienced. I held my hand right in front of my face and couldn’t see a thing, I kept thinking my eyes would adjust to the dark but they never did. It was an oppressive type of dark, one that makes you hear your heart beat. And then our guide said, “Think about going spelunking in a cave like this and your flashlight runs out of batteries ….”, that sent a shiver down my spine. There’s no way in hell you could find your way out if your light went out in that cave. So that was quite an experience.
We had a good amount of time for lunch before our next activity so a bunch of us went to a pizza place a few blocks up from our hotel. They had a lunch special so two other girls and I ordered a large with two toppings for only like $11 each, which is a good deal in Iceland. It’s ridiculously expensive there, much more expensive than Copenhagen. It was pretty good pizza although I am craving some of the ticker and doughier crust that you get in the States. After that, we still had time so we walked around more of Reykjavik, going to a coffee shop called Reykjavik Roasters and into some of the tourist shops that are everywhere on the main shopping street. I also found a crystal shop, which was super exciting! I explored that for a bit and then also found a large bookstore where I found some awesome gifts for my dad.
We went back to the hotel and dried off before heading out for our evening activity. We were going on a tour of the Golden Circle, which is another popular tourist activity. Unfortunately, it was still raining and cold and kind of dreary, which made the tour not as much fun because the clouds obscured the landscape and we got soaked. But it was still really cool. We started off with Skáholt Church that was the Icelandic bishop’s seat from 1056 to the 1770’s, quite a long time! It used to be a place of immense power and learning but that changed after Denmark forced Iceland to accept the reformation and conversion to protestantism. The basement of the church had some cool Latin inscriptions so I enjoyed seeing those. There was also a crypt but it was closed.
After the church, the bus took us to some the incredible Gullfoss (Golden falls) water fall. It was even more wet and windy here but it was totally worth it because the falls were so exquisite. We got some cool pictures and were also able to climb around on some the rocks near the falls, which gave us a chance to stretch our legs after so much time on the bus. We didn’t have a lot of time here because it was cold and rainy and we also had to make our dinner reservations at the Geyser hotel. On the bus ride there, our bus driver told us about this Icelandic dating app where you can figure out how closely related you are to whoever you just met at a bar! The Icelandic population is super small, around 300k, and everyone seems to be related in some capacity. We ended up getting there too early so we had a chance to walk around the geysers, and even watched one blow! It was pretty cool, I’ve never seen that before. It had also stopped raining at that point so we were able to walk without getting drenched, a happy turn of events.
At dinner we had more of a chance to dry off, which was nice. We had a three course meal: bread with pesto sauce and a vinaigrette for pre-appetizer, salad with reindeer pate, chicken on barley risotto, and a chocolate mouse cake type thing for dessert. It was an amazing meal! The reindeer pate was really good and came with some sort of fruit compote or something. We didn’t get any wine though, which was disappointing, as our activity for the day wasn’t finished and you’re not allowed to drink while doing ‘school’ things. Actually, the only ‘school’ related thing we did was the very last site visit, which was to Thingvellir, or the Law Rock, in the National Park. This is where the Althing was held since it was established in 970. The National Park was absolutely gorgeous and I wish we had had more time to explore. It started raining again so a lot of people were miserable so we didn’t stay long. But we also discovered that Game of Thrones films here quite often, every time they go north of the wall! So now I can say that I’ve been beyond the wall, so that’s pretty cool.
Our teacher played Of Monsters and Men, an Icelandic band, on the way home to the hotel. I enjoy their music but she also had CD’s of traditional Icelandic folk music and I would’ve rather listened to that! But it was a good day, packed with lots of activities.
We got to sleep in a bit because we got back to the hotel pretty late Tuesday night. Sleeping in felt amazing, and I had another delightful breakfast. We left around 9:30 for the morning’s activities. The first was a tour of Harpa, Iceland’s first and only major concert hall. It’s a beautiful building and has now become one of the landmarks of Reykjavik, even though it was only completed in 2011! It was specially designed for acoustics and has four different concert rooms where each room can be tuned to suit the type of music that will be performed inside it. Every room is also really artistically designed and was beautiful! So we got to learn about how each room worked and operated, and the history of the building. It was started in 2007, right before the financial crisis, which really hit Iceland hard and they almost went bankrupt as an entire country. So construction had to completely stop in the middle of 2008 because the investor pulled out. But the city decided to go forward with construction, relying heavily on volunteers from the community. And it was finished in 2011, owned and operated by the city! They host a lot of other cultural events apart from music, so it really has become a location of Icelandic pride and heritage. We were going to see about a 30 minute Classical concert later in the afternoon, which was made even more exciting after we had learned all about the construction of the concert hall.
Before the concert, we went to Reykjavik’s Culture House, which is basically like an art museum and used to be the national library. It was a really weird situation there, our professor rushed us through like three floors in a super quick tour and then turned us loose until the concert, which I thought was really stupid. Most people obviously left, and those who stayed had to go back and forth between floors to see what we missed. We really should have just gone through each floor and then left as a group but I guess that didn’t seem logical to our teacher or something, who knows. But I strolled around until it was time to go to the concert. It was a cello and piano duet playing Schumann, which was perfect for me because I play both those instruments! The musicians were incredible and the music was beautiful. It was a very intimate concert as there weren’t many people in the concert hall.
It was here that we had our second, very unexpected surprise. The cellist announced that they had prepared a very special encore for us and they proceeded to start playing the Wedding song, you know, the one that plays when the bride walks down the isle. We were all really confused, until someone walked up on stage with a bouquet of flowers and proposed to his girlfriend sitting in the first row! It was one of most romantic things I’ve ever seen. He read what seemed like a heartfelt speech from his phone (it was in Chinese so we didn’t really know what he was saying), and then he got down on one knee after the end of the song and popped the question. She said yes, of course, and then the cellist and pianist played a very romantic waltz to end the concert.
We had the rest of the afternoon on our own. We received a free ticket to the National museum so two other girls and I decided to go grab some cheap lunch at the University of Iceland student cafe and then head to the museum. I’m still shocked and appalled that the National museum wasn’t on our itinerary. It was literally entirely about the Vikings and the first settlements on Iceland, which is incredible relevant to our class. The free ticket was a surprise to even our teachers, included with the ticket to the culture house! That museum visit was probably the most Viking related thing I did on the entire trip. That said, it was a pretty cool museum. They had a lot of great artifacts and really walked you through Iceland’s history. They also had a great museum shop where I got some cute gifts for my mom. After the museum, we walked around Reykjavik, seeing more of the city and visiting all the shops that caught our eye. We started off by going to this super cute cafe called C is for Cookie, where I had a very delicious cookie! We walked along the water, and explored some of the side streets, and definitely got a better feel for Reykjavik as a city. It felt a lot different from Copenhagen. The main shopping streets were clogged with people but as soon as you turn off into a side street, there’s basically no one!
We got dinner at this little restaurant called Lemon, that sold really good sandwiches and skyr smoothies. I had to down it though because I was due to meet some other classmates at an Icelandic saga comedy performance at the Harpa! It was a wild tour of 40 different Icelandic sagas in 75 minutes, which was pretty crazy. There were only two actors and they did a really good job, really committing to being absolutely ridiculous. There were also some hilarious volunteers that unwittingly got really into it. The show was surprisingly raunchy but I guess the sagas are already kind of raunchy, as many ancient things tend to be. It was such a great evening! All of us who went think that it should also be included in the tour’s itinerary because you actually learn a lot about Icelandic sagas and even some Icelandic history! It was a little expensive but totally worth it.
We left the hotel around 9:15 for the morning’s activity, to be greeted by an amazing weather day! The sun actually appeared behind some clouds and it wasn’t raining, so we were super happy. It was definitely the best day in the entire trip. And the weather was absolutely perfect for our activity: whale watching! I was really excited for this as I’ve never been whale watching before. It was about a 3 hour trip in total, and chilly out on the water but at least the sun was out. The guide actually made a super funny joke about it. They use the clock system to point out points of interesting in the water so she said, “If you look at about 6-7, you’ll see something very, very rare in Iceland – the sun!”. She totally got all of us. We saw lots of puffins flying close to the water, two humpback whales, and a pod of dolphins! It was so much fun and so beautiful. I’ve never seen a whale in the wild so it was really cool to see the humpback whale make a dive. And the dolphins were also really cute, there was even a little baby swimming close to his mom! This was definitely one of my favorite activities on the whole trip. This is also the boat that had really good wi-fi, way better than our hotel wi-fi.
After we got back into port, we went to Icelandic Fish and Chips to have fish and chips. It was very good! And they even started us off with an amazing veggie soup and some salad. I was almost left behind at lunch, actually. I had gone to the bathroom after I finished eating and when I came out, everyone was gone except a couple of girls! Our professor was apparently in a huge rush to get us to our next destination, the settlement museum.The settlement museum was decently interesting, it was built right on top of the excavated remains of a viking long house. It had a cool panorama of what the city would have looked like when people first settled there. There were also a lot of interactive things, which is always a bonus. After that, we had the afternoon on our own again. The free time was nice, but I felt like we could’ve been doing more things relevant to our class, such as going to the damn National museum. But the same girls who I went to the museum with wanted to go to one of Reykjavik’s local pools so we decided to go do that together. We walked slowly from the settlement museum to the hotel, browsing in some of the shops where I got a few more souvenirs for family.
We really struggled with the bus system and getting to the Vesturbæjurlaug pool, the bus route maps were sort of confusing and we had a hard time finding our stop and had mixed directions about what bus to take and where to get off so it was just a struggle. But we got there nevertheless and experienced a very local thing to do! It was almost all locals there, which was cool, and we relaxed in the hot tubs, steam baths, and large swimming pool for a couple of hours. It felt really good and was extremely relaxing. It was also surprisingly crowded and seemed like a very social type of activity. We were pretty hungry after the pool so we met up with two others from my class and went to this place called Noodle Station, that served a dish that was sort of between ramen and pho. It was really good and relatively inexpensive for Reykjavik. So that was the end to another good day! I went to bed a little bit earlier because we had to get up pretty early for our last day of activities.
Today was our saga day, a so-called ‘academic’ day. We left the hotel at 7:45 and were set to drive north of Reykjavik to sites important in Egil’s Saga, which we had read for class the prior week. Our first stop was at this church in Borg, where Egil and his father, Skallagrim lived, and reputedly where Egil killed his first man. That was a fairly quick stop, mostly so our teacher could read us a poem about Egil killing his first man. Then the bus took us to the nearby town of Borgarnes, where we went to the Settlement center to explore this really cool exhibit on Egil’s saga. It was an audio-guided tour and the exhibit itself had a lot of really cool wood art, depicting scenes from Egil’s saga. It took about 30 minutes to go through and was really cool! It definitely helped the entirety of Egil’s saga to sink in more, or for those who didn’t care to read it, to actually learn about what the saga was about. The settlement center also had a cafe and that’s where we had a super early lunch. It was another buffet of soups and salads but it had the best bread ever. And the soup was exquisite. The salads were pretty good too but the bread, oh the bread. I was so full after that lunch, uncomfortably full. And sitting on the bus did not help, I felt like we barely got to move the entire day! But we did get to walk around the settlement center, located on Brak’s sound, which is named after Egil’s nanny who was killed by his father, Skallagrim. We also got to walk around Skallagrim’s tomb in this really pretty park in the center of Borgarnes.
Our professor announced that she had a surprise for us, no one had any idea of what it could be. And on the way to the surprise, we stopped at this little town that had a ton of huge geothermal pools. So that was kind of fun to see and gave us a chance to stretch our legs. The surprise turned out to be a double waterfall! It was absolutely gorgeous. It wasn’t as impressive as the one we saw earlier in the week but they were incredible. That was a very welcome surprise as we got to walk around in nature and gaze with awe upon the water falls. But she got pretty mad at us towards the end because a lot of people bought ice cream at the little cafe, which they couldn’t bring on the bus. But I still enjoyed the surprise and we still made good time to our next destination.
Our final stop in the saga tour was to Reyholt and the home of Snorri Sturluson, who recorded the Prose Edda and Egil’s Saga, and to whom we must give many thanks for preserving Old Norse religion and culture. He was a historian, chieftain, and three-time elected law speaker, so a pretty important guy in medieval Iceland. It was at this site in Reyholt that he was eventually assassinated for refusing to let Iceland come under the influence of the Norwegian king. He’s a really interesting guy! Reyholt has also been a really important religious site since the 11th century, with around 9 remains of churches found there! There’s a really beautiful church there now that is still functional. We had a mini-lecture there by a really nice woman, who is basically a Snorri Sturluson historian. She told us about his life and works, which was really nice. There was also a small exhibit about Snorri that we walked around in before walking down to his famous ‘hot pot’ (geothermal pool), where he bathed everyday and invited guests to sit and relax. It was right here in his tunnel leading from the pool to the church where he was assassinated in 1241! So we ended our study tour on that note, which was a little macabre but cool to be able to appreciate this man who allows us to know so much about Nordic mythology.
The bus back was long and sleepy and I felt super gross by the time we got back to the hotel. We had a three course dinner to end the day but I was still so full from lunch and the inactivity of the day! So I went for a nice little walk before and then we had quite a long walk to dinner at a place called Geyser Bistro. We actually got to have a wine or beer this time so I had a glass of the house red wine, which was super good and excellently paired with dinner. We had potato soup and bread for a starter, a lamb and veggie kabob with risotto, and a molten lava chocolate mini-cake for dessert. It was so good but so much food.
We had to be out of hotel at 4:45 the next morning so I went right back to the hotel to pack and go to bed but a lot of people decided to go out partying until it was time to go. They were all still really drunk by the time we got to the airport and some even dumped one of the most wasted into my care, so I lead him through check-in and security and got him safely to the gate. It was quite the morning. But I got a solid 6 hours of sleep and passed out on the plane so I was a-okay, just slightly tired. Thus ended my Icelandic saga! It felt so weird to be back in Copenhagen, and to know that this is my last week here. I still have some travels after this program ends but it’s just weird that I’m going to be kicked out by Saturday afternoon.
It was a pretty good study tour overall and I’m really happy to have had the chance to go to Iceland. It’s a place that I never thought I’d go to so I’m grateful to have had the opportunity! It’s a beautiful country and definitely more accessible for people going to backpack and camp, rather than museum goers. This next week includes doing everything I haven’t done in Copenhagen yet and writing the final paper, which I have decided to change my topic. I realized that writing about cults in the Old Norse religion is a topic best meant for a disseration so now I’m going to explore a theory I had about Game of Thrones before I learned that it was heavily based in Norse mythology. All shall be revelaed in the next post!
With the completion of this week, I’ll have been in Copenhagen for the longest amount of time since I first got here! It’s kinda weird to think about and not something I can get used to because next week I’m off to Iceland for the Viking Class study tour. The summer is flying by! Before I know it, it’ll be my last week in Copenhagen with only a few more days to spend in Sweden before I head home to the States. Perhaps that’s why this past week has been spent in a flurry of tourist activity, prodded by the knowledge that Copenhagen will soon be a couple thousand miles away. But I had some familiar faces to join me on this tourist renaissance: my dad and brother! They came partly as a fun father/son summer trip and partly because my birthday was on Monday, although they left Copenhagen for Berlin on Sunday so they didn’t quite make it. But it was still a very lovely weekend with them and super nice to see some family.
The first week of the Vikings class was … interesting. Unfortunately for someone who is actually really interested in Viking history (a.k.a. me), most people in the class are only there for the sole purpose of going to Iceland. And the professor knows and recognized this, handing out the entire study tour itinerary on the first day of class. I won’t complain too much on this blog but let’s just say that the class is not fulfilling my hopes and dreams, I hardly feel like I’m re-living the Viking age and my brain is hardly filled to the brim with new knowledge. Added to that, Copenhagen isn’t even a Viking city! The shift of power to Copenhagen is actually relatively recent in history, the capital used to be Roskilde, which was a very important Viking age city. Dublin, Ireland is more Viking than Copenhagen. But that’s okay, we got to go to the Danish National Museum last Friday to look at the Viking exhibits, which were pretty cool. They had some amazing examples of rune stones and some incredibly preserved mummies from the pre-Viking era!
For those who are unaware, the Viking age is said to have begun in 793 A.D., with the attack on the monastery at Lindisfarne, an island off the coast of the old English kingdom of Northumbria. From this point all the way until about 1066, Vikings from Norway, Sweden, and Denmark pillaged and plundered all over Western Europe. Fun fact: the term ‘Viking’ actually comes from a verb that meant ‘to plunder’ so people would go ‘a viking’, which then became a title of the people doing the action! The Swedish Vikings even made it to Russia and Constantinople (now Istanbul) and the Norwegians made it all the way to North America. Viking ships were incredible, able to sail through open sea as well as rivers, which made them capable of pillaging wherever they felt like it. There are lots of debatable reasons as to why the Vikings started expanding. One is that there was some favorable climate change, which allowed Scandinavians to have better nutrition and resources, subsequently producing lots more children, who eventually had to compete for land. This competition then lead to the young men leaving their homes in search of new land, wealth, and glory. Another reason is that there was political unrest as Harald Bluetooth (his initials in the runic alphabet make up the Bluetooth symbol!) tried to unite Norway under his crown and banished everyone who wouldn’t pay tribute to him. A final reason is that they made some technological advances with shipbuilding techniques which allowed them to sail over more territory, prompting more trade and encouraging more plundering.
Okay, end of history lesson, but I highly encourage anyone interested to do some research on the Vikings. They’re a lot more complex and cool than the stereotypical giant with a horned helmet. I have a nice book list from my class so just let me know if you’d like any of those titles!
My dad and brother arrived on Thursday but since I had school the next day, we really just walked around and ate some food while they tried not to succumb to jet lag. We did have one wild adventure where we tried to rent some city bikes at rush hour and on the busiest street of Copenhagen… would not recommend. Although now I can say I biked in Copenhagen, the bike city so I guess it was all for the narrative. We met up on Friday after I had spent another few hours in the museum and walked over to an area of Copenhagen called Christiania. It’s on its own little island and is home to a very cute canal, the Church of Our Savior with an amazing golden spiral that you can climb up, and Freetown, a small village formed by squatters in the 70s that basically has its own laws. And having your own laws basically means that weed is legal. The buildings are sort of shabby and a lot of it is absolutely covered in beautiful graffiti, if you can see it through the haze of smoke. Just kidding, it really wasn’t that bad but there were a ton of people getting high. There was also lots of great music, one stage called Christiania Dub Club blasting music and another called Nemoland that hosts free concerts every Sunday evening in the summer. One of the cobble-stone streets of Freetown is lined with booths selling green and there’s also a bazar type of square, with lots of jewelry, clothing, and paraphernalia vendors! It was wild, it felt like stepping into an entirely different world.
We walked around there for a bit and then finally decided to grab some food near the metro station, we were not prepared to walk all the way back to Copenhagen’s city center, it’s a pretty long walk! We had surprisingly delicious burgers and then took the metro to Nørreport station, which is the largest metro station other than Copenhagen central. Nørreport is also conveniently place right smack in the middle of all the shopping areas so we were able to wander around there, eventually stumbling upon a piazza-esque square that was host to a large swing dancing group! In the center of the square there was a large, round stage where a ton of people were dancing. There was such a good vibe that we decided to stay and grab a drink and watch the dancing. I got a delicious Irish coffee with khalua, would definitely recommend.
We took our leave of each other after that magical little hour and I headed back to my apartment. I was in a people mood so I hung out at a party on the third floor of my building. We were being way too loud and were getting some complaints so we had to move our festivities to the outdoors, where some of us went on to this club called Butchers, conveniently right accross the street from our school building. That was quite the experience. It doesn’t really start getting busy until after midnight! Apparently it’s not a good night for Danes unless you stay out until like 4 or 5 in the morning.
I turned in early, however, because our Saturday adventure took us to Malmö, Sweden, just a 30 minute train ride away! It was great, I really liked Malmö. It had a rather sleepy vibe, very different from the hustle and bustle of Copenhagen. It was also a rather gray and rainy day so that might have had something to do with it. Our first major stop was Malmöhuset, which is a very modest castle/fortress built in the 1430s. I think it’s a really important stronghold that played a huge role in the Swedish-Danish wars. But it was sort of hard to focus on the history because my dad and brother are not big museum people so I had to focus on keeping them out of trouble instead. The museum also included a cannon tower and modern art wing but we didn’t go into the latter. We did stop in the maritime and science museum, which was pretty cool. We got to go into a part of a Swedish-made submarine! I can’t even imagine having to live in a submarine, that would be so miserable.
The rest of Malmö was food, food, food. And some walking too. We first stopped by this little taco shop, modeled after Southern Californian tacos! It was actually really good, although I can’t compare them to Southern Californian tacos because I’ve never had those. But the guy working said that that’s where the owner is from and he came over to Sweden and opened a taco shop. He sounds like a pretty interesting guy! We walked around the city a little more before stopping into this super cute cafe to experience the Swedish concept of fika, which is sitting down with a friend or two and relaxing over coffee and pastries! Definitely my type of thing. This cafe was owned and run by these two younger guys, one of whom used to live in Copenhagen! They make all their stuff and their decor was spot on. We sampled the carrot cake (heavenly), a gluten-free chocolate cake with some sort of whipped cream on top (amazing), and a piece of banana bread (incredible). We chatted with them for a while and waited for the run to stop before we headed back to Copenhagen.
And as if we hadn’t had enough food already, we decided to ball out for dinner as a celebration of sorts. We went to what used to be the meat-packing district and what is now a super trendy food and bar scene, still called Meat Packing district. It was really packed (hehe) so we grabbed a place where we could, which happened to be at this amazing Indian food place! It was so good, I felt very satisfied. Thus ended the Cusack reunion in Europe! I was sad to see the boys go but excited for their continuing tour of Europe. I had a quiet night at home, I felt exhausted and needed to process all that food.
I had to catch up on reading on Sunday as well as take care of a few administrative-type tasks but I managed to have a nice little solo adventure. I had made plans with some of the people in my building to go back to Christiania for the free concert every Sunday but they forgot we made those plans and didn’t end of joining me. Which wasn’t a bad thing, really, I had a good time by myself and I really enjoyed going back to Christiania. It was even more packed this time than on Friday because of the free concert at Nemoland. People were packed into the space in front of the stage and even on the hillside around it! It definitely had a festival-like feeling to it and that was a fun energy to be around. Plus it was almost my birthday so I was absorbing the good vibes and adding them to my own.
I began my birthday day with a hearty bowl of birthday porridge from the same Bowl Market that I went the first day. It was delicious and I felt incredibly satisfied by my choice in breakfast foods. I wish that the U.S. had more porridge places, that should definitely be a thing. It’s such a good breakfast food and good for you too! Class was class and we had a take-home test due the next day so that was sort of a bummer but a classmate and I continued playing the tourist by going to Rosenborg Castle, which is located right in the King’s Garden.
I think I wrote a little bit about it in my first post because we saw the outside of it during the DIS-cover scavenger hunt thing. The inside was pretty wild! It was extremely extravagant and some of the rooms even tried to copy rooms from Versailles, including a sadly pitiful room full of mirrors. There were also a ton of really fancy clocks, almost a few for every room! I thought that was a little strange. The great hall was also pretty cool. There were three lions guarding the thrones of the king and queen, a little excessive but definitely gets the point across. In the basement, you could see the crown jewels, which are still in use today! There aren’t as many as the crown jewels in London but there are still a lot and they are exquisite. I don’t think I’d personally ever wear them, they’re a bit too gaudy for me but it was really impressive to see. And I liked the fact that I was exploring a castle on my birthday!
My roommates were really sweet and one made me a chocolate cake with a google-translated ‘Happy Birthday’ in Latin! I was so grateful that they took the time to do that. And someone got a card and they all signed it! We got some ice-cream and red wine to complement the chocolate cake and it was really a nice ending to my birthday. I’m excited to be able to legally drink when I get back home, there’s a whole new world of possibilities for me now! I really want my first legal drink to be in a meadery but we’ll see where the wind blows.
Tuesday continued the tourist theme and I went with one of my floormates to the Glyptotek after class. It’s free admission on Tuesdays and has an amazing Classics collection! As well as Ancient Egyptian art and some French painting, which was fun to see also. After the Latin on my cake I was really missing the Classics so it was super fun to see some more familiar faces. The French painting collection also had some amazing Degas, Van Gogh, and Paul Gauguin. I had never heard of Gauguin before but his landscapes are gorgeous. We spent quite a long time there, almost 3 hours! There was a lot to see and getting in free is no joke so we utilized our time there. One of the coolest things about the Glyptotek is this massive room in the center that is almost like a botanical garden type of set up. It has a massive ceiling, koi ponds, and lots of benches and plants. The only downside is that is was really fricken hot in there.
Wednesday was an all-day field study for class where we visited the Roskilde cathedral, the Viking ship museum at Roskilde, and then the Viking fortress Trelleborg! We had a lot of mixed information coming into the day: we weren’t going to go inside the cathedral, we had to meet at 9:15 but we weren’t leaving until 9:30, we’d be getting back home around 3pm, we were supposed to go to Trelleborg first… blah, blah, blah. I guess I said I wouldn’t complain but here it is. It was a rainy day so our professor thought that if we did the mostly inside stuff first, we might be able to wait out the rain for Trelleborg, which was actually a good strategy. And we did get to go inside the cathedral, which was another bonus. Except, the professor talked to us outside the church for a while and by the time she finished, we had a really short amount of time in which to explore the entire cathedral, use the bathrooms, and see the farmers market that happens every Wednesday right outside. I was slightly bitter, I really like taking my time in museums and especially in cathedrals and this entire trip was really rushed. But at least we got to go and I’m happy about that.
Roskilde Cathedral’s major claim to fame is that is has the most buried royalty in all of Europe! And man does it have a lot of buried royalty. They believe that Harald Bluetooth built a small church there when he shifted his seat of power to Roskilde but nothing remains of the previous church. The cathedral itself was started in the 12th and 13th centuries and has been added onto ever since! Every time a chapel runs out of room for the monarchs, they built another one. One of the only bummers about this cathedral is that is was white-washed during the transition to Lutheranism during the Reformation so the walls of the church’s nave are a little bland but there is still plenty of extravagance to go around. We had to quickly go through it all and didn’t get a chance to go to the cathedral museum but it was still an enjoyable experience.
The Viking Ship museum at Roskilde was also pretty cool. They uncovered five viking ships that had been sunk to create a barrier in Roskilde’s fjord. It took them almost 30 years to rebuild and restore the ships and they are quite incredible to see! For some reason, I thought that all Viking ships would look the same but, like most ships from any civilization, it really depends on what they were being used for. War ships were longer and skinnier, built for speed and carrying warriors. Trade ships were typically shorter but deeper and wider to accommodate lots of trading goods. Two war ships and three trading ships were apart of the Roskilde find, making it one of the best Viking ship finds ever! Historians have been able to learn so much about Viking ship building techniques from studying these ships and putting them to the test in real life. The museum is host to a working ship-building yard that utilizes Viking age tools and techniques in the attempt to recreate what the ships would have been like. You can even sail a reconstructed Viking ship around the bay, which my class will actually be doing during our final week. The museum also has a ton of different craft booths, where you can learn how to weave, work in a smithy, and even participate in reconstructing a ship. It’s a super cool museum and I really wish we had more time there.
Our final stop of the day was Trelleborg, which is one of five fortresses constructed by Harald Bluetooth around Denmark and southern Sweden, used as a show of force for consolidating his power in Denmark. It was an incredibly big fortress with the remains of 16 big longhouses inside the ramparts that were most likely used as barracks. Outside the ramparts, there are an additional 15 longhouses that would have housed the other people working at the barracks, like cooks and prostitutes and the like. These fortresses are really unique, especially in the Viking age. Small forces would have been kept around a chieftain’s home but I don’t think it was common to have such a large standing force in one place. This just makes Harald’s show of power all the more impressive!
The museum at Trelleborg also reconstructed a Viking longhouse, which you can go into and sit around the fire. It was incredibly dark with only one hole in the ceiling to let out the smoke, which meant that the entire hall was super smokey! But it was really cool to be inside one of these longhouses and really imagine what it would have been like. The museum also had a tiny area filled with small huts where you could do activities like smelt a Thor’s hammer, bake Viking flatbread, paint a shield, and carve your name in runes on a piece of wood! Because we didn’t have much time, I opted to make the Viking flatbread, which turned out to be surprisingly good. The dough was already made for us so I’m not sure exactly what was inside of it but we got to roll it out and cook it on an iron pan over an open fire. The amount of smoke was ridiculous but the delicious bread made my burning eyes worth it.
All in all, it was a pretty good day and it felt nice to get out of Copenhagen for a little bit. We had an abstract due Friday for our final paper, which I think I’m going to write about the use of cults in the Old Norse religion. It should be a nice weekend because we don’t have any homework before our study tour! So stay tuned for my very own Icelandic saga.
No matter if I’m in the States or abroad, traveling or settling into college, the third week is always the toughest for me. Perhaps it’s because the novelty of being in a new place is starting to wear off and the rigors of change start taking their toll, or because a bit of homesickness sets in, the longing for familiarity amidst strangers and strange things. In all my travels, the third week has always been a bitch, a sort of identity crisis and emotional wreckage. I think I was lucky last summer because the program I was on included the same people and topics for the six weeks, without any final exams or final projects or anything like that. I had much more opportunity to settle in and get into a tentative schedule. Here, on the other hand, we had one week of school, one week in Ireland, and then a final week of class, including two papers and a mega group project before embarking on a totally different class with totally different people. So on top of the third week chaos, this was a little bit more of a stressful week. But my toils would be rewarded, for we have a three-day weekend before the next session starts and I’m using that time to go to Norway with a couple of my floor mates! It was a very spontaneous decision, born from the desire to hike the fjords and we’re pretty darn close to Norway so why not.
But before my Norwegian saga, there were indeed some highlights throughout the week. DIS, the program I’m on, hosts the occasional get-together for its students in some of the parks around Copenhagen. Apparently it’s a very popular past time for Danes to have small barbecues and gathers of friends in the evenings at parks during the summer time. This one was at Amager (pronounced Amayer) Strandpark, which is actually a little beach! Strandpark translates from Danish into beach park. I decided to go because the thought of hanging out at a beach sounded fun, although it was in the low 60’s and cloudy.
They had set up these little grill apparatus (fun fact: apparatus is both the singular and plural form of the word, it’s a fourth declension noun from Latin) and gave us little sticks on which to grill our Danish hotdogs. We had the full barbecue complement, including marshmallows in a bag boasting they were American style, and potato chips! Not a green thing in sight other than the grass we sat on. They had also set up some Danish games to play although the group I went with opted to explore the beach instead of playing the games.
That excursion created a nice little break in the monotony of class, homework, and floor mates worrying about Norway. The final week was surprisingly intense for everyone. One of my floor mates had a seven page paper while a few others had a three-hour exam at the end of the week. I think my class was rather lucky to have just two mini-papers and a group project. Although, our teacher didn’t really tell us what the group project was until Wednesday, which was unfortunate because the thing was due Friday with a group presentation to go along with it.
But nonetheless, the project was pretty interesting. We got to put our cross-cultural communication skills to the test by going out into Copenhagen and talking to some Danes. The point of the project was to interview Danes about some aspect of Danish culture, whether it be immigration, religion, or their perception of Danish culture. My group decided to focus on how Danes, both traditionally and non-traditionally ethnic, thought about their identity as being Danish. We thought this was interesting because early in the week we had a guest speaker named Fatima Osborn, an incredible woman who is a female Imam (a Muslim spiritual leader) as well as a survivor of Ethiopian refugee camps and civil war in Somalia. She arrived in Copenhagen when she was 12 and managed to learn the language, get an education, and become a successful optometrist. Her story is truly incredible and she fully identifies as Danish, feeling that Denmark is her home and country and loves living here. Imran Shah, the Imam we visited the first day of class, feels very much the same way. He fully identifies as Danish. Both, however, have experienced discrimination based on their skin color and religion, and know that many traditionally ethnic Danes would not consider them to be fully Danish. So my group wanted to explore that phenomenon and see what people on the streets had to say.
We went to this area called the Glass Market (Torvehallerne in Danish), which is a popular shopping and eating spot for Danes during their lunch break. It’s really a good mix of a lot of different people and nearby there is a park called Ørstedsparken, which is a great place to find Danes practicing the famous Danish hygge on nice days. My group split up with two going into the Glass Market and the other two going into the park. This part of the project was really challenging for me because those who know me know that I’m relatively shy. Added to that, Danes are very private, reserved people and look at you like you’re crazy when you approach them in the street. Usually they’re very kind and willing to talk to you but approaching them is not the easiest thing in the world. We certainly got rejected by a few people but those we did interview provided very interesting answers. We asked them three questions: 1. What does Danishness mean to you or how would you define being Danish? 2. How do you think someone can become Danish? 3. Have you noticed Danish culture/being Danish changing over the years? If so, how?
We recorded all those who assented and spent about seven hours on Thursday putting together all the audio clips into a podcast type of thing. I am now a GarageBand expert and might make my debut as a DJ soon. If you’re curious, you can listen to our finished product here: What Does it Mean to be Danish?
The differing answers were pretty incredible. Also seeing how difficult the Danes found it to answer, which is understandable. But to be fair, if someone were to randomly approach you and ask you to define your national identity, you might be kind of stumped! We discovered that there are extremely different views on what it means to be Danish and what it takes to become Danish. Some people couldn’t define what Danishness meant to them but had a much more clear picture of how someone could assimilate to the Danish culture. Others were quite adamant that it could take generations for an immigrant to become fully Danish. And then we had a young man, who, like Fatima and Imran, fully identified as Danish even though he wasn’t born here. But he, like the other two, is discriminated against and stereotyped because he doesn’t look traditionally Danish! It’s a wild world, especially for a country who claims to be as accepting and open-minded as Denmark.
So that final project was really interesting to do. And it was really interesting to listen to all the other groups projects! Some did video, some did audio like us, and others just had pictures and quotes from people. Most of the six groups focused on some aspect about being Danish, which made it even more amazing that all of the groups had such different outcomes. And with that, the class was done! Our professor took us out to lunch one last time, to a Turkish buffet that was absolutely delicious. Another fun fact, Turkish immigrants are the largest non-European immigrant group in Denmark. Anyways, it’s wild that this class and session are already finished. The three weeks flew by and it’s crazy to think that the next session is about to begin. I have to say that I’m pretty excited for this next class, to learn about Viking history! I already took a look at the syllabus and I think I’m really going to enjoy every aspect about this class, even the homework.
Thus ends the third week crisis and begins my brief, Norwegian saga!
We had a pretty late flight, made even later by the fact that our flight was delayed. So we ended up taking off around 11:30pm and arriving in Bergen, Norway a little before 1am. And the airport bus, which is supposed to run every ten minutes, showed up a little after 1 but the bus driver decided to take about an hour break so we didn’t actually get to the city center until a little after 2am. And then we had to find our Air Bnb, which took a good amount of time and including us getting lost in a park but we arrived and sank wearily into bed a little after 3am. It was a late night. But the apartment was really nice and on the top floor of the building so it had an amazing view.
And an early morning too! Because we had to get up at 7:15am in order to get back to the bus station and get tickets for Norheimsund, so we could go hiking around the fjords. It was slightly brutal, and everyone was feeling grumpy. It was a little awkward because none of us really knew each other that well and the silence kept moving between companionable and irritable. But we managed to get to the bus station and had some trouble buying the tickets but made it. We also almost narrowly missed the bus because we ran to get some breakfast at a supermarket across the street. It was quite the morning. But it was made better by the stunning bus ride that took us through the Norwegian country side and into fjord country!
Norheimsund is a tiny, sleepy town that’s in the Hardangerfjord region. There were only a handful of tourists, and most go to Steinsdalsfossen, a massive waterfall that you can walk behind. We wanted to see the falls but we really wanted to do some hiking. But as we left the bus, we realized we had no idea where to go. So we decided to stop in the Norheimsund Marine museum cafe and ask the locals what they’d recommend doing. We talked to a very stereotypical Norwegian lady; tall, blond, athletic, and beautiful. It turns out she lived in Boston for a while so her English was excellent and she told us about one of her favorite hikes. She said that it was pretty steep, which basically meant that it was going to be extremely steep for us. But away we went, onwards and upwards!
I would consider myself a fairly fit individual, people who know me know that I love to work out and try to stay in shape. Trust me when I tell you, this was such a difficult hike. My leg muscles were burning, my lungs wheezing, shirt soaked in sweat. But it was so worth it. At first it was just your typical, forested, up a mountain hike. And then, after about an hour and a half, what looked like just a tree-covered mountain yielded scenery that seemed like it would spawn a couple of trolls and fairies. We joked about straying off of the path and being abducted by some mythical creature. I kept thinking to myself, god damn, this is hard. Wait, I’m climbing up a mountain in Norway! I had to keep pausing, mostly because I was quietly dying but also because I need to slow down and appreciate the fact that I was actually hiking in Norway.
Towards the summit, there were even a couple of beautiful lakes to complement the overall Scandinavian aesthetic, their edges dotted with a couple of adorable cottages. We decided to keep going up this rocky, even steeper part to get to one of the highest points.
From there, we could look upon a part of the Hardangerfjord, and it was breathtaking (due to both the beauty and the exertion). We all sat down and flung off our shoes and ate some food, gazing at the natural beauty of the fjord. We took some pictures and just before we were about to head down, a group of locals with their Swedish friends showed up and we got chatting (Norwegians seem to be a lot more friendly and approachable than Danes, and much more willing to initiate conversation). Lo and behold, one from the Swedish group lived in Greenville, Michigan for a couple of years! What a small world.
The descend down the mountain was a lot faster but also killer on the knees and ankles. We passed the time by talking about movies and TV shows and the time seemed to fly. Before we knew it, we were back in the Norheimsund marine museum, getting ice cream and sitting beside the water. It felt so good to sit down. After that brief rest, we hiked along a relatively easy foot-path to Steinsdalsfossen, which was really cool but our tired bodies and minds were rather over nature at that point. There were also a ton of locals so it didn’t seem as authentic as our earlier hike. They did have a really cute touristy shop though, and I ended up buying a Norwegian winter headband! I gotta prepare for Michigan winters. We hung around for a while and waited for the bus, where we had yet another bus scare. Normally, you can purchase your bus tickets from the bus driver and most of the busses are equipped with credit card readers, except for this one, of course. I think the bus driver must have seen total devastation and helplessness on our faces when he told us this because he said we could just pay him once we got to Bergen. And maybe because he wanted to show that there is still kindness in the world, he forgave our debt. Bless that kind Norwegian bus driver.
We immediately went in search of food once back in Bergen. One of my companions had a travel book, which recommended this restaurant called The Penguin so we decided to check it out. It served traditional Norwegian food, and was a little pricey but we decided to treat ourselves after a long, successful day so we went for it! I got a class of wine and a traditional fish pie, which was absolutely delicious. It was a marvelous end to the day. But before we headed back to the apartment, we wanted to check out the tourist information center and see what types of activities we could do on Sunday. Both the Penguin and the tourist center were located right in the city center of Bergen, which was surprisingly charming. There were lots of shopping centers, beautiful old buildings, and a huge fish market right next to the harbor. To make the atmosphere and experience even better, our trip to the tourist center was super successful. We ended up booking a ferry from Bergen to Balestrand, sailing right through Sognefjord, the second largest fjord in the world! It was even more perfect because Balestrand has great hiking trails as well as two Viking burial grounds, so we were super excited.
The only unfortunate thing, another early morning. But this time we were prepared with breakfast foods and gave ourselves plenty of time to walk down to the city center. It was also on a really nice ferry-boat so we had about four hours to relax before we landed at Balestrand. We sat on the second floor so we could have easy access to the back deck. The ride was stunning! It was a rainy day but the clouds made the fjord look even more mystical and magical.
Balestrand was very similar to Norheimsund, sleepy and cute. It was rainy when we arrived and rained pretty much throughout the hike. The way up was kind of fun to hike in the rain but it made the trip down very slippery and tricky. But despite the rain and my burning glutes, it was another gorgeous hike. I couldn’t believe I was hiking up another mountain but there I was, onwards and upwards. The ascent up this mountain seemed even more magical than the first mountain, which didn’t seem possible at first. But green moss was everywhere, majestic trees towered above us, and knotty trunks turned into fairy homes before our very eyes. Maybe it was the rain, the exhaustion, or the environment itself, but the hike was spent in relative silence, giving time to appreciate the clear air and amazing surroundings.
The walk down went rather quickly despite the treacherous nature of the mud and slippery rocks, which was nice because it was starting to get really chilly and miserable with the constant rain. We ate a meager lunch in a wooden structure built near the trail head and sat for a while, looking at the rain falling over Balestrand. We had plenty of time to kill before the ferry so we took our time walking back to the harbor area and putzed around some of the shops. We got some snacks at a little grocery store and then sat and ate and talked until the ferry arrived. Since we were so early, we were determined to be first in line in order to get good seats but somehow we didn’t quite make it and ended up towards the end of the line. And the ferry was totally packed so the group had to split up and I ended up sitting with one of the girls on the first floor of the ferry, which definitely wasn’t a bummer because I got to read and dozed the entire time. I felt so exhausted from the past two days. We got back to Bergen around 9pm and decided to make a dinner of salad, fruit, and miscellaneous things while enjoying the comfort of our Air bnb. It was quite fun to cook altogether! And we created quite the feast, healthy and everything. We even lost track of time because the sun doesn’t really set until after 1am so we ended up going to bed kind of late. But we slept in the next morning, which was glorious so it didn’t even matter.
Monday was our Bergen day and day of rest. We packed up and cleaned the Air bnb and mobilized around 12, which I thought was pretty impressive. One of our first stops was to this adorable cafe near the city center and near Bryggen, which is Bergen’s old town and most famous tourist attractions. We wandered around there after coffee and a quick stop to a yarn store, and went in and out of the many galleries and artsy stores. I ended up getting a small print and three bookmarks that I’ll probably just put up on my wall because they’re so beautiful. We also went to some of the other tourist shops, where I got mittens and a snow globe. It was sort of rainy in the morning but then the clouds cleared and it was a beautiful afternoon! Perfect for walking around a city. We even got our mountain in for the day and walked up to a highpoint to look out over Bergen and the harbor.
We ended the day by getting dinner at the fish market, although I got a moose burger so that was a little different from fish. It was really good! I wasn’t really sure what moose would taste like but I sort of liked it. We also got some ice cream, which was delicious. We ate by the harbor and talked until it was time to go. Instead of the bus, we took the tram to the airport, which was another great way to see the city. It also played really funny toons every time it reached a tram stop. Once we got to the airport, we had a surprisingly difficult time finding the terminal. It was really funny and I had a laugh attack because we had to walk so damn far in a maze made out of poorly labeled construction fences. It was ridiculous but hilarious. And we made it to the terminal eventually.
Everything was flawless until we got on the wrong train from the Copenhagen airport and accidentally went to Sweden. It was a bummer because we got home so late but just another adventure to add onto the narrative of the trip. Although, I’ll never forget the moment when the ticket woman asked where we were going and we said, “Central station”, to which she replied, “in which country?”. My heart dropped but we were able to laugh about it. The Norse gods had to rescind their good fortune at some point!
And now for the world of the Vikings! I’m super excited to learn about Viking history so I’m really looking forward to the next couple of weeks. Happy 4th of July to everyone and have a great holiday. Until next time!
Wow, what a week! I got to spend some quality time in the homeland, learning about myself, my heritage, and the Northern Irish conflict. My class got to know each other decently well, a couple of us even nurturing a friendship with our professor, which culminated in going to a pub with him and listening to his sister’s ghost stories. It was quite the week so prepare yourself for the lowdown.
Monday, 19 June
We had to get up fairly early to catch our flight to Belfast. The trip to the airport was flawless, checking in was flawless, and security would have been flawless had it not been for the chaos of the liquid fiasco. We were only going to be gone for about five days so I managed to pack everything in a backpack, including liquids, which didn’t fit within the 1 liter bag allotted to each passenger. It didn’t fit because I have this largish bottle of natural oils for my face from a local Grand Rapids company called Bloom Naturals, which is expensive and the only thing that I had brought to Europe with me. I was devastated at the thought of having to throw it away so I had to scramble around the airport, looking for a pharmacy. As I approached one in a completely different airport terminal, it looked very much closed to my intense dismay. But then, lo and behold, it magically opened its doors as soon as I got closer! So with the crisis having been averted, the rest of the flight was flawless.
We took a bus from the Dublin airport to Belfast, making two stops along the way. The first was at this amazing rest stop area that had about four different restaurants and a play ground for kids. I went to Freshii and got a smoothie and a strange wrap that looked healthy and tasted fairly good. Our next stop was at Carlingford, still in the Republic of Ireland but very close to the border. It actually has a tiny fjord (the town was originally named Carlingfjord by the Vikings) and on one side it’s the Republic of Ireland and on the other it’s Northern Ireland! It was a really cute little town, with an abnormal amount of ice cream shops.
I’m pretty sure that the Vikings established this town and that the Normans eventually conquered it in the 12th century. It’s also home to a couple of castles attributed to the bad King John, the notorious king of the Robin Hood legends! It’s also home to a strenuous hike up a ‘mountain’, that our professor lead us on as a chance to stretch our legs after the flight and bus ride. We only went halfway up but man, was I sweaty. It was muggy and buggy but the view was extraordinary. As recompense, he bought us all ice cream at the bottom.
We boarded the bus and continued on our journey to Belfast. We stayed at the Europa Hotel, which was pretty luxurious. I was also chosen to have a room to myself, which was both good and bad. In the midst of my overwhelming feelings, I was convinced that the universe didn’t want me to make friends with my classmates so I had to call my mom to talk about it. I also realized that I never specificed to the bank that I would be in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which was a small crisis but beautifully handled with help from my mom. Anyways, once we had gotten back from dinner (the restaurant was Made in Belfast: chicken, fried mashed-potatoes, broccoli, carrots, and a brownie with ice cream to wrap it up), I realized that my single room was a blessing.
After dealing with two roomies for the first week in Copenhagen, it was actually very nice to have some privacy in a room that could comfortably sleep four people. I also went for a solo walk around the city, to get an idea of the streets and a feel for the city itself. It was noticeably less busy than Copenhagen and didn’t have the same feelings of safety, although that could be a result of the documentaries we watched about The Troubles. It was actually quite wild to think that so much violence had happened on the streets that I was walking. But the buildings were beautiful and I was happy to be in Ireland!
Tuesday, 20 June
After sleeping so well that I slept right through my alarm, I had the best hotel breakfast that I’ve ever had in my life. The Europa had an incredible buffet and strong coffee, and I was very happy. We had a quick lecture at Queens University with Prof. Dominic Bryan, who is a professor of anthropology, interested in rituals and symbols and how they’re used by humans. It was really interesting, especially in the context of the Northern Irish conflict. Rituals, events that cover sports to religion to marriage to death, give people a sense of belonging and community while symbols give identity to those rituals. For example, before every sporting event in the U.S., we sing the National Anthem while facing the flag, which is kind of weird when you start to think about it. But it creates a sense of belonging and community for all those involved in the sporting event, one that even spans the divide between the two teams who are competing against each other. Rituals and symbols, particularly flags, also represent a common identity connects people with all other sorts of identities.
Another important point that Prof. Bryan brought up was symbolic landscapes, which is how people reflect meaning and identity on their physical world. For example, in medieval towns, large Catholic cathedrals dominated the physical space because people’s identity and meaning revolved around the church. In contrast, New York City is dominated by banks and economically focused buildings. And Washington D.C. is filled with commemorative spaces, which tell the story of the American people. In 1921, Northern Ireland was officially set apart from the Republic of Ireland and was constructed with a Unionist/Loyalist identity, which was difficult to establish because there was really no narrative that the state could be formed around other than the fact that they had fought for the British in WWI. They also had the Orange Order and the 12th of July, which commemorated the Battle of the Boyne and the victory of Protestants against Catholics. But this contrasted with the 100s of years worth of history and tradition that constructed the Nationalist/Republican narrative. As a representation of the Unionist identity, flags and parades played a huge role in expressing their identity with the U.K. and the Orange Order. It especially resonated and still continues to do so with the working class because pride in one’s identity is one of the few resources available to people of that socioeconomic status. Anyways, it was a very interesting lecture!
We had a quick break where a couple of my classmates and I strolled around the grounds of Queens University, discovering a botanical garden and a beautiful little park where we sat and talked until lunch. It was a delicious lunch, consisting of chicken kababs, pita, and a chocolate brownie for dessert.
To follow-up our lecture and to learn more about the conflict, we had a walking tour of the Shankill and Falls roads. We were split into two groups, one group to each road, that would switch guides and roads at a halfway meeting point. I was in the group that went to the Shankill road first, which was Unionist and during parade season it’s adorned with tons of Union Jacks. Our guide grew up during the Troubles and said that he was actually involved in the Paramilitary, and was even imprisoned for a couple of years! Currently, he’s working with the youth of Belfast to try to quell the conflict because no one who remembers the Troubles wants anymore violence.
We also walked along the massive Peace Wall, which was built as a protective barrier between the two sides. I was shocked at how large it was and it really reminded me of the Berlin wall, although this one is still standing and doesn’t seem to be coming down anytime soon. Sadly, our guide was rushing the tour in order to get to the meeting point on time so it was really hard to understand his thick Irish accent. That also meant that we arrived at the meeting point for the next tour way too early and had to wait in the hot sun for a while.
The Falls road is Republican and our guide told us stories about the torture and conditions that members of the IRA were forced to endure in the prisons. He also told us about the role of women during the conflict, which was very interesting. He was a volunteer member of the IRA and was imprisoned for 15 years, eventually escaping! It was pretty incredible and hard to listen to in the fact that the stories were so appalling and gruesome. I had no idea that such things had happened in Ireland, you never learn about this in American high school. Unfortunately, we were running late so our tour of the Falls road wasn’t as long or detailed as the Shankill road. We had a wrap up/rest session at a little cafe before heading back to the hotel. We had a really quick dinner break before our evening activity, so a classmate and I just got a ton of fruit from the store and ate that for dinner, which was very refreshing after so much heavy food.
Our evening activity was a comedy show! It was great and the laughter was much-needed after the seriousness of the walking tours. Our professor bought us all a beer, which was very kind of him. The MC was amazing and could have done an entire show all by himself. The first act was decent, he was a 19-year-old guy and had a lot of potential. I think it must have been challenging for him because all of us Americans were sitting right up front and one of my classmates kept shouting out things at him while others kept whooping at any mention of the U.S.A., and it was really very annoying. But there was a hilarious bit where the MC asked one of us where she was from (Wisconsin) and what her state was known for (she said cheese, specifically cheddar). So that got the audience laughing and he made some jokes about that and then he asked her name, and she responded Brie (no kidding), and the whole place was in tears. That was my favorite part of the whole night. The second guy was English and was more just punny and witty than a stand-up comic but I enjoyed it.
Wednesday, 21 June
After another delicious breakfast, we took an early bus to Derry, Londonderry. The town is north of Belfast and another important site for the Northern Irish conflict. It has two names because the two different sides of the conflict call it different things (Derry by Nationalists, Londonderry by Unionists). There we got a tour of the Bogside murals by one of the artists himself! It was pretty incredible to see these beautiful murals and have them explained by one of the guys who made them. He seemed like a pretty incredible man and even gave us some life advice at the end of the tour. The amount of bloodshed and terror that happened in this small town is unimaginable. Our guide casually told us about some of the incidents he had witnessed and about the people he lost during the conflicts and the whole experience was very moving. I encourage everyone reading this to look up all 12 of the murals because they are really amazing in combination with the knowledge of why they were created. The Bogside artists are pretty famous now, so famous and important to the community that no one would dare kill them at this point. The two artists (out of three) still alive continue to touch up and repair the murals as well as travel the world giving talks and painting murals all over the place!
After the tour, we walked along the old, medieval walls of the city, concluding at a restaurant called the Badger for fish and chips. Fun fact, Derry/Londonderry is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in Ireland! As with most places in Ireland, it’s filled with history and I wish we could have had more time to explore and learn about it.
After lunch, we boarded the bus and went to explore Giants causeway, with a quick stop at Dunluce castle for a photo-op. I’m pretty sure Dunluce Castle is the inspiration for one of the castles in the show Game of Thrones! I didn’t know this but a lot of places in Northern Ireland have been for filming scenes in Game of Thrones, so that was an added bonus. Our driver is also a driver for the Game of Thrones tour, so he often picked up the microphone and would tell us about the countryside and how it fit in with the GoT phenomenon.
The Giant’s Causeway was gorgeous. There was a decently long hike down to the coast but it was beautiful the entire way and then we got to hop around on the magical geological structure. It was packed with tourists, which was a bit of a bummer, but it was still beautiful. I almost couldn’t believe that I was there! We only had an hour to explore and I wish we had half a day, I could’ve sat and stared at the sea for hours.
The bus back to Belfast also dropped us off for a quick walk along a road known as the Dark Hedges, which was filmed for the King’s Road in GoT! It’s lined with these beautiful old trees, although now you can see people’s’ names inscribed in hearts and that definitely destroys the aesthetic as well as the trees. I think it was originally created as the entry way to a large manor house, the family wanted to make their drive way more impressive.
We had a quick rest and then I went out to dinner with a gaggle of girls from my class. I got a shepherd’s pie and a local beer and it was soooo good and much-needed after a long day. I packed for Dublin when I got back and then went straight to sleep.
Thursday, 22 June
We took a bus to the famous Titanic Museum of Belfast after our final breakfast in Belfast. The museum was packed with tourists but pretty fun. I had no idea that the Titanic, as well as so many other ships, were built in Belfast! The museum itself was decently constructed although some of the paths were confusing and got congested with people. But they did have this really fun mini-ride that took you through the Belfast ship yard! That was probably one of my favorite parts. The museum also gave you a lot of information on the industrial history of Belfast, although skirting over the conflict between Nationalists and Unionists. The shipyard discriminated against Nationalists by almost always employing Unionists, no matter if they were qualified for the job or not. The museum ended with a cool video about the underwater exploration of the Titanic, although I took my time in the museum and could only stay for a few minutes of the video.
The bus took us back to the city center where we had a very quick lunch before taking us to Dublin. I was incredibly exhausted and could barely keep my eyes open during the ride! We stayed at the Academy Plaza hotel, which definitely wasn’t as nice as the Europa but was in a really good location. There was a mix up with rooms so I had to be a third person in a room, a great contrast to my single room in Belfast! But it was totally fine, it was just for a night. A couple of us went exploring/shopping around this huge shopping street by our hotel. I got a snow-globe and shot-glass to commemorate my time in Ireland.
Dinner was extraordinary, probably the best I had during the entire trip. Our professor bought us wine and I got an amazing Irish beef cheek and shin burger with some fries, followed by three scoops of different ice cream! I uncomfortably full but comfortably content. Our professor took us on a quick walk around the Temple Bar area before meeting a guide to take us on a ghost tour of Dublin! It was such a great way to see Dublin in just one night. It also contained a wealth of information, which was really fun! Our guide was pretty funny, often adding some of his own stories into the tour, and eloquently demonstrated what ‘eviscerated’ meant (look it up, it’s a nasty way to die). He told us that the route had been approved by a couple of clairvoyants (those who are attuned to the paranormal) and even gave us a warning that people often felt sick with the bad vibes from some of the places the tour went to. I myself felt rather weird at a certain point in the tour but that could have been the chill in the air… or the ghosts, who knows.
After the tour, everyone split off to enjoy the Dublin nightlife. A couple of us followed my professor to a popular pub area and got some drinks and talked with him. He told us about his sister’s ghost experiences, apparently the women in his family have a history of seeing ghosts! I got an oatmeal stout that was pretty decent if a little too sweet. We sat there for quite a while and then headed back to the hotel.
Friday, 23 June
We had a somewhat later start, thank goodness, it felt so nice to sleep in a little. We had a quick hotel breakfast before taking a bus to Dublin airport. This time the entire experience was flawless so that was a bonus end to the trip. I unpacked once I got back to Copenhagen and then got some groceries so I could make dinner. I was surprised by how good it felt to be back! It almost felt like a homecoming of sorts. And because the summer solstice was on Wednesday, Friday was the day of the real celebrations. Apparently midsummer is one of the biggest holidays in Scandinavia! So a couple of my floor mates and I went in search of the famous bonfires that our professor said decorate the small ponds and rivers around Copenhagen. We first went to Ørsted park, which was absolutely beautiful and close by to our apartment. And lo and behold, there was a pyre in the small lake with a fake witch on top! There were a lot of people out and about, drinking and being with friends and family. I guess Friday was also the last day of school for the high schoolers of Copenhagen so there were huge party busses driving around the streets, blasting music. So this entire weekend is a huge party weekend in Copenhagen!
But anyways, there was a band playing in the park, people were dancing, and at around 9:45pm, everyone gathered on the banks of the pond. We wondered how they were going to light the pyre, I thought it would be via flaming arrow and my friend thought it would be some sort of electrical fire. But, to our surprise, a little row-boat sporting torches appeared, carrying two people dressed like Franciscan monks, with a massive torch in hand! They rowed right up to the pyre and set it aflame, way cooler than a flaming arrow. It was so much fun, we danced a bit with the locals and then headed back to our apartment. A great end to a great week.
This upcoming week is the last week of class for my Cross-Cultural communications class. I’ll have two projects to work on but I’ll worry about that later. Today, Saturday, has been rainy and cloudy although the sun has just made an appearance. The rain hasn’t seemed to influence the parties, however, as we’ve heard a multitude of party busses honking their way up our street. I went to the gym this morning and might do something later this evening, although it’s a pretty good day to just have some good r & r after a busy week. Thus concludes my wee Irish vacation.
Here I was, thinking that my two-hour Latin classes freshman year seemed to last for an eternity. Anything longer than an hour and a half really, how can they expect us to concentrate for so long? Well, my classes in Copenhagen are four hours, 9am – 1pm, everyday. At least it was only for this week! Despite the length of the classes, I was surprised at how quickly they seemed to pass. Apart from two breaks, one being five minutes and the other about twenty, every minute is packed with discussion and educational activities. Thank goodness my professor has a lovely Irish accent with a quick wit and passion for teaching that pours through the lectures and fills us students with energy to concentrate and focus. The downside to these long classes is that our homework seems to take an equal amount of time. But the readings are mostly interesting, although sometimes dry and boring.
Our classes on Wednesday and part of Thursday focused on defining cross-cultural communications and identity, and started a dialogue about how societies talk about and define ‘others’. We discussed non-verbal communication and how that is almost equally, if not more, influential as verbal communication and how that affects one’s interaction with others in a new culture. It was actually quite interesting to talk about because a lot of what our reading said, as well as our professor, was relevant to the experience and acclimation process of studying abroad. Humans have a tendency to gravitate towards what is familiar, and when studying or traveling abroad, there are often feelings of discomfort, which can manifest in higher levels of anxiety, unhappiness, and frustration at behaviors witnessed within the new culture. I thought that it was really interesting to read about the phenomenon of culture shock while also experiencing it!
From my limited experience of a week, the Danish culture certainly seems different from American culture. One of the things that I have been feeling most frustrated at, although pedestrians in Ann Arbor are equally at fault for this, is that people don’t make room on the sidewalks, forcing you to make awkard contortions with your body in order not to hit anyone. It’s one of my pet-peeves in the States and apparently will continue with me to Europe as well. People simply don’t move! It’s a little more dangerous in Copenhagen because if you have to move out of the way and step into the bike lane, you run the risk of being hit. Danes do NOT announce when they’re zooming up behind you, they just give you a look of silent anger or flatten you with their tires. The Danes also value privacy much more than Americans. For example, no one says ‘bless you’ or the equivalent of that in Danish when someone sneezes. The reasoning: you’ve already embarrassed yourself by publicly sneezing so why would anyone call attention to it afterwards? Everyone heard you! If you’re lost, Danes will also not offer their assistance because they feel like they are giving you privacy, which is the ultimate form of politeness in their culture. But if you ask for help, everyone is very generous and extremely willing to guide you on your way. I’ve also noticed that families tend to hold hands while walking down the street, especially mothers with their children. I recognize that this is also common in the U.S. but the child is typically a toddler or younger than ten years old. Here, it seems typical to see a teen walking hand-in-hand with their mom! I think that’s kind of cute.
Anyways, back to class. We got to do a fun but challenging exercise about non-verbal communication. We were randomly assigned a ‘culture’ with some sort of non-verbal way of communicating. We then got ten toothpicks and had to interact with others from our class but not from the same culture. Whenever our conversation partner violated our culture’s communcation rule, we would give them a tooth-pick and vice-versa. Some of these were really difficult to figure out! And it was challenging to try to keep up a conversation while also focusing on your culture’s communication rule and trying to figure out how you were violating the other person’s culture. My culture’s rule was that we like to take long pauses when speaking and don’t like to be interrupted. Some other rules were that smiling was a sign that the conversation wasn’t being taken seriously, looking into the other person’s eyes was offensive, and a relaxed body position wasn’t acceptable. It was hard! Every time you received a toothpick, it was like you were being rejected from the conversation and it felt like you wanted to shut down and just stop talking. I struggled with mine especially because I felt like it made me seem like I couldn’t articulate my sentences. But it was a great learning exercise.
The other interesting thing that we talked about was Denmark and its immigration issues. One might think that because Denmark is one of the happiest countries in the world and that Scandinavians generally seem to be open and accepting, they would be welcoming immigrants with open arms. That’s really not the case. Denmark is actually one of the most difficult countries to get a citizenship in, often taking three or more years, and filled with language, history, and general knowledge tests. Denmark is also a very homogenous culture and it’s very interesting to hear how people label themselves within society. For example, people will often specify what generation of immigrant they are, saying, “I’m a third-generation Dane”, or “I’m second-generation”. That implies that to be Danish–to be fully integrated into Danish culture–it often takes three or more generations. So it seems like there is a genuine concern to protect the Danish culture, even from other Scandinavians! So even if it’s difficult for another European to become Danish, it’s extraordinarily difficult for refugees and the Muslim population of Denmark. Interestingly, Denmark is an example of an almost perfect nation-state, meaning that the Danish church, to which almost all Danes belong, is tightly tied to the Danish government. The influx of Muslim immigrants ‘threatens’ those ties, which makes the Danes very uneasy. It’s a very tricky subject and a very hot-topic right now, which makes this class all the more relevant and interesting!
Thursday night my SRA’s, basically just like American RA’s, organized a building activity in the courtyard of our apartment complex. They got us ice-cream, put some music on, and encouraged us to bring beers so we could play beer bowling and this game called Kubb. Kubb is really cool because it dates back to the Viking age! Beer bowling is a wicked drinking game but also fun. I had to play with my left-hand but still managed to knock down the other side’s beer can. It was my claim to fame for the evening. I got a beer called Årgangsbryg that was pretty good, also 10%. I really enjoyed chatting with the other people in my building and getting to know them better!
We shifted gears on Friday (and somewhat on Thursday) and began looking at the conflict between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. As another exercise, we were given Northern Irish identities and had to figure out what side we belonged to. My name was Margaret Ellis and I was certainly a Protestant, based on where I went to school and what my hobbies were. You can pretty much know with 100% confidence what side someone is on based on their full name, where they went to school, and what types of activities they’re interested in. We are using these conflicts as a case-study because my class is going on a week-long study tour to Belfast and Dublin! I’m incredibly excited to be going to Ireland, to be able to learning about the history of the conflict and then actually go and see its effects in the modern-day! I think that’s one of the best ways to learn. I must say that I felt a little ashamed during class because I am from an Irish Catholic family, who takes a lot of pride in their Irish heritage, yet I knew nothing about the conflicts. I suddenly felt like I didn’t know anything about my family’s history or heritage, I didn’t even know where my family was from! That was a sobering moment. But I’m happy to have the opportunity now to learn about some of the most influential moments of modern Irish history.
We had two guest speakers during that class. Both grew up in Belfast during The Troubles, the name for the three-decades long violence and unrest between the Nationalists and Unionists in Northern Ireland, each one on a different side of the conflict. It was incredible to hear about their experience and how it still affects them today. We pulled up a map of Belfast and they showed us where they grew up, which was a great illustration of the divide within the city. To augment our background knowledge, we also watched a BBC documentary about an Irish Catholic woman who was allowed to follow a Protestant band, marching during the parade season! It was made in 2013 and was absolutely wild. The tensions are still incredibly high, and the documentary focused on the notorious 12 July, which is the largest parade day for the Protestants and unfortunately ended in rioting. Apparently 2013 has been the worst year of rioting since the end of The Troubles, although rioting usually occurs every year. It’s an incredible illustration of how the conflicts are still sowed in the hearts and minds of people of Belfast.
So the documentary was quite emotional, and another bummer was that I was struck with a bad cold. Talk about acclimating to a new location! I guess my body wants to continue the odyssey of weird illnesses in every country: hospital trip in France, pink eye in Italy, horrible cold in Denmark. But I was able to go to the pharmacy–I asked the woman in Danish if she could speak English and she just stared at me like I was crazy–and got some Danish cold medicine. I also went to bed early and slept in on Saturday, which was AMAZING. A lot of my floor-mates at gone partying that Friday night so we all sat around the kitchen table for most of the day, chatting and getting to know each other. Our coffee brewer is broken but from the inspiration of pour-over coffee from one of my floor-mates, I fashioned a make-shift chemex! It worked pretty well, but I still submitted a form for a new coffee brewer.
I had to rally in the evening to meet a friend from U of M, who was staying in Copenhagen for a night before he went back home. We met up as this amazing street food collection called Papirøen (Paper Island). It was so overwhelming, with food carts ranging from cocktails to pancakes to Brazilian food to Indian food to Chinese food! It was wild. I got duck and chips, pulled duck on these amazingly salty fries, and a juice containing orange juice, strawberry, ginger, and lime, which I thought would be good for my cold. It was absolutely delicious, so delicious that I forgot to take a picture of it. We then strolled along the canal and eventually got lost on the way back Strøget, the biggest shopping street.
I’m happy to say that I feel much better today after sleeping in again. I’ll probably rest more because I want to be feeling good for our trip to Ireland. It’s a bummer because yesterday and today are the best days that I’ve seen in Copenhagen yet but I might go sit in the courtyard and soak up some sun while I can. I also need to go get my train ticket to the airport so I’m not scrambling to do that in the morning. Until next time!
It’s that time of year again … to revive the travel blog! One year later, I am blessed to be studying abroad again, although shifting my focus a few centuries and a couple miles north of Classical Roman Italy. This round of blogging finds me in Copenhagen, Denmark, studying Cross-Cultural Communications and Viking history while also pursuing my newfound (and small) obsession with the Nordic countries. Admittedly, this interest began with the show Vikings on the History Channel, followed by the Last Kingdom on Netflix, and accompanied by a series of magnificent Scandinavian musical discoveries on Spotify; discoveries rivaling the feats of Viking Sagas. But anyways, here I am, fulfilling my Nordic dreams. I’m excited for this adventure, for this change of pace and educational direction. I’m exchanging the hot, Italian sun for 60 degree, frequently rainy Copenhagen; Latin for Danish and Swedish; Classics for Vikings. You might be asking why in the world did I choose these classes with my Classical Languages and Literature and Linguistics majors? Well, I’ve added a minor: Modern European Studies! So the Cross-Cultural Communications will count towards the minor but Viking history is just purely for fun and my own personal and academic enrichment.
The first class is three weeks long, consisting of a week long study tour to Belfast and Dublin while the second is four weeks long with a week in Iceland. After the seven weeks total, I have about ten days to explore. Although a few of those days near the end are claimed by a medieval festival in Visby, Gotland, an island on the south-east coast of Sweden (pictures to come of my homemade Viking apron dress). I’ve only been in Copenhagen a day and I already feel like this will not be enough time.
The trip out felt remarkably different from last year’s trip to Rome. I definitely wasn’t freaking out as much and felt much more confident about my abilities to speak to strangers and face the total unknown entities of the Amsterdam and Copenhagen airports. I also managed to grab a couple minutes of sleep on the plane, and I think that made my entry into the city slightly less overwhelming. I also surprised myself at the ease of talking to my new companions once I arrived at the airport. The DIS (Discover in Scandinavia: the program I’m in) representatives slapped different colored stickers on us, meant to organize bussing and housing, and herded us out to the bus area. Dazed and confused with a ‘sunshine yellow’ sticker that looked exactly like the totally separate ‘neon yellow’ sticker, I managed to introduce myself and make the typical introductory smalltalk, resulting in my first friend (she even sat next to me on the bus!).
I’m living in what’s called a Residential Community, which is basically a large building with five floors, filled with DIS students, all American. My floor has seven girls, me being placed in the lucky room with two other roommates. It was with them that I discovered that my shampoo opened inside my bag and colored my viking dress and sandals a sticky purple. But after telling this to my parents, my dad informed me that there’s an easy fix: water. Thanks dad! But our location is magnificent, about a fifteen minute walk from the DIS school facilities in the heart of Copenhagen.
My plane arrived late in the afternoon so I spent most of the evening unpacking and setting up my room. At 7pm, everyone in the building gathered in the ground floor apartment for pizza and mingling. It was hot and sweaty, crowded with total strangers but the pizza was good and the company better. So far, everyone seems really cool and interesting and I’m excited to be able to get to know them. Everyone seems pretty spread out over the east coast and the midwest, with not many people from the west coast. The overwhelming majority finds themselves in Denmark for the first time, so it’s comforting to know that we’re all in the same shoes! The group dynamic already seems vastly different from what I experienced with Paideia. It is truly a blessing that we are all studying different things, with no common denominator in which to compete. There’s no feeling of being sized up for ability, which makes me feel much more comfortable. Although, there is a dismal lack of Classicists and I desperately miss many of the Paideian joys and adventures.
After falling asleep around 10pm and waking up at 7am, I began our first true day in Copenhagen. Because I didn’t have the time or energy to go shopping the previous night, I went in pursuit of breakfast. Right down the road I found this restaurant called Bowl Market, specializing in porridges! It was perfect and delicious. The staff were so friendly, patiently explaining the entire menu to me and recommending their favorite porridge bowls. I ended up going with this blueberry, lemon extravaganza with a shot of espresso. Those of you who know me know that I can’t function without a proper breakfast, or without food for that matter, so I was happily set up for a day of exploration.
We had our opening ceremony at 9am at this church built in the late 1800’s. It was a beautiful building and an equally beautiful ceremony! We were given words of inspiration from the Director of DIS about her study abroad experience in San Fransisco when she was younger, a trip that turned into 19 years in the U.S., as well as a funny and cliché jeopardy game set up by former DIS students. We were also serenaded by an amazing pianist, playing two songs from a Danish composer, one of which happens to be featured in a Tom and Jerry episode. Once the ceremony ended, we formed groups of six and went on a scavenger hunt of sorts throughout Copenhagen.
My group was great! Two other gals and three dudes, with one of the dudes acting as navigator. Our first stop was Nyhavn (pronounced new-hawn), which means New Harbor. It’s one of the most picturesque and most recognizable locations in Copenhagen! I think it was built by King Christian V but all the kings are named either Frederick or Christian so it gets kind of confusing. We had a DIS professor tell us a little bit about the location, where she pointed out the oldest tattoo shop in Europe! Watch out, mom and dad. The small harbor also contains the last few places that Hans Christian Anderson lived towards the end of his life. It was a magnificent first glance into the beauties of Copenhagen. It was made possible by the toils of Swedish prisoners of war, apparently the Danes and Swedes have always been at war for control of the water ways. Our guide told us that Danes love to joke and poke fun at Swedes and vice verse.
Our second stop was Amalienborg, the home of the Danish Royal family. It was a very regal site, made more magnificent by the film crew shooting a movie on Amalienborg Slotsplads! Unfortunately, my group didn’t want to stick around for the little blurb about the location so I’ll have to go back and do some more exploring.
The third stop was Christiansborg Palace, which is where Danish parliament currently takes place. Here, our guide informed us that this was actually the third version of the palace, the first two burning down because the fireplaces were covered with wooden boards and it took people two days to realize that the building was on fire. There are still remnants, however. Inside the gates of the palace, the courtyard, horse garden thing remains from the first palace while a chapel remains from the second. The latter still stands because the guard who was trying to save it used gunpowder to blow up the connecting buildings! Pretty crazy. Our guide also told us that there are nine political parties in Denmark so the government is always lead by a minority party and the Prime Minister must be exceptionally good at negotiating. The palace also has a tower that you can take an elevator to the top of for a beautiful view and an extremely expensive restaurant. Our guide recommended we go to the tower during a cloudless day and to the restaurant with our mom’s credit card.
The final stop was Rosenborg Castle, which is a small castle built in 1606 in what is now the King’s Garden. It was built by King Christian IV during the Dutch Renaissance so it has a large Dutch architectural influence. Christian IV was notable for trying to expand Copenhagen by inviting a lot of Dutch architects and business men to promote investment and economic growth. In the 1600s, the castle was actually located in the countryside and acted primarily as the royal residence until the early 1700s, when they decided that it was too small. It has a beautiful moat and the garden is unbelievably gorgeous. A lot of Danes go there to picnic and sunbathe whenever the sun happens to come out. I will definitely be going back there and I hope to go inside the castle!
We wrapped up the morning with a stop and the Studenterhuset (the Student House) for a free coffee and croissant, much needed after a very active morning. Students from all over Copenhagen gather here to study, meet new people, join volunteer groups, and see live music! It is an amazing space and I can’t wait to utilize it. It felt so good to sit down and it was only around 1pm at that point! Quite the busy morning.
Class began promptly at 1:30pm. Instead of doing the mundane syllabus talk and what not, we started off the session by going on a field study to one of the largest Islamic centers in Copenhagen! There we listened to a talk given by Imran Shah, an influential and important figure in the institution. He talked to us about Islam and what it meant to be a Muslim in Denmark. It was pretty incredible. I realized that my theological education was extremely limited to Christianity, some pagan religions, and a little bit of Judaism so this was an amazing opportunity to expand my knowledge about Islam. He also encouraged any questions that we had about anything, even if they would be typically considered as taboo or inappropriate. After the talk, he gave us a quick tour of the Mosque, which was very cool. I had never been in a mosque before and he explained some of the cleansing rituals that take place before entering the Mosque and the prayer schedule. He also talked about Ramadan, which is happening right now. In the Islamic faith, those who are healthy and able can opt to fast for the month of Ramadan, which means no eating or drinking from sunrise to sunset for the month of June. We were shocked to learn that there are no exceptions even with the sun rising at 2:30am and setting and 10pm in Copenhagen! It was pretty incredible.
I ended my day by going grocery shopping, which was much needed as I had barely eaten since the porridge. I also had about 40 pages of readings to do but I sat at the kitchen table with a lot of my floor mates, which was good bonding time! It was a great day, I’m very happy so far, totally exhausted but excited for what’s to come.