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!