I promise updates are coming soon! It’s hard to do anything other than sit outside with the beautiful Copenhagen weather right now.
Not everyone is enthusiastic about trying to learn a foreign language, but if you are, Danish poses a particular challenge because even if you find the written language easy, it can be difficult to find people patient enough to try to understand a heavy American accent. Basically a huge thank you to my friend Anni who patiently talks to me even though I make fun of how silly Norwegian sounds. Although Swedish, Norwegian and Danish are all relatively similar, I can barely tell the difference between written Norwegian and Danish, despite the fact that they sound quite different.
After our three days in Prague, we took a bus to Cesky Krumlov, a town near the Sudentenland mountains and the Austrian border.
The Sudentenlands are a ring of mountains that run almost in a circle around the Czech Republic, and have been habituated by mostly German speakers for hundreds of years. During the Austro-Hungarian empire, the ruler had incentivized the moving to the area because no one wanted to live there with its harsh climate and overgrown terrain. Before WWII, it was the first part of Europe annexed by Germany, with approval from the rest of the West during the Munich agreement, because the area was populated by people who wanted to become part of the German nation.
After the war, the Czechs decided that all the Germans ought to be removed from Czechoslovakia, so when they were deported, the Sudentenlands were left barren, and became overgrown again without the care of the people who had lived there for generations.
Cesky Krumlov was one of the places that sustained absolutely no material damage from WWII, because Hitler liked the architecture of the charming medieval town. Even today, the place looks absolutely unreal, like something from a fairytale, with a majority of the tiny, sleepy, town taken up by a huge castle.
During our time in the area, we had a wonderful guide named Ollie, who was from Cesky Krumlov, and had lived through communism and the Velvet Revolution( the nonviolent transition of power from communism to democracy in the Czech Republic) after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
She told us stories about how after the East was opened, it was very popular for Czechs in their teens and early twenties to hitchhike all over Europe for weekends, savoring their new freedom of movement. But seeing the west for the first time often was disillusioning; they had become so distrustful of the government that they assumed that EVERYTHING about western democracies was perfect.
She told of the first time she went to McDonalds in Paris, assuming it must be a fantastic restaurant, because the communist government had always warned about how terrible it was, and was surprised to find out that it was indeed, not so great a place. Her stories of her own life as well as those of her family brought a human face to what we had been studying about Czech history for the last two months. Overall, our study tour was the perfect example of what it means when DIS tells us that we will have “Europe as our classroom” while we study abroad.
On a more somber note, we also visited two sites of mass murder that took place during WWII. A town called Lidice, and a concentration camp for Roma (commonly called Gypsies) named Lety.
Lidice was burned to the ground, all the men killed, and most of the women and children sent to concentration camps, except those who were deemed ethnically suitable to be Germanized. All this because they were suspected of harboring two Czechs who had been trained by British special forces to Assassinate Heydrich, one of Hitler’s high ranking officers who presided over Bohemia during WWII. The intention was to make an example of the town, in order to warn others who considered rebelling. During it’s time, the Allied Powers used it as a symbol to rally behind, on why we must protect the innocent victims from Germany. Because of this, there are remnants of the tragedy found in the obscure places in the United States, for instance the town outside of Chicago that was renamed Lidice in honor of the Victims. Despite all this, I had never heard of Lidice before studying in Europe.
The actual visit was powerful, the former town has been left empty and desolate, a reminder of those lost. With a museum and a memorial built near the edge.
We were lucky enough to be accompanied on this trip by Torben Jørgensen, who specializes in Holocaust and Genocide Research, and (teaches a class on it) at DIS, as well as being a favorite among students for just being supremely interesting. I’m not the first, and I’m sure I won’t be the last to blog about what a great experience it is to have him as a teacher and friend.
Later we continued to Lety, where a concentration camp specifically for Roma had been situated. It’s here that you begin to find some of the more complicated nuances of who perpetrated the crimes of the war. The Roma people have a long history of being persecuted for their migratory lifestyle and struggle to fit into mainstream society, and Lety was actually originally run by Czechs, before Germans took the camp over during the war. Furthermore the Roma Victim’s memorial is denigrated by the fact that a pig farm now lies on the land that used to be a concentration camp, leaving only a small, and fairly recent memorial off to the edge.
Torben explained that sadly, this may have to do with the fact that Roma are still heavily persecuted in Europe, often continuing to live on the outskirts of society. He also explained that “Atrocities will not be remembered unless the victims push for remembrance,” drawing light to the fact that history in some ways is a coping mechanism, for dealing with the darker sides of what humanity is capable of. As human beings, we may want to forget things that have damaged us, but we must also realize the importance of remembering to cultivate empathy, understanding, and hopefully move towards a “better” world.
I just returned from my long study tour in Prague, Cesky Krumlov, and the Austro-Czech border area with my European Humanities course, which was a wonderful experience, both intellectually and generally.
In the three days we spent in Prague we attended a soccer game, saw a castle, visited Radio Praha (the Czech version of NPR) and met a controversial Czech Artist. The best part is that it was all academically relevant to what we’ve spent the last two months studying.
Our core course has been focused on how a people form their identity and what factors have a potential to complicate ones concept of self and belonging. We’ve focused primarily on metanarrative of WWII, first studying the concept of a Danish/German Identity as found in the borderlands, and then Czecho-German identity.
The Czech Republic is just twenty two years old. It was part of the German ruled Austro-Hungarian Empire for hundreds of years, became one half of Czechoslovakia after the first world war, was annexed by Germany during the second world war, liberated by Russia (not the United States) in May of 1945, and a part of the Communist USSR/Eastern Europe throughout the cold war, until finally becoming the Czech Republic in the early 90s.
As an American, the class has been particularly interesting because I’ve learned a lot about first about WWII, and then the Cold war that was never included in courses taught in the United States, but also has drawn attention to how different an Americans concept of identity is than someone from Western Europe.
The United States as a concept is a nation formed by the mixing and melding of various identities. Many people identify as Irish-American, Italian-American, Jewish-American, Chicano, or the like. The concept of a hyphenated identity is not nearly as prevalent within many places in Europe. Anecdotally, Denmark is a place where someone with a Swedish mother, and Danish father will consistently be called Swedish by other Danes.
While I know seeing a soccer game doesn’t seem relevant, I promise it is! In fact sports teams in general can be a huge contributing factor to identity; I had never thought about it before, but the same applies in the United States. Southerners are notorious for identifying with an SEC school’s football team, New Yorkers divided between Yankees & Mets fans.
We also met David Cerny, a Czech artist responsible for some seriously controversial works, as well as absurd ones like the one above outside the Kafka museum.
Lastly, I felt extremely lucky to be in this course because it it actually the last time it will run in its current version. Unfortunately, this fantastic course has suffered from under enrollment, presumedly because of its interdisciplinary approach, so beginning next semester, the European Humanities department at DIS will be focusing on a more discipline specific approach, offering Literature in St. Petersburg, Art & Cinema in Prague, Philosophy in Athens, and Comparative History (which looks most similar to the current Memory & Identity) in Berlin and Warsaw. As much as I loved my course, I find myself being a little bit jealous of the future Humanities students at DIS for the options they’ll be offered.
A multimedia account of my time in Denmark
A couple days ago CNN started asking students to share their study abroad experiences in honor of Michelle Obama’s upcoming trip to China encouraging more students to study abroad. Last year only 1% of U.S. Students studied abroad. Finding out the number is so small is disappointing, because my personal experience studying abroad has contributed to my life in a way that is completely irreplaceable. From fostering independence and personal growth, navigating unfamiliar languages and cultural norms, to developing logistic skills and learning to coordinate travel and lodging, all while staying on top of your coursework, my time in Denmark has been the final step of not relying on Mom & Dad that started with moving out for college almost three years ago.
Although I’ve done my best to describe my experience in words over the past 6 months, sometimes easy to watch visuals can be even more descriptive.
Yesterday was the first day of an optional advanced Danish conversation class that our teacher has created for those of us who want to practice more. (If you’re wondering, “hold nu kæft” means “shut up (now),” )
With all that in mind, I absolutely cannot say enough good things about Mette, my Danish teacher who has been so accommodating with bringing me into Danish class even though I was unable to officially enroll. She also does things like bring piles of postcards to class with lots of colloquial, everyday phrases for us to translate.
Luckily, the obscene amount of TV that I watch and my former life at the folkehøjskole made these pretty easy.
I’d also like to use this post to debunk a popular myth about DIS. Before I came to Denmark, I was told by multiple DIS alumni that I would learn a minimal amount of Danish, which has not proved to be the case. To anyone who might be hesitant about Denmark because they want to work on a foreign language, this could still be the place for you!
I studied Spanish for ten years throughout middle school, high school, and some of college, as well as taking a little bit of French in high school. Struggling with Danish is unlike anything I’ve done before, but it’s also extremely rewarding. When I first came to Denmark, I couldn’t even tell where words were starting and ending, and now I understand about 70% of the conversations I hear around me.
The truth is, learning Danish is not practical, not necessary, and not easy. But it IS possible, and if you’re actually interested, there are options that will allow you to learn more than would be covered in the standard Danish Language and Culture class, whether it’s an immersive living situation, getting help from Danish friends, or simply getting really into Danish TV.
I just returned from 3 days of travel with my core course European Memory & Identity,a course in the humanities department which focuses on understanding how people form their personal and ethnic identity using both institutional narratives (such as history taught in school) and social memories (the stories your grandmother tells you). One of the most awesome things about DIS is how the travel is integrated into your class, allowing you see great new cities, while simultaneous having a great experience with a core group of Americans who share your academic interests. Over three days we traveled to several sites within the Schleswig-Holstein region along the Denmark/Germany border. The border has been in three different places in the last 150 years, so people who have had family in the region for generations tend to have a mixed identity, somewhere between German & Danish.
Our first stop on the tour was the Duborg Skolen, a Danish school within Germany. We talked to three different students who attended the school including a German whose parents thought that the Danish school methods would cope better with his ADHD, a guy with a Danish father and a British mother, and a girl who said she considered herself completely Danish.
Later that day we visited Glucksborg Castle, and finished the evening with a fantastic dinner at Hansen’s Braurei in Flensborg—a town within Germany that seems almost completely Danish from my perspective.
The next day we visited Frøslev—technically a Danish concentration camp from WWII, with a very different story than any other camps in Europe.
During WWII, Denmark peacefully collaborated with German forces. There were some Danes who even joined the German army, but Denmark’s collaboration was not indicative of widespread support for Nazism, but of a desire to save as many Danes as possible. The Danish resistance and saboteurs were aided by the Danish police force throughout the war, in spite of their supposed collaboration with Nazis.
When the Nazis insisted that Danish Saboteurs and & Resistance had to be punished, the Danes asked for the right to build their own camp right on the Germany/Denmark border in which they could ensure that any Danish prisoners had enough to eat and good living conditions. By the end of the war, German rations had gotten so tight, that the Germans guarding the camp demanded to be fed the same food as the prisoners. During its time as a camp, no one was executed, however it was used to hold and punish Nazis for war crimes following the war. Today the camp serves as a museum, as well as hosting a boarding school and even offices to Amnesty international.
After, we continued to Hamburg to understand how German cities have shaped the memory of WWII with monuments and publically funded art projects. For instance, in the streets of Hamburg, Stolpersteine or “stumbling stones” are laid into the sidewalks near the homes of those persecuted by Nazis in order to commemorate them.
This Nazi propaganda art was put into dialogue with a new piece of art that depicts the atrocity of war on the innocent.
On a lighter note, Hamburg is also home to the largest model train exhibition in the world, and it was AWESOME, by far the first thing I’d recommend to anyone who intends to visit Hamburg.
Luckily it seems that my adventures are not going to cost me an exorbitant amount of money. I managed to switch my flight for free, and I am currently using my time in Baltimore airport to reflect on what it means to return to Copenhagen and DIS after five weeks at home in the United States.
Currently the prospect of seeing 1. min venner (friends), 2. min dans familie (host family), and 3. My cykel (bike), are the most exciting, but I’ve taken some time to look over the syllabi for classes, and realized (nerd that I am) that I’m equally excited for the fascinating topics I’ll spend my semester learning about.
This will be my most philosophy intense semester, with classes in biomedical ethics,the ethical brain, “the making of the modern self,” and European Identity. I will also be taking a course on gender and sexuality in Europe.
I am particularly excited for my core course, about how collective history and memory shapes individual or national identity. While all I have is the syllabus to work from right now, the various travel destinations include: Lund, Sweden; Schlesqig-Holstein region of Germany; Hamburg; and Prague. Also, one of the instructors, Brian, is a professor I had last semester who was absolutely phenomenal; thought provoking & interesting, so I’m excited to be in class with him for two more classes this semester.
Unfortunately, due to requirements for fulfilling my major, I will be unable to be officially enrolled in another Danish course this semester. Luckily, my previous professor has granted me permission to attend her Danish II course without credit, so I hope to continue learning more in the coming 4 months.
Vi Ses Så Snart København!
This one is a long one, but if you want to know why I won’t be at Vandy for the spring semester, here’s your answer.
Over the past three weeks or so the idea of spending a second semester, and thus almost a full year, in Denmark went from a vague idea that scampered through my mind, to a legitimate consideration, to a more concrete (almost 100% confirmed) reality.
It started with Nathan (this is your shoutout, acknowledge it, appreciate it) who started saying that he wanted to extend his stay for a full year within a week of getting here. I was enthusiastic about the idea, and ridiculously jealous because I was sure that it just wouldn’t be a possibility for me. I listed off people and student organizations and job opportunities that were important to me at Vanderbilt and dismissed the idea without a second thought. I harassed him to email his advisors at home to make sure that he wouldn’t miss out on a great opportunity solely for stupid logistical reasons, and I fully intended on living vicariously through his yearlong experience.
Then the government shutdown happened. Interestingly enough, I think it may have even struck “closer to home” for those of us abroad than for people currently in the United States. Of course I can’t speak for anyone who WAS but from people’s social media, many people seemed unconcerned. Personally, it terrified me; when the exchange rate changed .2 I wondered if there was going to be a drastic plummet in my money’s international value, especially with talks of defaulting on U.S. Debt (Seriously?!? What kind of stupid fucking idea is that?) Seeing the sardonically amused reaction of some of the Danish faculty was also eye opening. They seemed to view the partisan gridlock in American politics in the same way U.S. Nationals might view the instable and ever-changing governments of undeveloped nations.
The uncertainties of the shutdown brought up a lot of negative feelings I have towards the American political and economic system. I found myself wondering if there was really anything pulling me back to Vanderbilt for the spring,
During those two weeks, I sent emails to faculty and advisors at home to find out if it was logistically possible for me to stay another semester. First finding out the basics: 1. Does Vanderbilt allow that? 2. Would it affect my financial aid? 3. Will I still be able to graduate and finish both my majors (finishing both my philosophy and gender studies major is currently unsure)
Basically, by the time the shutdown was resolved, I had been approved on all logistical sides and made an impulsive decision that I was in this for a year. One of Søren Kierkegaard’s many identities once said “Do, or do not, you will regret it either way.” While the quote might seem depressing, my studies of Kierkegaard, and particularly identification with Wilhelm/B of Either/Or I see it in a different light.
According to what I’ve learned so far about Danish Existentialism/Nihilism the idea is something like: Life is meaningless and empty when you’ve examined it rationally, but you can approach that inescapable fact in two ways. The first is to wallow in self pity and do nothing. The second is to make decisions with a sense of commitment in order to create meaning and purpose within your own life. My personal experience of reality tells me that there is no God, no afterlife and no infinitely existing, sentient soul. I think, because it would be ridiculous to feel a sense of extreme certain-ness about a lack of existence. Maybe.
Basically the point of all that philosopho-fizing is for me to explain that I believe I can take this opportunity to stay in Denmark for a year to enrich my experience of the world and live a meaningful life. Deep shit right?
I think there are some things that I wouldn’t be able to experience without spending a full year here. For one thing, my absolute lack of homesickness is one reason to stay—it indicates that I may be more able to feel comfortable in foreign environments, but also that I haven’t adjusted enough to have any sense of disillusionment with Denmark. I also have a strong desire to gain more knowledge of Danish language, despite the fact that it’s completely unnecessary to know; everyone speaks English, except the cashiers and the people who work in bike shops in the country.
Before I came abroad even the concept of one semester away from my beloved Vanderbilt was ridiculously upsetting; my college experience has been nothing short of surreally amazing. The day that I graduate and leave campus behind looms ominously in the future, it’s when I have to start living like a “real” person, with a job and rent and start getting serious. However, I realized that whether or not I’m actually on campus, I cannot make the time between now and graduation move any slower, once I realized that, the decision was simpler to make.
TL;DR: I like Denmark, screw #FOMO, I’m going to study abroad for a full year instead of a semester.