We Discovered The World Together – RTW Family Travel 20 Years Later

I was 11, tall for my age, lanky, a bit shy, and perpetually curious.  I wasn’t a huge fan of school and found the whole thing awkward but, I had my core group of friends and powerful interests.  I was introduced to travel before I could walk – carving long furrows in the golden sands of Puerto Penasco’s pristine beaches while joining Dad in our inflatable Sea Eagles for light boating.  That relationship to travel persisted as I grew up first in Colorado, and then moved at the age of six to Sedona, Arizona. We’d camp, we’d hike, and when not making trips to Puerto Penasco, Mexico we’d spend time in the San Juan Mountains in Colorado.

It was a great childhood, and yet, I was far from outdoorsy. My passions and interests were equally dedicated to our computer. I spent as many afternoons and evenings as I could hogging the computer, and later as we got access to the web, the phone line as I battled through the nail- biting sounds of an old dial-up modem.  My folks were concerned that my social growth might be impacted or that I was rotting my brain – luckily, they’ve come around and in the interim made sure there was ample non-digital stimulation to keep things balanced.

So it was with some shock and disbelief that I received the news that we’d be renting our house and leaving everything behind for 11 months.  There wasn’t much warning. I didn’t really know what to expect, and at the age of 11, I’m not sure you even really properly understand what a trip 11 months long could possible entail. I vaguely remember thinking it was the end of the world and a grand new adventure.  At a certain level I think it felt like I was moving, more or less never to see my friends again.

Your First Two Months Will Define Your Study Abroad Experience

I remember the surreal exhilaration as I took that first step onto Danish soil.  Even as a veteran traveler I still couldn’t help but feel a bit like Neil Armstrong as he stepped out from the Lunar Lander into the unknown.  For me, it was the start of a two-year full degree program at the University of Copenhagen and a radical change from my lifestyle over the previous three years spent working 9-5 in the mergers and acquisitions industry. I was incredibly excited but also positively terrified. Living it at the time was a bit overwhelming but, as I look back, it was one of the best experiences of my life.  It was also a major learning lesson where I made mis-steps and could have done some things better. Overall though, I made a lot of great decisions and have relatively few regrets.

Danish National Museum in Copenhagen

Over the past few years I’ve worked with a lot of international students who have been engaged in a variety of different programs which range from semester exchanges to multi-year full degree programs.  In so doing I’ve noticed a couple of trends which are deeply ingrained in human behavior which can do a lot to shape how much you get out of your international study experience. Chief among these is tied to your behavior during the early-arrival period and how you form your daily routines.

Denmark: Don’t Throw Away Your Future

The Streets of Copenhagen

An open question to my Danish friends – do you truly want to emulate Arizona?  Because that’s the direction you’re heading.

The Study Progress Reform Talking Points

Fresh off of a recent recession and in the midst of its aftermath, Denmark is facing all of the usual debates about its educational system one would expect.  Some are complaining about the tax rate they pay and looking to scapegoat any source they can.  As usual, one of the easy targets  is education, and education funding has fallen squarely in their cross hairs.  While it is, perhaps, not terribly typical for Denmark, it is a process I’m intimately familiar with from my time in the USA and especially Arizona.

A major reason I was drawn to Denmark is because of its focus on education.  Even though I wasn’t eligible to take part, the fact that Danish students attend University for free and receive a monthly stipend of between $700-1,000 USD to survive on is incredibly attractive.  That level of commitment to education goes a long ways toward s explaining why Denmark, despite its near complete lack of natural resources, its rugged climate, extremely difficult language , and small population is an intellectual, professional and economic powerhouse. Denmark surpasses many of its counterparts which are 5, 10 or even 20 times its size.

Unfortunately, it’s painfully clear to me that recent “reforms” proposed to the Danish education system, many of which are heavily inspired by the ideological approaches which have deeply harmed American higher education over the last two decades, will have far more severe ramifications for Denmark.   Everything in Denmark is based upon one commodity: The country’s intellectual capital. In areas such as green design, architecture, or Copenhagen Suborbitals, it’s obvious.  Where it is less obvious is the country’s push for wind energy, biomedical, high tech, etc. which all  require a highly educated population with a sound intellectual foundation. Without it, the whole system falls apart. The high quality of life, standard of living, and disproportionately influential role Denmark enjoys  on the world stage is all just a few poorly thought-out moves away from ruin – and let’s face it, Danes have no interest in losing their extremely comfortable first-world status and lifestyle.

Factions of business leaders, bureaucrats, and media representatives have fallen over each other in recent months in an effort to exploit students  and the Danish education system. They have  all the usual arguments – they are taking too long, they are wasting everyone’s money, they are lazy, they need increased incentives, and of course, “Why should I have to pay for their education?”.

The tone and delivery varies slightly from year-to-year, country-to-country, but at the end of the day it’s always the same arguments.  It’s the same nonsense that was used in Arizona to slash and divert the budgets of public schools, all so that those same funds could be wasted on small pet projects, or go to independent charter schools. Schools which, it turned out, bypassed the regulations, transparency, and oversight present in the public schools and which have served as a portal for the insertion of young earth creationism, politically convenient rewrites of history, economic and political material, social status warfare, and tragically incomplete curriculum.

At the end of the day, that was all done through four basic claims:

1. Individuals  should be able to dictate where their tax money is spent  because  taxes are too high and we must cut waste.

2. Poor educational performance and/or graduation speed is the fault of insufficient rules, tests, and due to bad teachers/lazy students.

3. We already give the education system more than it needs. If they really need more money, why are they building new buildings (etc.)? They just need the efficiency of free-market mechanisms and business-minded leadership.

4. For-profit corporations and corporate models can do a better  job of running our universities.

Sound familiar?

What has resulted is the widespread increase in tuition (often double or triple-digit increases) at public universities in the US which have had to compensate for deep cuts in the government support they receive.  Plus, significant attempts to decrease research grants/funds, and a general contraction in the availability of funding support for American students.

As Denmark looks to the US for guidance and brings in “educational consultants”, it is worth pausing and asking if the green pastures and blue skies those consultants have pitched have any basis in reality.  Keep in mind that as of 2011 1 out of every 3 dollars borrowed by Americans (not including home mortgages)  went to debt tied to higher education.  The average Bachelors graduate in the US in 2013 graduated with roughly $35,200 in debt. As staggering as that may seem to Danes, it’s actually quite low as I have friends who pursued a Master’s (a rarity in the US due to the cost), and/or went on for PhDs and who have between $150,000 and $250,000 in accrued debt.

The result is that students have been forced to abandoned areas of the humanities and liberal arts – areas fundamental to an educated population and healthy society – in favor of higher paying majors. Others have foregone or radically shortened their college programs altogether at significant societal cost to the US’s well-being. All the while, the added responsibilities students take on to survive (part-time jobs, reduced credit hour loads, etc.) mean that they face slower graduation times, and have to spend more time in the system. Problems confounded by reduced budgets at the universities which lead to lower levels of guidance, reduced class availability, worse teacher : student ratios, and other similar problems.

What This Means For Denmark

Is there ample room for improvement within the Danish system? Absolutely. Do Danish students have it easy compared to some other countries?  In some ways. Do they take longer than they should to graduate?  Perhaps.  Could some reform be beneficial?  Always.

However, the way to bring about these positive changes isn’t to draw from broken systems and to seek to penalize and scapegoat students.

What the system needs is more funding, not less.  What students need is a better organized administrative infrastructure that has information more readily available and which takes a more active and involved role in helping them progress through their education.

Do you really want students to graduate faster?

Then make sure that they can take a course, regardless of semester. Time and time again students end up forced to delay because a course has pre-requisites that are only offered once per year.

Do we want students to progress more quickly through their program?  Then we must start by providing full time, professional academic advisers that have an intimate knowledge of the system (not students in student jobs who typically hold the position for less than 2 years and spend half of that time learning the system).   Further, have those advisers follow up with their portfolio of students twice a semester as a mandatory part of the student’s program. These advisors should also be available throughout the week, not just on a limited once or twice a week schedule.

Do we want improved performance from the Danish students? Then we must decrease course size.  It’s amazing how much better the quality of education is when you’ve got a teacher ratio (especially at a Master’s level) of 1:10 or 1:15 vs. 1:30 or 1:90.

Want students to do better at navigating the bureaucracy of their program?  Try speeding up and cleaning up the university bureaucracy and a culture  that leads to constantly delayed deadlines, multi-month delays in announcements, decisions, and results processing.

Let’s be clear: student performance is a symptom of the problem.  It is not the source.

Taking A Little Longer Is OK

The reality is that while private interests lash out and blame students for being lazy, what they neglect is the internship culture that has arisen where Danish companies realize tens of thousands of hours of free or cheap labor per year via internship programs which often consume the entirety of Danish student’s semester course load. Even worse these programs have now become virtually mandatory for students seeking a rapid transition from educational to professional life.

As a recent MA grad I had a rather rigid 2-year deadline due to my tuition waiver.  I had to forego the option of pursuing an academic internship.  Why?  Because the internship, which was  worth 15 ECTS points, took up the entirety of a semester.  Which meant, that for me to take it, I’d have been forced to add on a fifth semester to my program.  For the thousands of students that pursue these types of academic internships, and as a result are delayed at least a semester, it’s not their fault.  In fact, it is a strength of the system.

Further, that culture of low paid or free academic internships is not possible without either A) students taking on excessive amounts of debt as is occurring in the US or B) receiving SU financial support to offset their living costs.

Another area where that extra SU money has paid off big for Denmark, is the local start-up culture.  It’s amazing how different the start-up culture and lifestyle here is compared to what my friends go through in the USA.  True, the sheer risk of failure and large financial debts my friends rack up may serve as a motivator that Danish students lack. Yet, they also have the  advantage of having a revenue source while studying that allows them to explore their passions, ideas, creativity, and to take risks which would otherwise have catastrophic financial ramifications in the US (in turn crippling many of America’s best and brightest for years). These student’s creativity  is powering both Denmark’s innovation and creative cultures.

Recent discussion  has focused on how few Danish students are studying abroad and the need for increased globalization.  A problem I have been working to explore and solve.  A lot of that comes from more flexible university schedules and a system that provides windows and opportunities through which students can take time to explore the world and experience it without harming their academic progress.

The Danish system already pigeonholes students into fairly narrow educational specializations.   Exposure to other coursework is limited when compared to systems such as those in the United States.  This in turn means that for Danes who are trying to decide where to focus their education, they have far less flexibility in exploring what the university has to offer before locking into a set track. The more that their options are limited, the more  they are cornered into a limited education.  That, unfortunately, is to the detriment of everyone those students will come into contact with.  Just imagine if more economists took anthropology and history courses.  Or if philosophy students bolstered their education with a course in evolutionary biology.

So, Denmark, do you want real solutions that will strengthen Denmark’s future? Or a few extra kroner off your taxes and the self affirmation that comes from pointing a finger at students and scolding them for their imagined delinquency?

You’ve got something special here.  Something that should serve as a model for the rest of the world and which embodies the strengths of a civilized culture that values intellectual progress. Please, don’t throw that away because of a few talking points.

About Me

A recent graduate from the University of Copenhagen, I received my degree from the Department of Humanities where I scored top marks and a perfect score on my thesis.  Drawn to Denmark by the country’s dedication to education, I studied in Denmark on an academic tuition waiver that provided me with a two year period of study.  I received my Bachelors degree in human communication from Arizona State University (One of the largest research universities in the United States) with honors from Barrett, The Honors College.  While I advocate for the benefits of pro-longed educational study, I completed both my Bachelors and Master’s degrees within the traditionally accepted period of study (4/2 years).  In addition to my academic background, I have three years of corporate experience as a market analyst, and director of research in the mergers and acquisitions industry.

Avoid Wrecking Your Study Abroad Experience

Mickey_Mouse_Graffiti_War

The bartender leaned across the dark stained wood that marked a bar that had heard and seen the drunken adventures of revelry makers for decades.  In a thick Irish accent he rambled off, “What’ll ya’ take darlin?” with the practiced look that demands a quick and well-organized response.  The young American girl – in her late teens or early twenties  – quickly shot back, “Two Guinness and two Irish Car Bombs”.   The bartender paused and a quick shadow of annoyance swept across his face.   My brother and I, both leaning lazily against the bar a few steps away watched in silent amusement.  We were in a well-known tourist watering hole in the Temple Bar district of Dublin with a reputation for sassy staff.  The crowd was starting to thicken and the din of drunken antics was loud, but not so loud that we couldn’t overhear the conversation.  Earlier we’d had a good laugh with the bartender exchanging friendly jabs and stories and now we found ourselves trading a small smirk with him.  This promised to be interesting.

He leaned in to the girl willing to give her a chance to reconsider and catch her mistake, “What?”  She pressed on blissfully unaware of the nasty faux pas she’d just committed. Annoyance scrunched her face as she re-stated her order, only this time in an even louder, sharper, and somewhat slower American accent, “T-W-O Guinness and T-W-O Irish Car Bombs”. Obviously not impressed he frowned, stood up straight and in one motion rolled his eyes in our general direction. He shook his head and pointed at the next person waiting to place their drink order.  My brother and I shot each other knowing looks.  We were tempted to jump in and explain the situation to the girl but were curious to see if she’d piece it together herself. We decided to wait a bit longer.

Her face contorted in a mixture of frustration and casual rage. From her point of view the bartender was being an ass and no doubt hated her because she was an American.   To make it worse you could see she’d already concluded that part of the problem was that he must not understand her sharp “American” accent.  She fidgeted for a minute or two and then pulled out a 20 euro note which she prominently displayed on the bar while the bartender filled a few more orders.

Now some of you may have already identified what’s wrong in this story.  For those that have not, the Irish Car Bomb is a type of American drink that consists of a half pint of Guinness, and then a shot mixed with Baileys Irish cream and Irish whiskey.  The shot gets dropped into the Guinness and quickly “explodes” or at the very least begins to curdle while you quickly guzzle it down.  By itself a somewhat harsh but not overly offensive drink.  The trick comes in the name.  As those familiar with Irish history might recall, they’ve dealt with decades of violent conflict which in many ways tore areas of Ireland and Northern Ireland apart.  If wikipedia is to be believed “The Troubles” as they’re modestly referred to left 3,529 dead and more than 45,000 injured – many by way of brutal car bombings. To this end, walking into an Irish Bar and ordering an Irish Car Bomb is similar to ordering a Black and Tan in other parts of Ireland and tends to be poorly received and in culturally insensitive.

Eventually our very Irish bartender decided to give her another chance and returned to her place at the bar.  He leaned in and said, “Try again. What’ll it be?”.  Now thoroughly annoyed and convinced he was picking on her for being American she repeated her order. This time even slower and louder than before making the mistake many travelers make. Let’s face it, speaking louder and treating the other person like they’re stupid isn’t going to help them understand you one bit…especially when they very likely already understand you perfectly.

He paused. We waited. He sighed. Then leaned in and said, “Deary, we don’t sell those here but tell you what. I can whip you up two 9/11s”.  Very different types of shock blossomed across our collective faces.  It was obvious she was about to burst into tears. The look on her face said it all – now she knew the Irish hated Americans.  Not only was it confirmed, but apparently he was reveling in one of the worst disasters to strike America.  We erupted into laughter. Not because making light of Sept. 11th is any laughing matter, but because of how brilliantly it turned the situation around. Ordering a “9/11” in parts of the US would likely get you sent to the hospital.  Yet, that’s essentially what thousands of young Americans on study abroad do on a regular basis in Dublin. If we’d left it there she would have no doubt gone back to her friends in tears, shared the story of how the Irish hate Americans, how they joke about American’s darkest moments, and then carried those stories on to Facebook and back to the US with her. Not only might it have ruined her night, but in many ways it likely would have flavored her entire stay in Europe. It’s something I’ve seen countless times and for a variety of reasons.

Still obvious that she had not, and now clear that she would not make the connection between Irish Car Bombs and September 11th, we decided to intervene. We tapped her on the shoulder, and quickly explained what some might consider a mild, and others a rather grave cultural misstep she had just made.  As we explained the connection recognition blossomed across her face. Offended rage transitioned quickly to embarrassed annoyance. Collectively we all had a good chuckle about it, she got her drinks, and we learned a valuable lesson.  Now, to be fair, the bar tender WAS being a bit of an ass about the whole thing and the vast majority find it more amusing than offensive. Still, to this day it stands out in my memory as a powerful illustration of how easily things can go wrong when you’re operating on a limited set of assumptions.

I see things like this happen all the time.  That one experience might have been enough to poison her experience both that evening and during the rest of her stay.  But it likely would not have ended there. The story would have spilled back to the US, and been repeated to every student she talked to who was considering studying in Europe. Why?  All because she was blissfully unaware she was making a culturally offensive error and couldn’t be bothered to connect ordering an “Irish Car Bomb” in a country wracked by terrorist attacks with the situation she found herself in.

Now, as a traveler or study abroad study consider how often you may have had negative experiences that were similar in substance to my Irish Car Bomb story.  Consider how those experiences may have shaped your views on people, your experiences, and how you enjoy your over all program.

Error #2 – Creating Bad Luck By Being Stupid

In addition to blogging about topics related to travel and study abroad here on VirtualWayfarer, I’m also active across the web in a number of forums where I try and respond to people’s questions about travel, study abroad, solo travel, and expat life.  Over the years I’ve observed a lot of travelers and a lot of students.  I’ve seen them make mistakes and I’ve made more than my fair share in the process.   As a new semester starts up here in Copenhagen, a small army of new students has descended on Denmark eager to kick off what for many is their first study/living abroad experience. For many it is also likely their first time in Europe and/or abroad in any way/shape/form.  It’s a process being duplicated in cities around the world and it really is a wonderful thing.  Especially for young American students since we typically don’t partake in the traditional gap year that many other western countries view as a natural part of the learning process.

I see and respond to a lot of threads on basic (and not-so-basic) concerns.  Most of these are great questions and relate to concerns and frustrations that go with the territory.  They’re the fabric that makes travel, study abroad, and life abroad such an incredible growth and learning experience. I enjoy joking about the times I’ve been lost, felt overwhelmed, or in over my head. The little moments – like when I bought a 2kg bag of beets thinking they were sweet potatoes – are humbling, frustrating, humiliating, and deeply beneficial all at once.  However, I also see other stories and types of students on a semi-regular basis that I have learned to avoid. These are the individuals that will either have a grand epiphany somewhere during their trip, or – far more likely – will return home with stories of their nightmare experiences that intimidate and discourage other potential travelers from taking the road.

I recently found myself reading through a posting by one of these individuals on a popular discussion board.  While I won’t pretend to know the exact specifics of her experience, it became apparent that she was the type of individual that subconsciously did absolutely everything in her power to sabotage herself while being completely oblivious to what she was doing and blaming everyone else in the process.  You know the annoying blond girl at the start of the movie “Taken” that gets them both abducted?  Yeah. That type of person.

I find this bothersome and unless they’re in desperate need of immediate help, I refuse to engage. In fact, it can actually be somewhat dangerous to do so as these individuals quite often manage to bring all their bad behavior and bridge-burning with them.  However, while I opted out of responding there were many others who did with a wealth of help and advice. They were being polite, friendly, and sympathetic.  This is a wonderful, beautiful thing and really embodies the warm nature of the international community.  However, experience has also shown me that this will do very little to help her change her behavior. Unfortunately, it likely just reinforces and reaffirms it.

For the sake of this post though, let’s all be honest with each other:  If you find that you’re “disaster prone” or have “terrible luck”, there’s a good chance that you’re at least partially responsible.  You’re likely putting yourself in situations that are conducive to bad things happening, sabotaging your relationships, failing to take accountability for your actions, being mind-numbingly culturally insensitive and/or just generally being a putz.

If you find that your purse, phone, wallet, or passport repeatedly gets stolen or lost, it’s time to grow up and accept the truth of things.  It’s not because you have bad luck. It’s because you are being a moron. In addition, if you don’t know how to handle alcohol, then either stop drinking in public or do what the rest of us do and stop behaving like a drunken buffoon.

Similarly, if you find that “everyone hates you and you just don’t know why” it’s probably because you’re an asshole. Well, that’s unfair.  You and I both know that you’re probably not an asshole at heart (after all, you were cool enough to decide to study abroad!) but chances are some of your behaviors are driving other people away.

So, if you find yourself preparing to embark on a study abroad trip, traveling abroad, or as an exchange student I encourage you to be extremely mindful of where you are, of how you engage and interact with people, and above all that you not only take accountability for your actions but also for your own behavior and the ramifications of that behavior.  At the end of the day you are not helpless.  You are not abandoned. The system is not out to get you. The locals are not at war with you.  You WILL face challenges and setbacks…but how you respond to those when they do occur will shape the nature of your experience and the willingness of people to help you.

Let me be clear: YOU are the greatest threat out there to having a safe, enjoyable, social, and wonderful learning experience.

I encourage you all to enjoy every moment of your trips and hope that moving forward we’ll see fewer and fewer people sabotaging themselves and their experiences.  It’s the little things that add up. Change those, re-frame them, and push yourself to be more than you were yesterday and you’ll do great.

Have fun and safe travels!

Hopefully this post was something you knew already, but perhaps you know someone who needs to read it.  If you do, send it on to them and let’s all push for the best, most enjoyable study abroad experience possible!

Oh, and for the love of all things decent. Please, please, please remember that most people DO understand English and likely CAN understand you and they probably DO hear you.  It’s amazing how many people seem to think its acceptable to comment about people sitting right in front of them (often in less then complimentary terms) simply because they’re not in a native English speaking country.

The Second Oldest Amusement Park in the World – Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen

Tivoli Gardens - Copenhagen

One of Copenhagen’s central tourist attractions, Tivoli Gardens, doubles as a regular destination for locals as well. The amusement park, which is semi-seasonal, is open between mid-April and the end of December each year.  It boasts a variety of wonderful (and comprehensively decorated) themes that change with the seasons while offering a more historical amusement park experience than many visitors may have experienced in the past.

Despite having arrived in Copenhagen back in July, I’m embarrassed to say this was my first trip to Tivoli.  I can’t say I have any good reason for the delay other than that due to my housing and visa woes I missed the initial trip most of my friends and classmates took when we first arrived. Now that I’ve finally made it, I’m definitely sorry it took me as long as it did to make it to the park, and that I’ll have to wait until April to return.  Though, to balance out the long delay, the magical ambiance that went with the holiday decorations and firework show definitely left me with an extremely memorable first time to the park – but I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let’s talk a bit more about the park and its fascinating history.

Tivoli Gardens - Copenhagen

While it may be old news to amusement park aficionados, most readers will probably be surprised to learn the Denmark is home to more than just the original Lego Land.  In fact it not only boasts Tivoli, which was founded in 1843 and is the second oldest amusement park in the world.  It also serves as home to Dyrehavsbakken located a few miles to the north which is the world’s oldest park with a history dating back to the 1580s, and which I hope to visit (and share with you all) this spring.

The Peacock - Tivoli Gardens - Copenhagen

As the story goes Tivoli was initially launched under the rule of King Christian the VIII as an initiative to nurture citizen’s goodwill.   Initially located just outside of the city’s western gate in Vesterport, as the city has grown the park has slowly been incorporated into Copenhagen’s historic downtown.   Throughout its history the park’s owners have consistently focused on maintaining the park’s ambiance and historical allure while working creatively within the park’s limited space to add modern rides and attractions.  It currently boasts twenty five rides, four of which are roller-coasters.  No small accomplishment for a park that takes up just over 20 acres of land.

Little Russia - Tivoli Gardens - Copenhagen

Throughout its rich history, Tivoli has left its mark on the entertainment world.  The park served as a heavy inspiration for Walt Disney when he set out to create Disneyland, inspired Hans Christian Anderson as he wrote The Nightingale, and is said to have played a central role in composer Hans Christian Lumbye’s musical career. With its fantastic charm, romantic ambiance, and rich vegetation it’s guaranteed to leave its mark on all who visit.

The Daemon - Tivoli Gardens - Copenhagen

My introduction to the park began just after dark (which comes far too early in Copenhagen in December).  The weather was crisp, but tolerable, and the sky largely cloudless with a beautiful crescent moon.  It was the 29th of December, one day before the park was scheduled to close down until April. I’d arrived after dark to see the park at night, and to make sure I had the chance to see Tivoli’s famous firework show which is put on the last week of December.  The plan was to connect with a classmate and her boyfriend who were both Danish and had offered to introduce me properly to Tivoli.  However, eager to spend some time wandering the park on my own I arrived a few minutes early to snap a few photos and some video.

Tivoli Gardens - Copenhagen

As I waited for Jonas and Margrethe to arrive my attention was immediately stolen by the rich, deep, sparkling blues of the Pantomime Theater.  The theater is designed in an oriental style, and features a brilliantly colored peacock with sparkling tail.  Built as an outdoor theater, it was designed by Vilhelm Dahlerup who also designed the Royal Danish Theater.  While the theater is known for the peacock’s mechanical tail, which serves as the front curtain, I was immediately distracted by a large stable set up immediately in front where I presume the chairs would normally sit.  In their place a rustic stable had been built served as a temporary home for Santa’s reindeer during daylight hours.  Long since put to bed, a rumbling recording of roaring snores reindeer snores echoed out from the hut, serving as an amusing contrast to the pristine plumage and diamondesque elegance of the Peacock Curtain that served as its backdrop.

Little China - Tivoli Gardens - Copenhagen

From the theater, I quickly wound down through small free standing shops and past Tivoli’s Moorish Palace, which serves as home to the Nimb Hotel and Restaurant.  Then past little Russia with its vibrantly colored  buildings, and out into one of the park’s open areas.  The open space serves as home to two of the park’s large carousels: the Music Carousel and the Swing Carousel, both of which are vibrantly lit at night.  It is also home to the world famous Star Flyer, and the heart tree/kissing tree.

The Lover's Tree - Tivoli Gardens - Copenhagen

To my delight the crescent moon fell squarely amidst the naked branches of the heart tree.  Naked of leaves the large tree cut an impressive silhouette while supporting a number of large, glowing red hearts.  All of which surrounded a beautiful, brilliantly bright crescent moon in the background.  It was delightful, if a bit lonely – definitely one of those places and moments made for a stolen kiss, music to remember and a beautiful travel companion.

Light Show - Tivoli Gardens - Copenhagen

Leaving the tree behind, I quickly met up with Jonas where we mad our way immediately to one of the small concession stands for steaming cups of Gløgg/Glögg. Gløgg is a staple of winter life in Denmark.  It consists of mulled red or white wine, often with almonds and raisins in it, is served steaming hot out of large cauldrons.  In many cases it is further fortified with a few shots of hard alcohol.  Jonas opted for the spiced rum, and I followed his lead.  With blood slowly returning to my fingers, we wound into little China Town, beneath the Daemonen – Tivoli’s largest roller coaster – before pausing along Tivoli’s fairly large lake.

Little China - Tivoli Gardens - Copenhagen

As Jonas explained some of the park’s history to me we were greeted by a stunning view. The lake’s water was almost perfectly still and the lit buildings, trees, and roller coasters that sit along it cast vibrantly colored reflections. Just as Margrethe arrived music began to play, the lights changed, and fog rolled out over the lake. Then, to my absolute (and perhaps slightly childish) delight a laser and fountain show began. It combined a fun mixture of fog, light, laser webs, music, and even a bit of flame for an enchanting performance that had water, and light dancing across the surface of the lake. We stood mesmerized for the length of the show, despite the cold.

The Lake Lights - Tivoli Gardens - Copenhagen

I mentioned it briefly already when talking about the heart tree, but it bears reiterating. The old trees that decorate Tivoli are fantastic. Especially in winter, devoid of their leaves, and decorated in brilliant arrays of Christmas lights. The trees along the lake cast stunning reflections while simultaneously seeming to be lit by thousands of small, glowing lake fairies.

The Pirate Ship - Tivoli Gardens - Copenhagen

Eager to find something for Margrethe to drink, and nearing the bottom of our cups of Gløgg we made our way down and around the far end of the lake, which took us past the park’s impressive pirate ship and then across towards the aptly named Smuggler’s Row.

Tivoli Gardens - Smugglers Row - Copenhagen

Smuggler’s Row has a fun, eclectic feel and serves as home to a number of  permanent food stands and small shops.    As the photo suggests, it has a delightful mixture of oddities and fantastical decorations.

Tivoli Gardens - Smugglers Row - Copenhagen

The crowds had begun to build, and eager to warm up we ducked into a small beer garden that had liter steins of Paulaner beer and just as importantly large heat lamps.  There we sat, chatted, and exchanged stories while warming up and preparing for the evening’s main event.  The firework show.

Tivoli Gardens - Copenhagen

As we finished our beers and made our way back towards the open space with the heart trees we were shocked to see how much the park had filled up. In the seemingly brief time we had been away, wandering the park, the entire area had filled – shoulder to shoulder – with eager onlookers. We quickly found a small spot with a great view and settled in. Now, I’m not sure what you might be familiar with for firework shows back home, but after spending the holidays and new years here in Denmark, I can promise you that regular residents take their fireworks very, very seriously. As a result the bar is set pretty high for a professional show like Tivoli’s and I’m happy to say they more than delivered. You’ll have to watch the video which is embedded earlier in this post to see them. I’m afraid I was so busy enthralled by the fireworks and recording video I failed to pause and snap a few traditional photos. The backdrop was gorgeous with little Russia to our left, old street lamps in front of us, and the colorfully lit dome at the top of the Star Flyer as the backdrop. The show rivaled anything I’ve seen the city’s put on for the 4th of July back home. The fireworks were colorful, plentiful and of course loud!

My trip to Tivoli was an evening spent in a magical fairy tale land. The park is an absolute delight and has its own unique charm which I thoroughly enjoyed. If you find yourself in Denmark, make sure you set aside an afternoon – or evening – to explore the park and all it has to offer. As an interesting side note, you have different options when purchasing tickets. There is a cheaper, non-ride based ticket which gives you admission to the park – perfect for evenings like mine. Or you can opt for a ride pass which is good throughout the park, and ideal in warmer months when fast rides and daring drops call!  For more information you can view their site at Tivoli.dk.

Have your own experiences, or fun facts from Tivoli? Feel free to share them in a comment. As always, thanks for reading, and please make sure to subscribe for future updates!

Learning Danish – Surprising Realizations

Local Food (The Smorgasbord) - Copenhagen, Denmark

When I first arrived in Denmark I was gung ho about learning Danish.  I felt that as an incoming resident who would be spending two years in the country it was the least I could do to learn Danish during my stay.  To my surprise the majority of my Danish friends appreciated the sentiment but discouraged me from learning Danish – the common statement went along the lines of, “Only 6 million people speak Danish and it is a terribly hard language that is almost impossible to master, besides we all speak English”.  I can’t imagine a similar sentiment being expressed about English back in Arizona.  Granted, it’s a very different situation, but even if it were not, I just don’t see Arizonans ever voicing similar advice.

Eager to expand my horizons and truly immerse myself in Danish culture I decided to take their recommendation under advisement, but push ahead with learning Danish. Now, several months later I’ve had several realizations that have re-shaped my relationship with the language.

The first is that most Danes really do speak excellent English.  It’s almost impossible to find a Dane here in Copenhagen under the age of 40 who doesn’t speak fluent English.  It’s taught in their schools, most of the movies shown in theaters are English with Danish subtitles, and about 70% of the movies and shows on TV are presented in a similar way.  Of those over 40, most speak at least some English.

Danish is an incredibly difficult language. Now, I don’t consider myself a linguist by any stretch of the imagination. Quite the opposite actually, but based on my experiences with Spanish I feel as though I have at least a general baseline to compare against.

The thing about Danish is that it is a fairly guttural/throaty language, it is very general and re-uses a wide variety of words which makes it very contextual.  The words in Danish are also some of the longest I’ve ever encountered which I’ve found challenging as I’ve yet to learn where to pause and what to omit.  In addition to having incredibly long words, many letters of the alphabet in words are actually silent which makes hearing it and reading it phonetically extremely difficult.

The most difficult part of Danish for me, so far, has been the guttural enunciation.  Danes commonly joke that as a non-dane the best you can hope for is to get close. Unfortunately, so far even the simple three or four letter words have largely escaped me. As it turns out, my version of west coast, slightly southern English uses every part of my mouth EXCEPT the parts used in the guttural aspects of Danish. In general the way I’ve learned to talk is with crisp – perhaps harsh is more accurate – vocalizations.  The result is that I can’t even make many of the sounds used in Danish, let alone hear them.  For those of you that battled with the rolling R in Spanish, this is similar, but across the entire language.

On the upside, while I have difficulty hearing and pronouncing the more subtle aspects of the language the one area my English background helps with, is the cross over and use of words which have their roots in Old Norse and the Germanic languages. Words like hour (timer), etc. are clear cut enough that I can make contextual sense of them when reading websites, menus, etc.

The Danes are also very finicky about the pronunciation of words.  What sounds identical to a non-native speaker is often a significant enough difference in pronunciation that the Danes have difficulty recognizing and understanding the word(s) being spoken. I know that for some people, this has been mistaken as being unhelpful, but the more I’m exposed to it, the more I’ve come to realize that it’s deeply ingrained in the complex structure of Danish and the key importance of subtle emphasis and not done out of any sense of elitism or stubbornness.

An additional point of interest has been Dane’s use of English in the midst of general conversation.  As I understand it English (in part because it is a new language) has much more descriptive words for a lot of actions and things than traditional Danish.  As a result it’s fairly common for Danes to supplement Danish with English during the course of their conversations.  Sometimes only using a word and other times switching to English for a sentence before diving back into Danish for the remainder of the conversation.

I’ve been very surprised by the Dane’s willingness to switch entire discussions over into English if an English speaker is present without complaint. I’ve even seen a number of Danes switch from Danish to English when ordering in ethnic restaurants without a hint of complaint or annoyance.  That said, despite English’s generally widespread use in Denmark, the social language barrier you would expect elsewhere between Danes and non-danish speakers is less visible but still present.

I share the above because I’ve been forced to adjust my approach to learning Danish. My previous goal was to be able to speak, write, and read Danish by the end of the year. While I’ve realized that given enough time it’s certainly doable, the reality is that I’m not likely to attain that level of mastery over the two year period I’ll be here.  From conversations, this realization inspires many long-term visitors and expats to abandon Danish all together. Which I also don’t find to be the right approach.

My revised goal is to learn enough Danish that I can hear and understand spoken, conversational Danish when it is occurring around me.  From there, though I’d like to be able to (and hope to in time) respond in Danish. For the time being I’ll focus on responding in English.   This should allow me to participate in many of the conversations that I might otherwise accidently be excluded from without forcing everyone I meet to constantly speak English, just because I’m in the general area.

It is going to be a challenge. The re-training of my ear has already been a surprisingly difficult task, but it’s one which I’ve already found to be quite enriching and informative.  The role of language in learning more about culture, myself, and in shaping this experience has been a significant one, even with my current limited vocabulary of about 5 spoken Danish words.

For now, I’m off to ride the metro, silently mouthing each station name and announcement as I work to acclimate myself to a new world of sounds, words, and grammar. Looking like I’m talking to myself is a small price to pay for the chance to learn a fascinating language with a rich and storied history!

Students Only: Partying in the Black Diamond Library in Copenhagen

Black Diamond Student Party

While Copenhagen is famous for its architectural flare, one of the city’s famous landmarks is the “Black Diamond“. Built as an extension to the city’s ancient Royal Danish Library, the Black Diamond is a neo-modern 7-story addition which extends from the old library building to the city’s harbor/waterfront. It was finished in 1999.  Granted its nickname due to the polished black marble and dark glass used to design the building, it houses a theater, armies of book shelves and a classy waterfront cafe.

Black Diamond Student Party

The library holds a yearly event with a local students group which puts on a fantastic evening of music, drinks, and social mingling. The event is limited exclusively to students and their guests. This year it showcased a variety of wonderful musical performances ranging from a lone cello performance to well known hip-hop artists.

Black Diamond Student Party

While the individual library wings were closed (understandably) to the general audience, all of the open spaces were made available and filled with wild lighting, musical performances, and space to mix and mingle.  With large open halls and an acoustically friendly atrium crisscrossed at different points by flying bridges it made for a delightful experience. It is also interesting the difference a legal drinking age of 18 plays in enabling these sorts of events.  While still possible in the US, the lack of a need to ID, wristband, and police the event as well as the more responsible drinking behavior among undergraduate-aged students that results from the lower drinking age makes a huge difference. While you could hold a similar event in the US, it would definitely be far more challenging logistically and have a different ambiance as a result.

Black Diamond Student Party

The main performers were set up on the flying bridge that cut across the center of the atrium at the 3rd story.  It served as the perfect stage as the rest of the atrium consisted of wrap around, open air causeways which formed a large U before giving way to the ceiling to floor glass windows.  The main windows which stretched from ceiling to floor before warping into a large skylight offered a charming view of the harbor at night.

Black Diamond Student Party

A group of students from the Communication, Cognition, Film and Media Studies programs met up before the doors opened for a relaxing drink along the harbor waterfront. As the sun set we made our way into the Black Diamond.  It set the mood for the night.   Once inside we split into smaller groups as we explored the library (for most of us, it was our first time inside) before re-connecting to catch up on the week’s events and antics while listening to the various music performances.   The entire event was more than just music or drinks.  It was a beautifully executed experience and definitely ranks as one of my favorite events in Copenhagen so far.

Black Diamond Student Party

There’s something truly magical about a great concert series in a captivating venue.  The added effort the organizers put into building on the library’s native ambiance also made a huge difference. One surprising aspect of the evening was the number of international students in attendance.  Though University of Copenhagen has a relatively small international student population (in comparison to its size), the event was very foreign student heavy which offered a fun mixture of accents, cultures and personalities. Holding the event as a students-only event also ended up being a great thing.  It eliminated the potential social discomfort that often goes with attending a formal event and served as a fun way to bridge the gap between a more traditional event and student life’s informality. The event was an absolute delight and one I hope to participate in again next year. Have you enjoyed a concert or event in a particularly unique venue?  I’d love to hear about it in a comment.

**I didn’t take my camera with me to the event so the photos in this post were taken by Frida Zhang and are used/hosted with her permission.

Five Major Differences Between Long-Term and Short-Term Study Abroad Programs

The Round Tower - Copenhagen, Denmark

It sounds simple but if you’re like me, you probably view all study abroad programs as essentially the same, and you probably view most international students similarly as a result.  Hold your horses!  The two are actually vastly different.

I’ve participated in the two extremes of study abroad.  My first introduction was the summer after my Freshman year of College at Arizona State University.  I attended a six and a half week study abroad program through the Barrett Honors College which spent three weeks in London, ten days in Dublin and twelve days in Edinburgh. We traveled, we explored, we took two courses, and it was a great intro to international travel.  In the 7 years since I completed that program I used it, movies, and conversations as a general way of relating to all of the international students I met.  While it helped some, I now realize I made a lot of mistaken assumptions.

Just over three weeks ago I arrived in Copenhagen, Denmark where I’ll be spending the next two years pursuing a masters in Communication and Cognition at the University of Copenhagen. An experience which I’ll be documenting here on VirtualWayfarer.  My formal studies start in less than three weeks and without even beginning the academic portion of the experience I’ve already realized that long-term study abroad and short-term study abroad are vastly different.

To clarify terminology – when I say short-term study abroad I’m talking about trips which last less than 7 months but longer than 5 days.  When I say long-term study abroad I’m including year long programs but mainly focusing on complete degree undergraduate and graduate programs.

Here are five of the key differences:

Preikestolen "The Preacher's Pulpit" - Norway

1. Commitment

As scary and challenging as short-term study abroad programs can be, you never truly have to commit to leaving.  The study abroad trip is an adventure, sometimes a relatively long one, but always experienced with a set perception of your native country as home.  You know that you’ll be going back at the end of that program and even if that program is 6 months long, you’ll always be in a social/passing through phase.  While you may become a participant in the local culture, you’ll never find yourself striving to become a truly active member or to go native.

In a long-term study abroad program you have to go all in.  You’ve committed to something more than just an extended visit and are literally moving to your destination country.  You operate on the realization that in the 1 to 6 years you’ll be gone that everything will change drastically, that you as an individual will be completely different, and that you are re-locating your home.  There is a realization that to not only enjoy, but to survive the experience you have to make an effort to go native.  That you will be changing far more than just where you sleep and study, but also how you eat, how you socialize, and perhaps even some of your core assumptions and values.

Warehouse Row in the Old Harbor - Bergen, Norway

2. Support

One of the best parts about a short-term study abroad program is that almost everything is taken care of for you by the partner schools, program coordinators and chaperones.  You’re told exactly what to do to engage in the process, where to be, and what to expect. Things like housing, transport, and course registration are handled, and most programs have you experience the trip as part of a group of people from your University or home country.  For my first trip this consisted of  two courses taught by faculty from my home University and our group was made almost entirely up of students from Arizona State’s Communication and Honors colleges.

While the experience may vary, I’ve found that long-term study abroad comes with significantly less support.  Especially for international students who are completing entire degree programs.  As a full program international student you’re not engaging in a study abroad program, so much as you are opting to study abroad.  The subtle difference is that while one is a program, the other is standard application and acceptance in a University that just happens to be international.  That means that virtually nothing is taken care of for you, though most Universities offer international programs offices which try and provide some guidance and limited help. At a basic level, however, consider all of the things that go into applying for College or Graduate school as a student attending an out of state school (housing, strange fees, long distance phone calls, different time zones, different banks, paperwork, transcripts, moving your possessions etc.) and then consider doing those internationally across thousands of miles.  Things like visa processing and paperwork, language barriers, international time zones, and vastly different education system structures all come together to create a very challenging and daunting experience.    Believe me, trying to complete the housing and visa process alone with minimal guidance or support is an incredible challenge and one that has left me with more than one sleepless night.

Candy and Scale - Copenhagen, Denmark

3. Different Educational Systems

While most people know this, I don’t think people truly internalize the fact that school systems around the world differ greatly. American educational systems are vastly different than European systems which are completely different than Asian systems.

I mentioned earlier that for my short-term study abroad experience we brought our own teachers with us.  You’ll find that in most short-term study abroad programs the academic coursework and structure remain largely the same as the country of origin.  This makes sense as switching back and forth for a few weeks/month-long program would be messy and confusing.  It also goes back to the experience as a visitor vs. participant/member.

Long-term study abroad programs, however, are done in the local educational system.  Remember – you’re just a regular student who happens to be from abroad.  As a participant this means figuring out and learning vastly different registration, course schedule, course load, teaching style and testing systems.  Even the little things like how course hours are credited can be vastly different.  For example while US schools operate on a credit hour basis, University of Copenhagen and most of Europe uses the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS).

Street Music - Copenhagen, Denmark

4. Social Restart

I mentioned earlier that short-term study abroad programs tend to set you up with, or travel in packs.  Even though you probably didn’t know most of the people before the trip began, you’re put with a group that automatically forms into a new peer group/group of friends. Some will become great friends, some you’ll tolerate because, hey, it’s only a few weeks or months, and one or two you’ll probably absolutely detest.  Ultimately though, this becomes your social network while traveling and fills in for your family and friends back home.

While there is some of this in long-term study abroad the nature of the program makes it significantly more difficult. There’s a huge sensation of loss as you realize that you’re not returning to your regular social group and good friends in a couple of weeks or months, but that it will likely be years. Years during which they may get married, move elsewhere, or change drastically as people.  As a long-term student you also have to effectively start over from ground zero.  One of the biggest frustrations I hear from people who did long-term study abroad programs and had negative experiences was that they never managed to meet new people or establish a new network.   It’s tough, and it takes an active willingness and investment in meeting, connecting, and generating friendships in a way most of us haven’t done actively in close to a decade.

There is no fall-back social group, or core-social group that you can always spend time with or call up to go grab a coffee, see a movie, or grab a beer. That sense of initial isolation is where I’m at right now, and while I feel very positive about the people I am meeting and my ability to build a new social network here in Denmark, it can be rough at times.  A lot of that will also change as the other international students starting my program arrive in town and courses start giving us an easy common thread to network through.  Still, that in and of itself poses another challenge as I know that if I’m going to be here for two years I need to do more than just hang out with other international students. That means going outside of my comfort zone and doing things that are far less comfortable for an international student – it means committing myself to the culture.

I’ve met some great people in the three weeks I’ve been here, and as orientation starts up I know I’ll meet a wealth of new ones. Despite that, it has definitely been a vastly different experience than traditional short-term study abroad.

Dad and I

5. Family

I always wondered how my international friends, roommates, and acquaintances dealt with being away from family. I come from a very close family where my parents, brother and I talk regularly, travel well together, and have an incredible relationship as peers.  For a long-time I wondered what long-term student’s relationships with their families were like that they were comfortable and able to leave their family for years at a time.  I think at a certain level, though I’m a bit ashamed of myself for it, I assumed that their relationships with their families must not have been incredibly close which made it easier to spend time away.  I’m happy to say I had no idea what I was talking about.  Leaving family behind and knowing that visiting and communicating will be much more challenging is easily one of the toughest things about long-term study abroad, but it in no way reflects the strength of the relationships between an international student and their siblings/parents.

As I write this I’m engaged in a two year program which may extend into a PhD and has the potential to lead just as easily to an expat scenario as a return stateside at the end of my two year program.  Two days before I flew over to Denmark my brother flew to Africa with the US Peace Corps for a two year deployment to Zambia.  Moving thousands of miles away, after spending most of our lives less than an hour away from our folks and each other was an incredibly difficult decision. But it was one that was made possible largely BECAUSE of how close our family is.  Their support, encouragement, and constant wisdom made the move a reality.  So, I encourage you all not to make the same mistake I did.

Are you thinking about studying abroad, or have you done a short or long-term program?  I’d love to hear your thoughts, observations and answer any questions you may have!