Behold the Valley of the Sun

With roughly 4.3 million residents in the greater Phoenix metro area the city, named after a mythical bird, has wings that cast a mighty shadow.  So mighty in fact that if it were converted into a stand alone country that population would make it the 127th most populous country in the word – right between Croatia and Georgia.  It is a city of diversity which is the source of many of its greatest attributes but part of what makes the city, and the state it resides in, a lightning rod for national debate and controversial discourse.  It’s the city where I spent my undergraduate years and a city I experienced in a whole different way as a business professional.  Now, as someone who has spent the majority of three plus years away from Phoenix I want to share with you the things I miss and the things I look forward to experiencing for the first time the next time I find my way back.

Two Years Away – My First Visit Back to Arizona

Self Portrait - Colorado Rockies

With my Master’s thesis handed in and the clock ticking down on my time as a student, I finally set aside the funds to return to Arizona. It seemed like a perfect opportunity.  My schedule was largely open, consumed only by applying for jobs and PhD positions here in Denmark.  My brother, the author of, who has spent the last 26 months in Africa with the US Peace Corps was scheduled to return to Arizona for his month and a half long home leave.  His home leave marks the 2 year mark in his service, and he’s currently scheduled to return to Zambia for a one year extension which made this my only opportunity to see him and my folks together for at least another year.

The plan was simple.  Return home and spend time together as a family.  While we all Skype multiple times a week, it would be the first time any of us saw each other since last year when we spent a month together in Zambia. As the date approached, David and I chatted in mixed tones of excitement and trepidation.  Would we experience homesickness? How strong would the reverse culture shock be?  Would we suddenly feel a sense of regret or second guess our decision to not only go abroad, but to stay abroad for so long?

Since many of you have asked about my experience, what I saw, what I felt, and my thought process, this post will be a rolling explanation that seeks to shed insights into these questions.

General observations

Sense of Noise – One of the interesting shifts was just how “loud” things seemed when I returned to the US.  Living in Denmark for the last two years my ears and brain have re-focused their filter from only seeking out relevant English words and conversations to filtering out Danish conversations which I only marginally understand.  Those who have traveled may know what I mean – your ear is constantly scanning and suddenly picks-up-on and hones in on English – any English – it hears. It can be a radio station in the background, Danes switching seamlessly to English and then back again, or folks having a conversation in English across the room.  The odd twist is that upon returning to the US and leaving Denmark behind, my brain took a while to slam the old filters back into place. The result was a sense of inundation as my brain tried to pick up and process every English sound and conversation occurring around me.  It made for a very interesting and slightly overwhelming experience.

Native English Speakers – In Denmark I speak English exclusively.  However, that English is international English, which is to say it is simplified English with slightly different emphasis and a significantly reduced pacing than I would use in the states.  My usage of slang is greatly reduced as is the use of highly complex or obtuse words. My day-to-day conversations take place with non-native speakers. Many of these non-native speakers are completely fluent in English and competent.  Yet, to be better understood my use of language while abroad changes. The same has occurred among my fellow American expats so that even when we’re talking to each other our conversations fall somewhere in-between a truly fluent native conversation and an international English conversation.  The result is that my active vocabulary has shrunk by hundreds of words. While this loss of vocabulary and change in pacing is temporary, some parts definitely recover faster than others. Throughout my stay I found myself searching for basic words or frustrated at my inability to draw upon the specific, descriptive word I needed.

Inflation – I was really surprised to see that the cost of everything has gone up $1-2. When living there day-t0-day you don’t tend to notice it.  Having left and returned I was quite shocked to see that things had increased significantly.  Especially when one considers just how low and slow to change the minimum wage is. When I consider the minimum wage in DK vs. Arizona and the prices of things in DK vs. the US, I  am reminded that prices  aren’t nearly as expensive in DK as they initially appear.

Nice vs. Friendly – The Danes, famous for being a bit more reserved, are incredibly kind.  They are truly nice people on average, and once you strike up a conversation they are eager to chat, eager to help, and very curious.  Americans on the other hand live up to our reputation abroad. Folks are just down right friendly.  They’re outgoing and eager to strike up random conversations.  Bored?  Downtime?  Waiting in a line?  You name it, it’s grounds for commentary and social interaction for the duration of the time spent in the same space. As someone raised in that culture, it’s something I really enjoy and miss a little bit while in Denmark.  Luckily, Danes are always more than happy to respond to my prompts for conversation – even if they violate social norms and take them a bit off guard.

Things I Miss

I have a deep seated love for the US, for all it has to offer and even for many of its failings.  While I haven’t felt a strong pang of homesickness during my two years in Denmark, there are definitely things that I really miss. Some of which I didn’t even realize I missed.

Family and Friends  – This is a given, but it still bears repeating.  Spending time back with family and my amazing group of friends was truly a wonderful experience. It is, hands down, the hardest part of being abroad and leaving Arizona behind. That even after two years apart we can come back together for wonderful evenings, conversations, and stories is a true tribute to what a fantastic community I still have back in Arizona.

The Food – I often am greeted with extreme skepticism when I tell people that of all the countries I’ve visited, the US has some of the best food in the world. It does, and Arizona will forever hold a special place in my heart for its amazing Mexican food. You could likely eat Mexican food and its various Americanized variations for every meal, every day, for a week without having  the same style twice.  Of the many things I’ve missed while living in Denmark, good, cheap, filling, grungy Mexican food is one of those that I hanker for most strongly.  Similarly, cheap, amazing, massive steaks from the supermarket, as well as hamburgers.  I’m not talking flowery, pretty, Danish-style hamburgers you eat with a knife and fork.  I’m talking about delicious, sloppy, ugly hamburgers that are packed with flavor and send you into a food coma afterwards. Hamburgers that you eat with your hands until they implode, like flavored fireworks, and are only finished when you lick the leftover juices from your fingers.  I also miss the Chinese buffets, especially a fantastic seafood variation in southeastern Phoenix. For $17 of all-you-can-eat goodness, you can gorge yourself on surprisingly high quality and flavorful crab legs, shrimp, scallops, sushi, frog legs, you name it.

American Friendliness – Americans are awesome. They’re friendly, chipper, positive, optimistic, and love to talk.  Walking into a shop for lunch?  Be prepared, you’ll likely have a total stranger at the door strike up a conversation with you and make suggestions – “The double paddy is massive, go for a single unless you’re sharing!”.   For some foreigners this comes across as insincere, fake or overwhelming.  I don’t find it to be any of those.  For me it’s just down-right friendly.

American Bathrooms – I appreciate that this is more of a matter of building age and logistics, but I don’t care.  American bathrooms are amazing especially in comparison to Danish bathrooms (and European bathrooms in general) which suck.  They usually have more space in them than your average Danish bedroom, have real showers, real tubs, water pressure, and are set up so that you don’t have to spend 20 minutes after every shower squeegeeing everything down, including the damn ceiling.

Western Apartments – Your average student’s apartment in Arizona looks more like a luxury condo here in Denmark.  They are large, often recently renovated, with lots of room, decent furnishings, and loads of amenities. It’s the little things like full-sized refrigerators, in-house washer and dryer, and walk-in closets that really make a difference.  The friend’s apartment I stayed in was a beautiful, if normal, two-bedroom, two-bath student apartment in central Phoenix. The complex was fairly new and tailored to students with cheap rent, in a neighborhood that was being gentrified.  His rent was less than I pay for a single, shared room, with four people co-sharing a single bathroom in Denmark.

Good Ol’ American Bars – There’s something deeply charming about various types of American bars.  I really enjoyed some of the funky bars we ended up in.  One in particular that comes to mind was a VERY stereotypical country bar in Durango.  My brother and I stuck out like sore thumbs, but thoroughly enjoyed grabbing a drink while listening to great live music as folks did the country-two step on the dance floor. It was lots of fun, and as you might imagine there were cowboy hats and boots a-plenty to be found.

American Retail – American retail is amazing. It is incredible just how much high quality stuff is at your finger tips.  Even more incredible is that should you not find it or not like the price in one of the sprawling warehouse-like stores, you can hop online and order it from groups like Amazon and Newegg.  One of the things I miss the most while in Copenhagen is Amazon. I can still order from the UK or German versions but it just isn’t the same and the pricing is nowhere near as competitive.  I was, however, very disappointed at how much service quality and consistency has dropped.  I used a NET10 pre-paid wireless plan during my trip in the US and it was dreadful…as in borderline scam-bad.  Their customer service was some of the worst I’ve seen in years.  My brother also ordered a new laptop from TigerDirect.  The folks at TigerDirect seem to, at best, be having major quality control issues and at worst to be running a shipping scam.  The laptop he ordered arrived missing 4gb of RAM and the processor speed had been misleadingly listed on their website. Their response?  “oops” we’ll send you the RAM and you can figure out how to install it yourself OR refund the entire computer. Take it or leave it.  No interest in making the situation right.  Talk about disappointing. My other main frustration was dealing with Apple which continues to pump out defective products and which was more than happy to agree that the hardware they’d given me was failing and inferior, but unwilling to do anything about it.

Things I Don’t Miss

Fake Patriotism – Sticking an American flag bumper sticker on your car automatically serves as a justification to say and/or hold whatever idiotic or intolerant view that is your personal flavor of the month.  It is the sentiment that doing whatever you want, to whomever you want, is acceptable so long as it isn’t happening to you. When they are reminded that their rights only stretch to the point where they infringe on another’s, they automatically claim oppression.

The Number of Grossly Unhealthy People – This doesn’t really need clarification. A trip to a local super market typically means you’ll risk getting run over by a small army of heavily- laden scooters with folks suffering from extreme obesity and sipping on a 64 oz “diet” big gulp.  This is a stark contrast to Copenhagen (perhaps not Denmark at large) where the mere nature of the day-to-day lifestyle encourages a very fit and comparatively slim population.  Which is not to say that there are not a fair number of heavier folks, but that number and the scope is dramatically reduced.

In-Your-Face Christianity – You would think that with an astounding majority of the population being one flavor of Christian or another that everyone would just chill out. Not so. It seems like everyone and their sister is in a competition for who can be the more visible (not better) Christian.  I suppose in the US your particular version of Christianity is as much a part of your socio-identity as your job and the car you drive.  The number of ridiculous bumper stickers, flyers, handouts, corner preachers, and times folks mention religious stuff in conversations is mind numbing. Every fourth conversation seems to include at least one reference to being a “God-fearing Christian”, “going to church every Sunday” or being a “good Christian girl”.  The Danes have a state religion and state church and while it is true that they are also one of the most atheistic countries on earth, Danish Christians are MUCH more relaxed about it. It’s something private that they do; it is a personal relationship with their church and god. Not a method for self promotion and advertisement. I definitely do NOT miss the US bumper-sticker Christians.

Religious Fanatics – Tough fact. The US has a high number of religious fanatics.  It is, perhaps, the most fundamentalist Christian nation among the western cultures.  With the high number of religious fundamentalists and fanatics comes all of the negatives that we much more easily and readily identify in other cultures and faiths.  Unfortunately, it’s something that is largely ignored by the American population and/or not realized.  They are also nearly untouchable as it has become unacceptable to critique or challenge issues that folks claim are faith-based or parts of their religious identity. The religious extremism in the US is something that deeply saddens me, and which I feel has direct connections to many of the nation’s current woes.

Traffic Jams – Having a 20 minute commute turn into a 50 minute stop-and-go session. Ugh.

The Car – Having a car was great! It adds flexibility and freedom.  That being said, it’s also a royal pain.  I really, really, really missed having a city that was walk-able or which had fantastic public transit where I could hop-on, hop-off, and not have to worry about parking, gas, and all the other complexities that come with driving. It also makes enjoying night life, MUCH simpler and safer.

American Bar Culture – Again, this is one that falls on both sides of the fence.  On the one hand, I love elements of a good ol’ American bar.  On the other hand, I love the relaxed charm and dive-bar (but not) mystique of the Danish bar scene.  People in Danish bars are friendly and approachable.  No one is looking to start a fight. Everyone is fairly in control (even when falling-down drunk) and overall it’s just pleasant and harmless.  In the states too many folks get violent, or just obnoxious. The hyper-sexualized environment makes conversations with strangers, especially members of the opposite sex, more like an argument or fist-fight than a relaxed conversation and the whole thing has a certain shallowness and blah feel to it.  The exception of course is when one goes out with a group of friends and sticks to that group of friends.  It’s an odd mixture, because there are great elements to it like the American friendliness, but at the same time that is countered by how bar culture works and the hyper polarized male-female dynamic.  Say hello to a girl?  She assumes you’re hitting on her.  Even if you are and she’s interested, for the sake of appearances, she needs to put on the image of being proper and not too interested, “slutty, or “easy”.  Meanwhile, she, or others are constantly fishing for a free bar tab to drink on or free drink.  Dancing is far less dancing and far more grinding on each other with the hope of figuring out and perhaps remembering each other’s name. Bleh.  Maybe I’m just getting too old and got it out of my system when I was younger and doing the Scottsdale club circuit. Either way, i’ll stick to my Danish bodegas.

The Struggle – Student life in the US is challenging.  As much because of the academics as everything else that goes with them.  In chatting with and seeing friends who are struggling to deal with the ridiculous amounts of debt they are accruing as part of their education and the criminal medical bills they face in instances where they’ve had medical issues surface, I definitely feel disappointment for how badly the American system is failing them.  After spending the last two years in an environment where higher education is free and comes with a $800 living stipend, and medical costs are mostly covered by the state, I find myself shocked by how appalling, exploitative and counter-productive the American system is.  Not to mention the deep costs on both health and future potential and success which it extracts from American students. While some sense of having to work for it, and earn it is important – what’s occurring in the US these days is tragic and definitely undermines the country’s future prosperity.  It, and the impact it has on people’s emotional state and overall health, is something I definitely do not miss.

The Lack of Consumer Protection – Deregulation in the US has provided increased competition in a few cases, but by and large seems to have just allowed for exploitative monopolies and brutal consumer exploitation.  My US-based retail experiences were, with the exception of an exchange with REI (who were fantastic), extremely frustrating.  Quality control is abysmally low, product quality is hit or miss, and the companies providing these products no longer seem inclined in the slightest to go an extra inch, let alone mile, to make things right.  Their mistake, should you catch it, is almost your fault. Something you should feel guilty about as you force them through the inconvenience (after wasting hours of your time) of correcting the order or servicing the warranty on a defective product.  The US consumer has an amazing number of options available to them, but they’re also getting screwed on a regular basis. Short of trying to make a small stink via social media, most of the old agencies in place to keep retailers in check are now irrelevant or lack their bite.  Something needs to change and soon.


Over the final few years I spent in Arizona my contempt for the political, religious, social and intellectual environment in the state grew.  My general level of disgust colored and partially blinded me to the raw naked beauty of Arizona deserts and her diverse terrain.  Even as a more green and water-oriented traveler, the canyons and deserts are gorgeous. Before I left for Denmark, I spent the last few months trying to experience Arizona as a tourist. Those trips were immensely successful and paved the way for this return visit.  While I still have very little interest in returning to Arizona in a long-term capacity, the two+ years spent away did allow me to more accurately enjoy and experience the state’s natural beauty.

When I chose to leave Arizona it was because it embodied many of the woes facing America.  Outside the state’s shining bastions of intellectualism (ASU, UofA, NAU), it is a fetid and intellectually decrepit place.  Conservatives and their religious fundamentalist allies have waged a concerted war on education and science in the state for decades and turned what was once one of the more progressive southern states into one of the least advanced and most regressive. The state has  become the poster child for failed conservative ideology.  Things like school voucher programs and unregulated charter schools have been used to gut comprehensive education, while fundamentalist factions from both the Evangelical and LDS populations have heavily infiltrated the Government and carefully dismantled sound policy.

It’s the type of state where it is common to encounter people who have such a warped understanding of science that they sincerely believe and advocate that the earth is 6,000 years old. It’s the type of state that rages against the “socialism” of funding basic infrastructure repair projects, education, and safety-net programs while having a large portion of the population on medicare or food stamps. The same state that is so perversely corrupt that things like the sale, and lease-back of capitol buildings at outrageous prices is just common place and an every day occurrence. It’s also the type of place that, in the middle of a recession, feels the best use of legislators’ time is to legalize people’s “right” to carry loaded guns into restaurants and bars (now a law of the land) and to try and do the same on college campuses and in college classrooms.

As an expat, when I see an article about one US state or another doing something mind-bogglingly stupid, evil-spirited, or incoherent, it usually turns out that it is Arizona.  From SB1070 to Sheriff Joe’s blatant abuse of the constitution, Arizona is a walking tragedy.  The role of profoundly ignorant fundamentalist Christians cannot be over-emphasized.  Arizona is the state where, just after September 11th, we had a random Sikh shot and killed on the street because he was wearing a turban and believed to be a Muslim. Racial rants targeted at various religious and associated ethnic minorities are common place. The state has boasted the likes of Russell Pearce as President of the State Senate who found widespread support and used his influential position for writing and endorsing bills despite clear ties to white supremacist and neo-nazi groups (to Arizona’s credit Pearce was, eventually, recalled and pulled from office). It is a place where for every well-balanced, moderate Christian who has embraced Christ’s message of love, tolerance, and integrity, there is another that is every bit as radical and fundamentalist as many of the Muslim extremists that are viewed as such a profound threat to the civilized world. They may not be inclined to blow themselves up, but they regularly discuss armed conflict, make veiled threats, and are open to violence on a lesser-if still present scale.

To be clear, this is not to say that there are not wonderful people, and many people who fall at various spots along the spectrum.  During my time in Arizona, I made a number of truly incredible friends. People who are a gift to the world at large, and who  endeavor to better themselves and their companions.  Some are Arizona natives and others are imports.  Many are such a stark contrast to Arizona at large that it is truly shocking. They are some of the greatest minds in the US tackling social, scientific, and moral issues who range from atheists to devoted Christian scholars.  Other friends are individuals whose hearts are in the right place, even if we harbor strong ideological or intellectual differences. Together we challenge and tolerate each other, hopefully constantly growing and learning from each other even though our world views, moral priorities, and intellectual beliefs stand in direct contrast.

Of course, no community is perfect.  There will always be individuals who stand out as the best and worst the community can produce. There will always be political conflicts and ideological differences.  Yet, the more time I spend in the world at large, the more confident I am in saying that an influential segment – perhaps some 20% of the population – is an American incarnation of the Taliban. Their core drive, mentality, and approach to everything from knowledge to women’s rights is similar in approach and end goal even if their path to it is different.  As we’ve seen the world over, when these groups, even if they are only a minority, take control they are able to cripple government and – if they retain control – do lasting societal harm. That is, I fear, the nature of Arizona as it exists today and will continue to be for the next few decades at least. The young population – those who have not been brainwashed at least – are starting to push back and to seek change, but unfortunately, for most of us it makes far more sense to leave upon the completion of our degree. And leave we have. Many of those friends I mentioned previously – some of the state’s best and brightest – have already left. Many of those who remain will leave soon. Of those who do stay, it is often because they are held hostage by a rare job opportunity or a desire to stay close to family.

When I chose to re-locate to Denmark from the US, I felt fairly confident in these conclusions and observations but still retained a certain uncertainty.  My time away, and observations during my recent return, have done away with any lingering doubts. It has provided further perspective and for that I am grateful.


Upon touching down in Copenhagen I was tired and stressed out, as my return to Copenhagen marks the beginning of an intense 3-month period where I have to sink-or-swim if I’m to stay on in the country.  I have submitted a number of PhD application and am firing off job applications where I see quality fits.  I stand on the cusp of that point where I have to decide “what comes next” now that the 2-year MA program is winding to a close.

Yet, I was also excited. I’ll return to the US at some point.  That point may be 6 months from now, or it might be 6 years.  Regardless, I’ve truly fallen in love with this city and Danish culture.   If I was to sum my sentiments up all in a word, it is, just quite simply “Civilized”.  Oh, it has its failings.  The Folk Party is the Danish alternative to the Tea Party, full of horrible economic policy and rampant racism. The bureaucratic environment is embarrassingly primitive at times and at others painfully relaxed.  Yet Denmark, and Copenhagen in particular, is amazing.  I think at a certain level I was afraid that my return to the US would suddenly reveal that Denmark wasn’t the wonderful place I had convinced myself that it was.  That it was a sorry alternative to the US and that I’d feel a pang of regret and the draw to return to Arizona. I need not have worried.  There’s a reason that Copenhagen is one of, if not my favorite, city in the world.  It is a wonderful and special place and while I don’t think it will be the right place for me forever. For now, I’m confident that it definitely is where I should be.

For those who read this and are considering relocating or a place to live or study, I highly recommend it. For those of you who know me and have wondered how I’m truly finding it and relating to it – perhaps this post will help you better understand why I am not only here, but intending to stay here for a few years.

As promised, this has been a rambling chain of connected thoughts, but if I missed something or there is another specific you’re curious about that I’ve failed to cover or elaborate on, let me know.  I’d love to elaborate.

Lastly, to all my friends and family who made my return to Arizona and Colorado so lovely and memorable.  Thank you.  I miss you and treasure you.

Friday’s Weekly Travel Photo – Reflecting at the Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon - Exploring Arizona

One of the perks of living in Arizona for years was relatively easy access to the Grand Canyon.  This shot was taken during a weekend trip from Phoenix, up to Flagstaff and then on to the Grand Canyon where I relaxed until the sun set.  This photo is from the south rim where we paused and relaxed soaking up the afternoon’s warm rays. The Grand Canyon is considered one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World – and rightfully so.  In all of my travels I’ve never seen another natural formation quite like it. When you have the opportunity to visit I highly recommend arriving in the afternoon and giving yourself time to watch the sun set over the canyon.  It is mystical.

Would you like to see previous Friday Photos?  View past travel pictures here.

The Incredible Power of Social Networks Illustrated By Studying, Living and Travelling Abroad

Nyhavn Harbor in Copenhagen

Housing in Copenhagen

When I signed the agreement and notified the University of Copenhagen that I was headed to Denmark I assumed I’d face a lot of challenges upon arrival.  Things like visa issues, language barriers, and a drastic change in weather.  What I didn’t expect was the housing nightmare that greeted me.  I arrived in Copenhagen on July 20th.  Four months later, after aggressively scouring available housing outlets, my search was finally rewarded. On November 29th, I moved into an apartment that should last me for the next 12+ months (and hopefully the remainder of my stay here in Denmark).

It was my well-developed, trans-continental social network that saved me.  Utilizing contacts, new and old, I was able to keep an affordable roof over my head while I undertook an arduous search. Without this  ace in my pocket ,  I would have been camped in hostels and hotels for months, spending an exorbitant amount of money with no room for my luggage. My story illustrates the importance of a social network and what a powerful tool it can be.

United States Based Trip Prep

Between 2004 and 2007 I worked for a commercial real estate company in Phoenix, Arizona.   I worked closely with many brokers and their teams.  In 2007 I left the company to travel Europe for 3 months. When I returned to Arizona, I took a job as an analyst with a business sales, mergers and acquisitions company. I stayed in touch with past colleagues and my social network continued to grow. Fast forward three years.  I informed my boss that I planned to return to school to pursue my Masters and would be moving to Denmark.  While sorry to see me go, he eagerly accessed his mental rolodex for ways to help me with the move.  This is where it starts to get complicated and the obscure beauty and power of a network starts to really come to light.  He recalled that one of the real estate team members who had helped with the purchase of our new building had dated a Danish guy. The head of that team and her boss was an old contact that I happened to also know, independently, through our mutual time spent at my previous job in the commercial real estate company.  In an odd twist of overlapping networks, when the time came to purchase a new building my boss reached out to his friend and contact: the real estate broker from my old company.  Over the course of the purchase and move into our new building, I ended up not only re-connecting with my old real estate contact, but also meeting his team, which included the woman who had dated the Danish guy and I mentioned previously. Whew, confusing right?

Back to my meeting with my boss – on the spot he picked up the phone, called, and made the connection for me.  While no longer dating the Danish guy, she spoke highly of him and because she knew me offered to put me in touch with him.  A few minutes later, I fired off an e-mail with general questions about Denmark, housing, phones, and language barriers.  I continued my trip prep while my new Danish contact responded with great suggestions, and things moved forward.

Copenhagen’s Unexpected Rental Market

After arriving in Copenhagen I realized that not only was it going to take much longer than expected to get my visa, but housing was both more expensive and significantly harder to find than I had assumed.  To be fair, the University had warned that finding housing in Copenhagen was expensive and difficult.  On the flip side, they did just short of nothing to help with the process.

As someone coming from Phoenix, I was met by a whole different world.  In Phoenix we have such a glut of available apartments and housing that you can sign up with an agent for free who will then show you around various apartments.  The agent is compensated by the apartment complex(s) who regularly offer signup bonuses. If that fails there’s more than enough housing from private landlords available.  The search for an apartment seldom lasts more than a week.

In Copenhagen the situation is the exact opposite.  It’s not uncommon for people to search for an apartment for 3-6 months.  Renters sign up on a mixture of free and pay sites to gain access to apartment rental listings.  A listing inside the city proper in the 3,000-4,000 DKK per month ($600-800 USD) rental range typically garners between 80 and 250 e-mails in the first day!  There is also a heavy preference among renters for female and Danish tenants which added an extra layer of difficulty as a male international student.

After my fifth day in the hostel I followed up with the Danish contact I had been introduced to.  Luckily, he had a spare room available for a month before his tenants moved in and he graciously offered to let me use it.  With a huge sigh of relief, I figured I’d be all set. After all, a month is a long time…Right?

As August drew to a close, it became apparent that my visa would not be arriving any time soon and that the one offer which had been made by a “local” dorm, was too far out of town (45 minutes) to justify accepting.

Luckily, here again my network made a huge leap forward. My host reached out to a friend of his who also doubled as his house cleaner.  She was willing to host me for a month or two, but was hesitant as the apartment didn’t have doors for about half the rooms.  A long time hosteler, I mentioned it wasn’t an issue for me. It turned out that she and I got along well.  She was a gracious host and between our busy schedules the shortage of doors in the apartment wasn’t an issue.  I can’t stress how wonderful she was to allow me to invade her apartment like that.  Especially when one considers just how obscure my connection to her was.

Eventually, my visa came through as my hunt for an apartment continued.  I was hampered by my class schedule and the need to use public sources of internet to endlessly scan, and then pounce on room postings.  While I looked at several, nothing came through until I finally had an offer for a room on Amager near campus.  It looked great.  It was a guy and his two dogs.  He smoked but that didn’t seem like it would be an issue.  He was extremely friendly, nice, and happy to help with things.

After a week I was able to move in and started to get settled.  Everything seemed to be going well until it became obvious that we had two extremely different lifestyles that were not compatible. I moved out the next day.  Luckily, the female Danish friend I had been staying with came to me rescue and welcomed me back without so much as a grumble.  We had a good laugh about the mis-adventure and my search began once again with renewed vigor.  Contacts and my emerging network in Copenhagen shared several opportunities with me, but none panned out.  Desperate to be able to unpack/get settled and with the semester coming to a close, I took a new approach. I started offering more than asking rent. It turns out that money trumped being male, and an international. Within a week and a half I had a lead on a place.  It took another two weeks to finalize things before I was able to move in.

Now, I finally have what I hope will be a semi-permanent home for the remainder of my time here in Copenhagen.

It has been an adventure, and to be fair, I could have found a place much quicker had I been willing to live 45+ minutes outside of the city.  As an international student, and someone who has experienced the incredible power of networks, I felt it was extremely important for my immersion, social activity, and overall experience here in Copenhagen to be in or near the University. The cost of commuting was also a key factor. Ultimately the need to be somewhat centrally located has made things more difficult and somewhat more expensive.  In the long run though, it has also been well worth it.

It’s important to note that I only had the opportunity to make that choice, however, because of the incredible help offered to me through my network of friends and contacts.  I owe a lot of these individuals a huge debt of gratitude and their open, helpful, and friendly nature has really inspired me to pay-it-forward and to be mindful of how I can help my friends, contacts, and their extended network.

At the end of the day, I hope this helps you all remember to never, ever, ever, underestimate the power, capability and influence your network can bring to bear.

To all those that helped along the way.  Thank you.

A Danish Life Lesson: The Simple Joy of Sunshine

Sunbathing in Copenhagen

When was the last time you got up from your desk, stepped outside, stretched, paused and truly enjoyed a sunny day for more than a few seconds?  I’m talking about heading down to a park, or out to your back yard to lounge in the sun like a cat on a lazy afternoon?  If you’re like me you probably haven’t in a long, long time.

It’s no secret that Denmark isn’t exactly the world’s sunniest destination.  Located at a similar latitude as Newfoundland, Edinburgh and Moscow the summer days are long and the winter nights are even longer.  The city of Copenhagen is located on one of the many islands that make up the nation and like most coastal cities it experiences more than its fair share of rain fall.  In winter the Danes battle the inevitable creep of depression as they break out vitamin D supplements and sun lamps to offset the extended periods of darkness. Despite these challenges they’ve regularly been ranked some of the happiest people in the world and with good reason!

I recently relocated from one of the sunniest places in the United States. In Phoenix, Arizona blue skies and hot weather are the norms. So normal that even the periodic white puffy cloud can be cause for conversation.  Unfortunately, it’s something that I’ve only begun to realize we not only take for granted but also completely under utilize.

Sunbathing in Copenhagen

When a sunny summer day hits here in Copenhagen the locals are out en-mass. Streets are clogged by bicyclists, outdoor cafes filled past capacity, every park awash in half clothed bodies, and the harbor areas decorated by sunbathers and people out to enjoy the weather.  In Copenhagen the sun isn’t something that is ignored or tolerated. It is something that is celebrated.  When the weather is beautiful the people genuinely go out of their way to enjoy it.   I’m not just talking about pausing casually here or there. I’m talking about putting on bathing suits and heading to the park or stripping down to bras and shorts to lounge along the docks or in the city parks.

As I found myself meandering the city the positive energy and general approach to the sunny weather was intoxicating.  It truly WAS a beautiful day and the people not only knew it, but embraced it! I’ve spent years with more sunny days than I can count, but I don’t think I’ve ever been surrounded by people who made such great use of them.  Oh, sure we’d have the occasional day on the river and pool party in Arizona but even those were more about time in the water than enjoying the sun.  The real shame is that even though the summers are genuinely too hot to enjoy properly in Arizona everyone I know there lets that poison the chance to enjoy incredible weather when it does come during spring and fall. Arizonans aren’t alone it’s a similar mistake shared by people all over the world.

So, the next time you find yourself waking up to a bright sunny day don’t just hide inside or take it for granted.  Smile, roll up your sleeves, take off your shirt and head somewhere where you can enjoy it.  The sun and summer are things that should be shared so don’t just do it alone, make it a social outing and take a friend, a loved one or a family member with you!

For my part, now that I’m learning to slow down and smell the sunshine you’ll find me joining the Danes and relaxing in the sun.  It’s time I made up for lost time – life is good!

Moving to Study and Live Abroad: Why I Chose Europe for My Masters Degree

The Old Harbor - Copenhagen, Denmark

If everything goes according to plan with my Visa and class registration I’ll be starting my two year Masters in Communication and Cognition at the University of Copenhagen in just under a Month.  Eager to get settled and begin the culture shock process I jumped the Atlantic and came over a bit early. So far I’ve got two weeks as a Danish resident under my belt and am starting to get my bearings.

While worlds apart I’ve found that the Danes and Arizonans have at least one thing in common.  When I tell them I’ve chosen to re-locate to Copenhagen I always get a quizzical look and the question, “Why Denmark?”.  Most follow the question up with “Why the University of Copenhagen?”, especially when they find out I passed up on an invitation from Georgetown in Washington D.C. to attend.

A lot of factors went into my decision making process and I’ll try and share some of them with you in this post in the hope that they help those of you facing similar decisions and perhaps offer insights into the process for everyone else.

The Application Process

In applying for Graduate programs I knew I didn’t need to return to Grad School. I had a good job, a great resume, decent job security, and a network that allowed me the luxury of turning down several jobs over the course of the recession. Simply put, I missed the academic environment and felt that there was significant potential to improve my social circle, resume, and future prospects with a return to academia.  Especially one that would allow me to work on my existing passions and projects while getting extra credit for them.  I studied lazily for a week for the GRE, took it and operated on the assumption that my resume and body of work would be far more valuable than test scores.  I also knew that the difference between a PhD and a Masters was significant, both in cost and weight so I decided to split my energy between the two.

To select the Schools I’d apply for I made a list of schools that I felt had a very respectable reputation and then pulled up several University lists and rankings.  With these lists in hand I made my way through them making note of the Universities which were in a location I’d be willing to move to and which ranked in the top 50-75 world wide. From there I researched the University’s list of programs and looked for schools with a Communication oriented program or something that would allow me to study social media, virtual worlds, and online education. It is important to note that the one consideration I didn’t take into account was my chances of getting accepted.  I didn’t need to go back, and so as a result the $75 application fee and $15 transcript fee was a small cost to pay for an application and the chance to explore my curiosity.

I was surprised that several of the schools I was most interested in (Harvard, Cambridge) didn’t have any programs remotely connected to the area I wanted to study.  On the opposite end of the spectrum others (Columbia, Edinburgh) had programs focused in my area, but which were taught exclusively online.  Something I wasn’t interested in despite that being one of my central areas of research. I wanted to improve online courses, not struggle through existing ones.

I also felt that it was important that I not fight the language barrier any more than I had to. So, I focused on researching Universities that had English based programs or were based in English speaking countries.  I was surprised at just how many Universities world wide offer courses and programs in English. They’re out there, the trick is finding them.

After doing my research (which took much longer than I expected), I ended up with a list of 8 Universities.  Of those I found 4 PhD programs and 4 Masters programs to apply to. I targeted faculty in the programs I was interested in and sent out a barrage of e-mails asking questions and introducing myself.

Though unorthodox I felt it was worth the effort to apply directly to a few PhD programs as they offered better financial support and would have provided an accelerated program.  Of the 8 Schools I applied to the 4 PhDs were Stanford, Cornell, University of Pennsylvania and University of Washington. The 4 Masters I applied to were Georgetown, University of Copenhagen, Oxford, and a joint program between University of Southern California and the London School of Economics.  Key elements in my application were strong statements of purpose and letters of recommendation, my undergraduate participation in Arizona State’s Barrett, The Honors College w/ Honors Thesis, my professional research and expertise, and my GRE scores which were mediocre with a 530 Math, 590 Verbal and a 5 on the Essay portion.

To make things more challenging I later learned that I had applied during one of, if not the hardest application cycles in the last 50 years.  Ultimately, I received compelling invitations from Georgetown and University of Copenhagen.  Both offered cities and experiences completely different from Arizona, storied histories, and excellent reputations.  However, where Georgetown was only able to offer student loans and $30,000 a year in tuition fees University of Copenhagen offered a complete tuition waiver.  After additional research I also learned that Copenhagen ranked 40th/45th on the lists of Global Universities which was significantly higher than Georgetown. Additionally, the University is a member of the International Alliance of Research Universities which consists of 10 of the world’s leading academic institutions: Cambridge, Oxford, Yale, Australian National University, Berkley, Peking University, National University of Singapore, University of Tokyo, ETH Zurich.

This is when it became real. I wasn’t just enjoying fanciful dreams of applying at the major universities around the world. I was faced with a very compelling opportunity to actually live those dreams and see them brought to reality.  Frankly, it was absolutely terrifying.  That may shock some of you, as a veteran traveler and repeat solo traveler, but the prospect of a trip is vastly different than the prospect of 2 years in a foreign education system, in a alien country. Even the age of the University was mind boggling. University of Copenhagen was founded in 1479 – keep in mind that Columbus didn’t even sail until 1492.

I wasn’t sure if I had the balls to do it. Then I thought through how much I regretted never spending a semester or year abroad during my undergrad, about how incredible the opportunity laid out before me was, and how fear aside it was something I truly wanted to do.  I fired off my letter of acceptance and began researching just what exactly I had signed up for.

The Role of Location and Culture

I moved to Arizona from Colorado when I was six.  I spent the next 18 years of my life in various parts of the state where I lived in Sedona, Prescott, Tempe and Scottsdale.  During that time I spent an additional two years on the road. The first was in place of 5th grade and was a year spent home schooled and backpacking with my parents through Europe. The second was in place of 7th grade and a year spent RVing and home schooled through the US.

The one thing all that time in Arizona taught me was that Arizona and I aren’t kindred spirits. The state has some incredible people, world class natural beauty and a bucket of potential. Unfortunately, it is also dominated by a world view and behavioral culture which is 180 degrees from me.  The state as a whole is anti-education, anti-intellectualism, anti-entrepreneurship, anti-humanism, anti-multiculturalism and the embodiment of what happens when you have 30 years of the GOP party line in action.  As someone who takes a strong humanistic approach to life, values education, curiosity and intellectual pursuits, isn’t religious, values science and history, has a global world view, relishes different cultures and fiscal responsibility Arizona left me miserable.  Outside of my group of friends I found myself surrounded by people who actively embraced and relished in waging war on everything I view as important and essential for progress, sound governance, and a healthy population.

Similarly, Arizona has absolutely zero long-term plan for economic development.  The State has been bleeding all of their top talent for years due to dreadful policies and their short sighted approach to business and education.  The job prospects and opportunities for people 25-45 in the state are nearly non-existent beyond the basic service industries or a job with Intel, and the chances of that changing any time soon in the current environment are non-existent.

So, when it came time to relocate for my Masters I knew I wanted a destination that would provide a community and culture that valued long-term thinking, that took a humanistic approach to life, which had significant potential for professional development and networking, as well as an area that put heavy emphasis on cultural and educational development.

With these criteria in mind the Scandinavian countries immediately jumped to the top of the list.  You’ve probably heard that Denmark (and Scandinavia at large) are some of the happiest countries in the world.  That’s with good reason.  They’ve spent the last 30 years investing heavily in education, infrastructure, health care and innovation while embracing a  humanistic approach to governance and policy.  To a person they are some of the best educated, friendly, helpful and least religious people in the world.

During my 18 day trip to Scandinavia in July of 2010 I was absolutely floored by how helpful, friendly, and genuine the Norwegians and Danes I met were.  Their willingness to have a conversation, answer questions, and to look out for each other was refreshing.  As was the ease I found when seeking out stimulating conversations that were based in well educated, global perspective and insight.  In the three days I spent in Copenhagen during that trip I fell in love with the city and developed an incredible respect for the Danish people.  That feeling and experience has only been magnified over the past two weeks as I’ve gotten settled and worked to navigate the city.

The city itself is a perfect reflection of its people.  With beautiful ancient architecture the city is clean, well laid out, has a great public transportation system, is lined with canals that nearly rival Amsterdam, and is one of the greatest biking cities I’ve ever experienced.  Some 36% of the population commutes to work by bicycle every day. Despite being an ancient city, efforts have been taken to clean up the harbor and river system and the water in the inner harbor is so clean it is safe for swimming.  The coast is decorated by massive wind turbines, and the general feeling is one of an ancient city that is retaining its spirit and essence while charging into the future.

A Global Network

Ultimately one of the biggest resources in life is your social and professional network. It is what drives a successful career, business venture, and makes for a rich and informative personal network.  I developed an incredible network of friends, peers, and professional contacts during my time in Arizona many of whom have since re-located further diversifying the information they can share and the insights they are able to offer.  But, I knew that to truly live the life I want to live I need a network of friends and professional contacts who are truly global and as diverse as the places they were born, educated and raised.  I knew that that by relocating either abroad or to one of the coasts that I’d be exposed to a completely different mixture of people to share, collaborate, relax, learn from and explore with.

The opportunity to live, study, and socialize abroad offers me an chance to develop an entirely new network from the ground up, while maintaining the existing networks I cherish. It provides me the opportunity to radically re-structure the aspects of society I engage with regularly, as well as the cultures, nationalities, and professional backgrounds of my peer group all in a way which wouldn’t have been possible if I stayed in the same region and the same communities I’ve spent the last 20 years in.

So, Why Denmark?

Obviously, there isn’t a simple answer.  We’ll see how I feel about the decision as I start my classes and start to integrate into the local culture and truly see it as a local instead of just a visitor.  That said, it’s amazing to be surrounded by wonderful people who truly seem to understand the importance of charting a path forward, of looking toward the horizon and of embracing new information and relishing it, not trying to quash or discredit it.  I’ll tell you one thing, it sure is nice being surrounded by people who don’t live their lives believing the earth is 6,000 years old and that corporations will always have their best interests at heart.

I’ll be continuing to write on the experiences, revelations, and lessons learned during this adventure so stay tuned. Also, if you’ve got a question you’ve always wondered about or a challenge in your own process don’t hesitate to reach out.

Interested in doing more research? Consider browsing Amazon’s assorted titles on Denmark or Study Abroad.

Announcing the 3rd Arizona Travel Blogger Meetup!

Grand Canyon at Sunset - Boots

The time has come for the 3rd Arizona Travel Blogger Meet (and tweet!) up. Bring your stories, pictures and self for an hour or two of travel talk, stories and bonding with other members of Arizona’s local travel community.

The goal is simple! Get to know each other while developing a more aware/active travel community in Arizona. We’ve got a ton of talent/experience in Arizona and it’s about time we started helping each other!

The meet-up will be this Saturday, October 23rd at 1:30PM. We’ll be meeting at Boulders on Broadway which is located just west of Mill Avenue off of Broadway in Tempe. All you need to bring is yourself.

If you’ll be attending, please feel free to post a quick introduction, including your twitter info/website/blog in a response to this post.

Date: Saturday, October 23rd 1:30PM-3:00PM.

Location: Boulders on Broadway which is located on the North East Corner of Broadway and Roosevelt Street in Tempe. View it on Google here. The address is 530 W Broadway Road, Tempe, AZ.

Coordination: My (Alex) phone number is 480.313.2441 if you want to confirm anything or are having issues finding the coffee shop shoot me a text/call. I won’t be able to check twitter during the event, so make sure to contact me directly.

Spread the Word: So, here’s the challenge. Let’s make sure we don’t miss anyone. Are you aware of travel tweeps, bloggers or industry personalities that might like to join? Make sure to either send them to this post, or get me their e-mail and I’ll reach out to them.

AZ COMMUNITY – On twitter? See the list I’ve assembled of AZ based travel twitter users here.

Any questions? Post them in a comment – or feel free to e-mail me directly via alex ~at~

March and August’s meetups were an absolute blast and I’m really excited/looking forward to round two! Hope to see you all there.

Announcing the 2nd Arizona Travel Blogger Meetup!

Tempe Town Lake at Sunset by Alex Berger

The time has come for the 2nd Arizona Travel Blogger Meet (and tweet!) up. Bring your stories, pictures and self for a few hours of travel talk, stories and bonding with other members of Arizona’s local travel community.

The goal is simple! Get to know each other while developing a more aware/active travel community in Arizona. We’ve got a ton of talent/experience in Arizona and it’s about time we started helping each other/getting to know each other.

Based on the poll results, I’ve chosen Saturday, August 7th at 1PM as the date/time for the meetup.  We’ll be meeting at the Xtreme Bean which is a great coffee shop in southern Tempe.  All you need to bring is yourself. If you’ll be attending, please feel free to post a quick introduction, including your twitter info/website/blog in a response to this post.

Date: Saturday, August 7th at 1:00PM-3:00PM (may go longer).

Location: Xtreme Bean which is located on the South West Corner of McClintock and Southern in Tempe, near the US 60/101. Yelp profile here.

Coordination: Use twitter hash tag #aztw. My (Alex) phone number is 480.313.2441 if you want to confirm anything or are having issues finding the coffee shop.

Spread the Word: So, here’s the challenge. Let’s make sure we don’t miss anyone. Are you aware of travel tweeps, bloggers or industry personalities that might like to join? Make sure to either send them to this post, or get me their e-mail and I’ll reach out to them.

AZ COMMUNITY – On twitter? See the list I’ve assembled of AZ based travel twitter users here.

Any questions?  Post them in a comment – or feel free to e-mail me directly via alex ~at~

March’s meetup was an absolute blast and I’m really excited/looking forward to round two! Hope to see you all there.