Some Denmark conclusions

Dec 27, 2006 • Karen

The main question I've been getting since I've been back: "Was it worth it?"

The truth is, it's complicated.

Going into the whole study abroad thing, I believed that study abroad was more or less an obligation. Not from my parents or anyone, it's not like they were particularly pushing me to go. But I just had an expectation that I would do it, that it was just part of the undergraduate experience that one goes through. Like Mudd Run, or senior thesis. I didn't really have that much excitement about going to Denmark in particular (you'll remember India was my first choice). It was Scandinavian, it was in Europe, and the program fit my academic expectations. Okay. It would work.

Given my expectations, it was worthwhile.

I was depressed for most of the semester. For months, I didn't have any friends or support network in Copenhagen--just Nelson on Skype. Very late in the semester--after the second study tour--this began to change. I started to have a fledgling social life, hanging out with Jeff, Meredith, Kathy, and everyone. Of course it is not news that I'm bad at talking to strangers, and that it takes me a few months to find a place socially. I suppose it should not have been a surprise that I would be so isolated. Perhaps I didn't realize how much I need people to keep my mental health afloat. Or maybe I just found the latitude at which my S.A.D.-o-meter reaches its tipping point.

I had chosen the folkehøjskole option because I thought it might help me meet more Danes. Not so much. Even after DIS gave us a place to actually meet each other (eventually they offered us dinner with the højskolers Monday through Friday) it still kind of felt like we didn't have a place. They were all together, in their own little academic program. We were outsiders. The Danes' instinct was to keep to, admittedly, was mine. During the trip, I met several non-Americans: a Finn, a Pole, several Chinese students. But, except for professors and staff, I barely socialized with any Danes.

Not that I really had time, anyway. I struggled to keep up with the amount of reading I had for my five classes. It was providence that I got a work-study job setting up the computer for my early-morning class (so I was unable to skip it, no matter how sleep-deprived I became), but that didn't keep me from being barely hanging onto consciousness during the lectures. I have no idea how all the other students on the program found the time (or money, for that matter) to go barhopping or skip class and visit Oslo or Munich. It might have something to do with the fact that most students' grades weren't going on their transcripts, or that they were only obligated to take four courses, or both. (Thanks, Scripps!)

But I *didn't* have a nervous breakdown--well, at least, one severe enough to keep me from finishing the semester. I didn't jump in front of a train. Heck, most of my grades should be reasonably decent. I survived those mornings where the only thing that makes you feel alive is irrational, blinding rage at the cold and the wind and the dark and the rain. I survived.

It was an experience. Like spending a winter's night sleeping outside in a cardboard box. Or starving yourself for thirty hours. Or boot camp.

They told us, over and over, that study abroad isn't about what you do while you're in another country. It's what that experience does to you when you come back. Given that by and large, I derived very little utility from my study abroad experience in itself, the latter effect alone is what must make the trip worth it. I think it probably has.

You go home--and you're driving, in a car, a car of your own (well, your family's, but whatever), and it's HEATED! O precious warmth! There's snow on the ground (it fell the day I came home) and everything is white and pretty instead of sodden with icky rain. There's a kitchen not afflicted by several mysterious types of mold that is well-stocked with every ingredient you could expect to have. Milk! Pomegranates! Breakfast cereal! I can read the instructions on packaging!*

And I don't even have to cook, if I don't want to! We can afford to go out to eat quite regularly, and there are restaurants that serve meals for less than ten bucks! I have a closet full of clothing, much of which I'd even forgotten I owned, and several new shirts thanks to Christmas presents. Oh, and there's people! Family members! Friends! The parakeet and the goldfish! I am never alone!


But it isn't all uncritical gratitude, of course.

After four months in a hyper-efficient Danish room, peeing in a gallon of water (aka the average American toilet) suddenly seems really, really decadent. While I like having a room well-lit enough that regular reading does not strain my eyes, why don't we use more compact fluorescent bulbs instead of incandescents, since the former are more energy-efficient? (The problem at the højskole wasn't the type of bulb, just that I only had two of them.) Today Mom and I were running errands--the bank, Blockbuster, and the library. Of course, the way American cities are set up and the lack of decent public transport means that using a car is pretty much obligatory. But what we *could* have done was park at the bank and then walk to our various other destinations. It wasn't really that far, compared with how much people typically walk in Copenhagen. It wasn't *that* cold. Why didn't we?

I'm not an environmentalist. I'm not anti-environmentalist either, it's just never been my issue. But once you've lived in a place where certain basic steps to improve efficiency are routine, you've got to wonder--why don't Americans do that?

Like grocery bags. In Denmark, you're generally expected to have your own, reusable, grocery bag. (One of our first gifts from DIS was a bag meant to serve the purpose.) If you forgot, or have too much stuff, they sell bags for cheap. But there's an incentive there to reduce plastic waste. Also, you always bag your own groceries. Inconvenient? Maybe, if you're in a real hurry. But as I watched the bag boy at Jerry's lackadaisically toss our Christmas Eve dinner materials into a paper sack, without any regard for fragile items or even any sense of organization, I rather *wished* I could just do it myself...

Or recycling. In Denmark, the deposit for aluminum cans and glass or plastic bottles is somewhere around 1 DKK - 1.50 DKK -- around 20-25 cents, depending on whether you have the cap and some other things. If you were so inclined, you could buy a 12-pack of the cheapest beer at two kroner a can, deposit the empty cans, and get six more beers. Or, something less gross. Whatever. Point is, in Denmark the deposit is actually worth something. Furthermore, it's really easy to get that deposit. Pretty much every grocery store has a machine that takes your cans and bottles, calculates how much they're worth (I think it's a combination of a laser and a weighing mechanism that allows it to determine the material), and spits out a voucher for a certain amount of money, good for groceries at that store. Easy. As a result, people bother to save cans and bottles. Hobos can make a living off of it. Ordinary people sometimes decide to go on bottle runs for fun, cleaning out trains and such. And the Danish recycling rate rocks like all get out as a result.

Now, in terms of spending power, the American bottle deposit (around $0.05) used to be worth a similar amount...when my Dad was little. But because it hasn't been increased since then, there's much less incentive for people to recycle in America. People mostly do it out of goodwill...and because it's also less convenient here, that's pretty much all they do it for.

The Danish system works. Granted, this is in part because Denmark is "a fairy-tale land"** that defies most economic logic*** and has really low levels of corruption (including by the UN parking ticket index). But they also have a nice network of social and financial incentives going that make people waste less energy and fewer materials. What would it take to get similar incentives in place in the US? I don't know. But after four months abroad, it seems like a crime that they aren't already.

That's just the rant output from a week back home. I'm sure my experiences abroad and my adventures in America will develop further interconnections as time goes on. If I could do it over again, there'd definitely be things that I'd change in order to try and make the time less depressing. Maybe I'd pick a different country, maybe one not so far north. Maybe I'd do a home stay. But was being abroad a worthwhile experience? Sure.

* One of the first things I noticed when I was in Newark was that everything was in English. Well, except the Spanish stuff. But still. I could understand what the people behind me were saying. I could offer directions to people without either of us needing to switch languages. I was no longer deaf, dumb, and illiterate! Whoa!

** In the words of my libertarian media prof, a Dane himself. He's stuck in the one country where his political ideology doesn't work.

*** If you pay Danes more, many will work fewer hours, because they're mostly just motivated to make a comfortable living for their family. At the same time, more than 100,000 Danes are currently working jobs that pay less than what they would get if they went on welfare. Huh?