Nyhavn – this canal leads out to the harbor, which you can actually swim in because they keep it so clean!
It’s the little things that catch your eye. Well, not at first. At first you’re Rushed, Rushed, Rushed ¿Confused? Tiiired, IMOBLIZED hungry Rushed and finally, after 10-plus hours and land in sight, relieved. You sigh, feel yourself relaxing just a bit, and then, only then, do you look around and notice these little things.
Like a translucent orb seeming to float, weightless, in mid-air that turns out to be a streetlight. Stoplights that flash a yellow warning before turning green. Colors that don’t seem to quite match. A citrusy, astringent aroma that seems to perfume all of the public transit busses and trains. A building that leans so comically off-kilter that it seems to stumble into its sturdier rectangular friend placed strategically to one side. And bikes. Bikes everywhere! Bikes carrying their riders to trains, bikes in trains, bikes in special lanes on the streets, bikes locked to other bikes locked to the omnipresent bike-racks.
A sign at the airport you saw earlier said “Velkommen til København,” introducing you in the friendliest way possible to the one of the most difficult languages to pronounce, at least in the opinion of your newly-made friends. And who even are these “friends?” You just met them 20 minutes ago! Now you’re exploring the city with them as if you’d known each other for the past year.
And then you notice the feeling that’s been resting calmly in the background since you left Boston. It’s a sense of purpose, of tranquility, lying under the more superficial feelings of anxiety and confusion. You’ve done this before – travelled to a new place with new people. It was completely your choice to do it then as now, and it worked out well before.
Times up! You slip out of your thoughts to your friend (yes, he is my friend now) calling out that you have to get back to meet your respective host families. My family? Right! Of course, I’m staying with people here. God you’re tired.
Later, they show up and your name is called as if you were back in elementary school and your parents’ minivan with the bumper stickers and comfy seats had just driven up. You feel so happy, elated, even joyful (and again relieved) to finally, finally meet the people you’ll be living with for the next four months. Jan (“Yan”) and Dot are friendly and funny, entertaining you as they take you on a car tour of Copenhagen. And the best part? They speak English as if you were still in the US. This string of familiarities soothes the jarring harshness of the unknowns you just faced like sleep taking away all the troubles of a day. Sleep! You’re exhausted. While on the flight, your body overcame it with adrenaline and numbness. Now, however, you’re parasympathetic nervous system is kicking in and you’re starting to really feel the exhaustion. You can’t wait to get back to your host parents’ house and just sleep….
But they don’t let you! They know (far better than your body) that it’s 10 am and it’s time to be up! It’s time to meet you host brother Anton! He’s about your age, with a big smile and easy laugh to match his gregarious personality. You spend the day with them doing various small activities. By dinnertime you’re almost incoherent. Your host family asks “What did you say?” repeatedly, because you’re repeating yourself, and them, and the world just doesn’t make sense. You think it will make sense after you sleep, so you finally give in and go to bed at 9 pm. Exhausted, bewildered, happy. You know this is what you should be doing. This is right….
This mingled apprehension, confusion, excitement, and odd sense of calmness made up the whirlwind that was my first day in Denmark. The plane arrived at Copenhagen airport at about 6 am and we had to wait until 10 for our host parents to arrive, so my new friends and I went to explore the nearest neighborhood: Christianshavn (not to be confused with Christania). The old, colorful, intricately-detailed buildings along this harbor melded beautifully with the cobblestone streets and fresh coffee we bought and made us feel truly in Denmark. Later, my host parents were smart enough to keep me up, which saved me from having any jetlag during the first week.
I chose to describe this first day in such detail beacause it’s actually a very good illustration of how I’ve felt since then. I’ve explored some of the most beautiful and historic places in Copenhagen, celebrated a Silver Wedding (25th wedding anniversary) with friends of my host family, made new friends, bungyjumped over the harbor, and visited my host grandparents in the source of the spirit of Denmark: Jutland (more to come on these later!). Through it all I’ve been feeling the same jumbled mixture of emotions as on the first day, but, most importantly, I’ve been welcomed. Directly opposing the stereotype of Danes as closed to outsiders, I’ve felt so accepted by my host family and literally every Dane I’ve met (not an exaggeration). They are friendly, warm, fun-loving, and always making jokes.
My experience with my host grandparents shows this best. Jutlanders are stereotyped by Danes from more metropolitan areas as serious, tough farmers with no senses of humor. When I arrived there with my host family, I didn’t know this (and was better for it). Jørgen and Mie, the parents of my host father Jan, certainly didn’t speak any English, but they were as warm and loving as the grandparents in a Christmas movie. I was content to sit and eat the authentic Danish meal they had prepared for us while they all spoke in the Jutland dialect, but about half-way through the meal Jørgen suddenly turned to me and said, in halting but coherent English, “I normally speak proper Danish, but today I’m speaking in my dialect so I can annoy Dot.” Everyone laughed. Up until this point I thought he spoke zero English, and to have him communicate directly with me, in my own language, was nothing short of a blessing. Jan, Dot, and Anton made me feel at home in Copenhagen – Jørgen and Mie made me feel welcomed to all of Denmark.
Clockwise from left: my host mother, Dot, me, my host father, Jan, Jan’s father Jørn and Jan’s mother Mie.