It’s hard to believe that three weeks have gone by already. I’ve settled into a routine by now, and our group has for the most part settled into the cliques we will presumably stay in for the rest of the year.
There’s a bunch of things I’ve been meaning to blog about, so this is going to be a catch-all post for what’s been going on in the past few weeks.
Denmark is not so different from Germany, but to say they’re basically the same place would be a lie. For one, the people are much more friendly – at least on the surface, and at least compared to Berliners. When I ask a stranger on the street for directions, or a random Danish student to help me use the library, I’m greeted with a smile and lots of small talk. In Berlin, you get the feeling that you’re inconveniencing them. But I’m also realizing that a lot of it is superficial or simply good manners. Danes will have an enthusiastic conversation with you without any genuine desire to remain friends. This is a stereotype many Europeans hold about Americans, so I was surprised that as an American, I felt this way about Danes.
The Danish drinking culture
While the college student drinking culture is certainly thriving in America, it’s still a little taboo. At least for me, when I had friends who were going out every single weekend to get drunk, or staying out until 5 in the morning partying on a regular basis, I would quietly judge them for not taking their studies “seriously” and give myself a pat on the back for being so much more “responsible” than them. Here in Denmark, the student drinking culture is not just tolerated, it’s encouraged. It’s just what everyone does. And it’s not like they’re out getting wasted every night, but it is rare to see a social gathering after 2pm that doesn’t involve alcohol of some sort.
Case in point: The Friday Bar (Fredagbar). Many academic departments have their own bars, usually located in or next to the academic building, and, as the name implies, open only on Fridays. Student volunteers serve as bartenders, and it’s just expected that once a semester or so you’ll take your turn tending the bar. They serve cheap beer and little else. The journalism school has a Friday bar in the basement. Our lectures end at 4pm on Fridays, and many students just go straight from lecture to the bar, sometimes staying there until 2 or 4 in the morning. You’re actually allowed to bring beer to lecture, but I haven’t seen anyone do it yet.
I personally think this is a bit boring, hanging out at school for another 12 hours after you’ve been in lecture all day – not to mention you get hungry after a while, because the cafeteria (the “canteen,” they call it) closes at 3pm. But I’ve come to realize that this is how Danes bond – they just hang out for absurd amounts of time, doing nothing in particular, just drinking, just talking. I guess I’m used to Berlin, where you pre-game for a few hours at home before going out to find the real party. And sometimes the real party is a bar or club, and sometimes it’s wandering around the city looking for the party until the sun comes up because one friend forgot their ID or you’re too cheap to pay 12 euro to get into the place. So at least you’re doing something, having adventures, and seeing the city at night. But I’ve come to accept that if I want any real Danish friends, I will need to endure these hours of bonding. The trouble is, if there are more than two Danes in a room and they’re drunk, they slip back in to Danish, which does not help capture my attention.
Since drinking is completely socially acceptable, you can drink with whoever you want, including your professor or your TA. For instance, the first time I met my Danish “buddy,” it was at the Friday bar at the journalism school during our welcome party. At first I was embarrassed that the first time my mentor saw me, it was with a glass of wine in my hand, but I soon realized that a) she didn’t care and b) she was much, much drunker than me. That’s Denmark for you, I guess!
The Danish government is very keen to integrate foreigners as quickly as possible. At the beginning of our program, we had several days of orientation, including some lectures just on Danish culture. The Danish government also offers free Danish courses to students, to help us learn Danish as quickly as possible. I had heard that Scandinavians are quite racist and xenophobic, so I was surprised at these integration efforts. But I guess it kind of makes sense – they want the foreigners and the immigrants to conform and integrate as quickly as possible, so they don’t form sub-communities and ghettos like has happened in so many other places. (Looking at you, Berlin.) But they take it to ridiculous extents. For instance, in order to prevent immigrant ghettos from forming, there are laws limiting the ratio of Danes and foreigners in any one unit of housing. I guess student housing is the exception, because we (the international students) aren’t allowed on the floors where the Danish students live. Anyway, I guess Aarhus, being a relatively large and very student-oriented city, is pretty open-minded and friendly towards foreigners. But I’ve heard the Danish countryside, where people are less cosmopolitan, can be quite bad. In other words, it’s just like anywhere else.
I came into this program with my tail between my legs, frightened of all the preconceived notions I had of grad school with visions of coffee-fueled all-nighters, 50 page papers and no social life. In reality it hasn’t been much harder than undergrad so far. We get assigned large amounts of reading every night and have to sit through 7 hours of lectures and discussions, but other than that, there’s literally nothing. The first night, we were assigned 70 pages of reading with two days to do it, and everyone complained bitterly about how hard it was and how they didn’t have time for that. I was shocked. During my undergrad, I was taking 4-6 classes at a time, held anywhere from one to three jobs at any given time, and some semesters had private music lessons or unpaid internships on top of that. Time management was crucial, and my Google calendar was often completely booked from 8am to 7pm, not including homework time. So yeah, I felt like 70 pages was a lot of reading, but we had TWO WHOLE DAYS to do it.
Now we have gotten a bit busier. I have Danish lessons twice a week, we have guest lectures one day a week, and students are organizing their own lectures, clubs, workshops and documentary screenings too. And parties. Big parties, little parties, informal social gatherings, every weekend and some weekdays. Again, students complain bitterly about how there’s not enough time to do everything, even if you wanted to, and again, I’m shocked. I think Americans need to get a reputation for being exceptionally hard working, not Germans, because the German students I know seem kind of lazy. Or at least whiny. And don’t even get me started on Danes! A typical Danish work week is 37 hours, with an hour-long paid lunch break. And they get like way more vacation days per year than Americans. Americans get the fewest. I think a lot of stereotypes about Americans are outdated and need to be upgraded!
While I think the whole European social systems are nice, because they lead to a more equal distribution of wealth and fewer people homeless and in poverty, I also think they lead to a weird sense of entitlement that Americans don’t have. Whether or not the meritocracy myth and social mobility are possible in America, we believe they are, and so we work our butts off. Danes and Germans, however, have no problem leeching off the government. In the U.S., getting food aid or welfare is stigmatized. In Denmark and Germany, everyone’s getting government handouts. For instance, Germany has this thing called “Kindergeld,” or children’s money. It means that every single child, up until the age of 21 (older in Austria), gets free money from the government every month just for existing. It’s not based on income or anything, it’s just a flat rate of 400 euro or something per month. When you’re a little kid, your parents are supposed to spend it on clothes and school supplies. When you get older, you get to choose what you want to spend it on. It’s like a government-sponsored allowance.
And Danes… Guess how much it costs to go to a university in Denmark. Guess! No, really. I’ll give you a hint. In Germany, it’s around 600-800 euro per semester. In Denmark…
No, actually, it’s not free. THEY pay YOU to study. Yes, you read that correctly. Instead of students paying to go to school, the government pays the students. It’s only a “small stipend” – only about $1,000 per month – “barely enough to live on.” (Incidentally, this is the same as the budget I set for myself to cover my living expenses in Denmark. I’m living quite frugally, but I’m sticking to it easily enough.) Given the high cost of living here, it’s not actually that much, but still, the fact that you can go to school and not work and still have enough income each month to survive is foreign to me.
More on European work ethic. I found out three Erasmus students have already decided to give up Danish lessons. And we’ve only had three lessons so far! They complained of not having enough time and it being too hard. I mean, I get that it’s four hours a week you could be doing something else, and it makes for very long days, but these are classes just for our education, there are no grades or assignments or anything, and they’re FREE. How many times in your life do you get the opportunity to learn a foreign language for free? I’m determined to stick with it.
The first two or three days of learning a foreign language are always the hardest and most discouraging, when you literally don’t understand a single word. But then you get the pronouns down, a couple of key verbs, and your ear starts to adjust to the sounds. Having a background in German and English, the vocabulary is not too difficult for me to learn, but the pronunciation is a whole different matter. The Danish language has 40 vowel sounds, including about ten subtle sounds between “aw” and “ee.” The D’s sound like L’s, sometimes, and other times they’re silent, and many times, like with French, many letters of a word are simply not pronounced. As our Danish teacher told us last week, “It is very dangerous with Danish to look up a word in the dictionary and try to guess how it sounds!”
Cycling (drunk or otherwise)
Public transit here is rather expensive – it’s 20kr, or about $4, for a bus ticket that lasts an hour and a half. A bit less than that if you buy a card worth ten rides – klippekort, it’s called. So lots of students save money by biking. The city is small – you can cross the city center in less than 30 minutes – and it’s incredibly safe for cyclists. There are not only bike lanes everywhere, there are specific traffic lights for bicycles that change a few seconds earlier than the lights for the cars. (I’m not convinced this is necessary, but whatever.) The lanes are wide enough for bicycles to pass each other, and in some places, for bikes to ride three abreast. The only thing I don’t like is that some motorized vehicles, like mopeds and small motorcycle things, use the bike lane instead of the street. It’s very annoying (not to mention dangerous) to be passed by one when you’re creeping up a steep hill. And the car exhaust! When I’m biking uphill, I need all the oxygen I can get, and I hate sucking in a deep breath of diesel exhaust from a passing bus. But that’s a serious #FirstWorldProblem!
As you know, I now have my lovely Berlin bike here with me in Aarhus. There were lots of things I’d forgotten about it. Like how the back light had broken off. And the gear shifter was broken. And how it didn’t have a basket. But I was pleasantly surprised to discover it had a brake lock, with the key still in it, which I’d never noticed before. I’d never heard of brake locks until I came to Denmark, and here everyone has one. So now I have a brake lock and a chain, though I only ever use one or the other.
People here like to say that Denmark is flat, except for Aarhus. It’s true. Taking the bus and walking, you don’t really notice the hills, but when you’re on a bike, you come to realize that the whole city is sort of on one big gentle slope, with some bits that are steeper than others. And my dorm is at the bottom of the hill.
I joined the ‘biking club’ to save money, and to get some exercise, and because I like biking. I didn’t realize what I was getting myself in to. I live on the border of Aarhus Central and Aarhus South, and the journalism school is a short ways in to Aarhus North. I Google mapped it – I’s 6.1 km with an 82m elevation gain. (Don’t ask me what that is in miles and feet – I’ve finally gotten used to the metric system and now I can’t go back!) This means my daily commute is 35 minute of huffing and puffing up steep hills, sometimes battling the wind or the rain. I show up to class red-faced and sweaty. It’s pointless doing my hair or makeup in the morning. And I’m pretty sure all the money I save by biking, I spend again in food, because I’m not used to exercising this hard and you need a lot of calories for it!
The nice thing about living at the bottom of the hill, however, is that the way home is a breeze. You’re just coasting almost the entire way. This is especially useful, say, hypothetically, if it’s Friday and you’ve been at a Friday bar since 4pm. Not that I know anyone who would do that. But if one were, so to speak, intoxicated, then theoretically it would be easy to get home. Or in to town. In fact, if one were interested in such activities, one could potentially bike, intoxicated, from the journalism school, to one of the numerous bars downtown, to the Teknolog, with minimal effort. But I don’t know anyone who would do that!
Seriously though. In the States you can get a D.U.I. on a bicycle. I think here it might technically be illegal too. But the buses stop running at midnight – looooong before the party stops – so how else are you supposed to get home? Drunk cycling is a useful talent.
Thanks for reading this loooooong post! I promise the next one will be shorter. If you like what you read and haven’t followed me yet, do so – there’s a box to type your email address in on the right-hand side of this page.
I promise I’ll post better pictures soon – it turns out my secondhand smartphone’s camera is actually really crappy, but I keep forgetting to bring my D-SLR places. I’ll stick it in my backpack tonight though so I can’t forget!