Core Course Week

I am about to take on a very difficult endeavor and try to sum up core course week in one post. This week is an opportunity to dive deeper into core course material both in Copenhagen, and by taking a short trip elsewhere in Denmark. This really sets the core course apart from the rest of the classes, and gives students the chance to bond more closely with classmates and teachers alike.

Classroom Day 1

Monday started off in an untraditional classroom setting– the grocery store. Our class was split into several groups, each of which visited a different store in the city. Our goal was to attempt to count how many organic and non-organic products in each category of food the store carries, and also to approach several strangers to ask why they might choose organic food. Even the lowest-priced grocery stores in Denmark carry organics, and the higher-end ones are stocked with almost 70% organic products.

After lunch, we played the “Sustainable Development Game,” a board game that my professor has been developing for several years. Each person represents a fictional city, and the objective is to get three markers on each of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals. This requires working together with the other players, rather than competing, and really gets you thinking about how to solve sustainability issues.

The Sustainable Development Game

Classroom Day 2

Tuesday morning, our class met inside a local movie theater, where we were gathered to watch a documentary on the big screen. The film, “Wasted!”, was created by Anthony Bourdain and takes on the topic of food waste from both a culinary and an environmental perspective. Rather than your average, devastatingly depressing documentary, this movie had a really positive tone, and focused on the really cool things that are being done all over the world to fight food waste.

In the afternoon, we split up into groups to interview various stakeholders in the area dealing with sustainable food. My group went to ØsterGRO, the first ever rooftop farm in Denmark. Food grown in the garden is sold in CSA (community supported agriculture) boxes, which are sort of like subscriptions to fresh, local produce. They also have a farm-to-table restaurant on the roof, which consists of a long wooden table inside a cozy little greenhouse. Diners sign up online and are seated at the long table with other community members, and served chef-prepared food only using local ingredients. Even in the winter, the roof was bursting with green. They even have a small pen of chickens and rabbits, for educational purposes (and for fresh eggs).

Lunch was provided back in the classroom (huge vegan sandwiches) while we swapped stories. Some of the places other groups went to include a small cricket farm, a package-free grocery store, and an educational garden. I’ll definitely be revisiting ØsterGRO when the weather warms up– it felt like finding a magical little haven in the middle of the city.

ØsterGRO

Travel Day 1

After a relaxing Wednesday off, our class boarded a bus bright and early on Thursday morning and headed to Sønderborg, which allowed us to nap for about three hours.

Map of our study tour

In Sønderborg, we enjoyed a pretty traditional buffet meal inside a conference building on the water. Two floors up, we attended a panel in a meeting room with six local leaders working to address climate and food issues in the area. One man was a conventional pig farmer in the area who provided perspective on the challenges of the industry. One company, Project Zero, works with government and industry to help the city meet carbon emission reduction goals. Another company, Positively Produce, works to educate kids and businesses on sustainability, and is developing a tool to assess the sustainability of food products in the grocery store. The last woman worked with the Sønderborg municipality as a food coordinator. It was awesome to hear from all these different perspectives and find out how the city is making unique efforts to address climate change.

On the beach in Sønderborg

We then took the world’s longest-range E-ferry to the island of Ærø. The ferry charges it’s gigantic battery once per day, using 100% renewable energy. The island is special as it produces more renewable energy than it can consume, and exports its extra energy to the rest of Denmark and Germany. We ate a delicious Mediterranean meal in the central area of the town, which looks a bit like a movie set with its perfect, candy-colored buildings. (Fun fact: more than 5,000 weddings per year take place in Ærø!) After dinner, we settled into our Hostel, an adorable house by the sea, for a relaxing evening.

Travel Day 2

I think our hostel had some of the best almond pastries in the world– I must have eaten about seven for breakfast, along with soft-boiled eggs from chickens we could see right out the window in the backyard.

Our first visit of the day was to Vesteraas farm, run by Nils Ørum and his family. This was probably my favorite visit on the whole trip– Nils is an extremely outspoken and blunt advocate for regenerative farming, and was not afraid to tell it like it is. The farm raises cows on principles of humane treatment and protection of the land, and Nils claims that his beef is some of the best tasting (and probably most expensive) in the world. The farm also has a fruit orchard and an extensive amount of land that is dedicated solely to biodiversity and conservation. Besides food products, Vesteraas offers “bed and nature” vacation stays, as well as educational tours for everyone from schoolchildren to companies.

After an extremely hyggeligt (cozy) lunch provided by Nils, we met with one of the municipality’s renewable energy coordinators, who showed us around the island’s biofuel plant and solar collectors, which use direct solar energy to heat water. We also saw where extra hot water is stored year round, which can best be described as a giant, insulated swimming pool. The island is extremely progressive when it comes to renewable energy and almost entirely self-sufficient–however, their next phase will be to try to produce rather than import materials for biofuel, and install more off-shore wind turbines.

We finished the day with a very serious academic visit to a local brewery, where we were treated to a beer tasting. I personally despise beer, but I managed to taste all 6 of them (for the culture, obviously). With the beer we also had some light crackers, which are made using the “waste” products of the beer making process– one way the brewery is working to become more sustainable.

Travel Day 3

View of the sunrise over the sea from our hostel

On our last day on Ærø, we were treated to a little bit of sun– just in time for our visit to Vitsøhus permaculture farm. The small area of land is packed with life– on just a few acres, they grow everything from leafy greens carrots to rose bushes and almond trees. Beyond just growing food, the farm aims to be an aesthetically pleasing place where people can learn and enjoy themselves. By mimicking the structure and complexity of nature, Vitsøhus is able to be extremely productive while simultaneously supporting biodiversity.

Permaculture, originally ‘Permanent Agriculture,’ […] is the creation of human systems which provide for human needs, but using many natural elements and drawing inspiration from natural ecosystems.”

Emma Chapman, Writer for Permaculture Magazine

And of course, I can’t forget the animals. The permaculture farm is home to Kashmir goats, sheep, ducks, and alpacas– those alpacas might nice and soft, but you’d better be careful not to cross them. It was a delight to see how the farm keeps flora and fauna in harmony with each other, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that the animals are so darn cute.

We enjoyed another extremely fresh lunch made by our hosts, and then it was time to say goodbye to Ærø. I was sad to leave so soon, but I definitely felt like our jam-packed days gave me a thorough overview of how such a small place is taking mighty steps to become a sustainable leader. I think that some much bigger countries could probably take some notes from the tiny Danish island (you know who).

Heading back into the Urban bustle of Copenhagen felt a bit surreal, and I felt a bit like I wasn’t the same person who left the city a few days earlier. As we settle back into the routine, I’ll keep Ærø in my mind and try to make more sustainable decisions in any way that I can.

Into the Woods: LLC Weekend

On Saturday, I packed my bag with sheets, extra socks, and plenty of snacks, and headed into the woods with my Outdoor LLC.

“Woods” is a bit of a strong word– the park where we hiked was bisected by a road and a small town, and there were people walking their dogs or riding their bikes down the paths. Nevertheless, Mølleåen boasts a wide range of landscape types, from swamps to forests, in a relatively small area of land. I always get so excited by the unique landscapes and animals in a new country. I find even simple things, like Denmark’s different species of ducks that I would never see in the US, so fun and magical (but maybe that’s just because I’m an absolute nerd).

We started off walking around the lake by way of a very swampy path (fun fact: swamps are characterized by woody plants, while marshes contain mostly grasses). Luckily, I was wearing my all-purpose, industrial strength, waterproof Timberland boots— it had rained the entire week prior, and the path was scattered with large puddles. Sturdy, waterproof boots are a must when living in Denmark, especially if you plan on venturing outside the city. Our guide and LLC coordinator, Aiyo, is extremely knowledgeable about the local flora and fauna, as well as about the history of the area. He showed us a type of moss that you can not only get fresh drinking water from, but also can be used as toilet paper (if needed).

Aiyo also showed us a small overlook with a beautiful view of the candy-colored houses below, as well as a few trees equipped with a rope swing. Some were brave enough to attempt climbing the tree itself, and we were amazed when Aiyo climbed to the very top of the tree with the ease of a monkey.

Because it was supposed to rain, we ended up staying in a hostel for the night, rather than outside. Walking up to the hostel felt a bit like something out of a Scooby-doo movie, with its dark windows and twisted trees looming against the grey sky. On the contrary, the inside was incredibly cozy and warm, with a common room where we could make a fire in the old iron stove and play cards by candlelight. Dinner was my first real, traditional Danish meal– pork meatloaf and potatoes with some sort of heavenly cream sauce, and grape jam to go on top. Not something I would recommend eating everyday unless you want your stomach to feel like a rock, but delicious nonetheless.

Lyngby-Taarbaek Hostel

After breakfast, with the sun making a guest appearance, we walked just a few kilometers to the sea. At first, we were disappointed by the “private” fences lining the shore, until someone informed us that no one is technically allowed to own any land 50 meters from the water. With the law on our side, we hopped the short fences and basked in the ocean’s cold glory (Kids, don’t try this at home).

Before heading home, we meandered through “Dyrehaven,” which literally means “Deer Park.” Here, you can walk through beautiful, wild open fields, as well as dense forest. We even spotted some people riding horses, in the traditional hunting spirit. The King’s old hunting lodge stands tall in the center of the park, and is still occasionally used for royal events.

The park certainly lived up to its name; we spotted a large family of dozens of deer munching on hay by the old stables. I couldn’t get quite close enough to take a picture, but I did have a good old-fashioned staring contest with the herd’s alpha male.

We were never too far from civilization during the trip, but I still felt we were able to experience nature to the fullest, despite being a mere train ride from the city. Copenhagen’s urban nature and proximity to the ocean are perfect ways to escape from the center of the city, without breaking the bank or needing serious outdoor skills. This weekend was a wonderful opportunity to do just that, while at the same time forming tighter bonds as an LLC family.

A Moment of Sun

Something miraculous happened on Saturday: the sun came out.

I actually had plans to go out with my visiting-host mother rain or shine, but I was extremely pleased when the weather in Helsingør turned out to be clear and mild, as if the clouds had parted just for us. Helsingør is an absolutely adorable 15th-century town about an hour’s train ride from Copenhagen that is home to Kronborg Castle, otherwise known as Hamlet’s Castle. Although Hamlet was not a real person, the castle provides tours where you can follow and actor dressed as Hamlet’s closest confidant, Horatio, through the various parts of the castle where the scenes from Hamlet might have actually taken place.

From the castle tower, you can look out onto the canal that separates Denmark from Sweden– in fact, you can see the Swedish town of Helsingborg, which sits only about a 30 minute ferry ride away from the shore. The view is stunning from all angles, and you can really start to understand why the castle was placed in such a strategic spot back in the 1400s.

Kronborg Castle

Besides the castle, the town boasts colorful buildings, an indoor food market, and a city square that hosts a farmer’s market in the warmer months. As someone who has searched Copenhagen far and wide for farmers markets, this excited me– although there were only one or two people selling things when we visited (I bought some lavender honey from a local beekeeper). My visiting-host mother told me that in the summer, the entire town square is filled with stalls selling local produce, delicacies and art. Even without all the hustle and bustle, I could have walked down each and every one of the quiet streets, just to get a little taste of the past.

The weather surprised me yet again a couple days later when a few of my housemates and I decided to take a morning run to try the famous snail rolls at St. Peders Bageri. It was supposed to rain, but the sun peeked through yet again and cast a heavenly glow over the city in the early morning. We ran about 2 kilometers from our house in Amager to the bakery, which is located right by DIS. After having done martial arts with our LLC the night before, I was still extremely sore– not to mention the fact that I hadn’t worked out properly in…longer than I’d like to admit. The run was a bit of a push for me, but I have to say, the cinnamon rolls might have tasted just a little bit sweeter after having worked for them.

“Snail Rolls,” or giant cinnamon buns, from St. Peders Bageri

Regardless of weather, I think that taking little trips can create unforgettable moments, whether it be to another city or just down the street to a new bakery. If I had stayed in bed an extra couple of hours instead of getting off my butt and taking a run, I might not have had the sunny experience I did that day. Going on even a short adventure can create bright moments on even the cloudiest, rainiest of days.

The Forgotten Giants

They said that Sunday was going to be the nicest weather that Copenhagen has seen in a long time. With the weather app showing a full sun icon during a week of cloudy and rainy, I had no choice but to get outside somehow. Luckily, a bike and a good attitude can get you pretty much anywhere you want to go in Copenhagen– and I wanted to see the giants.

The 6 Forgotten Giants” are part of an open-air art installation by Thomas Dambo, aiming to bring attention to beautiful but overlooked nature spots on the outskirts of the city. With the aide of the treasure map below, you can go on your very own quest to find all of the giants, and see some fantastic scenery along the way. We visited the closest one on the map, number 2 (also known as “Hill Top Trine”), which was nestled into the side of a hill by the Quark nature center.

The park was about a 45 minute bike ride from our dorm through the city and out into the suburbs. Copenhagen suburban neighborhoods are a bit like those in America, except with more charm and less McMansions. We collectively decided that we HAD to live in one of the many quaint houses at some point in the distant, fictional future.

Although Denmark is known for being flat, the wind was strong enough to make us feel as if we were biking up a steep hill. I’ve found that sometimes the sunniest days can be the coldest and the windiest here. Really though, we were so distracted by the scenery and the joy of seeing the sun that we didn’t really mind.

The park not only houses this friendly giant, but also several goats, sheep, and chickens. During the weekdays there are activities for children, and right beside the hill there are shelters and a fire pit for camping. The seagulls overhead also told us that we were close to water– although we didn’t make it to the bay, I think it would be worth coming back another time to stay the night and venture out a bit further. We only made it to one giant that day, but we still got about 40 km of biking under our belt.

Stopping to admire the view of the canal on the way back

We of course treated ourself to some excellent hot chocolate at a small cafe on the way back– the perfect way to simultaneously celebrate and cancel out a long day of fitness. Although we’re only just a week in, I’m constantly marveling at the hidden gems of this city, whether it be cafes or nature parks. I think we spent our day of sun well– getting to know new parts of the city, besides the ones that every tourist visits and posts on social media. While the famous landmarks are great, I look forward to exploring more of these hidden giants.

Copenhagen at First Glance

Flower market located in a central square near DIS

As I sit at my desk looking out the window at the fairy-lit apartments and quiet streets of Amagerbro, I’m struck by how at home I already feel in Copenhagen. Although it’s only my third day, my housemates and I have started to settle into a comfortable ease around each other, sharing blankets on the common room couch and tossing around jokes as we cook in our shared kitchen. I was immediately surprised when I arrived not only by how nice the living accommodations of our LLC are, but also by how friendly the people were after only knowing each other for a few hours. Our LLC, which is Outdoors themed, has already had a couple opportunities to get to know each other better– first with a pizza dinner on arrival night, then with some icebreaker/trust-building games at the local gym, and today by walking around the city center and hanging out in the common room together.

Monday was the busiest day so far, as we attended the opening ceremony and got our first look at the DIS facilities. The ceremony was held in the Wallmans Circus building, where they sometimes hold Danish music awards and other performances. We got to hear from former DIS students and the DIS director, as well as listen to a musical performance by an up and coming Danish artist named Drew (check out her music here!)

Some of my LLC housemates and I at the opening ceremony when the DIS director told us to “take a selfie”

We then walked around the city streets and checked out some the bookstores, vintage stores, and of course, spent about an hour in the Flying Tiger (a very popular danish chain for basically anything you would ever need). We also grabbed a cup of coffee from Next Door cafe, where they were expecting the rush of DIS students and coincidentally had country music playing on the radio. The coffee was cheap for Copenhagen, about 30 DKK, but the quantity was much smaller than your average Starbucks cup.

Me and my roommate with our chocolate croissants from Next Door cafe

In the afternoon, we attended “living like a local” talks, where we could learn about biking in the city, local fashion trends, where to get affordable food, and more. It was a really great chance to hear from both Danish locals and former DIS students who now live in the city, and get to learn about some really cool deals and spots that I will definitely be checking out.

I’ve had the chance the last couple of days to use the Metro and the Bus, as well as my bike (from ABC bikes). The public transport is extremely clean and organized, and super convenient– I already know that the DC Metro is going to seem grimy and dark by comparison when I get home. I’m particularly a fan of the honor system, which means that you not required to swipe in to the subway. Instead, officers sometimes do checks to make sure that you have actually purchased a transit ticket. This makes things go much faster and smoother, especially during rush hour. Speaking of which, I had my first experience biking during rush hour, and I definitely have a lot to learn. The bike lanes here even have turn lanes, and locals seemed to bike two times faster than me with minimal effort. Despite struggling with all these new concepts, I found it extremely refreshing to bike home over the canal and watch different parts of the city pass me by. I am excited by the autonomy that biking allows, and I look forward to exploring on my new wheels.

A typical Copenhagen “parking lot”

My first impressions of Copenhagen are that of wonder and amazement. Despite the fact that it has been rainy and cold for the past two days, I find myself feeling more energized and excited than I have in a while. I cannot wait to get to know Copenhagen inside and out.

Pre-Departure

I would be lying if I said that the days leading up to my departure have been exiting. My schedule consists mostly of waking up at noon, catching up on reading, doing some packing, watching Netflix, and maybe hanging out with a friend. Needless to say, I’m anxious to get to Denmark. Coming back home for the break can be relaxing, but it can also cause me to fall back into a lot of my old and mostly undesirable habits. Once the warm, hazy glow of the holidays has worn off and most of my friends have started going their separate ways, being at home can feel a bit too static.

Winter break feels at first like a time without bounds where anything is possible, but usually ends up being one big slug-fest. As the hours and days blur together, I’ve been looking forward to having structure back in my life. At this point in my college career, going back to school has lost its excitement of newness and promises of a fresh start. Only this time, I won’t be heading back down south– I’ll be going much further north.

As I struggle to pare down the absurdly large pile of sweaters and start to learn more and more about my classes and living arrangements, I can’t help but feel that I have an unbelievable opportunity ahead of me to be a first year again– entering a new place full of unfamiliar faces, all of whom are in the same boat. I get to leave everything I know behind and immerse myself in a completely different culture, full of new foods to taste and new sights to see. While I know that there will be challenges ahead, I feel incredibly lucky to have the chance to explore myself in a new country.

I’d like to start off with a few goals to help focus myself for the upcoming semester. I want to be able to take full advantage of this opportunity, and to do that, I would like to:

  • stay present and off the internet as much as possible
  • grab on to as many opportunities that come by me as I can – did someone invite you to go check out the cute cafe a few subway stops away? DO IT!
  • keep up with work so that it remains manageable
  • journal or document my experiences
  • step outside my comfort zone socially and experientially
  • take advantage of the resources around me, especially from locals
  • learn about and understand the successful parts of Danish sustainability that I can take back home

These are good reminders to have along the way, and at the end of my semester, good points to reflect upon.