Archive for February, 2011

Imagine you’re cycling through a city consisting primarily of 17th and 18th century buildings that produce a cozy and intimate atmosphere.  Everywhere you look, there are cafes and authentic Danish bakeries.  You see small kids walking around in their onesies.  Outside of the stores, are baby carriages left unattended while the parents are inside shopping.  Today is a lucky day, because the sun shines vibrantly in the sky, piercing through the grayness you’ve become so accustomed to.  As you cycle, you see nature and parks incorporated into the city life. Right in the center of the city by one of the most popular train stations, sits the Botanical Garden.  Even more, you see lakes that as the sun beams in the sky produce scenery that is bound to be displayed on a postcard.  In the middle of the lakes are snow-white swans, perched so elegantly in the half-frozen lakes, making you think of H.C. Andersen’s fairytale of the Ugly Duckling.

Next, you try to find street signs, only to discover they are on the corners of the buildings and many have different vowel sounds (æ,ø,å) that you can’t even begin to pronounce.  You want to speak to the people as you would do in a typical American city, only to discover they’re actually quite self-reserved.  Also, the people are very fashionable and black seems to be the most favorite color.

You continue your bike trip all the way to the extravagant Amalienborg Palace where the Royal Family is housed. As you cycle through, you try to get the Royal Guards to break focus and look at you.  Good luck with that. Eventually, you ride by a woman with a fish tale perched on a stone quite close to the shore and you flash back to your childhood where this statue is a Disney classic in American pop culture.  But as you continue to cycle around you see statues situated on top of buildings that one would have to really observe to become aware of.  You realize this city is like an enchanted fairy tale, where every building, every canal, every lake has some historical aspect to it that just sends you into a curious frenzy.  Even more, the buildings are vibrant colors and if you veer off main streets you eventually start riding down cobble stone streets making you feel like you’re living in the 17th century!  You eventually stop and realize the freedom riding through the city produces and the joy it incites from being able to explore the city at your own pace.

Describing Copenhagen to others can be a difficult task because as I’ve said before it’s a lifestyle experience.  You have to come to Copenhagen to experience the beauty within and the richness of culture that is so deeply entrenched into everyday life.  Copenhagen may not be the top city on everyone’s travel list and when you see the Little Mermaid, you think wow she’s kind of small.  Honestly, if she were bigger I wouldn’t think of it as a special Danish trademark, because keeping things small and moderate are also elements of Danish culture.

Every time, you go into a café you should expect candles in a dimly lit room, which are there to produce the Danish concept of hygge, which means “cozy”.  People will speak Danish to you, even if obviously you look like a foreigner.  Also, biking is such a huge part of the lifestyle here.  Every Danish person I know has a bike.  It’s healthy and a great way to get around/experience the city.  I think that Denmark definitely wants to attract tourists, but at the same time it manages to keep its originality.  Overall, Copenhagen has a small city appeal, but there is always something waiting to be discovered.  Therefore, to really appreciate what Copenhagen stands for, you have to actively engage yourself.  So in visiting, I challenge you to not only be captivated by the beauty but to also try to explore the lifestyle.

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One of the biggest cultural shocks that I’ve had in Denmark, is how the Danes leave their babies outside!   They leave their babies outside when they go into the store or even when they are at home and this can even be in the winter!  In the winter, it isn’t like they leave the baby out in blizzards or anything, they usually have the baby wrapped really warm and in their insulated pram.  In the states, they would be charged with a long list of criminal charges ranging from child neglect to child endangerment.

But in Denmark, it’s totally okay for a baby to be left outside for a nap or outside the store while the parents are shopping.  The explanation that I’ve received is that it’s all about making sure the baby gets as much fresh air as possible.  I remember, when I first saw this I really wanted to walk up to the parents and tell them that they had left their baby outside!  But Denmark is safe in that regard and I haven’t heard of any cases of babies being kidnapped.

Also, in my limited interaction with Danish kids, the little kids are quite mature or independent.  I have yet to experience a Danish child having a temper tantrum in a store.  Also, I’ve witnessed little kids riding the Metro or biking by themselves.  I must wonder if this is because of the safety in the city of Copenhagen or just Danish culture in general?  It could be a combination of both.  However, I am very fascinated that babies can sleep outside, that the little kids can ride the bus by themselves and still be safe and it’s not a stigma or criminal offense in Danish society.

Oh Denmark, you continue to amaze me. 🙂

So spring semester classes began this week and in the introductory part of one of my classes, the professor told the class, particularly the international students, “You don’t have to come to class every day. In Denmark, classes aren’t mandatory.  We believe learning is about discussion, exchange, and independence.”   Now, I have definitely heard this said before by students, but not so much by the professors.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that on the first day class seems to be packed but then as the semester progresses, mostly 50% of the students tend to show up for class.  But this isn’t because Danish students aren’t motivated.  It just means that embedded into the Danish education system and undoubtedly affected by the Jantelov (which I will blog about soon), is this concept of equality.  Some sociologist and anthropologists have written about the Scandinavian cultural principle of “sameness” which corresponds to a flat hierarchy in many Scandinavian societies, particularly the Danish society.  The whole principle of the welfare state was to include the marginalized people in society and equalize opportunity for all people (regardless of social class).  Thus, taxation was implemented with a collective mentality in mind that everyone pays into the system (40-60% in taxes) and is supposed to get similar or the same benefits out of the system.

The flat hierarchy even extends into the classroom in which one should not address their professor by their title, as I have become accustomed to in the states.  This is even the case at the primary and secondary level of education!  But in higher education settings (Bachelors/undergraduate and on up), professors are only viewed as a secondary resource or another opinion on the subject being taught in class.  So students have the choice to attend classes, if they feel they will benefit from a particular lecture.

Looking back at my undergraduate classes, I can’t remember many professors saying I could call them by their first name or that class wasn’t mandatory.  But then again, I was often taught that it is disrespectful to call an adult by their first name. But respect in that regard seems to have been transposed through the Danish cultural interpretation of egalitarianism, where everyone is equal or at least supposed to be treated as an equal.  You respect the professor as one that is knowledgeable within their field but based on Danish principles, you still in some way perceive of the professor as your equal.  You have something to contribute to the lecture and discussion just as the professor has something to contribute as a lecturer and researcher in their field.  So within the classes, learning is really about discussion, exchange and independence.

So I think to study in Denmark, it requires a high degree of self-motivation.  There usually aren’t assignments or even tests or mid-terms throughout the semester as one might expect, coming from an American tradition.  Usually, you either have an oral exam or a research paper at the end of the course that determines your grade.  Overall, I will definitely attend all my classes, because as much as I like to read about public health, I love discussions and hearing different views on the topic.