By Celia Cullom
Immediately upon my arrival in Copenhagen, I was, of course, jetlagged. I had to frantically run back onto the plane to retrieve my passport, which I had left in the seat back pocket, and then I had to figure out what to do about my lost luggage. It was, to say the least, stressful. And I don’t handle stress well. So within minutes of my arrival in Denmark, I was questioning whether or not I was cut out to study abroad. How was I supposed to be able to deal with these little inconveniences on my own in a foreign country?
For the first few days of my experience here, I continued to struggle through simple daily tasks. Copenhagen isn’t a huge city, but I definitely wasn’t in Kansas anymore. I was getting lost on a daily basis and approaching people for directions was terrifying. Anytime I tried to navigate the train system, speak Danish or just text on my antiquated Samsung, I felt like I was doing it all wrong, but I didn’t know how to do it right.
At least at the end of my days in the city, I could run back to the comforts of my host family. My host mom, Nanna, made me feel welcome from the moment she picked me up at the airport. Aside from making the most delicious food, she taught me some helpful Danish words, answered my questions about the culture and, most importantly, taught me about hygge.
Hygge is a Danish word that doesn’t directly translate to English; coziness might begin to describe it, but that doesn’t capture it all. It’s the happiness you feel from lighting candles, wrapping yourself up in a blanket with a cup of tea and being around family. It’s the warmth you feel as you sit outside on a cool fall evening just talking with a good friend. Especially when the sun sets at 3:30 p.m. in the winter, hygge is something that every Dane craves. To me, it’s the opposite of stress. And as much as I would have loved to escape the culture shock and spend all of my evenings on the couch watching Pretty Woman or Kate and Leopold, I knew I couldn’t do that. That’s not what studying abroad is for.
So I explored and carried the idea of hygge with me. I was a tourist in Copenhagen at castles and old churches and Tivoli, the second-oldest amusement park in the world. I went paddle boarding in Sweden, walked through Hyde Park in London, ate pub food in Dublin, went on a cruise on the Bosporus in Istanbul, drank sangria on the beach in Barcelona, saw the Eiffel Tower light up in Paris and went to a cheese tasting with two of my best friends in Amsterdam. I had the time of my life gallivanting across Europe, but I think even that misses the point of studying abroad.
The most important aspect of this experience has been walking through Tingbjerg, a “ghetto” in Copenhagen, to get a new perspective on the immigration policies we were learning about in class. It’s been figuring out what to do with myself in a room full of people that were all speaking Danish. It’s been gathering the courage to ask for help one of the many times I was lost. It’s been waking up in a foreign country without a plan for the day and just wandering. It’s been leaving my comfort zone and not being stressed because I know things are going to be okay.
By the time my parents were my age, they were basically living on their own and I never understood, until now, how you could be so young, yet so independent. But for the first time in my life, I feel like a real adult. I don’t think going abroad has made me grow up, but it’s made me realize what I’m capable of. I’ve commuted, budgeted and planned trips to foreign countries and gone way outside of my comfort zone.
Hans Christian Andersen, the Danish master of storytelling and imagining the most beautiful worlds, said, “Life itself is the most wonderful fairytale.” I would stipulate that if you can maintain a hyggeligt mindset as you step into unfamiliar places and meet new people, life itself really is the most wonderful fairytale.