words_sarah kamakawiwo’ole. photo_david o’connell.
The vestiges of summer are officially gone – it’s unlikely to pass 20C again until next summer here in Copenhagen. This week brings a sleek shift into sweater weather, and while the sun comes as it may, the autumn-into-winter rains have begun, and the gray skies are a stark contrast to the bright city while I cycle around. Copenhagen is not a particularly large metropolis in terms of literal size, so many people choose to cycle – a much cheaper alternative to getting a driver’s license and a car. It’s rather enjoyable when I’m not getting stared at by schoolchildren who rarely see an adult so inept at the rules of the road.
This past spring, all I really knew was that I wanted to go somewhere in Europe, attend a decently-ranked university that had courses to fit the remainder of my first major required credits, and be able to communicate in English. Sometime in the last year, I read the OECD’s rankings on happiness for a paper, and boom, there was little Denmark sitting on the top. A month later I had applied to the University of Copenhagen for Fall 2014.
After just over a month, I can say that I strongly suggest anyone going abroad should plan, consult with some experts, plan, talk to other students who have gone somewhere close or similar, continue to plan, discuss culture shock with UM’s international students and home students who have gone abroad themselves, plan, call your family more often before international fees become a thing, make a really solid plan, have some last laughs and meals and memories with your friends, and… plan. Then, get ready to roll with the punches and be so flexible that you feel desperately uncomfortable despite that. But I definitely think studying abroad enhances not only a student’s education but also his or her life, and I hope to have many adventures to share in the future from this semester.
Of course, there’s always the issue of culture shock. I personally don’t think I’ll ever get used to class starting on the quarter hour after the time on my timetable, and I’ve already done the really awkward entry into an active class in a manner very reminiscent of the Kool-Aid man without the “oh yeah.” I can’t hang with the beer drinkers, read: anyone – because I barely drink at all. And the most introverted American I know would get uncomfortable in a conversation (or lack thereof) with the average Scandinavian.
The culture here also surprises me every week with something new. Children seem to be autonomous from the womb here, always encouraged to handle themselves in any situation without assistance first and allowed to roam around on foot or cycle from late primary school. I see groups of pre-teen girls who have more confidence than I do now, and it’s considered particularly odd if a young adult does not move out of his or her parents’ home immediately after high school. Such a culture seems to breed maturity and seriousness into the Danish, and every local university student I meet emanates a sense of calmness that I usually don’t identify with anyone under 30, much less other students.
And of course, the Danish concept of hyggelig prevails wherever I go. The translation into English is “cozy,” but I don’t really know if that truly encompasses whatever hyggelig really is. (Pronounced kind of like “hue-glee,” emphasis on the first syllable. Try it.) The day in Danish class that my teacher Oscar introduced hyggelig as a word, he also said another one, dejlig – which means nice or pleasant – and tried to give examples of when to use which word.
“A place can be dejlig,” he said slowly, “like… you walk into a restaurant and the decorations are nice, so you tell the hostess that they are dejlig. Things are dejlig. Your friend’s backpack is dejlig.”
“So hyggelig isn’t nice?”
“No – yes – well they’re both nice. But one is… nice, and the other is nice.”
“Something specific is dejlig. But hyggelig is the entire thing, usually. It’s not just the decorations in the room, it’s the whole room, everything in it. Maybe like… the atmosphere.”
“So, a feeling,” I said out loud, trying to puzzle through Danish words. Nice and nice? What does that even mean? “Maybe like, dejlig is for tangible things, and hyggelig is for nice… intangible things? Explain it again.”
Oscar smiled mysteriously. “Exactly.”
I still don’t know if I really understand its abstract entirety. But it’s the way that the Danes use candles all the time, so all the lights always seem soft and yellowy; it’s the way that outdoor seating always has blankets available and the smell of food wafts down and through the streets during dinnertime from the apartments above. As an antithesis to the typically detached and non-demonstrative nature of the people, it almost seems funny that such a thing is intrinsically entwined into every part of Denmark. It’s casual, comfortable, and comforting, in a sense of coming home and falling asleep on the couch. Imagine soft background music with no words, hushed laughter between friends, hot café lattes late at night and maybe even having a quiet moment with your significant other even in a full room.
Welcome to hyggelig Copenhagen. And in an odd way, welcome home.