Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The Danes

During orientation several of the staff have alluded to "the statistic", which is that since the DIS program started in 1959 something like two DIS and four DIS-Dane couples get married every year. When some of us were recounting this at lunch yesterday, you could see the eyes bug out on one of the guys at the table. "Are you serious? I hope it's me! I mean, look at the women on the street. Not that I have marriage on the mind, but I sure wouldn't mind marrying most of them. And the people in this program, too - I've never been in a place with so many beautiful people."

This is possibly the most common comment by students this week - how beautiful the Danes are. I had heard it, but I didn't really understand until I got here. The people you see - I mostly notice the women, but I guess it applies somewhat to men - have these wonderful stylish clothes. Not trendy-trendy, but just really good-looking. At home a twenty-year-old blonde gets some kind of attention walking down a street: in the suburbs random men honk their horns or yell or whatever, and in most parts of the city I look out of place because I'm white. Here I've realized that it's the first place I've been where I can walk around and go completely unnoticed because the streets are full of beautiful people, most of them blond.

Simon and I used to debate whether people whose hobby/obsession was clothes, shoes, etc. were inspirational or just made other people feel bad. While I'm here as long as I know I don't look awful I don't feel the need to live up to the image of the women on the street. (Of course, this is a good thing because you've never seen so many tall willowy people with flaxen hair. They, unlike me, would look good if they were wearing a burlap sack.) It's not like being a losing competitor - it's like being in a work of art every time I'm on the street or in a store.

The problem is that it seems kind of useless for foreigners to put much effort into becoming part of it. A woman wearing red high heeled sandals and a gorgeous print dress while riding her bicycle down the street from work is part of the work of art - she's just an average mom on her way home from work. And she's a joy to look at. But if she did the same thing in Richmond she would look out of place, as if she were making too much of an effort. Men would yell at her (aside from nearly running her over with their pickups because her bike lane wouldn't exist in Richmond.) As Mandi from my Russian class, the most stylish girl I know, said, she just can't go into academia because what would the point be? Her students wouldn't appreciate how fabulous she is.

Monday, August 29, 2005


Here I am, settled in on my second day in Copenhagen. My host family has had 25 or 26 host students before, so I figure nothing I do can be the worst thing they've ever seen. Last night my host sister Tina told me, "We've had some real nutcases. We had one guy from Japan who wanted to eat noodles for breakfast!" I decided not to mention to her that my normal breakfast is whatever I find in the fridge, which could be noodles or salad or cold pizza. When Jørgen asked me what I wanted for breakfast, I panicked but took a guess that oatmeal would sound sufficiently normal. We worked out what oatmeal was and affirmed that they did indeed have a box, and this morning Tina cooked me a huge pot of oatmeal. After the massive amounts of dinner Jørgen gave me to eat last night I really couldn't handle three bowls of oatmeal, so I waited until he left the room and threw out the rest.

If I passed breakfast, though, I failed at lunch. Jørgen brought out a loaf of white bread for me to make a sandwich with, but I decided to attempt a more traditional Danish sandwich of rye bread and layers of stuff that makes no sense to Americans. I did all right with a layer of butter and a layer of ham (I'm eating meat this semester because trying to be a vegetarian here is like trying to be a penguin in Bermuda) but ran into trouble when he brought out a cucumber and a tin of Italian spread that looked like it was made from mayonaise, carrots, and peas. I attempted to put cucumber slices on the ham and the spread on the other slice of bread, but this was very upsetting to Jørgen. "No, no! It all goes on one slice of bread. And you don't put that with cucumber - it doesn't go!" Since peas and carrots with ham made at least as much sense to me as cucumbers and ham, I'll have to learn the art of Danish sandwich-making as I go.

I think the drinking thing is also going to be more problematic than I had thought. Last night at dinner I was determined to drink the glass of red wine Jørgen gave me, but it tasted so awful I didn't finish it. Sandy's remark when I don't like the taste of whatever other people are drinking is usually, "Well, it's cheap champagne anyway - you should try the good stuff." Without her around I don't even know whether this was bad wine or whether I just have a lot more getting used to the taste than I thought I would.

The city is lovely. I was thinking a few weeks ago about how I would lay out a city if I could, and this is pretty darn close - good public transporatation, no skyscrapers, lots of parks and plazas, green everywhere (even sunflowers growing in front of government buildings,) and lots of bike lanes. Biking here isn't just for twenty-something liberals - you see businessmen, women in stilettos, little kids in baskets on their parents' bikes.

I'm at school now, but it's time to head for the train station and go home. Hopefully the walking will help stave off the 15 pounds Jørgen vows his food will put on me.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Whichever it is, it's all gone

Are the therapeutic effects of the traditional recovering-from-distress chocolate lessened or enhanced by the fact that the chocolate is truffles you made with him in his kitchen?

Walk me to the corner, our steps will always rhyme

It's been quite the summer.

The first notable event is the reappearance of my friend Andrew from high school. As I told him, it sounds like a script for a romantic comedy: Girl, age 13, meets Boy on her first day visiting her new high school. For the next two years of school Girl adores Boy from afar, learns to play chess, and generally pours herself into a nonexistent relationship, but is too scared to say anything. She eventually moves on.

Four years later, Boy is on his way to grad school on the other side of the country but first phones Girl out of the blue. Why? He wants to pursue Girl #2, who happens to enjoy the same hobby that occupies our heroine's Saturday evenings: swing dancing. After she is done laughing, Girl agrees to teach him. Boy and Girl proceed to spend the rest of the summer swing dancing on Saturdays and then going to his house to talk about everything from religion to nitrogen-fixing bacteria while watching the parenting behavior of the fish he rescued from the biology lab. Also, insert humorous scene in which giant swing dancing man who's fond of Girl wants to pummel Boy for bringing another friend to the swing dance when Girl is out of town.

Now, if this were a movie script, it would end with Boy and Girl #2 enrapturedly swing dancing in some notable place like Boston Common or the airport and then closing credits to something like “Sing Sing Sing.” Unfortunately it didn't work out that way, but now Andrew has another hobby to keep him even busier at Stanford and we both have a friend.

It's been the most wonderful closure. After spending two years working up my nerve to touch his hand on the last day of Spanish class sophomore year, the idea that I would ever teach him to swing and waltz and salsa would have made my jaw drop. After spending two years formulating theories about what he must be like, I finally got to know him. I finally get what I once wanted more than anything in the world: to see him happy, or at least happy enough to dispel the impression I once had that he really hated his life. Eli once said I had bad taste for liking him, but I now have enough information to strongly disagree.

Andrew, once in Spanish class you made some joke about Guy Noir, and I thought, “If he listens to Prairie Home Companion, when I listen to it I'll think of him, and then we'll be listening together even after he's far away.” I'll still do that.

Now comes the second, less happy closure of the summer. Today I see Simon for the last time in the foreseeable future.

He makes me wish there were a system where people could review other people they know, so I could leave him about the best review ever. My parents used to ask me how I could care so much about hungry people in Africa and still be mean to my sister. He is what they wanted me to be. I wouldn't have thought it possible to date someone for more than two years and never speak a single unkind word to her, but he's done it. When I'm in a low spot I always know in the back of my head that I love him, and if I brought that to the front of my mind I wouldn't take out my crabbiness on him. But he somehow never takes anything out on me, although I undoubtedly deserve it at times.

Me going to Denmark is a fairly natural breaking-off point, and at least we get to stay friends this way. They say that of your occupation, your home, and your family/significant other you should never change more than one at a time. I'm breaking that rule, but hopefully it will be easier to miss him as a friend than it would have been otherwise.

I feel I should have a set of spectacular goals for the semester, but at the moment I can only think of a few:
Learn Danish enough to converse
Get along with my host family
Don't start crying anywhere embarrassing, such as the plane

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Jeg er en heldig kartoffel

I've finally heard from my host family: my Danish host father is a widower named Jørgen Jørgensen (I am not making that name up.) He used to work at the Faxe beer company and says I will not be allowed to drink any other brand of beer while in his house. He informs me that his daughter works as a senior assistant at a hospital and her one-year-old son works as a brat at the local nursery. He closes the email with "By the way; there are no icebears walking on our streets in Denmark." Good to know.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Everything free in America

After a week and a half without air conditioning, I'm very ready to head to the frozen North in twelve days (well, Denmark's not frozen yet, but at least it's closer.) I'm trying to convince my sister that her habit of leaving the computer and lots of incandescent lights on is not helping the situation.

On Saturday my parents and I went to the annual party at Dad's cousin's farm in the mountains. It was everything a family party should be, with babies and dogs and lots of corn on the cob and pie and a bluegrass band playing in the barn. I fell asleep looking up at the metal roof through the rafters, listening to the firecrackers and hoping the guys setting them off hadn't been drinking too much.

Arianna says Irish men get their conception of American girls from TV and therefore think we're all from California and have sex on the beach all the time and will therefore wish to do the same with them. Mom says people in England thought we all had swimming pools in our backyards and lots of money. I keep wondering what assumptions my Danish host family will have about me as an American and about the country in general. I wish the parts of US culture that were broadcast to the rest of the world weren't McDonalds and imperialism and Baywatch and Sex in the City. If I could, I would like the world to see this farm in Nelson County, stumble through a square dance with us, have some cheese grits, laugh at the kittens licking butter off people's corncobs. Surely this would improve international relations.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

In which I wonder about priorities

I've been reading Mountains Beyond Mountains, about a doctor from the US working in Haiti to revamp healthcare for the poor there. The man is ridiculously inspiring - probably every highschooler who dreams of going into social justice work wants to found their own program and influence policymaking and win the adoration of whatever group they're serving. Later we realize that a lot of boring, unglamorous work is needed to keep any kind of program running and that this is what we'll probably do a lot of. But this man has actually done it - singlehandedly put so much in motion that has been really useful.

Of course, the natural response while reading about this kind of thing is to wonder what one is doing with one's life that's so great compared to fighting multidrug-resistant TB. I'm at least in the position of doing unglamorous work at an organization that does improve and sometimes save people's lives, so I don't feel as bad as I would if I were still at the posh suburban daycare. The book does make me question the rightness of doing useful work in the US that would undoubtedly be more useful somewhere else, though.

It irks me that Dr. Paul Farmer can have a wife and daughter stowed away in Paris while he trots from Haiti to Peru to Siberia, but that it's impossible to imagine some sort of Dr. Paula Farmer doing the same with a husband and child. The only reasons I want to live in the US when I grow up are so I can see my family regularly and so my kids won't grow up with dirty water and one-room schools and tapeworms. But if I do the whole leaving house and brothers and sisters and father and mother and fields thing, none of that will be a problem. (It doesn't say anything about spouses or kids, but presumably the the apostles weren't supposed to have those.) So maybe after I do Peace Corps I'll just stay in Venezuela or whereever and see where life takes me from there. I know you're supposed to be sure you don't burn out and become useless to everyone, but hopefully by then I'll be able to tell the difference between what I really need and what I only think I need. I'm pretty sure some sort of family is on the first list, but I could be wrong.