Bits and pieces

I remember bits and pieces of it. I am becoming that obnoxious person who says tak instead of thank you.

I barely learned any Danish while I was over there. You only need to know a handful of words to get by/pretend you are a local.

We would say the Danish words in bad English accents. Hygge, tak. Funny looking letters and strange sounds.

Now the little I learned is in my head. Six months later and I’m still saying excuse me in Danish. Our brains are funny things.

Catch 1000

The Danish university system emphasizes different things than the Canadian one does. I am in five hours a week of classes for what would be twelve hours a week back home. Evaluation is also more lenient. Instead of a midterm/paper, a paper, and a final/paper we only have either a paper or an oral exam. That is it. I will write about fourteen pages this semester.

So I was thinking to myself what is the catch. Well, there is a catch. Reading, lots and lots of reading. I am expected to read 2000 pages in four months — each syllabus prescribes a certain number of pages that must be read for the number of credits given— which is how they balance out the limited amount of class time. It is an adjustment for sure and requires a lot of discipline to get done. For my one class this week I had to read an article and 120 pages of one of the textbooks — that is just one.

It’s not like back home there were no readings, they were often just considered to be optional. The key to being a good student was to figure out which readings needed to be done, and which ones didn’t. Perhaps that is the key here. We will see.

It is also nice to know that we are indeed covering a lot of material, just not in class.

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Sixteen months

They like to say that there are sixteen months in Copenhagen: January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November, November, November, November, November, and December. The night in question was a prime example of why they say this. It was raining and grey. The northern latitude meant that sunlight was a rare treat, gone far too early most of the time. It was raining a steady but not torrential kind of downpour.

I had been invited for drinks on the other side of the city, effectively a 45 minute bike ride each way. I set off knowing that I would be soaked through almost right away. Riding in the rain can be almost pleasant once you get a rhythm going — unlike riding in a blizzard, which is generally cold and slow. The worst part is being damp and cold once you arrive at your destination.

I peddled along, thankful for my standard issue fenders, rain dripping from my helmet (how deeply unDanish) onto my face. I felt extremely hardcore and almost as Danish as can be this. This was as Danish as eating rye bread while sipping Carlsberg. Some of my friends hadn’t even purchased bicycles and here I was slogging along.

When I finally got there I decided to order a latte to warm myself up instead of a beer. My friends were late as usual so I got a book out to amuse myself. Before I finished the first paragraph someone was asking me how I liked the book, which quickly led to where I was from and what I was doing in Denmark. Two Danish boys and I struck up a conversation and before long they had invited me to join in their board games. The only problem was that the game was entirely in Danish. It was far beyond the eight or so words I had collected. They tried to prod me into participating, missing the futility of such an attempt. Ultimately they seemed to enjoy their private world of Danish and who was I to stop them?

My exchange university vs. my home university

It was my first day of classes since arriving in Denmark. My class was at 10 am. Fortunately, I got there early. The social science campus was huge and I had no idea what the numbers corresponding to my class meant. After wandering aimlessly I figured out that they corresponded to building-floor-room. That was easy enough. I found a map and then wandered the halls to what seemed like the right building. I got to my classroom and no one was there. I checked the schedule posted outside and my class was not listed. This was not what I had been hoping for. More aimless wandering followed. Eventually I found the information desk and they informed me that my class had been rescheduled to 2 pm and moved to a different classroom. For some reason the university had decided not to notify me.

When thinking about my exchange one of the last things on my mind was the actual academic side of things. Yes, I’d jumped through the appropriate hoops to get my courses recognized (including being on hold for almost an hour multiple times and emailing the vice-dean). I had thought loosely about what I wanted to take but ultimately I hoped it would be a vacation from the insane standards of North American universities. I tended to be that girl who disappeared into the library for the last month of school and was ready to think about exploring rather than thesis statements. It turned out that some of the biggest cultural shocks had to do with my classes and the way the university was set up.

Classes start 15 minutes after the posted time

When I did manage to show up to my class at the right time I also showed up early. By Canadian standards this meant arriving ten minutes before the scheduled time at 1:50 pm. To my surprise I was the first person there, as I tended to be. As it got closer to the hour more students trickled in but the room wasn’t even half full. In my mind I would give the prof had 15 minutes to show up and if they didn’t I got to leave. That was how it worked back home.

As students arrived at quarter past I realized that the rules here were different. For some reason all classes started at quarter past even though the time was listed at the hour. I never really managed to kick my punctuality and was always one of the first people to arrive.

Coffee breaks

One of my favourite things about the Danish university system is their fondness for coffee breaks. Every lecture of my political science class had a slide reading “Coffee Break!” My prof would excitedly announce the break as we scurried downstairs to buy inexpensive coffee from the campus snack place. Often times my other professor would make tea and coffee, and bring us snacks.

Reduced work-load

It would be unfair to say that my classes weren’t demanding in some ways, however, they were a lot less demanding than my North American classes. In my last semester of fourth-year I wrote about 150 pages worth of assignments and papers. The expectation was that assignments should take up a lot of my time. My friends and I were perpetually behind on our work. There was always something else that needed to be completed or read or studied for.

Scandinavian attitudes were very different. I spent less time in class (5 hours a week for the equivalent of 12 back home) and wrote one ten page paper. To make up for fewer hours spent in the classroom we had lots and lots of readings. It amounted to about 60 or 70 pages a week, and we were expected to be able to discuss all of them at our oral exams.

Instead of feeling like I was being throttled all the time the expectation was that relaxing and socializing were an important part of an education. I liked the more laid back pace. Life was something to be enjoyed and lived. Students were no exception to this.

Rescheduling classes

In Canada your class is set at a specific time on a specific day and that is the only time a professor can expect you to be available. That is not the case in Copenhagen. My classes were rescheduled almost as often as they happened at the regular time. I would get an email ten minutes before class that it was cancelled or moved if there was any notice at all. Professors would be confused when you missed rescheduled classes because they were at inconvenient times. One week I forgot to go to my Thursday afternoon class because it had been so long since my class had actually been held on a Thursday afternoon.

I made one of my good friends on exchange because of this. We would both show up to class and when it turned out it was cancelled we would go hang out downtown instead.

No campus

After four years at a campus that was distinct and apart from the rest of my city it was weird not to have a campus in any meaningful way. Different faculties had buildings spread out throughout the city. You went to the ones that your classes were at and left when they were done.

Oral exams

When this was first brought up my class collectively tensed up. We had never done oral exams before. It seemed scary and a lot of pressure. Our entire mark would come down to a fifteen-minute conversation with the professor. It almost made me miss the three papers system. If you messed one up there was another one to average it out. What if we had a cold, or got asked a really hard question?

Overall it was fine. I probably over-studied. We were expected to know all 1200 pages of assigned readings well enough to discuss them. The fifteen minutes went by before I knew it. I was asked to wait outside and five minutes later I was told my mark. That was it.

Excursions

Excursions, or as Ms. Frizzle would say field trip!, were commonplace in my classes. My political science class went on two separate field trips to the Danish parliament and my Danish religion class was invited to my professor’s church. My friends in the Danish architecture class went to visit several buildings instead of just talking about them. This kind of hands on learning was not a part of my Canadian university experience in any way.

All in all the differences between my exchange and the rest of my education were easy to adjust to. I liked the calmer pace, especially since it was assumed that none of us were there to spend all of our time writing papers. Most of what I learned was from living in an unfamiliar place where I didn’t speak the language or know how things worked.

Back in the saddle

One of the best things about being back in Calgary is that I have a bike again. While I was in Washington, D.C. I missed riding dearly. I would glare at all the cyclists and resent them and their beautiful bikes. Now I have my bike who I loving call Doris after the moderately functional bus in Almost Famous.

Despite my excitement I find it easy to make excuses to not ride my bike. My parents car is fast and easy to use. This city can be frightening to ride in. There are lots of hills. Too many hills. There is the endless rain.

But no these are just a bunch of lame excuses. I rode to Eau Claire today because of my blanket refusal to park downtown and remembered how much I miss riding. It is so much more satisfying to ride there than it is to drive. The river valley is beautiful and I have bike lanes most of the way. Why don’t I always do this?

Riding home along the pathway as the sun was setting I was reminded of how nice it is to get somewhere with the wind in my face, using the power of my own legs. It is extremely satisfying to peddle as hard as I can and glide along. This was something I felt everyday in Copenhagen. I find I am much happier when I feel this instead of the stiffness in my legs as I press the peddle and sit still.

Later I ran into a friend and mentioned to her that they are putting in physically separated bike lanes on 7th street.* She was supportive then I said it’s just a start they should have them on every street downtown, and everywhere else for that matter. Then I got that look that says you’re crazy, that will never happen. People won’t go for that. Part of me knows she’s right and another part of me knows that there’s a reason Copenhagen is touted as the world’s most liveable city while Calgary isn’t even considered for the list. It’s because driving an hour or more each way to work doesn’t make people happy, walking to the grocery store shouldn’t be a luxury and riding your bike to a friend’s house is way more gratifying and healthy than driving. If more people looked at the 10th street bike lanes and saw the future not an exception then we would be a happy, healthier more liveable city. If you disagree with me give riding your bike a try. Once you get over the sheer terror of rolling stops by motorists at stop signs you might just get converted.

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* I have my reservations about physically separated bike lanes. They have their upsides and downsides. I am personally a fan of the ones that are just on the road. They are a lot cheaper and ultimately no amount of concrete will protect cyclists from drivers who have unsafe habits and attitudes that endanger cyclists. I think we spend too much time debating what type of bike lanes to put in and not enough time putting them in.

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Bike hunt

We are on a very important hunt, and taking one of the most important steps towards becoming a true resident of Copenhagen: we must find a bike. I have never walked this far down the street. The city is still new to me. We walk past trendy stores and coffee shops to an area that is filled with kebab shops. By the time we get there it seems like we have been walking for ages. The store has a reputation for selling cheap bikes, that is all. They are not necessarily good, and were probably stolen, but they are cheap and we are students.

The storefront itself comes off as being small. Incredibly small. Smaller than our living room. It is filled with wheels and accessories that he will try to sell us at unreasonable prices. This is the beginning. We step through dodging items as we go along and trying our hardest to shake the felling that this place is very very sketchy. We enter a courtyard and find numerous bikes lined up. None have price tags. We’re told that some belong to other residents of the building but not which. A vague hand motion is not enough to make me feel certain. Then we find it. Down a half-storey of steps there is a basement that must be home to half the bicycles in Copenhagen. They are shoved row on row with some hanging from the roof. There is no way to get any of them out. Not all of them look mechanically sound. Quantity over quality. The man who owns the store greets up. He works his way easily through the muck of bikes and takes us out to the courtyard. These are the bikes he wants to sell us and we’re not really in any position to object.

Then the summer I spent working at a bike store hits me. My friends know nothing about these machines and how questionable they are. They know nothing about locks or bike lights but I do. I know that these bikes are less than mechanically sound, but then again we’re going to be leaving them out in the rain for the next few months so what difference does it really make?

Bikes are selected with a sure why not style. We are glad to get out of that place and hope our new bikes are worth what we paid.

Joe and the Juice

After arriving in Copenhagen Joe and the Juice quickly became one of my favourite places to eat. This is largely because they make the best sandwich in the world — avocado, mozzarella, tomato and pesto. There is also a dress code where at least one staff member must be wearing a backwards baseball cap at all times.

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Netto

The Netto was both great and terrible depending on the location. On the night I arrived in Denmark I remember seeing that distinctive sign and wondering what it was for.

Of the three grocery stores that were within a two minute walk of my house it was probably my least favourite, but it was also the farthest. They had a good deal on the candy that I liked.

I had friends who lived by a smaller Netto that we liked to call the ghetto Netto—so clever. And then there were those nights when the Netto parking lot served as a makeshift hangout.

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Somersby

This is probably one of the things that I will miss the most about Denmark. It is something that I will always want to order but probably won’t be able to get, which is a real shame. It’s not about a particular place or time, but about something that is so delicious. It was something that you brought to dinner, parties, whatever. It was one of the quintessential tastes of being an exchange student.

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Emmerys

I lived near Christianshavn, a nice short bike ride from the middle of no where, sorry Orestad. Emmerys proved to be one of my favourite hang outs, mostly because it was the only independent coffee shop I found in Copenhagen that actually had wifi — how am I supposed to study (messing around online) without wifi? They had good food that wasn’t insanely priced and Christianshavn is such a lovely area.
There were so many good bakeries in Copenhagen — the proliferation of these was one of my favourite things about Copenhagen in general. Note: North America how have you not caught onto bakeries yet? Seriously? I am only including two in this list, partially because they were my favourites and partially because I thought it would get a bit old if I just did a bunch of paintings of coffee shops and bakeries.

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Tea candles

It seemed that everywhere I went in Copenhagen there were candles on the tables. This wasn’t just at restaurants but at coffee places and at Danish homes. Candles seemed to be everywhere. I reached the point where it is now strange for me to go into a coffee place and not see candles on the tables.

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Christmas hearts

Being in Copenhagen during Christmas was a lovely experience. Danes go all out, and one of the upsides of being a Lutheran culture is that they were okay with Christmas. They actually said merry Christmas to one another and all those things without any fuss. No happy winter break stuff.
These hearts were a really fun craft project and were everywhere.

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Bunting

Okay so this one is a less about Copenhagen and more about something that I love in general, in all places, at all times. For those of you that have yet to be converting bunting is triangles (made of fabric or paper or something of the sort) on string (or twine or something of the sort). It is gorgeous and is an essential item of home decor. True story.

I made some to put in my room out of free KU Copenhagen maps with twine as string and then they had some at Studenterhuset. It also contributed to the hygge in my life.

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Decorative canals

In Orestad it seemed like there were a lot of canals, and that for the most part many of them seemed to serve no real purpose. I don’t think they were natural bodies of water or really served a water drainage function (though I could be wrong about that) instead to me they were just there for aesthetics, they were purely decorative canals. Put there because they looked pretty and made Danes happy in a weird suburban way. And if you ever need to get rid of a bike in a hurry they are a convenient place to dispose of it. (I did not dump my bike in a canal but I sure thought about it.)

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Things Calgary can learn from Copenhagen

I recently got back from four months in Copenhagen and living abroad teaches you about what you love and hate about where you are from. I am proud that I come from a place that I think it worth visiting — although that goes down considerably during Stampede — even if it’s just because the mountains are gorgeous. Calgary has ample sunlight and nature abounds. The mountains hover at the eastern edge of the city and are a mecca of natural wonders. Then there are the eternal downsides, which are what Copenhagen has to offer. Calgary is a farce of urban planning. Single family homes and cars rule the day. Building an additional six C-Train stops was an impeccable feat that is unlikely to be repeated anytime soon. Copenhagen on the other hand is a city designed to live in — both intentionally and unintentionally. That is partially what drew me to the city. Monocle published published an article raving about all that the city had to offer. I agree it is so very liveable. You do not need a car. Buildings are all about 6–9 stories high. Calgary has the opposite cars are almost mandatory and buildings are either a single family home or a skyscraper. Calgary wins on the sunlight factor. Copenhagen is known for grey days, which only got worse as we got deeper into winter.

  1. Metro: Copenhagen has a magical public transit network. You can get almost anywhere you want in the city fairly quickly by public transit. For me this mostly meant the metro, and on occasion the s-tog (s-trains) which are slower and serve areas just outside Copenhagen as well. Between the metro and the s-tog most parts of the city have access to quick and easy trains.
    The c-train is great, if you live or work close to it but two lines for a city with a population of 1.2 million is a joke. Buses are painful to take during rush hour and get stuck in traffic. The west LRT is one thing but was long over due and only begins to scratch the surface of what is needed.
    If Calgary was willing to see LRT infrastructure as an investment and good planning then perhaps we would be a better planned, more liveable city and fewer people would have to drive to work.
  2. Night transit: In Calgary the bars always thin out around last train/bus. This is a sad sad situation. It would not be very hard to run trains every 30 minutes after 1 a.m. and it would leave Calgarians with far more options. In Copenhagen trains run around every ten minutes during the night. This seems like a very long time by Copenhagen standards — yes in Copenhagen trains run often enough that when you miss one you know another is coming very soon and ten minutes is a long time to wait.
  3. Quantity over quality in grocery stores: I was lucky to live within a two minute walk of three groceries stores. There was one in the building next to mine where it took longer to ride the elevator down than to walk to the store. There are small groceries stores very frequently meaning that almost everybody is within walking distance of a grocery store. Not everyone has as many choices as I did but they can hop out for some milk and don’t have to grab the car keys.
    In Calgary I am a thirty minute walk each way from my nearest grocery store. I have little choice but to drive there. There used to be a Safeway a five minute walk from my house but it got closed down because it was too small and not competitive enough. The same thing took our library. We don’t need huge groceries stores, we need stores that stock enough to make dinner or lunch. I prefer going to the store quickly everyday or popping out for that one essential ingredient because it will take five minutes. I don’t want to buy a weeks worth of groceries just because my city is so poorly planned that I don’t live near a 7/11 let alone a grocery store.
  4. Cycling: Everyone has heard about Copenhagen’s legendary bicycle lanes and cycling culture. It is said that there are more bikes than people in Copenhagen and I don’t find this hard to believe. Getting a bike after arriving was absolutely essential and was a huge part of my exchange. The first upside was that my bike was far cheaper than taking transit (a single fare costs about $4 CDN, which at a $1 more than Calgary at least you get what you pay for).
    Copenhagen has worked hard to have the cycling infrastructure that it has. Bike lanes are present in almost all places, and where you don’t have them you don’t really need them. As much as everyone loves Copenhagen’s bike lanes, which don’t get me wrong are great, I do have one major problem with their godlike status: their elevated nature (they are between sidewalks and the road in elevation). I was always terrified of passing someone and going too far towards the edge and falling or trying to get onto one and missing the ramp and falling hard on my face and arm. I’ve heard horror stories of falls like this and though I never feared traffic I did fear that edge. I don’t mind Calgary’s bike lanes that are even with traffic. They could be wider with room for two bikes like Copenhagen’s are, but they leave you with the ability to leave your lane and enter the road easily if need be. Rumble strips could be a good way of creating a boundary without physically creating a boundary.
    But more than their bike lanes is the attitude of Danes. Cyclists are king of the world, pedestrians yield to them and more importantly so do cars. The consequences of hitting a cyclist are enormous legally and generally there is an attitude of respect for cyclists. As a cyclist you don’t stop for pedestrians or cars because you are first priority. You are doing something sustainable and healthy, and also it is harder for you to stop. Everything is put in place to favour and encourage cyclists. It is impossible not to feel safe. Though riding downtown during rush hour can be a harrowing experience. It was like the Tour de France peloton but with much less effective breaks.
    The biggest thing that makes cycling safe is that everyone is looking out for and respects cyclists. Drivers are so aware of cyclists that they would never hit you while turning and yield to cyclists without hesitation. Calgarians have a long way to go on this front. How many Calgary drivers shoulder check for cyclists before turning right? Probably about one or two per cent. How many drive in bike lanes to dodge traffic? Far too many — seriously they’re called bike lanes for a reason. We can put in all the bike lanes we want, and yes we should put in lots more, but if drivers don’t do simple things to protect cyclists then it will always be dangerous.
    The other big difference is that in Copenhagen buses don’t pull into bike lanes (probably because they can’t) eliminating one of the biggest problems with Calgary’s bike lanes. If buses don’t pull into bike lanes then cyclists don’t have to worry about getting caught in a blind spot. Only bikes should go in bike lanes.
    Calgary is starting to get more and more bike lanes and that is great. We should be putting them in in a lot more places. We aren’t going to become Copenhagen but we can at least start moving in the right direction.
    There is also the upside of the Copenhagen fit. When you ride your bike everywhere you are generally in very good shape. You don’t have to think about going to the gym because you know that by just living your everyday life you are getting in more than enough cardio. You don’t have to worry about eating that brownie for desert because you will surely burn off the calories on the way home.
  5. Regional trains: It is not exactly revolutionary to say that Calgary would be better off if there was regional train service or it had a Via Rail terminal but this hasn’t happened yet. I have no idea why this is.
    Copenhagen is well connected to its surrounding area and like any good European city (or any sensible city) has a vast and efficient train network. You can hop on a train and get just about anywhere in Zealand, Denmark or Europe for that matter. The s-tog also serves the Copenhagen region and not just the city proper, so people living in suburbs and neighbouring communities can take the train to work instead of driving. Imagine if residents of Airdrie could hop on the c-train to get to work instead of the Deerfoot. Crazy right? Imagine if everyone in Fort Mac could hop a high speed train, or you and your friends could take the train down to Edmonton for a shopping spree at West Ed. How liberating that would be for high school and university students.