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Lena in (love with) København, Danmark

My friend Tracey recently summarised my time here quite aptly:  if I were asked whether I had fallen in love with Copenhagen yet, she had no doubt “the answer would be a big “JA!” written in bubble writing in the snow.”

I first fell in love with Denmark in 2011, when I attended Roskilde Festivalen, the country’s largest music festival. I found myself camping knee-deep in mud, beset by rain, and panic-buying raincoats from festival stalls to supplement the denim shorts and t-shirts I’d naively packed for the 14 degree “summer”. Sympathetic Scandinavians treaded past in cheap plastic ponchos and expensive gumboots, managing to pass off as chic and effortlessly cool even when tucking into soggy kebabs among the rubbish strewn festival fields.  If I could fall in love with Denmark in those eight filthy days, the subsequent week I spent strolling around beautiful Copenhagen only cemented the mantra that had been pounding in my brain since I’d arrived, “I have to spend more time here.”

Luckily, the UTS Global Exchange program has enabled me to do just that. Not only do I get to revisit my favourite city, but I get to experience life here from the perspective of a local. Sometimes I actually manage to pretend I am a local, until somebody asks me for the time, I reply in English, and the cover is blown.

Luckily the pretense is getting easier to keep up with the help of the free Danish lessons offered to all foreign residents. After three months I can now conduct basic conversations, a skill I all too readily use and abuse because occasionally it nets me free coffees. Unaccustomed to foreigners taking absolutely any interest in a language that sounds notoriously like a potato is lodged firmly in the speakers’ throat, and which is more or less rendered superflous by Danes’ perfect grasp of English, the locals are fascinated by the fact that I want to learn their language. But I don’t agree that Danish is ugly – I love it. I speak it and pretend I am a Viking, and I also get to expand my alphabet with these fun characters: å ø æ.

As for my real-deal university experience – The University of Copenhagen offers more international law courses than Australian universities, meaning I can specialize in my desired field and take highly specific courses like “World Trade Organization”, which is taught by a former Danish delegate of the WTO. All the subjects seem to effortlessly blend procedural law with international relations and legal philosophy, making for a highly engaging academic experience that just happens to be set in the old-world buildings scattered around Copenhagen’s cobblestoned city-centre. Not bad at all.

The Law Faculty at the University of Copenhagen

Meanwhile, my student residence (Kollegiet) is an ode to Scandinavian luxury and I feel as though I am living in a high-end furniture catalogue devoted to Nordic design. Dubbed “Collegium Juris”, the 50-50 split between Danish and International students means I get to meet folk from all over the world, while also making local friends, who teach me about their way of life and call me out for committing cardinal sins offensive to Danish culture, like eating rye bread and jam together. (Unforgivable.) Moreover, the dorm’s prime location in the multicultural district of Nørrebro means that I live within a five-minute radius of excellent bars, highly recommended falafel, and near all the cool apartments that formed the background to the hit Danish series “The Killing”.  So maybe sometimes I walk around and pretend I am Detective Sarah Lund, what of it?

IKEA eat your heart out

The city itself is beautiful, sleek and ordered, peppered with stunning lakes and designed to look optimal in snow. But what I love most about Copenhagen’s aesthetic is the harmonious fusion between the old world buildings and hyper modern architectural feats like The Black Diamond, the city’s Royal Library. Cycling around here can simultaneously feel like stepping into both the 17th century and science fiction films.Image

But it’s really “cosiness” which is the adjective of Denmark. The Danes even have a word for their cultural obsession with cosy – “hygge”, which is built on things like simple aesthetics, jazz music playing softly in the background, the smell of coffee and a good book within reach (out of reach would detract from the state of cosy). It sounds strange to describe such things as uniquely Danish when they’re universally agreed upon as wonderful, but the Danes seem to have constructed their culture around comfort and indulgence being the state of being when indoors, probably because the weather keeps you inside so often. Every café is bedecked with candles, while the lighting in my kitchen has all the dimness of a sultry bar. This means that for the first month, I couldn’t find the forks in my cutlery drawer. Now, I’m so accustomed I grimace along with the Danes when a light is too harsh (if you can make out your friends’ eye colour, you’re doing it wrong.)

The best part of an exchange is that it compels you to strip away your self-imposed limits. Denmark is teaching me to do many things I’d never thought I’d do. My loathing for the bitter taste of beer had always left me a spirits-nursing pariah in Sydney’s drinking culture. And yet, spurned on by student poverty and the need to start drinking the cheapest available alcohol, I have managed to transform into a casual beer drinker and have even found an elderflower blend that I can actively proclaim to like. (NB – this is a super big deal.)  Initially terrified of bicycles, (let’s chalk it down to crashing into a parked car a couple of years back), I have gone from being afraid to sit on my purple beast to sharing lanes with the Copenhageners, who seem to cycle in their sleep and manage to drink beer, send texts, and window shop while their legs pedal casually on.

Of course, no one place is perfect. I miss Sydney coffee, I miss sunshine, and beaches and watching Q&A on Monday nights.  I especially miss Sydney’s culinary diversity, accessible even to budgeting students. Copenhagen hasn’t quite yet discovered that happy middle ground between the kebab-pizza joints on every street and high-priced waterfront restaurants. (And that happy middle ground, my friends, is a seven-dollar pad Thai or a cheap sushi roll.)

All the same, I never think twice when asked whether I’ve fallen in love with Copenhagen. Now that it’s April it seems like Denmark has finally seen the last of the snow.  But you can bet that if it was still out there, I’d be covering this city in a series of huge, resounding, bubble-shaped “JA” ‘s.

Lena Rutkowski
Global Exchange Student

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