Indiana University Overseas Study

Rachel Larsen - Copenhagen

Before selecting a study abroad program, I looked at the relative safety of the countries I would be studying in. I wanted to make sure my anxiety medication was legal in the country I’d be traveling to, Americans were seen as welcome visitors, and the general “street safety” of the city.

Copenhagen is considered one of the safest cities in the world.

So, imagine the surprise I felt, as well as my supervisors felt, when I came home with 2 different police reports. 6 weeks, 2 thieves, multiple strip searches, and a few panic attacks later, I feel that I am somewhat qualified to give some advice on how to deal with an uncomfortable situation, a “crisis,” and a true emergency.

Unforeseen Issues

This is the lowest form (at least, in my hierarchy) of issues when studying abroad. These are the fixable issues, like not realizing that Danes don’t use umbrellas. Legitimately, having an umbrella in Denmark is a neon sign that says TOURIST to locals. I personally don’t understand it, but you have to have a rain jacket while in Denmark to fit in. Of course, I was able to buy a really nice rain jacket for about $25 at a second-hand shop.

Other unforeseen problems include overestimating how many places take credit card instead of cash, underestimating the amount of cash you’ll need, and forgetting your keys to your kollegium when exploring the city. Doing a little extra research could prevent these issues, but they are all remedial in the long run.

“What a disaster!”

If you’re initial reaction is “that sucks,” it might be a problem, not necessarily an emergency. My first experience of theft in Copenhagen was my cell phone at a Red Bull diving competition. The event and all transport to the area was packed, making it easy for someone to tear into the front of my bag and steal my student ID, medication, and cell phone.

I was completely freaking out. I was terrified to tell my parents that it was gone, then realized I had no way to tell them anyway. I cried the whole way home. I had lost pictures and contacts and a way to contact my family. What was I going to do without my phone?

I’m here to tell you that its possible. After my phone was stolen, I called the police and made a report. I emailed both of my parents and got them to cancel my phone and international usage. I filed an insurance claim.

I sat in my room and sulked for 2 days, feeling like I didn’t feel up to facing people for a while. The worst part of this particular experience was feeling unsafe in a city that raved about its security. I was mad that I’d need a new phone coming home. All of my social media accounts were blocked out because I couldn’t access my phone for secure verification. 6 weeks later and I’m still experiencing some setbacks.

All that being said, I made it. I spent another 4 weeks abroad without a phone, including a fun trip to Stockholm and a study tour to Munich. Genuinely, you can survive without it. Get to a computer and make sure to use Facebook messenger, emails, GroupMe…whatever you use to make sure to tell everyone that you’re OK, but won’t be able to stay in contact. Once you get home, you can deal with a replacement. For the time, its OK to be upset, but don’t let it ruin your time abroad.

True Emergency

After my program ended, and the day before I was supposed to fly to Los Angeles to meet my mom back in the country, my hotel room was broken into. I came back to my luggage thrown across the room, my charger adapter and all cords missing, and my backpack gone. At first, I was just frustrated, thinking of all the souvenirs I just lost. Then…total and complete panic. My backpack had my laptop, emergency money, and passport in it. I looked everywhere to see if either were spared; of course, they weren’t. So, now what happens?

1.) DON’T TOUCH ANYTHING.

The police dusted for prints as soon as they arrived. Obviously my prints will be all over the room, but you don’t want to alter any possible evidence in the room.

2.) Talk to whoever is in charge of the housing facility.

I was robbed at a hotel, so the desk attendant was the first person I talked to. She was lovely. After working there for 6 years, she had never had to fill out a break-in report or a theft report with the police. But she did the smart thing immediately, which was to…

3.) Call the police.

I didn’t have to call the police myself, thank goodness. I was a complete and total wreck. The woman at the hotel (let’s call her Beth) called the police and told them we needed someone to come and sweep for prints, check the door, and take my statement.

4.) File a police report.

I’m not going to lie, Danish police are incredibly intimidating. While our policeman wear a pretty low-key uniform, all police in Denmark wear bulletproof vests for routine calls. They also happen to be incredibly nice. While I wish that I didn’t have to give a police report at 1 am, but that’s how it happened. The police were understanding, got to the point, and gave me an immediate receipt. This is very important if you plan on making any kind of insurance claim.

5.) Call home. Call emergency number for school. Call a local.

Beth allowed me to use the hotel phone for whatever local, long distance, or in-between people I needed to call. Calling my dad to tell him what happened was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done: not just because I was crying so hard I couldn’t speak, but I knew that he would tell me the same things I already knew — “get to the embassy as quick as you can, you’re going to miss your flights tomorrow, but they’ll help you.” My parents did all they could from home, but you can imagine that long-distance reassurance wasn’t what I needed.

DIS has an emergency number for students to call if something goes wrong. Make sure to let them know what happened, where, and who to call to keep up with your status if you don’t have a phone. Make sure to let them know your next travel plans. I made sure DIS knew I was flying home as soon as I could, just so they knew to hear from me in the next 2 days from the US.

I had a couple friends from DIS that were still in the area that I emailed to let them know what happened. Victoria, a godsend during Copenhagen, kept me in mind during my travels. I made sure she knew where I was staying, my flights, and when I was leaving to country, just so if disaster struck again, I’d have someone in the area to help.

6.) Get to the Embassy WITH A PASSPORT PHOTO.

Most US Embassies open at 8 or 9 am. Be at the door WITH A PASSPORT PHOTO. I cannot stress this passport photo thing enough. I may have had a much shorter and less stressful day if I would have just gotten a passport photo before I went into the embassy. There are passport photo booths all around Europe in train stations. They are 100 kroner in Denmark (about $18).

7.) Emergency passport.

Yes, its costs quite a bit. Yes, you have to wait a few hours to get it. Yes, its only good for a few months. It doesn’t matter. Get the emergency passport the day you lose yours. As I learned in the embassy, passports have a proxy chip that is associated with the particular passport book issued to you. Getting the replacement book adds a “red flag” to your previous passport proxy chip in case someone tries to use it.

To get the emergency passport, you must fill out a few forms and provide a new passport photo (after I had been crying for about 5 hours straight, my passport photo looks like…well, I think the airport security felt really bad for me. Not like that stopped me being “randomly searched” twice, but that’s for another blog). It takes them a few hours to print out a new passport, but you get a full passport book back from the embassy. Its a different size and a little thinner, but works the exact same way as your actual passport. Make sure to note that there is a stamp in the back of the book that labels that it is a replacement passport. When leaving Europe, you will need to show this since there is no stamp to prove you legally entered Europe.

8.) Fly home immediately.

This is a personal note and many people don’t believe the same as I do in this regard, but I’m speaking from experience. Just go home. I was supposed to meet my mom for a short vacation in LA the day my passport was stolen. I couldn’t make my original flights, but could have made it to LA the next day… she and I both decided I just needed to go home.

After getting the emergency passport, I got on a train to the airport and bought the first ticket I could into the US. In all honesty, the city probably won’t matter much. Once in the states, you can catch a flight to just about any airport you need, especially if its a larger destination. Try to fly into someplace with a large number of flights leaving at all hours (LAX, JFK, Washington DC, Austin, Atlanta, Boston, O’Hare). From there, catch the next flight home and finally take a breath.

I can’t describe the mental and physical exhaustion I was feeling by the end of this journey. One of the things stolen with my passport was my emergency anxiety medication: without it, I was too scared to sleep the night it was taken, on any of the planes, during my layover, or even in the car with my mother when I made it back. I cried for about 15 hours total, only experiencing brief moments of reprieve during my travels.

I traveled 27 hours straight to get home from Copenhagen, experiencing a 1.5 hour delay in 2 different airports, being searched in the side room in Oslo, having my bags dumped in Boston, and having to go through immigration with a replacement passport.

I’m not going to lie, the experience I had has made me nervous to travel anywhere. I didn’t think I was ever going to be able to leave home again, but it’s been almost 3 weeks now and I’m starting to remember all the positives from the trip. The beautiful people I met and the mental pictures I took (while most of my actual photos were lost with the laptop, they still exist in my mind).

I can’t wait to see what future adventures grant me, but I will definitely be more careful in future travels and I hope you use experiences like mine to think critically about your safety as well.

Rachel Larsen - exploring collaboration in STEM & study abroad

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