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Bummed but Better for It

Ashli Hendricks

I’ve been back for a month. My last day in Copenhagen was Independence Day, which is an ironic time to realize my crippling dependency on the people I’d gotten to know during my six-week stay.

I spent Independence Evening stumbling around a beach playing “soccer,” because falling is allowed to be called a sport when there’s a ball. The summer sun doesn’t really set in Scandinavia, but there was still this sweeping, aching nostalgia riding out across the sky, a weighty ambedo of everything drawing to a close. Maybe if I threw fistfuls of sand into everybody’s eyes and ran, they’d be blind to the future. I could convince them to let me stay.

soccer on the beach

Inspired by the World Cup

But I had to leave. So I did.

And all this stuff I’ve spewed in posts about new outwardness and positivity that I thought would settle with my wrinkles years from now was suddenly zapped. I was parched by ordinary people with ordinary desires, these simpletons, these peasants.

the high dive

It’s higher than it looks.

I was frustrated with what a gross, insincere cliché it is to say life is changed after a study abroad: What do you mean happy isn’t just the way I am now? I have to work at it everyday? I can’t hire those little Rollercoaster Tycoon 2 maintenance men that I took so much pleasure in drowning? Fix a gear here, a yawning abyss of boredom there.

The inconvenient, obvious truth is that I’d just left the happiest place in the world, and even having written about how similar it is to B-town, the fact of the matter is they’re different.

Copenhagen is an inescapability of love, a factory of it. I almost swore off my lifelong revile of “settling.” I wanted forever, a family, a lame Sears frame in which I never pictured myself. I wanted to be the wrinkled old friends on a train platform, linking arms and singing; the toddlers giggling as they were allowed to captain our castle-moat ferry; even the French bulldogs in every sidecar. I understood why my teacher came to this place fifteen years ago and never left. It was a city of airport reunions, a city in love with love.

But on one visit to a Danish autistic pre-school I learned about a game to teach the kids not to be sore losers. The “loser” of the round who didn’t win candy got a small paper heart that read “pyt med det,” essentially meaning “oh well” or “no big deal.”

Pyt med det

Life lessons start in kindergarten

If a six-year-old can internalize compromise and mental fortitude, then so could I.

“Pyt med det” was still my phone’s lockscreen in Bloomington, but I’d forgotten why. There wasn’t a dorm of 50 adventurers ready to carpe their diem to remind me. There wasn’t a class trip agenda forcing me onto a train every morning.

church of our savior

300 feet, slick with rain and sweat. That’s a fear grin.

But when I stepped outside of my comfort and transportation pass zones, I learned this: just because something’s not who I am, doesn’t mean it’s not who I could be in the two minutes to wait in line for the world’s oldest rollercoaster or the 40 kroner it takes to scale Church of Our Savior’s corkscrew spire. If I expect my attitude to be different than when I left Indiana, I can’t live the same way I did now that I’m back.

I have to be as open-faced as smørrebrød sandwiches.

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Ashli Does Amsterdam

Ashli Hendricks

I lost my voice in Amsterdam. The day before I was meant to fly out for my second session’s study tour, the chords of my vocals went flat. I was hacking and sputtering so much on arrival I was worried my hotel roommate might smother me with a pillow in my sleep.

Amsterdam

Amsterdam sign just outside the airport. We climbed all over it.

As much as I love to hear myself talk, my new croaky rasp wasn’t super alluring. It suddenly meant all my experiences had the sanctity and focus of a Tibetan monk’s silence. Mine just wasn’t voluntary. I was forced to be more perceptive, but given the influx of new perspective that I witnessed in the Netherlands, I’m glad.

The eerie sentimentality I felt running my hand along a banister in the Anne Frank House – hearing her dad tearily admit after reading her diary that parents can never truly know their children; the uncanny valley of robotic doll women posing in the windows of the Red Light District – dorkily wondering whether I was supposed to smile and wave, whether I was interrupting their work; the hoops of cordiality the wizard-cloaked lawyers had to jump through at the International Criminal Court – one British bigwig demanding the prosecution “get their act together” and me wanting to shout “OHHHH!” like they’d just dissed each other in a hip-hop cipha.

I’m a Human Rights major. This city was the mothership calling me home. Where I’d intended to babble my way through it and flaunt how much I already knew, I was forced to shut up. Observe. It’s amazing how much you can learn when you sound like Clint Eastwood and want no one to know.

I could empathize better. On my terrifying bike tour, in between proving it was actually possible to forget how to ride one, I went from being a cocky pedestrian to demanding why all these cocky pedestrians weren’t stopping for me.

bicycle

My trusty steed from my bike tour.

And at the refugee asylum, the point of the whole class trip, I realized I’d only relished the excitement in displacement and not reflected on the pain of it. As deeply bummed as I was to be heading home to America in a few weeks, at least I got to. At least I had a home.

I was confronted with the concept “non-refoulement,” in which some kids can’t be returned to their country because of its death penalty for leaving. There was this tragic reality of limbo etched on their faces. They were 12, but weighed with this impending doom of a deportation decision to be made. Sure, there were BBQ competitions and basketball tournaments in the detainment center, suggesting an atmosphere of RAs running a dorm. There was potential to do more in a day than most people I know, who are comfortable with Netflix as their only agenda. It was a paradisiacal version of much harsher, unsanitary conditions in other “transit zones.”

refugee housing

Refugee housing.

But it made me question what sustenance is, what a real life means to someone else. All privileges boil down to a few ID cards; a student or a military dependent or things central to my identity mean nothing to anyone if I can’t prove it. I wouldn’t even be yukking it up in Amsterdam or Copenhagen without a passport. These kids’ motivations for crossing borders were far more complex, just undocumented, so they were perceived as a resource burden: migrants first, children second.

I had to be open to other people’s ways of being in the world. Which is why I fell in love with Amsterdam’s Rijks art museum. It really hammered home everything the asylum taught me. There were yellow signs near most paintings that championed personal rather than historical viewpoints. There weren’t simply facts and figures, but an idea that “The central actor is not art, it’s you. You’re the hero of the art museum.” And I love being called a hero.

It was all about how art bolsters the dormant aspects in us: some people might be bored by an adventurous landscape because it only calls to those who need to be bolder. There’s no such thing as great art, just art that works for you.

It hearkened back to something I learned in my first session’s class, Children with Special Needs: Your worldview matters, don’t be afraid to ask that others make concessions for it. We’d visited the Handicaporganisationernes Hus, the “most accessible building in the world.” Not only was it built with same budget as any other office building to encourage universal design, but the architects were also given earplugs and glasses for tunnel vision, etc. It allowed them to experience difficulties entering a building firsthand. The designers learned ramps are only beneficial to those with electric wheelchairs, because unless you’re Joe Swanson from Family Guy, rolling yourself up an angle isn’t easy. So they adjusted the blueprints accordingly. It was so easy be considerate, our guide pointed out. All you had to do was try.

kids crowding to watch the World Cup

Kids crowding to watch the Netherlands play in the World Cup on a public TV.

The theme of my whole European extravaganza has been perspective. Not just analyzing who I am and what I want, but recognizing that in other people. Whether through special needs or refugees or bikers or being near-mute, I’m seeing the world for more than what I know it to be.

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Preschoolers are People Too

Ashli Hendricks

I have Hermione-Granger-like sweat for structure.

It might stem from the eternal frustration I felt growing up in Germany where my parents would mill through Oktoberfest for three hours on the off chance they’d snag a beer. Or on aimless ambles through golf courses across Ireland when I’d ask through gritted teeth just where we were going and my parents would respond they didn’t know.

To me, there was no bigger annoyance than proceeding without procedure.

Being in Denmark, I’ve wondered how rigid discipline has helped and hindered me as an Army brat. My life was a blend of my dad’s stern enforcement of “Yes, sirs” and “No, ma’ams,” and then utter free-for-all when he was deployed. It was a perplexing blend of strict adherence to rules, shredding them, and then sticking the pieces back together on his returns.

My first full day in Copenhagen, everyone who attended orientation was let loose on an “Amazing Race” scavenger hunt of Danish landmarks with whoever was sitting nearest to them. We were given a map and a list and no instruction as to how to work transportation systems.

Throughout both sessions, my classes lacked “structure,” with projects, dates, and times subject to change on a whim. Discussions were guided by our own questions and observations, not a bulleted agenda of material.

Denmark mandated flexibility with both compliance and complete apathy.

As I learned more about its education system in Children with Special Needs, my first class session, it became clear why.

I visited a Danish playground where a guide explained the concept of children playing for their own sake and not shouting “look at me, look at me” to their parents for some sense of approval or reward. She chided the American need for being seen and recognized.

In every preschool I visited, there were tiny people roaming around the giant overlap of parks, completely unguided and well hidden by huge hedges. These kids have privacy. There is an implicit trust and respect for children to be their own keepers. Or even beekeepers. There was a beehive well within their range, and it wasn’t even the most “dangerous” possibility. There were kids climbing to the top of a basketball hoop or clinging to the triangular roof of a small hut. There were boys swinging long wooden boards at each other and rocking back and forth on scraps of plastic bigger than themselves. Those areas were designed to look like nature, but they looked like junkyards or lumber mills. And there were maybe one or two adults somewhere in the vicinity.

My classmates whispered so many utterances of “Oh no!” that the Kool-Aid guy could have burst through at any moment.

But the kids were so imaginative and comfortable, completely free from having the rules of their army games dictated by an adult’s idea of safety or fun. They weren’t little Tasmanian devils tearing through life, just little people entitled to their own rights and ownership of what interests them. They weren’t preparing for adulthood, they were there for themselves, developing their senses of who that might be without the restrictions of “not supposed to.” The child makes their own assessment about who they are, what they want, and what they’re capable of, on no real schedule but theirs.

If they felt like seeing a giraffe that day, they piled onto a train with their teachers to the zoo without weeks of pre-planned permission forms.

Danes believe a kid deserves a bigger decision than sock color or which direction their sandwich slice is angled.

These heathens leave their babies to nap in carriages on the porch while they’re inside. In the winter, even. From infancy, independence is prized, and I realized for the land of the free, America sure seemed finicky in its youth’s freedoms. There’s no anal retention in Danish parenting or pedagogy and it was evident in the four-year-olds confidence with knives and scissors (real ones) and competence in using power tools and fire pits as “toys” that there’s no real danger in that.

Their only secret in being able to do something well is never being told they couldn’t.

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Bunkered Down In Beauty

Ashli Hendricks

I’m a fussbudget. My brain is an arena where self-contempt and resignation like to box each other out. But with the first session over and a few of my classmates already heading home, I can’t fathom how in this criminally short period they’ve managed to get enough. I’ve gone from planning an exit strategy to an exist strategy, now that my main question is not how I’m going to survive this place but whether I can go on without it.

I’m looking at the world and don’t believe I’m standing in it. Language withers. This is the kinda beauty people wage wars and sail ships for. It’s surreal, like this is Inception and I’ve mastered lucid dreaming, except I’m not nearly imaginative enough to be the architect behind all this. It’s a weird contradiction because this island feels made for me.

Proof of this exists in the square’s vegetarian Mediterranean buffet (my three favorite words other than “all-you-can” eat).

But the striking appeal to my interests goes beyond cous-cous and chocolate pizza. This city is a bigger, better version of everything and everywhere I already adore.

Copenhagen is actually super reminiscent of B-town, and not just in the eerily similar names of bars and alleys (Kilroy, Odd Fellow, Atlas). Its charming street performers could easily be straight out of Kirkwood if “Someone Like You” were warbled with a husky Danish accent. We’re talking daily guitars, games, and gold-painted men. Marathons and fruit markets. The free-town Christiania is a replica of the hippie-dippie People’s Park. The reading and croquet played by reflecting ponds mirror the Wells arboretum (except every park here needs/provides a map). It’s endless: the fickle weather, the public transportation…even the week of Distortion, which was essentially an elongated frat party of street drinking and live club music, not unlike IU’s infamous Little 500.

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Watching the World Cup in a pub, there were even wild Hoosier-Hysteria-like chants of “USA” and “I-believe-that-we-will-win” being drummed into tables so fervently that the erection of my spine’s Army brat discipline collapsed.

I’m a huge welter of emotion in the glory of this nostalgia.

Especially since Copenhagen’s also inciting weepy remembrances of Germany, where I grew up. The immaculate little backyards remind me of my mom slaving away in our garden everyday only to eye our neighbors’ flowers and develop jealous suppositions that Germans snuck out to personally “fertilize” their roses. She insisted it was the only way they could be making those colors pop.

The fathers here are younger, hairier-headed versions of my dad once biking the canal trails with me and my three sisters trailing along behind.

But even though Copenhagen is a weird accretion of everything I harbor in my heart, I’m also learning so much about the world and myself that I always wanted to.

Example: I don’t “meander.” I’m an ambulant, restless kinda lady. But Danes force you to bask in stillness. You see what it means to build a life, what it means to be in love with your life, where and how you orient yourself, and not just geographically.

Dinner lasts for hours. I mean that quite literally: four hours. You gotta hound these waiters for bills given their expectations for diners to prate on about having their palates graced by Andersen Bakery and their feats of breathlessly scaling the Round Tower (both because of the massive spiral hike and the stunning view at the top).

As soul-corrosive as it’s been for me to spend even one sunlit second in my dorm, I have to appreciate that even moments of repose have worth.

With this new image of the universe, I wake up everyday, sunlight or raindrops splashing on my sheets, ready for a paradise where everybody’s dashingly handsome and finds a hobby in taking delight. And I know this isn’t a summer fling, my life is just newly alive with possibility.

Even though I’m allegedly peregrine, the fact of this place being a microcosm of my experiences and being a desirable destination, albeit a more expensive one, have me feeling guilty for turning a blind eye for so long. I have to be happy with what I have because it’s literally what constitutes the “happiest nation in the world.”

I’m keeping lists of every tiny nicety inspiring hope in me. I’m looking for the good. And it’s so easy.

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Cope and Hoggin

Ashli Hendricks

Before departure, I rolled my eyes at homesick clichés with Army brat poise and savvy globetrotting know-how. Both proved as futile as my attempts to open a Danish yogurt lid on the plane. In the face of flight delays, my bottom lip quivered so pathetically that foreigners hastened to stow my overhead baggage for me and gently asked if it was my first time flying.

Squeaking a meek “yes” rather than own to eight years flitting back and forth between countries, I then sat through orientation, biting back body-racking sobs as a mental loop of “I want to go home” muffled Danish presenters’ cheery reassurances. Fast-forward to me coiled in a fetal position in my single dorm, desperately twisting safety scissors into a stubborn cork for lack of wine-opener.

My resilience manifested itself in shoving a potato peeler into said cork until it exploded in a joyous fountain of foam. This was the most resourcefulness I could be credited with as the week’s events unfolded.

I didn’t have my own Danish money the first six days. I decided to forgo reading the arrival handbook, forget tidbits and tips proffered by IU’s summer session because what is true adventure without complete disregard for preparation or safety? I waited until the night before I left the U.S. to ask my parents in casual passing, “How do I pay for stuff while I’m there?” You know, like a trail-blazer. Their jaws dropped an inch with each card I’d never procured: ATM, debit, credit. They proceeded to help me take out travelers’ checks and VISA gift cards mere hours before my trans-continental flight in hopes they maybe worked.

I would say travelers’ checks exchange fees are fairly astronomical, but there’s nothing “fair” about them (except for my lack of preparation. In that case, the cost is fair. Or “fare.”). Danish card payments also require a pin number, rendering my gift cards useless. A three-day farce ensued in which I sprinted between non-existent and non-transferable banks, each time looking up at the gorgeous blue sky, ready for a jet to spell out “NICE TRY, LOSER.” I was feeling as drained as the battery of all my electronics.

That was another stroke of genius on my part: flat-out refusing the purchase of an adapter pre-departure due to smug penny-pinching’s fortitude. I’d heard tale of these alleged “adapters” (I’d grown up with them). I pitted myself in a weird contest with a plug, madly cackling, “We’ll see who’s adaptable!” nearly frying my nerve endings. All communication, my sole means of rising above poverty, was fading fast. My story, however, isn’t an uplifting pursuit of “happyness” in a country where it’s ranked number one.

I had a family earnestly trying every method they could to flow me my luxurious thou, floor-mates spotting lunches and chargers, and friendly, English-speaking, did-you-fall-out-of-a-GQ-bodied Danes to foster exploration around the prettiest city I’ve ever had the misfortune to know. The Danish Institute for Study Abroad also provided a 24-hour computer lab and $200 food stipend. I had it made.

Here I was, innocently trying to bathe in negativity, relish its sweet embrace, tell myself nobody liked me and how lonely I was, and girls were literally pounding on my door and calling my name to go to clubs. I didn’t remember posting a Facebook invite on our dorm’s page to crash my pity party. And despite the inordinate amount of summer holidays in Denmark, my self-serving sob fest was not one open to the public.

But it wasn’t that festive either.

Copenhagen is glorious. I made it a week without spending a solitary dollar and the spectacles were so spectacular that despite my best efforts pretending to be in over my head, I was head over heels. The Little Mermaid. The Botanical Gardens. Sparkling, windy harbors. Places so picturesque that I swore I heard “Dulock is a perfect place” with every distant bell chime. There are grassy fields and urban arenas filled with toddling FIFA superstars at every minute of the day. And I was taking them all in with a myriad of sweet, hopeful, hilarious floor-mates. My quest for dubloons was finally resolved with a wire transfer so I could join my new friends on more touristic adventuring like concerts and chair swing rides at Tivoli amusement park.

visiting Christianshavn

Visiting Christianshavn

My feet are bruised. My toes are poking through the tops of all my shoes. But these are now symbols of success. Self-pity doesn’t serve exploration. You know what does? A whip and a fedora.

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Up, Up, and Away Web

Ashli Hendricks

I’m spoiled. Spoiled as in suppurating, blackening-in-the-blistering-heat-of-a-baking-sun spoiled. I am curdled cottage cheese.

Why?

I’m about to embark on a six-week academic study to the “happiest place on earth.”

Yes, I, Ashli Hendricks, am flying to Copenhagen, Denmark.

What I’m packing emotionally is far more interesting than the “non-logo t-shirts and pants of subdued colors” teeming at the zippers of my suitcase. This is not my first sally forth across the pond. This isn’t even my first time living there. (See: “spoiled” above).

Admittedly, this will be my first time taking interest in more than the backs of my parents’ feet as I shuffle from site to site. A young sprout, cleaved from all I knew, I moved to Germany when I was eight years old and grew up on American Army bases until my junior of high school. I was a teen. I didn’t have the patience to be “worldly” or “cultured.”

I was only a well-rounded traveller in that I made my way well around the world.

Today, I’m a hodge-podge of nostalgia, regret, and excitement, bristling with a number of things called “feelings” at the idea that I could rectify my failure to be a nuanced nomad.

In that regard, this trek is fascinating to me. Not only because I’m wondering whether it’s possible to experience culture shock in a place I grew up, but also because I’m rediscovering my past through kids. Kids! Mythical little hope harbor-ers! Kids who are also foreign to their own society, like I was when I first moved to Europe.

For the first three weeks, I’m taking a class called Children With Special Needs, learning how Danes integrate students with learning disabilities into mainstream courses. For the second, I’m adventuring on a study tour to Amsterdam to meet immigrant and refugee children, to learn about their stolen childhoods and feelings of displacement.

I can’t imagine a more enriching way to experience this launch into a new atmosphere than with kids who feel out of place, whether mentally or geographically, but are still desperately optimistic in trying to communicate.

Given my history, I identify with both.

Also given that the only Danish I know is the kind I sell and smuggle home from the bakery on my college campus, I, too, will be at a bit of a loss. Or a lot of losts, depending on my ability to read a map.

True, I managed to survive eight years of Germany with only a surface knowledge of directions to the nearest water closet. But on this voyage I plan to immerse myself. I am determined to have this place instilled in my heart.

Adventures are forthcoming for the following reasons:

I like biking. I want to fill a basket adorably brimming with bread and have a picnic, conflabbit.

I like rollercoasters. Copenhagen is beholden to the Bakken, oldest amusement park in the world (EEEEE!!!!!) and Tivoli Gardens, a sprawling plethora of gorgeous gardens and rides.

And yes, I like long walks on the beach. Copenhagen is resplendent with boardwalks. Wharfs. We’re talking miles of sand in which to squidge my toes, stretching as far as my bare little piggies can wee wee wee all the way to.

I’m headed to the “happiest place on earth” and I know it will live up to its name. Even if I’m still not sure how to pronounce it.

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