2018 Summer Alex Ennes Denmark DIS External Programs

From the Sahara to Scandinavia: Reflections on Two Summers Abroad & What I Would Change

As my amazing summer in Denmark comes to a close, I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting. These reflections range anywhere from all of the academic knowledge I’ve gained, what I’ve learned about myself, how I’ve acclimated to Danish life, and (naturally) how my two abroad experiences compare.

A pretty regular observation for me this summer was related to language. I was in Morocco last summer for the primary reason of studying Arabic–my minor at Temple. My experiences with using my second language to navigate life in Rabat weren’t necessarily easy, but there is also a lot to be said about the advantages I gained through knowing the language, even if it was a slightly broken version.

By using Arabic in daily life, I practiced my conversation skills, connected with my host family, gained a tool to explore Moroccan culture, and earned the respect of locals (which was mostly useful for haggling in the sooqs and calling taxi drivers out for trying to scam me). Even though the Darija (Moroccan) dialect was incredibly different from the FusHa (Modern Standard Arabic) that we learn at Temple, baseline knowledge of the language opened so many doors for me, and for that I will always be grateful.

I came to Copenhagen without knowing a lick of Danish. I googled some common phrases the night before leaving and ended up just laughing hysterically at how silly the my poor pronunciation of the language sounded instead of actually absorbing the information. Pretty much everyone in Denmark speaks English–my Danish flatmates said that they started learning English in 4th grade! For this reason, I knew I wouldn’t have to worry about learning much Danish at all. Even after six weeks, I think my Danish can be boiled down to just a few words: hej, ya, nej, tak, and undskylt (“hello,” “yes,” “no,” “thank you,” and “excuse me”).

At first, not knowing the language stressed me out. Trying to use Google Maps to get around (basically no Danish words are pronounced the way they’re spelled), reading instructions, and trying to figure out what I was even buying at the grocery store all became daily inconveniences. But as I’ve spent more time in Copenhagen, I’ve found a strange sort of resignation in relying solely on English. I don’t experience any of the language nerves I did in Morocco – Will I mess up Darija? What was that word again? Did I say that number backwards? It has definitely been easier to navigate language barriers here, where such a large percentage of the population speaks my native language.

For me, thoughts of language are directly related to thoughts about culture. In Morocco, I was immersed in a culture totally unfamiliar to me. I arrived early June and immediately got a crash course in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan from my professors and host family. I was able to live in a Moroccan household, which allowed me to observe all sorts of customs, eat homemade Moroccan food, and of course practice Moroccan Arabic. My program organized cultural events for us to learn about Gnawa music, traditional dance, and cuisine. By the end of my time in Rabat, I had learned so much about Moroccan culture, and I could even pour a near-perfect cup of traditional mint tea.

Cultural immersion has been a much different experience in Denmark. Danish culture is already similar to American culture, so there weren’t a lot of adjustments to make. Most of the adjustments I had to make were actually pleasant. For example, people here don’t really jaywalk! I live in a flat in the Fredericksborg neighborhood of Copenhagen with two Danish flatmates, and while getting to know them has been an amazing experience, it’s nowhere near as immersive as living with my host family last summer. They are super helpful for quick questions about Danish culture and the occasional translation, but they’re full-time students! Unlike my host family, their main objective isn’t to introduce American students to Danish culture; instead, it’s to be students themselves.

I could go on and on about the differences between my experiences, but I actually summed it up pretty well when talking with a friend today. Each summer has been invaluable in its own right. I wouldn’t trade either of these experiences for the world, and each of them came with their own unique advantages. While my summer in Morocco presented a whirlwind of cultural learning and language practice, my summer in Denmark provided me with a low-stress environment to explore my own identity in the context of being abroad. I think that if I could do it again, I would only change one thing: the order.

When choosing to study in Morocco, I was determined to have an off-the-beaten-path experience. I wanted to challenge myself to explore an unfamiliar culture using a language that I had only studied for two years prior. It was certainly challenging, as Moroccan customs weren’t phased into my life, but immediately brought on all at once. At times, it was overwhelming, and I became frustrated with my own determination to seek an experience outside of the traditional European study abroad summer that so many students opt for.

In Denmark, I haven’t been so culturally challenged. Adapting to Danish life isn’t difficult when many of the customs align with your own and nearly everyone on the street speaks English. Because there’s a lot less pressure in this context, I have been able to understand exactly what I want to get out of the experience and take the right steps to get there. I’ve learned more about who I am as a traveler and as a student. I’ve really come closer to understanding exactly what being abroad means to me and exactly what I find so valuable about it.

I wish I had all of that knowledge going into Morocco. Last summer was still an incredibly important two months of my life, and my own inexperience abroad was an inseparable part of that. It was still an amazing time, but I’m glad that I have had this time in Copenhagen to really solidify my own understanding of the transformative powers of travel, which I’m sure would have benefitted me in Rabat and I’m sure will benefit me in my future escapades abroad. Now that I have a better understanding of my own identity abroad, I’m excited to see where it will take me next.

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