Day 1

Posted by on August 22, 2012

Hello world!

Ok that may be a bit presumptuous; allow me to amend. Hello to anyone and everyone who happens to be reading this blog at the moment. First of all, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to read about what are sure to be many adventures and misadventures, triumphs and failures, study tours to distant lands and random wanderings of the streets surrounding me. I hope to keep this blog very narrative. I’m going to do my best to portray the experience rather than simply tally the day’s events. Feel free to comment and leave feedback. Here at DIS, the learning is structured by program. Each program has a core course with a study tour built in. My program is Medical Practice and Policy, my core course Human Health and Disease, the study tour attached to it will take me to both Budapest and Vienna. Students are also allowed to select electives so I have chosen Medical Ethics, the Neuroscience of Fear, and Danish Language and Culture. In addition to these classes, optional study tours are available which include one hour courses. I have chosen Russia: Past and Present which will include a one week trip to Russia where we will visit both Moscow and St. Petersburg, Impressionism in Paris which will include a four day stay in Paris where we will visit the impressionist museums and dine on fine French cuisine, and Vienna: Capital of Classical Music which will include another four day visit to Vienna where we will hear an opera, a symphony, and tour the various locations of musical significance around the city including Mozart’s apartment. Needless to say, words cannot contain the depth of my gratitude at being offered such opportunities, nor can they adequately enunciate how excited I am about the months to come.

Before I can tell you about my first day in this beautiful country, I have to convey something of the events that led up to my embarkment. For the past several months, I have been a gypsy, a nomad, a seed blown by the wind never settling in a place long enough for its roots to grow deep. After the conclusion of what can only be described as the most difficult semester of my life, I moved home for a short time, maybe a couple of weeks, maybe less. Then, I moved into the Village at Wofford while I took the first half of physics for the summer 1 term. After completing physics, I moved home for a few days. When the blink of an eye that was my brief respite had passed I found myself driving from Spartanburg, South Carolina to Kent, Ohio in a 1972 Chevrolet pickup truck with no air conditioning while July’s sadistic heat bared down unrelentingly upon myself and the single suitcase thrown into the bed of the truck. Four states, three tanks of gas, and nine hours later, I had arrived.

The next four weeks passed in relative tranquility as I fell into the routine of a summer undergraduate research intern at a medical school. I was analyzing CT scans of mouse jaws using some pretty cool software called Avizo that constructed three dimensional models from the scans. Using these models I was able to isolate a particular slice from each jaw and then analyze that slice with a software all too familiar to any Wofford biology major–our old friend Image J. After the month was over I returned home for an exceedingly fleeting forty-eight hours; just enough time to regroup, pack, and hop a plane to Costa Rica. I would spend the next two weeks waking up at 4:15am in order to be waiting in the tropical dry forest when the howler monkeys awoke and observing them until after dark most days. We were studying how their behaviors related to their thermoregulation. I saw, and was bitten by, more mosquitos in those fourteen days than I have experienced in the rest of my life put together. Leave it to the tropics to create an environment that drove the evolution of mosquitos that ignore bug spray and can actually bite you through your clothing. I also discovered, the hard way, that I am allergic to wasps. Six stings, uncontrollable itching, hives, and two shots of benadryl later I had collected enough data to be certain of my body’s dislike of the insects’ toxin. Yet in spite of all this, or perhaps because of it, I feel like I had an incredibly enriching, authentic field research experience. I’ll never forget the wonder I felt the first day we walked into the woods and came upon a group of howlers. Their calls surrounded us and could be heard for miles around. This, I thought to myself, is why we drag ourselves out of bed before the sun greets the sky. This, I thought, is absolutely worth it.

After a period of time that simultaneously felt like an eternity and no longer than a snap of the fingers it was time for me to return home. I was exhausted, the repeated days of waking up before any animal of the light should be conscious had taken their cumulative toll. However, the moment I got home I was faced with the stark realization that, in less than twelve hours, I would be leaving on yet another plane for Denmark where I would be living for the next four months. I hadn’t packed so much as a toothbrush towards Denmark before I left on the Costa Rica excursion. So I labored late into the night, hoping against all hope that I wasn’t forgetting anything vital. At 6:30 am I made the executive decision that the diminishing marginal return gained by my continuing to stay up was outweighed the effects of sleep depravation I was sure would grip me the next day. So closed the last zipper on my suitcase and took a two hour nap before it was time to leave for the airport.

Sitting in the passenger seat of my older cousin’s truck in the drop off lane at the airport, it finally hits me. I’m leaving the country. For four months. The full weight of the number of times I’ve moved in the last few months seems to descend on my shoulders, pinning me in the seat, resisting my being torn up and redeposited in another location yet again. Ten, twenty, thirty seconds pass. A minute. Finally the thought of all the opportunities that await me in Denmark mixed with the fact that I’ll actually be there long enough to enjoy the comfort I develop before being removed again gives me the drive to get out of the car. With my newfound resolve I walk into the airport, and into the adventure I know will come thereafter, with my head held high, without looking back.

Security check, waiting, gate found, waiting, boarded plane, waiting, land to connect in Newark, waiting, waiting, waiting, eat a late lunch, waiting, boarded plane, waiting, and finally, take off. I spend the next hours trying to sleep to no avail. As I have known for sometime now, I find that I am exactly one size too large to be able to sleep in an airplane seat. I toss and turn for hours upon hours, futilely trying to find a comfortable position. All in all I got maybe an hour of sleep. Two nights with a grand total of three hours spent sleeping; as you might imagine I felt less than great when my plane finally neared Copenhagen. But as the sun came over the horizon, all that fatigue melted away. There’s something special about watching the sun rise above the clouds through the window of a plane in flight. One by one, with each ray of the sun that peeked its way over the the fluffy white clouds in the distance, the feelings that had been building up in me about this trip–anticipation, curiosity, the thrill of the unknown–begin to surface through the haze of my sleepy stupor, bursting forth and leaving nothing but their warm glow washing contentment over me.

When I step off the plane, my first impression is one of height. It probably didn’t help that there was a European professional men’s basketball team on my flight, but even removing those outliers, these people are seriously tall. At six feet-two inches tall, I’m used to being taller than somewhere between seventy and eighty percent of the people I meet. But here, all that gets me is right smack in the middle of average height. I notice it particularly in the women; the average female height here appears to be about five feet nine inches. Once I get past their height, I also notice that everyone seems to be incredibly fit. I walk through the entire airport without seeing a person that looks seriously overweight. It would appear that all that bicycle commuting has paid off for the Danes in more than their carbon footprint.

As I clear customs, I find my host mother, Mette, waiting for me. As I’m arriving two days after all the other DIS students because of my research, it’s a major relief to see her there waiting to guide me through the rest of the day, and guide me she does. As soon as she sees me she pulls me into a hug and we fall into an easy conversation that makes me feel as if I’m already at home. She drives me to the DIS building, impressing me all the way with her easy command of the car’s manual transmission. We’ve arrived early so we stop and get a cup of coffee and I have my first Danish danish. Let me be the first to tell you folks, we call the pastry a danish for a reason. These people make them RIGHT. I’m talking about melt-in-your-mouth-perfect. There is no telling how many of these I will consume during my stay here. After we finish our snack Mette walks me to the building and makes sure I know where to go before leaving me with the assurance that she would come back and pick me up whenever I called.

An orientation meeting follows, during which I realize that I haven’t been left too far behind by arriving late. The director shares some dry, albeit necessary, information about our visas and transportation and then we get into the stereotypes surrounding Americans and Danes. This discussion incites more lively banter than the first, causing the students to open up a bit and get to know each other better. Danes are generally viewed as more reserved while Americans are typically seen as loud and obnoxious. We break for lunch and I fall in with a group of people I was sitting near and we decide to go grab a bite to eat together. Throughout lunch the conversation flows freely and I happily realize that I have found the beginnings of my first new friendships here in Denmark. We spend our remaining free time browsing the shops around the DIS center until it’s time to head back. We go through another orientation session and when we are released our same group walks to the park where we all lay in the grass soaking up the sun and playing cards. Even just walking to the park is quite an experience for those with new eyes for Copenhagen. Lining the brick and stone streets are buildings old enough to be the grandfather of any building I’ve seen in the U.S. interspersed with new construction, giving the city an interesting feeling of the passage of time. The city itself serves as a metaphor for the Danes; moving steadily forward without ever forgetting where they came from. The number of bicycles transcends hyperbole. They are literally everywhere. There are clearly far more people getting around by bike than car and I immediately understand the necessity of dedicated bike lanes.

After a brief session on the optional study tours the last dregs of the caffeine in my body give way to the impending avalanche of exhaustion that is my jet lag and lack of sleep so I decide to call it a day. Mette, my host mom, comes and picks me up by a beautiful fountain in the city square to take me to my home for the next four months that I had yet to see at that point. We drive for about twenty minutes and the city gives way to the suburbs that contain my dwelling. As we pull up I notice the tell-tale bicycles in the garage–this is most certainly the home of quintessential Danes. Upon entering the house, everything is contemporary, yet comfortable. Very scandinavian, I like it a great deal. This is when I meet Rasmus, my eighteen year old host brother, for the first time. We chat for a bit and I can tell that we’re going to get along well. I unpack my bags and settle in, then Mette informs me that dinner will be ready soon. As we’re setting the table Peter, my host dad, and Ida, my fourteen year old host sister, return from her bad mitten practice. Apparently she’s quite the player and matter-of-factly offers to prove it to me at my nearest convenience, a challenge I eagerly accept knowing full well she will probably demolish me. The whole family being together now, we start to eat our burgers (Mette wanted to ease me into the Danish food) and talk about American football. To my surprise both Peter and Rasmus are very interested in the sport and I’m more than willing to divulge some of its finer points for them. Apparently NFL games are shown here, but they’re still live so they are shown very late at night given the time difference.

After dinner is finished we clear the table and fall back to the kitchen and living room where Mette and Peter watch tv and I sit down to look over tomorrow’s schedule and write the very blog you are now reading. Now being fully spent and looking forward to what tomorrow has in store I must sign off. But stay tuned, there will be more to come.

PS-There will be lots of pictures accompanying this blog as soon as my computer is fixed. For the moment it is down.

One Response to Day 1

  1. Callie

    Philip Coffey I am so proud of you! I hate that I can’t see you for four months but I know I’ll get to hear all about it! Don’t forget about your little ole high school bff while you’re away lol :)