Archive | October, 2014

Legoland!

31 Oct

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Last Saturday, I made a long-awaited pilgrimage to the birthplace of Lego – the makers of those most magical plastic toy building bricks which defined my playtime as a child. Lego was started as wooden toy company by a Danish carpenter who was out of work during the Great Depression. The company gradually grew until it had its big breakthrough in the 1960s – a plastic brick which could be locked or attached to other plastic bricks, and the rest is history. Although it recently became the largest toy company in the world, Lego remains family-owned and is still headquartered in its humble, countryside birthplace of Billund, population 6,194. Lego actually comes from the Danish phrase “leg godt” which translates into “play well” (coincidentally, “lego” also means “I put together, I assemble” in Latin, although the founders were not aware of this at the time).

My tour guides for the day were the wonderful and gracious Povl Arne Hoier and Jytte Hoier. Before retiring recently, Poul Arne spent several decades working for Lego’s sales and marketing division. After beginning his career in Billund, Poul Arne’s job took him first to Canada and then to Connecticut – where Lego’s North American headquarters is located. While living in the tiny town of Suffield, the Hoiers befriended my Uncle Greg, Aunt Julie, and cousins Will, Andy and Tim, who were their next-door neighbors. Because of this connection, the Hoiers were nice enough to invite me to join them for an employee-only tour of the original Lego workshop, as well as to participate in a company program which highlighted the new “Lego House” that is being constructed in Billund. Although now retired, the Hoiers still help host these sorts of company events, and although most of the presentations were in Danish, I still learned a lot about the history of the company and I got an exclusive, behind-the-scenes look at Lego (and a free breakfast):

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After wrapping up the morning events, Poul Arne and Jytte were nice enough to not only drop me off at the original Legoland park, but also to get me into the park for free! While there are plenty of rides in the park, I spent most of my time admiring the impressive lego creations that populated “Miniland.” Below are some pictures – hopefully they conjure up some pleasant childhood memories for you, just as they did for me:

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The Danish Sahara

12 Oct

A few weekends ago, I journeyed north with a big group of international exchange students on a university-organized trip to Skagen – the northern most point in Denmark. Skagen has long been a hub for shipping and the fishing industry, as well as a home for Danish artists and a popular vacation spot for wealthy Danes. But the draw for us was the chance to stand at the spot, called Grenen, where two major bodies of water – the North Sea and the Kattegut – collide with each other. It really is a neat sight, unlike any I’ve seen:

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However, the highlight of the day by far was the Råbjerg Mile, a migrating coastal sand dune. The largest of its kind in Northern Europe, the horseshoe-shaped dune covers roughly half a square mile and reaches heights of 130 feet above sea level. We had a great tour guide who took our large group out to some very neat spots along the dune:

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Sifting through sand dunes like these in Denmark of all places was wild and completely unexpected, and took me back to Tunisia and the sand dunes of the Sahara Desert, where my former (and definitely future) travel compadre David Sanchez and I journeyed during our spring break at DIS in 2012. A few months ago, David (who is traveling the world on a Keegan Fellowship – more on that here) used an innocent Facebook comment I made as inspiration to return to Istanbul, which we also explored while studying at DIS. Well David, I may not have returned to Tunisia, but this is about as close as I’ll get to one-uping you while I’m in Denmark:

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Till the next camel ride, brother…

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Mols Bjerge National Park

11 Oct

Four Germans, a Frenchie, an Italian, a Belgian (from Flanders, not Wallonia, in case you were wondering), and an American. Is this the start of some sort of internationally-themed bar joke? Nein nein nein nein nein. These were the nationalities represented in our group of friends who visited Mols Bjerge National Park in September!

The park is located on a peninsula across the sea from Århus, about an hour away by bus (or two depending on what part of the park you’re visiting). We began our day-trip at the Kalø Manor, part of an estate formerly owned by a wealthy German. After World War II, the Danish government seized the land as part of war reparations, eventually turning it into the national park it is today:

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Here’s the estate’s old hunting lodge:

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On our way through the forest, we passed a beautiful Danish church, with its iconic white-washed exterior and a Danish flag proudly flying out front:

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Known as Dannebrog, the Danish flag is the oldest continuously-used national flag in the world, dating back to a battle in present-day Estonia in 1219. The Danes were there on a crusade to convert the local heathens to Christianity, and were losing badly, until their beloved Dannebrog fell to ground from heaven. King Valdemar II seized the flag, rallied his forces, and led the Danes to victory. Today, Dannebrog is flown from front-yard flagpoles, store-front flagpoles, mini decorative table-flagpoles, and even from toothpicks! Public holidays, festivals, state visits, birthdays, baptisms, confirmations, weddings, anniversaries, and national football and handball team victories – these are all occasions to hoist the red and white cloth. I should note, however, you need not feel threatened by this quite overt sense of nationalism: tiny Denmark hasn’t been a threat to anyone for hundreds of years 😉

Next was a trek across a narrow strip of land to the ruins of Kalø castle, which dates back to the 1300s. This of course provoked Remi – the group’s lone Frenchie – and myself to make several references to the “French Taunting” scenes in Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

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After breaking for lunch, we set out for our lone afternoon destination: Trehøje – or Three Hills – which are actually ancient Bronze Age burial mounds. At an elevation of 127 meters above sea-level, these mounds may sound unimpressive, but in a country as flat as Denmark, they are practically mountains. After another bus ride, a walk through a village and a hike to the top, we had a magnificent view out over the park and the sea:

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And just when we thought our day couldn’t get any better, we were treated to a stunning sunset as we waited for our bus back home:

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More Denmark adventures to come…

The Friday Bar

10 Oct

Today is Friday. So I thought it appropriate that this post investigate the Friday Bar (Fredagsbar), a time-honored tradition found at universities throughout the Danish Realm. It brings the Danes together around two national past-times: drinking beer and enjoying each other’s company. While the details vary from Friday to Friday, every academic department (or faculty, as the Danes call them) on campus will host a Friday bar in some sort of department common space, such as a dining hall (kantine), a study hall, a faculty lounge, or even under a tent – which is just as likely to be pitched inside as outside, as you will see below. Some are causal afternoon drinking affairs; others are night-long dance parties; still others stipulate themes, host Foosball tournaments, or encourage drinking competitions of all sorts. This naturally leads to Friday bar-hopping, an action aided by the absence of restrictions on drinking in public (you read that right my fellow Americans – in the land of Carlsberg, it’s basically BYOB anywhere, anytime). While food offerings, beer selection and price, professor attendance, and entry requirements differ from bar to bar, you can always count on meeting new friends. This is because the Friday bar offers the normally unexcitable and tough-to-meet Danes a chance to open up, unwind, and let loose after a long week.

Århus proudly hosts “Denmark’s Largest Friday Bar” every September just as classes get underway. Thousands of students take to the campus lawns for an afternoon of beer bowling (for which students train year-round), volleyball and picnicking, followed by an evening of concerts and likely an excursion downtown to some of the local establishments. What better way to get introduced to the university, eh? Enjoy the pictures below!

*Please note that the views and information presented in this blog are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Fulbright Program, the Danish-American Fulbright Commission, or the U.S. State Department.

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A view from outside the Physics Friday Bar:

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Back in the Cope

5 Oct

Although there is much I have to share about my Århusian adventures as of late, I’m going to jump back in time and give you a recap of my late-August arrival in Denmark:

Returning to Copenhagen was a home-coming of sorts. The week I spent there was jam-packed: visits with old friends, a Fulbright orientation with news friends, and a lightning-quick tour of the city with one of my best friends.

First about the old friends. I got to spend a convivial evening with my Danish host parents – Lydia and Jesper – complete with a delectable, quintessentially Danish, home-cooked meal. With the help of candlelight and some superb Italian red wine, our conversation stretched late into the night. I look forward to seeing them again in December (and hopefully sooner as well), since they were so gracious as to invite me to join them for Christmas! I was also lucky enough to join Marie Louise (my Danish host mom’s niece), her husband Bo, and their baby boy, Nord Valdemar, for a fiske frikadellar dinner. This was my first time meeting both Bo and Nord Valdemar (who is probably the only Nord Valdemar in all of Denmark, Marie Louise proudly told me). Before I left, Marie Louise made sure to outfit me with enough school supplies to open my own store. Finally, I paid Jette, who is my Danish host dad’s goddaughter, and her husband Adrian, a visit. They are also new to the parenting world, with two twin girls named Selma and Livia, who I am convinced, along with Nord Valdemar, are the three most adorable babies in the entire Kingdom of Denmark. Not to be outdone by my earlier hosts, Jette and Adrian also provided me with dinner, and sent me off with a bike for me to use for the duration of my stay! As Jette said to me, you’re in Denmark – do as the Danes!

Now on to the new friends. The Danish-American Fulbright Commission planned an eventful two-day orientation for us, filled with fun activities, informative lectures, and chances to complete important practical tasks. There are 10 American Fulbrighters in Denmark this year – five professors and five students. Each of our fields of study, research topics, and locations around the country are diverse and wide-ranging (one of my fellow students will be in Greenland, which, as I’m sure you all knew, is a part of the Kingdom of Denmark). It was also a real pleasure to finally meet the staff and board members of the Commission – several of whom I’d be in touch with for months leading up to our arrival.

Finally, I was lucky enough to be joined in Copenhagen by one of my best friends and honorary twin, Hiba! She had just finished visiting family in Lebanon, and figured, why not visit Copenhagen on her way back to the states? We managed to get her a ticket on the Fulbright-organized boat tour of the harbor, and she accompanied me to my host family’s house for that wonderful dinner I mentioned above. The day after my orientation ended, we had a fun and fast-paced time seeing some of the highlights of the Cope – we toured the royal Danish palace, watched the changing of the guard, saw the royal crown jewels, and grabbed lunch at my favorite cafe in the city – and we were joined for all this by Elizabeth Francis, the sister of my Villanova classmate Anne-Marie Francis, and her friend Kelsey, who just happen to be studying abroad in Copenhagen this semester through DIS. After wrapping up this wild week, I trekked out to Århus, but not before taking a few pictures, which I’ve included below:

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Rachel in Denmark

[American] Expat living in Copenhagen

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