When an experience is prophesized to be the time of your life, the pressure on that experience to live up to such an enormous expectation can be insurmountable. When you tell someone you’re going to be studying abroad, they typically respond with trite clichés about how you’ll have the time of your life, how you’ll be living it up and so on. You’ve probably heard it all before.
In many ways, they’re right. Studying abroad will be one of the best times of your life, if only because it’s so different from any other period of your life. You get to immerse yourself in newness until it becomes so familiar that you pine for that feeling of bewilderment and belonging for years to come.
When I went to Denmark in the winter of 2015, I had very few expectations. It was difficult to imagine what life could be like living in a small Scandinavian country through the winter. I knew I’d be taking classes in Copenhagen and living at an international school in an even smaller town called Helsingør about an hour north of the city. In my first few weeks living there, the days were so short and the nights so dark that I didn’t even see the town in daylight, since I’d spend all my daylight hours in Copenhagen for classes.
It was during those long nights that the school would come alive. Inside the walls of the International People’s College — the only international folk high school in Denmark — there was the kind of magic that exists only when a hundred young minds are simultaneously exposed to new ideas. Here, students took classes on topics that interested them (such as global non-profits, entrepreneurship and creative writing) not for grades or credit. Rather, they took these classes to learn.
The concept of a folk high school is a remarkable experiment. Little microcosms of utopia, these schools bring people together in the pursuit of knowledge, allowing the students to enrich all aspects of their lives. Classes teach life skills, such as how to be a global citizen in a hyper-local setting, while giving students the skills to continue to build bridges.
But, it’s in the basement that the real magic happens. It smells familiar, like youth and cigarettes and young love. The various corridors that make up the maze look like the ground floor of a co-op, complete with the beer-stained couches and political correctness that are central to any hipster kingdom. Murals completely cover most of the walls, sprawling messages scrawled out in marker and paint, signed with the names of people from different nationalities united in their desire for beautification.
In the Human Rights Cafe, a big, cold room in the basement made cozy with tea and conversation, we’d gather for what became the informal discussion club. We, the bodies that had traveled from around the world to be here, the bodies that had endured the unimaginable, would sit together to talk. We’d talk about our countries, our religions, our identities and our values. I was a rabbi’s daughter from Berkeley conversing casually with a Ghanaian diva and a shy young man from Pakistan, among other outspoken and articulate people. No matter how different we were, we all had the same values.
The idea that people from all over the world who had all been raised in completely varied, sometimes even opposing, environments somehow all believed in the same fundamental principles of the way humans should act shouldn’t have been shocking, but I’m embarrassed to say that it was. I didn’t think I would connect so deeply with people who were so different from me — I always suspected that my closest friends and I become so close in college because we were all from such similar backgrounds. I had the time of my life because of the fulfillment of the expectation I didn’t even know I had. The IPC is a warm light on a dark Danish night and one I will always cherish.
Contact Rachel Feder at [email protected]