Originally Written as a reflection paper for my Danish Class. Apologies for the lack of wisecracks and such.
One of the by-products of studying abroad somewhere is that you will constantly be questioned on why you decided to go to that particular place. “Why on earth are going to Denmark?” Both before, and during this semester abroad, Americans and Danes alike asked me this question. In all honesty, I really did not have a good answer. Sure, a bunch of things really “worked” about coming to Denmark, but nothing was the ultimate selling point for me. I would say that I wanted to go somewhere with people who spoke English, or that I wanted a rigorous academic program, or that I liked the integrated travel, or that I heard the city was incredible, or that I wanted to go somewhere with a real winter, or even that I just needed to get away from it all. All these things were true, but there was definitely no decisive reason for me to end up in Scandinavia. It was more that a bunch of small factors combined to make Denmark the logical place to spend a semester. Realistically, I was not expecting too much, it just seemed idiotic that given a relatively solid academic program, I would not take the opportunity to experience a completely different culture for a semester. When else in life would I ever get that chance?
Now, with the clock winding down on my adventures in Copenhagen, I am shocked that I even considered going anywhere else. The traveling, the new amigos, the gløgg, the weirdness, the biking, the wild nights, the classes, the castles, were all amazing, but really I expected all of that. What has completely enthralled me about Denmark has been the feeling that, if we don’t screw things up, I am looking at the future of the world.
As most of you know, I have spent a fair amount of time in some of the most underdeveloped regions on earth. While I truly love some of these places (along with the people who inhabit them), seeing the overwhelming scope of poverty can give a person a grim outlook on the future. Sometimes it seems like the mechanisms that are supposed to be helping develop the poorest nations have broken down. Like some sort of process was in place to change things, and it was just quietly abandoned one day. Now, I know there are tons of people improving things on a grassroots level, but you often get a feeling that the major macro institutions just sort of go through the motions these days.
What is even more depressing is that sometimes I think that we are not doing too much good by developing places anyway. I look around the US, and I am not at all convinced that we are doing much better. Sure, we obviously are doing better in a ton of ways, but we have our sets of problems that seem unsolvable and backwards. I am not all comparing the quality of life in America to that of a developing country, but from a pure happiness perspective, I can’t say our lead is too large. We perpetuate a political system where extreme partisan viewpoints on both sides are encouraged, and where shutting down the government and putting thousands of people out of work is preferable to trying to compromise. We can hardly turn on the news without learning of another violent shooting, yet we refuse to focus on improving mental health, or trying to keep guns out of the wrong hands. We ignore the fact that people are so unhappy that recreational prescription drug use has become an epidemic. Some areas, like the one I was fortunate enough to grow up, in are doing ok, yet this sense of well-being has rendered many of the inhabitants almost completely delusional. The only goal is “more” yet there is no thought given to why more is necessary, or whether the pursuit of more might be hurting others. We believe that because we worked hard to be successful, anyone should be able to do the same, while ignoring the mountain of evidence on the contrary. [i] It seemed like developing countries was just a process of removing one set of problems and replacing them with another (albeit better) set of even more complicated issues.
So now that you are sufficiently depressed at the future of humanity, the good news! If I learned anything in Denmark, it’s that there is something to strive for. Despite my love for the American way, it has become painfully obvious that we are nowhere near the top of the development scale. However, Denmark is if not the top, then at least one of the top five countries in terms of development. It is more than a numbers thing though, you spend time in Denmark(and all of Scandinavia), and you get the sense that things are going the right direction. Now Norway aside, this was not a forgone conclusion, Scandinavia has a relatively inconvenient location, no large abundance of natural resources, horrible weather, and the ridiculous tax code makes doing business extremely difficult. Yet, Denmark and its neighbors are thriving. While there is a clear division of wealth, the idea of poverty that we know in America is almost completely non-existent. People pay less of their taxes to healthcare than we do in the US, and yet they have completely free care (I did as well and it was awesome), for their whole lives. Workweeks are much shorter than at home, workers take at least six paid weeks off per year, and still they are much more productive. Government is willing to try new things and willing to admit when they messed up. Instead of a subset of super liberal hippies trying to convince everyone to turn their lights off and drive small cars, the laws are set up to make a sustainable lifestyle the most affordable and convenient. Over half the commuters bike to Copenhagen everyday because the biking infrastructure is safer, faster, and cheaper than the driving one. Finally, people focus much more of their time on enjoying themselves. The weather is horrendous right now, and we hardly get any sunlight, yet the constant onslaught of festivals, wonderful Christmas parties, and the general hyggeligt atmosphere makes things seem warmer than ever.
I know that in many ways it is not fair to compare Denmark to the US, and that Denmark still has its own problems that need to be solved. They might not be “there” yet, and maybe never will be, but I no longer doubt that “there” does exist. I guess the point I am trying to make is that Denmark has made me realize that there really is a utopia to strive for, and that there are some nations creating the blueprints to get the rest of us there. In a more literal sense, development experts call the goal of their work, “getting to Denmark.” So while I still honestly have no clue how I ended up getting to Denmark, I am pretty happy I did.
I’ll miss this place.