An American in Moscow

It’s been a few weeks since my last post. Things have gotten quite busy with travel, Rugby, meeting new people, friends visiting, and school work (yes I unfortunately have school work). Two weeks ago, I embarked on a long study tour to Moscow with my Global Economics class.

I had low expectations going into Russia. Given what we hear in the United States about how horrible Russia is, I thought Moscow was going to be rough, backwards, and uninteresting. Boy, was I wrong. Russia might have been one of the most interesting places I’ve been to in my life because of how different yet oddly similar it is to the U.S.

First of all, everything in Moscow was BIG. The streets were wider than Denmark’s streets and there was a lot of traffic. I was surprised by how much it felt like Los Angeles. But, different from L.A., Moscow has an efficient and developed subway system, which

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Moscow Metro (notice how clean it is)
we used as our primary mode of transportation to get to visits. (Fun fact: Moscow’s subway system is also one of the deepest in the world and can act as a bomb shelter if need be.) The subway stations were beautiful and so much cleaner than the New York City subway. However, they required long escalator rides and lots of walking, which made us really tired in the end.

So let’s get straight to it. Was the KGB watching us, the American students, the entire time?

No. Moscow was just like any other city. Everyday life is Moscow is actually pretty okay. Putin is not watching you every second. People go to work during the day, go back home in the evening to spend time with their families, and go out at night on the weekends.

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Putin only goes to work via helicopter. This is his Helipad.
However, that’s not to say there are not BIG problems with corruption in the Russian government. Putin gets A LOT of money and so does his friends, leaving little to the people. There is huge inequality (although if we look at the Gini coefficient statistics, inequality in Russia is the same as in American, which by the way is also BIG). Life outside Moscow, in the countryside which comprises most of Russia, is still quite harsh. Because Russia is so dependent on oil, the country suffers when oil prices dip. Yet, the situation is complicated. Russia is an ethnically diverse country, where certain groups want independence from the country. Many Russians think Putin is a good leader because he is strong and can keep the country unified despite its size.

That’s also what the Russian students said. As part of our programming, along with four other people from my class, I got to go grocery shopping, cook dinner with, and hang out with two Russian college students. We met Adelia and Maria, who study sociology at the Higher School of Economics. We went to Maria’s apartment, boiled frozen pelmeni (traditional Russian dumplings), and of course, had some vodka. It was such an incredibly fun time! I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much in one night.

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Cooking dinner with Russian students
Over pelmeni, I got to hear their thoughts on Russian issues. Adelia said she liked Putin because he was strong and charismatic. On the other hand, she knows that the state television is full of propaganda. It’s hard to distinguish what is real and not. However, on the issue of Ukraine, she expressed that she “doesn’t know why the Ukrainians don’t like Russians, as Crimea was Russia’s property initially.” So, it seems that propaganda and the skewed narrative told by Putin definitely influences how people think. HOWEVER, other than having different perspectives on political issues, I was surprised by just how similar we all were. We’re all just a group of young people who go to school, who like to have some fun, and have dreams of a job with a good future. Why does the world have to be so divided?

We thought we were just going to cook dinner with them, but more surprises! Turns out that Maria is also a pro dancer (her dream is to join a dance company and move to L.A.) Her friend was a contestant in the Miss Moscow Mini pageant and Maria was a backup dancer for her friend’s talent segment. So, after being stuffed with pelmeni, the seven of us squeezed into an Uber, made a pit stop at a Starbucks, and became part of the audience of the Miss Moscow Mini pageant.

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Left: Gigantic Soviet-era monuments are magnificent and found throughout the city | Right: St. Basil’s Cathedral
We also met with other really cool people such as a journalist at TV Rain, which is an independent online television channel that takes a critical stance against the state media. Even though they are independent, possible repercussions from the state still limits what they are able to report. They are now in a small studio, as the state had shut down their large-scale productions as punishment for digging too deep. We even met with the head of the IMF in Russia and heard about his thoughts on the future of the Russian economy. Three big economic topics we heard during our week in Russia are whether Russia can diversify itself away from oil, how corruption impacts public funds, and whether worldwide sanctions really have an effect on the big players.

The United States seems similar to Russia because the U.S. is constantly fighting to be superior and also spins the narrative to favor the American point of view. We only really care about ourselves and Russia does the same. However, I can’t deny that Russia has had a Soviet past, suffers from insane corruption, and is struggling economically. But, even more clearly than before, I see that no matter where we come from, we are all just human beings who want to live a good life. Sometimes we let the big confusing things divide us and forget that we are perhaps not so different after all.

More than ever in this divisive global climate, let’s not forget that the Russian, the Syrian refugee, the Turkish immigrant, the African American woman, and the Asian lady who doesn’t speak English – are all just labels that divide us and let us loose sight of the humanity that we have in common.

11 Winter Memories from the South Coast of Iceland

Dear Iceland,

Thank you for everything. For the wonderful people, the awe-inspiring landscapes, and the best days of my life. For blessing us with good luck and letting us see the dance of the Northern lights, soak in the brilliance of the Nordic sun, and let loose with a whimsical Icelandic guide. You showed me with your rugged beauty and wild weather just how small humans can be. I felt, I reflected, and I had fun.

You gave me a gratefulness that I have never felt.
You made me inspired as I have never felt.

I don’t know what more to say. Or perhaps, I don’t want to say anything, for fear that what fantastical things that happened will lose their enchantment if put on a page.

Thank you again, and of course, Skál!

11 Winter Memories from the South Coast of Iceland: 

1._Sólheimajökull Glacier

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2. Black Sand Beach

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3. Sunset

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4. Diamond Beach

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5. Glacier Lagoon

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6. North of the Wall, Game of Thrones

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7. Northern Lights

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8. Efstidalur Icelandic Farm & Ice Cream Shop

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9. Hello Icelandic Horse!

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10. Golden Circle: Gulfoss Waterfall & Geothermal Springs

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11. Thingevellir National Park

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A Traditional Danish Lunch

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Last Sunday, we visited my host grandparents’ house and had a traditional Sunday lunch. It was so cozy and so hyggeligt.

My host grandparents live in North Zealand, near the only harbor left in Zealand where the fisherman go out every morning to get fresh fish. The fish we had for lunch were all fresh from the ocean!

We had do-it-yourself smørrebrød with many different types of fish. Smørrebrød (literally translation:”butter bread”) is the traditional open-faced sandwich that Denmark is known for. I learned that there is a specific order you have to eat the fish. Otherwise, the taste of all the different fish will get mixed up.

To begin, we buttered small squares of fresh rye bread and layered a fresh slice of fish on top. We started with the white fish – delicate, tender slices of marinated herring (sild). The slight sweetness of the herring went perfectly with the sour rye bread.

Then, “Skål!”

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We let the fish “swim” with a shot of schnapps. It helped clear the palate for the next fish – another delicious kind of herring. The meal went on with fried herring, fried cod, curried herring, and shrimp salad. Then came the salmon – it was a perfect, buttery, melt-in-your mouth salmon. And lastly, we ended the main course with liver paste (leverpostej); ours had mushrooms and bacon on top.

For dessert, we had coffee and wienerbrød. Although Americans call pastries “Danishes,” the Danes call them “Viennese Bread” because these pastries actually originated from Vienna.

Now, I think I have a better understanding of the origins of smørrebrød. At first, I thought that it was just a different version of a sandwich where you use rye bread and just don’t close the bread. But, now I’ve realized the brilliance of smørrebrød. When you savor each bite, the tender fish goes so well with a hint of sourness in the wholesome rye bread (kind of like vinegar rice in sushi).

By the time we had finished eating, it was nearly dark outside. I felt full after the meal, not just with food, but also with that pleasant warm feeling that you get in the company of good food, good people, and good conversation. When I go back to hectic New York City, this is one of the things I will bring back with me – to take more time to pause and enjoy the company of others. 

A Typical Day in Denmark 

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Daily Morning Bike Ride

6:30am
It’s still dark outside, but the day is calling. I wake myself up with a shower, scarf down some oatmeal, and make coffee with hot water and Nescafé espresso powder.

7:38am
I speed out the door into the crisp morning air and hop onto my bike. It’s cold. I pedal furiously to Kokkedal station and make it just in time. The train glides south toward Copenhagen, past the wintry pastoral landscape.

8:20am
Downtown Copenhagen. I walk past shops in the city center and the morning rush of cyclers. It feels like New York City, but calmer and less industrial.

I make it to my economics class just in time. New answers and new questions: Globalization, the welfare state, winners and losers, Denmark vs. America.

10:05am
It’s time for Danish. We’re learning how to order food.
“Jeg vil gerne have en kop kaffe.”
YA VI GERN-E HAE EYN COPE KAFF-E
[I would like to have a cup of coffee]

12pm
Lunchtime!

Today, just like yesterday and the day before, I packed a sandwich for lunch. Specifically, I packed Irene’s quick and easy smørrebrød (see recipe below). Denmark is famous for smørrebrød, which is an open-faced sandwich made with rye bread. I admire, eat, and savor my perfect creation.

1:30pm
I spend the afternoon in a cozy coffee shop – reading, writing, or just have a nice afternoon over coffee with friends. Sights are definitely interesting to see, but it also seems that relaxing with friends after a long day is a part of the lifestyle here.

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Chilling at a cozy coffee shop

6pm
On Mondays and Wednesdays, I make my way to Frederiksberg for rugby practice. The girls on the team are really nice and our coaches are hilarious. We do fitness, drills, and passes for 2 hours. It’s really fun, but I wonder how long it will take me to play just mediocrely well. When practice is over, I wait for a while at the train station because trains don’t run as frequently at this hour. It’s still cold.

On other days of the week, I head home, so I can make it in time for dinner. I relax or do some reading on the train ride home and wonder what we will be having for dinner. The train announces, “Næste station: Kokkedal.” I get off the train and embark on the last leg of my journey home. This is one of my favorite parts of the day – speeding down the road home on my bike.

7pm
I’m home! I get settled and it’s nearly dinnertime.

At the table, Malene lights the candles. We have a nice meal often with chicken or fish and vegetables. Dinner can sometimes last a couple of hours, and it’s really quite cozy.


Irene's Quick & Easy Smørrebrød

  • Time: 5 min
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print

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Ingredients

  • 2 pieces Rye bread
  • RejeOst cream cheese spread
  • smoked salmon
  • lettuce
  • cucumber
  • avocado

Directions

  1. Spread the RejeOst onto one piece of bread
  2. Layer avocado, cucumber, tomato, and lettuce
  3. Do steps 1&2 again with the second piece of bread

Album: Brussels, Belgium

Last weekend, I ate my way through Brussels. Just some highlights from the trip in pictures!

1. La Salon du Chocolat

I happened to be in Brussels during the Belgian chocolate fair. I’ve never had so much (and so good) chocolate in one day.

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Neuhaus chef makes fresh Caprice
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Donuts at La Salon Du Chocolat

2. Comic Strip Strip Center (aka really cool Comic Book Museum)

Belgium is famous for comics. I learned about The Adventures of Tintin and the Smurfs, which were orignally in comic form before it came out on screen!

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3. Moules-frites (mussels and fries) 

I ate the entire pot. It probably had 70 mussels in it.

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4. Boat themed co-working café

Took a rest after all that food.

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Le Pharre Du Kanal café

5. Waffles & Frites

Did you go to Brussels if you didn’t eat waffles and frites? Random waffle off the street but really the best I’ve ever had. Chewy, crispy, caramelly.

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6. The Global Goals

The Global Goals for sustainable development were launched by the UN in 2015. Let’s all keep moving forward to build a better world.

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7. Art Encounters

Just colorful things I encountered while walking the quiet Sunday streets.

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Brussels / February 10-12, 2017.

One Month: Opening My Eyes

I spent last week traveling to western Denmark with my Global Economics class. As part of the DIS program, everyone gets to travel with their core class twice in the semester, first on a short tour near Denmark (which I just did), then later on a longer tour to a different country (I’ll be going to Moscow in March).

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Visit to Arla (ft. free yogurt)

After a four hour bus ride, we finally arrived in Jutland, the western most island of Denmark. The next few days were spent hearing from Danish companies and professionals. We got free yogurt and learned about the milk business from Arla, the largest dairy company in Scandinavia; heard about the strong possibility of the EU’s collapse at Jyske Bank, the third largest Danish bank; and saw the production of missiles in action at Terma, Denmark’s largest aerospace and defense company.

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Snow in Skanderborg

While bustling about in business attire on the tour, I also experienced my first Danish snowfall. The snow here is different. Each snowflake flutters and falls gently, spreading a soft cover over the landscape. On our second night, we were introduced to snobrød, a Danish tradition where you roast dough on a stick over a campfire. Amused by this s’mores alternative, my classmates and I huddled around a fire and slowly roasted our rolls of dough as the snow dusted over us. Despite its unforgiving cold, the beauty of Scandinavia’s landscape and traditions continues to captivate me every day.

 

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Snobrød

Finally, we ended the week with a panel at the Copenhagen Business School on the consequences of Anti-globalization. I’m continuously surprised by how my mind is being opened by simply engaging in discussions about issues that are happening in real life. Just a month ago, I was living in my own safe bubble. I’m ashamed to admit this, but I couldn’t see how problematic inequality was in America, whether for Democrats or Republicans. I didn’t want to talk about issues related to race and discrimination. I was afraid to touch anything controversial. I will probably always be in a bubble, but I am trying to break it away piece by piece.

This may be cliché, but I am truly feeling that the more I learn, the more questions I am left with. Throughout my time abroad, I hope to continue to question and seek answers. Some questions that I have been pondering and that I will leave you with:

  • How can we help people of opposite opinions listen to each other and find a solution?
  • Should we continue to talk about the economy in terms of growth and productivity? Is it realistic to expect human beings to become increasingly more productive?
  • Have institutions of higher education lost their educational value if much of our studies are just about the regurgitation of information and building a façade of prestige rather than learning to discuss critical issues?

 

Coloring Outside the Lines

The American bubble is real – but it doesn’t have to be. With over a thousand American students at DIS, one could easily go through the semester without befriending a single Dane. However, I chose to study abroad in Copenhagen because I wanted to meet many different kinds of people and be immersed in a new culture while learning about Scandinavian society, not to only meet other Americans.

The first step I took to becoming more immersed was picking the right housing option. I ranked Homestay, Kollegium (shared kitchen), and Folkhøjskole as my top choices. I knew all of these would allow me to meet Danes. Now, I live in a lovely Homestay with a host mom and host brother.

However, I also wanted to meet local Danes and Europeans my own age. It’s difficult to meet local Danes your own age if you’re not in the Folkhøjskole or a kollegium with a social atmosphere. Luckily, DIS held an Activities Fair with a few clubs that peaked my interest.

This week, I joined the staff at Café Retro, a volunteer run, non-profit café in downtown Copenhagen. I’ll be working at the bar, making coffee, and pouring beer for our customers. I’m very excited to meet fellow volunteer barista Copenhageners and to bring the joy of good coffee to others (although my first few cups will no doubt be going down the drain).

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Café Retro – a cozy nonprofit café in downtown Copenhagen

Not only that, I’ve also taken up Rugby! I went to the Copenhagen Business School women’s rugby team practice on Wednesday. It was quite tough, but fun. I will definitely be going back again next week. I’m terrified but also extremely pumped to be part of the team (that is, if I can keep up).

It’s easier than you think to get involved. In fact, it feels easier to join an organization here than in the States because many clubs here are open to all students and often not tied to one school. Perhaps, the egalitarian culture here also has something to do with it, where there is a feeling that everyone should have the same access to pursue things they are interested in. To join Café Retro and the rugby team, I just contacted them, showed up to the meeting, and made a decision to commit. That being said, I know I will have to put in some extra initiative to meet others and to show up consistently at events rather than spend the weekend traveling.

Some other students I’ve talked to at DIS have also gotten involved by joining the frisbee team Copenhagen Hucks, the orchestra SymfUni, or by volunteering at the student union Studenterhuset. Even if you don’t find anything at the DIS Activities Fair, try Googling or asking around. There are no boundaries here to limit what you can and cannot do. If you’ve always wanted to be involved in something, Copenhagen might be just the place to do it.

Of course, everyone has different reasons for going abroad. But for me, I know that this might be my only opportunity to study and live abroad, and I’m not about to let it slip away.