As I write that date, it strikes me. It seems at once recent and yet far away. But what makes it significant?
On that day, twenty years ago, I departed the relative safety of my parents house, my life as a college student in New York to some place called Denmark.
Let’s go back a ways, to the year 1997 exactly. Even writing it now it doesn’t seem so long ago, but of course it is. The internet was still pretty much a thing you had to go to an office or a library to get. I had an email address that I seldom used or even checked. Cell phones were something maybe businessmen had. I had only seen two cell phones in my entire life at that point. But that’s history stuff.
That year I was a sophomore in college in Albany, New York. At the beginning of the college term, I went to the university’s study abroad office to talk to them about going abroad. The head of the study abroad office was really serious and grilled me extensively about everything to make sure I was serious. What was I studying? Where did I want to go? What were my plans for when I was done with college? It was all done very officially.
I went to the office and said I wanted to go to England. My parents and I had visited two years earlier and I had liked it. Truth be told, it was the only other European country I visited besides Poland. I just picked it for that reason.
The study abroad advisor had other plans for me or fate intervened. I don’t know what it was but he steered me towards the university’s program in Denmark. I was kind of skeptical at first because I hadn’t thought of that as a place I wanted to study but I looked at the brochures and said OK, let’s give this a shot.
I filled out the paperwork, got accepted and off I would go in a few months. I still remember going to the mailbox at my parents old house to get the mail and receiving an envelope that said I was to live in a place called Albertslund. Oh Albertslund….
So on the fateful day, August 24 1997, I boarded a plane to Copenhagen from Newark airport. I had been away at college for a while so I knew separation but not to degree that I was about to experience it. I remember walking down the sleeve to airplane and feeling like turning around at the last possible moment but I knew I couldn’t. I had committed to do this and I was going to do it. Why do I remember the day I left so clearly? I kept my boarding pass. See:
These boarding passes have gone with me to every place I have ever lived since then. On the flight, I sat next to a Kenyan student from St. Lawrence University. There were other students from the same program on the plane with me. I thought by the time I returned home in four months, I would probably know all of them really well.
So we land in Copenhagen, exhausted. We are taken to Copenhagen University to pick up our bags, just to load those bags onto another bus.
On that bus came my first surprise. The school had given us a book with the name and picture of every participant in the program. Looking for my name, I find ANOTHER person whose name is Radziejewski. Now basically my entire life, all the Radziejewskis I had known I could count on one hand. Now here was another one — Grzegorz Radziejewski, a rather serious looking fellow from the Warsaw School of Economics who I was sure not to like at all.
So we get to Albertslund, which looks something like this:
Well, I guess not exactly like that. It’s more like that is how it exists in my memory. It did look like this on the mornings when I’d be standing on the train platform ready to go to school, but I’ve given it a glamour it does not have in real life. It looks more like this:
This photo (that I did not take) believe it or not confers a glamour onto the place that it does not have in real life. I know. The place looks like barracks.
There I was with my giant suitcases greeted by a group of rather unfriendly looking people that were to take us to our barracks, I mean dorm blocks. None of this particularly boded well at that moment.
I walked into my dorm block, 7 West, or 7V as I would know it and I was greeting by two very friendly students who were speaking a language that sounded like it had been turned inside out. I was thirsty. It was the first day. I was really tired.
I walked by a door that had this image on it. NO JOKE:
Yeah. That is a woman hitting a man with her hair.
Oh and the other thing that struck me. I sat with the two students and we chatted for a bit. One brought me a cup of water, while the other one showed me around. All the while, nobody opened their door. Nobody came out of their rooms. Nothing happened. Did anyone actually live in this place? Where were the other people?
To paraphrase Ayrton Senna, it was way too late to change my mind.
That night we were shown around downtown Albertslund which resembled a concrete outdoor mall. We were given dinner that night that purported to be pizza but somewhat resembled cardboard with cheese on it.
The next week we were to have orientation. The program was called Denmark’s International Study Program or DIS. I came to call this week DISorientation week.
We were taken around to the school’s city campus off the City hall square. I passed by this beautiful structure on the way to school in the morning:
Alas I also did not take that photo, but even then I knew that from that point on whenever I saw this photo, I would think of going by there in the morning everyday on the way to school.
The school itself was in an old merchant’s building and tiny compared to the sprawling university I attended. There were students in the program from across the United States and from Eastern Europe, including Poland.
During DISorientation week, I finally met the other, very serious Radziejewski, whose name turned out to be Grzegorz Radziejewski. He did not, despite what I had thought, play the piano and he was not generally serious. He turned out to be a very nice fellow who initially encouraged me to speak Polish and who turned out to be one of my best friends not just during the program but thereafter for many years. Because of him, I spoke Polish with a person I wasn’t related to who didn’t criticize me around every turn and just let me talk. I was so grateful for that. Years later, the guy tells me that he was just sick of speaking English everyday and that’s why he wanted me to speak Polish!!!!!! But it did turn out to be a very valuable friendship and a valuable person to me.
So school was squared away but then we had the subject of this strange place I had chosen to live in. Most of my classmates lived with host families. I had chosen a dorm or kollegium. Now in an American dorm, you had a cafeteria and shared bathrooms. In the kollegium, you had a kitchen and a shared TV room that life kinda revolved around.
For the first few weeks I would come home and cry. I mean I would just ball my eyes out. My parents called me once and I told them I couldn’t understand why I had ended up in this godforsaken place. I would come home, sit in my room alone and just cry. I was supposed to be having the time of my life there on my term abroad and I was sitting in my room crying most of the time.
The program had given us booklets on how to survive in the dormitory. One booklet said that you had to leave your room and speak to the residents. Just get over your shyness, go over and talk to people. After yet another day spent crying in my room, I did it.
What I would do is I would go my little fridge in the kitchen and pour myself a glass of orange juice. I would converse with the people in the kitchen as long as it took to drink the glass of orange juice. The first day I did this, I walked into the kitchen and I saw two shirtless guys hanging out in the kitchen. Those two boys then started making animal noises. Now you had to understand that two years earlier I had been a high school student. What greeted me was well, kinda astounding. Let’s have a look:
This is my friend Thomas, still my friend now. Now honestly when I first met the guy I couldn’t believe he was actually speaking to me. Let’s just say that this guy did not look like the boys I had met in my backward suburban New York high school.
Thomas seemed to inhabit a more interesting, urbane and cultured world. Here I was this person who had always been derided as being weird or too smart or too whatever but there was a person who not just appreciated it but also had his own wit and urbane commentary to contribute to it. As I got to know him as well, I found this deeply vulnerable side to him that made becoming his friend even easier. I had absolutely no idea that this friendship would endure twenty years.
As the time in Denmark wore on, I found myself socializing more in the dorm and spending more time with the Danes that I did with my classmates. The conversation with all of them flowed really naturally. We seemed to make the same jokes and enjoy the same things.
Two months in, another guy who lived there started talking to me. His name was Allan and like Thomas, we are friends to this day. Here’s a photo of him:
Allan proved to be as interesting of a character as Thomas. His grandfather was Polish and had changed the family name from something full of consonants to something more Danish sounding. I will never forget what Allan said to me when he decided to start speaking to me — you never seemed to have anything interesting to say. How very Danish of you my friend!!!! But I never took it seriously.
Allan’s life had also already been marked by sadness. Allan said something to me that stuck with me for twenty years. One night we were just sitting in the dorm sipping some warm beer. I realized I was the only one there who wasn’t a Dane. All around me were people speaking a language I could not speak or even understand but I felt completely at home. I remarked upon this to Allan and he said “you are not one of them. You are one of us.” I had never been one of anything in my entire life.
A lot happened during those four months. At the beginning of my stay, Princess Diana was killed in a car accident in Paris. This was before smartphones and the internet being everywhere so I didn’t even find out until a day or two after it happened. Thomas and I watched her funeral on CNN with Swedish subtitles in the dorm common room. But again, that’s historical.
A lot happened that semester. Thomas got so sick that he almost died. I got involved with a guy I met in the dorm who showed me that sometimes you fall for an illusion. We all got close that semester and then it was time to go home.
Here I had thought it was just going to be a semester away from home. I would learn some culture, go to school, make some friends and then forget about the whole thing. Instead that time in my life remains in my memory. It took me a long time to process and its impact is felt on my life every single day. Denmark isn’t just a place I went for a few months in 1997. It is a second home for me and a place that I always think of fondly. Moreover, it’s the place where my life really started. It is the place where I found people who understood and accepted me for me and did not try to change me.
It was just four months but that four months has stretched out to twenty years and hopefully a lifetime. Copenhagen as it is in my memory. Beautiful, sepia toned and pure:
And finally for the first time ever in the history of the blog, I will post a photo of myself on here. No, it is not a shadow and I am not covering my face with a newspaper or something. My face is to be revealed up here.
This is a photo Thomas took of me in Denmark in 2004, when we took a motorcycling trip to Dragør, an area in the south of Zealand, the island where Copenhagen is located. Thomas and I took his motorcycle out there. I remember this trip very fondly because it was lovely and peaceful. Here I am wearing my best friend’s jacket looking contemplative: