An Eph Abroad: Part 2 – Quentin Cohan

As a kid I had a fairly nasty habit for homesickness. Any sort of prolonged absence from home threatened to riddle me with anxiety – about what, I was never fully sure; I guess I just liked the comforts of home. Even sleepovers at a friend’s house could cause more harm then good. Not until eighth or ninth grade did I really mature out of this problem, so that I could enjoyably spend time away from the nest. By the time I began at Williams I was itching at the chance to live “on my own” for once, but I don’t shed feelings easily, and the old, familiar, nostalgia sometimes pops back up.

Now, this isn’t to say that I spend my days on the Continent longing for the friendly confines of the Purple Bubble – far from that – but study abroad has proved itself to be the greatest example of deferred gratification I have yet faced in my short existence. Study abroad is certainly a once in a lifetime experience, so I have emphasized focusing on the activity at hand. But I have had great difficulty keeping out of my head thoughts of absent friends and family who I know would enjoy whatever it is I am doing, and whose presence I know would enhance my own enjoyment. These thoughts, invariably, distract and detract from the experience of, say, sitting by a canal on a sunny day in Amsterdam, or celebrating at Oktoberfest. The ensuing feeling of nostalgia leads, usually only for a minute or two, to me wanting to be nowhere other than cold, dark, isolated Williamstown.

I left for Copenhagen with very mixed feelings–on the one hand I knew this would be an amazing semester – on the other hand, so had my four at Williams, each one better than the last, so why was I so sure I wanted to give that up? As much fun as I have here, I can’t quite shake a) the awareness of the temporal nature of this whole semester – that my schoolwork and relationships have little tangible value because it will all end so soon (certainly true of the former, hopefully not of the latter) and b) memories of times past with friends who I speak with at a greatly reduced rate, and the constant nagging of the fact that we are growing up and getting into trouble separately when we could be doing so together. I don’t doubt that years from now I will look very favorably upon my time in Copenhagen, and that these feelings will be long-faded memories, but that’s a ways away. Right now, well, two months is a long time, and four even longer – even if it may, in reality, pass in the blink of an eye.

None of this, of course, is aided by the fact that I’m in a country where they speak a different language. Yes, all Danes speak English (and a lot better than I speak Danish, though I can order a sandwich with a variety of toppings), but there is a difference between being in a Anglophone country and a country where English is spoken. Take for example, the street signs, which are all, obviously, in Danish. This would only be a mild, and in some ways charming, nuisance if not for the facts that 1) the street signs are not attached to posts on the corner of every street, but rather on the side of some, not all, buildings at intersections and 2) Danish street names pride themselves, so it seems, on their incomprehensibility. The main pedestrian shopping street, for instance, is called “Strøget,” but it is pronounced more like “Struhel”–an act of linguistic gymnastics that would defeat even the great Gabby Douglas in floor exercises. I therefore have had to learn my way around by rote memorization, rather than actually understanding what street I’m on, and where it leads.

Additionally, I am responsible for all of my meals, which requires shopping for groceries and cooking my food. Obviously, having to provide for myself is less desirable than showing up at a dining hall on campus, but the cooking is actually not the issue – making dinner for one person is really not that big a deal – the real problem is the grocery shopping. In American grocery stores, the aisles are all clearly labeled, and like items are with like items – creating a fairly straightforward shopping experience. That’s not the case here. None of the aisles are labeled. Not that labels would do much good anyway, because the items have been placed on the shelves by a tornado. Cat food is next to toothpaste, which is across the aisle from tonic water and nuts. Toothbrushes and pasta enjoy each other’s company, naturally, with friendly neighbor mayonnaise right there for comic relief (I can’t quite decide whether they think the mayo is to be put on the pasta or the toothbrushes). Furthermore, the items are all labeled, obviously, in Danish, so milk in your basket can easily become yogurt in your kitchen. A friend of mine once made burgers for dinner and didn’t know until he had taken a bite that he had bought pork, not beef. Denmark also does not use the Euro, and its easily calculable conversion rate of 1.1 dollars/euro, but rather the Danish Kroner, and its conversion rate of .15 dollars/kroner, so it’s quite confusing for the first month or so when you’re buying chicken and the numeric value of its cost is in the fifties, when you know that two breasts of chicken should have a value under ten.

At this point I have more or less adjusted, but these differences are daily reminders that I am not in Kansas anymore. Obviously one of the main points of going abroad is to confront these sort of cultural differences, but Denmark is a very homogenous country and this constant reminder of how I am an outsider is less than ideal – especially when compared to the possibility of having spent the semester at Williams where I feel so at home. All the Danes I meet love it when I tell them I am from New York, but I feel like they would like me a lot more if I told them I was from the Happiest Place on Earth.

The sad irony of this whole situation is that I know the moment I return home I will long for the independence of my life here; the instant I hear the Nerd Bell I will curse myself for giving up my work-free existence; the first time I go to snack bar earlier than I’d like after a party, I will lament the fact that not that long ago I would stay out until well past my bedtime. I guess it’s just an indelible part of me to search for the past. Strange as this may seem, considering it is a national capital, Copenhagen is in many ways a fantasy land in a bubble just like Williams, but there is no place like the Purple Bubble. There is no place like home. There is no place like home.

3 thoughts on “An Eph Abroad: Part 2 – Quentin Cohan

  1. One of the major tenets of the Williams Alternative is to give voice to unique perspectives, in an attempt to create a true mosaic of what the Williams College community really looks like–beyond the the lovely, collegial photos of students in hoodies surrounded by fall foliage that we find in all the admissions brochures. This series of articles is designed to share what the study abroad experience is like for me, in the hopes that other Williams students will relate to, and learn from it. Notice, I don’t really talk at all about my travels abroad, but, rather, much more about what I experience and feel while studying away from my home in the Berkshires.

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