A note on books

PART 2: A continuation

After returning from abroad, I am still discovering some really amazing books. The best part about reading these books is that although I was recommended these titles, I did not know what they were about. So rather than dive into how each one has had such an amazing impact on me, I will give you my list of recommendations so you can begin reading with an open mind and discover them for yourselves.

  • Small Great Things – Jodi Picoult
  • Super Sad True Love Story – Gary Shteyngart
  • The Road – Cormac McCarthy
  • The City and The City – China Mieville
  • Beartown – Fredrik Backman
  • Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel
  • The Plot Against America – Philip Roth

While abroad I have had the pleasure of reading some amazing books. As I’ve written about before, University of Copenhagen takes a very hands-off approach to learning. You’re assigned your readings, invited to show up for class, and your whole grade is based on a paper that you write for the end of each course. I do all the readings, go to all the classes, have started planning for the papers (due June 12), and still have ample free time.

This is the only semester I’ve ever had where I have time to read for pleasure while also reading for school, and it has been a wonderful experience. I’ve always enjoyed reading, but my time at college has challenged reading as a top priority when I have so many other tasks and assignments that need to get done. Reading books that I enjoy outside of my academic discipline has been rewarding in ways that I didn’t expect. Of course I love throwing myself into reading, getting so engrossed in a story that I forget where I am at the time. However, I have noticed that even just the act of reading has profoundly affected the way I think.

What I mean by this is that my mind has started to narrate my daily life. When I’m going through mundane activities like biking or doing dishes I find myself curating book-like sentences to describe what I’m doing. When I see an interesting person on the street I hear myself describing their details like they’re a character in my story. It’s comical, most of the time, but can also be embarrassing when I narrate something that I wouldn’t want to be included in the book of my life (ie: falling asleep without brushing my teeth).

Nevertheless, I wanted to comment on the power of books. I’d forgotten how impactful books can be, and how they can totally shape a day or the way I think about the world around me. I’m currently flashing back to the excitement I felt when the Scholastic Book Fair used to visit my elementary school – I looooove books! Anyways, here are some of my recommendations/books that I’ve enjoyed while abroad (including Christmas vacation just before getting to Copenhagen, because I read a lot of good books then):

  • Everything I Never Told You – Celeste Ng
  • Descent – Tim Johnston
  • A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara
  • The New Jim Crow – Michelle Alexander
  • Not That Kind of Girl – Lena Dunham
  • Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls – David Sedaris
  • Between The World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • The Fire This Time – Jesmyn Ward
  • Still Here – Lara Vapnyar
  • The Girls – Emma Cline
  • Before the Fall – Noah Hawley
  • I Am Malala – Malala Yousafzai
  • The Girl With The Lower Back Tattoo – Amy Schumer

A new kind of morning sickness

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When I was younger, it took me a very long time to get used to sleepovers. I wanted so badly to be able to spend the night with my friends, but I felt such an intense disappointment every time that I woke up in a room that wasn’t my own that I was averse to sleepovers in general. As I’ve gotten older I have grown far more comfortable with waking up in places beside my bed at home – going to college and spending a semester abroad are two great ways to throw yourself into it.

However, I have never really outgrown that feeling of dread when I first wake up and realize that I’m not in the comfort of my bed at home. Since I’ve been in Copenhagen I have turned my studio apartment into a very pleasant living space, and I’ve had an amazing few months living here. But most mornings I wake up to a wave of sadness weighing heavily on me as I try to shake the lingering feelings of sleep. Homesickness is my personal morning sickness.

I don’t feel homesick much of the time, nothing more than a typical student abroad. I miss Boston because I miss my friends, I miss the U.S. for the comfort of familiarity, and I miss my family all of the time. But all of these feelings are exceptionally normal when you spend time apart from people and places. I’ve learned to come to terms with these feelings and figured out ways to cope with them. Making an effort to keep in touch with the people that I miss has paid off exponentially, and I am so thankful to have people to miss. But for some reason (I have several theories, such as the time difference) it’s the mornings that are the most difficult for me.

This post is short because there isn’t much to say about it. Missing people is hard. I can’t pinpoint exactly what it is that fills me with such a sadness, but I have found recently that this morning sickness is beginning to feel more like nostalgia than dread. With 10 more weeks in Copenhagen I’m going to continue to challenge the affects of homesickness, and remember that each morning turns into a beautiful day.

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Understanding is a luxury

As I’m sure many of you know, a semester abroad is a wonderful opportunity for students to immerse themselves in a new culture. However, for many students it’s become an opportunity to travel each weekend so they can post an Instagram in front of an eye-catching spot – I can pull up at least 10 posts of girls in front of the John Lennon Wall in Prague. I’m not trying to say it’s a bad thing to take pictures in front of the touristy spots. In fact, I’m always pushing back against the idea that when you travel you should avoid the touristy spots and tours. They’re touristy for a reason! These are the things that make whatever destination you’re visiting famous, and it’s worth it to go and see. Rather, what I’ve been thinking about a lot recently is how different cultures interact, and how study abroad seems to be less about cultural exchange than a checklist to be completed by the end of the semester.

I have been thinking a lot about this topic recently, sparked mostly by reading an article about Western backpackers begging for money to fund their travel, even in some of the world’s poorest regions. It’s outrageous even reading that sentence! I read this article and felt a strong sense of embarrassment and shame for the ignorance of Western societies, the audacity of these travels who are so blind to the struggles of others, driven only by their self-absorbed desires to “see the world.”

I also thought about this concept of what it means to really see the world when I was on my spring break last week, when I visited Dubrovnik, Berlin and Amsterdam. I enjoyed all three cities for very different reasons, and maybe I’ll write a post about this amazing week of travel someday soon. But what I couldn’t help but think about the whole time I was on my spring break was just truly how expensive it was to immerse yourself in the culture. Trying local cuisine, shopping where the city-dwellers do, even getting around the city via public transport, it’s all just SO expensive. Even more so, trying to connect with the culture by visiting museums is such a privilege to have. It seems a little ridiculous that you would visit Amsterdam and not visit the Van Gogh museum, but spending 17 euros to walk around the museum and see the paintings you have seen a million replicas of seems ridiculous in other ways.

I am fortunate enough that I don’t have to worry about money significantly affecting my “experience” abroad. Of course I’m aware of how much I’m spending and try to consciously avoid frivolous purchases, but my parents have worked hard and I have saved enough money to be able to indulge in things like art museums and good restaurants and taking the metro. However, I feel an overwhelming sense of guilt when I think about just how many people are excluded from these experiences because of financial concerns. I’m not trying to suggest that cities shouldn’t charge for transportation, or that all museums should be free since I fully understand how cost affects quality, but my frustration with the current situation is strong.

What I want to call attention to is that beyond the fact that travel is a luxury, cultural understanding is a luxury too. Even if you never step foot outside of the place you were born and raised, trying to expose yourself to new cultures can be expensive. It is encouraging to know that many places recognize this deficit and are pushing initiatives to facilitate cultural interaction on a person-to-person level, but this is challenging for many people. I can already hear all of the criticism that this post will elicit, but I haven’t really ever thought about the privilege of exposure. Beyond the baseline costs of travel, there are considerable financial obstacles to gaining a world view, understanding new perspectives, and challenging what’s comfortable in your life. I can’t help but think about the political implications that this lack of understanding can have, specifically when it comes to partisan divides and electing government officials.

 

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MOCO Museum – Amsterdam

Is sustainability a utopian idea?

During my time interning at Chora Connection, I have thought a lot about sustainability as a concept and what it’s practical application looks like in today’s world. Denmark is leading the global quest for achieving a “sustainable future,” with environmentally friendly laws and policies spanning the country. Copenhagen is widely regarded as one of the most sustainable cities in the world, with noticeable lifestyle changes such as the popularity of bike riding in the face of rising carbon emissions. However, the founder of Chora Connection who I report to, Karen, was recently sharing her ideas on sustainability that sparked an interesting idea for me.

Karen is pursuing her PhD in sustainability, but her research actually focuses on the idea that true sustainability is unattainable. Shocking, that an individual who leads an organization dedicated to promoting sustainable behavior in one of the most sustainable cities in one of the most sustainable countries, is claiming that sustainability is not a viable possibility. What Karen discussed, actually, was the idea that societies have a certain threshold that sustainability is not possible within.

This threshold can be understood within the framework that sustainability is applicable to several aspects of society. In development literature sustainability is commonly viewed in three contexts: social, economic, and environmental. A society may be able to achieve social and economic sustainability, economic and environmental, or social and environmental, but not all three. To have all three of these dimensions seen as sustainable would be passing society’s threshold.

Although I don’t know all of the relevant research regarding this topic, and certainly don’t have as strong of an understanding as Karen does, I had to write about this idea because of how controversial it is. Sustainability has become a buzzword for political groups and organizations everywhere, something that sounds good in annual reports and makes it seem like society has a grasp on progressive futures. However, it’s essential to step back and actually consider what a sustainable future would look like.

How can sustainability interact with culture? How can we prioritize which aspects of sustainable living are most desirable for a country’s citizens? Who decides what’s better, social, economic or environmental stability? Should we continue to use the word sustainable as the goal for our future, or adapt new language that reflects our realistic capabilities? There are many questions to be asked, and although there’s no certain way of finding any answers, it’s important to explore different options for the international community moving forward.