Friday night, 9.30pm. It’s dark outside, it has been for over 5 hours now, and the icy wind continuously hitting us in the face feels like a slow but deliberate sandblasting treatment. There are a handful of people hastily making their way through mostly empty streets, on their way home to hide from the wind and each other. We pass a group of teenagers drinking and smoking in a parking lot, their shouting on par with their shivering, and continue along the main drag on our exploratory nightlife quest. Finally, something resembling a bar appears amidst the facade of shuttered storefronts and we enter. Inside, the bartender, three scroungy teenagers playing pool, a conversation of a threesome that is most aptly described as white trash, and a blind-drunk woman in her fifties ranting and making rounds with a bag of peanuts.
Welcome to Vordingborg.
Don’t get me wrong, Vordingbronx, as we’ve lovingly started to call our new hometown, is quite a wealthy place. And according to the usual Danish standards, that means first and foremost tidiness and cleanliness. The bay and its adjoining marina serve as an anchor point for many small and mid-sized boats, owned by locals or sailors passing through this quite scenic part of southern Denmark. There is about one store for every commodity, the houses are well-maintained, and the people mostly well-behaved. But this prosperous blandness goes hand-in-hand with a profound lack of excitement, diversity and fun.
Although, and this came as a very welcome surprise, Vordingborg has a shisha bar! It’s called King Bar and it’s absolutely magnificent. Just around our corner, it’s run by some guys from Turkmenistan, the pipes are very tasty, and the crowd is a mix of Eastern immigrants and Danes aged 17 to 21. The music is pumping, at a volume so insane I saw ripples in the water pipe bowl. Not surprisingly it’s the most vibrant place for nightlife (out of the three) I’ve encountered here, and without it this town would truly be depressing.
Not that I’m spending that much time in it these days, since the start of my PhD every day has been more busy than the one before, and combined with the longest commute of my life that means I’m not spending a whole lot of time at home. Working days start at 5am, taking the train over a hundred kilometers north into Copenhagen. Another train further north and a bus, and by 8.15am I walk onto campus. Leaving work at 5pm means not getting home before 8.30pm, and in order to get some sleep for the day after bedtime comes shortly after. I keep telling everyone declaring me insane that it’s a temporary situation until we move closer to the capital, but even after just a month I can feel the tiredness creeping into my bones. Winter in general is a gloomy time in Denmark. The sun rises at 8.30am and sets at 3.30pm for a whopping 7 hours of daylight, rain alternating strong winds and gray clouds. When people are in the street, it’s with the sole purpose of getting to another indoor destination as quickly as possible. Commuting happens in absolute silence, according to unwritten rules of conduct that are applied stringently and infractions looked upon with quiet disdain. I’ve had this little project of saying hi to at least one random an unfamiliar person a day, out of a mixture of social desperation and indirect rebellion to this state of being. Mixed results so far, but I’ll keep trying.
The good thing about starting a job in December is that you’re just in time for all the Christmas parties. And the hierarchy of a university means that there are many. Faculty, department, research group, student association,… Quite an ideal way to be introduced to many people from the get-go. And the Danes take their Julefrokost seriously. The food is plentiful and delicious, beer and wine flowing freely and continuously. And that’s how you find yourself suddenly joking around with faculty administrator, splitting beers with an associate professor, dancing to 80’s hits with the group’s head professor and realizing he’s got far better moves than you do. Missing the last train home and heading out into the meatpacking district in Copenhagen to party until 6am. Falling asleep on the first train and missing your stop causing you to end up on a different island. Having to wait another hour in the freezing cold to catch one back and realizing that Maria is on it returning from a night shift at the hospital.
All craziness aside, I’m truly enjoying being back in an academic environment. Although most of my activities have revolved around getting administration in order, dealing with planning and setting up frameworks, you can sense the creative and collaborative mood all around. The informal yet professional attitude, the abundance of knowledge and scientific mindset, the youthful scene set by students everywhere. I’m feeling a borderline unhealthy eagerness to do everything all at once, and take in every piece of information I can, to an extent I haven’t experienced in a while. As amazing as long-time traveling is, it lacks opportunities to be this intensily involved in a complex and difficult pursuit. And seeing the value of that is just as important as acknowledging what wandering can teach you.
The year is drawing to a close, and it’s been quite a ride. Although 2018 won’t contain the same amount of adventure (that would be very difficult), I’m excited for what is to come. It’s the beginning of a new chapter, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned, only time will tell where it will lead.
Happy Christmas, and see you in 2018 :)
December 21st, 2017