The first time I walked into the bathroom at school, was at a school party. And to my amazement, my "friend" (our first conversation consisted of my halting Danish and his eclectically drunk dance moves) walked into the same bathroom as I did. I looked up at him and then looked around. There were circles of people chatting in their monotone drawl and throat music, leaning up against sinks and hand dryers, condom machines. And I realized that I had stepped into my first unisex bathroom. Only in Denmark, I thought.
The first exchange student I ever came in contact with was from Italy. And needless to say I had a crush on him. I became transfixed with the the way he wandered around with his open italian mouth, his messy italian hair, and wondered what Montgomery High school looked like to him. That was freshman year. The next few years of my life involved a two month trip to Costa Rica as an exchange student, which left me somewhat capable of Spanish, and a flight to a new school, Santa Rosa High. Last December I was on the web, putting around like a good generation why-er, and came across something talking about Rotary Exchange. I got in contact and thought, yes! I will be going to Spain for my senior year! I will speak fluent Spanish by the time I enter college!
But now, I am in Denmark for my senior year. And when I go back to the US, I can mutter to myself in a language that only .12% of the world can speak! "The disease of the throat," is what they call Danish. And if you didn't know, people in Denmark speak Danish. Not Dutch. RødGrød med Fløde!
In the 3 months I have been here, I have learned so much about the differences in freedom across the Atlantic. First was seeing signs that said, "You must be 15 to buy alcohol here." Danish people are said to be the most heavy drinkers in Europe. After being to these undying 80's school parties, where beer is sold for 10 kroner, and all the adults just smile and say, "We were young once, kids are kids." I think about home, and about the way that American teenagers drink so that no one sees. In the end, it is much less safe to put laws on drinking than to not. Because how can an adult say to their children that drinking is bad with a glass of Sonoma County red wine in their hands? What a lot of the kids say here when talking about the age 21 drinking law, is that if you can put a gun in your kids hands and send them off to war, allow them to gamble, and let them drive huge metal weapons down the street, what is so naughty about drinking, if moderated? They just cannot see the sense. And believe me, I am beginning to agree.
Another thing is that Danish teenagers cannot drive until they are 18, so Danish teenagers don't have to worry about driving home, they have to worry about biking home. This is unfathomable to people who live 10 miles out on a country road in California. But these Danes will ride their bikes in their terrifying winds, they will get on their trains, they will hop on their giant yellow busses, because gasoline is the equivalent of 4 dollars a gallon, and parking in inner Copenhagen is even more.
And it's easy! There are bike lanes, cycle roads, bike street lights, entire aisles in the supermarket with spare tires and bike gadgets. Santa Rosa could never claim to be a bike friendly town. I have seen bike riders nearly pushed into telephone poles in our dear city, with its sunny weather and wide streets, perfect for biking except for the cars coming from all directions and not looking.
Another huge difference between Denmark + the US is the educational opportunity. All kids go to school for the first 9 grades of school. This is called a Folkeskole. Then they can choose to either: go to a business, technical, or trade school, go to a "regular high school," or go into the work force. I currently attend what is called a Gymnasium, or a high school. There are only 250 kids in my school. The overwhelming difference between Frederikssund Gymnasium and high school is the morale. Kids at the gymnasium CHOSE to go there. They aren't forced, they aren't mowed down every time they want to get off campus. If you want to skip school, then fine, you just miss out on what you need to move up and eventually get out. A person is allowed 10% absence, no matter what the reason. There are no bells, you are expected to know where you are supposed to be. There is one major test a year, at the end. Other than that, tests are not common. There are 4 5 weeks of holidays throughout the year, and 6 weeks summer vacation. They all speak english, astoundingly well. Sometimes I am corrected by them.Right now there are 2 exchange students at the school, a girl from Australia and me. She speaks better Danish than me because she has been here for 9 months, but we both smile stupidly when we don't understand, and everyone knows who we are. I am the "Amerikaner." I would estimate that about 4 kids go abroad on exchange every year, with many more who would like to.
Outbound foreign exchange is not common in the US. I was the first outbound that Santa Rosa High had dealt with in a LONG time. They didn't know what to do. There was no lenience, I had to take specific courses, and now I am trying to pass my math and science classes here so I can maybe go to a four year school next year. I took both Economics and American Government during my spring semester last year.
It was hard. But it was totally and utterly worth it. There is no way to describe walking into a house with people you have never seen and saying,"Hi I am your new daughter." There is no way to express what it feels like to come to a place, and learn a language just by listening, by observing. There is nothing like recieving a letter from home, marked with stamps and ink, and your crazy new address scrawled out on the front. There is nothing like walking into school on your first day, and speaking english to someone who might not have spoken to an American, ever. And there is something positively beautiful about looking home and realizing things about Santa Rosa, and about your friends. About the little things that you never noticed before, until you skipped the country one deathly hot California morning, with just a suitcase bigger than you and just a name and address to call home for the next year.