Ben Shaw

Benjamin Shaw on Exchange at Herlufsholm in Denmark

Underneath Kronborg castle there’s a statue of a knight. Known for his incredible heroics, Holger Danske was set in plaster and later concrete and is a reminder of the strength Denmark once had. Legend has it that when the country is in need, Holger Danske will rise from his seat and lead his armies into battle one last time.

Denmark seems to be full of places like this, ordinary landscapes undermined with history.  The school we’re going to has a museum older than American independence and rumoured underground tunnels connecting all the buildings. There’s a tank in a field near my host family’s house that’s been left abandoned since WWII, but still keeps watch with a rusty barrel over acres of farmland.

The country has a sense of worn comfort to it, but of self-importance, too. It’s almost as if, as a collective, Danish people know exactly where they are and what they need to do. Maybe it’s the growing trend of hygge, or comfiness, or maybe it’s just the settling in process, but people seem calmer here than they are back home. More aware of things around them. Maybe too, of course, this is all just me projecting what I want onto the experience.

Herlufsholm feels like it’s losing a game of hide and seek with the students. Buildings are nestled in a forest, huge brick things with too many stairs and empty classrooms. Classes change location every day, and the schedule makes less sense than our own. After school activities are at random times on different days of the week, and classes get cancelled at the last minute. But despite all this, or maybe because of it, the school feels more whole, more like something new every day. It’s confusing, and I seem to get lost a lot, but that isn’t a problem. It’s more like every wrong turn is a new day, and every day has more to find. Thinking of it that way makes it feel less like a countdown, a countdown to the end of the school day, to the end of the week, how long I’ve been away, how long until I have to go back. It’s all there in one place, a jumble of locked rooms and tardy slips holding up an exchange.


Benjamin Shaw on his time in Denmark

Barren was the first word I thought of when I got to Copenhagen, with its icy streets and grey weather color scheme. But the longer I stay here, the more pockets open up, and like Holger Danske show a Denmark that is warm, and new, and a little bit scary but comfortable. Two weeks in, and time zones have never been less of a concern.

There’s a clock tower at Herlufsholm that, for the entirety of my time there, rang the hour two minutes late. I don’t know how long Herluf’s clock has been late, nor do I know how long it will continue to be late. I do know that it stood, ringing crooked time, as a pseudo monument to life passing and time yet to come.

The clock tower stood tall for many of my defining moments in Denmark. What strikes me most about exchange and coming back from it is that people usually ask the wrong question. Everybody wants to know what was the most exciting thing you did or the coolest thing you saw. And while I saw and experienced incredible things abroad, it’s not those days that color my experience. It was the everyday that made exchange more than a trip; the routine of the mundane was what really created a life.

It was the clock tower that stood attached to the centuries old church where we’d hold school meetings every morning. Announcements would come reliably in Danish, leaving the foreign students to string together words and phrases to find a piecemeal agenda for the day.

It was the clock tower that rang the time, unhelpfully, when we were already late for class, rushing through cracked stone hallways and up tilting staircases to make it to class before the teacher noticed we were missing.

It was the clock tower that counted the days until a teacher strike that may or may not have come, but that left every student itching for school to be cancelled.

It was the clock tower that welcomed students back at 8:02 the following morning after the announcement that teachers would not, in fact, go on strike (much to the disappointment of students and teachers alike).

My host mom would tell me that five weeks was a turning point in living in a new place. During those first five weeks you settle in, learn the lay of the land, explore the world around you. After that time you start making the space your own, asking for favors, inviting people to the house with you. Exchange felt like putting that time in a pressure cooker. It was exciting, and fast paced, and everything was new. It made me want to relive everything twice. But at the same time, exchange can be a wildly different life than what we have here, one open to exploration discovery of new places, new people, new foods, and a new self.

Time itself seemed present in many of the things I did. There were little moments, of timing each other across zip lines during a tree-top climbing excursion, or counting down the final seconds in a soccer match in PE. There were bigger moments, following a costumed guide through ancient castles, or trekking across the city of Odense (and getting a little lost) to find the house that Hans Christian Anderson might have, maybe, possibly lived in once hundreds of years ago. And there were the worst moments of all, when time made itself known slipping past us. Sitting in the garden with matching cups of coffee, silent but hearing time together pass away. Waiting for a weekend that for my friends would be a relief from school, but for me held only a plane ride home. Hearing the clock tower sing, mocking, two minutes too late, a reminder that some things couldn’t be said, or done.

There’s not a lot I wouldn’t give to be back on exchange. The longer it’s been since my time there, the more I miss it. I know that some things will fade, and some things won’t, but most of all I know that all the things I learned there will stay with me as a testament to a time spent making myself known in a world apart from ours. I see, as time moves on, parallels drawn between here and there: school starting again, graduation rituals, friends growing. But the more time moves, the more I wish I could stay wrapped in a bubble of time the length of my exchange, living it all again, the clock tower no longer a reminder of time going by, but of time well spent and well loved.