Biking Through a Snowstorm in a Skirt & Heels

By Zoé Kilbourne

Danish is not easy to learn. Hygge* is a cultural novelty. Biking is the transportation mode of choice. These facts and many more have been engrained in my psyche since living and working in one of the premier city of northern Europe: Copenhagen.

As a Biomedical Science major at GVSU with aspirations to go to medical school, I knew that I would have to make a dedicated effort to study abroad for a full semester. I was determined to find a program that, a: taught classes in English, b: offered a curriculum involving the health sciences, c: provided extensive opportunities for immersion, and d: was located in a place that was not “run-of-the-mill”. After hours spent researching study abroad programs, both those that were and were not affiliated with GVSU, I realized that such an endeavor would be more difficult than I had expected.

And then I found it.

I happened to be exploring the websites of other university’s study abroad offices and stumbled upon this one program called D.I.S., The Danish Institute for Study Abroad, in Copenhagen, Denmark. As I continued to click my way through the pictures, links and informational pages on their website, I realized I had discovered a unique program in a subtly enthralling location that even the most well-read person did not seem to know much about. I ended up enrolling at D.I.S. for the Winter 2011 semester in their Medical Practice and Policy program; little did I know that the semester would influence me such that after graduating from GVSU in April 2012, I would accept a job in Copenhagen with DIS.

Since having moved to this international, yet quaint, Scandinavian country, home of H.C. Andersen, Georg Jensen, and Hamlet’s Elsinore Slot**, I have discovered the beauty of gaining alternative perspectives not only in my work setting, but also in my daily experiences.

I work as a Science & Health Programs Assistant, which translates to being the liaison between the study abroad students and the course instructors, a majority of who are Danish and hold full-time jobs; they dedicate time to teach our students on the side. Though I do work with Americans, I also work with a number of native Danes thus allowing me to immerse myself in Danish culture, an opportunity which has caused me to develop and change in ways I never would have predicted whilst sitting at my computer innocently exploring study abroad options. True, there are the cliché points of growth, which are easy talking points, but I am often surprised at little things that have become a part of my routine that I cannot imagine having ever done differently.

One of the most prominent aspects of my ‘Copenhagen life’ is the use of a bicycle to go everywhere in all types of weather. The integral role of a bicycle in the Danish culture is revealed in a variety of ways, both obvious and subtle.

When I talk to people about travel time within the city, I express it based on how long it would take by bike; that is simply the assumption, and referring to another mode would entail clarifying: by train, by car, by foot.

The popularity of a certain locale or the presence of a celebration is not observed by the number of cars on the street, but by the number of bicycles crowded together – double, triple, and quadruple-parked in ways that one could never do with a car.

And whereas in the U.S., to get on a bicycle seems to imply that you have to invest in the latest and tightest spandex suits, biking regalia Denmark-style simply means “whatever clothes you are wearing that day”: heels, dress pants, and skirts not excluded.

To live in a culture amongst people who have a different set of foundational values can be challenging and frustrating, but not nearly enough to outweigh the constant intellectual and observational stimulation with which I am presented daily. When I reflect upon these recent months and those to come, I realize that I am starting to adapt and embrace aspects of those foundational expectations and values thus allowing me to appreciate and immerse myself in the Danish culture. This transformative experience may only be temporary, but I know the effects will be long lasting and residual for the rest of my life. I can tell you right now that never again will I be afraid to bike to work in heels and a skirt in a snowstorm.


* Hyggee: Aspect of Danish culture meaning ‘to relax with good friends or loved ones, often while enjoying good food and something to drink or creating a more friendly atmosphere by lighting a few candles’.

**Slot: Danish word for castle

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