by Anna Jílková and Michaela Medveďová
The early months of 2020 saw the start of the global pandemic and caused an unexpected halt on life as we knew it, locking people in their homes for a good portion of the spring. But for us, the lockdown took place in our home away from home – Denmark, where we both moved to do our Master’s degrees. Both Danish society and the education process were impacted. So, how has the land of the Vikings handled 2020 so far?
Michaela: How the “hyggelige” Danes handled lockdown
The Danes are generally considered to be some of the happiest people in the world. In my two years here, I have also known them as being incredibly chilled, valuing the concept of ‘hygge’ – a peaceful feeling of coziness with your friends, loved ones, or just your book, chocolate milk and some candles – above all else.
Well, when the pandemic hit Denmark in earnest in early March , this image went out of the window. But even more strangely, it was for one night only.
When the Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen announced on TV that educational institutions would be closing and a ban for larger gatherings was in the works, it seemed that the entire country panicked and went into ‘crisis-shopping’ mode. Even though the rule of thumb has, from the very beginning, been social distancing, the shops across Denmark saw hundreds of people queuing until midnight with shopping trolleys full of yeast and toilet paper. A very unpleasant experience for yours truly who actually ran out of toilet paper that night and went on a good-natured, albeit ignorant errand.
This “corona-madness” passed as quickly as it came – while, admittedly, yeast has been a precious commodity for the first few weeks (the Danish seemingly fully embraced the amateur-baked kind of quarantine). But the following morning, at least the toilet paper alley was restocked, Danes went back to their calm ways, and Denmark entered a lockdown as one of the first countries in Europe – originally, only for two weeks. Instead, it was for two months, and it meant no universities, no restaurants, bars, or gyms – instead, we had closed borders, social distancing signs in grocery stores, and rivers of hand sanitizer with stations installed at every entrance. But it also meant that my baking skills went up at least two levels – calling my mom for family recipes and putting the salvaged yeast to good use.
There were four striking things about the coronavirus development in Denmark. First, face masks never became a requirement. Those wearing a mask in a shop were a stark minority and honestly, they drew stares – speaking from experience as probably one of five people in my city who chose to wear one for food runs. Second, the schools reopened only a month into the lockdown, with the first kids coming back to schools already after Easter. The experiment – at least when compared to other countries – seemed to have paid off, as the following weeks did not see a significant increase. Third, Denmark, almost synonymous with horrid rainy weather, saw the most beautiful spring one could imagine, with the weather positively mocking those locked inside and rewarding the lucky ones who had a garden or a balcony with a sweet tan. Fourth, every man in my vicinity seemed to have shaved all their hair off – including my boyfriend who thus turned into a stranger for the first couple of days.
In late May, social and cultural life in Denmark as we knew it back in February – when it still looked as if this year would not be a complete nightmare – was back with the most wonderful news imaginable: pub quizzes were back. We smoothly sailed into the summer pleasantries while observing a trio of rules: wash your hands, stay away from other people, and, unlike Cinderella, leave the bar at midnight the latest. Otherwise, in Denmark, summer was in the tune of “business as usual”.
Until late August, proving yet again that nothing good lasts – at least not in 2020. After completely glossing over face masks in the spring, the country suddenly made a complete U-turn and implemented the requirement in all types of public transport. It brought certain unpleasantness to my commuting to work – but it also brought another lesson in the art of being Danish. Despite face masks being no one’s choice – as was visible in the spring when they were not required anywhere – they just kept calm and put them on when the government said so.
There are certainly other countries in the world which could follow this example.
Anna: Despite all the efforts, studying online does not feel the same
Since Michaela was mostly concerned with her Master thesis in Spring and did not have to attend any classes physically, it will be me, Anna, who will take the turn now.
Generally, the transition to online teaching went quite smoothly. It was always in the hands of a particular teacher so, of course some managed better than others. But all the online tools were available and worked well. Usually, we just received a recording of the presentation with some spoken comments. Most of our group projects were logically cancelled since we had no way of meeting each other. And although the situation got better by the end of the year, even all the exams took place virtually. In my case, I handed in two assignments and attended one five-hour home-take examination. In other programs, where students were supposed to have oral exams, they connected with their teachers via some streaming app and talked that way. I was surprised how smoothly everything was communicated from the university. We used to receive emails with every update on the situation and everything was clearly explained (both in Danish and English).
Nevertheless, this does not change the fact that it was a terrible experience and that looking for motivation without your classmates turned out to be the hardest task of all. Isolation touched upon us as well and we suddenly had to learn being with ourselves. Taking your computer and staring at the screen in your bed showed to be very different from coming to the university, buying a coffee, talking to your mates, and interacting with a teacher. And at a Danish university, which otherwise offers plenty of these get-together things, the difference was even bigger than we would imagine back in Brno. The biggest loss? Friday bar. Our university has the biggest bar in the city. It is in the basement and opens only once a week – every Friday. So naturally, every Friday it gets super crowded there which is a big no no for a corona pandemic. Similarly, a canteen or a library, those were shut down next. The library at least managed to keep some level of operation and they opened “ a take-away window” where one could return or borrow books.And everyone who was trying to get back into shape after Christmas was forced to give up as our university gym closed as well.
We all hope for the upcoming semester to run in a normal mode again so we could enjoy our last student year properly. All the treats of that lifestyle were gone – no beer pong, no parties, no pub quizzes! Fingers crossed…