Denmark and Elements of Happiness

The one person I knew in the country stood on the other side of sliding glass doors, shock apparent on her face as I banged on the panes before the metro zoomed into the unknown, taking me with it.  I turned, looking at the annoyed looking people around me and muttered mostly to myself: “Welcome to Copenhagen”.

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The abrupt immersion into the complete and utter unknown is something rarely experienced by individuals who are not either just being born or being abducted by aliens.  I can say this experience was close.  Fortunately my first visit to Denmark didn’t continue to be as dramatic and I enjoyed the nine days of my “spring break” in the presence of a good friend and the pleasant Danes, sleeping in and going on day adventures.

Church of Our Savior

Church of Our Savior

It was when I was up on the very top of the Church of Our Savior looking out at the beautiful city after a frightful climb that I began to contemplate happiness.  As apparently the world’s happiest nation, I wondered if that was actually true and what factors contribute to this notion.  I visited the colorful neighborhood of Christiania where it was apparent that the social factors added to the inhabitant’s personal delight.  Labeled as Copenhagen’s “Green Light District”, the streets were lined with colorfully reconstructed army quarters, abstract sculptures made from recycled materials, and uplifting quotes about freedom and expressionism.  With the personal liberties, albeit ones the law doesn’t necessarily agree with, and likeminded people banning together, this community welcomes outsiders in to witness their different kind of lifestyle.

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A storefront in Christiania

It is obvious that societal influences affect overall happiness, which was curious to think about after lately experiencing several different types of cultures.  While Florence seemed to be a city full of always emotionally distant people who focused on personal benefit, Copenhagen proved to be a city of high social trust as security itself adds largely to a more content mindset.  The official report as to why this windy country remains so blissful is the result of six existing factors: (1) a large GDP per capita, (2) healthy life expectancy at birth, (3) a lack of corruption in leadership, (4) a sense of social support, (5) freedom to make life choices, and (6) a culture of generosity.*  The general attitude can be summed up by a question posed by a true Copenhagen fanatic:

“But shouldn’t all of us on earth give the best we have to others and offer whatever is in our power?” -Hans Christian Andersen 

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By one of the many “lakes”

I was glad to witness such a positive environment but began to think of happiness on a more individual level.  One of my drawing professors once said that for him to be happy he has to live without feeling guilty; he has to have personal responsibility in life.  For me, I need change, both mentally and physically, and I need to conquer this guilt.

When I was a child, I was afraid of everything.  I used to think that when I grew up I couldn’t live in a normal house because of earthquakes and fires but I couldn’t live in a boat because it would sink.  So I decided I needed to live in a blimp high up, but then I remembered lightning and that I was terrified of falling.  I used to be scared of people, and of their intense emotions.  I would shake when other people got mad or frustrated, and I would hide.  I thought everyone else had so much authority, which led me most of all to be petrified of getting in trouble.  I was the ideal child, obeying rules and being quietly polite, but no one realized it was because I was fearful.

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Copenhagen from a great height

I don’t exactly know what I thought would happen if I was caught doing something wrong.  Maybe I was worried that person would tower over me and slowly break me down, making me believe that I was in fact what was wrong.  For years I lived harboring guilt for things that didn’t actually happen; guilt for being scared.  So I would run to the woods and make a fort out of sticks and grass and think to myself, “maybe I can just live here.”

I can identify six following points for my own personal happiness, some already stated and some more common sense, starting with the borrowed principles (1): banish unnecessary guilt, (2) build a personal community, (3) embrace change or, in the least, diversify life, (4) make journeys, either physically or mentally, (5) perpetuate creative learning, and (6) seek self-improvement.  These may seem inherently obvious but for a long time, I did not follow them.

I am not a scared person now…I wouldn’t be where I am if I was.  Of course I have rational fears but I do not let myself be controlled by what I haven’t experienced or what I don’t understand.  Now, I am not afraid of the unknown.

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*Information courtesy of The Huffington Post.

Last Thoughts about Italy: Religion and Connections

The last email I received from my mother started off with her asking if being in Italy has reaffirmed my Catholicism and I really didn’t know what to reply because I didn’t want to simply respond with the abruptly dismissive answer of “no”.  After visiting and seeing so many churches in such a short amount of time and thinking a lot about what it means to fully understand something, this question made me consider the idea of faith and the things involved with it.

Praying has always been something that I have done, even after stepping away from organized religious practices and these days, I pray the most by the river, my back resting against a thick barked tree.  I have a special place by the Arno where the grass is still long enough that lizards stumble over my crossed bare feet and peek into the folds of my jacket spread out underneath me.  I used to pray to the Mississippi during the months I was home, running there with very little air in my lungs.  I suppose I have always unconsciously gravitated to rivers because they give me both reassurance and peace of mind.  They represent movement, sometimes adapting and sometimes not, sometimes being absolutely vital for prosperity and sometimes carrying alien toxins that will destroy an entire ecosystem.  There are two exact sides to a river and a heck of a lot of content in between.  They can represent adaptability and change.  Or they can just be water, forever traveling. I don’t think that any God would have a problem with me praying to the river.

Praying and Napping by the Arno

The Arno

When I was younger, I used to sing to God at night, especially after watching Jurassic Park because I was convinced that while my family was sleeping, a dinosaur would step on our house and the four of us inside.  There is a zero percent chance of this happening but sometimes I would see them outside our windows and cringe farther under the covers, terrified of the idea that something could be that large. When I was younger, I was most vulnerable to my own mind, just as the human knee is most vulnerable to the body it is a part of, considering that much of the body’s weight is constantly rested on it.

Pisa

Pisa

There are roughly sixty nine churches in Florence and over two thousand churches in Rome and twenty four churches in Siena even though only forty percent of Italians consider themselves to be practicing Catholics.   I have been in twelve churches in Italy but always prefer the river.  However, when I can, I give my fifty cents and light a candle, whispering a little prayer.  I believe in well wishes so I pray for exactly three boys and one girl and the entirety of the rest of the world.  Sometimes if there are kneelers, I will be a little bit selfish and bow my head to look down, praying for my knees and increased resistance, hoping that these parts of my body aren’t as vulnerable as they seem.

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The Duomo of Firenze

Over one million bibles are sold every year.  The average household owns four bibles which they read only four times every year which is three more bibles than I own and four times how often I read it.  I tried to read it once, so if people asked why I am not religious, I could give an informed answer.  But I never got very far with the book and so I just tell people that for years I watched people who didn’t know what faith meant kneel in front of a wooden cross because if they didn’t, they would probably get detention.  The concept of religion that I was taught contained very little movement, based off of memorizing the Act of Contrition for a grade and followed a strict rigidness that was entirely not worth it if you didn’t even understand the words you were taught to say.  It was supposed to be Catholicism but almost a larger teaching hidden behind that was the religion of obedience.

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Siena

I guess I never really associated with those religious ideas which resulted in me finding ties in other things.  Recently rereading my previous posts, I realize that they all have a common theme apart from travel and perspective, it just took me until now to see what it was: the importance of effective connection.  While it may seem dramatic to say that we wouldn’t survive without connections, it is absolutely true, just in various degrees of validity.

Moving to a new country with very little idea of what I was getting myself into, successful interactions are 100% necessary for survival, primarily in relation to the language.  In the beginning, with no previous knowledge of Italian, association and being able to identify logical equivalents were key.  However, I will say that recognizing different societal cues and mannerisms is also essential as success within society is all about understanding different situations.  As someone who is not very physically affectionate, the first time my host mother kissed me, which was also the first time we had met, I was quite taken aback as only one person in my life has gotten away with this before and it was under very different circumstances.  But this was a gesture of friendship and hospitality, something that would continue my entire stay in Italy, and I was thankful to discover that this act did not happen between everyone and before every approachable interaction.  Connections are understanding.

My host mother with a fake fish she made and decorated

My host mother with a fake fish she made and decorated

Integrating into a new place, especially one as large as Florence, many people were introduced and many people were passed by.  But there are those who stick around because for some reason there was some conversation that was stimulating or a face that was more keenly remembered; a volley of knowledge resulting in a passing between: a connection has been made.  This can be a result of particular wording which will erode as time flies by or it can hold on like nothing else matters.  These are what count, the connections in friendships that keep us all relatively sane.

I am always nervous when I go to a new place that I won’t for some reason fit in, that I will be driven into a spiraling loneliness that will make me regret the wonderful places where I am.  Thankfully,  this was not the case and I have met some really interesting individuals who I look forward to getting to know more in the future.  But good connections coupled with the unavoidable changes necessary for life can create a moment of sadness when one thing ends and another begins.  I really will miss my little visits to the Arno and the way the Italian countryside smells but more importantly I will miss the friends I have made who I have to say goodbye to.   To avoid sounding entirely like a graduation speech, I will just say this, I will see them again…just a little bit later.

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