Lost in Translation: A Teenager Abroad

As I ascended into the sky on my one-way ticket to Denmark, I bid farewell to the mirage of tiny monopoly houses and Packer lawn ornaments from the Green Bay scenery below and wondered what the next year would bring me. I knew saying goodbye to my family would be tough. I just never imagined saying goodbye to my year supply of peanut butter would be equally as difficult, as the TSA confiscated both jars back in security. There goes my last tie with the good ol’ US of A.

As of the moment, I am a Rotary exchange student from rural Ellison Bay now living in the bustling suburbs of Copenhagen. I will be living with three different host families during the course of the year, all of whom will graciously supply me with food and shelter. Arriving as a stranger in a foreign country with an entirely different language will be difficult but the opportunity to meet new people from around the world, learn a new language, and experience a new culture is the priceless benefit to being an exchange student.

When I first started the Rotary process a year ago, I was terrified I wouldn’t make it past the interview process. Once I did, I was beyond scared for my country assignment, fearing I may get sent to the depths of Siberia like my brother Sam when he went through the same process many years back. Luck prevailed and I got my first choice: Denmark.

Since then, feelings of adventure and excitement have carried me through the remainder of my sophomore year at Gibraltar, onto the airplane and now into my new European home.

When I first stepped off the plane, I was immediately overtaken by the sea of blonde. The Danish people are of a special breed. Along with their striking light hair, everyone is fit and model-caliber. At first it was overwhelming walking down the streets for the first time and constantly doing double takes at the locals but soon enough I got used to living in an H&M advertisement.

As well as the stunning looks of the Danes, I am overwhelmed by the sheer number of bicycles in the country. If you did not know, Copenhagen is considered the biking capital of the world and I wouldn’t be surprised if children arrived fresh out the womb on a tiny Danish tricycle. But for such a small and flat country, biking makes sense. Even me, the loyal yellow school bus patron, has now taken up biking the five miles to school everyday.

The language is another story, however. The local dialect is Danish (no, not Dutch, dad). The best description of its linguistic beauty would be to imagine the Swedish Chef gargling a potato. Before I arrived, I tried to learn a few phrases but everyone reassured me not to worry; I would pick it up naturally by just being immersed. Well I’m a month into the exchange and I’m still at the comprehension level of a toddler. It’s tough to stay vigilant to the language learning as well when everyone speaks better English than you.

As for cultural differences, Denmark isn’t as shockingly different as compared to other countries such as Japan, where it seems like you’ve arrived on an entirely different planet. Even some of the landscape echoes the vast stretches of farmland one passes on Highway 42 back in Door County. But the differences appear much more subtly with time. When walking on the sidewalk, one wouldn’t dare to smile at a stranger, even worse greeting them! I’m still plagued by my Midwestern “friendliness” and have gotten many strange looks in return for a smile. Everything is smaller as well, be it the people, cars, food portions and the country itself.

At times I miss Door County and the humble charm of the Midwest. Sometimes late at night I’ll find myself missing the little things like the Seaquist apples in the fall, my mother’s garden (as well as mother), and mostly my sweet, American peanut butter. But then I realize, I’m living my dream – traveling, living in Europe, and free health care! There’s a reason Denmark is considered the happiest country in the world and with each day here it’s easy to see why. I suppose its time to exchange my peanut butter for salty licorice.

Shelby Kahr was born and raised in Door County where she attended Gibraltar High School. It was last fall that she decided to take the plunge and apply to be a Rotary exchange student. Now 17, she is spending a year abroad in Denmark. She has agreed to write about the experience for the Peninsula Pulse. For more information on her exchange, visit