Winter in Denmark is very much like winter here in Walla Walla. It’s cold, cloudy, and quite frankly gray. Streets are devoid of life and you may wonder if people cease to walk anywhere, opting to simply teleport instead. And the very things that are the same between these two places 5000 miles apart contribute significantly to what makes coming back in winter so hard.
Returning was…is terrible. I left in the middle of the school year, on Christmas Eve (arguably the most important holiday to the Danes), and honestly was not ready to return. Behind me were my best friends, my girlfriend and a wonderful place that had a home in my heart. I left people I loved, a culture I loved, and a home I loved. I didn’t notice these so much at first. Of course the goodbyes were rough, but it took time nonetheless to realize the full weight. Here’s how it played out:
Arriving home was a blur. I was excited to spend Christmas with my family and I arrived to “Welcome Home Kyle” on the Christmas tree with hugs all around. Following Christmas was a blur to sort through all the things I returned with and had left behind before Denmark and then pack for college once more. Not much time for thought. When I arrived on campus, not many others were around. I came back from break early. However, some were here and I was invited to go bowling Saturday night. I think that night was the most I was my “Danish persona” since coming back.
The first week of classes is very much a blur in my memory. It’s as if time still ran at the same speed in Denmark. Side note, while Danes are quite chill and simultaneously timely, time raced for me over there. It’s what happens when you spend 90+% of your waking time with other people in social situations on some level. Except instead of being super social during that first week, it was speedy hellos, finding classes, and “professor, I’m gone next week. …” Not that they could do anything about that. Anyways, point is I hardly remember that week. Week two was amazing even though I got so sick I was bed-ridden for a day and some time. I was in Norway to teach skiing and then in Denmark for one last visit. I’ll keep it at that since that’s not the focus here.
Week three was another blur because now I was trying to catch up on week two. And when week four rolled around, reality finally started catching up with me. Life start crashing. My self-esteem, which had built up so much in Denmark crumbled away to dust in what felt like a week. My social confidence as a dean and the responsible adult in the room faded. And my will to be with people vanished like the fog that never lasted past noon. I pulled a 180 and was caught completely off guard. Each moment, each attempt to save face and bring people into my life didn’t seem to go anywhere. Internally, I was emotional and I couldn’t explain any of it. I was critical and annoyed at things that never really affected me before, and even at things that were positive for me in the past. I dug deep into a depressed introverted take on my normally ambivert personality.
Quite frankly, I was awkward. Due to the busyness of the first three weeks, it was during week four that I began to catch up with people. Not in the sense that I had long conversations about where life had taken us, but in the sense that I was literally starting to catch people from my past life for what felt like the first time in months, years. And the moments were all over the place. Sometimes I just stared. I didn’t know what to say or how to approach them. Did they value the friendship that was seemingly there as much as I did? Sometimes I approached for a reunion, only to get cut off by a friend of there’s who was present, and not from the past. Some seemed to take interest in the moment, but like many returned student missionaries I got a sense of lacking genuineness. Others were extremely kind and in a their own ways reached out to me. At the time I was very grateful for that, but then it got complicated, for whatever reason. I thought I was getting people I could depend upon. I mustered up the courage to try to invite them into my life, to do things together. And it almost never worked with most of these people. For some it did at first, but it didn’t last. So on I floated, with no foundation, no esteem, and no sense of social direction or belonging.
As I reflect on these months I have realized two key problems, among many. First, friendships operate differently than in Denmark. There is much less of a middle ground there. If you’re friends, its solid. You know you can count on a good friendship. If you aren’t friends, you’re likely an acquaintance or less. From my perspective, I probably took this approach to friendships coming back, being colder with those I deemed acquaintances and overextending myself towards those I deemed friends. Second problem, I came back in winter. As I mentioned earlier, winter here in Walla Walla is very much like winter in Denmark. And unfortunately this is a significant contributor to problem two. In winter, people gel up. They move indoors to warmth and their friend group solidifies. People have figured out who they can count on from the fall and they cling to these rocks. Showing up in the winter without these fall experiences that provide the foundations that everyone else has…well, you can see where this went.
Full disclosure, I don’t know how to write on. This story is not pretty. There’s no happy ending and no miracles. There are moments of joy, but the grand picture is still dark in my mind. Don’t get me wrong, I had some fantastic moments in the winter. I started having conversations in person with future student missionaries to Denmark. Those are among the brightest highlights to my return experience. There are also times of just crashing at a friend’s house down the street in the evenings or skiing on the weekend. I don’t know how to balance these experiences. What I know is that as a whole picture experience, returning has been among, if not, the hardest whole experience of life thus far. So like me at the end of the quarter, we’ll wait for Spring.
Continuing the story…