Denmark, Finland, Wisconsin, & Haircuts

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got a haircut the other day. I went to Ritual Barbers on Pinckney Street just off Capitol Square, marking my first barbershop experience involving both a motorcycle and a full-service coffee shop and bar in the same space. I really think both of these elements could be seamlessly incorporated with any business function, especially in a city as vivaciously experimental as Madison, Wisconsin. While my interactions with gentlemen sporting face tattoos are few and far between, I allowed Jorge to practice his craft and have been quite happy with the result. He didn’t even bother trying to put gel (“goopy shit” as he called it) in my hair, further adding to my appreciation of his work.

There are a couple reasons that I open with this seemingly innocuous illustration. First and foremost, this was the first time I got my hair cut since returning from an eleven-day trip to Copenhagen and Helsinki. Maybe it has to do with changing one’s appearance (even if back to the way it was only a few weeks prior) or the intimidation of letting someone I barely know have at my scalp with sharp utensils, but getting a haircut has always had some subliminal relationship with starting fresh, moving beyond a past stage in life. During my first couple years of college, I would just let my hair grow out because I didn’t want to bother finding (or paying) a barber and would let the same lady who had cut my hair for a decade shake her head and fix me up whenever I was back in Cincinnati. I’ve discovered great barbershops in some places I’ve lived, and begrudgingly stepped into Great Clips on a Monday evening in others. Regardless, the hair that went to Europe with me was now gone and I was back in yet another city I’ve gotten to call home.

Last October, while still living in Dubuque, I got in touch with a great friend from college regarding incredibly affordable plane tickets from Chicago to Copenhagen the following spring. While he and I navigated various changes in our respective day-to-day lives, we kept the trip on our calendars and met in the international terminal at O’Hare around lunchtime on April 27th for the trans-Atlantic flight. (Side note: If you ever want the feeling of flying in and out of a Costco, book an Air Berlin flight through Tegel Airport. Research the Brandenburg Airport fiasco for the whole story.) Five days in Copenhagen were fantastic, followed up by five equally captivating days in Helsinki. Both of these cities have their respective quirks and adaptations to their respective country’s history and the influx of tourism over the past century, but they encapsulate a rich Scandinavian heritage and sense of wellness and hospitality. While each day would revolve around a particular site or destination, we established a methodical daily routine of stopping (at least) a couple times for coffee/chai tea, perusing some kind of shop, sitting or stretching by a body of water, and finishing the day off with a couple craft beers while musing about what the next day might bring.

The urban fabrics of both the cities we visited are meticulously crafted and organized, so I’d like to think the way our journey played out followed a similar rhythm as a result. There are certainly great stories and memories wrapped into each of the eleven days we traveled, but the single moment that remains most vivid in my memory was actually back in the States. We land and go through U.S. Customs in Chicago, Alex leaves to catch the Amtrak back to St. Louis, and I check into the United Airlines terminal for the final leg to Madison. I land at Dane County Regional Airport around 5:15 pm, catch an Uber back to my apartment, drop my things, and wearily make my way to Union Terrace for enough sustenance to stay awake until double digits. I get a salad and some coffee, make my way outside to the shore of Lake Mendota, and watch the color of the sky change against the lake and horizon.

I love to travel, even for just a weekend. I love planning how to get where I’m going, where to stay, how to get around, and figuring out which attractions and neighborhoods I want to visit while I’m there. But while eating my dinner that evening, I realized that for the first time in years, I had returned from a journey and felt…at…home.

Five years ago, I spent a semester in Greece with several fellow architecture students (my companion in Copenhagen and Helsinki included) and had a remarkably sufficient time. I don’t say that negatively–I made great memories over those three months, prepared an architecture studio project that I felt was not only a strong final product aided by a phenomenal studio professor but signified a well-balanced design process, and still have the soccer scarves I bought prominently draped in my apartment. Studying abroad is an extraordinary opportunity that I certainly encourage, but do so with the goal of renowned focus and worldview that will make your experiences upon returning all the more profound. Make memories and reminisce about the place you were once you’re back, but do so in the knowledge that time doesn’t stand still and neither should you. Take those opportunities to travel as a time to refresh and apply new ways of thinking to the challenges you will inevitably face.

As I look back on the trajectory of my life over the past five years, I clearly see that the bulk of challenges I’ve faced have (fortunately) been mental as opposed to physical or financial. When I was younger, I would often meticulously visualize how a particular stage of my life would play out and feel that I was at fault when things didn’t work out how I had envisioned. As I’ve matured, I’ve learned that thinking in this hypothetical way is not only irrational but disrespectful of those I’m interacting with. We all have our own maxims and rationales for the decisions we make which are shaped through radically different life experiences. At the same time, I’ve learned to suspend myself from a situation that does make me upset and methodically analyze the best approach to remedy the problem.  It’s important (especially in a world of engineered greeting card messages and emojis) to practice effectively communicating with each other rather than bottling up emotions and assuming that everyone else is doing just fine.

The past five years have also been dramatically shaped by the spontaneity and discovery of living and visiting so many places. Again, it took me a while to understand and accept that different people with different life experiences are going to see the world differently than I do. It is, however, the people with such different worldviews that shape such beautiful places and cultures around the United States and around the world. We could have had a grand time in Copenhagen and Helsinki simply strolling around and commenting on the architecture and infrastructure of the city (and trust me, we did plenty of that), but equally memorable are the conversations we had with tour guides and airBNB hosts, interactions we saw among families or classes, foods and beverages we tried, and simple quirks we learned about each other in addition to those of the places we were visiting. Be it through travel, meditation, or daily interactions you have, looking beyond simple cause and effect and getting to the root of how individual philosophies have been shaped and work with each other can be an incredibly valuable exercise that I know has contributed mightily to the person I am today.

Madison’s still a little foreign to me. I knew from the start that it would take longer to really feel a part of the community here than it did in Dubuque, simply because the larger, more transient population creates many layers to the social fabric of the city (e.g. I was fortunate enough to be timely informed that the 4th of July fireworks are on the last Saturday in June). Getting out and meeting new people can be rewarding but also overstimulating, and it takes more effort on some days than others to put one foot in front of the other. Still, I am frequently reminded (often subtly) how beautiful this place is and how affirmed I’ve felt every day that I’ve been back in the Midwest. We all lead unique journeys, but we all have the innate capacity to love and to be loved.

Long story short, Copenhagen and Helsinki were great and my hairdo’s neat and trim. If there are any specific events you would like more information about from this trip, any trip, or questions about how to make the most of your own travels, please don’t hesitate to get in touch. And if you need a little encouragement to navigate your own personal journey, know that we’re all in this together. It can take longer than you might think it should, but take in everything from the journey and enjoy the solace of being home once you’re there.

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