Bundled Up in Northern Europe (And Learning A Lot!)

Zach Cohen
November 27, 2016
Big Ben!
One of the major pluses of the IES Abroad European Union program is the opportunity to travel across Europe with an academic perspective - and to understand the EU beyond just Freiburg and Germany.  Within the past three months, I’ve visited eight EU member-states as part of the program, and my experiences in them were far different than had I solely visited on vacation.  I was able to look at these countries in a larger context; how they relate to one another, and what roles they play within the EU, for example.

Our last trip was a nine day adventure through the capital cities of Northern Europe, and while the UK, Sweden, and Latvia are all indeed in the geographic north, that is about the only thing that would bind them together.  Well, that, and they are all very cold.  I’m from Arizona and go to school in L.A., so I’m used to being warm pretty much year round.  But here, at the far reaches of the globe...it’s cold.  I felt like my fingers were going to fall off.  Like I needed to be thawed out by an oven.  Ok, maybe I’m exaggerating a little bit, but it was definitely a shock.  On top of that, the sun would set each day at around 3:30 p.m., which was quite disorienting.

But when I look past the cold, and the darkness, I see three very different countries - certainly not a Northern Europe which would be grouped together by any conventional categories.  I appreciate the diversity in countries we visited here; had we gone to just the UK and Ireland, or just Sweden Denmark and Finland, or simply to the Baltics, it would have been a much different experience.

In London, our principal topic of discussion was Brexit.  This was one of the places I was most excited to visit - after all, what could be more interesting that experiencing the tensions of the UK while Brexit is happening!  In reality, it's not like there were any visible signs that the people had voted to leave, but nonetheless I could feel the fear in our speakers’ voices.  Brexit is one of those topics which I have discussed so much, that broadly speaking I pretty much know everything about it; and the more I learn, the more I am flabbergasted that it actually happened.

Brexit is more than just a British issue though.  We talked about it our meetings in both other countries, as well as the broader picture of right-wing populism in Europe.  In Stockholm, one of our meetings was focused on the Sweden Democrats, a fringe anti-immigrant party which has recently been making gains in the polls.  I’ve always envisioned Sweden as a model country in the world (in terms of its welfare policies and what not) so it was surprising to note that such attitudes are prevalent in the country as well.

The last leg of our trip took us to Riga, Latvia, where we were constantly reminded of the contentious relationship with Russia, both past and present.  I toured an old KGB building, as well as a museum dedicated to the Soviet-Occupation of the country; both relayed tales of oppression and cruelty.  I reflected on the fact that Latvia has only had a quarter-century of independence after centuries of domination, and how amazing it is that it has found its way into the European sphere today.  Moreover, our meetings talked about contemporary concerns over defense due to Russian aggression, and the division between Latvians and the Russian-speaking minority.  

The linguistic and ethnic animosity was surprisingly noticeable - in fact, my first cross-cultural encounter in the country was the perfect example of such tension.  On our first night, two Russian men cut in front of me and my friends at an elevator, and after they were gone, a Latvian man behind us said “That was very rude - you can tell that they were Russian because of how they acted, there are too many of them in this country.”  It was undoubtedly fascinating to be immediately presented with the issue at hand, and it goes to show how much work the country has to do to better resolve the differences between groups.

And with that, our field trips are done.  In our last weeks of the program, we will be focusing heavily on a Model EU simulation, where I am glad that I will be able to apply my nuanced and first-hand understandings of these countries.


Zach Cohen

<p>Hello! &nbsp;My name is Zach and I am so happy you are here! &nbsp;I grew up in Tucson, Arizona, and am currently a Junior at Occidental College, where I am double-majoring in History and International Relations. &nbsp;I&#39;m fascinated by the connections between the past and the present, and the role that history plays in modern diplomacy. &nbsp;Be sure to keep up with my travels as I explore Freiburg and the European Union this semester!</p>

2016 Fall
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Occidental College
International Relations
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