Since coming to Copenhagen, Denmark to study abroad, I’ve encountered some strange things; the strangest being that the most important aspect of my identity to Europeans is my status as a Californian.
Being from California is special – or so I’m told. Anytime a Dane or another American student asks me where I’m from, California gets a different reaction than any other state. A few Americans have reacted by saying “Ooooh Cali” with a knowing smile, as if they are in on some scandalous secret. I don’t know what secret they believe they’re in on, but you can always spot a non-Californian by the way they refer to the state.
What is a “Cali” anyway? I have no idea.
My time in Denmark, as well as my travels to Germany, Hungary, the Czech Republic and England, has reinforced this idea that being from Californian is different.
One day while riding the train into downtown Copenhagen, I was decked out in a dress shirt, tie, pants, dress shoes, everything. I had an interview for an internship that day and I wanted to leave no clothing stone left unturned. While riding the train a Danish man in his late 20’s started chatting with the American girl I room with about what we were doing in Copenhagen and where in the U.S. we were from.
She revealed her home state was Illinois, a place devoid of any interesting or redeeming qualities as far as this Dane was concerned. He gave a polite, cursory reaction and moved on to me. When I told him I was from California, he flashed a validating smile, relieved that I was from somewhere actually relevant. He gestured towards what I was wearing and said, “Yeah, I could tell.” As if all Californians like strolling around town in nice clothing for no reason.
I learned more about “Cali” from two very intoxicated Swedish guys. There’s a fabulous place in Copenhagen called Christiania where marijuana is used openly — which does a good job of explaining the state of mind of these two gentlemen. Two American friends and I ran into the Swedes and they asked the obligatory question of where we were from.
One friend said he was from Boston, which garnered an “Eh, pretty cool.” The other friend said Connecticut, which resulted in mocking laughter. Connecticut is apparently very uncool by Swedish standards. When I said California, the laughter stopped and there were smiles and words of approval.
Then the Swedes ranked us. “Number one? Obviously, California,” one of them said. “Number two? Boston… eh, it’s okay. And three? Oh God, Connecticut! I’m so sorry!”
That’s right, someone from ice-cold Scandinavia was apologizing to my friend for her misfortune of living in Connecticut. They then proceeded to praise California in thickly accented English, in between bouts of stoned, hysterical laughter. Ever since that day, my friend avoids telling Europeans she’s from Connecticut.
That doesn’t mean all Europeans see California as the land of glitz and glam. One Danish friend peppered me with questions about what it’s like to live in a state filled with gangs.
So there you have it, being from “Cali” makes you a geographical celebrity in Europe. And if you’re not from California, just pretend you are — as long as you say the name in all of its four syllable grandeur.
Matthew Grant Anson is a junior at Whittier College in Whittier, California. He is studying this semester at the Danish Institute for Study Abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark.