My high school classmates and I had quite different experiences of graduating. While they got ready to visit all their parents on a multi-day road trip, packing the party bus full (per tradition) of whatever cheap alcohol they could find, I had only 45 minutes from the end of my final exam to get myself on the train for Copenhagen Airport.
It was May 22, 2013, and I was starting the most exciting trip of my life: Three months abroad, in Washington, D.C., no less!
Summer, Carl Larsson (1853-1919), date unknown.
Well, actually Arlington, Virginia. I had landed a competitive internship with a conservative think tank, the Leadership Institute, on short notice. LI takes 12 interns at a time, housing them all together a nice, 10-minute walk from the office. I applied after the deadline, so I had to scramble to find a bed and a roof of my own. One week before my arrival I found just that and not much more.
Work began on the 24th. When my supervisor gave me a tour of the building, my life changed forever: I was introduced to a new colleague. I wasn’t sure at first that she was an intern because she seemed too professional to be a peer. Turned out, she was 18. Abigail. From Minnesota. She was a rising sophomore at the University of Notre Dame, but I’d never heard of that place.
That night the interns went out for dinner. As we arrived at the Metro Center subway station, Spencer, our new friend from Michigan, led us on a long walk, certain he’d soon find a good spot. When we finally found a decent place to eat, I got to sit next to Abby. I got her number. Spencer’s and Macaela’s, too, so who knew what it meant?
The first thing I did the next morning, a Saturday, was find a T-Mobile store.
Gotta text this girl.
Without coming on too strong.
So I texted all three of my new phone-friends, asking if they were up for some Washington sightseeing. Only Abby responded. Gold!
I did think I might be running out of luck when she suggested we go to the National Postal Museum. I’d worked as a mailman, and even I wouldn’t go there if not in the company of a pretty girl. But I was, so we went, and it was actually fun.
The Washington heat and humidity were not as enjoyable, but I blame myself. I’d only packed suits and dress shoes, so that’s what I was wearing as we strolled the National Mall on our way to the National Air and Space Museum. (I suggested that one.) Abby, who had been to Washington before, pointed out the attractions: “That’s the Washington Monument.” “Smithsonian Castle.” “There’s the National Crane Museum,” she said, pointing to a construction site. To this day she claims I believed her, and whenever we see a crane we joke that it’s the International Crane Museum, which “just keeps expanding.”
At the Air and Space Museum, which is “straight diesel” — Spencer’s term to describe something cool — I had a burger and my first encounter with something that became a big topic that summer: Abby said grace. Almost no one I know back home is religious. Before I’d left for the United States, the vice president of my youth political party, which mainly consists of atheists, joked that she’d fire me if I returned a Christian. I did not, but my internship would start the conversion process, even if I didn’t know it at the time.
My internship supervisor was a Baptist from Texas. Pretty soon I got the feeling that she had hopes of releasing me from the clutches of atheism, which my French Catholic co-intern called “our biggest enemy” once she learned of my stance. God works in mysterious ways, and what ended up bringing me to several Masses and even the occasional bible study was the same person who had brought me to the Postal Museum.
It almost took me a month to ask Abby out on a date. She’d tell you that I did so in a text message, but I wouldn’t say that exactly. Anyhow, she is way out of my league, so how was I to blame if I didn’t know what to do?
I think most of the office knew of our date ahead of time. I picked her up at the interns’ house with a single rose and we went to a restaurant, which, to her chagrin, had curtains that matched the color of her dress. I ordered the duck and she had some dinky little pasta. Why do women do that?
From there we went to the Kennedy Center and heard the National Symphony Orchestra. They played Edvard Grieg, I remember, but the rest is blank now. The big, romantic surprise of the night was when I took her up to the roof of the concert hall. It’s a hidden gem in Washington, almost no one goes there but it has sweeping views of the Potomac River, the Watergate Hotel and the National Mall. That’s where I told her: “Umm, I, you know, like you.”
As she didn’t run away I convinced her to walk with me to the Lincoln Memorial. She didn’t tell me about the pain her shoes were causing her until much later. Our hands were pretty close. I desperately wanted to take hers, but I had overheard her telling Macaela that she would never kiss on a first date. Would she hold hands? We didn’t find out. Later, when the cab dropped us off at the interns’ house, she asked if I had enjoyed the date.
“I only have one regret,” I said. “I didn’t ask if I could hold your hand.”
She turned me down. In a nice way. Something about it being right in front of the window where the other interns might be watching. It was OK, though. She invited me in for tea. And she’d been right. The others were waiting for us like the tabloid press, ready to ask about everything as if we were Brangelina. (It was 2013.) One housemate asked us point blank if there’d be a second date. They actually live-tweeted the whole evening, with pre- and post-date analysis. There’s even a hashtag, which I won’t reveal.
The next day Abby’s parents were visiting, so I met them. We went to Mass with them the day after that. I had my first-ever doughnut and met a seminarian who happened to be from Notre Dame and to have a Danish grandfather.
Oh, the job? As I mentioned, the internship was at a conservative think tank. I wouldn’t call myself a “conservative,” but I’m not of the left either. It mattered very little since “most political technology is philosophically neutral,” as LI’s president, Morton Blackwell, a former special assistant to President Reagan, likes to say.
The Leadership Institute trains organizers and activists to win elections. Interns may go to all the training sessions as long as it doesn’t interfere with important tasks, which for me was mostly clerical work of the usual kind. The trainings offered free food, often Chick-fil-A, so I attended a lot of them, learning things like how to wear a nametag (yes, there’s a right way and many wrong ways to do that), how to talk about my group and our opponents, and how to fundraise. For someone who loves politics as much as I do, this was a dream come true.
I don’t think I’ve ever met as many interesting people as I did that summer. We met Congressman Justin Amash of Michigan and Tim Goeglein, a former special assistant to President George W. Bush whom the interns had over for dinner. The best was Senator Rand Paul from Kentucky. When we went to The Heritage Foundation to hear him speak, Spencer and I found front row seats. As Paul walked off the stage he stopped suddenly in front of me and put out his hand. I froze. He looked at me as if to say, “Come on, bro, don’t leave me hanging.” Then Spencer gave me a nudge, which woke me up. I left with a weird feeling of extreme excitement and humiliation.
By now you might have figured out that Abby and I eventually got married. As a wedding gift, my LI supervisor managed to get us an American flag that had flown over the U.S. Capitol on the day of our wedding at Senator Paul’s request.
My life changed dramatically in other ways, too. I now live 4,000 miles from where I was born, and I work in my second language. The internship taught me a whole lot and provided me with plenty of free food and books, but I think you’ll agree the greatest thing that happened to me that summer was meeting a rising sophomore from Notre Dame.
Rasmus Schmidt Jorgensen is a student at the Danish School of Media and Journalism and an intern at this magazine; email firstname.lastname@example.org.