The Easter Trip Part I: The Netherlands*

We started off our trip over Easter in Amsterdam. Well actually, we started off at 7:00 in the morning with a 3 hour train ride to Copenhagen where we caught our 1 hour flight to Amsterdam. Something about the time involved there just seems wrong, but it has become apparent to me that Aarhus is not well situated for easy European travel. Even its own airport is a 25 minute bus ride from the city center, and then you have to fly to Copenhagen airport before you can get anywhere else.

Anyway, we arrived in Amsterdam, booked it over to our hotel, checked in, and then immediately ran out to enjoy the evening. We were only there Friday evening, Saturday, and Sunday morning (which was all spent traveling), so we had to get on with exploring!

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Amsterdam was lovely, but I felt like it was a city with multiple personality disorder. The main area of downtown, the touristy area around the Red Light District, was chockablock full of British tourists. FULL! I swear, I heard more British English than anything else during our time in the city. Apparently, Amsterdam is like the UK’s Las Vegas, and everyone goes there in huge groups on stag or hen nights.

However, if you could get outside of that little pocket, you can discover the lovely, peaceful, canal-bordering streets that you imagined. And the wonderful thing was, it wasn’t that difficult to get outside of the touristy part.

Lovel Canals

Lovely Canals

As you can tell from my outfit, despite the weather forecasts that I saw before we left – which I swear told us there was going to be warm weather! – it was quite chilly while we were there.

So we spent most of our time in Amsterdam pounding the pavement, enjoying the picturesque houses and canals, though we did stop by the Rijks Museum to see some of the great Dutch masters. And we ate so many french fries!

With mayo, which I am now totally behind, by the way. Though I still like ketchup. As long as it's not remoulade!

With mayo, which I am now totally behind, by the way. Though I still like ketchup. As long as it’s not remoulade!

I will say one last thing about Amsterdam. It is so weird to be walking down the street and smell marijuana everywhere and see half naked women posing in the doorway of their little booths. I don’t know why, but knowing that these things are legal in Amsterdam and then actually seeing them are two different things.

Sunday we hightailed it to a small university town in the south of The Netherlands* called Wageningen so Brian could register for his conference, the whole impetus for this trip in the first place. Over the next few days, Brian attended his conference from 9am until 9pm, leaving me free to wander around Wageningen.

I was a little worried about this part at the start of the trip, but it turned out that this was one of my favorite parts of our whole trip. Probably because – as I’ve recently been discovering – I am more a small town or even country girl than I am a city girl. Small towns are just so much more…manageable. And Wageningen still has a wonderfully cute pedestrian street like all European cities, so it’s not like it’s lacking in shopping or amenities.

The Town

It is a university town after all. But just a short 8 minute walk from the center of town (from anywhere in that town, really) was this:

The Floodlands

Beautiful beautiful fields full of wild grass, flowers, and sun.

Plus this is the walk to get there:

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So I spent most of my time in Wageningen wandering around in the sun, reading in the sun, napping in the sun. I even rented a bike and biked in the sun!

The River The Garden The Bike

Plus I got to see all of these sweet baby sheep!

Cute little puffballs.

Cute little puffballs.

I really could live in a town like Wageningen, I think.

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*Note: Although many people in the US refer to this country as “Holland,” the entire country is correctly called “The Netherlands.” North and South Holland are two provinces within The Netherlands. As much of what is famous about The Netherlands – Tulips, Amsterdam – comes from these provinces, it’s pretty understandable that they would get confused. Watch this really cool and useful video (Thanks Yuka!) if you’re still feeling confused:

The Return

The Grand Place in Brussels

The Grand Place in Brussels

Well we’ve just returned from our first official Easter Holiday Abroad. See, the Danes get three days off for Easter: the Thursday and Friday before and the Monday after (what they call Second Easter Day, hilarious). Which is a lot of days off, even for Europe. So over Easter, everyone goes on holiday. It’s kind of like spring break in the US only the whole country is off at the same time.

Brian and I wanted to take advantage of these extra days off since he has so few vacation days this year. He was also scheduled to be in The Netherlands for a conference the week before Easter, so we turned the whole thing into a 10-day long European extravaganza that took us from Amsterdam to Wageningen to Bruges to Brussels.

It was our longest trip abroad since we’ve moved to Denmark, and I’ll have many more details and more posts in the days to come, but I just wanted to take a moment to talk about returning to our newly created home as a brand new expat. Because it’s a little surreal.

It probably didn’t help that we didn’t get home until midnight last night. But when we pulled up on the train, walked to our apartment, and opened our front door it sort of felt like I was in a dream. Or like I was trying to remember a dream right after waking. Everything was almost familiar, but I found myself reminding myself: yes, this is your living room, yes, your walls really are that white, yes, that is where you keep your sugar and flour.

And today, my first day back to real life, I keep finding myself in the middle of that feeling you get when you walk into a room and suddenly forget what you’re doing or why you’re there. Again, I have to consciously tell myself: this is what you were doing before you left, this is what your routine used to look like.

I think it’s different for me, a “trailing spouse,” than it is for Brian, the working spouse. He has a routine to go back to, to immediately fall back into. (Whether that’s good or bad is up for discussion since he had to get up at 6:00 this morning and go to work while I got to sleep in and sleep off some of our travel from yesterday.) Whereas I don’t really have a routine. Or the one that I do have is set by me. So it’s harder to slip back into it, I think.

But of course, it’s coming back to me, and really it’s almost normal again now that I’ve made my usual gym-library-grocery store trip. And of course I’m busy editing all our photos and coming up with lots of topics to post about (Things I Learned in Brussels, Why I Love Danish Public Transportation, Why The Netherlands Shouldn’t Actually be Called Holland, etc. etc.). But until then, I wanted to post this small observation.

Happy Belated Easter Holidays!

A Small Update

For lack of discipline and concentration on my part, rather than do a blog post on a specific topic I’m just going to do a general update. Because I feel like there’s a lot going on recently, and my thoughts are a little scattered.

First, this Monday we just saw my parents off to the airport after a two week visit with us here in Denmark. It was so fun to have them finally visit and see where we’re living. We got to share with them where we shop and where we take walks and all kinds of little things that we’ve been saving up over the 8 months we’ve been here. (Um, 8 months already? How did that happen??)

It’s hard, though, because you run out of things to do in Aarhus for two straight weeks of sightseeing. It just is a smaller city. But that’s not to say that we don’t love it. Every time we’re in Copenhagen, some Danish sales clerk or waiter finds out we’re from Jutland and says basically, “Oh, I’m so sorry for you.” And we have a really hard time convincing them that we would rather live in Aarhus than in Copenhagen. But it’s true! It’s just so much more manageable in size and scope, although we acknowledge that we are probably missing out on some resources. (Not to mention the awesome gaming stores!) There are noticeably more foreigners in Copenhagen.

So while they were here, we did all the touristy stuff like visit Marselisborg Slot, the beach, Den Gamle By, and ARoS.

Marselisborg Slot, the royal palace where the royal family stays for Easter, Christmas, and I think summer, too.

They picked a great couple of weeks to come. We had so much sun!

At Den Gamle By.

The obligatory ARoS a Rainbow picture. I like the warm colors better.

But, once we ran out of those, we just started taking walks around the neighborhood, which I like almost as much if not more as the touristy stuff.

And we even got to visit the best game and LARPing store in town! Just look at all those crazy costumes!

 

The other thing happening is that Brian and I are finishing up Module 2 of our Danish lessons and taking that test. I could do a whole post on LærDansk and its budget cuts and our various frustrations with them (and I probably should). But overall, we’re getting these lessons for free, and we don’t loose sight of that. The first part of my test is on Monday, eek! With the oral part of the test following probably a week later. So I’m busy prepping for that.

Plus Brian has a bunch of courses for his PhD coming up, which for him means a bunch of time spent in Copenhagen and traveling back and forth on the train and for me means a bunch of time watching all the cheesy romcoms he won’t watch and chain-reading YA novels like a boss. So, you know, there’s that to plan.

Hopefully I’ll have a more pertinent post soon, but until now here’s this small update.

 

My Vacation Frustrations

I am not very good at hiding my feelings. (Just ask Brian.) And right now, I must vent. So vent I will to you, in the hopes that my struggles will help or speak to someone else out there going through the same thing.

I am fed up with the Danish vacation system.

Whaaat?! I can hear you all exclaiming. Isn’t this the system that gives every worker 5 weeks of vacation every year? Yes, yes it is. But… well, just listen.

I’m used to the US vacation system. In this system, you start your new job as a bright eyed and bushy tailed new hire. You may have a probationary period of 6 months or so before you can earn or use any vacation. But once that is over, you earn vacation days with each paycheck. And those days are available for you to use at any point during the year. Most important for our discussion, they’re available immediately.

The Danish system, apparently, is not like this.*

In this system, there are two time periods that are important: the calendar year and the vacation year, which runs from May to April. You accrue vacation days according to the calendar year, starting in January. However, those days are not able to be used until the next May. So days earned in 2013 are not available to take until May 2014. You have one year, until the next April, to use your vacation days. Plus, when you start your new job there is usually a probationary period in which you cannot use your vacation.

So what’s the problem? I hear you asking. There may not really be a problem if you’re Danish. But if you’re an expat who’s only planing on being here for, say, 3 years, this turns into a big annoyance. Why? Let me give you an example.

We moved to Denmark at the end of July 2013, and Brian started his job at the beginning of August. Brian carried over 5 vacation days from his pervious job. (Technically, he works for the same company he did in the US, but since it’s a whole new country he’s not allowed to have any of the US vacation that he would have built up based on his seniority in the company. He has to start over like a brand new employee.)

Since Brian only worked August through December, he earned only 8 vacation days in 2013. Those 8 days become available to him starting May 1. He will not have any additional vacation to use until 2015.**

Let me just emphasize that a little bit more. We will have been here for 22 months with Brian working for a Danish company the whole time before he can use anything more than those 8 days of vacation. As we’re only planning on being here 3 years, that will give us 14 months, just over a year, of actual Danish vacation.

I just… I just don’t understand this.

The first time Brian and I tried to sit down and figure this out, I was stunned. I was flummoxed. I was flabbergasted. There is no possible way this is right, I thought. Why would you ever do this? How could this ever make any sense? There must be some reason for the rule that says you can’t use your vacation as you accrue it. Perhaps because there’s so much of it?? But I’m just grasping at straws, trying to understand. So you’re telling me that even a Danish citizen who starts a new job at a new company in January has to wait until the next May to take his vacation? Doesn’t that just seem… unfair? Like an unfairly long amount of time to wait? Shouldn’t there be some kind of stop gap? Like, maybe you don’t get all 5 weeks up front, I can understand that, but you do get 2 weeks that first year? Why must there be a calendar year and a vacation year? Doesn’t that just complicate things??

When I start talking about this, I just end up asking a bunch of questions that get increasingly higher and higher pitched as my incredulity shows a little more with each question.

I just don’t get it.

It’s a stupid, third world problem, I know, and I do feel a bit like I’m just whining. But it makes life as an expat more challenging. Our big trip home, the first in a year of being away, will have to be shortened and carefully planned to minimize vacation days used. The trips we were hoping to take to Europe – just one or two this year – will have to be cut back, turned into rushed weekends. It all sounds so silly as I’m typing it, but it’s seriously frustrating. All you hear before moving to Europe is how easy it will be to travel, how many exciting things you’ll see. And our ability to do all those things, take advantage of all the opportunities that come with living in Europe, has been cut back by almost 2 years.

So, I’m just sharing my frustrations. Maybe some of you have experienced the same thing. Maybe some of you think it’s a stupid thing to worry about. I know we’ll get over it and adjust. 8 days isn’t that much less than what most people get in the US, after all. But for today, it’s what I’m frustrated with. And maybe it will cause some of you who are thinking of moving to Denmark to call your HR people and ask just what your vacation situation will be once you get here so it doesn’t surprise you like it did us.

*I will put a caveat here and say that this system may not be the same across employers, so our experience may not reflect everyone’s experience with accruing and using vacation benefits in Denmark.

**Second caveat: the infamous 5 weeks of vacation is a right of any employee in Denmark, and you can always take that vacation at any time. However, it will be unpaid vacation until you get past all of these regulations.

A Little Statistic for You, or, Danish Independence

I feel like I’ve been running out of things to post over here in Denmark. Perhaps you’ve noticed by my lack of posts recently. I feel like I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve learned and experienced most of the big differences between my culture and Danish culture (and those differences aren’t really that big to begin with). And I guess I haven’t been able to make the jump to more personal topics yet. So, until I can figure out what I’m going to write about next, I thought I’d bring you the first in a few interesting statistical differences between Denmark and the US that I’ve run into lately.

Today’s statistic is about young people living with their parents. If you’re American, you’ve no doubt heard of the boomerang generation, those 20 somethings that are graduating college, having trouble finding a job, and moving back in with mom and dad. Maybe you’re part of that generation. I know I am. I lived with my parents for a few months after college while we figured out if Brian was going to get a job outside of St. Louis and just what exactly was going to happen next. We also moved back – at the ripe old age of 28 – right before moving overseas. We had to live somewhere after our house sold!

I ran across a story in metroxpress, the free daily newspaper here in Aarhus, that was talking about this phenomenon. I was quite intrigued that this trend may also be happening in Denmark. Until, that is, I looked at the table included with the article. I’ve reproduced it here, so you can get the full experience:

Young People Living with Their Parents

Yep. Denmark’s experiencing a huge wave of young people moving home… (May I also just mention that that is 1.8% of a population of 5.59 million.) So, yeah, the difference between Denmark and the US is HUGE.

I find this statistic so interesting because it points to big cultural differences between the countries listed in the table. Some of those with high percentages are going through serious economic trouble right now, but some of them are countries where it’s culturally acceptable and indeed normal to live with your parents well into adulthood.

In Denmark, the very low percentage points to two things. One, their economy has remained relatively stable throughout this recent global recession. However, it’s widely accepted that it’s difficult right now to find a job and that it’s something that may take a few months. So what else could account for this low percentage? I think it’s probably the importance of independence in Danish culture.

In Denmark, children often go to daycare as young as 6 months. A stay-at-home mom isn’t really a thing here, at least not past her one year of maternity leave. So from an early age, kids are learning independence from their parents. By the time they’re 10 (or maybe even younger), kids are getting themselves home from school, taking the bus all around town by themselves. And it is not unusual in Denmark for young people to move out on their own as young as 16, though probably a more common age is 17 or 18 when they are starting university. And we’ve been told that once one does move out one doesn’t expect much help from the parents. You’re basically on your own. (However, this is belied a little bit by the fact that many parents purchase city apartments for their children to live in while they attend university. Since they don’t have to pay tuition for the education, they buy the apartment instead.)

The US does have that whole “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” thing, but it also is lacking many of the social systems that Denmark has to help these kids after they graduate from college and can’t find a job, or to help you and your family if the main breadwinner looses their job, etc. In the US, many times people have no options but to move back home.

Ah statistics. So illuminating. So nerdy.

(By the way, is anyone else surprised by Germany’s relatively high stat of 17.3%? I wonder what’s going on there…)

Are You Ready to Party?

Because the Danish version of Halloween + Mardi Gras known as Fastelavn is upon us.

Fastelavn (literally “the fast evening”) is a holdover holiday from when Denmark was a Catholic country. (Which was, like, 400 years ago, so that’s quite a holdover!). It was originally a big celebration and feast before starting the 40 day fasting of Lent. So, just like Mardi Gras only without all the beads and naked ladies. (In fact, my Google Translate automatically translates fastelavn into Mardi Gras, which is very confusing when I’m trying to do a Google search!)

In olden days, some very specific things happened on Fastelavn. First, and perhaps most notably, the villagers would put a black cat – the eternal symbol of evil – into a barrel and whack the barrel with sticks until the cat fell out, thus signifying the triumph over evil for the rest of the year. This practice is known, inventively, as slå katten af tønden (“hit the cat out of the barrel”).

Kids still reenact this custom, but these days it’s more like hitting a piñata. It’s still a barrel, but it’s full of candy (slik) instead of cats, and the kids whack it until it falls apart.

barrel

The first one to knock the bottom out of the barrel (releasing all the candy) is announced kattedronning (“queen of cats”) and gets a dronningekrone, a small, queen sized crown. The person who knocks down the last piece of the barrel becomes  kattekonge (“king of cats”) and gets a king sized crown, or a kongekrone.

Here's some good old Danish humor for you.

Here’s some good old Danish humor for you.

Another old tradition revolves around what’s called fastelavnsris. These are a bundles of sticks – usually of willow or a fruit tree, hopefully with buds – that are decorated with paper cutouts, candies, and other things.

They used to look like this:

Ye Olde Tyme Ris

Today, they look more like children ran at some twigs with glitter and feathers because probably they did.

Apparently, they're also used in home decor in the spring.

Apparently, they’re also used as a home decor item.

These days, children make these and then use them on the morning of Fastelavn to flog their parents, as demonstrated in this video.

Apparently, this custom comes from an old fertility ritual. (Which I guess means that the kids are encouraging their parents to get fertile and get on with having more babies?? Really, I think it’s more about the topsy-tuvyness of carnival.) Wikipedia also has this to say about said flogging around the 1700s:

Earlier, it was mainly the young women and the infertile who were flogged. It was also common that a young man would carry his “fastelavnsris” and (of course gently) strike at young women he met on the street. Later it became the children’s special right to flog their parents on this day. In any case, the reward given for the flogging would be a fastelavnsbolle.

So if you were a Danish dame back in the day, at least you got a lovely Danish pastry after being flogged on the street by a random stranger. And I guess you should be grateful that they were, of course, gentle.

Fastelavnsbolle are the main food associated with the holiday. They’re these very specific type of Danish pastry that comes with whipped cream in the middle.

Mmmm… There’s a recipe to make your own if you click this photo.

The reason that Fastelavn is considered the Danish Halloween is because on Fastelavn Sunday children dress up in costumes and go door to door. Instead of saying “trick or treat,” they sing a little song (awesome video below) which basically has the same message: give me a treat (read: bolle) or I’ll make trouble.

So now go out and have yourselves a happy Fastelavn!

The Danes and Fitness, or Exercising in Denmark

The Danes are super into fitness. Super super super. One of the dialogues in my Danish language workbook claims that Denmark is the runningest country in the world. As in, a higher percentage of people run in Denmark than in any other country. And you can tell. A few weeks ago, after the gloomiest January in 24 years, we finally had a weekend of sunlight. And this is what happened:

The Pack Run!

Everyone came out of their winter hidey holes to run. Apparently in packs.

Not that the Danes don’t run when it’s rainy, snowy, and dark because they definitely do. They run always, no matter what.

And if they’re not running, they’re biking to work (which isn’t considered actual exercise as you’re merely biking to get where you’re going) or playing some sort of group sport. Because group sports are also big here. The second question a Dane will ask you after what do you do for a job (Hvad laver du?) is what sports do you do (Hvad går du til?).

So, of course, I have had to hide my general laziness these last few months.

cupcake

And I have had to hide the fact that I hate running.

There, I’ve said it. I’ve finally admitted it. I HATE RUNNING! It’s boring and tiring and ugh… it kills my soul a little bit every time I try.

Now that being said, we have been desperate to find some form of physical activity to do lately since the Danes don’t seem to be very health conscious in terms of diet and all we’ve been eating is meat and potatoes and pastries and desserts and…. yummmm…. Really though, if you go to the grocery store it’s hard to find many of the “fat free” and “sugar free” options you see in the US. I, for one, am kind of excited about that, since most of those options are overly processed and full of gross fake sugar anyway. But it does indicate that the Danes don’t seem to worry too much about their diet. (As does the ritual Friday afternoon binge on gummy candy. A topic for another post.)

Why don’t they worry about their diet? Because they can! Because they bike to and from work, run every Saturday morning, and play handball twice a week.

The assumption that everyone does some sport is so huge that when Brian’s coworkers found out he wasn’t running they practically bullied him into signing up for a series of 5k runs over the next few months. As a result, last weekend Brian and I found ourselves in a Danish fitness center, signing up for new gym memberships. My time of laziness has come to and eng.

But I have to say, I’m so glad to be back in the gym. I had forgotten how much I love lifting weights. It gives you such a confidence boost. I’d been taking long walks and doing yoga – both of which I love for other reasons – but they’re just not the same as sweating it out in the gym.

So now I can say, with confidence, “Jeg går til fitness,” instead of lying about how I “go” to yoga when really I just follow along to a YouTube video in my house a couple times a week.

Rawr!!

Rawr!!

And You Thought I Was Exaggerating

So remember a couple weeks ago when I said that I could really do with some sunshine? Well, apparently it wasn’t all in my head. Nor was it a factor of this being my first winter in Scandinavia.

According to this article from the Copenhagen Post, this is the gloomiest January since 1988. So far – now, prepare yourselves for this. Maybe you might want to sit down. This might be a bit of a shock – so far, there have only been 17 hours of sunlight in the entire month of January.

I’ll just let that sink in.

17 hours of sunlight in an entire month. And frankly, I don’t know when those 17 hours happened because I sure don’t remember them. They must have all been over Copenhagen.

So what does this mean for my everyday life? Well, yesterday I was walking to the bus stop and there was one lighter patch of clouds against all the dark grey clouds. And for that moment, the street noticeably brightened. And I got very excited. About a patch of light grey clouds. Because it meant I could believe that the sun was actually back there somewhere.

And now that it’s cold enough that instead of mist rain every day we have light snow every day. I’m pretty sure it’s been snowing constantly since last week.

And we all feel like Ned, here, because we thought winter was over after Christmas. But really, winter is just beginning.

Got Winter

And I don’t think it’s going anywhere anytime soon.