The One Year Anniversary Post

As of July 25th, we’ve been living in Denmark for one whole year! Yay! Of course, I missed this anniversary because morning sickness, so I never did a post for it. So I figured that would do that now.

Obligatory photos of us. I've been a really bad photographer lately and haven't taken any recent photos. I think this is of us on our way to the US in August.

Obligatory photo of us. I’ve been a really bad photographer lately and haven’t taken any recent photos. I think this is of us on our way to the US in August.

Also, I’ve been thinking that it may seem like from some of my blog posts that I’m a little down on Denmark. I have the habit of writing more when I’m upset or unhappy about something (which actually has many health benefits because science!). It’s a way of working through it for me. But when things are going well, I don’t feel as much compulsion to write. And the transition to living in a foreign country as a first time expat is rather difficult, especially for someone like me who is not always excited about big changes. So I’m worried that I’m not sharing the good, happy, and fun parts of our experience with you guys as much as I should be. Because we do have a lot of fun! And there’s a lot about this experience that I’m grateful for.

So, without further ado, reasons why I am grateful for Denmark and this experience:

  1. Brian can work and earn his PhD at the same time. This is a big one. This is the reason we came to Denmark and what makes it all worth it. In the US, this situation would pretty much be impossible. Companies and universities are not at all used to sharing information and copyright possibilities. But here in Denmark, they encourage industry and academia to work together (which really sounds like a good idea to me). So they have this thing called an Industrial PhD which allows Brian to work full time – and get paid – in a company while also earning his PhD, using the same work for both, basically. If it weren’t for this, Brian either would not be getting his PhD or we would be living on a PhD student’s and a librarian’s salaries, which I guess would have been an adventure all on its own.
  2. Denmark is a westernized country full of very proficient English speakers. You will have some expats who argue that it is a negative that so many Danes speak such good English (“you don’t learn the language as quickly”) or that Denmark is so similar to other Western European countries. These are usually the adventure hungry, wanderlust expats. Just to be clear, you will never hear that argument or complaint from me. I am so thankful, every day, that I can communicate in English. I just, I can’t imagine what it would be like to live in a country where that isn’t a possibility. Of course, we are both learning Danish, and I try to speak Danish whenever I can. But there are so many situations in which my Danish is not going to cut it. For instance, I had to call the insurance company today to figure out how travel insurance works. I just can’t have most of that conversation in Danish and know what’s going on. So, this is a big one that makes our lives here much easier. Denmark is just different enough, and I like it that way.
  3. It’s taught me to deal with being outside my comfort bubble. Ugh, it has taken me a while to see this one as any kind of positive or to be grateful for being forced soooo far outside my comfort bubble. The thing is, I don’t mind change or new experiences. I just like them a little bit at a time so I can adjust before moving on to the next thing. A lot of change all at once kind of overloads my system. This was especially hard for me with Danish, for some reason. There’s just something about learning a new language that makes you feel about 5 years old and 2 feet tall. But I have come to realize that it’s a necessary skill to have, to be out there and to be uncomfortable and to get on with what you have to do anyway. Recently, I think the baby-to-be has really pushed me through a big barrier, again with Danish. I’m always uncomfortable starting a conversation with Danes in English because I don’t want to be…I don’t know, the rude foreigner I guess. But as I said above, there are certain things that just work better for everyone if we all speak English. Doctors’ appointments, for instance. And recently there have been a few times where – due to baby-to-be – we’ve just had to get things done and I’ve just had to get over my weird hang ups and do them. And it all turned out OK. So I’m learning to not judge myself so much for feeling uncomfortable or for not being the perfect Danish speaking foreigner, for being who I am where I am on my Danish language journey.
  4. It’s taught me how to make friends. This has been a big one for me and probably is the thing that I’m most grateful for after #1 up above. I feel like after high school I kind of fell out of practice of making new friends. It comes so easily when you’re young, but it got a bit harder as an adult. You have less down time with random strangers, I guess. Everyone has their lives, and it takes more effort on both sides to build a new friendship. So when we moved here and literally knew no one, it was like back to basics in making friends. And the thing is, I actually really enjoy the process. It’s fun to meet new people who are going through the same things we’re going through. It’s fun to compare notes and share embarrassing experiences and complain about Danish. I’m hoping this all just continues when the baby comes and I start meeting fellow mothers. I’ve learned that in adult friend-making, it’s pretty important to have one big thing in common: expat, country of origin, mother, love of reading, etc.
  5. All the great new friends we’ve made! And thanks to my new found ability 😉 we have made some really great new friends. Since everyone in the expat community here is missing their support network, it seems like you bond pretty fast, especially with the people you meet when you’ve just arrived. And it is a HUGE help to have people that are going through the same thing who can share stories and resources. We are definitely grateful for our awesome friends.
  6. The ability to travel. This is also a really big one. Living in Denmark means we get to travel a lot more in Europe, which is usually pretty difficult for an American. So we get all these added bonus experiences, which so far have been totally awesome. It’s not as easy – or as cheap – as everyone tells you it will be before you move, but it’s still easier than coming all the way from the US for each trip. Plus, we get to go places we never would have visited before like Stockholm or some tiny dutch town. I think next on our list are Iceland, Finland, and Norway.
  7. Living on our own. Brian and I have always lived in the same city as our families. And we’ve loved it. There is so much to be said for living around family, and we’d like to end up back in that situation. But I do think that it’s good for us to have this time to try and figure things out on our own. It’s that last push into adulthood, if you will.
  8. The change in our perspective. Brian and I are pretty open minded anyway, but living in another country just further broadens your horizons and forever changes your perspectives on a lot of things. Suddenly you really see that there’s not only one way to do things or one way to live.

So I think those are the big ones. I am also, of course, grateful for little things about Denmark, like the awesome public transportation system, the bike paths, living by the sea, the weather (yes, apart from the darkness I do quite like Denmark’s cool, mild climate, come to St. Louis in August and then we’ll talk). It’s nice to go through this list every once in a while, especially when I’m feeling frustrated about something having to do with being an expat in Denmark, and remind myself why this experience is actually quite positive and why we decided on the move in the first place.

Well, one year down, two more to go!

And You Thought I Was Exaggerating: Baby Names Say Otherwise

Thought my last post about the Jante Law and cultural differences between the US and Denmark was exaggerating just a bit? Well, it wasn’t And to prove to you how essential standing out is to American culture and and fitting in is to Danish culture, I give you the perfect example: baby names.

The US is smack dab in the middle of the weirdest baby name trend in history. People are obsessed with inventing the most individual, the most unique, the most special name they possibly can. It doesn’t matter if they have to come up with a creative new spelling, combine the parents names into one mega name – Renesmee anyone? – choose some random noun or just totally make something up. They will find some way to make that child unique!

Don’t believe me? Well, the Social Security Administration just came out with its 2013 list of baby names, and thanks to this io9 article and Nameberry, we can see that among the Johns and Emmas are these gems:

83 baby girls were named Vanellope. That’s right. After that annoying little girl in Wreck it Ralph. 9 girls were named Pistol, as in gun. 6 girls were named Charlemagne, as in that king. And 6 girls were named Prezlee and 5 girls were named Temprince. (Oh my god, the horror of those last two purposeful misspellings.) And that’s not even counting the more “normal” (and more popular) names like Massyn, Londonn (yes, two n’s), and Khaleesi. (And we’re going to ignore the fact that Khaleesi is a title and not actually someone’s name for the moment.) Now, as for the boys, we have 10 Jceions (what??), 8 Tufs, 7 Psalms, 6 Forevers, 6 Powers, 6 Warriors, 5 Kaptains, 5 Subarus, and 5 Vices.

Hahaha that’s fu… Wait, you’re not joking?!

I was talking about this recently with a friend from the UK, and he was surprised that you could name someone after a company or product, as in Subaru or Mercedes. He thought that would be against copyright law. But let me tell you, you’d have to come up with a pretty crazy name for the government to actually step in and stop you from naming your child what you want. There are actual laws about what you can name your baby, but they vary from state to state and they’re pretty basic. For example, in California you can’t use accents. In Massachusetts, you can’t have a name longer than 40 characters. And it looks like naming your kids Adolf Hitler and Aryan Nation is just going too far. But apart from those small rules, the field is pretty much wide open.

In contrast, we have Denmark, which has fairly strict rules about what you can name your children. Specifically, they have the Law on Personal Names.

The century-old law was initially designed to bring order to surnames. Before the law, surnames changed with every generation: Peter Hansen would name his son Hans Petersen. Then Hans Petersen would name his son Peter Hansen. And on it went, wreaking bureaucratic havoc. The law ended that. It also made it difficult for people to change their last names, a move that was designed to appease the noble class, which feared widespread name-poaching by arrivistes, Nielsen said.

Then in the 1960s, a furor erupted over the first name Tessa, which resembled tisse, which means to urinate in Danish. Distressed over the lack of direction in the law, the Danish government expanded the statute to grapple with first names. Now the law is as long as an average size book. (via the New York Times)

This law now includes an approved list of names. It’s pretty long, but if you want to name your baby something that isn’t on that list you have to get it approved. And apparently, that can take years. According to that same article in the New York Times from 2004:

But those wishing to deviate from the official list must seek permission at their local parish church, where all newborns’ names are registered. A request for an unapproved name triggers a review at Copenhagen University’s Names Investigation Department and at the Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs, which has the ultimate authority. The law applies only if one of the parents is Danish.

Many parents do not realize how difficult it can be to get a name approved by the government. About 1,100 names are reviewed every year, and 15 percent to 20 percent are rejected, mostly for odd spellings.

I believe that this law has now been relaxed a tiny bit since that article was written because the current names on this list aren’t just your typical Jens and Mette. You do see some crazier ones like: Awesome, Cobra, Dreng (which means “boy” in Danish), Og (meaning “and”), Cirkel, and so on. But importantly, there’s still a pre-approved list and doing anything off of that list, doing anything different, can be really hard.

If someone tried to institute a pre-approved baby name list in the US I’m pretty sure they’d be riots in the streets. If there’s one thing Americans get feisty about it’s other people trying to tell them what they can and can’t do.

I’ll leave you now with one more baby gif because, let’s face it, they’re awesome:

Not Renesmee! Anything but Renesmee!

How Many Steps Back Does It Take?

Ugh, guys, learning a language can be so frustrating. So frustrating! I’ve never thought of myself as a language person – someone for whom learning languages is fun and easy – so that was my biggest fear about moving to Denmark. Also, I can be a bit of a perfectionist, and the try and fail method of language learning that you just have to go through to get to fluency was not made for someone who is a bit of a perfectionist. I knew this about myself going in, so I’ve tried to just grit my teeth and push through it, accepting my mistakes and laughing them off. It hasn’t been nearly as bad as I feared, particularly because we can get by with speaking English. These days, we usually speak some muddled version of both childish Danish and simplified English depending on where we are, who we’re talking to, and our mood/confidence level on any given day.

But it seems like every time I start to feel like I’m getting somewhere with Danish, I take five thousand mega steps back. First, it was Christmas break over which the language school was closed. So I went for a whole month without speaking Danish at all. Coming back after that was…challenging to say the least. Most recently, it was our Easter trip. We were gone for a measly 10 days, and yet it still feels like I’ve lost the flow. I’m no longer in the zone.

I’ve never learned a language like this before – in the country with the language all around me – but it turns out that regularly hearing and seeing that language, even if just for a few minutes a day, is a huge help in quickly learning it. And being removed from that environment really drags down your progress. Who knew?!

So I’m just dutifully doing my Danish homework and trying my hardest to speak Danish when I can. It’s especially hard right after coming back from a break like this because I can hear myself stumble and falter, and even words and phrases I know I know don’t come easily to my tongue. But I’ve been through this before, and they do eventually start coming more easily. It’s just “grin and bear it” time.

This is me when I try to speak in Danish lately. My brain short circuits!

For the Love of Prams

I’ve put off posting about the difference between the US and Denmark in terms of babies and parenting because I don’t have any first hand experience with it in either country. But I just can’t put it off anymore because of something I just read. But there’s multiple parts to it, so bear with me to the end.

First, I don’t see many strollers here. I also don’t see many parents carrying their babies in those slings or carriers on their bodies. Instead, all I see are what is called a barnevogn, literally a “child wagon.” They look like this and are essentially really pimped out, modern prams:

A typical Danish barnvogn.

A typical Danish barnevogn.

They’re like small beds on wheels! I’ve been told that the Danes feel that children’s backs aren’t strong enough to support themselves in a sitting position until they’re of a certain age. (Makes since, given that they can’t hold their heads up till however many months old.) So that’s why they use the flat bottomed prams instead of strollers, to support their backs.

Let me also draw your attention to all the stuff on the outside, the hood and the obviously high tech waterproofing zip-up thing that basically cocoons the baby into the pram. This is for the rainy, windy, and chilly Danish weather, so you can take your baby out in all seasons. The Danes believe that the fresh air is bracing and good for one’s health – even, or maybe especially, the cold, these are the same people who go vinterbadnign or wither bathing – and so they take their babies outside as often as they can. They even make sure the babies get to sleep outside a little each day, in all types of weather, but that’s a post for another time.

{My initial reaction to these prams is that it’s a shame that the baby’s so bundled up and covered that they can’t see anything but the underside of the pram’s hood, but that’s another post for another day.}

What is most different about these prams from other cultures involves the Danish sense of trust. Because what the Danes will do, especially in nice weather, is leave their baby in the pram outside while they run inside a small boutique or go into a cafe to have a coffee.

Yes, they actually do this. I’ve seen it. Here’s a not very good picture of the phenomenon.

Pram Outside

I feel wary of taking pictures of other people’s children, so all I could get was the back of the pram.

You can see pictures – with babies actually shown in the prams – and read more about it on this blog post. In fact, there’s a famous story of a Danish woman who did this in New York in the 90’s and got her child temporarily taken away on charges of neglect, causing a huge intercultural kerfuffle.

Let me reiterate that this practice is good parenting to the Danes. Denmark is a tribe. They trust that no one will take off with their baby, and no one does. So the baby gets to stay outside, happy and healthy in the fresh air while the parent runs inside for a minute, usually keeping an eye on the pram through the window. And I’m in no way saying that there’s anything wrong with this practice. I think it’s nice that there’s this much trust in Denmark. It’s just usually one of the most shocking cultural differences about parenting in Denmark.

But now let me take the shock one step further. Are you ready for it? Can you handle it?

I just read about something called a “baby bio,” a movie in a theater where moms can go with their babies and make as much noise as they want without bothering anyone because the movie is for moms and babies.

Picture from what looks like a very cool newbie moms website: rookiemoms.com. Click through for link.

Picture from what looks like a very cool newbie moms website: rookiemoms.com. Click through for link.

Right, no big deal, I hear you saying. They have the same things in the US.

Here’s the Danish twist, and I quote:

“The sound is muffled and the light turned down which makes it possible to bring your baby into the cinema or you can leave them outside in a pram if they are sleeping. Your babies will be watched by employees at the cinema and each pram will get a number, so if your baby wakes up the number will be called in the cinema.”

Did you catch that? Are you also imagining rows of black prams with giant marathon-like numbers safety pinned to the outsides, the babies all crying and waving their arms in the air while the movie staff blithely ignores them and goes on popping popcorn? I love how the passive voice in that second sentence makes the watching of the baby sound so blasé.

So, welcome to Denmark, where parenting is much more laid back and much less full of anxiety. No helicopter parents here, that’s for sure.

Parenting

If you’re interested in reading more on this topic, here are a couple of good links:

Our First Christmas in Denmark

Well, we just successfully completed our first Christmas here in Denmark. Luckily, Brian’s mom was able to come over on Christmas Eve and provide some much needed family-ness to make the holiday feel more like a holiday. She stayed until January 7th, and we took her around Aarhus then to Lund, Sweden and then to Copenhagen. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten so much good food in my life! We all here have to go on diets and start running just to undo all the damage 🙂

Below are some photos of our Christmas and our travels. I explain more about each photo and where we were in the captions. Click through to see the descriptions and the photo in full.

The Steamier Side of the Julefrokost Party

I’ve only been to one corporate julefrokost – you can read about it in my last post – and that one was lively and convivial and fun. But I have hear rumors of a different side to the julefrokost, a darker side. Some people have told me, half joking, half serious, that most of Denmark’s divorces – and there’s many of them in a country with an almost 50% divorce rate – happen around and after Christmas time because of what goes down at the corporate Christmas parties.

The article “Sex, Schnaps and Shakin’ Stevens: the Danish office party” by Helen Russell from the Telegraph – first brought to my attention by my friends over at Heather + Thomas – tells it all and is definitely worth a quick read. A snippet:

Four hours in and I’m ready for a lie down, but the party’s just getting started. Wine flows and my fellow diners’ inner Vikings seem to emerge. Faces are flushed and lips, blackened with red wine, move animatedly. Hotel room cards seem to be being passed around and hands rest on places they shouldn’t – the smalls of backs and bottoms of colleagues they’ll presumably have to face on Monday morning in the cold semi-light of day.

How to Survive the Danish Work Christmas Party

julefrokost

Last Friday I went to my first Danish work Christmas party, or julefrokost. It was quite an event and a lot of fun, but it’s a very Danish tradition that might take you a bit by surprise if you’re not expecting some of its particular elements.

The big Danish Christmas tradition is to open presents on the evening of the 24th and then to spend all of the 25th and 26th traveling to the houses of family and friends and partaking of this grand feast called the julefrokost, or Christmas lunch. The Danes adapt this all day eating extravaganza into parties for friends and work colleagues throughout the month of December. You may have heard that Danes are reserved and difficult to get to know. While this can be true if you’re the kind of person who likes to party at the last minute, if you’re willing to plan ahead you’ll find that the Danes are actually quite into socializing, just in very specific and sanctioned ways like in a club or in these very planned and themed parties through work.

So as a non-Dane in the land of hygge and snaps, how do you survive such a very Danish socializing tradition as the julefrokost?

  1. Dress appropriately. Sure, it may take place at work and immediately after your working day, but the julefrokost is a special event and fancy dress is required. Most people will have brought a change of clothes (and the women will have brought high heels and extra makeup). Also, if there is a theme (like Scary Christmas, the theme at the one I attended last Friday) people will dress according to theme, so you may want to join in on the fun. Or maybe consider wearing an “elf hat” (essentially a Santa hat) because many of your coworkers and even your boss will probably wear one.
  2. Follow the invitation to the letter. If it says to bring a present no more than 30 kroner, do so. It’s for a game. If it says to bring your own drinks, do so, or you won’t have anything to drink at the party. And above all, arrive on time! The Danes are very punctual and will be a bit miffed if you arrive 30 minutes late.
  3. Speaking of which, spouses aren’t invited. This is a bit unusual to many people from other cultures, so it’s important to note. They didn’t mention asking your spouse to come because spouses are not invited to the Danish work parties. The party is about colleagues socializing and bonding not about meeting each others’ families. Don’t take this personally, it’s just the way it’s done. There will be other social functions that your spouse can attend. (Plus, they probably assumed that your spouse has a julefrokost of their own to attend since everyone works in Denmark. Plus, someone has to stay home and watch the kids while you’re out till 2 a.m. See number 5 below for more details on that.)
  4. Sit where you’re told. Your place at a table will have been decided for you, either by a game (which is what happened to me) or by a seating chart. It’s very likely that you’ll be sitting next to strangers or colleagues from a different department. This is on purpose. It’s so you can socialize and get to know each other. Take advantage of the opportunity to meet someone knew, and say hi to your other friends later after dinner is over and the rules about getting up from the table are a little more relaxed.
  5. Settle in and be patient. The Danish julefrokost is a multi hour event. Many of them go until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning! I left mine at 11:30pm, and I was in the first wave of people leaving. Just sit back and enjoy the experience. The Danes are very into the experience of dinner and entertaining.
  6. Do not leave before it’s appropriate. Unless you have a really good excuse, I get the feeling that it’s rude to leave too early. Stay at least through dessert and all the games. Which means, you should be prepared to stay until at least midnight. That’s when all the guests with kids – and Americans who are not used to staying up so late! – tend to leave.
  7. Be prepared to eat. Seriously. A lot. Maybe go on a fast earlier in the day because you will need all of the room in your tummy. The traditional julefrokost is many courses. The first is always fish, usually in a form that allows you to make the traditional Danish open face sandwiches (smørrebrød), including shrimp salad, tuna mousse, curried herring, pickled herring, some other kind of herring, or smoked salmon. This is followed by some meat courses, usually including traditional Danish meatballs (frikadeller), sausage, duck or goose, and of course roast pork with cracklings (flæskesteg). The sides are typically caramelized small potatoes (brune kartofler), warm red cabbage salad (rødkål), pickled vegetables, and more potatoes. Dessert is usually the traditional rice pudding with cherry sauce (risalamande med kirsebærsovs). Yum!
  8. Be prepared to drink. Each course is served with aquavit, the Danish snaps, in addition to the free flowing wine and beer that are typical of a Danish party. The Danes love a good excuse to drink, and I have found that they are actually quite convivial social drinkers. So I would encourage you to partake of this part of the tradition as much as you’re comfortable with. First, it will help you to participate fully in the experience. Second, it sure does make those hours fly by.
  9. Warm up your singing voice before hand. You will be singing Christmas carols. Probably many of them. We sang 4 or 5 at my party, and it was a lot of fun. The Danes love singing songs together, and do so every chance they get. Don’t worry about not knowing the words, though. They always pass around the lyrics. And there’s usually at least 5 verses, so you’ll get the tune down by the end of the song.
  10. Pakkeleg will be the funnest game you have ever played, and you’ll want to use it in all your future parties. I loved this part of the party. Pakkeleg means “package game.” Every guest is asked to bring a cheap gift to the party. Then at some point, dice are passed around to each table. The guests all take turns rolling the dice, and whenever you roll a 6 you get to take a present from the pile. When all the presents are taken, the real fun begins. For the next 5 minutes, every time you roll a 6 you get to steal any present in the room. When the 5 minutes are up, the game is over and you win all the presents in your possession. Imagine playing this with 30 drunk and rowdy party guests. It’s pandemonium.

So that is what to expect at a Danish julefrokost, especially one held at your work. It’s typically Danish and quite an experience. But I’ve become quite fond of many of the Danish Christmas traditions, and this is one of the best.

Bestået! (Passed)

I’ve passed my Danish Module 1 test! Woo!

The test was really not bad, as everyone had promised. But my entire class was so nervous about it beforehand. The nervous energy was definitely high as we all waited in the classroom for our specific test time, pretending to pay attention to the teacher who was similarly pretending to teach her excitable class.

I think a lot of the nerves came from the fact that it has been many (many) years since some of us has had a test, especially an oral one like this. We all knew it would be fine, but the mere fact of the test was making us jumpy.

The test itself was totally fine. Mine quickly turned into a conversation rather than me giving a presentation followed by questions, which I preferred, actually. The lady seemed very nice, and she seemed to understand what I was saying, which was a great boost to my self esteem! (At least until I got back into Danish class and realized that I could only talk competently on a few very limited subjects…) She asked me some fairly complicated questions, like, “What is the process to adopt a baby?” And, “Why do you think they sent a woman to judge if Mie and Henrik were capable of adopting a baby?” These were on the topic of the book that I had read, but I had certainly NOT practiced the answers. So I bumbled my way through, and I’m pretty sure I heard her say that my answer to that second complicated question was very well said. (Though it’s possible my brain was making that up in an effort to stop me from panicking so I could finish my test.)

The only really annoying thing was that I had to wait in a hallway 45 minutes past my given test time because LærDansk is a little disorganized, which did nothing for my nerves. But I got in and I got through.

Well, and the other really annoying things is we don’t get a grade or any feedback or anything. We got a paper yesterday with a single word on it: bestået. I’m totally happy with it, but I’m the kind of student that thrives on feedback, so I kind of wish the tester had at least written a little note to me, like, “Well done, you.” Or, “You’re the most well-spoken Module 1 student I’ve ever met!” Hah, if only.

So now it’s on to Module 2, which our teachers are telling us is a lot more writing and frankly seems much more difficult than Module 1… Fingers crossed!