Oy with the Squeegees Already!

Yeah, because that's real water and squeegees are actually that effective.

Yeah, because that’s real water and squeegees are really that effective.

Listen. I love our apartment. It’s perfectly located, close enough to stuff to be convenient but out of the way enough to be quiet. I love our neighbors. There’s only 4 of them in the building, and they’re all nice and friendly and helpful. I love that even though we share laundry, it’s free. I love that our apartment is old and has big bay windows and light wood floors. I even love the radiators.

But what I don’t love, what I am getting really really tired of, is our bathroom.

I would like to register an official complaint about the typical Danish apartment bathroom. It is slowly driving me crazy.

So if you’re in Aarhus or Copenhagen and maybe you got an AirBnB apartment or you just found a place to live and it’s an older apartment, you are going to run into this type of bathroom. It’s the all-in-one style. As in, your bathroom is literally both a bathroom and a shower in one small room the size of a closet. As in, the water will go everywhere when you take a shower. But don’t worry, you have a handy squeegee to clean it up afterwards! As in, you may want to warn any flat mates before you take a shower so that they can use the restroom because that toilet is going to be soaking wet and unusable for the next two hours until it air dries.

Now, our bathroom is not quite this bad. We are able to pull a shower curtain around a corner of the room where the shower is located, separating it from the rest of the room and keeping our toilet mostly dry. But the walls and floor? Forget about it.

It's so small, I can't even get any good pictures of it!

It’s so small, I can’t even get any good pictures of it!

And the shower side. What's that, you don't see the shower? Oh, it's that thing on the wall between the pipes. You just pull the curtain around and voila! Instant shower.

And the shower side. What’s that, you don’t see the shower? Oh, it’s that thing on the wall between the pipes. You just pull the curtain around and voila! Instant shower.

It is such a little thing, but you would be amazed how annoyed you can get with always stepping out of the bathroom with wet feet. And then you go back in to dry your hair and the floor is still wet!

These bathrooms, and ours is no exception, tend to have horrible ventilation, unless it’s warm enough outside that you can open the window. So in the winter everything remains vaguely damp and develops this mustiness that I absolutely cannot stand. We try to air it out by leaving the door open, but that only encourages the must to spread into the kitchen, which is not an ideal situation. We finally switched to Danish towels – which are craaaazy thin for anyone coming from the US – after I had a brainwave that maybe they’re that thin on purpose. They dry faster! It’s helped a little, but it’s still must city in there.

And oy with the squeegee-ing already! It barely helps. (Did I mention the wet feet already? Did I post that unrealistic picture of a squeegee actually removing water from tile?).

But my main problem, the thing I absolutely cannot stand, is how difficult this kind of bathroom is to clean! You think it’d be easy; just spray everything down and then rinse it all off. But, no. Or maybe other all-in-one bathrooms are this easy to clean. Ours, however, is a horse of another color.

See, our bathroom has all of the pipes exposed, outside the walls. (I refer you back to the pictures above and all those white pipes everywhere!) Which means that I can clean as much as I want, but I can never quite reach the spaces in between the pipes and the wall. Spaces that nonetheless get soaked every time we take a shower. Spaces that I am sure – because I can see it! – are crawling with mold and mildew and ick of every kind.

And what are we going to do when we have a toddler in the house and it wants to stick its little fingers in those spaces made exactly the right size for little fingers?! Ahhh, I don’t even want to think about it!

I guess we’ll just keep the door closed all the time and deal with the must.

So if you are in Denmark – or elsewhere in Europe, these bathrooms are a European phenomenon – and are dealing with this type of bathroom, you have my sympathies. If you somehow made out with a fancy modern bathroom with a shower separated by a lip or – gasp – even a tub, you have my envy. If you’re back in the US and can take a bath whenever you want because everyone has bathtubs there, I’m not sure I feel like talking to you right now.

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!

Our Experience (or lack of it) with Reverse Culture Shock

I feel like all I ever read about these days on expat forums in “reverse culture shock.” It’s all anyone ever talks about, probably because no one ever used to talk about it. What it means is that while living abroad you adapt to life in your adopted country. You change a little bit. Maybe the pace of life slows down or you have become more direct in speaking or you discover a liking for salty licorice. Then, when you visit or move back to your original culture, you have to go through the culture shock process all over again. You assume it’ll be no big deal. After all, you grew up in this culture. But you’re surprised to find that certain things just don’t fit anymore. You hate driving everywhere or you can’t stand how friendly the waiters are or you can’t find your favorite candies at the grocery store because Americans don’t eat salty licorice. (And for good reason.) 

So I was all prepared on our trip back to the US in August – for a month! – to experience some reverse culture shock. I was braced. And then…nothing. 

Well, not nothing. There were a few little things. It was weird being able to understand all the conversations around you – and a little annoying, people talk about the dumbest stuff! I remembered how ridiculously frustrating traffic is when you’re the one driving and how annoying it is to have to drive everywhere. The weather was almost unbearably hot at one point. I had forgotten what the St. Louis humidity felt like.

But mostly, it felt instantly normal and kind of awesome. We were surrounded by our family and friends. I could talk to people in stores without stress, without cringing at my bad Danish or at my need to speak English. I could go to the grocery store and choose between 30 different kinds of cereal! (Who knew this would become such a big deal for me?) I could eat Saltines! I could get cheap, fast, casual dining or takeout and didn’t have to cook every night! (That last one is a big one.)

Now, we’ve only been abroad 1 year, so that probably isn’t enough time to fully adapt to another culture and lifestyle. Also, I don’t think you could say that I’ve fully integrated here. For one thing, I spend much of my day at home alone. (Imagine an old school housewife only lazier and without the retro housedress.) And during the “morning” sickness period, I felt so bad that I stopped going into my volunteer job and Danish classes were on summer break (thank god), so I don’t think I spoke any Danish for about 3 whole months. And it’s really true, the language barrier will keep you from feeling fully a part of the culture around you. 

So given all of that, I was a little apprehensive about coming back to Denmark. I was worried I’d have to adjust all over again. But then we landed, and I was so glad to get on the train from Copenhagen to Aarhus and see the familiar countryside whiz by. We got home, and we just picked back up with our lives here. Even if we’re not 100% comfortable here, it’s still familiar, and we’ve got our little routines and we’ve got our friends (all of whom I was excited to see) and we’ve got our life that we’ve made, just the two of us.

So I would say, the weirdest thing about this whole reverse culture shock experience is the realization that we have two totally different lives in two totally different places and we could go to either place and pick up with either life fairly easily. I’ve never had that before, and it’s a bit of a strange feeling. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it, but I’ll tell you one thing, it’s wonderfully reassuring to know that we have something to go back to and people at home who love us.

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!

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!

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.

I’m Officially Official Again

20140124-151129.jpg

I got my new passport in the mail yesterday, which means I can stop feeling like I’m missing something as I walk around Aarhus. It really did come fast. Less than two weeks, I think. So thank goodness for once for bureaucratic efficiency. Hopefully when the time comes to extend my visa it will be similarly painless.

Passports Please

Today I stuck my passport in an envelope and sent it off with the postman to be renewed at the US Embassy in Copenhagen. See, with everything that was going on before we left, I forgot to check if my passport was valid for the entire time we’ll be here in Denmark. And of course, it’s not. It expires about a year too early, which means my visa also expires about a year too early. Yikes!

Fortunately, I’ve checked – thoroughly – and it seems pretty easy to renew both documents while abroad, starting with my passport. I still have about a year to go on it, but since I know we won’t be traveling for the next few months I decided to just go ahead and get it done.

It’s a very strange feeling to be outside of my country without my passport. I know that I don’t need it for day to day living, and I’m pretty sure I can travel through Europe without it as long as I have my Danish ID card. But it’s the only thing that will get me back into the US, so not having it on me and trusting it to the whims of the post service is a little strange.

Luckily, the lady at the postoffice reminded me that I should get a tracking number for the package so I can watch it wing its way over to the embassy. And another good thing is that it only takes about 2 weeks to renew your passport while abroad, compared with something like 6 weeks if you’re renewing it inside the US. So hopefully I won’t have to be without it for long.

So lesson learned. And a warning for all you planning on moving abroad: check the expiration date of your passport a good 6-4 months before the actual move!! It will just make your life a lot easier.

What I'll look like when my new passport arrives safely.

What I’ll look like when my new passport arrives safely.