Six months an expat

Half a year. Expatriates for half a year. It has been six months since we stepped away from my mom’s driveway, kissing our family and dog goodbye. Handed over the keys of our home to renters the day before, after countless days culling and packing and separating and storing all our earthly belongings. Much of sold in an epic yard sale. Much of it in my mother’s attic. Some more of it cordoned off in our own garage. Boats sold, cars sold or given away or stored. Goodbye parties with friends for both the littles and the adults. All behind us. Getting on that plane, there was a collective familial exhale. The months and months of preparing, planning and processing before that moment now complete. Yes, it was bittersweet. Tears were shed. Hugs held longer than normal. But the anticipation and excitement and sheer utter exhaustion took over and flying around the world became surreal. Not on vacation. But flying 30 hours around the world to our new home. To Denmark.

Trying to shove all our goods (not shipped in the crate) into a European sized
Trying to shove all our goods (not shipped in the crate) into a European sized “minivan”

Now that we are here and in that six months have naively navigated the initial stages of relocation – finding a school, a house, getting officially registered, getting bank accounts, a local phone number – all of that bumbled through. We had little assistance on the process from any centralized relocation expert. I wish I had found this book sooner, I’ll tell you that. The Expat Partner’s Survival Guide, by Clara Wiggins. January was dark and lonely here and this book would have made it a little less so knowing that countless families had picked up done and experienced exactly what I was feeling. What we all were feeling.

Many people have asked us recently – both from our small, but hopefully growing Danish community and our new International expat community – six months in and how do you like it? Hmmm. Has it been that long? Looking at all we’ve done in that time, it feels much longer. Some days (like when you get to see a familiar face on this side of the world) it feels like we left yesterday. It’s a fair question. I’m still determining, to be fair. Especially because nearly half of that half-year, I have been on crutches. (Really? What happened? You might be asking. Read more here for my foray into the Danish healthcare system.) But I have been making serious efforts to not let my impaired mobility impact my time abroad. So, in 6 months what have I learned? It will be an evolving list. But for right now, here are the top 5:

THINGS THAT HAVE EDIFIED WHILE LIVING IN DENMARK FOR 6 MONTHS:

  1. Traveling, holidaying or vacationing somewhere is vastly different from LIVING there.

This is no earth-shattering revelation. And deep down I knew it before we ventured abroad. But I’m here to tell you that even for the first 6-8 weeks (or longer) you still feel very much like a tourist. A tourist who has to navigate a foreign bureaucracy of forms and processes and fees, but a tourist nonetheless. Everything is very shiny and exciting (when you can see it, that is, as Denmark is quite dark in December.) Trying foreign foods for the first time (lots of YUMMMM’s! As well as many EEEEEUUUW’s!!) Seeing castles and old churches and buildings that were built LONG before your town was even a dusty little outpost at the end of the Oregon Trail. There is a somewhat sustained “wow” factor. That fades. It’s normal. The gloss wears down. And then the gritty reality sets in and seems to take over. Also normal.

Traveling helps that. Exploring a new shiny new. And then coming back to your Danish life – that is starting to feel like a home. On our recent trip to London, I will admit that I was a wee bit overwhelmed by the sheer size and offerings of that crown jewel of a city. Don’t get me wrong – I loved London.

Eye on London
Eye on London

It just made me realize, standing there on Oxford Street on my crutches dodging throngs and masses of shoppers, that I had no idea where I was and which bus to get on, taking which direction, to go anywhere! And how much I DID know about how to get around Copenhagen. Yes, it’s much smaller. That does help. But I also know where the 1A, 3A, 5A, 8A, 14 and many other busses go and how long it will take me to get to the other side of town. I know which S-tog train to take and which direction to take it. I know the sequence of stops on the Metro and don’t have to watch the diagram and listen intently to the conductor’s preprogrammed voice anymore. (I still do because she helps with pronunciation!) I know not to take that right onto that little windy cobblestone street in the old town or else I will be stuck driving on the pedestrian walking street near the Rundtårnet. (Yes, I did that.) Now, I can get around. That is a positive difference of living somewhere versus taking a city break or holiday stopover.

2. Preconceived notions are made for being busted.

When we were researching and talking to people about our upcoming move last year, we were garnered many preconceived notions. It was difficult not to start developing ideas of what life was going to be like. My middle son and I found the Danish YouTube channel of Kelly Louise Killjoy. Specifically the following video and its follow-up:

“No we’re not rude. We’re just not used to random people talking to us. It makes us nervous.”

“You just don’t understand sarcasm do you?”

“They have roads. FOR BIKES.”

Pardon the french. But we watched them again and again and showed them to anyone who would tolerate it. To say that we may have established some preconceived notions would be more than fair.

After living here now – I can further appreciate the humor in both of these videos and the follow-up videos “Danish Stereotypes” and “Strange Danish Expressions.”

While much of Louise’s insights seem spot on to me based on what we have encountered – you quickly realize that even in a small country of only 5.5 million people – there is no one “stereotypical” Dane. Woah. Breakthrough. I know. Shocking. Write that down.

Copenhagen Marathon 2015
Copenhagen Marathon 2015

There are definitively “Danish” things and traits that some Danes embrace and others don’t. Not ALL Danes like to swim naked in the sound. (BRRR!) Not ALL Danes like to run. (Although there were 12,000 out there on Saturday for the CPH Marathon.) Not ALL Danes smoke. (A lot DO. That’s another post.) Not ALL Danes ride bikes to work. (Half of them do. Which means half of them DON’T.) They are all unique and different AND Danish. Same everywhere right? Right. Which leads me to #3.

3. Strangers are only strange until you get them to smile.

Whether the Danes are notoriously “private” or not – nothing helps a situation more than a smile. Seriously. Seems simple. But truly effective. When I butcher the name of the street we live on, I smile. (It’s hard to say – it has these wierd g’s and d’s which don’t sound at ALL like you would think they do.) When I accidentally cut-off a biker (who wasn’t looking because she was texting AND smoking while cruising to where she was going,) I smile. When I try my “Danglish” to order kaffe – “En store cappuccino for here please.” “What?” “A large cappuccino for here please? Tak?” I smile. It helps.

When you crutch down the cobblestoned sidewalk to get on the bus/train/metro or make it to the grocery store for a few grocery essentials to carry home in your backpack or cheer on marathon runners from your street-legal crutches – the Danes are suddenly chatty. I don’t know how to explain it other than – it’s a sort of “good on me” for getting out and about? I don’t know exactly what they are saying, but I can read body language and the related gestures towards my boot and crutches is a usually a give-away as to what is the context of their comment towards me. I smile and nod, usually do a “poor me” face complete with a shrug – what are you gonna do? Keep on keeping on. Right? They seem to get it. The smile helps. So much so that yesterday a Danish woman stopped me on my way to my book group a little further afield and less connected than my normal forays. Clearly my near kilometer crutch from the train station to my friend’s house had put a worn look upon my visage and she asked (in Danish of course) if I needed hjælp. I understood that and said that I was ok. She asked how far I was going and offered to drop me there in her car. SMILING. Not so strange. A huge help. And segues nicely into lesson #4.

4. Overgeneralizations are harder to make the more you meet.

“You’re all blond right?” another gem from @JustKellyLouise was something that I may have been prone to believing myself. It just isn’t true. There is definitely a much larger percentage of blonds here than I am used to (I also didn’t live in Southern California.) And probably a higher propensity to dye your hair blond per capita, but that aside, it is TRUE that Danes come in all shapes and sizes and colors and beliefs and attitudes and demeanors. The more people you meet, you can’t help but see that it is harder and harder to make sweeping gross overgeneralizations. Mark Twain wrote that:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” ― Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad/Roughing It

I couldn’t agree more and hope it will be something that my children take away from this experience as their European sub-context. Which brings me to my last lesson.

Children definitely loving CPH Playday
Children definitely loving CPH Playday
  1. Adapting is not letting go.

And this is less about what we are learning about Denmark and the Danes (and other Europeans for that matter) and more about what we are learning about ourselves. We have had to adapt to our new life here in many ways. I have written many posts about the differences of life here and the new ways that myself and my littles are growing and exploring and expanding in the face of it. But we are still us. Inherently. Us. What will our adapting to this life do to our core selves remains to be seen – and for posts closer to repatriation. Being ourselves within this context has not been without challenge. Getting nicknamed the likes of “cheeseburger” or “peanut butter & waffles” because you are American is mild on the list of those. But so far, I can conclusively say that it has been amazing, explorative and defining, even with the nicknames. For each of us.

So when you ask – Do I like it here? How has it been? Do you regret the decision? I would say. Yes. Good. And nej. In that order. Is it utopia here? No. It is all glamourous city-breaks and café days? I wish. Am I feeling happy? Not in a Danish way, perhaps. But on the whole… Yes. Cheers from Denmark! Tak på smilet!

9 thoughts on “Six months an expat

  1. A lot of your insights really hit home for me. I’m also about 6 months in and the newness has worn off and real life has set in. Glad to hear you are happy in Denmark!

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