Size Matters

Moving somewhere new and not knowing your way around; where to buy groceries, the nearest playground, where the hospital is, which doctor to see, (not speaking the language) can definitely make a place feel disproportionately enormous. Take away the instant gratification enjoyed by getting somewhere in your own car, that used to sit right out your own front door in your own driveway and instead plan ahead for various modes of public transportation making certain destinations seem interminably far away. All enhancing how BIG it feels in your new.

Quick follow-up to my last post about going “car-free” – two school birthday party invitations later and we have already had to get creative. You were invited to a classmate’s birthday party? Sure you can go – that sounds super fun! RSVP’d and onto the calendar it goes. Oh, it’s where? An hour away by train? EEK. Ok. Quick thinking here – using resources at our disposal – where’s that class list? Can you get a ride with a classmate whose family HAS A CAR? You can? Phew. Birthday drama averted. Community extended at the same time that wagons draw in, expanding and contracting simultaneously. Does that make sense? Do you know what I mean? Let me explain. The more connections that we make, the more personally knit our web here – being able to call up a classmate’s parents and ask for back-up for instance – the smaller or closer or more intimate the environment becomes. Size matters.

Sound backward? Meeting more people should make your world bigger. Right? On one side of the coin, it does. Tillykke! (That’s Danish for congratulations. Tillykke med fødselsdagen! Birthday congratulations.) Being invited to a new Danish friend’s birthday party affords my son insight into how the locals live and celebrate. But it also makes his big and somewhat overwhelming new horizon feel more secure and his place in it more stable and therefore smaller. Not knowing anyone in a new place can create a vacuous sensation and tenuous connection with a new environment. Floating all alone in space. Houston, we have a problem. Something like Sandra Bullock in Gravity comes to mind – you know, without the gripping fear of death alone in frozen SPACE and all. Extending the network is good. Radio silence, not so good. Bringing it down to your earth where you are, building your back-up, definitely beneficial. Size matters.

Maneuvering new routines

For the first few months after arriving in Denmark, when we were still figuring out basic daily functions – like how to get to school, how to function at school, the new routines – everything took a little longer than normal. How to feed ourselves for instance – what to eat, where to get it, what that food being sold was exactly, what it tasted like, it all took twice as long – and sometimes more. Luckily, the daily grocery store trips have now become somewhat less of a time suck for me. I have found some basics that I know everyone will eat; which bread we all like, the non-mushy apples, which lunch meats don’t taste “weird,” the best yogurt. I don’t have to translate every single item at my small neighborhood SuperBrugsen or Irma or Netto or Føtex (just to name a few) anymore and I know (mostly) where to find the things I need.

Friends, meet Irma. Irma - meet my friends.
Friends, meet Irma. Irma – meet my friends.

Bulk buying at the likes of an enormous American warehouse store (Costco) doesn’t exist in the city here. There are literally laws in place that restrict the physical size of retail outlets – grocery and otherwise. But bulk shopping doesn’t correlate to our lifestyle here either – it wouldn’t fit in my small European refrigerator or in my cabinets for that matter.  Nor in the many other temporary apartments that we experienced before we found ours. Not that I ever really stocked up for a week ahead of time in Oregon, but remember that to do so here, I’d have to hand carry it all home and then get that all up FIVE flights of stairs – remember? It isn’t better or worse necessarily – it’s just different. I will admit that my estimation of those large, ungainly, and bulky cargo bikes that are prevalent here has risen dramatically. Without a kid or two (or grandmother or girlfriend… or drunk boyfriend for that matter) taking up the space upfront – you could tote a bunch of groceries with ease. Size matters.

So during that expansion phase a few months back, I posed a question to my family. Does Copenhagen feel “big” to you? Or in relative terms, does it seem “bigger” or “smaller” than Portland, Oregon (being our most recent from)? I would say that in our collective initial estimation, we all felt Copenhagen was bigger. Maybe it was the preconceived notion that it SHOULD be bigger. It’s the capital of Denmark. The capital of the U.S. – Washington D.C. – is much bigger than Portland, so it seemed fitting to assume that the capital of a European country should be larger as well.

But for reference, when digging deeper and looking at the actual numbers, the population of the D.C. metropolitan area is larger than the entire population of Denmark – the COUNTRY. Have you looked on a map yet? Denmark itself is SMALL – weighing in at 16,562 square miles (42,916 square km – we work in metric over here) housing a total population of 5.5 million peeps. Oregon – not even the largest state in the union by any stretch of the imagination – dwarfs Denmark by comparison. Ladies and gentlemen – in this corner – in the green and mountainous shorts, weighing in at 98,381 square miles (225,026 square km) – Oregon is almost 6 times larger. I honestly don’t know what Oregon weighs – but you get the gist.

They: Where are you from? Oregon? Where is that?

Me: Do you know where California is?

They: Oh yes!

Me: Oregon is above California. Go north.

They: Aaah. Oh. (Look of puzzlement.) Really.

Me: Yep.

Comparing and contrasting

It’s all relative and size matters. Now come on, you may be thinking. How does the relative size of the country of Denmark in comparison with one state mean anything in the grand scheme of things? For one families’ perception of a place (Denmark and more specifically Copenhagen), it has great value and impact, I’m here to tell you. The children, and my husband, and I for that matter, all thought that Copenhagen was “bigger” than Portland, Oregon. As it turns out, it’s not. That does a bit for your psyche. In a good way for us. Portland has a population of 610,000 people, its metro grows to 2.2 million (including, but not limited to our ‘hood Lake Oswego to the south, Hillsboro to the west, Gresham to the east and neighboring Vancouver, WA suburbs to the north.) In contrast (but really just very very close) Copenhagen proper lays claim to 570,000 within its bounds and a cumulative metropolitan population of 1.9 million. That is almost 35% of Denmark’s total population who lives in and around Copenhagen. For the kids – suddenly, the city was achievable. That’s not SO big. Rather, we can handle that. It’s a comfortable size, a manageable size, a familiar and relative size. Size matters.

Part of what makes a place a home, and feel like a community, are the networks and people that you know within it. My friend from Oregon recently expatriated with her family to Mexico around the same time that we moved here. We recently chatted over Skype and while many of our experiences are shared due to the age of our children and our common background, the cultural differences make each situation distinctly unique. She offered me some great advice – nuggets of wisdom that her recently departed lovely mother shared with her many years ago as she sent her daughter, my friend, off to Paris France to work and study at 19 years old.

Something akin to Carpe Diem, but a bit more personal – about the importance of seizing opportunities to connect with the people that present themselves to you. Putting aside preconceived notions about who and what and where – letting people in that you may not have otherwise, because of this new now, this new place. Not turning down an offer to experience something because you’ve done it before, but looking at it as the potential for connection. On the other end of the spectrum, not turning it down because you didn’t see yourself doing that before now. I am trying. I joined an adult choir. Not on my bucket list at home, but I will admit that I am truly enjoying it and it is indubitably affording me new connections. One of which I ran into at my neighborhood grocery store this week. I knew someone at the grocery store! It is hard to understand how comforting this is. How much smaller (and grander) my universe now feels. Size matters. Cheers from Denmark!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I’m linking up with #MyExpatFamily – come meet more expats exploring life in their corner of the world! Follow @MyExpatLife on twitter for weekly #Twitterchats about #ExpatLife.

Seychelles Mama

12 thoughts on “Size Matters

  1. It is a strange thing about how we perceive a place when we first arrive but then how that changes over time. It will be interesting for you to look back on this post in a year or so and see whether it feels different. Incidentally I think doing things like joining an adult choir is a great idea – even if you don’t do it for ever, you never know who you might meet there or where it might lead. Life is definitely about connections and you just never know when you are going to make them. #myexpatfamily

  2. What a fantastic post!! You’re so right about perceiving a place to be bigger then it is until you get to know it!! We even felt that on our little island here!
    I love the thought that gaining connections makes a place smaller while at the same time expanding it….a really lovely way to think of a new place!
    Thank you so so much for joining in with #myexpatfamily I really enjoyed reading this 🙂

  3. Great post! I couldn’t agree with you more about percieving places differently. Its such a strange thing isn’t it! #myexpatfamily

  4. A really interesting post, I found myself nodding along to lots of this. It’s funny how everything feels so big and ‘alien’ when it is unknown, but as soon as we get to know the place we are living in, everything feels so much smaller somehow.

    I feel like we are definitely in our own little comfort zone now we have been in SF for 3 years – we go to the same places and do the same things and see the same people. But sometimes I have to remind myself it’s good to keep breaking out of that comfort zone every now and again – in the same way I had to do in a much bigger way when we first moved here and everything felt new and very big. x

  5. I love this! As you know we’re moving to southern Sweden soon and I’ve got all sorts of size-related thoughts rattling around my brain too. The size of our friendship circle here in Italy compared to there – small vs. utterly non-existent, which actually makes the former quite large. The fact that Lund is TINY compared to Milan, but we don’t yet know our way around, so will it seem impossible to get across at first? And yes, the time spent buying things! I could go on.
    In any case I love how you’ve described all of this. It’s such an integral part of moving abroad, the measuring up of things, but it’s not at all easy to explain it to someone who hasn’t had these experiences.

    1. Thanks for reading Eline! Do you have any local connections in Lund to get you started? I would assume public transportation is pretty good being a University town. Food shopping will be a big transition – what they offer, where to get it and varying quality. But you will find where your places are and you’ll have plenty of daylight to do it in!

      1. Ha, yes! Hurray for long day light hours! We are very low on the local connections – only my husband’s manager at the university – so I think we’ll have to just brave it on our own for a while. You’re right about public transport though; my impression when we visited was that it was extensive, and in any case it’s a tiny, cyclable town compared to Milan. Almost everyone speaks English too, which is not going to help my Swedish but it’ll be useful in the beginning!

      2. I know the next two-six months is going to be challenging on many levels – but I really look forward to reading through this big change! Sweden is beautiful and very child centric. Good luck with it all! And when you are ready to visit Copenhagen – let me know!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.