There were things we knew before even stepping on that plane – flying us around the world from Portland, Oregon to Copenhagen, Denmark. Our family of five was very aware that some cultural assimilation would be a baseline requirement in making our expatriation successful. Language barriers aside, there are little cultural norms and rules that make a society tick and operate smoothly. On the surface, life in Denmark is not radically different from our life in the United States. And because we “look like the locals,” there is a blanket assumption that we will know, understand and adhere to all those little rules. Danes like rules.
They also LOVE to break the rules – but only at societally sanctioned times – like New Year’s Eve. On this night – all bets are off and Danes truly let loose. Or at the week long music festival Distortion that takes over city streets in the summer. But for the most part, you follow along. Everyone does. We have learned to wait at the crosswalk for the light to turn green before crossing the street. (Even when there are NO cars and it’s a little street and there is no danger. We wait.) We have learned that queues for the bus don’t exist. Just get on. We try to eat continental style – but it’s kind of a mid-Atlantic hybrid (much like Madonna’s accent) at this point. We have adapted to the bike lane etiquette and use the correct hand signals. We even remember to put the divider on the conveyor belt at the market after loading our goods. That one is a big deal here.
As for the language, I still don’t really speak Danish, but am proud to say that I can now easily maneuver the grocery store without the use of Google Translate. I now know that kylling is chicken and svinekød is pork and am keenly aware the difference between skummetmælk, letmælk and kærnemælk (skim, light and butter milk). I won’t even go into how many kinds of yoghurt they sell here, but will tell you that I do love skyr. I am also a wee bit self-satisfied that I can order a “stor cappuccino med dobbelt shot til at drikke her” * at my favorite coffee shop/workspace and they don’t raise an eyebrow anymore. “Tak for det.” Thanks for that. Baby steps. Little victories. Look ma, I’m assimilating.
We have “Copenhagenized” our transportation and exist car free here – riding bicycles and trains to and from school or work every day. This is still somewhat amazing for us considering we spent nearly 12 years moving around America with my husband’s job at Ford Motor Company rolling iron. We have acclimated our shopping habits – visiting the small neighborhood markets almost daily and buying what is on special and in season, then carrying our goods up five flights of stairs. Our cooking habits have changed due to having a smaller oven, smaller refrigerator and no grill out the back door. We have even deferred our traditional Christmas dinner in favor of a more Danish feast with roast pork, duck, red cabbage and potatoes. I eat licorice and like it. There are candles lit in our apartment ALL THE TIME – because – you know… HYGGE. And my husband has even taken to making his own using all the little melty ends. We use single duvets on the beds (well most of the beds.) All of these lifestyle tweaks were easily accommodated. There has been no attempt to maintain our home culture at all costs. We have assimilated.
What I did not expect with all this Danish cultural adaptation was the concurrent requirement that we assimilate into the broader expat community. Our children attend an International School here in Copenhagen. We are grateful for the opportunities to meet families and children from all over the world – it has enriched our experience abroad for sure. My childrens’ best friends have ties to Denmark, Germany, India, Slovenia, Sweden, Indonesia, Qatar, Italy, France, Holland, Egypt, Australia, Russia and of course Great Britain, just to name a few. The school operates under a British structure, which has been an interesting adjustment for our American educated children. We have tried to assimilate there as well. But I didn’t realize that I was going to have to know what “crisps” were or that the “boot” of your car is actually the “trunk.” Or by “fancy dress,” that your child is supposed to wear a costume. (That one is for you Alex Forest Whiting!) An eraser is called a “rubber.” And there is more than one math – it’s MATHS here. A “vest” is not a sleeveless outer garment, it is actually an undershirt. And try going over your daughter’s homework when she is learning homonyms. As it turns out – in American English – soar does NOT equal SAW. Nor caught equal COURT. Yep, that was an amusing evening around the kitchen table.
“The worst thing is not knowing the rules that everybody around you just takes for granted.” – Jane Parker
I recently read a post by Jane Parker, a British expat, regarding her experiences assimilating to life in America. It was refreshing to know that it happens in reverse, this confusion with norms and standards that everyone else uses on a daily basis. Jane writes that, “the worst thing is not knowing the rules that everybody around you just takes for granted.” I expected this when moving to Denmark, knowing that we would be trying to accommodate Danish patterns and lifestyle. I was surprised that I would have to maneuver a third culture per se. It can sometimes feel isolating, that you don’t really fit in either place. Don’t worry – I’m still trying and will tell you that my American faux pas – with language or etiquette – in both cultures – have been met with more amusement than chastising. And I love the banter.
“When we are trying our best to fit in and are confused by what is happening, it is often the hardest time to explain that you don’t understand.” – Jane Parker
Another expat blogger and author of The Expat Partner’s Survival Guide , Clara Wiggins – is currently dealing with a similar three culture maneuverability as a Brit in South Africa whose children attend an American school. Clara was born to diplomatic parents and has lived a myriad of places, herself a true third culture kid now raising some of her own. Recently she bemoaned the requirement that her children bring Valentine’s for everyone in class at this latest school on her Facebook page – an excellent resource for “expat spouses” the world over. I tried to explain a little about our beloved American primary school tradition. Not at all just the “Hallmark holiday” as some comments on her post had denounced Valentine’s Day. For our family (and many families in the States) the American Valentine card exchange is not about commercialism or buying or merchandising or consumerism.
I can see how it might be perceived as such, especially from afar.
But it wasn’t like this in our house. Or at the schools that our children attended. I will admit that there may have been a year or two when making 24 or so hand-crafted and personalized notes was not in the cards. In those years, buying the super cheesy Spongebob or Disney Princess set at the local Rite-Aid Drug store the night before was a good as it got. But my children were always encouraged to practice their handwriting while addressing and selecting the perfect card for each child in the class. They loved it. More often were the years we spent hours, days even, getting creative; photoshopping and pasting and gluing and glittering. And don’t forget the time spent creatively making cardboard and papered receptacles to sit atop their school desks awaiting the delivery of all those fun notes, treats and smiles from their classmates at the annual Valentine’s party at school. We miss this.
So as Valentine’s Day approaches this Sunday here in Copenhagen – we may not have spent the week glittering or cutting or hand addressing as there were no parties at school today, nor will there be on Monday. But we will still be showing affection for and within our family of five. I know that the Danes (who only usurped the holiday in the past 20 years or so) and the Brits will celebrate only as couples, if they do celebrate at all. Including children is not part of their tradition and deemed somewhat odd. Please correct me if I’m wrong. No problem. But while I am trying my best to understand and fit in with all the cultures here, I will still give my kids a Valentine. And probably bake a red velvet cake. Because that’s how I assimilate. Did I tell you that Danes LOVE cake?
Cheers from Denmark and Happy Valentine’s Day to you and yours! Love, Erin
* A large cappuccino with double shot to drink her
 Parker, Jane ( 25 Aug 2011) Culture Shock in the USA (article) retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/expat/expatlife/8715492/Culture-shock-in-the-USA.html