It’s not all sunshine and roses this life lived abroad
SOMETIMES ALL YOU CAN SEE IS THE DOG SHIT AND CIGARETTE BUTTS
Not every day in this life lived abroad is wonderful. Even when you live in wonderful, wonderful, Copenhagen. If you read along at Oregon Girl Around the World, you know. I want you to come here. Come to Copenhagen, she said. I’ll say it again. And you should. I miss you! Please plan a visit! It’s all sorts of cute over here. But while I like to share the pretty bits more than than the shitty bits, I have to be honest. Those days happen too.
Mama said there’ll be days like this
There’ll be days like this, mama said
(Mama said, mama said)
Mama said there’ll be days like this
There’ll be days like this, my mama said
(Mama said, mama said)”
– The Shirelles, 1961
Choosing this life across borders comes with a running tally sheet of ongoing pros beside an evolving accumulation of cons. If you’ve lived it, you know. This is not news to you. And maybe this part of the post isn’t meant for you. But maybe, you’ll recognize the reactions. No. This post is for all the people who think that living abroad is a breeze. Or somehow full of glamour. Or possibly even … better than theirs.
I’m here to let you in on a little secret. It’s the same. In some ways. Especially after a certain point. Once the excitement and honeymoon phase of this brand-new experience has lost its shimmer. It becomes… just … life. Be it your best life or your worst. It is really just life – lived abroad. In a different place. This doesn’t denigrate or dismiss the newly discovered tools needed and necessary to navigate your new now in whatever new place you are. But once you’ve lived somewhere for more than a bit, you come to know the tricks. Have observed the traditions. And you (mostly) know the drill.
There is no common denominator for when this occurs. And no published papers or guides on what is expected in each place to make that comfort level happen. It depends on the distance or the disparity of cultures crossed. Ultimately, it depends on each individual. But something does happen. That makes the experience of living abroad become more than just that. Just an experience. Something happens. When it becomes just life. Lived elsewhere. Have you assimilated yet? Does that make sense?
WHEN THE BAD DAYS HIT
I’m not here to tell you it’s easy. It’s not. There are going to be terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days. And mama probably told you. There’d be days like that. If she didn’t, she should have. Living here in Copenhagen for six and a half years, they can still hit me out of the blue. It could be something as simple as being scowled at for almost stepping into the bike lane without looking. Or getting elbowed and shoved in an unruly bus queue. Seriously, we’re all waiting for the same bus. And 99% of the time, we can all make it on to get where we’re going. Or how about being told it is past time for me to understand more Danish. These are just a few. On a sliding scale of most triggering to least, the specific affront depends on the day.
In reality, there is no definitive act that you can learn to avoid. It’s more the visceral feeling that said event might afford. That I am different. Don’t belong. Or this isn’t my place. Even though I try to fit in and have created a life here. I try to appreciate “the Danish way.” For the most part. Looking like the locals doesn’t always make it easier. There is an unspoken expectation placed on the “hidden expat” that you know all the rules and cultural idiosyncrasies. But still, I don’t always. On these days, my homesickness swells. Suddenly I can see all the things about this place that I deeply dislike. Heap a worldwide pandemic and closed borders on top and that feeling expands, sometimes thrice-fold. Those days are rough. I have come to call these – the dog shit and cigarette butt days. Let me explain.
I CALL THESE THE DOG SHIT AND CIGARETTE BUTT DAYS
Most days, I am annoyed by the bevy of used cigarette butts and disgusted by the poop that almost always litters my cobblestoned city streets. Their prevalence though – doesn’t usually stain my whole mood. But cut to the bad days and they become dirty little reminders of what I don’t like about this life lived abroad. And before you tell me, if I don’t like it here, why don’t I move away – I do. I do like it here. That doesn’t make it perfect. All the time. And embracing a toxic positivity that claims everything is awesome – when it’s not – doesn’t work for me. I find acknowledging the bad days works better when they come.
MORE BAD DAYS HAPPEN IN DANISH WINTER
Here in Denmark, the ratio of dog shit days definitely escalates in the dark months of a Danish winter. Copenhagen – you are chock full of charm, but only when you can see it. Once the twinkly lights of a delightful and delicious Danish Christmas are taken down and packed away, winter can feel heavy and hard. Especially when the country is locked down. Come summer months when the light lingers long and the lilac and elderflower fragrant the air and almost everyone finds ways to enjoy the clean water – there is almost no place better. Still, in the warm and happy months – one of those dreaded dog shit and cigarette butt days can knock you right down. On your proverbial ass.
What do you do to help cope when the bad days hit? Me? I focus on finding some pretty around me to remind me that I do love living in this city. Or I reflect on memories made and fun times before. A reminder that feelings are fleeting and seasons change. I suspect it doesn’t seem much different for handling bad days wherever you live, but especially helpful when you feel like you just don’t fit in. Compounded by language barriers, cultural misunderstandings, mistakes, and missteps, those bad days can feel extra big.
A DECIDEDLY GOOD DAY
Yesterday was definitely NOT one of those dog shit and cigarette butt days. In fact, it was a very good, amazing and totally fantastisk kind of day. That’s Danish for fantastic if you didn’t know. Let me tell you why. First of all the sun was shining and the day began with coffee al fresco with good friends. But wait, there’s more. Recently in my Copenhagen neighborhood, I’d been noticing brightly painted street art signs pasted up on power boxes and walls about town. A forever fan of street art and the messages they send, I posted a photo of one to my Instagram online. “Will it art?” That was the question it asked. I answered – that yes, it will art. And is art. Decidedly so. See below that first found piece. A quick follow of the artist’s feed and more fun finds out on the streets has made me a fan. Last week, I posed a simple inquiry if I might buy one of their super cool works. I was told no, they weren’t for sale. But stay tuned, because what ensued became a fun game between the artist and myself.
I was told they would make something unique. Just for me. Today – happy clapping – I was messaged hints and whereabouts that I might find the work you see here. Framed and wrapped and labeled and tucked sneakily behind an electrical box at the end of The Copenhagen Lakes. Not far from our house.
LOOK FOR STORIES | A STREET ART REMINDER
Look for stories, they said. And I do. All the time. It’s something I’ve honed and finetuned in this life lived abroad. When the world feels different or difficult – on those dog shit and cigarette butt days – it’s a perfect place to start. Why do things happen this way, in this place? How can we connect to this brand-new space. We can start by listening to each other’s stories.
My dad was an excellent storyteller. Or, depending on who you asked, a Class A bullshitter. It’s true. He could bait you, hook you and drag you in ever so slowly, to his yarn. Sometimes he got you. Sometimes you could sniff him out early – his tale perhaps a bit too tall. But still, you enjoyed the telling – so very well spun. Some of his stories morphed over time, worn in and as comfortable as your favorite blue jeans. Or the bent book jacket of that novel you could re-read – again and again. Most of his stories ended with a giant gap-toothed smile and knee-slapping laughter. And while my anecdote here may not elicit guffaws, I hope it conjures awe.
TREASURE HUNT AND COMMUNITY BUILDING
I followed the clues and found the package in its place. For a minute, it felt like I might be on one of those hidden camera shows, a little bit aware that I might be being watched. I snagged it and sat on one of the iconic city benches finally shaded by now fully green-leaved old chestnut trees. Look for the stories. It said. But the mystery stays unsolved and the artist unknown. Still, my smile remains and the story now told. How connecting in this place can happen in ways you can’t imagine, the universe bigger and smaller and more amazing at the same time.
Three cheers to creativity and spreading joy in your community. Look for stories. And share. Go follow @willitart on Instagram for more brightly colored and artful fun. And remember that there are still stories to be told and life to be learned, even on the dog shit and cigarette butt days. Cheers from here. When you can, come to Copenhagen, she said.