When Extraordinary Situations Strike in a Life Lived Abroad

Don’t Underestimate the Emotional Quotient of Feeling Far Far Away

We live in Copenhagen. For the last five years. And last night, the Prime Minister of Denmark announced that the country would go on lockdown, in an effort to mitigate the spread of the novel Coronavirus COVID-19. Schools and universities and daycares would close. Public sector employees would be sent home (with pay.) Cultural institutions should shutter. People were recommended to work from home. Indoor gatherings of 100+ participants to be banned. This is serious stuff. Not since World War II has the little Scandinavian nation of Denmark recommended such a lockdown.

But the virus here is ramping up. Rapidly. And while my family may not be in the high-risk group for complications from the virus, watching the sudden spread is seriously scary. The announcement came over a live broadcast press conference on Danish TV. And it was in Danish. Of course, it was. Because we live in Denmark. But when your own Danish is limited to restaurant ordering, public transport transactions, grocery store maneuverings, and coffee shop klatching – press conferences on emergency specifics prove a wee challenge to follow. Did they say what I think they said?

Yes. Yes, they did. And immediately the emails and notices started to buzz in from our children’s schools and our places of employment with subject lines like “Extremely Extraordinary Situation.” That’s truly what one message said. For me this IS extraordinary. I have never lived through something like this. And I realize that admitting that may reveal my privilege, but for me – and my family – this is… an extremely extraordinary situation.

So our knee-jerk response? Grab our reusable sacks and hit up the local grocery store. Just in case. And as we cycled through our Copenhagen neighborhood, it seemed we weren’t the only ones with a similar idea. Turns out – the press conference had continued. After announcing an immediate lockdown, the Prime Minister and gathered officials stated that food sources were stable and the public shouldn’t hoard. In Danish, the word for hoarding is “hamstring.” No, not the muscle that you can easily pull past a certain age or athletic ability – hamstring here directly translates to “hamstering.” Like a hamster.

But many of us didn’t get that message until after our spontaneous trips to stock up on some staples. Living in the city, we have learned to shop on a daily basis for our family of five. Although my eldest is away dealing with his own coronavirus challenges on his gap year experience in southeast Asia – we still need plenty of food. As we don’t have a car here, we can only take as much as we can carry or load in the baskets of our bikes. So American levels of Costco-type bulk shopping are just not physically possible. For us. And most in our neighborhood.

I have since seen the videos of people who panicked. Here in Copenhagen. (And around the world.) Here there were shopping carts full of toilet paper and pasta and packets of yeast. Apparently – a certain segment of Danes is dearly afraid of being unable to bake. I have also seen and read the lambasting of those same people. Posts that point out their idiocy and ineptitude in times of crisis.

No yeast left in Denmark

But I too was challenged. Judged and questioned. Why was I out? Waiting in long lines to buy some essentials? Why was I hamstering. Several had asked. Posting photos of empty bread cases and nary a block of gær (yeast.) And to you, I offer my response. Because.

Empty bread shelves at a Danish supermarket

Because. I needed to. For my own emotional sanity. Luckily, our experience last night was safe and completely sane. To be honest, it was one of the loveliest lines I’ve ever waited in for all my five years here living in Denmark. People were patient. People were chatting. And for those who don’t know or don’t live here, people don’t normally do that at the grocery store in Denmark. Chat with strangers. But this. This was an extraordinary situation.

I can’t answer for everyone, but for me – knowing I had enough for a few cups of coffee, some pasta, canned beans, and possibly (probably) a bottle of wine or two was reassuring. A little something I could control in an unknowable time. There is no precedent for this. We don’t know what it will become. I’m really not paranoid and have great hope that the dramatic precautions taken in Denmark and elsewhere will ease all of our risks. But for a moment, I needed to feel that I had done something.

And before you judge. Because some of you already are. And some of you already have. Realize that your comfort level may be different than mine. I live around the world from my extended family. Far, far away from people I love. In a country that repeatedly makes it clear that it isn’t mine. And while dealing with disasters or crises or emergencies is something you do consider when choosing a life lived abroad, until you’re hit with it, in your own home – it’s hard to prepare for or know how to respond.

So for a few minutes, I “hamstered” last night. Although it was truly only a couple of days dining – so we’ll have to believe the food sources to Denmark remain solid. But “hamstring” might now be my new least favorite Danish word. For now. Don’t underestimate the emotional quotient or psychology of needing to protect your own family.

I loved this post by writer Elizabeth Gilbert as it sums up how I feel and felt last night:

“Dear Ones—
for now, the only thing I have to say about the Coronavirus is this:

Let’s not judge people too fiercely for how they are reacting to this situation.It may be the case that people are overreacting, or it may be that they are under-reacting….it’s not my place to judge that. I don’t have all the answers and I can’t see into the future—no more than anybody else can.

But I do know that when I add my condemnation to the conversation, it just ratchets up hysteria in a different way—and most of all, it’s not kind.

If you believe that somebody is overreacting, just try to remember that another word for “overreaction” is “fear”. Try to be compassionate, not contemptuous. We don’t all share the same fears, but we all know what fear feels like, and it’s a terrible sensation. I wouldn’t wish fear on anybody, and I know that a lot of people are genuinely afraid right now.

I have no way of knowing how many people are going to suffer physically from this virus, but I do know that millions of people are already suffering from it emotionally—and those people need love, not contempt. Those people are my brothers and sisters. Let me never forget my compassion for their anxiety, rather than telling them how they should or should not be feeling.

And let me also show a strong measure of mercy to the people across the world who are running institutions, schools, governments, and companies right now. Those people are faced with the supremely unenviable task of trying to figure out how to respond to this crisis responsibly. There is no playbook. They will make mistakes. They will overreact; they will under react. They are human beings in an impossible dilemma. I would not wish to be the person faced with such massive, impactful decisions right now. Let me show compassion to them.

Let me show compassion to all.

And let me never stop asking: “How can I help?”


So, please. Let’s be patient with each other. This will pass. And we’ll have stories to tell. Cheers from here. Send cute puppy photos. I need a distraction.

Love from Denmark, Erin

18 thoughts on “When Extraordinary Situations Strike in a Life Lived Abroad

  1. Robin

    Really loved this – thanks. I also hamstered and my Danish husband insisted I buy yeast even though he’s never cooked bread at home. 🙂

    1. oregongirlaroundtheworld

      I make really good Greek pitas with Danish live yeast if you want the recipe! Thanks for reaching out. Stay safe. And SANE!

      1. Robin

        Thank you! I’d love the recipe. Stay healthy, sane and safe too.

        The hardest part in this house is dealing with TEENS who don’t understand why they can’t see their friends. Trying to explain the gravity of the situation as it evolves daily.

  2. Stine

    Sending lots of love and hugs, the world went from feeling small to very far big (for me now with the travel ban to/from Europe). The wine!! I sent Pete out to pick up more groceries and when he came home I remembered I’d forgotten to add wine (and coffee!!) to the list, back again! 😉 Btw on the gær, I’ve purchased extra flour, figured we can always live off of bread worse case and for that you need the gær! 🙂

    1. oregongirlaroundtheworld

      Yes – travel ban both ways now. We’re ok here. Sending good juju for your family and hoping they have secured their own stash of gær over there. And that you get your wine! ?Love from here.

  3. Yep, you aren’t the only one who hamstered. I think most folk have, including myself! Although in the UK, there has been no loo roll for weeks…I think we started the whole – ‘I must have enough loo roll for a whole year’ thing! Mine certainly ain’t gonna last too much longer as it had all been and gone before I was aware of this phenomenon, and I did actually genuinely need to buy some too!

    However, as long as I have plenty of porridge oats, sugar, golden syrup and margarine in, then im happy as I have flapjack to turn to!

  4. I think your point about finding some way to take a little bit of control is absolutely spot on. That’s what we are all trying to do in our own small way. Here in the English countryside we aren’t shut down (yet) and in my village it is still perfectly possible to completely ignore the increasing crisis. But it’s coming our way and I’m already making changes in anticipation of that because, because what else can I do? Thanks for your thought-provoking post and best wishes to you and yours.

    1. oregongirlaroundtheworld

      Ahh thank you kindly. I have been following it all daily – but glad to have a link in English. I really appreciate it. Stay safe. Cheers.

  5. I enjoyed this honest and reflective account of your hamstering that night. It was a bizarre and unique moment for everyone so there’s indeed no need to judge how we respond to unprecedented situations.

    My partner was at the store while the prime minister was giving a press conference and announcing the lockdown. Meanwhile I was deep in my work, so I had no idea of what was going on – not until he got home and told me 1. we’re in lockdown and 2. as he was leaving the store, a huge crowd entered the store (Bilka). So we didn’t end up hamstering, but I was a bit glad he didn’t get run over by the crowd while I sat in the safety of our home.

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