Growing your own Happy as an Expat

For Today’s Wednesday Wanderings – or Onsdag Wanderlust as I like to call them – I’m taking you local. A simple outing to a beautiful place right here in Copenhagen. The Botanical Garden in the middle of the city. Botanisk Have in Danish. If you are interested in going further afield on this hump day – see my last post about charming Torekov, Sweden.

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Show me my Silver Lining

Lemonade from lemons. In theory, motivating. In theory, inspiring. In theory, possible. When life serves you lemons, make lemonade. Make something good out of the bad. Right? In theory. Call me a sour puss, but sometimes the lemons just sit there. All cheerful and happy in their sunny yellow-ness all the while mocking you. Pucker up sucker. Do you know what I mean? Turning around the hand you’ve been dealt takes moxy. It takes effort. Bluffing works. Sometimes. Sometimes it is easier said than done, making that god damn hypothetical lemonade.

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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!

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Seychelles Mama


Næste stop. Next stop, the pre-programmed bus announcer calls out. Easy to not pay attention with the free wi-fi afforded on public transport here. One of the many reasons that we have decided to go car free. Car-free… as free as the wind blows as free as the grass grows. We did it. We turned in the mini-lease on the Nissan Leaf. Like trying on 57 different swimsuits in a desperate attempt to procure the one that might, just might, play up your assets and veil your challenge zones, we were trying on cars. The Leaf just last in a line of rental vehicles that, like the suit I still am looking for, just don’t quite work. With three children – my eldest already taller than me at 14 – finding a car that fits us all here has proven challenging.

Small backseats in the European options
It’s cozy up in here

No big ‘Merican SUV’s cruising around here. Parkering would be interminable if there were. I don’t think my old Ford Explorer would fit down the cobblestoned streets or in any of the available parkering spots.

Maybe it’s an issue of living in the city versus living in the burbs. Truth ink that the further you go from old city the larger the personal vehicles become – true anywhere? Certainly comparable back in the States. I would never have considered going car free living in our Portland suburb. Too many soccer (ahem, football), lacrosse, football, dance, practices, games, events for shuttling children fro and to. Too many beautiful Pacific Northwest road trips to be had – how else to get to the mountain? The Oregon Coast? Football games in Seattle? Public transportation while existent there, not nearly as comprehensive and widespread as here.

And while we were here finding our way round and squishing into small backseats – the consistent cries of “I’m NOT MIDDLE!” and the subsequent elbow battles and “He’s in my space!” echo not so quietly or too far back in recent memory – did we slowly start to find that public transportation was terribly easy and convenient… and potentially spacious. My husband will tell you, should you ask him, that he was promoting a car free Danish existence much earlier than I was ready to accommodate. I was terrified to be honest. Why? You may ask. Hard to define. But something akin to having your wings clipped. Fear of the unknown? What would that life look like? Would it constrict us? As it turns out, I think the car has been the constrictor. Holding us back.

For example. The children are able to stretch their wings now. Kissing goodbye from the landing of our 5th floor apartment – the boys head off for their early days at school (not the same day unfortunately) solo and unaccompanied. They have to walk a few blocks to the public bus stop, swipe their prepaid Rejsekort (travel card) to start their journey.

Rejsekort - Travel Card
Rejsekort – Travel Card

They get off at the S-tog station and transfer to a train, clicking their rejsekort again – making sure that the line they want is going the correct direction, else ending up cruising the opposite direction. Of all the family members (besides the wee lass who has yet to make a solo flight) it is I. Myself. It is me who has blundered the transport the grossest. Now tell me this. All the busses heading in our direction are labeled 1A. About 1 in every 5 of them don’t have the same final destination. Couldn’t you call that bus 1B? No? Why not? Those who know say it’s obvious because the final destination is clearly marked on the bus marquee in front. I didn’t know. Anyway – now I know. It was concretely embedded a few months ago after I jumped on the wrong one and while standing out in the burbs – too far to walk to where I needed to meet the children in time, I waited on the other side of the street for the return bus. Much less frequent and far in between this return would be – remember I said in in every 5 goes out there. The children luckily pooled together and adding two and two assessed that mom didn’t have the car this particular day (as Dad had taken it to Aarhus) and waited patiently for me at the school. No more waiting now. They can text me and use their own rejsekort and make their own way home. Brilliant.

The freedom of knowing that I’m not getting a parkering ticket because I parked in the wrong space or didn’t put enough time on the meter is unfathomable. The ease of getting into the city a breeze. The grey-hair inducing act of actually driving here in Copenhagen – which is something akin to Frogger or Crossy Road without the animals – OVER. Imagine trying to turn across bike lanes (which have their own traffic lights) with throngs of bikers only to meet on the sidewalk a myriad of giant-pram wielding, grocery-laden or dog-walking pedestrians and then trying to maneuver around giant delivery or garbage trucks – not even to mention the construction, construction, construction – EVERYWHERE. My anxiety levels while driving and trying to manage the “he’s in my space!” from the backseat were high to say the least. Riding the bus or train is like a dream. I can post to my Instagram (or @expatindenmark’s Instagram which I was flattered to be asked to takeover this week.) I can catch up on you on Facebook, I can read a book. I can chat with my children and hear about their day when I ride up and gather them from school or while delivering them in the morning. It’s delightful. Seriously.

And easy. To use. User friendly. When the users are friendly – which is most of the time – gets a little hectic at rush hour, but still ok. And there’s an app for that. It’s called Rejseplanen (trip planner – duh.) Put in where you are starting from and where you want to go – you can adjust if you want to arrive at a certain time or just determine whatever options there are departing now. Or 15 minutes from now. It’s up to you. Hit “Find your journey” and the next 3 options pop up. Pick the best and click for details so specific right on down to the walking map which will lead your feet (most likely donning black Nike trainers, wellies or heeled black boots) smack to the front door of your desired destination. Awesomesauce. (I don’t know the Danish translation for that yet.)

So far so good and I haven’t missed our vehicular existence. (It’s only been a week.) And I think its good for the kids – a life skill garnered. Something is working. Not everything. But something. For now. Have a wonderful fredag and wherever your næste stop may be – enjoy it. Skål fra Danmark! xoxo

Swans in the Sea

One of the primary reasons in any pro column when processing an expatriation would have to be a perceived potential for expanding of horizons. Think of all the new things we’ll see, learn, experience and feel. (More on that.)

I have never seen Swans in such great quantity as I have come to know here in Denmark. Swans fill the lakes that separate the old city from the Copenhagen neighborhoods of Østerbro, Nørrebro, Fredericksburg and Vesterbro. Their graceful posturing and elegant cruising makes the shallow (and somewhat trash-filled) bodies of water near our hood somehow charming, even with giant construction cranes in the background. I am told that in the summer, swan-shaped paddle boats puddle up and down along side the birds. I am positive that my wee lass will enjoy partaking on some future warmer weathered afternoon.

The prevalence of swans pervades popular culture as well inspiring location naming here. Both our most utilized S-tog train station and the nearest beach use the Danish word for swan (svane) in their namesake – respectively Svanemøllen Station and Svanemølle Strand honor the majestic white birds. Do you know the story of the Ugly Duckling? Who doesn’t? Oh – you don’t? Oh. Ok – go read it, it’s a classic. Read it to your kids – lovely message. It’s kind of the “Rocky” story of fairy tales right? Do you know who wrote it? The Ugly Duckling, not Rocky. None other than Danmark’s own – H.C. Andersen. Yep and as it turns out – he tells people later in life – that the story was a metaphor for his own life experience. Spoiler alert – the little ugly duckling, awkward and ostracized, grows up to be the beautiful swan. Junior High anyone?

But Swans as I know them belong on a lake. Being balletic in background, with 15 years of my youth spent stretching, pointing, plié-ing, extending, port de bras’ing, rehearsing and performing ballet, I believe that swans belong on a lake. I was an avid attender and supporter of Oregon Ballet Theater while there and enjoyed their production of Swan Lake and will admit that I miss the regularity of that set date night every other month. (They are currently performing Cinderella, which I can both recommend and relate to.) If you are unfamiliar with Swan Lake, the iconic Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky classic, put it on your bucket list, preferably performed by a Russian company like the Kirov or Bolshoi that has a corps de ballet by the thousands – or… 24-32 is good too. Thirty-two perfectly synchronized, mesmerizing, white tutu’d and feather-crowned swans that float and dip and fly across the stage. For a tiny teaser – please enjoy my all-time favorite two minutes of ballet and you might see why. Brings tears to my eyes and chills to my skin every time. You too? No? Ok. Thanks for playing. As it turns out, similar to old Hans from Denmark, Peter’s work was not originally received as the masterpiece it is now considered. Criticized for being much too complicated musically, it wasn’t until later that it grew into its current and sustained popularity. Second only to the Nutcracker in performances and attendence, there are surely many many many more years of challenging musicians and dancers as well as delighting audiences to be found in Swan Lake. 

Swans are supposed to be on a lake. In a lake. Around a LAKE. My bias may also stem from the fact that I have spent the last seven years of my life living in a town called LAKE Oswego. Maybe. But here in Denmark (and other places I can now suppose) there are swans in the SEA. Swans on the beach. Swans in the ocean, people. Wha? Without having seen them – I may not have believed, but lovely and serene on the calm tide they seem. Until that is, they come ashore expecting the food they think they should receive, moving towards your children, my daughter only half again as tall as their menacing waddle. These birds are enormous. Beautiful. But ENORMOUS. Carefully, we allow them their space and haven’t gotten the courage to feed them as of yet.

Svanemølle Strand Svanes - these birds are big.
Svanemølle Strand Svanes – these birds are big.

But courageous, constantly, we are all required and attempting to be. On a daily basis. Trying to understand where we can be ourselves, but fit into the flock here in Denmark. It isn’t always easy. Our feathers may be changing, ever-slowly. The sun will come out. Tomorrow. (Sorry, the wee lass is practicing for the International School spring performances of Annie, the tunes of which pervade our sphere.) But, I will admit that we as a family – individually and together – are still feeling a wee bit more like the large, loud, grey-feathered, clumsy and awkward ducks still trying to fit into the barnyard flock. Waiting to emerge into our beautiful full-feathered culturally immersed elegance. Does that happen? I have a feeling we will lose a few more feathers in the evolution. Paddling along, we will continue and let the water roll off us. Spring is coming. Little blooms popping up in parks and around trees and under winter’s dead exhale. I can feel the days lengthening. We are literally gaining 4+ minutes of light every day. It’s palpable. Our spirits lengthen with it and in the words of my teenage son, “I have high hopes for summer.” So do I son, so do I. Breathing. In. Out. Repeat.

Love from Denmark!
Love from Denmark!