Questions not to ask an expat but you will anyway

What Not to Ask an Expat


Did you move around the world?

This list is for you. This list is also for those who know someone who moved around the world. You may not know these questions, but we do. We hear them ALL THE TIME. Ok, ok. Maybe a little dramatic. But not really an exaggeration.

These are truly the most commonly asked questions that you will constantly be asked after moving abroad. For as long as you are abroad. There is no statute of limitations for the consistency of these questions. Unless you choose to stop meeting new people altogether. And what fun is that? The more the merrier I say. You never know what spark might be alit until meeting that new person. But I warn you. Before that fire can be sparked, you will have to run the gauntlet of the following questions. It’s a ritual. A never-ending expatriate* ritual.


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Being Human

Writing a blog about an expatriated family – our growing pains and exploits in a new local and as we travel is a fun, cathartic way to explore oneself while sharing our adventures. But when the world goes and throws crazy at you in every iteration – like organized terrorist attacks in the City of Lights; Stateside school shootings in your “from” and now NOT your from; bombs in Middle Eastern cities; or refugee babies dying on beaches next to their families trying to escape an unspeakable horrific only to encounter more horrific and unwelcome. It makes me stop. It cramps my fingers. I can’t write. It cramps my heart. It makes me sick. It wakes me up at night. I have to breathe through it all to survive.

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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!

Safety in the same, amidst the ny and different

During an expatriation – having a respite from the ny (definition and pronunciation the same as our new), a break from the different, a harbor of hospitable homogeneity is sometimes welcome, therapeutic and wholly necessary. Somewhere, where a shared language, common experiences and a duplicitous feeling of home allows one a place for letting down your guard, a determined safety, a place to exhale. In. Out. In. Out. Repeat. In. Out. In. Out. Sigh. Whether this craving for same amidst the different is positive for the procession of phases within an expatriation or not … it IS strong, powerful and real. And we accommodated it. Fed it. Stoked it. Fulfilled it. (The craving that is, people.)

And I can relate that experiencing a peer’s different and ny, with them, in their new, is a glorious thing. Suddenly, you become tourist to their guide as they share with you what they have gleaned, learned, found, cherished. And with no pressure, or judgment, or fear of alienating oneself for expressing those little annoyances, confusions, conundrums that can be caused by the differences in cultures. Because we get it. We are doing the same thing. THAT. Is a glorious thing.

Beautiful Bergen, NorwayWe recently shared all of the above and more – including but not limited to – excellent food lovingly prepared, beautiful community, boxed wine, unbridled play, sledding adventures, hearty belly laughs, impromptu dance parties in medieval fortresses, up-late sleepovers with finger nail painting, old school video-gaming, brown cheese and temporary tattoos. Traveling to Bergen, Norway for a long weekend with a family from our home-town in Oregon was gloriously bucket-filling. And whilst there, sighing and laughing and replenishing – we learned. We experienced. We grew.

NorgeNorway is not Denmark. I know. Gross over-generalization. But as aliens having landed here in Scandi-land from a galaxy far, far away, I will admit sheepishly that we (at home) not knowing any better may or may not lump all the northern European inhabitants into a characterization of similar ilk. We don’t know yet the distinguishing characteristics and differences. But I am learning. So I will share. As Copenhagen may not = all of Denmark, nor Bergen = all of Norway, my clarification rather than Norway is not Denmark… BUT Bergen is not Copenhagen. (Duh says those of you who know.) Maybe it is an unfair comparison. Oslo may be better able to hold up for direct assessment being Norway’s Capitol replete with culture, architecture and scenery not to be missed, more akin in population, attitudes and offerings to Copenhagen. But I haven’t been to Oslo yet. I’ll revisit the comparison when I do. You can hold me to it. I have been to Bergen. In the winter.

Meeting the locals on FløyenI was told that the wintery wonderland that we landed in late Thursday night was not normal for the city streets of Bergen. The mountains that surround the fairy-tale town on all sides have frozen precipitation that paints the landscape in a broad white-stroked backdrop. Norway is the backdrop for the Disney hit Frozen you know. And Frozen’s Elsa is loosely based on (Danish) H.C. Andersen’s Snow Queen – which is chock full of trolls and magic and ICE. Norway. The sheer prevalence of references to magical creatures here makes it distinguishable from Copenhagen. Tivoli aside, they are very into fantasy here. And why not, it is fantastic here. For instance, trolls are everywhere. Peeking out windows. Hiding behind trees. Little ones in every shop for the tourists to buy. Huge ones that greet you on the mountain-top. Witches are apparently to be wary of as well. No witches hereThe myriad of signage regarding such atop Mount Fløyen, looming large above Bergen, was amusing if not confusing. Castles, tall-ships in the harbor, pointy little leaning brightly colored row houses of Bryggen, all add to the fairy-tale character of Bergen. But don’t get me wrong, don’t think that it is all sparkly rainbows and unicorns here (evidence in gallery below). The Norsk are the warriors. They are the hunters. They are the Vikings from tales of yore.

I have shared with you before how I think the Danes are hardy with their biking in the driving rain, the snain, the sleet, the snow. Naked Danish dips in the frigid Øresund only reinforce first impressions. But. Heels and furs and cocktails and Noma and the cultured cosmopolitan tendencies carried by most Copenhageners is for want here in Bergen. But, Norwegians. Wauw. Within three days my esteem for the Norsk was definitively etched. This is strong stock. Through soupy and continually precipitating ankle deep slush, troops of Norsk run in packs like wolves. They run through town and then UP mountains with skis on their backs, pulling children, carrying multiple packs or sleds. Orienteering Bergen's icy cobblestone streets

They charge full-speed down icy cobblestoned streets and passages staring at maps in a world-class orienteering challenge that was like nothing I have ever witnessed. Our hosts’ home affording a perfect vantage point for the crazy zig-zagging, looping, map-reading-while-running, barely watching where they are going, crashing down hills, nearly impaling selves on broken railings Norwegian street race. And we were able to experience it all in the safety of our own familiar. Without retribution or misunderstanding of our amusement. With a communal sense of awe at these Norwegians. Impressive. All of it.

As an Oregonian, I have often held fast to the mantra that “there is no bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.” Turns out – it’s Norwegian in origin. Makes sense now. The Norsk hold true to the sentiment that there is “no problem that can not be solved by going outside.” I would conclude this is also a very Oregonian sentiment that I can whole-heartedly get behind. With a landscape and rugged sensibility that surrounds one in Bergen, there is a gravitational pull to experience outside. Thank you for sharing it with us friends. It is certifiable. And worthy. And fulfilling.

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Shock and Awe

I have mentioned before how hardy the Danes are. Many of them, anyway. My son hates gross overgeneralizations – reminding me that my initial perfunctory characterization that ALL Danes are blond, is in fact completely incorrect. Which is true. I stand corrected. Today my estimation of a certain segment of the Danish population ticked up a few notches.Charlottenlund Søbad

Color me shocked. Drawn to the rich, but muted winter tones of this beautiful building on the water in Charlottenlund, I pulled right on over and set outside to capture it for my Scandi palette collection. What I did NOT expect to capture was the pale flesh tones of stark naked bathers dipping into the freezing cold Øresund. It was 0°C outside when I took this photo. I do not even want to know what the temperature of the water could have been.That is KOLDT!

A wee bit taken aback, I instantly took down my long-range lens feeling very much more than slightly stalkery. I did a quick look about to make sure I hadn’t been witnessed “spying” like a common paparazzi and then snapped this quick pic with my iPhone, which is where I edit all my photos anyway. Not so unhurriedly, I scuttled back to my car and continued up the road to my original destination – Bellevue Strand in Klampenborg (Bellevue Beach.)

A popular swim beach (I’m told it gets PACKED) in the summer months, Bellevue Strand is quiet and peaceful in January. Could have sat and listened to the lap, lap, swell, lap, whoosh, lap of the waves on the shore for a long time. Caught ‘gramming (again) by a woman and her 20-something daughter moving out to the pier where I had concentrated, they smiled and I got up to move on down the beach to the next pier. As soon as I stepped onto the sand, the daughter gracefully removed every stitch of her clothing and went into the water. Need I remind you? IT IS KOLDT HERE! There is no warm sauna or steam room or hot tub with which to warm up into immediately following this Baltic dip. It doesn’t last long and soon she is dressed again and on her way with her mother. No way. Doesn’t compute.

Farging KOLDT.

I put my hand in to reach for a shell washing in and out with the soft tide. Mere seconds are required to freeze my skin to a perfectly painful and prickly state. I can not even process a full body dunk. The shock to your system must be intense. Apparently this is normal regular everyday behavior for a certain segment of Danes. Wow, color me impressed. I will say it again. These Danes are HARDY. I am in awe. Enjoy the photo gallery from Bellevue Strand and have a happy Fredag!