Month: June 2012

Genesis

It’s kind of strange how some things we attribute to a culture can easily be explained by public policy.

One of the first questions I wanted to learn how to ask in Danish was “do you need help?”  As much as I’d like to believe that’s because I’m just such a sweet and caring person, it’s really because I found myself wanting to say it all the time, especially on public transport.

In the US, about 30% of the people on the bus are absolutely insane. Like, bath-salts eat-your-face insane. We ignore them. Everyone else is just a person trying to get home and not get their face eaten. Those of us in this category are generally pretty nice and cordial towards eachother. Once in a while, due to circumstance or poor planning, one of these people decides to take the bus or subway carrying a giant suitcase or something. Usually someone sees them struggle, and decides to help.

This is why I wanted to learn that phrase here. I’d see someone that seems mostly sane struggling in some way and I’d want to lend them a helping hand. Then, I realized something.  I’ve see someone struggling that way every time I’ve taken public transport. Every. Single. Time.

Basically, you can’t take the bus here without running into some lady trying to bring 40 children on board, or carrying 20 bags of groceries or an aquarium or something home. Even excluding bicycles and strollers, there’s just constantly someone in need of assistance on public transport here every time you take it. Yes, some of them are disabled, but most of them are just trying to jam a sofa or into the entrance of the bus by themselves.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the busses and trains are particularly crowded, it’s just that there’s always a person on there who’s doing something strange and intrusive with a space otherwise meant for sitting. It’s weird because you can’t even just try and be in your own place unassumingly because you know you might get your the area by your feet taken away by a very grateful lady and her extra grocery bag.

I thought about why that is. I think it’s because Denmark has made it prohibitively expensive to own a car or to take a taxi. Both of these are ‘luxuries’.  This means people engaging in activities that would normally require a car or other special vehicle (such as grocery shopping, moving things from apartment to apartment or even taking a classroom worth of children on an outing) are now encouraged to try and use public transportation for their needs.

After a couple of weeks of this, I’ve stopped offering to help, just because it gets too taxing. Now, I just want to ride from class to the apartment without getting an aquarium to the head. Everyone else can just deal with themselves and I’ll deal with my stuff.  I’ve stopped being the helpful American guy and I’ve become… another member of the Danish public transport crowd.

So it begins.

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For a good time call…

So, Danish people are really weird about contact information. Really, really weird.

Normally, if you meet someone randomly and you both realize you don’t hate eachother, you seal that special bond of mutual tolerance with some self-disclosure. A name, a favorite color, whatever.  Then, if you find you actually enjoy hanging out and would like to not leave the next encounter to pure chance, you exchange contact information of some sort.

Apparently this isn’t how it works in Denmark. As best as I can tell, each Dane is born with a limited number of times they can give out contact information. If they use it up, they get kicked out of the country and have to live in Finland. (To the Danes whose contact information I already have, thank you and sorry in advance about your imminent deportation) This is the only logical explanation I have with how weird they get when it gets to that point of the interaction.

Ryan and I went out a few weeks ago and met some Danes. We hung out with them all night, they came out with us to get breakfast, watched out for us to be sure we didn’t get lost, bought us some drinks, and generally had a good time.   Everyone seemed to enjoy hanging out. Come morning, asking for contact information for anyone in the group was like pulling teeth. I think the first attempt was Ryan saying “So, you guys have our contact info, right?” followed by a “nope” and crickets sounding off in the distance.
“Well…should we fix that?”  “Hm, fix what? What’re we talking about again?”

Eventually, Ryan’s ability to out-wait any awkward situation won over and one of the guys in the group reluctantly gave us his phone number, with that look of despair knowing he’d never see his friends and family again.

I’ve talked with other foreigners about this, and they’ve witnessed the same thing out here. I thought it was a European thing at first, or maybe I’m just super pushy, but, again, Denmark seems to be special in this regard. I never saw this in Germany, and didn’t see it when I went back a few weeks ago.

I have about a dozen more stories from myself and other foreigners here of this same odd behavior.  As far as I can tell, it’s nothing impolite and it’s not a sign they don’t like you. Maybe I just don’t appreciate the sacred covenant of trust I’m given when I get ability to make a person’s phone vibrate from a distance.

As of a few days ago, I decided I’ll try specifically finding non-Danes and see what that’s like.  I’ve already found tons of really fun people from all over Europe (and US expats too) who are totally normal about contact info.  And, I have to say, I’m enjoying it!

So, I guess I’ll have to wait longer to figure out why the Danes are like this. Until I understand it better, I’m just gonna go with my strict deportation theory and let people continue being strange.

On the planet Jorden

I don’t know how many of you have read War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, but if you haven’t, I’m about to spoil the ending for you now. You’ve been warned.

Basically, Earth is attacked by Martians who are technologically superior, but in the end all die from disease.  I like the 2005 movie’s interpretation of this ending; despite people thinking of ourselves as something outside and separate from nature, we’re actually a part of it. We’ve earned a place in the world and our immune systems are one of many tributes to that fact.

I started thinking about this when I went to Germany the other week. It brought back memories of living in there in 2006. Back then, the city I lived in didn’t really have a huge English speaking population (outside the university), so I forced myself to learn German. The process was hard and painful, but by the end of it, it was amazing.  When they spoke English, they might say “stay on the train,” but in German it would be “Sir, would you mind staying on the train? We’re actually about to perform some maintenance at the next stop, wouldn’t want you to get stuck out there.”

Obviously, I’m not German, but despite that I feel incredibly connected and at ease with the German people. It was only this time while visiting that I realized it was because I’d earned it. I spent the better part of a year discovering the language and customs and my reward was this sense of familiarity and comfort I had while being there; it was my immune system.

I’ve been taking intensive Danish courses here: 3½ hours a day, 3 days a week, with about 3 hours of homework/studying per session.  I have some fun and interesting classmates, some of whom have been helping to show me the ropes as a foreigner. It also turns out that if/when my immigration stuff gets settled, the government might pay for the courses. Even though it’s currently out-of-pocket, and insanely expensive, I can’t help but think it’s worth it. If I’m really going to be living out here, I want to get to that point where I can understand people. Not just their language, but their culture and thoughts and all the little wonderful nuances that go with it.

I also know it won’t be easy compared to German. This language is littered with false cognates, glottal stops, and seemingly random vocabulary (compare the German word for “the Earth” die Erde with the Danish Jorden) but I like to think that the deeper cultural insights I’ll get will be worthwhile and make me better and a more well-rounded “global citizen”.