Play Parks and Dog Forests

Once, on a warm spring day, I suggested to my friend that I take her kid to the play park. It was lovely weather and my friend was sick. The kid had recently become very difficult, a reaction to the divorce.

Picture it: a childless woman in her late twenties with a 4 year old in a playpark. I kept her entertained with see-saws and swings and helping onto climbing frames. We played some hide and seek in the woods around the equipment. We had a good time. Until the little one was in the mood to push in the line for the climbing frame.

The kid she wanted to push in front of was about 2 years old. If she pushed him out of the way, it would hurt him. I tried using my words but she was not in a listening mood. I tried to explain how important looking out for each other is. I tried going over the concept of ‘turns’ again. Nothing. So, I held her back. She screamed bloody murder, cursed my name, cursed my family. And then once the boy had made it up to the top, I let her go and she forgot all about her anger and asked me sweetly to help her up.

I looked around for adult moral support. The park is lovely but not very busy even at peak times. The only other adult was the dad of the 2 year old and he avoided my eye contact like one avoids staring at the sun. I was doing something wrong. Was it my accent? Was it the way I was hands on? Should I have let them work it out for themselves, even if his kid inevitably came off the worse? There was no way of knowing because he refused to acknowledge my existence.

I put her on the swings and sat on a bench. Other kids came to play, their adults sat on benches too. Nowhere near me. Not making eye contact. Not looking my way at all. Not interacting with their kids either. Just letting them get on with it.

Ahh, the Danish way, making kids more independent. Allowing them to discover their own limits, negotiate their own boundaries. Not for me, but that is not really for me to judge for others. Not for me to judge either, this bubble around Danish adults making friendly informal temporary contact between others impossible.

Fast forward four years and I have a puppy now. She is 6 months old and in some ways has a better sense of propriety around turn taking and interacting with her dog peers than that small child back then. She knows when to back off and when to play and she respects the limits of smaller and younger dogs. This isn’t something we have taught her, particularly, she figured it out in her litter. We reinforce, of course, at home but dog body language is not even our second language and we mimic imperfectly. We take her to the dog forest so she can play with other dogs and run around in a stimulating environment.

Our dog is a scaredy pants and if a bigger dog, no matter how friendly, interacts with her, she squeals and lies on her back. She does this for about 15 minutes, gains confidence and then plays nicely with them. I can see the other dogs are playing nicely: body language, facial expressions, vocalisations all add up to “Hello little dog, let’s play fight, ok?” But she’s crying out like she is being killed until she gets used to them which is a little disconcerting for anyone that does not know her. The owners call their dogs off. “He’s not usually like this! Would you like me to tell him to stop? Messi GET DOWN”

They interact with their dogs and teach them right from wrong, not just about play fighting but all types of play. They ask how old our dog is, tell us about their dog and interpret the body language of all the participants. No one sits on a bench and ignores their dog at any point. Only once has my accent been interpreted as a cloak of invisibility. The dog park is intensely social for the humans as they trade dog tips and stories.

Dogs are not trusted to work out their limits for themselves and the humans feel no problem with telling them off when they step out of line.

What happened to Danish society that the adults feel like giving structure or boundaries to their children is inappropriate when they understand that their pets need gentle reinforcement of how to play nicely? Where do they imagine their children are learning these skills if not explicitly from adults? Why is chatting to other parents in the park verboten but to other dog owners de rigeur? It makes no sense to this outsider.

Jantelov: A primer

Once a Danish-Norwegian wrote a satire sending up small town Scandinavia. It was called “A Fugitive Crosses his Path” and I read the first half when I could speak rudimentary Danish and can report it is about poverty and things “suddenly” happening every new paragraph. I may be one of the few people who have read even this far but everyone likes to quote the best bit.

In Aksel Sandemose’s jaded vision of Scandinavian village life, anyone who tries to stand out is smacked down. There are eleven rules that, I have to admit, I have read so many times that my eyes slide off them like they are covered in bacon grease. They’re basically “You’re nothing special so who cares”

In other countries, the same thing is known as Tall Poppy Syndrome or by the delightful analogy of crabs in a bucket pulling each other down if they try to get out. These rules have been used to justify everything about Danish society from queue jumping, to racism, to poor school performance, to ‘jokes’ where you upset your friends and back again.

Practically, what Jantelov does, is make everyone in Denmark a fucking nightmare to be with in public unless you know them personally. Since the informal laws of this fictional village in a book no one has read tell the average Dane that no one is above anyone else, this is naturally expanded to the following world-view:-

“No one is special, so get out of my fucking way.”

You see it on the mouth breathers getting onto buses before everyone has got off: you’re nothing special so why should you be able to get out of my way so I can get on? You see it in Ikea when people stop dead in the numerous chokepoints around the store: you’re nothing special, so why would I turn my head 45 degrees to see if you are in danger of collision with me if I stop suddenly. You see it in supermarkets when people shove you aside so they can get at the bread slicer you are still using. You see it in department stores when people let heavy doors slam in your face. YOU ARE NOTHING, ME FIRST.

Most of the Danes I know personally are awesome people, so I am not talking about them and I am probably not talking about you even if I haven’t met you yet. But even the Danes you regard as decent human beings can be affected by Jantelov when they make ‘jokes’ about what an asshole you are. This is fine because you can respond in kind. But they might expand it to make you remember your country is nothing special, especially if you are from the USA. If you respond in kind, they will cut you. That’s just how it is.

Jantelov makes bragging very difficult. You cannot be proud of your achievements or mention them at all, lest you make one of the other crabs in your bucket feel jealous. No great loss to the conversation. But you cannot talk about lah-di-dah ‘elitist’ stuff either, in case people feel like you’re being pretentious. So, you’re only allowed to talk about meatballs, how hard Danish is for foreigners and how difficult the word ‘hygge’ is to understand. I mentioned I was reading A Fugitive Crosses his Path at a dinner party and one of the guests looked like he was going to be aggressively sick on me. Also, you cannot brag in a job search situation either, you have to know people in Denmark who employ others and play badminton with them until they ask you personally if you want to work with them.

In many parents’ evenings, it is common for the teachers to tell the parents to stop worrying, the kid is good enough and shouldn’t we care more about their social skills? Coming from a culture where the parents just want to know their kid is making progress, this seems like a bit of an undershoot. ‘Good enough’ is not the issue. That is set by the average and the average moves with the group. Learning something new and getting better every day, how is that too elitist?

There are people who resist Jante for the most part. They are ‘most people in Denmark according to themselves’. But even if they refuse to pull down other crabs, they are still in a bucket trying to get out with claws around their ankles.

A friend of a friend was at a job interview where they were asked “How do you feel about your customers being  the upper middle class of Danish people… like me?” This story is passed around with amused disbelief by Danes. Who is this person who would consider themselves above someone else AND then share it with another person? Then again, the foreigners who hear that story think it is a pretty ridiculous question to ask. Then again, it’s not ridiculous if you want to employ someone who won’t try to pull at your customers’ crab legs.

Though perhaps I am not being fair. I believed I could tell the dinner party guests about reading Aksel Sandemose without making them feel sick to their stomaches at my presumption because the librarian that issued the book did so with a wry smile (he then went on to being one of my friends). There are plenty of people out there who are not threatened by intellectualism or individualism and of course there are plenty who know how to move through a crowd without inconveniencing every other person. Still, it’s got a lot to answer for.

Danish Winters I have Known

2008-9: My First

The nights drew in, the skies got overcast and it stayed like that until March. There was rain and wind but mostly it was dark. It snowed once and my students insisted on being let out to play. I refused them saying the snow would be there at the end of school.

“No, it won’t. In Denmark, it snows for a couple of hours, melts and that’s it.”

As someone who thought they were coming to Scandinavia, this shocked me. That sounded very much like England.

The lack of sunlight got to me, I remember being confused about patches of sunlight coming in through my living room blinds. “What’s wrong with the floor?” I thought.

I went away for a trip around Europe in February and came back to reasonably deep snow.

February snow
February 2009 

2009-10: My Second

So, I had my Christmas holiday tickets all booked, all ready to go for the evening of the last day of school. Then the night before the last day of school, there was a snow storm. I walked to work in it, it was crazy. The snow came up to my knees in some drifts, something that had not happened since 1986 and my knees were substantially closer to the ground. One driver got snowed in taking a corner and he leapt out with a shovel and dug himself out efficiently. I got to work, feeling like a boss, and they cancelled school. They said it was exceptional and many of the teachers out in the suburbs of Erritsø, Børkop, Brejning et al couldn’t get to work. We had bread rolls and took down Christmas decorations and then went home.

I decided against flying out until later in the weekend.

When I came back in the new year there was still snow everywhere. I asked when it was leaving. Spring, they said.

December 2010
December 2009

The weather regularly got below freezing point, sometimes to double figures. I felt a lot better about the winter, despite the hardships of trudging through snow that had not been powder for quite some time. Every journey was a happy hormone dispensing trip because it was physically such hard work. Plus, it was not as dark because the snow reflected what little light there was.

2010-11: My Third

The winter was incredibly cold and there was quite a bit of snow. The snow fell and then stuck around until March or April. By then, I knew how to deal with it. Tights under legs, lots of t shirts as vests and gloves. I would get hot and sweaty as I tackled the packed snow but I would only feel the cold in my thigh muscles and on my face. I took to wearing a scarf around my face to keep my asthma in check.

I stayed in Denmark for Christmas, having learned my lesson about trying to fly in winter.

December 2010
December 2010

2011-12: My Fourth

The winter was at an almost subtropical 2˚C most of the time, except February when it was proper brassic and snowed a little bit. This was also the month that I moved in with my boyfriend, so we had to negotiate a metal spiral staircase with sofas in freezing, icy conditions.

2012-13: My Fifth

Really cold. Really really cold. There was snow still at Easter.

Easter 2013
Easter 2013

2013-14: My Sixth

Relatively warm but there was snow and it stuck around for a little while. There was a massive storm that messed up all the trains.

Autumn 2013 "We cannot drive the trains"
Autumn 2013
“We cannot drive train”
April 2014
April 2014

 

2014-15: My Seventh

Moved up north so in a slightly different microclimate. Started out pretty mild but woke up on Christmas day to a thick blanket of snow. This melted but was replaced a week ago. Now they are saying it will stay cold until spring.

January 2015
January 2015
A few weeks later in January 2015
A few weeks later in January 2015

All the while, people keep telling me Danish winter is ‘typically’ like my first and all six of my other winters are outliers. Seems suspicious to me. I think this is how winters are in Denmark now.

 

 

Micro Aggressions and Stranger Danes

To preserve anonymity of the people I meet, I try not to tell stories that would give away individuals. I’ve had a few experiences in the last few weeks that I really wanted to talk about but there was no way to do so without invading the privacy of others.

I don’t know what happened but I suddenly had a flood of invitations to events where I would be an unaccompanied foreigner to a group of people that do not know me or each other. A wedding, a party, a training event, that sort of thing.

And I had to meet a LOT of stranger Danes.

Here is my Ideal Stranger Dane, of which I met maybe half a dozen at these events.

  • Starts out with a question or a comment not about where I come from
  • Talks to me about something interesting that we can both get stuck into
  • Finds things in common
  • Makes jokes/laughs at my jokes
  • Is patient with my mistakes in pronunciation/word order/correct word usage

Here are the things that are (more or less), involuntary that Stranger Danes sometimes do (and it gets on my nerves)

  • Shudders or pulls a face when they hear my accent
  • Keeps that expression on their face whenever I speak to them
  • Walks away/turns their back on me when I approach while they are on their own
  • Repeats everything I say back to me with a singy-songy voice as if teaching an infant how to speak
  • Does not return my smile (or if they do, it doesn’t touch their eyes)
  • Only makes eye contact when talking about crime
  • Looks pissed off when I say Danish is not actually that hard for an English speaker (the hard thing only being that it must be perfect or ELSE)
  • Looks super pissed off when I say I have been in Denmark for 6 years

Here are the things that are just thoughtless but are somewhat of a choice

  • Asks DURING Danish language conversations I am having with them, if I speak Danish
  • Asks after I have replied in the affirmative “But do you UNDERSTAND Danish?”
  • Tells me that I do not understand Danish, while I am listening
  • Goes on about how hard Danish must be for me
  • Only asks me about where I am from and why I came to Denmark
  • Ignores me after this information has been shared
  • Compares me pointedly with other people who are also learning Danish
  • Insists that if I have a problem with an activity it must be because of my shitty language skills
  • Tells me that I am not ‘integrating’ if I choose not to be ignored or patronised by choosing another activity or if everyone around me chooses to move away from me
  • Underestimates my intelligence vocally

There are plenty of foreigners who can handle this or do not notice it. But it gets to me after a while. Especially since, if I bring this up, some people will jump on me to tell me all this stuff happens because I am a fucking bitch who deserved it.

Well, it never happened in the UK and it never happened in France and it never happened in Germany. In the UK, I make friends super easily. In France and Germany, people are used to hearing their language being mauled and they’re cool with it. They just let you communicate and are more or less Ideal Strangers.

In Denmark, people are not used to hearing their language mangled and they have been infected with the idea that foreigners are bad. Our badness stems from not wanting to be part of the group and not learning the language to perfection. Look at Prince Henri, he’s pretty much reviled and his Danish is perfect… he just has a French accent. That’s enough for Danish people to think that he is a stuck up prick. That’s all it took.

Of course, none of the people who were less than Ideal were bad people. They are nice, decent, otherwise smart people. They just lack empathy, curiosity and self-awareness. So, those people didn’t get to find out about the things that we have in common or some awesome or interesting point of view that only I can share. They didn’t get to find out that I am funny. They didn’t get to hear what it is actually like to be foreign in their country. So. I guess I won that one?

 

I would have done it for anyone

Northside is a great festival, everyone. It’s big enough to attract bands that I have wanted to see live for ages and it’s small enough that there is not an excessive waiting time for most things (and consequently people are friendlier).

Roskilde is friendly-ish but tempers flare from time to time.

Also, there is no camping at Northside, so people have less opportunity to get tanked up at their tent and then roll into the festival ground half cut. If you want to get drunk at Northside, it’s pretty much at regular festival prices.

Here’s a little compare/contrast for you. On the Saturday, I sat with a friend from work at a picnic table. I was not that bothered about any of the bands on Saturday, so was happy just to hear their sets from afar. I spoke to loads of people that day. Some of them were friends of friends, some of them were randoms. I spoke in mostly English but did have a couple of Danish conversations (with drunks) too. It was pretty great.

On Sunday, before the bands I wanted to see came on, I explored the indie area and watched some poets on the little stage. I also checked out an area for encouraging people to have conversations. There were little signs up about ‘don’t use mobiles’, there were games and a ball pit. There were also some conversation starters. As friendly and fun as that area was, it was pretty much just being used by children. The adults that accompanied them, they were sitting staring into space, not talking to anyone. I was only there for a short time so maybe it was a hotbed of conversation and contact between strangers at other times.

I felt sad for Danish people at that point. Their cultural expectation is that it is very rude to talk to anyone. That’s pretty much the same in the UK, unless more rudeness is committed by NOT talking. So, in the UK, it is possible to start conversations with randoms if you are, for example, in a special area dedicated to starting conversations with randoms. Or if you need to communicate or negotiate something vital (for example: it’s super rude not to ask “Can I pull this blind down/open this window/move this bag/get past you?” and a tiny bit rude not to say “Those doors don’t open at this stop, you need to walk down the carriage.”), whereas in Denmark, it appears to be rude to say anything in any of these scenarios.

This means they only get to speak to people they know and, I guess, friends of friends. Except Danes aren’t that good at blending friendship groups. I’ve heard of parties where the row club friends sit in the kitchen and the colleague friends sit in the living room and both groups try to pretend the other does not exist. Not to mention, these sort of parties with separate friendship groups are rare. No wonder they have no time in their calendar to meet new people, if they need a separate event for each of their sets of buddies.

Not that groups of Danes aren’t trying to get this to change. After all, I got to make these observations at a place set up by Danish people trying to get Danish people to talk to each other. There is definitely a movement to get these conversations going. They are needed, not just on a purely social level, but also to spark new ideas. Cities accelerate development and  innovation partly because people bump into each other and exchange their thoughts.

Anyway. On the way back from the festival ground, there are no buses past 11pm or something, so you have to walk a couple of kilometres to the next bus stop. It’s not as if the city council of Aarhus could lay on extra buses on that weekend, jesus. While I was walking to the bus stop, I noticed a man who was in a bad way.

He was weaving left to right in a drunk manner. Every time he veered left, he ended up in the bike lane. Bikes were coming past regularly and at a fair old whack. All he needed to do was badly time a left swerve with a bike and it would be goodnight Vienna.

So. I ran to catch him up and stood on his left. I marked him like it was netball, he slowed down: I slowed down. He sped up: he sped up. Then the inevitable happened and he swerved hard into me. I caught him and smiled. I said

“You alright?”

and he said

“No.”

I said

“Aww. Is there anything I can do to help?”

And he looked at me and he started muttering about how great this was and he hugged me. So we walked along, his arm around my shoulders. He asked me if I was Italian. He said that this would never happen. Never ever happen. This is so great.

I asked him if he needed to catch a bus or anything and he didn’t understand me. I tried in Danish. Even less understanding. He took my hand and said “I don’t understand you. Sorry. I’m Danish. But I understand THIS.” and squeezed my hand.

He asked me where I lived and I asked him where he lived. He pointed across the junction

“Just over there.”

Then he smiled and said

“Sorry but I have to run.” and he let go of my hand and ran across the junction. I yelled

“OK, well be careful!”

I think Danish culture is ready for people being more friendly and kind to each other. I know I saw a lot of people helping walking wounded after the many inevitable drunk-on-a-bike accidents all along that ring road. But it really needs more people being up for making contact and saying “You alright?” Prevention is always better than a cure.

Danish Landlords *epic eyeroll*

“I love our landlady. I feel like, when we move out, she’ll give us our deposit back as long as we don’t trash the place.”

“Yeah! She’s so great.”

And that, my friends, is what is known in the business as “speaking too soon”.

Our landlady had to sell our place when she fell on hard times and we ended up in the hands of a rental company.

I don’t know what you know about Danish rentals but there appears to be a symbiotic relationship with landlords and companies selling white paint (or the people that apply it with brushes).

How ever you left the place, it is going to get re-painted. At the expense of the person moving out.

If we had smoked and the paint was all yellow, I could understand. If we had slaughtered sheep and there were red splashes, I could understand. If we opened a bumper car ride in our flat, and there were black bumper car marks on the wall, I could understand.

Well. We didn’t do any of that. We put up some pictures and shelves (and then made good with spackle/poly filla/spartel/whatever you call it). Maybe it needs a lick of paint in some rooms. But they’re going to do the skirting boards, the ceilings, the walls…

Not to mention they’re going to look at changing the floor boards and un-painting the radiators. All on our dollar.

Plus, I had to go through the experience of having a stranger run her fingers over things I cleaned, say “This hasn’t been cleaned” and then “Look. It’s sticky.”

She was very nice and she didn’t push her luck with things like the fridge and inside of the stove which you actually needed sunglasses to look at. But every cupboard, same old. Of course I protested “I DID clean it.” Which is all part of the dance. On the last one, I said

“Man, what is that? Dust? For heaven’s sake.”

Of course cupboards get dusty two weeks after you clean them, that’s just entropy.

Whatever.

The dance is all in aid of a simple fact: Danish landlords do NOT have your deposit. These ones doubly so, they bought the flat from someone, so they’d have to find our deposit out of their own funds.

Thing is. They want to sell the place. For that reason, it doesn’t need to be painted, or cleaned for that matter. It can be sold as-is. I know this because I recently bought a place and they neither cleaned nor painted.

She even threatened to charge us over the deposit because “this is a big place and needs a lot of painting” I did the incredulous face and laughed. “Right.”

Then she backtracked and started an ill-advised rant about how we HAD to pay our rent for the next three months. “Of course we do! We signed a contract!” she kept at it. “If you don’t, we will come for you and it will be bad for you.” I kept saying “Yeah, duh.” but in the end, I kind of wanted to stop paying the rent, just because she’d lectured me as if I was planning on being dishonest. Such is the effect of being believed dishonest. And all the time, I wondered, would she explain that in as much detail to the Danish boyfriend? Or would she just confirm the last payment date with him? Like she did on the phone.

She said she couldn’t say for sure, before she had the quotes from the cleaning firm and the painters, but we’d probably only get charged if we were assholes about the rent.

The last inspection I had, the guy said he would need to charge me for floor cleaning, all the time knowing that I had walked past the brand new floor planks they planned on installing.

I have rented in eight different UK addresses, by the way. I only ever paid up to one month’s rent as deposit and I almost always got it back.

In fact, I was cheated only twice out of some deposit money. Once by a really unscrupulous letting agency, but they only charged us £100 or something. They made it all up and we were furious. It was bullshit but we learned a lot from the experience.

The second by an 80s pop star who, when the going got tough, rounded our deposit down and stiffed us £30. (He was really lovely and I assume it was an honest mistake borne of falling on hard times. One of my favourite landlords.)

In Denmark, you pay 3 to 6 months rent as deposit and then when you move out, they take almost all of it for ‘painting’ and maybe even charge you extra if you have a lot of rooms to paint. Whether or not the painting needs re-doing. And they run their fingers over surfaces and pronounce them ‘dirty’ when they fucking well are not, so they can charge you for cleaning.

When they say Denmark has the lowest levels of corruption, it makes me laugh because these sorts of every day corrupt activity somehow ‘don’t count’ and they are endemic.

Oh well, never have to go through that again, hopefully.

You get rude people everywhere

True. You get rude people everywhere. People are dickheads, yo.

I have a question to open up to the group. I think collectively, my readership has probably travelled to and even lived in most countries in the world.

In any of those countries, is is socially acceptable to try to shove past a blind person or their assistance dog?

Because I saw two people trying to do that yesterday on the train. There were two blind people with an assistance dog. They were getting off the train at 21.30, the dog was going last and was waiting for the people to get down. See, the fucking DOG knew to give them some space and time to get down, what with the steps being tall and the gap to the platform being wide.

Honestly, they were not taking an obscene amount of time about it. Like, maybe an extra 5 seconds on how long a sighted person might take.

But the woman in front of me grew tired of this and tried to shove past the dog. And the man behind me, grew tired of me giving them space and tried to shove past me to get out.

Let me repeat, it was 21.30. Where could they have needed to go in such a hurry? And how much difference does five seconds really make to a journey? And why is it socially acceptable to even DO THAT?

Are there any other countries where it is socially acceptable to shove a blind person?

 

NOTE TO READER: Notice the difference between ‘socially acceptable to shove a blind person’ and ‘everyone in a particular country shoves blind people if they get a chance’. It’s subtle but it’s there.

Danish Holiday Pay WTF

I used to have a job in one of Fredericia Kommune’s schools. When I left to go work at my new job, they sent me a bumper pay cheque with ‘holiday pay’ in it. I banked the holiday pay because I knew I wouldn’t be getting much (anything?) from new job.

This is because the Danish holiday period goes from April to April but you accrue from January to December. If you start in August (as is the wont of teachers), you can’t accrue enough before the holiday even though you’ve worked a full year. Whatevers. The first job I had in Denmark had not explained this fully to their first cohort and one of them nearly starved in the summer or something, so with me, they made me do loads of cover lessons in the first year so that I had a summer paycheque. I miss those guys!

Current school hasn’t got that system in place, so even though I started work in January, I’d only accrued something like 300 kroner.

Anyway, I got a letter from Fredericia Kommune saying “hey girl, you earned holiday pay” and I went “dude, I know, it’s in the bank, thanks” and put the letter in a shoe box.

They sent it again and so I read it much more carefully. There are about fifteen 10 dollar (54 kroner) words in one sentence, so I got google translate to have a look. Google translate said “well, um, not sure? Like either YOU owe them some money or they owe YOU some money but… Um?” USELESS.

My Danish boyfriend rang me from his serious business on exercise and I read the letter to him. He said

“They owe YOU money.”

“How do I get it?”

“You… Um… I think you fill in a form?”

“What form?”

“Dude, I don’t know.”

“Have I already paid tax on it?”

“Um. Maybe?”

So I waited for him to come home. In the meantime, I cleverly and cunningly found the holiday pay website and wrote to them. I wrote something like

“I got this letter. Don’t know what to do. Can’t find on webpage. How money in bank?” and scanned the letter in for good measure.

so holiday  much accrued very money wow
so holiday
much accrued
very money
wow

The letter they wrote back on a scale of 1 to shitty was “a bit shitty”.

I knew there was going to be trouble when they started out with

“As you can see on the letter…”

Well, I obviously couldn’t, could I? But appreciating that important fact would take what we know in the business as ‘a theory of mind’.

The message of the day was “Fredericia Kommune don’t even USE us for holiday pay, they have a different system.”

But they did go on to say that I needed to fill in the boxes at the bottom if I wanted my bloody money.

I waited for my boyfriend to return from pretend war. He came back, looked at the letter and said

“Where’s the rest of it?”

“That’s it.”

“Where’s the letter that explains what to do?”

“That’s all there was. Now tell me O Dane, what now?”

“Not a clue.”

So, I resolved to visit Fredericia Kommune in person. They would know! They would answer me! They would help me fill the form out! The boxes that bothered me were “working day holiday”, “hours” and “certification” in reverse order of botheration.

Last time I went to the front desk, they were spectacularly shitty to me. I was fresh off the boat, apologetic about not speaking Danish and they wiped the floor with me. I don’t like going there but trying to deal with it online had got me exactly nowhere.

I showed up and was confronted with a screen that dispenses queue numbers. There were two options, neither of which applied to me. I looked around. Another screen!

I approached it and although there were more than two options, none of them exactly applied. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to take a photo. It reminded me of the Asterix where he has to get a form stamped.

I selected ‘Holiday card and burial’ because it had the word ‘holiday’ in it. Then I sat down and missed my turn because they yelled out the number but didn’t display it on the screen. Good LUCK blinds, deafs and foreigns! (considering the main three groups who need to go to the kommune in person are foreigners, older people and the disabled, this is spectacularly bad customer service)

While I waited, I noticed people had to fetch staff from behind the desk to show them which button to press. Some older people stood staring at the screen for more than five minutes. Which is exactly the purpose of them. They don’t want to pay people to help, they want people to help themselves for free.

What if they can’t help themselves? What’s the contingency plan?

I got up again and this time I selected “Pay out and Pay in”

My number was called and I ran for the desk.

“Hello! I don’t understand the system at all. I got this letter and I don’t know how to get the money.”

“Are you still in work?”

“Yes but not here.”

“Where are you working?”

“Aarhus.”

“So, you are still in work.”

“Yes.”

“When did you have holiday?”

I wanted to ask if holiday in the past was acceptable but I decided to let the dates speak for themselves.

I produced a scrap of paper where I’d written it down.

“Write them here. I’ll get you a pen.”

She had a pen in her hand but she was fucked if she was going to let me touch it. She got me a pen. I started writing.

“1. Juli 2013-”

She said
“You need to write the DATE!”

“This is a date…”

She took the form away from me and started writing

“1/7/13”

“That’s the same thing….”

“It won’t FIT otherwise, you were going to fill up the whole sheet! How many days holiday?”

I paused for a moment to think how to calculate it.

This is when she spoke English to me

“‘Ow meneee daiz ‘olidee?”

I blinked and took a moment to think about what to do next. I considered pretending I didn’t speak English to see what she did. Then I considered pretending I didn’t understand HER English. Then I did what I always do. I just Judi Dench’d it right the fuck up.

“I. Do. Speak. Danish.” (said in English)

“Oh. Ok. I thought… So, how many days holiday?”

“Ummm. Shall we say 25 just to make it easier?”

So she wrote 25 herself. In case I wrote twenty-five and needed an extra sheet, presumably.

“Now sign here.”

The word they use, as you can see on the letter, is ‘attestation’

FEEDBACK TO FORM WRITERS:

if you want a signature USE THE WORD SIGNATURE not ‘certification’ or ‘documentation’.

So I signed. And she goes

“Is THAT your signature?”

(It sort of looks like an ‘x’ and I get a lot of shit from allcomers, I’m used to it.)

“Yes. Yes it is.”

“Ok, so the money will be paid into your account.”

“Cool. Wait. Do you need my account details?”

She stared at me. I wasn’t making myself understood. I repeated it really slowly and showed her my bank card.

“Do you need for me to write my bank account number? I can see you don’t have it on your form?”

“Do you have an EasyAccount?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Then, no, it’s automatic.” (‘duh’ implied)

I thanked her for the help and left.

My observations about all of this are:-

My Danish boyfriend has no clue about this system. It’s not common knowledge. I’m at an even bigger disadvantage because 54 kroner words can throw me and so do cultural-shock things like “we know your bank account details without you telling us but the company called Holiday Account doesn’t deal with your holiday pay”.

Then there’s how I’m treated like an idiot because I’m not a native speaker. Just because someone has a strong accent and buggers up word order doesn’t mean they don’t know what a ‘date’ is or if they don’t answer a question immediately they haven’t understood it.

The issue I bumped up against was they assumed that because THEY knew something, everyone knows it. And that anyone that doesn’t know it is a dick.

What would have been useful would have been a copy of the form with the possible ways of filling it in. Then I could see I didn’t need to fill in all the boxes or I could see they really wanted a signature not a certificate. Also, an addressed envelope would have been useful, so I knew where to send the thing. But to be able to write a document like that, you need to put yourself in the shoes of another person.

There’s not a lot of that around here.

New Years in Denmark

I was just reading one of those “wacky shit foreigners do” articles about New Years and read that in Denmark, they smash plates outside the houses of people they like.

I am nervous to say this, in case it means no one likes me or my friends, but this has never happened to me or my friends. Nor have I ever seen any broken crockery out and about.

Ever.

What they do is this : a meal, a special cake, crackers, silly hats, jump off a chair at midnight and fireworks.

Apparently, you used to need a licence to set off fireworks at any other time of the year than NYE (this is no longer true, I hear), and so people really take their fireworks seriously.

They are also allowed to buy fireworks that are not available in my country to casual users. In the UK, you can buy some rockets and stuff but they don’t go that high. People go to organised events where pyrotechnicians who have access to the good shit, set them off in time to music.

We had three new years in my house last night. Greek first, then Danish, then British. At the Danish new year’s, we watched the fireworks in the town square in Copenhagen on tv then went outside and climbed a hill so we could see the fireworks around us. It was a clear night so we were able to see Fyn, it was pretty rad. We also saw an accident where the fireworks went sideways and then shot at other fireworks and then there was a fire after they all went off at once. It was really fun and nice.

Then at British New Years, we watched the display at the London Eye. This was viewed with admiration in the first two minutes and then irritation after the third minute. That will have come out of council tax, I explained. (Unless… was there a corporate sponsor?)

An advantage to this system is that the detritus is picked up. Denmark is a mess the next day because of all the cardboard tubes and boxes lying around the street.

So in conclusion. The broken plates thing isn’t a thing and I don’t know why the English-speaking media keep repeating it. Like, can’t they work google translate and check their facts? Where did the story come from? Is it an old thing they don’t do anymore? Is it a *shudder* Sjælland thing?

Happy New Year everyone!

Weird Danes and Expats

I am not an expat. I am an immigrant. I am a long-termer. Not a tourist. I have a completely different perspective on Denmark than someone who is only here for a short-term contract or an actual Dane. Denmark is my home. I have Danish friends. I understand Danish culture. But I am not a Dane.

One of my Danish friends asked me if I wanted to go to a seminar about Danish culture and I did. I did want to go. So, I went to see what I ‘should’ think about Danish culture according to an anthropologist named Dennis Nørmark.

He is very entertaining and his talk was very well pitched. But I had many thoughts and I will share them with you now.

He led with an example about ‘expats’ being negatively affected by Danes not bothering to hold doors open for them. Who knows why they don’t look behind their shoulder to see if there is anyone behind them. I have a few pet theories (their pedagogues don’t teach them to do it in daycare, it wouldn’t occur to them that other people exist, no one else does it etc). Our friend, the anthropologist, says the behaviour is considered too courtly. That Danes view each other as a family, so they do not go to extraordinary lengths (i.e. looking over their shoulder briefly when passing through heavy doors), for them.

The Danes I have spoken to (sample: two), about this say that they would (and do), hold doors open for colleagues and family. So. I am not sure what he thinks he is saying.

I was worrying for the people at the talk because I would hate for them to get the impression that all the behaviour they are interpreting as ‘rude’ is not-rude-for-Denmark. Because, and Dennis didn’t cover this in any detail, there is a lot of that too.

Okay, newbies, listen up. There are some things that are ‘get used to it’ and some things that are ‘rude-for-Denmark’.

In the ‘Get Used to It’ pile, is not bothering to check if someone is behind you when passing through a door. Also, in the supermarket, if a Dane wants to get past, it is not rude to push you out of the way. They do signal the intent to move into your body space, their eyes get defocused and they get closer slowly. You need to look out for it.  The same with not thanking you for putting yourself out (for example, stopping to let someone pass), and barging past you when you are waiting for someone less mobile than you to cross a more narrow walkway.

Why they do this? Fuck knows. I doubt it is because they see each other as family. I am very dubious about this guy’s interpretation of these behaviours. I agree with him that they do not think of themselves as ‘rude’ and a Danish outside observer of these behaviours would also not classify them as such. It’s just what they do here. I would classify it as ‘anti-social’ and call it quits. They don’t want to make contact with other people for cultural reasons, so they go to extraordinary lengths to avoid it. Even when it means that the other people they are trying to afford privacy to, by ramming them, making them wait, ignoring their altruism, are put out.

But. Newbies. What you need to start to understand is: there are rude behaviours too. And you will see a lot of them. Because everyone is so shy and conflict averse, they rarely call people out on them. Maybe the Get Used to It behaviours were impolite in Danish culture but everyone was doing it, no one was calling anyone out and now it is normal. Who knows.

Rude behaviours include:- pushing in queues, punching people to get past, swearing at you, urinating on you, racially abusing you etc. You will see some of these. In my first few years, I saw a lot of them. Not so much anymore.

You see, Denmark has its fair share of assholes. But they are rarely challenged. So the culture of Denmark tends towards the assholish. It’s very sad but what can you do? That is not to say the majority of people here are assholes, au contraire, the majority are delightful. But if you realised that it did not truly matter if you shoved someone when getting off the bus, would you bother trying to get down without touching the people pressing from the outside to get in? What is the point? It’s not even rude here.

Then he also said things that were not entirely true. Or true for a certain value of true. In his defence of Dane behaving in a xenophobic way, he said that the Danish culture has been homogeneous for a long time so they are catching up to the multi-culture thing everyone else has going on.

He defended this point of view with the stats that in a period during the 1800s, there were only 20 foreigners a year settling in Denmark.

Not counting the Swedes or the Germans.

And, presumably, not the slaves. And not counting the foreigners already here, like the second gen French in Fredericia and the Dutch in Amager who were just beginning to assimilate in that period.

Not counting the Swedes? Honestly, if you are going to argue from authority and bring up a historical context, you better have done your reading, boy.  The Swedes were hated in the 1800s. The Danes thought they were lazy and thieves and they deported them without so much as a by-your-leave. If you want to make the case that Denmark didn’t have to deal with problems around immigration until the 20th Century, you really ought to draw a veil over the state of play in the 1800s.

Guys, this ‘we have always been homogenous’ get out of jail free card has been revoked. Danish society is xenophobic because there is no consequence for being so. My country had a lot of immigration for its entire history but it did not stop us being pricks throughout and we are still unwelcoming to certain groups. No one has any excuse, not even Denmark.

Now, maybe what he was saying was helpful to short-termers and I should shut the fuck up. Maybe being told ‘it’s just culture, don’t be sad’ is useful for people. Maybe it helps the culture shock process?

But if I had been a newbie and heard his talk, I think it would have upset me. So, I can’t help thinking it is kind of cruel. Also, casting Danes into noble savages that don’t know any better? Give me a fucking break. There are so many polite Danes, it is possible to be kind and show empathy here. I can imagine the cognitive dissonance of being simultaneously upset by selfish or anti-social behaviour and thinking ‘it’s just their culture’ and I don’t think it is fair to put people through that.

I hold onto the fact that other Danes have had enough of the assholes running ting. Thomas Skov and Lars AP would like Danes to be more courteous and friendly. They are Danes. They are part of the culture. So when people are mean to me, I think ‘they are just ignorant peasants and they have major problems with social skills’

I guess he’s right though. People on three year contracts are never going to burst through and fix Danish culture to their tastes and so lowering their expectations will help their psychic balance. And any cultural change will be very slow, so lowering your expectations is a good idea for anyone.

But. I do wish he had kept his interpretations to himself or at least not pretended they were objectively justified.  Because what he was doing wasn’t anthropology, it was travel writing.