Where do you meet these people?

I have instituted a foreigner-bubble to protect me from the shit going on in the news. Fact is, I have enough on my plate with stuff that I cannot blog about.

Still, in terms of integration, things are going alright. Aarhus is way better than Fredericia in terms of opportunities to socialise and relax. I feel a bit more at home here than I did in Fredericia. At-homeness would peek in at the weekends when I went to the neighbour-baker and got some pastries. That was it though.

Some people have asked me how it was to integrate. What it was like to come here seven years ago and settle down. And I tell them about the high points and the low points. If they are Danish, they will make a comment on the low points. Where do I meet these people? How unlucky I was to meet such unkind people! How I must be focusing on a few outliers because they surely were not the norm.

But in Fredericia, it was about 50/50. Half of the time, the people I met were friendly and helpful and the other half, they would not have pissed on me were I on fire.

Of course, friendly kind people cannot imagine someone being so rude or so unwelcoming. It’s like when women talk about street harassment and regular men are incredulous and think she is exaggerating or making it up entirely.

What would be easy, now that things are fine, would be to gloss over the details and just focus on how good things are now. This would make my conversations less awkward. It would mean I wouldn’t have to defend myself against the implication that I did something to deserve it. But I don’t. I talk about it because this is a missing piece of the integration puzzle.

Every time the news or the politicians talk about the dirty foreigners who do not even speak Danish properly, they never talk to one of them to find out why. Why is easy: I tried to practice and people were hostile and so I limited my interactions to things I knew I could do. Having a conversation with me in Danish is possible but unpleasant because I had a difficult decision

Through Door One: I could have tried to socialise with Danish people I liked with my shitty Danish. But I liked them. I didn’t want to put them through it and I wanted them to enjoy my company.

Through Door Two: I could have tried to make more small talk with strangers to level up. But I was flipping a coin every time to see if they were total shits about my accent. I’m resilient but I’m not that resilient.

So I didn’t go through either door. Which meant that when I went to my union rep training last year all but about two people were total fucking pricks about my accent for the first three days. Let’s focus on the two, on the outliers: one was a foreigner and therefore easy going. The other was actually famous for some talent show and was just effortlessly cool and awesome. He talked to me like a human being. A few of them warmed up over the next few sessions but only because I had decided ‘fuck em’ and if they gave me any shit, I blocked them out. I brought a book for the coffee sessions in case they were ignoring me and I read chapters and chapters. I tried though, in the first 3 days. I broke down in tears after trying so hard.

Though, it’s not the ignoring that gets me. I am so used to it. Honestly, I have learned that the types of people who ignore people at their table who are nodding, giving eye contact and smiling because they assume that they don’t understand Danish because they heard a foreign accent usually have nothing of consequence to say. These people lack the critical thinking needed to realise I understand more than I can say and thusly lack the critical thinking necessary to contribute anything of note to the dialogue.

What gets me, is the vinegar face when they hear my accent. And the repeating back what I said with a singy-songy accent. And the discounting of ANYTHING I have to say unless a Dane repeats it.

So, why do so many foreigners like me have such bad accents? Well, it’s simple. A clear majority of people I have ever spoken more than transactional Danish with (as in “Can I have a sandwich?” “Where is the post office?”), are not able to listen without making me feel uncomfortable.

You want accentless-foreigners? You have to start talking to the ones with the thick accents in such a way that makes them want to keep talking.

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.

Danish for Expats

For a country that sets such great store by conformity, foreigners are subdivided into a dizzying array of categories.

 

Plus-Belly Sneetches
(Photo credit: charliecurve)

 

The most favoured of all the groups is the “Highly skilled immigrant”, prized for the revenue it can generate by increasing the productivity of Danish companies, buying power in the local community and paying more tax than it can hope to claim back through using services. The Danish government’s stated aim is for these sorts to come and then leave. The tension for them is between staying long enough to help the company earn more money but not outstaying the welcome and using public services.

 

Three to five years is the length of time the government prefer. Any shorter and they are just doing handover-takeover, longer and they might get their money’s worth by needing hospital treatment or schooling of their children.

 

One of the deals offered to this group is a tax break for three years. If you stay longer, you have to “pay back” the taxes you avoided.

 

This group have absorbed the message that they are favoured above all the other foreigners and do not call themselves immigrants. They are “expats” and “internationals”. They float above ordinary mortals and do not share their challenges or issues. That is not to say that they do not experience problems or frustrations but rather they are insulated against some of the more upsetting possibilities.

Should these people have to learn Danish?

 

The Danish government does not think so. They will be offered a year of tuition. If my Danish language classes were anything to go by: they would be better served by a couple of boxed sets (Recommend: Klovn and Matador), and a library card.

 

One thing you must understand about me before we continue (though long-time readers might know this already), is that I love learning languages. I lived in Cardiff for six years and learned a little Welsh, some of which I can still speak years later. I went to night school to learn Japanese and Swahili. I used to speak pretty decent French. When I was in school I was in the elite group who were allowed to study German from scratch to school leaver certificate standard in two years (I got an A). I even know some words in Klingon and I cannot make up my mind between Valyrian and Dothraki. My mp3 player has French, English, Danish and Swedish tracks on it. I love languages.

 

One of the primary attractions of moving abroad was having the opportunity to learn another language to fluency. Even if this language is not spoken widely, it opens a door into another culture. It helps you understand how thinking occurs. It allows you to access what is going on around you.

 

Danish has come in handy, I won’t lie. Many doctors and nurses do not speak English or are not happy doing so. My medical Danish is pretty good now, even as my word order creaks under the strain of expressing ideas while upset, in pain or frightened. Also, as a teacher in a Danish school, I had a much easier time overall with Danish than without. It has helped with communicating with children and older people. It has helped in shops. It has helped in social situations. It has helped me act politically in my town.

 

However, my Danish is not “good enough”. I have been here five years and I am reminded every day, at some point, that it is not good enough. I am not even kidding. I hardly notice it anymore. I am inured. Usually people are well-meaning, they are trying to help me, it is meant in the spirit of friendliness. But you know what? I have been here five years and none of their help has come in handy. And yet, it keeps coming. There are also people who are massive turdbags. They remind me that my Danish is not native quality in a much crueler way.

 

In my first year or so, these people were the majority. On year five, they are the minority. What changed? I got better at Danish and became less of a target.

 

I am a highly qualified immigrant and I am now working in an international, English speaking environment. I used Danish this week to:-

 

  • Give directions
  • Read the news
  • Watch a few tv programmes on netflix
  • Go shopping
  • Eavesdrop
  • Understand the announcements on the train
  • An entire hospital appointment from receptionist to discharge
  • Order food
  • Take the piss out of my boyfriend

 

I use Danish quite a lot, considering. Back when I was new, I was afraid to do many things because I was unable to do them in Danish and felt bad about doing them in English. I felt like, when I got good at Danish, then I could socialise. Then I could go get asthma inhalers. Then I could buy clothes. Then I could date.

 

I put my life on hold for months and months. If I got official letters, I put them in a shoe box unread. I had so much money in the bank because I was only spending on itunes downloads and budget airline tickets. Eventually, I pulled myself together and tried to have a life here without having Danish fluency first. Danish fluency would come through interacting with Danish people. I found a bilingual knitting club set up by an American, in Aarhus. I went to it and she wasn’t there. The people that were there were nice until the Danish Queen Bee showed up and she was incredibly mean to me. I thought maybe it was a blip and went back the next month. Same thing only worse.

 

Year Five and I probably have more Danish friends than my Danish boyfriend does. Not that I am counting. But I do not speak Danish with them that much. My vocabulary is limited. When I socialise, I can agree and answer direct questions but I cannot speculate on the relative cost/benefits of varying strategies during a zombie apocalypse (which makes me such scintillating company en anglais), so I appear quite boring and flat. I am better in English.

 

Anyway. Should someone who already knows they want to leave in three to five years learn Danish? My heart says “of course! languages are awesome!” but my head says “don’t bother, if people are mean to you, it can damage how you learn other languages.”

 

Danish is of limited application, even in Denmark. If you are living in a big city, there are plenty of people who are dying to speak English to you and only a minority who want to hear your shitty Danish. At most, you need to learn phrasebook Danish. You will not often get to use it outside of tourist situations.

 

And yet, you will curse yourself. For every time you are on public transport and the driver makes an announcement and you don’t know what everyone is doing or what it is they said about your destination. Or when you need an electrician. Or when someone is shouting at you, pointing their fingers at you and getting animated as you blush and shrug. Or when you see a lost child. Or you fuck up at work because something vital was communicated only in Danish.

 

But honestly, with the quality of the Danish language programme put on for foreigners (and considering you will only get a year of it from now on), you were never going to get good enough to do those things. Even if you had worked hard and been a good immigrant. Even if you had got yourself some Danish friends. Even if you spent every evening on your homework. And for everyone that insists you should have been speaking Danish fluently after three months of residence, there are three who will switch over to English the second you screw up the pronunciation of something.

 

If foreigners who intend only to spend a short time in Denmark need to learn enough Danish in the first year to be able to function in Danish society without interpreters, then the recruitment of them has to change. Instead of relying on government schools, companies need to make sure that their workers are given high quality Danish tuition that targets their needs. The message “Everyone speaks English,” must be scrubbed and be replaced with “We will give you an intensive course before you arrive so you are functional.” It is this disconnect between what is said in the recruitment process and the actual reality of Denmark that bothers me. Not the need for Danish.

 

Immigrants and the brain drain thereof.

For all the money that Denmark spends on higher education, it still needs to look abroad to recruit “highly educated” foreigners to keep the economy going. The trouble is, these immigrants are not staying as long as planned. A study or seminar or survey is launched every six months or so and the findings are always the same. “Luksus indvandrer” leave earlier than planned because of reasons as static and immeutable as the permitted toppings on smørbrød. Yet, incredibly, someone always needs to replicate the study just in case the findings change to something Denmark wants to do something about.

A major plank of the government’s strategy for retaining immigrants seems to be telling foreigners they have it all wrong. They may feel like their workmates ignore them, they may feel like they are not informed of the “unwritten rules”, they may feel like the Danish people they come in contact with have been rude but really, truly, everything has been because Danes are modest, kind and respectful!

My favourite type of disgruntled immigrant is the returned Dane. Their issues could be my issues and yet they can hand-on-heart say “The language barrier is NOT the reason for my problems.” There are serious issues with settling in modern Denmark not to do with cultural misunderstandings and linguistic problems.

What are these reasons? Reportedly:- happiness of the spouse, communication problems at work, poor minimum standards of public decency and high taxes.

Job finding in Denmark without a network (or Danish skills), is almost impossible. Spouses may have been able to get English-speaking jobs on their own merits in other countries but they will struggle in Denmark until they know someone who knows someone who can get them in. If the spouse cannot find work: they they move country.

My first year or so in my job were spent being intermittently told off for not having done something and when I said I had no idea what they were talking about: “If you didn’t know, why didn’t you ask?” My workmates and employers were neither being respectful nor disrespectful of me, they just could not empathise with my situation. Having this lack of social ability dressed up as politeness or even shyness means that no progress can be made. Which means people move country rather than deal with it.

Movements like “Fucking Flink”, illustrate that many Danes have poor social skills and need to be trained in the use of random acts of kindness, casual civility and friendliness towards strangers. If the only Danes they interacted with on a regular basis were rude or unfriendly, they might get the idea Danes are all like that. And then they move country.

As for taxation: it is a scandy socialist paradise, right? You pay into the system and you get great services in return. Except the problem is, the Danish state is expecting luksus immigrants to pay the same as everyone else. Even though they will never qualify for a state pension, use nursing homes, draw benefits. Pay the same and receive much less? If the other services like the police, health and schools were world-class, perhaps the immigrants could rationalise paying their 50-60% tax bill. Honestly though, these services are patchy at best. If they feel ripped off, they will move country.

What seems to be the biggest problem is that for all the times these questions are posed, they only invite Danes to talk about it in Danish. The survey goes out in English and then Danes stroke their beards and explain what the foreigners really meant.

None of these problems can be solved, though. Rude Danes will not get social skills overnight, colleagues cannot suddenly develop a theory of mind, employers will not stop nepotistic recruitment, the taxation situation is not going to change. At best, they can hope that employers have more international-friendly recruitment. So, it makes sense to keep foreigners at arm’s length during this lip service. Otherwise, things could get nasty.

Why else hasn’t the rhetoric moved on from “cold Danes” as opposed to the less friendly to the Danish ear “racist, xenophobic, rude, boorish, peasant Danes” that you hear from disgruntled foreigners on the way out of the country? There has to be a reason that none of the criticisms the foreigners come up with in the surveys match what I am hearing on the ground. (Remember the people reportedly citing “cold Danes” as a negative are the ones who want to leave, not the happy ones who are satisfied and want to stay.) There has to be a reason that the criticisms reported by organisations trying to explain to Danes why foreigners don’t like it here are toothless and gentle. And I suggest the reason is SHENANIGANS.

What these organisations and the government are missing is that they do not need to recruit foreign talent from abroad. They do not need to go to all this effort. Much of this talent is already here. Married to a Dane or highly skilled “expat”. If they recruited from this captive market, they would halve their problems overnight.

And they could stop putting out these stupid surveys.

You will not be the exception

Or maybe you will. But I am so sick of telling everyone what goes on in Denmark, only for it to be repeated by a newbie as in “Now I see what all the negative blogs were talking about!” Yes, motherfucker, NOW you see it.

When I stopped this blog that time, a friend asked me to make the resource about “Should I Move to Denmark?” available so I put it on tumblr for everyone.

One important thing that all “expat” immigrant workers need to realise is

“Whatever you are told in the interview about English being the language of your workplace and that how all your colleagues speak English, bear this in mind, informal meetings around coffee and water coolers are in Danish. These meetings are massively important and you will not take part in them. Also, there will be gossip and team strengthening chats around coffee. You will not be part of this.”

And I know you very well, now you are thinking “This is their country, Danish is their language. I don’t expect them to change for me!” and when it actually happens to you at your new workplace and you realise how socially isolating it is to literally not know what your colleagues are chatting about. And when you feel tired because your brain will try to learn Danish (even without your permission), because you are surrounded by it. And when you have situations at work where you are on the backfoot because no one thought to tell you because you were sat right there when they were talking about it. And when  you realise you have effectively been left out of the decision making/problem solving process. And when you get the impression that people around you are better friends with each other than with you. And when you start to notice you only are spoken to when it is time to tell you what to do.  You will say “I don’t mind that they do this but it sort of bums me out all the same.”

Great. Now we are on the same page. So, you see. It wasn’t “negativity”, it was “giving you a heads-up”. It’s natural that your psychological immune system tricked you into thinking you would be an exception or your colleagues would be different from mine. But newbies (and people planning to be newbies), need to get things in place right from the start.

You will start out being all “nice” and thinking charitable thoughts about your colleagues. You will try to see the good. You will try to persuade yourself it is your shitty attitude that is at fault. This does not work. They will not suddenly begin to treat you better because you were super nice and professional the whole time.

You need to be an English language imperialist.  You need to act like one of those 80 year old women on buses who no longer give a fuck and just call it as they see it. You need to wipe the “It’s okay that they speak Danish, this workplace is in Denmark after all” thoughts. Those bastards TOLD you at the interview “Everyone speaks English.” They TOLD you “The official language is English here”. You need to start enforcing it, guerilla style. Obviously your colleagues are just normal people and so they are probably quite nice (except for vinegar dicks all workplaces seem to pick up), and would be mortified that they have put you in this position. If you are serious about wanting to be the exception, you need to start acting like it. You need to say things like “WHAT?” and “WHAT DID YOU SAY?” and “I DON’T SPEAK DANISH” all the frigging time. You need to say it when they’re having a joke over coffee. You need to say it when they are having a discussion about holiday plans.

You can even say “HAHAHAH YOU ARE LEAVING ME OUT OF THE CONVERSATION.”

and “AM I INVISIBLE?”

or “I GUESS I AM GLAD I CANNOT UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU ARE SAYING BECAUSE I BET IT IS REALLY FUCKING BORING AND JUST ABOUT MEAT BALLS OR SOMETHING, RIGHT?”

It’s okay, because remember, you are not really going to stay in Denmark longer than about three to seven years, so if they think “What an English language imperialistic DICK” you’re never going to see them again when you move home. Also, it’s not as if they were ever going to invite you to a dinner party for real. They were just saying that to be polite that one time.

These techniques work, by the way. I have been trialling them at my workplace, saying things like that actually gets you a level of grudging respect because you’re at dangerously Danish levels of directness and they like that. (Obvs I don’t say “I DO NOT KNOW WHAT YOU ARE SAYING!” because I do know what they are saying, I am calling them out on other bullshit they do)

Best of luck, “expats”, no need to thank me/apologise when you have your road to Damascus conversion and you realise that I was not being “negative” but just not sugar coating the turd for you. You are welcome but I would have done it for anyone.

Selvfølgelig

image

Recent addition to the doors on trains. Before, people would try to cram themselves on or door block like cocks, forcing those who wished to disembark to fight for egress.

As with most things that are translated into English in Denmark, it is an instruction. May I remind you that this is a land which sends letters about absolute beginners’ Danish courses IN Danish because

“oh no oh no! English isn’t a state language and if we start translating THOSE letters, where will we stop? and BESIDES a lot of people speak Tlingit and Welsh and we can’t very well translate for those people too!”

Signs like this are translated even though anglophonic foreigners and tourists most likely already know this if their culture demands basic courtesy and awareness.

Seems to me, these signs are not exclusively in the official language of Danish because what would that say about the people who need to read them?

If you want information in English, you are shit out of luck because it is your own fault that you do not understand Danish. This is as true for the announcements on trains as for the letters from the state as for the “unspoken rules” in the Danish workplace.

Instructions, however, are readily translated because everyone can see that the dirty foreigner needs to be schooled and tamed.