When they move their lips, just a bunch of gibberish

Walking down the street with a toddler is a sure-fire way to get attention. People love kids, and the Danes are a particularly child-friendly people. The English language is very widely spoken here, but the biggest exception to this rule appears to be elderly women (not the men, which tells me the much praised gender equalities here are quite recent). It leads to many awkward ‘conversations’ where someone begins talking to me, or my son M, and I then have to attempt to say ‘Jeg forstår ikke Dansk’ or ‘taler du Engelsk?’ and hope we get somewhere, or not, in which case we usually both smile awkwardly and move on. Although, yesterday I had a nice encounter on a bus, where the woman continued to talk to M about his ‘blomst’ (the dandelion he was clutching); both M and I could at least understand what she was talking about, and he was quite happy to have his flower admired.

The strangest thing is getting used to not understanding the general hubbub of conversation around me. I sometimes worry that the person shouting in the street is actually trying to get my attention while I wander by obliviously. I wonder whether I’ve mistakenly called people rude in the past, when really they just had no idea what I was saying. M’s presence is often a sneaky lifeline. It isn’t hard to find an excuse to say something to a toddler. Loudly. In English. Passing by the awkward conversation when I finally get to the front of the queue, or need to get past people on the bus.

Next week my husband, R, begins his Danish lessons. I’m missing out as we need M in vuggestue (day-care, see I’m learning) first. Once M does start in July he’ll pick up Danish pretty quickly. We’ll struggle to understand the events of his day if we don’t make the effort. Many migrants on short-term contracts don’t learn Danish, but I think having children necessitates more contact with authorities and services. So far the health services have been great about speaking English. But it would be advantageous if I could speak some Danish. When we needed to see an emergency doctor after M fell off a chair (he’s fine, if slightly more wonky toothed) I had to ask a stranger to read his CPR (Social Security) number over the phone for me, as they expect this before you arrive.

We did online lessons before we came, but that only taught us just enough to get through until someone replies in English. Our written comprehension has definitely improved since we arrived. The trouble is actually trying to say anything. Being surrounded by Danish language doesn’t help either, it just reinforces how far off our attempts at pronunciation are. The other night I flipped the TV over to the Norwegian news. I don’t think I could’ve told the two languages apart when I first arrived, but now it definitely sounds different. We’ve come a long way since we’ve arrived, but holding a conversation in Danish still feels a long way off.

Snowflakes coldly fall

Our first day in Copenhagen, fresh off the 32 hour flights, we stepped out into the freezing Danish winter. For some reason, our sleep deprived brains thought our son would benefit from seeing daylight. Wrapped up in his pram, rain cover pulled over to keep the freshest air off him, he howled. Presumably wondering what misery his parents were going to inflict on him next. It was cold. Really cold. It has been a mild winter, but those few days around when we arrived were typical winter days. We beat a fairly hasty retreat to our hotel. There we huddled in the warmth, and our son fell into a deep sleep that we couldn’t even wake him from to eat his tea.

 The next morning we ventured out again, and walked from our hotel down to the harbour to visit Copenhagen’s most famous tourist attraction – The Little Mermaid. So how cold was it? Well, what looked like waves cresting at a distance, was actually frozen sea. That’s something I’d only seen on Attenborough documentaries about polar bears.

 Within a few days of our arrival in Aarhus a thaw had set in. We haven’t seen any snow since those first few days. It has been cold. It has been grey. It has been wet. The ground has been alternatively frozen, puddled, and muddy. Admittedly the last two have been popular with my son. The other week though, a wonderful thing happened. Flowers. Tiny crocuses and snowdrops are popping up under trees, and along the verges. My son has had a long fascination with flowers, and loved few things more than gathering handfuls of dandelions and daisies (two flowers he has been allowed to pick, rather than just smell). For him, pram trips are once again accompanied by hands reaching over the side, imploring us for a flower to admire.

 Spring in northern Europe is such a relief after a long cold winter. Easter also belongs at this time of year. The other weekend was the Danish festival ‘fastelavn’, essentially the beginning of Lent. It seems appropriate to be celebrating the turning of the seasons. It’s a reminder to me how much our idea of seasons is an imported idea to New Zealand. We even follow traditions that conform to a northern calendar. Margaret Mahy has a wonderful poem Christmas in New Zealand, in which she describes exactly this juxtaposition.

And yet around my wall,
On Christmas cards the holly gleams,
And snowflakes coldly fall,
And Robins I have never seen,
Pipe out a Christmas call.

I always miss the evergreen NZ forests when I’m away. I know we won’t get a sweltering summer. After living in Australia for the last three years, I can do with a lack of sweltering to be honest. I don’t know how I’ll manage a full winter here next year. But now, with the days growing longer, and the flowers blooming, Aarhus is growing on me.

An (Un)expected Journey

My husband rang while I was sitting in a bar with old school friends. It was my first real night out since having our (then) 13 month old son; opportunities are rare when you live in a foreign country away from all your family.
‘Would we be interested in a job in Denmark?’
The bouncer was watching me, I’d gone out onto the street to take the call, coming in from Turin where my husband was at a conference.
‘Ahhh. Yeah. I guess’
I went back upstairs, drunk some beer, went to a karaoke bar. All the time ‘Denmark’ knocking around in my head.

And that is how it started. And how I found myself, five months later, in Aarhus. It’s Denmark’s second biggest city. Heard of it before? I hadn’t either.

It may seem like a slightly nuts decision, but an international move had been on the cards for some time. That’s just life when you marry an academic. With a rapidly approaching end of contract deadline we had to make some big decisions. New Zealand and Australia were, sadly, not going to happen. If we were going to be the other side of the world then Denmark has some things going for it. No, not the weather and the extremely short days in winter. I’m not sure if I’ll get paid work here, but even if I don’t, day-care is affordable enough we could consider part time. Compare that to the UK, where we would probably be making a loss on my wages compared to child care. Or Australia, where I could join the scramble for a place; harassing centres until they final cave just so the phone calls stop. Immigration has been a smooth process. ‘You’re a New Zealander, married to a British citizen. Here, have a residence card’. No ‘12 letters over two years, from at least four different sources, addressed to both of you and forms signed in your own blood’ à la UK Home Office. (NB. I made the bit about blood up – it just felt that way at the time).

 The biggest reason to say ‘yes’, was this. If we don’t like it here, we can leave. But if we said ‘No’ we might spend the rest of our life wondering – what if? Maybe the two years here will be pretty average. Maybe we’ll regret it. But maybe it’ll be a time of our life that we’ll look back on and be glad we came here. We’ll meet some friends, get to know a new city, and hopefully manage to learn a wee bit of Danish too. Since i don’t have many friends here (yet?), and I do have friends around the world I’ll try and do a bit of blogging to keep you in the loop.