Polyglots and Tongues Tied in Knots

As Heather and I have ventured further down the Danish rabbit hole — that is to say, into the linguistic shadows of this lovely Scandinavian tongue — the language seems to become ever more absurd. On first look, Danish is just another Scandinavian language, meaning a Germanic language with funny letters that lacks the familiar Latin roots, grammar, and pronunciation that make learning Spanish, French, or Italian so easy. Danish uses vowels even more than English, with at least three ways of saying ø and several variations on both the “u” and “i” depending on where you are in a word.

As much as Danish is enhanced by its glut of vowels, it also carries surprises in consonants. Namely, that most of them are not pronounced. As an example, our Danish instructor taught us the word for “of course,” as in “I am an American, so I speak American, of course!” The Danish word is selvfølgelig. Ignoring the terrifying, centrally placed ø, the word doesn’t seem so bad. And yet the technical pronunciation is /sɛlˈfœlːg(ə)liː/, which sounds something like “cefuhli,” and thereby ignores all of the letters in the written word. There are also helpful constructions like “Det er et ord” (translation: that is a word), which is pronounced like “deet or,” collapsing the first three words and ignoring the final letter in the phrase.

The challenges we face in learning the language are, however, perpetually undermined by the realization that everyone from Denmark (with a few exceptions) speaks English fluently. And, as we all know, English is an impossible and nonsensical language that we’ve forced upon the world due to our global cultural, economic, political, and militaristic hegemony, etc. etc. But I feel even worse about my struggles to learn Danish when I meet people living in Denmark who come from non-English speaking countries, like my German colleagues or the Spanish and Chinese students in our language class. All of them speak English as a second (or in some case third language, as several of the Spaniards speak Catalan as first language), which they are using to learn Danish. To put it in perspective, it would be like me taking a class on Chinese where the instructor only speaks Chinese and Spanish.

The multilingual capacity of so many of the people we have met here in Aarhus does not, of course, suggest that everyone in Europe is magically a polyglot. Many of the people in my department, especially the non-academic staff speak English only passingly, and the other students in our Danish course (save perhaps those from Germany) are struggling just as much with the language as we are. But being surrounded by people from so many different places who have all come to Denmark for different reasons and yet find English as a common means of communication is impressive and, indeed, makes for an easy excuse not to put in serious effort to learn Danish. But meeting so many people with so much linguistic expertise also serves as a reminder to how inward-looking American society is; few of us have competence in a second language and many of us struggle just to master English alone.

English is definitely a key to the world, which has made our transition to life in Denmark relatively painless. Even though we get English for free, I still feel that there’s a lot of value in experiencing Europe in its multitude of languages, not just falling back on the convenience of our native language. This continent is defined by its languages, and the borders that enclose, exclude, and unite different languages and the speakers thereof. As much as I struggle with Danish, I know that learning it is a small price to pay for experiencing this place more authentically coeval with experiencing it in English. Just as I have to toggle my keyboard at work between the American Qwerty and Danish Qwerty in order to be able to read and write in these two languages, seeing Denmark both with English and with Danish seems like a valuable — if only occasional — necessity. Living in Denmark in English is only one side of a multifaceted cultural experience, so I will — despite all the challenges — continue to læere dansk, selvfølgelig!



Night at the Museum -ARoS style

ARoS 6On Valentine’s Day, Thomas and I went to ARoS, the art museum here, to see the special Edvard Munch exhibition “Angst/Anxiety” that is closing this week. If you are familiar with his artwork, this may not seem like the most romantic Valentine’s Day date we could have chosen. (In case you are wondering, no, Danish people do not appear to celebrate Valentine’s Day in any way, shape, or form.)

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Behind me is one of Munch’s more recognized works, “The Scream,” which, I believe, was featured in a car commercial a few years ago. Overall, the exhibition was very good, there were a variety of pieces, not all of them angst/anxiety inspiring. He also did a lot of woodcuts, which were usually versions of his paintings. The woodcuts were interesting because there were multiple prints of each cut, with their own distinct coloring. Here, is an example of a woodcut.  Additionally, each room had descriptions of where the artist was living and what was happening in his life when he created each piece, which was helpful contextual information.

After Munch time, we decided to visit one of the museum’s more fanciful exhibits, “Your Rainbow Panorama.”

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ARoS 5ARoS 1

If ever in Denmark, I would highly recommend visiting, the view of the city is spectacular, especially through the rose, and other colored, glass. Thomas could bring you for free because he is now an elite member of ARoS Klubben (ok, maybe not so elite, they will let anyone in). Since we now have unlimited access to the museum, we thought we would return when it was less crowded to go through the rest of the exhibits.

We also had dinner at the cafe, which was very good. The only thing I can think to complain about was the cannon in the exhibit in the basement of the museum going off every hour or so and scaring the crap out of everyone.  There is also a ‘fancy’ restaurant on the top floor of the museum, which we plan on trying since the Klubben membership also entitles us to a foodie discount.

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Opportunity Costs

One of the things that’s most struck me since coming to Denmark is not anything about Denmark per se or Aarhus per se or my job per se, but the reality of no longer being in graduate school. Having finished the PhD, I’m now in the so-called “real world” where, among other things, I’ve become exposed to the realities of opportunity costs.

These are, for the non-economists in the audience, the costs associated with foregone opportunities. Specifically, taking a higher education generally involves paying money or, in the case of the PhD not really making money, in order to obtain some benefit. Thus, opportunity costs are paid in the difference between my real earnings over the past four-and-a-half years and the counterfactual world where I got rich and famous as a software engineer, investment banker, or something glamorous like that.

While I was always aware of opportunity costs, they become very tangible once you enter the “real world,” where the difference between my previous life (~50-60 hour work weeks at approximately poverty wages, or less if you consider poverty entailing working 40 hours per week) and my current life (37 hour work week and not poverty wages) are both salient within a short period of time.

This therefore raises the question implicit to all considerations of opportunity costs: was it all worth it? This is a difficult question to answer because I don’t know exactly what I would have done otherwise; I decided in my second year of undergraduate that I wanted to pursue a PhD rather than being an attorney. Had I gone to law school, I’m confident I would be hating my life and that those opportunity costs would have been substantial due to there being a glut of lawyers in a world with little demand for them. There is also the fact that transitioning from graduate school to post-graduate school life was nearly financially impossible. The stipend NU paid me for four-and-a-half years was just enough to support my existence, but not enough to meaningfully save anything for such unexpected events as a transatlantic move. Indeed, having saved money from working a nearly full-time job through much of my undergraduate degree, I think I lost money attending graduate school. It is only for the luck of certain circumstances (and NU’s willingness to pay me an extra month’s salary after I technically graduated) that this move wasn’t entirely floated on credit cards.

So, that leaves me in the position of being with the love of my life, in a wonderfully foreign place, with an almost completely stress-free job, doing whatever I want with most of my time. Was it worth it? I think so. But, I suppose, only time will tell.


It’s a small world after all…..really.

Before moving to Aarhus, Thomas and I had little idea what to expect from the social scene. Rumor had it the Danes social circles were hard to crack, but there seemed to be an international community that planned regular events. We expected to meet European expats, but didn’t expect many Americans. I’d have to say that I think we both have been pleasantly surprised by the diversity of people we’ve met and their willingness to help us adapt to a new country.

When we first arrived, we had to register our existence with the city, so we went to the International Citizen Services office. There, three or four other organizations are represented that provide services to foreigners. I learned about a spouse program that provides job seeking assistance to accompanying spouses. All of the events I have attend so far have been helpful and I’ve met people from France and Iran, to name a few. They also told us about the International Community, which organizes events, seminars, and networking events specifically for internationals in Aarhus. We decided to test the waters and went to one of their social events last week. The world started to feel a little bit smaller when the first person we spoke to at the event said she was originally from Hawaii. We also met people from Italy, Columbia, and Uzbekistan. I was impressed by the diversity and wondered how so many people had ended up in the second largest city of a country with a total population only slightly larger than the state of Minnesota.

The event was at a local cafe, called Café Smagløs, which in English means Cafe Tasteless. I’m not really sure what they were referring to when they decided on “tasteless” as a name. We didn’t have any food while we were there, but we are planning on returning for some eats. I’ll let you know if they live up to their name or not.  Right before we left, I decided it would be a good idea to use the loo (few public restrooms). When I returned, Thomas was chatting with someone I would soon find out was a fellow Minnesotan who had earned a PhD in public health! She has been in Aarhus about a year working for the University. We exchanged numbers and had brunch with her yesterday. She recommended a great cafe called Langoff & Juul. We hadn’t tried it before, but turned out to be delicious (everything was also organic). Here is a link to their website and pictures of food: http://langhoffogjuul.dk/galleri/.  I’m sure Thomas and/or I will blog about food in Denmark in the near future because there are some distinct differences worth noting.

Meeting a fellow Minnesotan who was generous in sharing her experiences in Denmark really put life here into perspective and I’m sure we will be seeing her again in the future. If I thought meeting one Minnesotan in Aarhus was lucky, Thomas also discovered another Minnesotan from Bloomington working in the Political Science department at the University. Although we didn’t expect to meet many Americans, let alone Minnesotans, it has been comforting to know that, at least in Denmark, it is a small world after all.

Who are you and what are you doing here

Perhaps an advantage of not speaking the language is that I feel little obligation to attempt to meet the other people that work in my building but whom I have yet to meet. Luckily I’ve already met all of the people who would most directly be termed my coworkers, but ours is a large department filled with unfamiliar faces. I’m hoping that my inability to recognize these people despite being here for three weeks means that they also do not recognize me and that such failure of recognition is sufficiently common that they don’t worry that I’m trying to rob the place.

No one has yet stopped me to ask what I’m doing, but that does seem to be a big question for people back home and for the people that Heather and I have met here in Aarhus. While I sometimes struggle to relate the career of an academic to those outside the foreign world inside the ivory tower, a conversation today solidified for me precisely what is that’s expected of me. In short, very little. Professors of political science – or at least future professors – are on the wonderful treadmill known as ‘publish or perish’. My obligations here, despite being at a university in a position that requires me to teach (eventually), is to research and to publish. And, in contrast to so many alternative positions I could have accepted elsewhere in the academic world, this position comes with almost absolute freedom to pursue my own interests at my own pace and occasionally collaborate with my coworkers on other research endeavors.

So what am I doing here? For the past few weeks, I’ve mainly been working on papers begun during graduate school. I’ve resubmitted two papers that were previously offered R&R’s (revise and resubmit) at journals and sent out another paper for review today. I’ve also written some new software, updated some older software I’ve been working on, and written a short article about that software for an academic newsletter. The plan for the coming weeks is to turn to data I collected at the expense of the American taxpayer last fall, which will hopefully reveal some insights into how people think about government spending, how interest groups shape public attitudes, and how people react to foreign policy news. Those three topics are all proto-papers that I have lingering deadlines to finish before the end of the year, and I guess will be out for review at journals at some point.

The major objective, aside from those tasks, is to start new research projects which will eventually help be get tenure back in the United States. My position here is funded by a grant from the Danish National Science Foundation (Grundforskningsfond) to learn about how political parties operate, compete, and shape public preferences. My new research will fall somewhere in the vicinity of that larger project, but what it will be exactly is yet to be seen.

And, finally, given that I will start teaching one master’s seminar in the fall, in English, for about 20 students, my other big objective is to design my first course. More likely than not, it will be on the topic of public opinion or political communication. Another course I’ve been asked to eventually design and teach is a general survey course on American politics, which should come together relatively simply; there might also be a course on experimental design eventually, which I would find particularly enjoyable.

So, while I sometimes arrive in the morning puzzling over how I got such a fortunate opportunity to have complete academic freedom and worrying that there is some secret and terrible obligation that attends that freedom, I think the next few months should be a fantastic chance to grow as a scholar and set a firm foundation for our glorious return to America.


PS. I also sometimes look out this window.


Irony of ironies

Heather and I have finally moved into our “permanent” apartment, which is just northwest of the University in an area called Skejby, though our postal code says we live in Risskov and I think technically all of this is still Aarhus. I do not understand Danish toponymy.

The apartment is much larger than our temporary place on Ny Munkegade. Indeed, I’m fairly confident that the living room here is larger than our entire place over there, which is great! It’s almost like being back in the states. And it’s fully furnished, so we’ve been able to settle in quickly. This morning we made a quick run – or walk rather – to IKEA, which lies about a mile (or should I say a kilometer or so) north of our apartment. Danish transportation design showing its good form, there are sidewalks that lead directly from here to there with only the need to cross one major-ish road. Some day when we have bikes, there are also really nice bike paths that appear to lead everywhere.

The trip to IKEA was, as any such trip is, identical to all previous trips to IKEA I have ever made before. We picked up our big yellow bag, stuffed in with a bunch of miscellany that was either missing or in need of replacement from the “furnished” part of our apartment. We stopped for kødboller med kartoffelmos, as is obligatory. Having received my Danish debit card earlier this week, we were able to sort of pass as locals by not using cash, which is essentially non-existent here. That meal plus a coffee and soda put us back a cool 70 crowns, or about $14.

Roasted Chicken with Root Vegetables Roasted Chicken with Root Vegetables[/caption]With some cooking equipment in hand, we were able to make our first real cooked meal in our new apartment (pictured). A chicken plus root vegetables. Chicken came pre-seasoned, so I can’t really take credit for that, but it was a nice simple meal with some delicious (hopefully Danish) rodfrugt. We’re going to follow this up with a really fantastic chocolate cake we bought at the grocery store. My American hesitance to trust grocery store bakery goods is quickly being overcome with some really successful purchases we’ve made lately of croissants, breads, and this cake.

But, to get to the headline of this post…our apartment here is where our official Danish address is, so we’ve been eagerly awaiting some mail that has been set to arrive since we registered our existence with Aarhus municipality. So our big move-in present to ourselves was opening all of the mail from our bank, from the government, etc. that contained essentials like the debit card already mentioned, our health insurance cards and government-assigned doctor’s name, and some other stuff. Among that stuff was perhaps the most ironic letter I’ve ever received. It came from Jobcenter Aarhus, which helps people find work. In the envelope was a letter – in Danish – and a very official looking certificate. I immediately recognized it as our permission letter to take government-subsidized Danish lessons here in Aarhus. What little Danish I can already read clued me in that this was explaining when and for how long we would be allowed to take classes and thankfully for us the internet and Google Translate exist so we were able to decipher the rest, but I can’t get past the pure insanity of sending a letter in Danish to someone whom you know does not speak Danish about their future ability to learn Danish. The classes are free, so I guess I can’t complain.

Aarhus Townhall at NightThe weather has been really odd here this week, as it allegedly is all the time. I woke up Friday to one of the most picturesque sunrises I’ve ever witnessed over the Aarhus harbor, only to have that decay slowly into an on-and-off mix of sleet, snow, wind, and clear skies over the past two days. The weather didn’t hold us back, though, from venturing out last night to see Skyfall (yes, we’re very behind the times) in the movie theater downtown. 250 crowns for two tickets and a soda made for one of the most enjoyable $50 movies I’ve ever seen!

I think Heather will be adding more soon about a couple of other fun adventures we’ve been having in our process of adjusting to Denmark, but that’s all I have for now.