The Danes have no word for please

Tonight, Heather and I skipped our first post-holiday Danish course (oops!), to attend a lecture organized at the university hosted by our friends at International Community. The speaker was a Danish anthropologist, Dennis Nørmark, who spoke to an audience of about 200 people on the scintillating topic of “How to Get Closer to the Weird Danes.”

The lecture covered some unusual Danish customs that Heather and I are already pretty familiar with, like:

  • Never sit next to anyone on a bus, ever. Then, if you do have to sit next to someone, absolutely say nothing and don’t look at them, even if you have to get past them to get off at the next stop.
  • If someone bumps into you, observe that they will pretend like it didn’t happen and hope you didn’t notice.
  • Don’t hold doors for people.
  • Don’t speak to cashiers at stores.
  • Don’t smile at people. They’ll think your drunk, crazy, or American…or all of the above.
  • etc. etc.

All of that can make Danes sound pretty unfriendly, which really isn’t our experience. Denmark is just a very different place from the United States. People are not very friendly to strangers and, unlike in Minnesota, random people on the street don’t say hi to you. Indeed, the other day during a walk a man gave us a smile and a “Hej”. I’ve been here long enough that it made me think he must be crazy, so Nørmark’s anecdote above resonated.

The talk also touched on some larger points about Danish history and customs. Notably, he argued that Danes don’t realize they have lots of customs, which can make situations sometimes very awkward. For example, telling someone “Good morning” after about 9:30 can be construed as an insult (i.e., “your morning is starting kind of late, isn’t it?”) because the time of day is actually midday. Nørmark also noted that Danes’ desire to avoid conflict can create problems interculturally because they simultaneously want to come to agreement on points of debate while also avoiding situations that might be unresolvable. Religion, for example, is generally off the table.

Nørmark’s major argument was that these Danish customs, which can be so striking to foreigners like us, are part of a larger (and somewhat uniquely Danish) culture that emphasizes trust and individuality. Individuals trust each other to do what is right, to work for their own benefit and solve their own problems, and to generally follow the broad set of cultural norms (and smaller behaviors noted above). Interacting with strangers and lending a helping hand aren’t common because it would be insulting to that person’s individuality. For example, I as an American would typically be inclined to help someone who was struggling with their luggage on a train or looking lost on the street. Here, however, giving that help without first being asked could be insulting. Despite initial hesitations about offering help, Nørmark made clear that the high levels of trust also mean that Danes are ready to help out once asked. This strange mix of individuality and trust is what defines Danish culture. As another example, Nørmark said it would be quite uncommon here to offer someone free food (e.g., some apples from your trees or vegetables from your garden) but it is quite common for people to leave such items out for others to take for free.

Overall it was an interesting lecture and came with free coffee and cookies, like any good Danish event. We also signed up for a copy of Nørmark’s book, which will be delivered to us by mail with the unwritten expectation that we eventually pay for it. Ah social trust!

The most interesting part of the talk perhaps came at the very beginning when Nørmark pointed out that Danes love being casual and informal but have perhaps taken this to an extreme. They’ve removed all the formalities that typically appear in English. Because Danes have no word for please and rarely ask one another for help with things, the Danish language has evolved to have people frequently speaking in statements rather than requests. For example, sitting at the lunch table where an American might ask “could you pass me a napkin?”, the Dane will simply reach across the table and say “I’m taking a napkin.” This is absolutely true in my experience and comes in all contexts, like when shopping individuals will reach around you to take an item off the shelf in front of your rather than inconvenience you by asking you to move or hand it to them. To imagine how this works, consider the feeling you have every time you drive on the freeway and someone turns on their turn signal after merging in front of you. That is Denmark.

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A tale of two cities (part deux)

With a requisite layover in Amsterdam to get to Paris, we figured a logical conclusion to our trip to Paris would be a couple of days in Europe’s city of sin. We decided it would be more fun to try taking the train from Paris to Amsterdam rather than go through a few hours of airport hassle for a 40 minute flight. This was a great choice.

Thalys style

Thalys style

We took the Thalys high-speed train from Paris Gare du Nord directly to Amsterdam Centraal, with just a couple of stops in Brussels, Antwerp, and Rotterdam. We’ll have to go back again to see those intermediate places because we were set on getting to our destination. The train was great. We paid something like 10 euro extra to get first class accommodations, which meant lunch (not so great), alcohol (better), and free wifi. The train travels at a top speed of 186mph, so we got to Amsterdam in about 3 hours.

Heather getting excited

Heather getting excited

We also picked a hotel right in the heart of the city because we had to catch an early flight back to Billund, which meant two days in the middle of Amsterdam’s notorious red light district. Interestingly, it’s not really a district so much as a canal with some alleys and isn’t really red-lit except super late at night. Mostly, it just smelled like weed. Everywhere. Also, the ceiling of our hotel room (we were “upgraded”) looked like this:

Dutch torture device?

Dutch torture device?

But, we didn’t let the drugs and prostitutes get us down. Amsterdam is a charming little city, if too full of young Brits on stag weekend. The canals, while green-colored, do create a very pleasant atmosphere with few cars and lots of bikes (so it was just like being in Denmark).

We mostly spent the time just walking around, trying out different vendors of fries, having a bit of beer at In de Wildeman, which was a cozy little beer bar just off the main drag. We also walked by (but skipped, on the advice of some friends) the Rijksmuseum, which has just reopened after a decade of renovation. It looked nice.

Rijksmuseum

Rijksmuseum

We decided to instead go to the Van Gogh Museum, which was well-worth the trip. The museum provides an extensive collection of works by Van Gogh and the works that inspired him as an artist. It also provides a critical biography of his life, chronicling his early failures in various careers, his struggles as an artist, and ultimately the depression that led to his suicide. It was definitely the highlight for me of the trip.

Heather’s favorite part of the trip, though, was the Scheepvaartmuseum. Yes, that’s what it’s called. It’s the maritime museum of Holland and documents the maritime history (i.e., war with Britain and various colonial activities). Some highlights are really extensive collections of model ships, historical globes, and Dutch maritime painting. The museum also included a vessel that you could tour, which Heather enjoyed (as you can see).

DSCN2173I more enjoyed the lunch we had at the museum’s cafe, which included a nice Belgian dubbel from Brouwerij ‘t IJ. It was a short trip to Amsterdam, but the weather was great and we had a nice time just walking around the city and (again) avoiding tourists.

We’re now planning our next set of adventures, some of which will be domestic but still exciting. I’m also planning to blog a bit more about our day-to-day lives, so look for that soon.

A tale of two cities

Thomas and I returned last week from a ten-day vacation (or, “holiday” as you have to call them here) in Paris and Amsterdam. Paris was – in short – hot and full of people. Amsterdam was – in short – full of prostitutes and smelled of weed. Here’s a bit of what we did.

Upon arriving in Paris, we took the RoissyBus from Charles de Gaulle airport – north of the city – to the Opera, near an apartment we’d rented for the week. Pleasantly, we were greeted by a motorbike on fire in the middle of the road, perhaps a portent of the hot weather we would experience. No one seemed particularly concerned.

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Aside from the uncomfortably warm temperatures and hordes of people on holiday, Paris was wonderful. Below are some photos of what we did while we were there.

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What did we do in Paris? What didn’t we do in Paris?! We hit most of the major sites but also skipped a couple because it was too hot, there were too many people, or we just didn’t feel like it that much. We had planned on going to Notre Dame, but once we saw the hour or so queue in the unforgiving sun and I started to get the visual symptoms that usually precede a migraine, we decided instead to go to the crypt, a place where I felt more at home, being half-vampire. They call it a crypt, but it’s the archaeological ruins of the heart of the city dating from 14 AD. They had some really impressive computer reconstructions of what the ruins would have looked like in the past. It was really cool because the crypt showed how street level had been raised 20 or so feet over the last two thousand years and that the path of the Seine had moved from where the Notre Dame currently sits to the river’s present location a few dozen meters south.

After that we went to the Pompideu Center and saw their random collection of art. Weird building, good view. Thomas liked the modern art. From there we checked out St. Chapelle, which has gorgeous stained glass windows and is worth a short stop. The pictures in the above gallery don’t really do it justice. Then our friendly guidebook recommended we grab some ice cream from Berthillon’s on the Île Saint-Louis, which we gladly did and it was delicious! (You can see pictures of Thomas enjoying his above.) It seems eating ice cream or ice cream treats is an essential part of any European summer.

The next day was Bastille Day! All the buses and monuments, etc, were decked out with French flags. We decided to hit up the Musee d’Orsay, probably my favorite museum in Paris. They house an impressive impressionist collection inside a converted railway depot. We had lunch in the museum cafe, which was forgettable. After that we got on one of the hop-on hop-off tourist buses, and decided to ride around a bit to give our legs a break. We got off the bus a short walk from the Pantheon. Impressive architecture, lots of big names in the crypt. I guess the only way to get out of the heat in Paris is find a crypt. Somewhere in here we ate more ice cream. That night we decided we would try to see the Bastille day fireworks. We didn’t want to go all the way to the Eiffel Tower because we heard you had to get there hours ahead of time and the apartment we were renting was quite far away. So we opted for a spot more near our place, which turned out to be fine. Not a great view, but you got the idea, it was pretty epic. At the end, everyone was cheering and clapping, even though we were about a mile away. Here is a nice little youtube video, the grand finale starts at about 34:00 minutes. We had a lovely walk home; I think Paris really is its most beautiful at night.

Monday the first thing we did was hit up the Louvre. I think we got there shortly after it opened, but it was still super packed. We saw all the major art highlights. My favorite part was playing “avoid the massive tour group so you don’t get trampled” and “try not to run into the tourist in front of you who abruptly stopped for no reason.” Next we made a stop at Musee de l’Orangerie, which was my surprise favorite of the trip. You couldn’t take pictures, but they had several rooms full of Monet that stretched the entire wall of each room. They were gorgeous and had additional exhibits that were surprisingly enjoyable, showcasing a mix of impressionist paintings and a special exhibit on some not-well-known Italian painters from the 19th century. After that we decided we needed at least one aerial view of Paris, so we bused over to the Arc de Triomphe and walked up the 200 some spiral staircase to the top. This reminds me I need to get a gym membership because I almost died before we got to the top. It was well worth the exertion though, the view was great! That night we did a river cruise, which was refreshing, and then ate a super awesome dinner in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. Hilariously, both of the nice restaurants we ate at were full of Americans, which was fine, because the food was great, but it’s a contrast to Denmark where we rarely hear English when we are out.

Tuesday we went to Les Invalides, wherein that quasi-famous military guy is entombed. Last name Bonaparte.  There were several other small museums at Les Invalides that showcased armor, guns, and swords from around the world and from the history of France. They had a really nice exhibit on how the armor and weapons of knights had changed over the centuries. Additionally, there was also a nice explanation of the differences between guns with flintlock and wheel-lock firing mechanisms. After the guns and steel adventure, we hopped on over to the Rodin Museum, which was mostly closed for renovation. The grounds of the museum were beautiful and a perfect backdrop for his sculptures. Thomas really enjoyed this part and it was a surprisingly tranquil break from what was mostly a hectic, touristy city.

Our last day in Paris we attempted to visit Versailles. We found the correct train and followed all the tourists to the palace after getting off the train. Successful so far, but after learning we would have to wait in about a three hour queue to get inside the palace in the blistering sun, we decided that seeing the grounds would be good enough for us. The grounds were impressively vast, I couldn’t imagine one person owning that much land. We ate lunch at a cute little place on the grounds about a 15 minute walk from the palace and then started to head back to central Paris for our wine tasting! It was a short wine tasting, 3 glasses, but we figured since it was included in our ParisPass, we should take advantage of it. I learned quite a few things about wine tasting! For example, in Paris, when buying wine, they never put the type of grape on the label, just the region. It’s up to you to know what types of wine are produced in that region. Our sommelier also taught us this slurping technique that is supposed to enhance the taste of the wine, if you can do it without choking. Good times.

The next morning we were off to Amsterdam on the train. To be continued…..