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.

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…..

Paris, the Louvre, and Climbing Mount Everest

Heather and I continue our trip to Paris. We will post more of the details later, but first, some commentary.

A line for the Notre Dame beings...

A line for the Notre Dame beings…

...and continues ad infinitum.

…and continues ad infinitum.

Having been in the French capital city for three days, we’ve had a chance to experience what happens to a city when, after enough belle epoque songs are recorded, roaring twenties expat-authored novels written, and mid-twentieth century romantic films produced, everything that might have been redeeming about central Paris is replaced by something that looks quite like the authentic worlds portrayed in those cultural recordings but is somewhat askew, having been repackaged for the consumption of the touring masses. Paris is beautiful, its architecture endlessly pleasant, and its cafe culture seemingly unrivaled. And yet, everywhere in the tourist-visited regions, Paris is also terrible. I feel as much like I am touring the tourists as I am anything genuinely Parisian that those tourists and I both came to see.

Indeed, this morning’s trip to the Louvre left me not in awe of the incredible beauty of thousands of masterpieces nor struck by the almost unparalleled collection of French and Italian paintings and classical sculpture housed in this palace. Nor was I made at any point to remember that I was walking halls paid for by imperialism and the labor of many for the benefit of few. Instead, I watched tourists flock for a view of a select few masterpieces, seen only through the two-inch lens of a camcorder or worse, through the absurd pseudo-camera known as an iPad.

The huge number of people trying to see the Louvre in any given day seems to undermine the experience of seeing the Louvre by others (it’s hard to contemplate Mona Lisa’s smile when you’re surrounded by tourists taking pictures and signs warning you of pickpockets capitalizing on tourists taking pictures). It also lessens the value of the Louvre’s collection. The Louvre, as a result of immense, antiquated wealth and the pillaging of various other countries, houses a collection any individual piece of which would be the showcase item of almost any other museum in the world. And yet, the focus on “hitting the highlights” let’s those scrambling for one of the cramped spaces at the front row of the Mona Lisa to miss the wall of Raphaels just outside hanging for an empty hallway.

No one cares about Raphael

No one cares about Raphael

And so it comes to my conclusion and the explanation of this post’s title. Mount Everest is seen by many as the ultimate climb, a chance to summit to the top of the world. This dream is held so widely that now hundreds of people summit each year, a number scores of times larger than the number of climbers who summited in the first few decades after Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay first made it to the top. With so much interest, the mountain is over-crowded. People die as a result. And anyone with enough money can pay a guide team to get them to the top for the sake of making the summit with little regard for the value of making the journey itself. Hillary and legendary climber Reinhold Messner now both agree that fewer people should climb Everest, and advise interested parties to find one of the 14 other “eight-thousanders” that provide a nearly identical view as Everest, but with some actual variation in requisite climbing skill.

This, I feel, is an analogy for Paris. I don’t think there should be caps on visits to the Louvre or limitations how many people can ascend the Eiffel Tower. But, perhaps, it is time to find some other places worth visiting in Europe. The value of seeing the beauty and the romance of Paris is lost if everyone tries to experience it at once. Perhaps the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo, and some other pieces could find new homes to draw the crowds away from the Louvre and to give people a chance at the rest of the museum’s collection. Paris is full of museums, many of which are better and more interesting than the Louvre. Heather and I were stunned by the beauty of the Musee de l’Orangerie, just two blocks from the Louvre, which had hardly a line and a strict no photography policy. The Musee d’Orsay, which we saw yesterday and is housed in a gorgeous Beaux-Artes building formerly used as a rail station, has a similar “no photography” policy that again seems to keep focus on the art rather than “summiting” the various masterworks.

In short, I am thrilled to be in Paris but I am less than thrilled by the style of tourism it seems to attract. “Hitting” Paris and its main attractions seems to distract from the immense possibilities on offer in this city and the need to see Paris for the sake of seeing Paris comes at the expense of a European experience. Having lived now for half-a-year (for the second time) in a small European city, I know that Europe has far more to offer than the swarm of tourists inevitably found in all the major cities. Europe has plenty of summits; hopefully tourists will someday learn to climb some smaller peaks rather than just go for Everest.

Bienvenue a Paris! Actually, we haven’t done anything yet so here’s something completely different.

Heather and I just arrived in Paris! In typical travel from Aarhus fashion, we left our apartment at 9:45 this morning, took two buses, two flights, and another bus and arrived at a quaint little apartment (the second one on that page) that we’re renting for a week in the 1st Arrondissement. Since our adventure so far has involved mostly the inside of airports and various transportative vessels, we have little if anything to report about Paris. But actually, there was a motorcycle on fire in the middle of the road as we were taking the bus from CDG to the city center. That was…interesting. Oh, and there was a Syria-related rally. My French is insufficient to tell whether it was pro or con Assad.

So, with nothing to report about Paris, I’m going to give you something completely different. Heather reported in our last post about our two week trip to the US for my graduation and to visit family and friends. Since then things have been pretty quiet. Denmark pretty much shuts down for the month of July when everyone takes their state-mandated three weeks of holiday. I’ve actually been very busy at work starting a large survey about Denmark’s role in the European Union and finishing a paper for a forthcoming volume on political psychology. So, I’ve been glad that not too much has been happening because it gave me a chance to finish up those projects before we started our trip here.

But, one really big thing did happen! And it involved cannons! And Mexicans!

The Tall Ships Races 2013 (link mostly in Danish) came to Aarhus last weekend. It was pretty incredible. There were several days of activities but we only went out for the triumphant finale when all of the ships set sail from Aarhus Harbor out to sea. We made a surprisingly appropriate decision to watch the festivities from Aarhus Ø, a new part of the city being developed in part of the former shipping harbor. In addition to some fine contemporary architecture (see below), the area features a pop-up tiki bar that was full of people watching the ships as they took off for their next stop.

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We were expecting the parade of ships to take an hour or so and involve a few big ships that we were able to see from a distance (being tall ships, they tend to be visible from a ways away). So we were incredibly surprised to learn that there were actually scores of ships in town for the event, ranging from smaller, single-masted ships all the way up to 90+ meter long, three-masted vessels. The entire procession took over three hours and involved some sporadic cannon fire from a pair of Swedish and Dutch vessels with crews in full period costume. The grande finale was the flagship of the Mexican Navy, the Cuauhtémoc, which sailed out of the harbor with the full crew on deck and masts, a giant flag billowing off the stern, and blaring Mexican music. It was pretty incredible. Some pictures below.

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And after that, we had some quick sandwiches. This is what a Danish sandwich looks like:

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More from Paris, as it happens.

The red, white, and blue

We’re back from our whirlwind tour back in the US for Thomas’s graduation. We spent the first few days in the Twin Cities basically eating all the food we’d missed while in Denmark. (By “we,” I mostly mean me.) Bases covered included Mexican, garlic mashed potato pizza, and a real cheese burger from the drive-in (stop putting cucumbers on my burger, Denmark!). After eating too much and ingesting ridiculous amounts of high fructose corn syrup, we left Minnesota for Chicago to attend Thomas’s graduation from Northwestern. I thought it might be a fun road trip because we haven’t really been in a car for any amount of time since arriving in Denmark, but it was just as boring as I remember. We did stop at the Mars Cheese Castle.

MarsCheeze

While in Chicago, or more accurately Evanston, we were able to visit with some of Thomas’s grad school friends before attending his hooding ceremony on Thursday. Doesn’t he look great in his fru fru outfit! Go Dr. Leeper!

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In all seriousness, it was really nice to be able to celebrate his momentous achievement because he has worked so hard the past few years. He’s always been an extraordinary thinker and I’m looking forward to a lifetime of listening to his extraordinary ideas. No pressure.

We drove back to Minneapolis just in time to get caught in a thunderstorm with 60mph winds. Good timing. After driving through this armageddon, I got to visit two of the most lovely ladies I know, which included wandering around downtown Excelsior. It was great to be able to see a lot of people we’d been missing, but I don’t think we saw everyone we would have liked to, which is okay because we’ll be back soon! (sorta, if December is soon).

Since we’ve been back, things have been pretty low key since everyone in the country has left for vacation. Except for these guys.

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I also went on a photo shoot with a photographer here in Aarhus because I’m one of 14 expats to be featured in a publication put out by the International Community. More about that later!

Coming up: A post about the tall ships that were here in Aarhus over the 4th of July weekend!

A walk along the sea

Today is Grundlovsdag in Denmark, where people “celebrate” the Danish constitution of 1849 that (sort of) brought Democracy to this little nordic country. As a result, much of the country is closed so that people can patriotically celebrate in typical fashion: flying flags and spending the day at home with their families. Heather and I are doing a bit of that this morning, then I’m going into work for the afternoon (the University is only partially closed) and Heather is going to Dance class. Thus, we’ll reconvene for dinner. With a little unanticipated free time, however, I thought I would put some photos of a really nice walk that Heather and I took yesterday along the sea.

As has probably become obviously from some of our previous posts, Aarhus is a major port that lies on the eastern edge of Jutland overlooking a rather picturesque body of water known as Aarhus Bugt. Though much of the port retains its industrial flavor, with large container shippings coming and going amidst factories, warehouses, and port cranes, parts of the shore are beautiful. Indeed, one part of the harbor area – called either “The New Harbor” or, in less internationally friendly terms “Aarhus Ø” – is transforming a former industrial site into a major residential and commercial center. We haven’t actually been to the Ø yet because it involves a walk across a huge barren swath of land that is itself relatively inaccessible at present. But, we spent much of last night in another part of Aarhus that has more attractive views of the sea.

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Specifically, during the month of June, Aarhus is hosting a major sculpture exhibition, Sculpture by the Sea, which was apparently inspired by the Crown Princess’s visits to something analogous in Australia several years back. This year, there were more than 40 sculptures laid out from Tangkrogen (a large park and marina area southeast of downtown) for three kilometers. Below are some pictures.

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The sculptures were overall quite interesting, though some were truly strange…I suppose that is to be expected. The curators were clearly thoughtful, however, positioning the sculptures in interesting ways both near and in the sea. Some of my favorites involved a crack in the ground covered with plexiglass, a mesh of zip-tied bottle caps made to look like coral, some large iron shapes washed ashore, and what might be described as a set of headstones made of shovels.

DSCN1065-001After visiting this rather interesting exhibit, we visited “America Festival”, which was apparently Aarhus’s way of celebrating American commercialism by serving beer on the street and keeping shops on Strøget open until midnight. We were hoping to be really impressed by the Danes’ take on American culture, but there didn’t seem to be anything that really screamed America other than a miniature Statue of Liberty covered in American flags and a beer garden serving only Budweiser. There was also a showcase of American cars, which were mostly late model Corvettes. Nice try, Aarhus, but better luck next year! We did, however, enjoy one distinctly American treat blended with a bit of Danish cafe culture. We visited one of our regular haunts along the Aarhus River and enjoyed burgers and fries while sitting outside until the still-sunny hour of 11pm.

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