And so we go (or leave) home

About a year ago, Heather and I were wrapping up our final weeks in the United States, packing up our apartment (or apartments, depending on the exact timeframe), saying “bon voyage” to friends and family, and emotionally preparing ourselves for the move abroad.

Since then we’ve done a lot. We’ve made new friends, started new jobs, adjusted to all the differences (and similarities) of Danish culture, society, workplaces, government, healthcare, grocery stores, and so on. We’ve really established ourselves here in Aarhus and enjoyed all the benefits of living the expat life: travel to fun locales, shockingly good tax rates, and the sensation of never quite knowing where home is or will be next.

Yesterday we started packing up our apartment. We’re in the process of moving on to a new apartment. Our next place is just down the street from where we live now, but we’ll be taking a few months between apartments in a quaint house a little closer to the city center. It’s sort of our winter “stay-cation” for the really dark months ahead. But we’re also packing up to travel back to Minnesota for about ten days. So a third of our stuff is packed up for the trip, a third is packed up for our January move, and the remainder is scattered around in piles that we’ll have to consolidate, box, and move in the first few days when we return in January.

Our twenties have apparently been defined by moves, from dorms to apartments to other apartments to houses to condos to apartments, back and forth, yadda yadda, lots of boxes and trucks and miles on the road. Now we’re moving again and travelling internationally in the middle of the move. Realistically this is up there on the list of dumbest planning decisions ever.

But the thing that’s really striking me with this move is that it’s opening up all kinds of questions about place, about the idea of home, and about the role of physical geography in a digital age. Heather and I have always thought of Minnesota as our home and I think we continue to do so (I won’t speak for her). But increasingly Denmark feels like home. It’s where we’re rooted, where we spend most of our time, and where we come home to (even though that’s in the process of changing). When we travel, Aarhus is where we come home to feel comfortable after my work trips or the hectic activity of travel.

One of the critical aspects of surviving expat life is recognizing that non-expats can’t really understand what your life is like if they’ve never lived abroad, and even then every experience is unique. Flying back to Minnesota feels like we’re leaving home, even though we’re headed to the place we’ve always known as home. Wrestling with those feelings is something I know will be hard to explain and probably even harder to understand.

In the two months since our last post

When we last posted, we’d just had a really fun trip to Zealand on what might have been the last nice weekend of the summer. It’s two months later, and winter is definitely rolling into Jutland. It’s been hovering around zero here (that’s in Celsius) for the past two weeks, but it has been tolerable due to the lack of wind. No snow yet, but we’ve had a lot of morning frost.

What have we been up to since our last post? Well, quite a bit. I’ve been swamped at work between teaching my masters seminar, prepping two courses for the Spring, and work on several ongoing projects. On November 14th, I taught an all day workshop for faculty about the statistical package R, which kept me thoroughly busy in preparation for the first half of November. Heather, too, has been quite busy with her new job at Aarhus Købmandsskole, where she’s been working as a teaching assistant in the English department. On top of that, we’ve been continuing our Danish classes two nights a week and Heather’s been taking a Bollywood dance class. So, in short, we’ve been incredibly busy. But, we’ve also had some time for fun.

In October, we took a week-long trip to Berlin. Week 42 (as Danes somehow manage to count the year in weeks, a skill I still haven’t picked up) is Kartofflerferien, or potato holiday, when all schools are closed. The holiday’s origins are that it was around that time year that potatoes ripened, so schoolchildren all had to go home to help their parents’ with the harvest. It’s the Danish equivalent of Spring (Energy) break – a completely arcane event that survives because of its promise of vacation rather than its original purpose. This was the first time that Heather or I had been to Germany and it was worth the trip. We took the DSB Intercity train direct from Aarhus, which takes about 7 hours, but dropped us off just outside of the city center. We stayed at Alexanderplatz in East Berlin, which ended up being a fairly convenient place to see lots of the major tourist attractions.

While we were there, we met up with an old friend of mine, Dani, from Stanford who recently moved to Berlin with her husband and son. They showed us around Markthalle Neun for a really fun street food event. Aside from that, we spent a lot of time walking around, seeing the city, and eating some pretty great food.

We spent the first day in Berlin visiting Museum Island, a World Heritage site that houses several museums of mostly antiquities, as well as the Berlin Cathedral. We ate dinner at a little French bistro, which was probably geographically improper but proved worth the trip. The next day, we stopped by some obligatory tourist sites, including the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag Building. Unfortunately, the Reichstag Building was closed for maintenance so we didn’t get a chance to go inside, but it was impressive from the outside.

The highlight of that day, however, was our lunch at Restaurant Fischers Fritz, which was our first ever meal at a Michelin-starred restaurant (and a two-star restaurant event). In short, the food was fantastic. Certainly the best lunch I’ve ever eaten and the service was impeccable. The choice to go for lunch was apt, as the restaurant was only hosting a few tables of mostly business meetings and the lunch menu kept things affordable.

On our last day, we had plans to see a few more museums, but one of them was closed and the other had really rude employees, so we instead decided to spend the day at the Berlin Zoo, the oldest zoo in Europe. It’s a really beautiful place, with a very park-like atmosphere and a large variety of animals. The highlight was probably the new aviary, which showcased birds from every continent, including in some interactive exhibits. That night, we ate a traditional dinner at Zur Letzen Instanz, the oldest restaurant in Berlin, for a meal of fix and roasted pork.

Here’s a gallery of some highlights from the trip:

The week after our Berlin trip, I spent two days in Vejle at the Hotel Vejlefjord for the Danish Political Science Association annual meeting, which was a really small but fun conference with political scientists from the five Danish universities (yes, there are only five). It was a great time to socialize and, in typical Danish fashion, included a three-course dinner with 7 courses of alcohol.

Denmark doesn’t celebrate Halloween, so the end of October passed somewhat insignificantly. November 1st, however, is known as J-day, when all the Danish breweries release their “Julebryg,” or Christmas Beer. We avoided this, thankfully, and thus didn’t get caught up in a day of drinking that starts at about 2pm and continues for twelve hours.

So, in short, that’s been the major news from here. Work has kept Heather and I pretty busy, but we’ve also been trying to make the most of the Danish autumn. We don’t have any major trips planned except for our triumph return to the United States on December 20th. We’ll be back for two weeks, then we’ll return to Aarhus so we can move from our current apartment into a place we’ll be staying for three months in the winter. We’ll tell you more about that later.

Why haven’t I been posting much?

So this is just a quick update. I realized I haven’t posted much on the blog recently. Luckily, Heather is planning some really nice posts about Aarhus Festuge, where we attended some cool events and she volunteered, and about the challenges of being an expat in Denmark. So, look forward to those soon.

But, the reason I haven’t been posting much is because it’s been a really hectic time of year. Labor Day weekend is the traditional date for the American Political Science Association Annual Meeting, in addition to being the start of the academic year, so the last several weeks have meant a combination of trans-Atlantic travel, course prep, conference prep, and recovery from all of that.

APSA was in Chicago this year, which was disappointing because it was in a familiar hotel in a familiar city, but the upshot was that I got to see a lot of Northwestern friends and plenty of other friends and colleagues who I only see once or twice a year. Prepping for a conference and following up with everyone about research ideas, papers, and so forth meant I lost a couple of weeks at the end of August and beginning of September. Luckily, its the last international conference I need to travel to until April, when I’ll be back in Chicago for the Midwest Political Science Association meeting. (Just to reassure you that I don’t just visit Chicago all the time, my two other conference for next year are in Rome and Washington, DC.)

Since APSA, I’m starting to get back into the swing of things at work, which is important because I started teaching my first independent course last week. The class, entitled “Does Public Opinion Matter?” is a master seminar for students here at Aarhus that tries to combine political philosophy, the psychology of opinion formation, and empirical studies of opinion-policy congruence. I have 20 students who will hopefully learn something, which is my goal for the class. Simultaneously, I’m taking a teacher training course provided by the university that required me to visit the small town of Ebeltoft, east of Aarhus for three days prior to APSA and that involves a bunch of ongoing work throughout this semester. Ebeltoft was a beautiful town that I’d like to visit again in order to see more than the inside of a hotel conference room. Arguably the whole teacher training program will make me a better teacher. We’ll have to see about that. At this point, it has just made me tired.

So, this post is basically just an excuse for not keeping the blog updated, but as I said, Heather will have some actually interesting news to post about soon.

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.

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.

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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Return to the Inferno

Thomas and I went back to the art museum in Aarhus to finish the exhibits we had missed when we were there last time. In case I didn’t mention it before, the art museum has a spiral stair case, which is supposed to allude to Dante’s decent.

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At the end of the decent are nine rooms with different “in progress” art installations. The number alludes to the 9 circles of hell and the entire exhibit is painted black with minimal lighting. As if that wasn’t creepy enough, we found this. No words.

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Then we moved on to Klien/Byars/Kapoor exhibition, which I enjoyed because it was an impressive use of color and light.

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Part of the Kapoor installation was a cannon that fired a ball of wax every 30 minutes. If you were somewhere else in the museum and didn’t know about the cannon, it was a heart attack waiting to happen.

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After our short, but sweet, trip to the museum, we decided to check out Sct. Oluf’s restaurant, which serves French fare. The menu is essentially fixed, but you get your choice of entree (meat or fish) and dessert. The three course menu was solid, classic French cooking, and reasonably priced (as reasonably priced as a meal in Denmark can be, given the high taxes).

Yesterday we visited R&T, Thomas’s colleague and his partner, for coffee and cake. We had a great time, learned a bit more about Denmark and Danish culture and impressed them with our singing rendition of “50 Nifty United States.” All in all, not a bad four day weekend!