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Denmark is where I live. But I think it will never be home.

carlsbergIt was a normal enough Copenhagen situation; that’s what makes it frustrating. I was introduced to some friends of my partner’s in Copenhagen yesterday evening. Two of them persisted in speaking Danish conscious that I did not understand what they were saying, and the third – rather than politely enquiring about anything – proceeded to lambast me in English for not speaking Danish, asking me why I was not spending my whole summer going to an intensive course to make sure that I learn.

The problem, I have come to see, is that I actually do not want to learn the language, because actually I do not want to be in Denmark. Actually, taking that to its logical conclusion, I am actually not really in Denmark now. Denmark is just the place I live. The county where I have healthcare cover and a mobile phone contract. But all my work, all my friends, the vast majority of my purpose in life, are elsewhere.

In essence the guy lambasting me about language was right – to manage to really be at home in Denmark, the language is vital. It’s central. That’s correct, fair and justifiable. But with the language critique comes this kind of edge of incredulity – why would I ever not want to integrate in Copenhagen? The answer is that I have things to give up elsewhere, that taking children to kindergarten in a Christiania bike and drinking Carlsberg are not my sole aims in life, and that thanks to the nature of my job I can actually live in one place and not work there, and hell I am only here for personal reasons anyway. Yes, damn it, for me Denmark is not actually the best place in the world.

When I am in Copenhagen I have this kind of a craving for a conversation over a beer with a good friend (but I have no good friends here), or a chance meeting in the street with someone I know (but I know very few people here). But to get to that stage I have to give up more elsewhere, to travel less and work less, and to commit properly to learning Danish, and those are things I cannot bring myself to do. I cannot sketch out a future here that would be to my liking and hence I need to resort to a more minimal strategy to cope for now, and look forward to trips to Brussels or London for those beers with friends or chance encounters.

In short I think this place will never be home, and I only have myself to blame.

Photo: "Carlsberg factory" by gripso_banana_prune on August 2006 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution

15 Comments

  • Sue |

    What a horrible way to treat a guest in your country. You get rude, nasty people everywhere. You should have just told them it is not your intention to make Denmark a permanent home. When I lived in Spain, I knew quite a few people that were keen to move inland and live in the mountains. There are whole villages up there that simply refuse to speak to foreigners or serve them in shops, even if they speak Spanish!

  • Till |

    @Jon: Did you learn Dutch when you used to live in Brussels?

  • Jon |

    @Till – no, but I speak fluent French. So I at least speak one of the languages of Brussels. Which essentially is better than the situation I face in Copenhagen where there is one language and I do not speak it.

  • Hanne Klintoe |

    I cringe at the thought of… No wait. My *knowledge* of what it is like to be a foreigner in Denmark. I am so sorry. And I think that mentality is the main reason why I’ll never feel at home here. I travelled out at a very young age and returned (involuntarily) a few years back. I was shocked. It wasn’t at all the country or the people I’d had in my head for 17 years. I miss London. It’s far from perfect, but at least it’s open and let’s you be who you are with no pressure to fit in. You fit in *because* you’re different and the ground attitude is “let’s try and include this stranger through a common language and see if we can’t benefit each other.”

  • Leon S Kennedy |

    I didn’t love the Danish either when I visited Copenhagen. At least I hoped that they banned smoking, because last time I was there going out was a nightmare because everyone smoke like chimneys and, for the first time in my entire life, my eyes were itchy all night. And I personally found people in general a bit rude, although this might be due to cultural differences. Very handsome people around though haha.

    I am, however, surprised that you are not willing to learn Danish: from this entry I understand that your boyfriend / girlfriend is Danish. Even if you understandably don’t wanna stay in Copenhagen forever, don’t you feel the curiosity to learn his mother language?

  • Tove Malloy |

    Dear Jon, of course you know that they are the losers and you are the winner. The Danes are not a cosmopolitan people and never will be. I say this as a Dane married to an American who gave up understanding that insular little nation. No need to blame yourself.

  • Puzzled |

    Dear Jon, as I don’t know more about you than what I read on this blog, I don’t really think that it is for me to comment on your personal life. Still, I see a bit of a contradiction between living in Copenhagen “only for personal reasons” and not wanting to be there because “all my work, all my friends, the vast majority of my purpose in life, are elsewhere”. So maybe the problem is rather one of deciding which relevance those “personal reasons” that brought you to Copenhaguen shall have in your overall “purpose in live”?

  • Ben |

    @Jon – a bit of a revelation reading this post. I’ve been living in Spain for 9 years now, I’m married to a Spaniard, I speak the language, I own a flat here – I’m probably more “settled” here than I have been at any point in my life. And yet I still often feel that this is not my home. I do actually enjoy living here and I do want to be here, but that doesn’t stop it feeling like living in the flat your girlfriend bought before you knew her – and it’s still decorated to her tastes.

    People can say that you won’t integrate until you learn the language, which is true. But even learning the language doesn’t completely dispel that sense that you are rooted elsewhere. It can sometimes even heighten it. I often feel that when I am expressing myself in Spanish, it’s not really me who’s talking – it’s the Spanish version of me who has had to adapt to suit the words I can use.

    Free movement of labour, globalisation, teleworking – they are all giving us the freedom to live and work wherever we want. But I suspect that they will never change the fact that many of us are always going to be inherently ‘from’ somewhere, and that no matter how much we move around, and how much we like being in a place, we will always, deep down, crave that relaxed beer with a good friend back home.

  • Jon |

    @Hanne – thanks for the comment. Part of the advantage of writing this blog entry has been to show that I am not alone in feeling like this!

    @Leon – smoking is mostly banned in enclosed spaces (although not inside rather enclosed places like rail stations). As for the intellectual curiosity of learning Danish – yes, I do have that, and if I could find the right circumstances would learn. But I also find the process of learning languages deeply frustrating, and that doesn’t help (I speak French and German, and some Italian and Swedish, so it’s not as if I am just a monolingual Brit).

    @Tove – I think you’re a bit tough. Every country has its own pros and cons. For people with certain values then Denmark may really be some kind of paradise… just not for me, and some others. The social norms in Denmark are very strong, for good and bad, and it’s a question of whether a person wishes to conform to these.

    @Puzzled – a relationship is not all there is in life. A person needs more than that.

    @Ben – thanks for the thoughtful comment. On your individual points… I understand the one about the flat and place to live, and while that does not – in terms of physical surroundings – affect me to quite the same extent you explain (the place we live is a joint effort), I do nevertheless have this sort of feeling that I am living as an adjunct to someone else’s life.

    The language and location thing are more complex for me, and I struggle to work out why I feel the way I do. Through the voluntary work I have done, and later my job, I am lucky to know people all over the place, and have lived in Brussels and London for reasonable periods, and also for a while in Berlin. I hence have a bunch of places where I do not feel like an outsider in the way I do in Copenhagen. The flip side of this is then I have no clear idea of where home actually is, although I seem to be able to tell where it is not. Maybe it is just easier for me in Germanophone or Francophone countries, as I have the language before arriving there, and perhaps adjusting while learning the language makes things hard, as you too found it Ben?

  • Richard P |

    If you choose to live in a country, you should do the locals the courtesy of making an effort to learn their language (even if most of them happen to be English). Refusing to do so, and expecting them to converse with each other in your language, in order to accommodate you, is both rude and arrogant.

    If living in Denmark makes you feel so uncomfortable, why don’t you just leave. It seems to be that would be a win-win situation both for the Danes and yourself.

    I’m not going to be so crass as to suggest that you fit or or f**k off, but you could at least make an effort.

  • Richard P |

    That should have read: “If you choose to live in a country, you should do the locals the courtesy of making an effort to learn their language (even if most of them happen to speak English).”

  • Richard P |

    Just calling it the way I see it.

    Suffice to say, I am quite sure that any Dane reading your blog above, would find your attitude less than charming. It seems to me that, despite having chosen to reside there, you have not made the slightest effort to learn Danish and are content instead to coast along on the fact that most Danes speak fluent English.

    It’s one thing to be in a country temporarily on contract, with a clear end date in sight (even then, I believe one should make an effort to master a few useful phrases) but when you have chosen to reside there on a indefinite basis (as seem to be the case with you), it is simply (I repeat) arrogant and rude not to attempt to learn the language. The fact that Denmark does not feel to “home” for you is no excuse.

    It appears that you treat Denmark as little more than a glorified dormitory, and expect the locals to accommodate you, linguistically at least.

    I had a friend who moved to the Netherlands. After a while, her Dutch friends got justifiably irritated at having to converse in English so that she could understand what they were saying (even though all spoke fluent English) and made this known. Instead of bleating self-serving rationalisations, she knuckled down and made an effort to learn Dutch.

    I am an immigrant myself, having moved to the UK some 15 years ago. I was fortunate in that I was English speaking, but I realised very quickly that it was for me to make an effort to fit in culturally, not for the natives to fit around me. Had I not been English-speaking, then I would justifiably have been expected to be able to speak English.

    I believe strongly that no one should be allowed to immigrate to the UK, unless they can prove that they have at least a decent level of conversational English. This should, I believe, apply equally to migrants from within the EU as without. Otherwise, we risk the development of linguistic ghettoes.

    Similarly, despite my current right as a British citizen (as I now am) to live and work elsewhere in the EU (although that will soon change when the UK leaves), I would not dream of doing so unless I had made the effort to learn the local language (and as I am effectively monolingual – something I am not proud of, Ireland is about as far as I can go at the moment).

    Just sayin’

  • Ian |

    I have lived in Denmark since 1996. And escaped for 2 years. I found that Danes were happy to speak English one to one and also in groups for a while, provided you were making an effort to learn the language.
    This is opposed to the French, where some years ago, even if you spoke French they would make no effort to help and expected you to embarras yourself in their language.
    I have been fortunate to live in many countries and usually make no effort to meet people from the UK but spend my time with those from the country. You learn more, it is more fun and interesting. However I would say that Danes are mostly mini racists. They often denegrate their own country but are so scared of being over run, that they intentionally make it diddifult for foreigners, even within the EU. Good in some ways because they will not tolerate certain muslim and religious practices. But they also make it difficult. Anyone in Copenhagen will notice very few signs to the sights in the city. Hence the number of foreign tourists staring at maps. On my reentry to Denmark I have to leap a number of hurdles not present in other countries, even though I have a daughter and have lived here since 1996.
    If you live somewhere, whether for work or not then make an effort. You can alsoway find people from your own country when you need some domestic conversation. Very interested in the boarder check debate though on the other part of this blog.

So, what do you think ?