A Traveler’s Thought: On Facts Guidebooks Don’t Tell You (Denmark Version, Part I)
Travelers get two chances to observe and experience another country: when you first get there and your eyes are fresh, but also after you return to your home country, where your perspectives, now changed by your travels, provide an outlook of your own country that’s different than when you lived there.
Many guidebooks and soft-landing programs organized by their equivalent of economic development agencies and department of commerce now note cultural differences, but rarely do they note differences that jump out at you as a traveler trying to establish your humble abode in the new country.
In addition to some covered in the reverse culture shock post, here are more facts that also reflect their values and sensibilities:
- LIGHT FIXTURES: Beware of moving into an unfurnished apartment or a house (and longer term furnished apartments are rare). It is BYOL (bring your own light): there are no ceiling light fixtures, except perhaps for built in lights under the kitchen cabinet, stove range light, and perhaps in the bathroom. Many international students have moved into their apartments having to use their smartphone flashlight to navigate their way around on their first night. The Danes very much care about light fixtures, as they are considered essential for providing a warm, cozy atmosphere during the winter months when sunlight is a scarce resource even during the middle of the day. Corollary: apartments won’t come with curtains, shades, or any sort of window trimmings, because that’s also considered a very personal choice, so you better get your measurement tape out to figure out what length and width of blinds you need.
- GARBAGE DISPOSAL/COLLECTION: Even a small, run-down apartment has a garbage disposal in the U.S. Not so, in Denmark, even in a newly renovated apartment. Don’t go shoving your carrot peels into the drain, assuming there is a garbage disposal, and invest in a decent mesh sink plug/drain stop to catch the small bits and pieces. It may be a small practice to adjust to, but boy, I did appreciate this luxury when I came back to the U.S.
- THE DANISH TRUST: Their default sentiment is that of trust. You can see it everywhere from how they design their office procedures to personal interactions. For example, in the U.S., even some professors or researchers working for universities are not issued a “company credit card”. At my husband’s university where he was a postdoctoral researcher, he was issued the university credit card within the first month or so. There was a web document that outlined the procedures (what you can use it for, what happens if they deem your purchase to be non-business related or unapproved). After all, they know where you work and live, and they can garnish your wages should there be unauthorized purchases. They cut down on the bureaucracy of having to fill out requisition forms and delays associated with it. My husband was also given a key to his office, which turned out to open all the doors to the offices on that floor. Yes, his office key also opened his supervisor’s office. This example also speaks to the egalitarian nature of Danish society. Because they operate on the basis of trust, the system doesn’t assume you are/would be guilty unless you prove yourself innocent (learn what happened when I forgot to pack the bunch of bananas I purchased, and returned to the store few days later to pick them up!). The Danes aren’t necessarily more honest than any other group of people (there are plenty of thefts, for example), so I admire their attitude to trust first rather than design their whole life assuming the worst of people. It’s a more pleasant way to live.
- THE DANISH CALENDAR: Their calendars are delineated into weeks that are numbered. They communicate their schedules referencing the week number (e.g., “Let’s meet on Wednesday, Week 15” or a store would have a sign saying “Closed Weeks 28 – 30 for Summer Holiday”). Pretty quickly, we added a week number feature to our Google calendar to be able to keep up with their scheduling practices.
- “EVERYONE SPEAKS ENGLISH IN DENMARK”: Most people, especially younger people, can speak very good English. But when you actually live there, you realize that everything is written (or announced) in Danish, including signage, contracts, phone navigation menu, and food labels. It’s the opposite of Japan, where many signs and maps have Roman alphabet equivalents and documentation available in English, but very few people speak English fluently. When our broken dishwasher was replaced by a new one, we were horrified to learn that the manual had pretty much every language spoken in Europe but not English. Most European’s second or third language is English, so it seems odd that many food packaging and manuals have other languages but not English. I realized it was a function of export laws, where it was part of the requirement to write out the ingredients in the official languages of countries they were exporting to, but if UK or Ireland were not one of the destinations, they would not print them in English. I also learned that the Danes are modest about their English speaking abilities, so even if they understand sufficient English to make a simple transaction, they may tell you they can’t speak English and they will proceed to speak in Danish to you.
- LIMITED POOL OF NAMES: Just as the Danish -> English portion of the language is much smaller than English -> Danish portion in the dictionary, the Danes seem to limit themselves to a small pool of proper nouns for people, both for given and family names. At first, I would hear someone mention “Mette” (a female given name) and I think, “Oh, you know Mette, too?” but no, there were at least a couple Mettes even within that party. (And don’t think the inclusion of last names help you: their top 15 common family names comprises of 33.6% of the Danish population! So it is no wonder that their practice of writing out names even in casual situations usually includes spelling out the middle names.
Photo: Den Gamle By, Aarhus, Denmark