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der har jeg rod, derfra min verden går

Kære Aarhus,

It has been two years since we arrived. An unbelievable two years.

Making the decision to move here was difficult. Saying good-bye to my mother at the airport was heart-wrenching. I know a lot of people were surprised to see us move so far from home, but as my wise cousin said to me that was a decision that could only be made by those affected, and we didn’t have to justify it to anyone. Those words have given me more strength than I think she knew. I made my peace with my decision; though I won’t lie, there are moments of regrets. But I know my mother didn’t want her illness to hold us back. Like any mother really.

We stepped off the plane in Copenhagen, out into a taxi rank, tired, stressed, bewildered at the magnitude of what we were doing. Our son, M, then 18months old, produced two new words that first day, “windmill” and “cold”. Perhaps he understood what this country was about.
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It turned out that a free online course and the first season of Borgen were not great preparation for the reality of getting by amongst Danish speakers. I’ve come a long way since selvfølgelig seemed like the biggest tongue-twister out there. We went for a walk just after Christmas on a day with bitterly cold winds. My cheeks and lips were so numb I struggled to shape them into consonants. Perhaps this why Danish sounds the way it does. Though this would not explain why Norwegians speak so beautifully.

But the language barrier is not so great since virtually everyone speaks fantastic English. Even those that insist ‘only a little. Not very well’ before launching into complex sentences with multiple clauses and only making a mistake when they have to pronounce a ‘v’. Anti-waxers had me stumped for a while. But really Danes, you are very patient with our fumbling attempts to learn your language. At least you know nobody ever arrives on your shores with a high school level of Danish. So you welcome all these beginner level speakers.
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Or do you? It seems, based on your recent elections, you are becoming less tolerant. I think the stress of being more welcoming than most of Europe has become too much. You shouldered a larger burden of migrants while other countries turned their backs. And it has been hard for Denmark. When for so many centuries nobody wanted to come here. To this ‘lille land’. So for centuries there has been only one way to be Danish. All us migrants are changing that, and some of you want that to stop. But I think that horse has already bolted. And perhaps the greatest threat is not people who don’t eat flæskesteg for Christmas, or people who don’t celebrate Christmas, but your growing intolerance.

And we do try to be less ‘udansk’. I realise now we made some grave errors in decorating our apartment. We hung our lights in an incorrect way. You are right, they are not very hygge. Our furniture is not minimalist enough. But I have a Kähler vase now, so I hope that counts for something. I confess that two years here has not taught me to understand all your ways. Like the obsession with the light wood floors. Tell me Denmark, how do you keep them clean? Especially in winter, when the streets are salted and gritted and you have a pre-schooler? Is it possible? Or do you all sweep multiple times a day too?

Often the locals ask me ‘why?’ Why did we move here? To this land of winter, rain and wind. I admit on paper they seemed quite daunting. But looking closer Aarhus, you have half the annual rainfall of my home town. And while your wind is cold, it is hardly ever gale force. To my surprise it is easier to take a pre-schooler out here, in a cold, dry snow than in a boggy soggy Wellington winters’ day. Sure the summer is hardly spectacular, my Australian friends would be very unimpressed. But I find much to admire in your fierce embrace of what summer you get, – sun bathing on your decks at the first rays of sunshine, regardless of temperature.
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I love the seasons. The silver frosted trees -winter blossom my son called it- replaced by tiny green buds. The clichéd red, orange and brown cascades of leaves in autumn. It is the variation of light that I have learnt to enjoy the most. The long, long summer days with nights where the sky never goes truly black, only a deep blue, a promise of sunshine only a few hours away. To the grim grey of winter. I am always amused to find myself staring at a patch of cloud, only to realise that, yes that is the sun hiding behind it. I never understood that the sun would stay so low on the horizon that even day would be so dim. Or that the cloud would be so thick that the temperature does not vary from midnight to midday. But shift slightly either side of that grey, you have whole days where if the sun makes it out from behind the clouds it casts that beautiful magic hour glow you usually only get just before sunset.
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You’ll never win any beauty contests Aarhus, but there are places, views I have learnt to love. The dinosaur sunrises down at your industrial harbour. The Rainbow perched above the city. Those particular shades of orange and mustard yellow stucco on old cottages. Our nature walks along the Brabrandstein. I’ve learnt where to go to get a great coffee, and a pastry. Where to buy decent fish. Where to pick blackberries.
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These are perhaps the greatest achievements to me. That after two years I feel I have solved some of the great challenges of expat life. They are not just good coffee shops, but my favourite coffee shops. My favourite walks. My local shops. We have managed to turn the unfamiliar into the familiar.

I’ve written before about my wish to give my children turangawaewae. At times I have misgivings about our choices. I wonder if the costs have been too high. But today I think we have made roots here. We know our future here probably does not extend further than 2017, so they will never be deep. But this will always be the city my son spent his preschool years, the city my daughter was born in, the city I grieved my mother in. So I know I will look back and be able to say:

Aarhus, for a time at least, you were home.

K.H.

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Down, down. Prices are down.

Pretty much the first thing we had to in Denmark was go to a supermarket. With a toddler in tow take-away wasn’t an easy option, and there were only so many nappies we could fit in our hand luggage. After we waited longer for the bus than it would have taken for us to walk, we missed the bus stop (luckily the bus looped back). An inauspicious start.

Despite having read some briefs of what the shops are like, having to locate them, work out where in the aisles items are, and what the hell the packaging meant, was exhausting. I don’t think I’ve entirely come to grips with them yet. I could tie myself up in knots trying to work out where is the ‘best’ place to shop; milk is cheaper at Netto, but Føtex sells a better range, and the vegetables at Netto aren’t worth buying. But Kvickly is closer… The trouble is once you have settled in somewhere habit makes most of the decisions for you. It makes life a lot easier. I’m beginning to see why brand loyalty matters so much, and why supermarkets advertise so heavily in the hope of breaking a habit and attracting just a few more shoppers.

Budget does have to be a consideration living here, but I don’t like to just buy cheap. I like food. I like to cook. I like to eat. I like to know that I’m buying a fair product. Canberra had a fabulous Farmer’s Market which we loved. I miss our Saturday morning shop and coffee. It was lovely to wander through the market, pick up fresh, local product and plan a menu for the week. Arriving in a Northern European winter a similar approach to shopping would have meant eating potatoes, cabbage, potatoes, and apples. And pork. Lots of pork. All perfectly good ingredients, just not the diet that I’m used to.

We are making progress though. We’ve worked out where to buy fresh fish, and it was reasonably good. We’ve also discovered where we can go to buy obscure ingredients – like rice vinegar and mirin. I’ve always thought my cooking had a heavy Italian influence. Moving here made me realise how many Asian ingredients I take for granted, and I’ve been craving that fresh, salty, spicy taste hit.

I’m also beginning to realise that obsessing over a few kroner, trying to decide where ‘best’ to shop isn’t worth it in terms of the mental health cost. Perhaps it was an element of trying to control what I can control. We can still be mindful of our budget without splitting our weekly shop between three supermarkets. Dragging a toddler to one is enough! Time to just get the shopping done, and enjoy the cooking afterwards.

An (Un)expected Journey

My husband rang while I was sitting in a bar with old school friends. It was my first real night out since having our (then) 13 month old son; opportunities are rare when you live in a foreign country away from all your family.
‘Would we be interested in a job in Denmark?’
The bouncer was watching me, I’d gone out onto the street to take the call, coming in from Turin where my husband was at a conference.
‘Ahhh. Yeah. I guess’
I went back upstairs, drunk some beer, went to a karaoke bar. All the time ‘Denmark’ knocking around in my head.

And that is how it started. And how I found myself, five months later, in Aarhus. It’s Denmark’s second biggest city. Heard of it before? I hadn’t either.

It may seem like a slightly nuts decision, but an international move had been on the cards for some time. That’s just life when you marry an academic. With a rapidly approaching end of contract deadline we had to make some big decisions. New Zealand and Australia were, sadly, not going to happen. If we were going to be the other side of the world then Denmark has some things going for it. No, not the weather and the extremely short days in winter. I’m not sure if I’ll get paid work here, but even if I don’t, day-care is affordable enough we could consider part time. Compare that to the UK, where we would probably be making a loss on my wages compared to child care. Or Australia, where I could join the scramble for a place; harassing centres until they final cave just so the phone calls stop. Immigration has been a smooth process. ‘You’re a New Zealander, married to a British citizen. Here, have a residence card’. No ‘12 letters over two years, from at least four different sources, addressed to both of you and forms signed in your own blood’ à la UK Home Office. (NB. I made the bit about blood up – it just felt that way at the time).

 The biggest reason to say ‘yes’, was this. If we don’t like it here, we can leave. But if we said ‘No’ we might spend the rest of our life wondering – what if? Maybe the two years here will be pretty average. Maybe we’ll regret it. But maybe it’ll be a time of our life that we’ll look back on and be glad we came here. We’ll meet some friends, get to know a new city, and hopefully manage to learn a wee bit of Danish too. Since i don’t have many friends here (yet?), and I do have friends around the world I’ll try and do a bit of blogging to keep you in the loop.