I read about the Danes when I was back in the United States. Now, I’m one of them.
Well, actually, not really.
“We know they’re DIS students when they’re short and don’t speak Danish,” a bartender said matter-of-factly as a large group of us struggled to say the names of the beers we were ordering.
“How do you pronounce that?” a classmate asked me, pointing at a combination of letters that had a suspiciously large number of consonants. “Can I just say the number next to the name of the beer?”
I’ve been in Denmark for a week now. I’m slowly adjusting to the time change. (My early 8:30 am classes are not helping.) I don’t need to use Google Maps when I exit the train station. I can say “hello” and “thank you” in Danish, although all of the Danes I’ve encountered speak English. I can identify familiar shops and many of the touristy landmarks, but I still get lost navigating the twisty, narrow streets in Copenhagen. I haven’t been run over by a car or a bike. And while these may seem like insignificant accomplishments, I find myself privately celebrating even the tiniest of milestones.
Last Thursday was the first day classes, marking the beginning of the academic semester. For the most part, the professors dived into the material without hesitation.
In Danish Language and Culture, my professor, Suzanne, engaged the class in a discussion of national myths.
“What is America’s myth?” she asked. “It may or may not be realized, but it is what Americans hope for America to be. It is what they wish to be true.”
All of us hesitated before throwing out ideas. Freedom. Individuality. Capitalism. Competition. Material goods. Diversity. Melting pot. The American Dream. Work hard and you can succeed at anything.
Suzanne listened attentively, nodding.
“We Danes find it silly that you think you can achieve anything. You set your sights on the moon,” she said smiling. “I had an American intern when I worked at the United States Embassy. We were discussing this American Dream. I told her she could not win a Nobel Prize in chemistry and then she told me, ‘only because I haven’t tried.’”
We all laughed.
“It’s not that Danes necessarily have low expectations,” she said carefully, “but rather we are more realistic. We do not tell our children they can grow up to be anything. That would be silly. Does that make sense?”
We nodded, not necessarily because we all agreed, but because we understood. Learning and interacting with my Danish professors have given me a peek into what it’s really like to be a Dane, to grow up in a culture that values equality above all else. It’s common for students to grab beers with their professors, to share phone numbers, and to address each other by their first names.
Danes don’t like hierarchies. No one cares if you have the nicest car, or perhaps more accurately, the nicest bike. (Note: Copenhagen is one of the few cities that I would rather get hit by a car than a bike.) Bragging is considered incredibly rude. Individuality is celebrated, but not in the same way as in the United States. Their identity is not so closely intertwined with material goods and job titles.
While I can’t speak for every Dane, the ones I’ve met find the small talk Americans make strange. In Danish, phrases such as “nice to meet you” and “it was a pleasure talking to you” aren’t used.
“Why do Americans say they love everything?” my host brother, Asbjørn, exclaimed. “Everything is amazing and exciting and awesome. And why do they say, ‘How are you?’ They don’t really want to know how you are.”
Suzanne, my professor, told us Danes are like bottles of ketchup. They’re slow to open up, but once they do, you’ll find they have a lot to say. They’re warm and friendly, but may come across as cold at first. Ice queens and kings. Just to note, the stereotype is true; Danes are oh-so-stylish in an effortlessly cool kind of way.
Being in a new place has flipped my world upside down. What I consider ordinary has radically changed. Copenhagen isn’t my new “normal” yet, but I’m getting there. One day at a time.
For now, I still order beer by the number.