HOW TO MEET PEOPLE/MAKE FRIENDS IN A NEW AND FOREIGN AREA
After growing up on small farms in Ohio, my husband and I were given the opportunity to live in Denmark for his work. Looking back, that was total culture shock to both of us. Also looking at it now in hindsight, I’ve compiled a plethora of hints with anecdotes, to illustrate.
HOPEFULLY, THESE HINTS CAN APPLY TO ALL PEOPLE MOVING INTO A NEW HOME, OR TO A BUG OUT LOCATION.
To make this meaningful, perhaps a little more background is necessary. As I mentioned, my husband and I each grew on farms in Ohio, went to church and high school together. After he was drafted into the Army near the end of the Viet Nam War, and I went to college, becoming an art teacher. We were reacquainted, married and bought my father’s farm. I taught at the same school where we graduated and my husband was a deputy sheriff for the county.
Let’s fast forward a bit: at my 25th school reunion, I received the bottle of wine for ”the classmate who hadn’t gone anywhere”, although we had vacationed all over the States and went to Japan and Korea to visit my husband’s brother, who was a missionary there. Next, my husband accepted a job opportunity with a water softener company, starting at the lowest entry level but rapidly worked his way up to head of manufacturing with 250 people under his supervision.
Then, in January, 2001, I was at school. I received an e-mail from my husband asking, “Would you like to have your favorite Danish pastry fresh each morning, and can you get a leave of absence?” A great discussion commenced and months later we were on the first flight available after September 11.
We arrived on a Thursday. The company provided a wonderful thatched roofed home in a small town right on the Baltic Sea. Perfect! My husband would leave for work and I had to ‘set up house’. I had a bicycle, didn’t speak Danish, and had no idea where even the grocery store was located.
HINT #1. FIND A CHURCH.
We researched and found an English speaking church which we attended that first Sunday. We accidentally sat next to the minister’s wife, and after introductions, she asked if I’d like to attend the American Women’s Club meeting on Tuesday, where quest speakers would teach us how to shop. OH YEAH!! I will mention that my husband thought it was a hoot that someone was going to teach me how to shop. I learned so very much: stores are open 10 till 5 weekdays, 10 till 2 on one Saturday a month, and no Sundays. They also close the registers early so that they can lock up at 5.
HINT #2: REALIZE THAT YOU ARE A VISITOR, AN ALIEN, IN THEIR COUNTRY. I was actually told at 4:30 one day, “You don’t have enough time to shop here.” Another time, I arrived early and was told, ”Woman, go home and prepare your day.” (I had been up cleaning since sunrise at 3:30 am.) I held my tongue, turned my bike around and left. I also learned to know the location of the deliveries made at the store, as dairy deliveries were made at 6am and employees would not open the store and take them in until 9:30, so the milk might be sitting in the bright sun and heat for that time.
HINT #3: REALIZE THINGS WILL BE DIFFERENT, REALLY DIFFERENT. You are not in Kansas anymore…Of course the money, the language are different but also:
The numbers on the phone will be in a different order. The plastic numbers fell off the phone one day and I realized I couldn’t put them back on in the correct Danish placement until I saw a Danish phone, so I couldn’t call anyone, not even my husband.
The way to answer the phone will be different: Don’t say hello, say your name.
The mail delivery will be different: you must have ALL the names of everyone in the home on the outside of your door.
The electricity will be different: 220 not 110. Be careful with your curling iron on your front curls as they will singe, turn orange, and come off immediately.
You will bag your own groceries. When the advertisement states 5 bananas for a price, make sure there are 5 bananas, rip off the extra one or two, don’t confuse the checkout girl. And yes, you can buy one beer, or 6 cigarettes.
TV will be different: full frontal nudity, both sexes, all the time. The commercials will be hilarious as you don’t understand what they are advertising.
The household cleansers will be different: the little bear on the bottle does not mean it is laundry softener. I interchanged laundry soap and softener for a year.
HINT #4: DON’T LOOK BACK, DON’T BE LOTS WIFE. LOOK FORWARD. After several months, it was our first Christmas in Denmark. Of course, we wanted to go home for Christmas, but tax ramifications vetoed this. (We had to be out of the States for over 183 days straight before coming back or would face high US and Danish taxes.) So we went to Rome for 2 weeks and had our college age son and his fiancé join us. A delightful, memorable time. Another time we went to Israel for Christmas with our other son. Look forward- make memories.
It is not only hard on you but also on family and friends back home. Our first Christmas, we sent Christmas cards home to all family and friends. One card we received back, I remember, had a short note, “Well you might as well have died, as far as you moved away. Love, Aunt ___.
HINT #5: ADJUST. LEARN THE CUSTOMS, SPOKEN AND UNSPOKEN AS FAST AS POSSIBLE. Many times, early in our stay, I felt rejected. (It didn’t help that one of the main workers under my husband wanted his position, didn’t want us there, and capitulated on ‘if momma ain’t happy then no one is happy” and strived to make me unhappy, even to the extent of telling me, “No loud brash American woman is welcome on a golf course or anywhere here in Denmark.”
But I also felt elated in being here in beautiful, wonderful Denmark!
Our Danish teacher helped sort out the customs from the idiosyncrasies of the people. She introduced us to Jante Law, the code of conduct for Nordic countries. I have copied it here:
THE LAW OF JANTE
- YOU’RE NOT TO THINK YOU ARE ANYTHING SPECIAL.
- YOU’RE NOT TO THINK YOU ARE AS GOOD AS US.
- YOU’RE NOT TO THINK YOU ARE SMARTER THAN US.
- YOU’RE NOT TO CONVINCE YOURSELF THAT YOU ARE BETTER THAN US.
- YOU’RE NOT TO THINK YOU KNOW MORE THAN US.
- YOU’RE NOT TO THINK YOU ARE MORE IMPORTANT THAN US.
- YOU’RE NOT TO THINK YOU ARE GOOD AT ANYTHING.
- YOU’RE NOT TO LAUGH AT US.
- YOU’RE NOT TO THINK ANYONE CARES ABOUT YOU.
- YOU’RE NOT TO THINK YOU CAN TEACH US ANYTHING.
The YOU in Jante Law is the newcomer, the outsider. This code of conduct shows up at the weirdest times. My husband realized this very early at work. The business supplied cars to all workers, (another difference). They showed him the car choices already available at the business and even took him (us) to look at new cars. He didn’t take the bait, he took the oldest car the company. Needless to say, “Don’t act better, don’t act like your way is better.
HINT #6: JOIN LOCAL ORGANIZATIONS. I joined the American Women’s Club, and the International Women’s Club. My husband joined the American Chamber of Commerce. We attended meetings, dances, garden parties, fireworks, etc, just to meet and talk to Americans and Danes. I became the head of the activities committee and organized an evening of curling for members and their husbands with instructions and equipment at the curling venue. Lots of fun and the only way to understand that sport. We also attended the youth soccer games of our neighbor’s son.
We learned to play ‘kubb’, (KUUB), with our Danish, Swedish, American friends. Kubb is an outdoor, yard game with similarities to bowling, darts, chess and throwing small pieces of lumber at your opponent. Look it up on the internet, we brought it back and play it at family reunions. It is lots of fun!
HINT #7: DON’T TAKE OFFENSE EASILY AT THEIR ACTIONS. Denmark and any place can be very tribal, and closed to strangers. As in many places, if you hadn’t been born there, grown up there, grandparents hadn’t lived there, then you were a newbie, an outsider, and would always be a stranger. Examples of how closed Denmark is: I was sweeping our cobblestone driveway when a car drove by on our cul de sac. Thinking it was probably a neighbor, I waved. The woman in the passenger seat turned away from me with a scowl on her face. (According to Danish Culture, she didn’t know me and I had invaded her space.)
Or: While walking down the street, I would sometimes nod and/or smile at people walking toward me. The women mostly and sometimes the men would scowl and turn their heads away. But there are ways to break the barriers.
(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 2.)