Melancholy and the Infinite Madness

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So, after seven months of waiting, and at times worrying, I received my CPR number (the Danish equivalent to a social security number). This process has been a challenge to both myself and to my family. I wrote the following in the heated moments after having received a confusing letter from immigration. While I am not feeling any of this animosity any longer, I thought it important to share the frustration as well as the fun… It is the honest thing to do.

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So I have tried to keep a positive attitude toward the people in the Danish bureaucracy over the course of my move. In the wake of yet another delay, my patience is running rather thin. I went to college in America and was required to complete and pay for “Clapping for Credit” (AKA Music 101), so I understand intimately what costly hoop jumping looks like. I say “intimately” because the purveyors of clapping for credit still have their hands in my pockets to this very day. I know things take time and I know they have a vested interest in making sure I am not a complete piece of shit. I also know things are a pain, in part, because of the desirable nature of the Danish way of life. In the United States, this process can take over a decade, so I should not be upset as we are only seven months in to the process.

But I am upset. We have what is considered to be a “simple case” and it should have been 3 months for the paperwork to be finished. We had our “main approval” months ago, and we are now months in to our “final approval” process, that should have taken just a few weeks to complete.

Last Saturday, we received a new letter telling us what the current delay is in getting me registered and fully approved as a resident of Denmark. This is now the third such letter. Let me take you on a little journey as to this process. I arrived August 5th, I was expecting my final approval in the mail a week or so after I arrived. We called the immigration department several times over the course of the following weeks, having been told that they have everything they need from us. As a measure of the Danish government’s dedication to my assimilating, they are holding on to $10,000 of my money as assurance I won’t turn into a ward of the state. This large deposit is one of the easiest ways to keep out the riffraff of the world, you have to have something just to get in the door (So everyone is clear, while I believe the Danes to be a less racist people than a lot of people, this deposit is a method by which to keep brown people from rushing in unchecked).

Where this deposit was initiated is the root of our main problem. When Susanna moved here, she moved briefly in to her parent’s home which is located within the Hørsholm Kommune. Even though we were moving to the Kommune a few kilometers away, we were advised to make the deposit as soon as possible and the municipal location would be fixed on the back side.

In the process of getting the deposit moved, we were told by the original municipality that the bank screwed up. We talked to the bank, they showed us proof that it was the original kommune that dropped the ball. After finding this out, we called the kommune, the case worker who was working on our file was on vacation. We talked to his boss, after a few days, we received verification that the deposit was up to date and that it had been handled.

We continued to make calls, checking for updates and to see if there was anything else that was needed. They continued to tell us that they had what they needed and all we had to do was wait.   Two days after talking to them, I have yet another letter in my hand, saying that while they received verification of the transfer of the deposit, it is still in Hørsholm. Oh yeah, and they don’t have a copy of my current passport.   This was something they could have informed me of in August, but alas, it was just too hard to look at the computer screen. I now get to take an additional trip in to the city in order to hand them my passport, something I could have done two months ago.

The funny thing is, there are so many things here that are integrated virtually. It is really a wonder of technology. There is an identification number system called NEM ID (think ADVANCED and SECURE social security number) that links a person’s ability to interface with their own kommune, the state, their bank, their kid’s daycare, and a slew of other useful things. Yet, in all this, they cannot flip a switch and change the municipality, and it would appear that one hand hasn’t a clue as to the actions of the other.

There are costs associated with being here. I cannot work. I cannot start Danish lessons that are provided by the state as a means to integrate in to Danish society. As a result, I am taking private lessons at considerable expense. While I have gotten to take all these adventures I have chronicled here, I am bored most days. Worse still, I am sad. I feel like I don’t make a contribution to much of anything at all. I have taken to playing guitar at the corner bar and the people there are gracious enough to pass a hat and pay for my evening. . . But that doesn’t pay the bills.

I have done my best to essentially avoid expats in my time here. The expat blogs I have read are very negative. In the effort to remain positive, I thought it important that I am not being unduly influenced by other people’s experiences. I want to make friends who aren’t American, at least at first. It’s not that they are Americans per se, it’s that I want to fit in to Denmark. In retrospect, perhaps I should have made contact so that I could have had a more realistic expectation of how things were going to roll. I should really not be a dick, excluding people who could probably make my early days here easier was probably not the best choice. 

When all is said and done, I am sure it will all work out. I was worried momentarily about my tourist visa, which is only three months long, expiring before I had my final approval. That may still end up being the case, but I am legally allowed to stay in the country while the proceedings are moving forward.   I can’t wait to get started. I am looking forward to being able to afford more than just our apartment.

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So yeah, that was that. It is over now. I am here and I am legal. Tune in next week for an interesting story about the integration contract interview I had to go to where no one spoke english . . . Hilarity ensues.

Until next time. . . .

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Notes on an Island Nation: The Bus, the Train, and the Ever-increasing Gravity of Distance

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When you come from a place that measures distance with only increments of time, and have access to relatively cheap gas, you don’t think much about covering vast swaths of land on a whim. I have personally taken road trips that span distances that Lewis & Clark would have difficulty contemplating. In the short time I have been in Denmark, I already feel my perception of distance changing. Where once I would hop in the car for a drive to Detroit or to Chicago, there are a lot more things to consider here. Three hours in any direction and you encounter things you wouldn’t in Michigan. Oceans, giant bridges with tolls upwards of $50, entirely different countries, and ferry boats are just a few of the things you must think of before venturing outward and onward.

Costs weigh more heavily than is the case in the United States when it comes to ground travel. While we do have a car, Susanna has it on most days. This means I am limited to the busses, trains, and where my bike and feet will carry me. The transit system here is second to none, but a train ride downtown costs about $15 round trip sometimes $20 as the rates vary during the day.

There are a few other things that I failed to consider that tend to be impediments on travel. Weather, for one, can easily throw a wrench in your plans. I have come to conclude that I had a slightly unrealistic vision of weather in Denmark. I knew that it was rainier than Michigan, but it didn’t occur to me that I was moving to Seattle. I had visited upwards of a dozen times before moving here and had encountered rain only once. Also interesting to note, it rarely rains all day. It just comes down for a short time, then stops, then starts, then stops. . . The sun then comes out, most everything dries quickly, and then the cycle starts again. This can be frustrating when you are trying to do something outside. I can only imagine it’s like incontinence, I am getting better at accepting the ever-present moisture, conceding that life may just always be a little bit damp going forward.

The second thing to you need to consider is the time needed for your journey. While I applaud the Danish public transportation system for running 24 hours a day, covering HUGE distances, relatively convenient timing, relative ease of use, and general cleanliness, any trip that requires a transfer is going to take you an hour. It doesn’t matter for some reason, it is almost always an hour (an hour and a half on the weekends as the trains run on a reduced schedule). If I lived closer to city center, this would not be the case. Since I live in the burbs, I essentially have to go in to the city for a trip back out to wherever I am going.

I know this sounds a lot like complaining, in truth it is simply a readjustment. Honestly, I think the difficulties I have are best described as learning experiences. They teach you that the distance you cover is hard-fought. For me, it has taught me to appreciate our mobility. It makes me think about the fact that the average person before 1900 lived and died, having never traveled more than 30 miles from their place of birth. It is a truly amazing time in which we live.

So, in my time here, the world has gotten a lot bigger in a lot of ways. The 40 minute drive to the south-west side of CPH seems to take a lot more effort and dedication than the 40 minute drive from Grand Rapids Township to Holland or from Detroit to Pontiac.   I can’t explain that sensation really well yet. I think it may also have to do with the fact that the world seems to operate in a more compact manner here when it comes to hours of operation in business. Everything is open early and is closed relatively early, especially when compared to the States. You have a finite amount of time to get things done and you have to get everybody in bed at a reasonable hour because they all have to be up early. It really feels like that impacts the choices on the rest of our time.

That being said, the afternoons/evenings start earlier. I see our son more. Susanna sees our son more. There is a heavy emphasis on work/life balance here that is completely foreign to me and completely awesome. I will do a chapter about work when I finally have my immigration papers complete and I have found work.

There is another interesting thing that I have found in regards to travel in Europe. Planes are often on par with trains when it comes to cost. I just got finished planning a weekend trip to a major European city, where I compared side-by-side the cost of train travel versus flying. The train ride was 12 hours long and the cost was about $11 lower than the flight. The flight, even with the time to the airport and going through security will take about a third of that. I would like to take some long-haul train rides, but it really comes down to the fact that we will have a lot more time at our destination for our little adventure. Our time on this particular weekend is finite. When we get our vacations straightened out, all will be fine. But, that will take a year or so.

The increased gravity of distance makes me think of the wirlwind tours of Europe that I see advertised. I never really wanted to travel like that before, but even less so now. You cross the continent in two weeks or less. In crossing the ocean, you are transporting back in time. While the amenities here are as advanced (and in some ways more advanced) as they are in the United States, you lose something when you move through the countries so quickly. You can’t ever appreciate what goes on around you when you are moving through the places at warp speed.

There is so much to see in these cities and towns. You do yourself a disservice to not take a little time to breathe in the air. Realize you are walking where kings started crusades, where world wars were fought, where simple homes can be older than anything standing in the whole of the United States. My in-law’s house was built in 1750. This home has been there longer than 99.997% of structures in the US.

If this is your mode of travel, then all the power to you, but I hope you consider taking some time at a single place. A few days and you can see some of the most amazing things, and you don’t even have to go to the most “tourist” places. Roam the towns, ride the trains, walk the streets, feel the time and history beneath your feet. Drink the beer. Always drink the beer.

 

Notes on an Island Nation: The Kid and Kindness Lavished on Strangers

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Danes are not known for being particularly warm or inviting to people with whom they are not aquatinted. This purportedly is not a place where people talk to strangers on the street or elsewhere in public. Denmark has a reputation for being slightly cold when it comes to customer interactions, and downright lousy when it comes to table service in a restaurant. There is a name for dickish people who are part of the bureaucracy. Known as “Desk Popes,” these folks are rude, unhelpful, and likely doing whatever they can to make your day difficult, all while treating you like an inconvenience.  I am sure you can picture the personality type in your mind; I conjure up the angry lady at the DMV (Secretary of State, if you are in Michigan) who wants that ninth piece of identification pulled from a magical crevice, along with a blood sample from the bonded lab in the next county that is only open seven hours a week. Also, Danish bus drivers are known to be surly. I haven’t inquired as to how the hookers treat their clients, but knowing the reputation for the rest of the service industry, I can only assume that it would best be described as “efficient”. . .   I guess there has to be a downside where the waitstaff makes a living wage; they don’t have to pretend to like you.

All of that being said, it’s a complete lie. Well, I guess that statement is not entirely, one hundred percent correct. I would say 75% of the bus drivers are, in fact, assholes – and Desk Popes are most certainly real. That being said, I have talked with some of the most helpful people both in state offices and with the public transportation authority. Since my arrival, not a day has passed where I haven’t had a pleasant conversation with a stranger, a positive experience in a restaurant, or have some relative stranger buy me a drink at my local pub. God, I love that little bar. But more on that later. I won’t be so bold as to say that I illicit decency from people who don’t want to give it, chiefly because it is never hard to provoke a positive reaction from the people with whom I have spoken.  It does amaze me to see that the reputation seems to be all but completely unfounded. I don’t know about the hookers, just for the record.

On any given day, I smile a lot at people. It probably has to do with the fact that I don’t want them to think I am an asshole for not responding when not having a clue what they are saying most of the time. So, if they continue to talk, after my idiot-man-child smile, I lay on the only complete sentence in Danish that I know. . . “Undskyld jeg ikke taler Dansk.” – Sorry, I don’t speak Danish.   This is almost always a conversation starter. For some reason, a large number of people assume I come from England. Strange, as I would assume my midwestern accent is so very obviously American. I guess I am wrong. Oddly enough, I always think the folks here who have the smallest amount of Danish accent in their english happen to have a mild British accent.

Back to the small pub at the end of my street. A young man named Kasper and his very cool girlfriend Michelle bartend on the weekends. Per works there during the week and and on some weekends. As I said before, I do love this little bar. It would seem that it is a Danish past-time to get me drunk. Not a bad national sport if you ask me. Between Kasper and Per, I have sampled no less than 10 different Danish beers, often several on the same night. I need to do a little more research on what makes a beer so discernibly “Danish.” There is a very specific flavor that is in every beer I have ever had that was produced here. It holds a slight similarity to Heineken or Stella, but something very specific and different.   I like it a lot.

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Two different whiskeys, a beer, and a dreadful shot of some licorice-based schnapps – from the interesting people I met at the pub.

There seems to be a really interesting interplay between the self-effacing and the self-promoting when it comes to the Danish sense of pride. People want to show you the things that are interesting and special about this place, while simultaneously telling you that it is not, in actuality, all that great. It is fascinating to watch that dichotomy play out. Earlier, I wrote about pleasant conversations, but that doesn’t encompass the scope of what really goes on when I have had time to talk to the locals. I have been invited in to people’s homes and I have had an alarming number of random people buy me a beer after talking with them for 10 minutes. I have always tried to reciprocate in kind, but it almost always falls on deaf ears.  I once read that you should never say “how’s it going?” or “what’s up?” to a Dane, because they will take it at face value and assume you really want to know and tell you – or they will see it as a superficial greeting from a superficial person.  Funny part is, I want to know, partly because they all seem to want to know too.

With that, I have been thinking about the kindness of strangers a lot since I have come to Denmark. It always makes me think quite highly of human potential for decency when I am so lucky as to participate in these exchanges of ideas and culture. This thought again came to the forefront after I witnessed a bicycle accident on the road a few days ago. The rider was a young boy – probably about 10 years old. Everyone who passed stopped to help. In no way am I saying that this scene would have looked different in America, but it was an amazing thing to see how quick and concerted an effort can be made when a common problem presents itself. I was across the street when the boy fell. For reasons I cannot explain, in addition to the impulse to do something for the boy, I experienced an overwhelming sensation that the gear I was wearing would be an impedance to my ability to help. I was wearing headphones, a helmet, a messenger bag, and a jacket. . . Each piece somehow intertwined, each an impediment to the goal. When I saw him fall and he did not immediately move, my first thought was to ditch all my kit and get to him. This turned out to be a challenge.

I began my own part in this little play by dropping my bike and stripping off my helmet. It turns out it was connected to my headphones, which was connected to my phone. Upon pulling off my helmet, all of the connected accessories joined the trail started by bike on the shoulder of the road. When pulling off my coat, I found it connected to my messenger bag.   I shirked them off too. I ran out in to the road, and in retrospect, I count myself lucky as the people are generally adherent to the speed limit in residential areas. They stopped when I threw my hands up and stepped in to the road.

I got to the young man first, I am happy to report he was awake and crying. However sad that may have been for him, I was glad to see he was conscious and breathing normally.  I had been so frightened when he didn’t immediately move when he fell. A taxi driver joined me almost immediately, which was good because I couldn’t really communicate with the boy. He talked to the child who was wrapped in the bike pretty badly. The cab driver asked him to move his hands and toes, he asked then asked the boy if he thought we should call an ambulance. . . We began peeling the bike away after it became more apparent that the situation was not desperate, and the boy said he thought he would be ok.

In the time it took us to establish that he was ok, no less than five other people stopped and got out. Luckily the boy lived in the apartments we were standing in front of at the time. We locked his bike and walked him home where the cab driver released him in to the arms of his mother. She was very grateful, though I believe the boy may have broken his arm.   After spending a few minutes calming down and talking to the cab driver, I went back across the street to recover my stuff. I am happy to report it was all still there. . . In a trail. . . Leading back to my bike.

After getting back on the bike, it struck me as to the level of concern registered on the faces of the six or so people who stopped to help. The cab driver was an immigrant, as am I, and four native Danes – each working together to help one kid out of what, for him, turned out to be a shitty afternoon. It made me feel hopeful. I know that this is nothing short of sentimental and naïve, but it showed, in powerful contrast, the potential for human decency. It showed kindness. Just as the strangers in the bar had shown me, and the train driver who stopped to make sure I wasn’t trying to get on that particular train, each showed me that under the cool exterior are people who are curious and who also desire a connection to one another – and in turn, to me.  For this, I am grateful.

Notes on an Island Nation: The Castle and The Walking Street

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Today I went to the magical land of Helsingør, a city of about 46,000 people on the north west coast of Zealand (Zealand coincidentally, is the particular island on which I currently reside).  There sits the castle Kronborg, which just so happens to be where Shakespeare’s Hamlet was set. It is an amazing building, centered on a sprawl of land that is a sight to behold – both from the ground and from above (See Picture). The thing I tend to forget about these amazing buildings is that they served not only as residences, but also as fortresses. While I am not sure about the beating the building itself could take, the grounds are built to ward off intruders from any direction. Don’t get me wrong, it is a huge stone building, but it has a lot more glass and ornamentation than the images that come to mind when I think of a medieval castle with arrow loops and such. This is a palace as well as a military installation.

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Kronborg is not a medieval production. The earliest fortress on the land dates back to the 1420’s, but the palace is clearly a renaissance affair. It was built originally and expanded upon through the 1570’s and 80’s. From the elevated position of the castle, you can see everything in all directions for miles. There are outcroppings for armaments on all sides of the building, and there are only a few entrances from inland, each designed to be closed off at a moment’s notice.   Probably all pretty handy features, as the building was constructed (and reconstructed) in a time when the Danes and the Swedes like to kill one another with what seemed to be a good helping of reckless abandon. Helsingør, and in turn Kronborg, held strategic value for the short distance it was from Sweden across the channel, though when the original fortress was built, Denmark controlled the land on both sides of the channel.

Helsingør: The city itself is beautiful. The central rail station is amazing; grand in appearance, even stately – though in truth, not at all large. It sure looks big though. I believe it serviced only 4 sets of tracks, which compared to the 20 or so in Copenhagen and the 12 or so in each of the “ports” of the city, this is not much. The walking street is lively and had many different cafés, butcher shops, bakeries, boutiques, and the like. It was an impressively sized street, especially considering the relatively low number of people who call Helsingør “home”. . . To compare, Birkerød where I live, there are approximately 25,000 residents and our business district (the retail center of town or “walking street”) is kind of sad and limp. It has a single bakery (that sucks), one nice café, a few pizza/gyro joints, and a smattering of other retail. The vacancy rate is approximately 25%. The bike shop and its staff is awesome, just so we are clear. I hear the movie theater is nice, but I really haven’t seen anything playing yet that makes me want to spend the money.  With a population less than double my own town, there is a business district that is easily four times the size.  Granted, I know that there is a much larger tourist draw to Helsinør, but the tourists are not really a year-round economic boon.

The city again reminded me that there is something here that I have a hard time explaining. I have gotten an impression of a different sense of history, both here in Denmark and when I was in Amsterdam several years ago, as it relates to the environment in which we live. . . I do not mean“environment” as in the political issue “environment” (though that is VERY important here too), but the cities, buildings, and the lands around us. They seem to have lives too here. There is an effort to preserve history, and we live surrounded by it every day. Don’t get me wrong, I am sure there were periods in modern times where amazing things were torn down in the name of “progress,” but I always get the impression that there is respect for the structure, and that we should somehow bend to the structure as we need the structures to bend to our needs.  Many things are repurposed here. Theaters that were once stages became movie theaters, stables became diners, staff quarters became shops. . . This seems to be a constant, at least it is the best I can tell from my relatively superficial understanding of the way of life here. The original notes from which I write these words were written sitting on a street that has been here since before there were white people in America, in front of a building that has stood since the American Civil War.

There is an amazing mix of the old and the new in Denmark. Modernness seeps from every pore, yet all in a setting that has been here longer than any of our families have been in the United States. Part of that is the circumstance of just how long Denmark has been populated, but a big part is Danes being consciousness of the surroundings.   Remove the street lights and the cars and there are huge swaths of Denmark that would be indistinguishable from that of a hundred, or even two hundred years in the past. I think about the tragic loss of the American “downtown.” We venerate small town America and yet we do little to preserve it. It has taken us 50-plus years of wrecking our city centers for us to feel the need to stop it from happening. Life is in these cities. It makes me very happy to think of the efforts going in to revitalize places like Downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan. While much has been lost to the wrecking ball, much has been saved. Slowly, business is moving in to the downtown and I really wish it the best, because there is nothing like the pulse of a living city. There is hope and purpose in a place where you live and work within reasonable distance of each other. There is a vested interest in the success of both your job and your home, as they are in a sense, connected.

Notes on an Island Nation: The Circus and the Plumber

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I have come to find a few things interesting in my adopted country. First thing you may ask? Plumbing. Something so simple that we, as westerners, take for granted. Well, like many things in Europe, plumbing isn’t simple either. A plumber in Denmark does what we would call plumbing, but also deals with heating and cooling, kitchen exhaust, (which I don’t know of a house or apartment here without a range-hood). We had a plumber out today to fix a toilet ( 1: I would have tried, but lets just say the amount we pay for this place means I ain’t doing shit I don’t have to, 2: There’s no tank. . . Just a bowl attached to a wall. All the innards are hidden, turns out, behind a panel in my closet) and to fix two drains that, even after cleaning, would potentially unseat a buzzard from its relative shit-wagon.

Susanna had cleaned the drains earlier, working them over pretty well. It would appear however, that we only cleaned the surface. With a turn on four screws, an entire apparatus containing filters and traps pulls from what looked like a hold that was the drain. This little wonder of technology would catch any large thing dropped down the drain (there was an earring in it). It also would prevent the rest of the drain from getting clogged by hair or any other unpleasantness. I was shown how to clean the device and how to reinstall it when done.

It really was an interesting experience to spend a little time with our friendly plumber.  It was also interesting to see the engineering that went in to something as simple as a drain.  It goes to show the amount of detail used here in many aspects of life and construction.

Second thing: We went to the Cirkus (Circus) last night. The Benneweis circus is 126 years old and is still held by its founding family. It was wonderful. This is not a huge production like a three-ring job like the Shrine Circus or Barnum & Bailey from the US, but was a wonder nonetheless. There were a lot fewer animals than most American circuses, and I am really ok with that. For one, it smelled a hell of a lot better, and it didn’t take elephants and torture them for my amusement.

There was a single clown. He did the breaks between major acts. He was an Austrian man named Don Christian. He was a highlight to say the least. He was engaging and truly funny (and not creepy, like so many clowns are wont to be). On the whole, there were some really talented people. There was a contortionist, who managed to fold himself in half down what looked like a 18″ pipe. There was a tightrope walker and a juggler (and by juggler, he was juggling 5 soccer balls in his hands while juggling three ping-pong balls in his mouth), both from Cuba. There was a breakdance group that would blow your mind. There were trained camels and a pack of 40 dogs! It was truly a sight to behold. . .

Here were a couple more of the things I found interesting. During the intermission, the talent was manning the concession stands. How awesome is that? Every person played their roles and contributed to the show, even when not performing. The second thing I found really interesting was that they were packing up as we were leaving. This entire production is a mobile affair. It was a 15 minute walk home and they had the secondary (concession/lobby) tent broken down before we left the lot. By the time we made it home, there was equipment leaving the area. 30 minutes later, I watched the biggest semi trucks from the show drive by our house. It was amazing to see the effort that went in to the production and what oiled machinery it takes to make it smooth. . .

Amazing!