Living Abroad Fatigue

I have a big anniversary coming up. This March I will have been living in Denmark for five years. Five years! It’s hard to believe it has been this long. But then when I think about it, I finished a PhD, had a baby, a wedding, another baby … yep, five years sounds about right. The thing about this is: if someone had asked me the famous “where do you see yourself in five years” question when I first arrived in Denmark, I am sure my answer would have differed from my current reality.

Have you come across the model for cultural adaptation after moving to a new country yet? First comes the high, the honeymoon phase, where everything is great, exciting, and life-altering. Then comes the crash, the culture shock, when we realise how difficult life abroad is. At this stage, the constant feeling of not belonging lets our moods plummet to dig-a-hole-and-hide-in-it levels. Finally, we swap the shovel for a ladder and climb out of the hole. This is the adjustment phase. We accept our new reality and define our identities within the changed boundaries.

One would think that five years would see me well into the adjustment phase, if not the following level of having mastered the new life abroad. If you had asked me five years ago, I would have said that by now I will have a family, a career, and a network of friends and colleagues. The three pillars of a happy life. And of course, I would have mastered the language. But if you check in on my life now, you’ll see “work in progress” signs hanging up in quite a few of these areas.

The hardest part for me is the social isolation. The secret to making friends in Denmark seems a time-machine. If you can zip yourself into the past to join a person you find interesting today in their vuggestue group in the 1980’s, then you might stand a chance to make a friend. Ok, maybe you can catch up with them in their kindergarten or school, or maybe maybe at university. But anything after that is no-friend-making zone.

I used to think it was just me but I hear this time and again, even from easy-going, happy-go-lucky people who make their living as networkers. Apparently, it’s also a question of keeping to invite Danish people over or for activities without an expectation of reciprocation. Eventually, they will wear down and let you in. So goes the rumor. I must say I’ve always given up due to the lack of reciprocity. My Danish teacher told me once it takes ten years to make friends in Denmark. Well, I am at half-time now, I’ll report back in five more years.

Luckily, there is a strong sense of community among immigrants or expatriates. We all need people, so my advice is to go and find them among the other foreigners. Comes with the added bonus of getting to know scrumptious food from all corners of the world and learning about new cultures.

I feel I need to say at least five positive things now about living in Denmark. And there are plenty, rest assured! But for a moment let’s just sit with the negative. Maybe one of you has an “I thought it was just me” epiphany when reading this. The feeling of not belonging still gets the better of me sometimes. And I am still silently practicing my soft d’s while walking to the shop or cycling to work. I am mostly convinced that I will beat this tongue-twisting language one day but sometimes I get so tired of being the stuttering foreigner devoid of personality. Grrh. I am actually funny and articulate in two widely-spoken languages, just not in this one. Not yet anyway. The sign reads “Work in progress”.

Today a slightly disgruntled, from Denmark with Love,

Julia


Expat, Immigrant, International–what am I?

As a foreigner living in Denmark, I had always been vaguely uncomfortable with the term “Expatriate” or “Expat”. I knew that foreigners in Denmark are split into two groups: expatriates and immigrants. The term “expatriate” seems to designate those foreigners that come to Denmark from similarly developed nations. They are welcome in Denmark because they bring capital, skill, and international flair. Plus they are often expected to leave again.

Immigrants are a different story. A part of Danish society is surprisingly xenophobic and fears the impact of immigrants on their country. Will immigrants exploit the welfare state, commit crimes, and provide a breeding ground for Muslim radicalism? These fears are stoked by the polemics often associated with the Danish socialist right-wing party “Danske Folkeparti”. It currently holds 21% of the mandates of the Danish parliament.

Only doing research for this article, I looked up the actual definitions of the terms “expatriate” and “immigrant”, and do you know what? Turns out I am an immigrant. Because the difference actually is that expatriates are temporarily moving abroad, whereas immigrants plan to stay in the new country. We are planning to stay, hence I am an immigrant.

For myself, I decided the distinction between expatriates and immigrants is artificial and also degrading. So I started to call myself an immigrant. With the result that my Danish doctor said to me once in a conversation, “Immigrant? You are not an immigrant. You are from Germany!”! After this experience, I let the topic slide and started to call myself an international in order to avoid the distinction.

Did you know that sociologists study us foreigners? And economists? And they find we are good for countries. Your birth country is random. No ones can influence that. It’s neither something to be proud nor ashamed of. What is something to be proud of though, is to not accept status quo and seek to better your life for yourself and your family. Research results capture this: immigrating foreigners are motivated, courageous, and strong people, and overall good for the economy of a country.

I don’t have have the answer to this issue on a societal level. Humans are humans and not first and second-class expats and immigrants. Maybe as foreigners, we need to seek the dialogue about what unifies us over what sets us apart whenever we can. On a personal level, the answer is as always: define what you are for yourself and run with it. You have to feel good about how you regard yourself.

Maybe we can have a discussion about this one day. Until then, stay well.

From Denmark With Love,

Julia

My top 10 tips for travelling with baby and toddler

Expats are seasoned travelers. We share a love for exploring new countries and visit friends and family at home. However, most will agree that the actual process of getting from A to B is always slightly annoying. Depending on public transport, going through busy train stations and airports, and just spending endless hours in transit saps energy and sanity. My remedy used to be to plug in my headphones and read a good book. As a mom to a toddler and a baby, these options are no longer available.

When the Joneses travel to the grandparents in England, our itinerary contains a bus journey, followed by a train, plane, bus, and rental car trip. Takes us 11 hrs door-to-door, if all goes well. I am stressed out before we even leave the house. In fact, the stress starts a few days before with packing and getting ready. Keeping everyone happy, fed, and otherwise content on the journey is a major logistics operation. A 1.5-year-old can be so determined on wreaking havoc onto the early commuter train from Odense to Copenhagen that I have previously thrown up my arms in defeat only half an hour into a day of traveling.

No wonder that I have since tried to make our journey easier and these are my top 10 tips for traveling via plane with baby and toddler:

1. The Car Seat Backpack Bag

We lug around one baby car seat and rent the toddler car seat from the rental car agency to compromise on costs. Renting two car seats doubles the price of the car rental (they do know how to make money). On the first few family trips, we had a big holdall for the car seat, which was awkward to carry. Since we need to maximise the number of free hands to hold on to little humans, I have since made a car seat backpack bag that makes it so much easier to transport and safely check the car seat. Surprisingly, I couldn’t find one to buy (anyone wants to start a kickstarter campaign with me?), so I took the straps off an old backpack, sewed them onto two big IKEA family bags sewn together and voilà, one problem solved.

Me with my DIY car seat bag

2. Reduce number of transfers

This one is kind of obvious. Every transfer means to gather all the bags, belongings, and children and move them. This is annoying and minimising the number of transfers is therefore paramount to a good travel experience. Every transfer also holds the risk of missing the connecting transport or that the next mode of transport is delayed. This is annoying for a single traveler but disastrous when traveling with babies and toddlers.

3. Throw money at the problems

This one relates to reducing the number of transfers. Find your compromise between ease of transport and the amount of money you are able to spend. The same goes for individual vs. mass transport (e.g. rental car vs. train) and provisions on the journey. If you can afford to reduce effort, do it.

4. Dose everyone with decongestant nose spray

This is something I do before every flight to avoid problems with inner ear pressure decompression. My babies received decongestant nose spray even when they were still very little. For them, I diluted adult nose spray with sterile saline solution 1:10. In Germany, it’s possible to buy decongestant nose sprays for newborns, in Denmark it’s not. My dilution had the same proportion of active ingredient as the one sold in Germany. We only ever had a screaming child on the descent once, and that was the one time we had forgotten to give nose spray to my toddler before the flight. Never again will I see my kid in pain during the descent because I know how to avoid it.

5. The packing list

This one is the holy grail. We have a master packing list in an app that syncs between my husband’s and my phone, where items can be ticked off, and that can be reset to use anew next time. We just use iOS Notes but there is plenty of apps that would support this functionality. The packing list is sorted by members of the family and also contains a list of things to do to get ready (e.g. organise cat sitter) and last-minute tasks (e.g. take the bin out). I would be lost without this list and plan to patent it (just kidding).

6. The get-ready to fly list

It’s surprising how many tasks have to be accomplished after security and before boarding at the airport. Everyone needs food and drink for the journey if you are not depending on on-board catering, the little ones need new nappies and in our case treatment with nose spray. Plus all passports and boarding passes need to be located and carry-on luggage split into overhead compartment stuff and under-the-seat- in-front-of-you stuff.  I found it eases the stress level to have a similar list on the phone to tick-off pre-flight tasks. It’s a bit overkill, I admit that, but it makes it easier for my husband and I communicate about what needs to be done.

7. One bag to rule them all

After a particularly uncomfortable home-bound journey, I went on Amazon and found the biggest bag I could buy. I kid you not. Now, it’s one bag for the whole family because we have to keep hands free for little humans, so one person handles all luggage to be checked in. That also means minimising stuff to take, but we had great success with this and have not missed anything. The first cheapo gigantic bag from Amazon has since been replaced with a high-quality version, which again much improved our traveling experience.

These days we have learned to travel without our kitchen sink

8. One big bag for carry-on

Again a tip to minimise the number of bags to lug around. We once forgot a backpack at a car rental due to the sheer amount of different bags we had with us. That was early days of our parenting and we have since learned. I bought one of these shoulder bags that can be folded into a tiny pouch. Mine is from IKEA but many places have them. Whenever our hand luggage becomes unmanageable, I whip that thing out and all goes in, reducing five bags to one. Great.

9. Get a good collapsable push chair and use baby carriers

Check the airlines regulations for size and shape of push chairs that you will be allowed to take up to the gate. Four wheels are better than three and most fold-up strollers will comply with the regulations. Make sure it’s one where the seat can go all the way down into a horizontal position to make it easier for the babes to sleep in it. It doesn’t need to be an expensive one, however. We bought a good-quality, second-hand one because we mostly use it for air travel, and are very happy with it. Otherwise, and on and off the plane, use a baby carrier of your choice to have hands free for luggage.

10. Make sure your kids sleep

This is actually a big one. Kids’ need for sleep and their ability to sleep under different circumstances vary greatly with age of the child. However, an overly tired child will always have problems to manage their emotions, mildly expressed. It’s easy to oversee that they need to sleep because the action of traveling day keeps them up well past their naptimes. But if at all possible, try to make them sleep in the pushchair or carrier, on your lab, or in their seat. It’s so tough to calm down a child in melt-down mode after a long day of traveling, and we managed to avoid this since we have made sleeping on transit a priority for them.

Finally, I didn’t put it on the list, but something I often wonder: how did people travel with toddlers before the Ipad?

If you have secrets of traveling with kids, let me know. I always love to learn something new.  Maybe our paths cross at the airport one day. Until then, stay well.

From Denmark with Love,

Julia

Travelling with toddlers is a special kind of torture. Don’t get me wrong, I love my kids dearly and I find many enjoyable moments even on travelling day, but I will also fall into bed at the end of it with the exhaustion of a marathon runner. Luckily, there are ways to prepare and a few tips to make the whole rigmerale easier.

Starting your own gig

Many internationals find themselves in the position that their future career path is unclear. Maybe they came here to study and now have to enter the workforce having their degree in the pocket. Or they came here for love, a very common reason for emigrating, and have to accept a detour to their career. Finding a job that is a good fit for a person’s skills and interests can be tough on the Danish job market.

Speaking Danish is a requirement in all but a few companies, and many of those are located in Copenhagen or Århus. Plus internationals don’t have a large network and many jobs in Denmark are filled by “people who know someone”. Consequently, many internationals find themselves working in a job with little personal rewards other than money.

Not surprisingly, therefore, that many internationals start to think of how they could leverage other skills or interests to create a fulfilling side-project, maybe with the dream to grow it into a fully-fledged business. Once taken the plunge to start something, the to-do list explodes into myriad tasks.

Well, this is where I am right now with this webpage. Setting up an online space, creating a logo, content, and attracting readers, these are all tasks that I have some experience in but no formal training. I am learning something new with every step, glad to find resources that help me reach my goal. And I am happy to share with you the treasures I dig up in my search. I have recently discovered a website, where people from all over the world offer their services. Services that can be done from remote, like graphic design or help with setting up a webpage, all common tasks on the to-do list for new endeavours. Prices often start at $5, so the webpage is called Fiverr. If you also dream of starting a blog or webshop or yoga classes or mindfulness instructions,  whatever it is that floats your boat, Fiverr, is an incredibly good resource to help you get started. This is just a personal recommendation, I am in no way affiliated with this project.

Maybe I’ll buy a product or service from you one day. Until then, stay well.

From Denmark with Love,

Julia

Fiverr is a webpage where people from all over the world offer remote services from logo design and coding to drawing an illustration of you and your dog. Prices often start at $5, hence the name.