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


2 Replies to “Living Abroad Fatigue”

  1. This is so spot-on! I am a French living in Aarhus, and I also thought for a long time that it was just me, that my ability to make friends had suddenly disappeared after I crossed the border, and what once seemed so easy, now feels really unnatural and difficult. Then I just accepted that it’s the way they are. I found speaking the language to be helpful at least, and getting involved in volunteering activities or making friends through university. But 4 years in, I still don’t have one Danish person I can call “my friend” (well, okay except my Danish boyfriend :D). It’s good to read that it happens after 10 years. It gives me hope!
    Great blog by the way.

    1. Julia Jones says:

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Claudia! I am glad you enjoyed the blog post and thanks for the “it’s not only you” back. Still good to hear. 🙂

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