Tuesday, January 20, 2015

"Jan, do you have ten thumbs?" Or, My First Days in Hadsten...

Soccer balls and lattes in the teachers lounge. A viking section in the library, and an English textbook titled "Happy." A dentist at the health office. Children racing down the hallway in socks; hallway paintings depicting evolution and the big bang theory, while other hallways let newcomers know that students are at home at school. Colorful hand-drawn signs by students adorn the walls and rafters: 

...and, my personal favorite:

Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore.

I've been in Hadsten, Denmark for two weeks now. Time constraints and reluctance to pull away from people to write in solitude have kept me from writing this post. Moreover, I often avoid writing on matters I fear I cannot thoroughly capture and convey in words. I have never felt more at home in a place that wasn't.

How can I relate this experience without sounding like a braggart or an asshole? I'm afraid I can't. Because, sincerely, everything about this experience has been a dream. I have zero complaints...OK, I have one complaint. I wish it would snow more. Even that is on the mend as of early this morning.

How can I do my host family justice? My host family is magic, what with my sensitive, save-the-world mor (mother) and sensible, smile-at-the-world far (father). My host family is adorable, what with the six-year-old who is a constant reminder of the enchantment of the everyday (after dinner we leave the table candles burning and make shadow puppets; at breakfast he throws his legs in the air to show me his "magic trick" -- pulling off a laundry basket's worth of socks, one chromatic layer by kaleidoscopic layer by cartoon character layer at a time, until the final reveal...which I tickle, of course); what with the eight-year-old who is a "girly girl" through and through, despite being flanked by two brothers, a feat to which I have the utmost respect (for many years I was less myself than a spitting, bike racing, comic book-collecting shadow to my older brother; Nikoline, on the other hand, makes me bracelets and rings out of colorful rubber bands, draws me pictures of hearts, flowers, and candles, has a cosmetic and accessory repertoire that eclipses my own, and sings loud and proud to her favorite pop heartthrob with zero apology.

On the day my host family picked me up from the train station, the two kiddos stared at me in wonder the whole way home, the way you might transfix your gaze at a newborn coming home from the hospital. The novelty has since given way to comfort, through many rounds of hide-and-seek and meals around the dinner table. The ten-year-old, on the other hand, wanted little to do with me. While video games and friends shot off in his room, his mom had him sit and chat with me at the kitchen table. I was the worst thing to happen on a Sunday. But apathy has since given way to enthusiasm and interest. He really enjoys practicing his English with me, sharing adolescent tales of secret club houses in abandoned factories and saving up for a racer bike next summer. He asks me all manner of burning questions like, "Do you know where Ray Charles lives?" (he read about him once in school) and, "How much is the most expensive car in U.S. dollars?"

And how can I praise the school where I work, the Danish philosophies driving education, and the Danish approach to citizen welfare, in general -- without sounding blasphemous, ungrateful, or unpatriotic? Suffice it to say that Danes are so progressive and well-prioritized that my brain sometimes seemingly refuses outright to think about it. Sometimes I feel like we're living in the Dark Ages. But I'll save my thoughts on education and politics for another time.

What does a typical day look like? On weekday mornings I participate in the riotous flurry that is getting a family of six ready for school/work. There is something really wonderful about the whole family standing by the entrance way, pulling on their boots and caps, wrapping 'round their scarves, and searching for their mittens before filing out door to take on the day. At school I co-teach English 7, English 8, and Social Studies 8 with two of my UCSB colleagues, Marisa and Charlie. I should mention that "English" here in Denmark is of course not English as we know it (literature, language arts, reading/writing, etc.). Danes have Danish for that. We are teaching English as a second language. Danes begin having English lessons in the first grade. In fifth grade they start taking German. In effect, Danes are trilingual by the time they graduate high school.

So there you have it. In short, my host family is wonderful, as are the school where I teach and the country as a whole. If you'd like to hear more, in the most condensed manner I am able, press play and keep reading...

(The song, by the way, is a Danish club favorite. Everyone sings jovially along to it, like we would to Journey. It's the best way I can encapsulate how I feel as I float through my days here.)

Learning the language
I'm trying to pick up as much Danish as I can, which is considerably more fun because the kids in my host family love to teach me. Just this morning the six-year-old taught me "det sner!" I have the urge to yell it as I prance around the family car -- it means "it's snowing!" Other words I've learned are:
  • hallo/hej, farvel/hej hej = hello (formal/informal), goodbye (formal/informal)
  • undskyld (mig) = excuse me (one means 'beg pardon' and the other is to get someone's attention)
  • tak = thank you 
  • ja, nej = yes, no
  • en, to, tre, fire, fem, seks, syv, otte, ni, ti... = numbers 1-10 (Hide and seek really helps with learning numbers)
  • venstre, højre = left, right (The ten-year-old taught me these when he walked me home on the first day of school. Yep, finding my way by way of a fourth-grader. No shame in that.)
  • skinke, ananas, ost = ham, pineapple, cheese (Can you guess what this is for? Yep, hawaiian pizza. The host kids wanted to make pizzas my first night in town. They said it was to make me feel at home, but I have a sneaking suspicion it has something to do with the fact that they can have soda on nights the family has pizza or burgers for dinner...ha.)

My very first full transaction in Danish was for "en hotdog med det hele!" (one hot dog with everything) from a food truck in Aarhus. Danes have chocolate milk with their street hot dogs. Maybe it sounds strange but I can assure you it's fantastic. 

On the topic of food...have you ever heard the (ridiculous) quote "nothing tastes as good as skinny feels"? Well, I maintain that everything in Denmark tastes better than skinny could ever feel (OK, with the exception of one thing I have not liked in Denmark: pickled herring in curry sauce. My colleagues tell me my distaste for this sandwich topping has gotten 'round to the host families, however my host-mom assures me that most Danes don't like it, so I feel a bit less blasphemous). 

My new favorite food is a tie between frikadeller (Danish meatballs) and cheese and jam on toast for breakfast. The only thing that makes the latter better is that the first thing my host-dad does on weekend mornings is to go to the bakery for fresh rolls. 

Seemingly everything my host-mom makes is appetizing. I've not refused seconds once, and it isn't out of nicety. 

On Fridays, the school provides free lunch for teachers. I'm not just talking sandwiches -- I'm talking salmon, roast beef, lasagna, quinoa salad, frikadeller, potatoes...

As I mentioned in a previous post, we spent a lot of the first two weeks visiting classrooms in three different schools in town, introducing ourselves and sharing about life in America. Some of my favorite questions to come out of those presentations were:
  • "Charlie, how much of a cowboy are you?" (As if you can quantify cowboy.)
  • "Have you ever seen a shark?" (A question to Marisa after she shared her experiences competing in outrigger canoe.)
  • "Jan, is you always this happy?" (To which my colleagues answered for me: "Yes.")
  • "Jan, have you got ten thumbs?" (It didn't take long for my Danish colleagues to notice how clumsy I am. This comment came after I dropped my electric converter three times in one minute in the teacher's lounge.) 
I'll mention quickly here that Danish adolescents curse quite a bit -- or are at least more open with their cursing. Then again, I'm sure I've used words like "shizer" plenty of times without consciousness to the weight it carries. I bet it's the same for Danish kids. Still, it was a bit disconcerting to hear, "Fuck Chelsea!" from an eighth grader, fifth grader, and third grader during my introductory presentation, all in the same week.

Danes will tell you that all Danes do is complain and talk about the weather (I imagine that sometimes one leads to the other). Fortunately, my experience can't confirm the stereotype. Everyone I have met has been warm, welcoming, curious, and open. I am in awe sometimes at how comfortable I feel here, at how lucky I am to be here.

Mikkel, my ten-year-old host brother recently asked, "Jan, will you come to Denmark next year?"

"I hope so," I responded, in the airy manner one does when they've been asked a question they hadn't yet considered.

Mikkel closed his fist and thrust his elbow by his waist side. "Yesss!" he drew out the "sss" for dramatic effect. Maybe the thinly veiled non-committal was lost in translation. 

I'm not sure if life will take me back to Denmark next year, or ever. But I do know that I love it here, that somehow it feels like the warmth of home and the electricity of travel all at once. Some people never find either; somehow I've found both here in Denmark. 

On that note, it's time I leave the writing to join my family in some boardgames or television (the World Cup for handball is on), perhaps both. 

Sending love,

"The Old City." Aarhus, Denmark.

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