Sunday, 27 October 2013

Expat experiences of a native Dane (who also happens to be my husband)

Wow, I've not written for a while. I have started a couple of posts with random musings but I'm not happy enough with them to post them. So in order to get this up and active again, I asked my husband to write a post. Before we get into this, let me introduce him a little so you have an idea of what he's like.

Philip comes from Frederiksberg. For those of you that don't know Copenhagen, Frederiksberg is a municipality in Copenhagen. Philip has lived abroad three times (USA, Italy and the UK) and is very well travelled - we actually met in a Manila hostel. We now live in Vesterbro (soon relocating to Frederiksberg) and Philip works from home as a translator. So, his own expat experience coupled with 1) him being a native Dane and 2) his talent for writing I thought made him a good candidate for a guest post. Here he writes about his experiences when he lived in Southern Italy. Enjoy!

"When Nicola asked me to write this, I agreed immediately. Then I started wondering what I had gotten myself into. After all, what did I know about relocating to Denmark? I thought for a while about writing from my own point of view about expats I had met in Denmark, where they had gone right and wrong, but it seemed awfully pompous. Then it dawned on me that I actually had relocated to Denmark. Back in 2002 and 2003 I spent about nine months studying English in Washington, two years later I went to Italy for three months to teach English, and then about six years after that, in 2011, I lived in London for about a year and a half. Each time I came back to Copenhagen, in effect relocating.

As I’m sure you can guess, returning to my home country was not much of a shock. The time I spent in southern Italy, however, was. I consider these three months one of the most challenging, frustrating, and rewarding experiences of my entire life. I didn’t know the language, I didn’t have any contacts that I had met in person, and I was going to teach for the first time in my life. I had signed up for something called the Comenius program, an internship as an assistant teacher, and all I had was a place to live and a women’s bicycle with Winnie the Pooh stickers on it to take me the 2.5 kilometers to school and back. As I discovered, life in southern Italy is quite different from northern Europe. The days were brutally hot, the nights were warm and soothing. I found people to be very friendly, almost exclusively, but they rarely spoke any English, and my Italian was clumsy at best.

I decided to sign up for Italian classes. They were free, and at first they seemed perfect. The teacher spoke nothing but Italian. She was friendly, yet strict about pronunciation and grammar. But she did have a habit of being on her phone a lot. Even after the lessons had officially started, she would leave the room to talk on the phone, sometimes for ten or fifteen minutes. Adding to the problem, she had been burdened by some cost-saving decisions by the school management, which meant she had to accept a few Italian people, aged sixty or seventy, who were illiterate. They were kind people, trying to make up for lost time, but every class had a portion allocated to them – our teacher would write letters on the blackboard, which frankly was a waste of time for the rest of us. This went on for a few weeks, until further cost-cutting led to more newcomers. This time it was “people with problems” as our teacher called it, people of lower than average IQ. They were not there to learn per se, simply to be watched. Every once in a while one of them, Vito, would get up in the middle of class and leave, and our teacher had to chase him down the hallway, telling him: “Vito, no.” It was getting so that we barely had any time to learn in class, so I decided to quit. I still had Italian TV. I still had a beginner’s and an intermediate Italian book, which I would read many times over. Also, whenever I went to this one cafĂ© to use their internet and have a coffee, the owners would talk to me, perfectly happy that I didn’t say much and often had to ask them to repeat themselves. They knew that I taught at the local high school, which somehow made them like me. One of them would talk at great lengths about the Roman empire, getting into complex grammar and speculation, which caused me problems. Sentences like: “If the Roman empire had not fallen, then…” Another guy working there had trouble understanding why I wasn’t fluent in Italian. He had a theory that words in Italian mirrored what they meant. “Cavallo!” he would say with a majestic air, as if it were obvious that it meant “horse”. A third person was always exasperated with the second person, asking me to forgive him.

As this was all in Italian, I was continually at a disadvantage. I would miss parts of sentences, sometimes vital parts. Embarrassment would ensue. But I kept getting a little bit better. This turned out to be an advantage in my job as a teacher. For example, I was initially thrown by the fact that my students got the words “time” and “weather” mixed up, until I learned that they were both “tempo” in Italian. Sometimes, people would invite me for social gatherings and the Italian that I had picked up would once again be a considerable advantage. At the end of the three months I had made a few friends (none of whom I have any contact with today, but I still consider them friends), and I was able to converse with people in Italian if they spoke slowly.

Relocating to Denmark is challenging in a different way. People tend to be very willing to speak English, which can be a disadvantage when you want to learn Danish. It might be harder to find that place where they’ll talk to you in Danish non-stop. But there are always ways, there are books, there is television, there is risking embarrassment to get better at a foreign language. People tend to pick up on it if you’re willing to invest your time and energy in learning the language of their country, and from there on all elements feed off one another. Knowing Danish makes reading Danish more fun, it makes watching Danish television more satisfying, it makes it easier to meet new people. The frustration might still poke its head out, but you will progress. And if something truly isn’t working – like lessons – face up to it and find a different way. 

Sometimes that’s where the fun lies."