As a study abroad student in Copenhagen, you have the option of participating in the “Visiting Family” program. A “Visiting Family” is a Danish family that you can go visit several times a month to get a taste for real Danish living. I had met with my “Visiting Family” a week prior for drinks and was quite taken with them, and them with me. My “Visiting Parents” were funny, entertaining, and very curious about my background. Their two daughters are a few years younger than me and quizzed me on my knowledge of Danish pop stars (which is extremely limited). So, when they invited me to come out to their house the following weekend to bicycle through their small ocean town, I accepted their invitation enthusiastically and was looking forward to seeing them again the entire week. However, the day went entirely different than I expected. It was definitely the reality check that I needed.
I’m tall, blonde, and have blue eyes. I thought fitting-in in Copenhagen would be no problem. And up until Sunday afternoon I thought I was doing a pretty good job at blending in. The series of missteps that I committed throughout the day allowed me to see that Danish people are more different than I thought and that I have a long way to go (like 15 more years of practicing riding a bicycle) before I can be mistaken for a true Dane.
The afternoon began at Østerport train station. I’ve spent the last month mastering Copenhagen’s public transportation system, so when my “Visiting Family” told me to take the 13:41 regional train from Copenhagen to Kokkedal I assumed I’d be able to find it without any problems. Even though I know I’m familiar enough with the transportation system to get back to Copenhagen if I were to get lost, I haven’t quite conquered the slight fear I have about taking the wrong train somewhere and not being able to read (much less pronounce) the name of the town I might end up in. So when I arrived at the train station I began diligently studying the train map trying to figure out which platform I needed to be on in order to catch the train to Kokkedal. However, I just couldn’t figure it out. I looked around to find a train attendant that could point me in the right direction, only to find that because of the World Cycling championships the station was basically empty. Realizing that I wasn’t even in the right place in the station to catch the regional train (which I later found out doesn’t operate within the city so is thus located elsewhere in the station), I ran up the stairs and across the station to the opposite platform. Right as I opened the door to the platform, however, the 13:41 train that I was supposed to be on was leaving the station. I then had to embarrassingly call my “Visiting Family” and explain to them that I’m basically incompetent in public transportation. Danish offense #1: looking like a frantic American running around a train station while simultaneously pretending like I know what’s going on.
After arriving in Kokkedal, the small Copenhagen suburb where my “Visiting Family” lives, Charlotte (my “Visiting Mom”) and Juliane and Caroline (my “Visiting Sisters) greeted me at the station with hugs and smiles. I was relieved that they understood my ongoing struggle with public transportation. We then went back to their house to grab the bicycles that we were going to take on what I assumed was a “recreational” bike ride. Looking around at the picturesque scenery and rather flat, ocean side landscape, I assumed that I’d be able to keep up with Charlotte and the girls quite easily. Besides, I was pretty athletic and in-shape, right? Wrong. So wrong. In fact, as soon as I mounted the bicycle, it was pretty clear that I hadn’t ridden one in years. I lost my balance as I clumsily got on the bicylcle and managed to ride into a bush within seconds. I rebounded from my run-in with the brush and sped up to catch up with the girls who had already pedaled a surprising distance ahead of me. As soon as I got the hang of the bicycle and was having a perfectly peaceful time observing the rolling hills filled with running horses, Charlotte and the girls took a sharp right up what looked to me like a never-ending hill leading into the forest. The burning in my legs increased with each pedal until I thought I was going to have to pull over and walk the bike up the rest of the hill. Charlotte and the girls continued nonchalantly up the hill while I tried to hide my panting underneath my breath. I hadn’t realized that I had agreed to train for the Tour de France. Either I need to practice bicycling way more (which is most likely the case) or Danes inherit a mutant gene providing them with a knack for all-terrain cycling. For my sake, I’m going to say it’s the latter.
To put it simply, Danes are incredibly talented cyclists. Their bikes are basically an extension of their limbs and they’re capable of maneuvering them with the kind of skill necessary to master a game of “Operation.” At certain places along the bicycle paths there are little obstacles set up to work as speed bumps. These obstacles basically require you to make a 90-degree turn with your bicycle, squeezing it between a fence-like structure that resembles the turns in a maze or labyrinth. You’re apparently expected to make this 90-degree angle while having momentum from going downhill. Far too confident in my cycling abilities since conquering the small mountain climb, I followed Juliane down the hill heading towards one of these “bicycle speed bumps.” And then the inevitable happened. I crashed the cute, Danish bicycle complete with a Toto-carrying basket attached to the front into the speed bump, almost flying over the handlebars. Luckily, I’ve developed some practice in gracefully recovering from such accidents as a result of my frequent clumsiness, so I managed to save the bike (and less importantly, myself) from falling over. However, Charlotte and the girls quickly biked over to me to make sure that I hadn’t suffered a worse fate. Danish offense #2: pretending that I can keep up with people that are basically born riding bicycles.
After finally reaching the harbor and sharing a lovely coffee drink and observing the sailboats, Charlotte, the girls and I headed back to their house to prepare for dinner. I spent some time with the girls on the computer and demonstrated my nonexistent Wii skills to the entire family. I was INCREDIBLY excited for a real, Danish home-cooked meal and it was clear that Charlotte had put a lot of work into preparing the meal. When she called everyone to the table, small piecrusts filled with a chicken stew awaited us. They looked so dainty and beautifully presented that I asked how I should begin eating it. Charlotte explained that I could just start cutting it in half. After eating a few bites of the stew I looked up to realize that the way Danes hold their silverware is slightly different than the way I’ve been taught. I’ve always held my fork in my left hand and used my knife with my right. I usually cut one or two pieces of the food, and then switch my fork to the right hand in order to eat the food without having it fall down the front of my shirt. However, watching my “Visiting Family” eat their potpies was like watching a surgeon skillfully perform a routine surgery. They never switch the fork to their right hand, skillfully piling their food on the back of their fork with their knives. Noticing that I was not using my silverware in the correct way, I quickly tried to mimic the way that they were delicately eating their potpies. However, being much more skilled at dissecting their potpies, their plates were perfectly clean by the end of the meal, while my plate looked as if a young child had smashed their face into it. They had obviously noticed my different silverware skills, and blatantly asked me if Americans used their forks and knives differently. Oops. Was I that obvious? Clearly I need to brush up on my Danish etiquette, which also includes saying “Tak fer mel!” at the end of each meal (something I was only informed of after everyone else had said it). Danish offense #3: not recognizing just how different meal times are here. Not only do the Danes use their silverware differently, dinner usually lasts for several hours, which I’ve found I much prefer to the American style of eating quickly and often not in the company of the rest of the family.
Although I clearly made a fool of myself on several occasions throughout the day, I wouldn’t have changed the day’s events. I realized that I had been walking around Copenhagen with my eyes half-closed. I’d been so convinced that I was fitting in that I had failed to fully acknowledge, and maybe even subconsciously ignored, the ways in which I wasn’t fitting in. But through realizing that I wasn’t quite as assimilated as I had assumed, I’ve already become more aware of the barely-noticeable mannerisms of the Danish people that add up to making the culture what it is. Sunday afternoon was a day in which I was dethroned from my high horse (or bicycle in this case), but because this happened I’ve discovered that subtle cultural differences are sometimes only revealed through constant run-ins, both figurative and in my case literal, with different aspects of the culture.
***Thanks to my “Visiting Family” for allowing me the opportunity to experience real Danish living. It has already been one of the more important experiences of my time abroad!***