Monthly Archives: April 2011

Denmark: The Exit Interview

I've lived in Denmark for the last five and a half years.

My time here encompasses two cities, eight apartments, one dormitory, six bikes, two trips to the emergency room and twice my body weight in misplaced hats, gloves and scarves.

It's impossible to live in a foreign country without developing a love-hate relationship with it. Anything you spend that much time with becomes like a sibling.

You spend years learning how to navigate and survive it, and you only realize later how the effort has changed you, for better or worse.

Denmark's a firmly admirable place.It's the world's example of how the state can deliberately create a culture and administration around social justice.

There's basically no poor people here. The working culture is the best in the world, and my professional experience here has solidified my commitment never to move back to the US.

The density of the cities and the safety of bike-commuting makes a huge impact on quality of life.

Between social benefits, free healthcare, free education and never having to sit in traffic or clamor for a parking space, there's almost nothing to stress out about. Thank God the weather is so shitty.

That said, Denmark has some serious problems.

The world sees Denmark as a model of 'how things are supposed to work', and Danes see themselves like that too.

This 'we are awesome so we don't have to try' attitude translates into a society-wide smugness that can be hard to thaw.

The ethnic discrimination, for example, which is as severe here as anywhere in Europe, is ignored by the popular and political culture. Domestic politicians are more interested in blocking immigration than developing Denmark's international competitiveness.

Homogeneity and social harmony are prized as principles in themselves, and social engagements sometimes feel like you're living in Pleasantville.

This culture of staying silent unless you can think of something to say that no one could disagree with has created a nation of introverts

People have fewer friends here than in the more small-talk-equipped countries I've lived in, and the friendships tend to be the bilateral, rather than networked, kind.

This means that, as a foreigner, it's not hard to meet friends here, it's just hard to meet your friends' friends.

If you're an extrovert when you move here, Denmark will make you an introvert. If you're already an introvert, Denmark will make you a spinster.

I don't know if Berlin is any different. But at least being in a new country gives me an excuse to pretend I don't know the rules.

And enjoy Berlin while it's still an acquaintance.


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The Worst Museum I’ve Ever Been To

Ladies and gentlemen, the Bulgarian Museum of Natural History:

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Thrace in the Hole

The week before Easter, I was in Bulgaria

My grandparents lived there in 1949, so I walked around taking pictures of their favorite landmarks and gin-rummy dens

Sofia is surprisingly charming

Aside from the obtrusive Orthodoxity, most of it could pass for Berlin or Vienna

My Bulgarian friend Vlado says things have changed a lot for the better since Communism

You don't bribe the cops anymore, for example.

But they still ask for 'gifts' to make tickets go away.

He said lots of Bulgarians keep bottles of wine and other trinkets in their cars in case they get pulled over.

Bulgaria's history is really fascinating, actually.

They were an empire, then taken over by the Byzantines, then an empire again, then taken over by the Ottomans.

They sided with the Germans in both world wars, and paid pretty dearly.

My grandma says people in the 1940s used to talk about Stalin as a giraffe, reaching his long neck into Bulgaria to munch on their resources and take them away.

Even after communism, Bulgaria occupies a little-noticed pocket of Europe. We don't think about them that much.

It still seems unforgivably foreign from far away.

But up close, it's utterly charming, and I'm planning on going back.

Now that the giraffe's gone, the leaves are coming back.

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