Saturday, November 12, 2011

Life in Copenhagen part 7: health and understanding

It's been a while since I wrote, and it's because I have been sick. Being sick in a new place and particularly a new country is scary.

The first signs arrived almost a year ago, when I was all alone in Denmark. Over the months I had some rather unsettling experiences. I noticed a lump where there shouldn't be one (spoiler: no, not cancer and nothing life-threatening), but I carefully ignored it for months. I really didn't want to know. But then I got an infection, fever and pain, and I had to go see a doctor. I ended up on antibiotics, stranded in my one-room apartment for almost two weeks. Part of the time I had fever fantasies, and some of the few experiences I had with contact to the world around me were truly surreal. Such as when the Norwegian culture-minister called, and I wasn't sure if it was a joke, a fever-fantasy, or reality. I asked her to call back after the antibiotics had time to work. She did.

Anyway: what I really want to write about here, is the part of Denmark that Norwegians think exist, but which tends to be absent, or just not seen, when we start living here.

You see, compared to Norwegian, Danish (the language) sounds gentle and warm. Danes appear to be touchy-feely and friendly, seen from the distance Norwegians tend to keep people at. Then we move to Denmark and figure out that no, it's not that simple. As a Norwegian living here, not just shopping in the large stores on Strøget or drinking in Nyhavn, we get ridiculed, cut off, excluded and ignored; due to the language difference. I felt like Denmark really didn't want me, yet another annoying non-dane here to make their lives more complicated. No matter that I am exactly the kind of person the Danish State wants: highly educated specialist in a field Denmark has prioritized for years - Denmark felt as cold as the record winter around me, except from a few friends and colleagues.

So, here I was, alone, feverish and lost, in this realm of Scandinavian distance and cold manners. That's when I suddenly started seeing the Danes as I had believed they would be. It started with the doctor: When she realised that it wasn't just a regular infection, she raced to the phone to find a specialist to see me right away! And she did, all the while doing her best to comfort me without saying anything either way. The specialist was busy, but warm, friendly and just as easygoing and nice as I used to think Danes would be. At the lab for the tests, while insanely busy, people were gentle, polite and smiling. And when I came to see my wonderful hairdresser after this rather shattering day, he looked me over once, and started spoiling me above and beyond what I could have asked for.

Best of all, through all of this, I was suddenly understood! For some reason, me being sick trumphed all language problems. And it continued. When I went to get food in one of the really fashionable take-aways in this area, the normally snotty staff took one look at me and became nice and understanding. When I was well again, this treatment disappeared. Then I went to the hospital for surgery, and suddenly it was right back again! Professional, busy and quick, yes, but also friendly, warm, polite and smiling.

It was a really weird experience. I don't know if it's possible to generalise from this, but I drew some personal conclusions.

1: Danes are as nice as we think, when we (the strangers) become an individual to them.
2: Pain and illness is a strong way of revealing our common humanity, both through empathy and through strength; it also allows others to make your life a little better, and people everywhere like to do a good thing for others.
3: The rest of the time, Danes are as busy and impatient as everybody else. Coming to Copenhagen was like moving to Oslo as a very green student from the west-coast, only worse. Soft wovels and polite phrases do not make people nicer, even if they sound like butter, cream and smiles.

All in all, it was a good experience. I know now that Danes can, when they need to, make that vital effort to connect, and so my own efforts at communication aren't necessary wasted either. Also, the Danish health system may be in crisis due to the state of the world economy, but I hardly think I would have been treated better if I had stayed in between the fjords in Norway. It's the general state of health-care systems to not have enough money, and I was in the somewhat strained, but still firm grasp of a Scandinavian welfare state. It feels familiar. It feels a little like... home?

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