One of my curiosity tasks is this: Connect with a person of a different culture and spend at least an hour, twice a month to learn about his/her culture. I spoke to a Dane today. I consider this task done.
I am Norwegian, and Danes are more or less the same breed. They have almost the same language, we used to be one country for centuries, and our cultural heritage is more or less identical. Vikings, Ludvig Holberg, riksmål. So it is debatable whether I should get points for a Dane’s exoticness. But hear me out.
My wife was born in Sarajevo. Both her parents live in Norway, but they communicate mostly in their language. (I usually call it Bosnian, my mother-in-law is adamant there is no such thing as a Bosnian language, she calls it Serbo-Croatian; other family members call it Croatian or Serbian.) She’s got family in Serbia, but when we go down there, we usually go to Croatia.
At home, we speak Norwegian and Bosnian/Serbian/Croatian. 2009-2013 we lived in Prague, where our kids went to an international school, and our best family friends were Russian/Czech/English-speaking — hence, we spoke English and Czech at home as well. Our other best friends included a Swiss couple, an Israeli couple, an Argentinian diplomat and two of our son’s teachers from USA and Mexico.
I studied in Germany for a year, and Sweden a year, my wife has studied and worked a lot in France; we sometimes speak French so that the kids won’t understand, although I try to teach her some German as well. I often try to resurrect my esperanto as well, but it seems to be moribund.
My stepbrother is married to a German and lives there. One uncle of mine and his two sons and three grandsons live in USA; one other uncle worked in England and Scotland and is married to a Scot. One cousin of mine has worked all over Europe and has two daughters with an Italian.
The first 19 years of my life, I lived in Halden, right next to Sweden; at least half of our cultural impulses, including most children’s TV and sports on TV, came from across the border.
Our best friends in Norway are a couple who both grew up all over the world: he was born in Kenya, she has also lived in Africa, and they speak Dutch, English and Norwegian interchangeably. When my wife and me grew up, we both had friends from many places and “cultures” (I’m not quite sure how to delineate cultures, where one cultures starts and the other one stops.) Suffice it to say, I was the trainer for a basketball team which made it into the local newspaper precisely because there were so many nationalities on the team.
Before moving to Prague, we lived in Holmlia, probably the most ethnically diverse area of Oslo.
I have been surrounded by non-Norwegians all my life. Since 2009, I have been speaking more English than Norwegian, reading more English than Norwegian, thinking in German and French and Bosnian/Serbian/Croatian almost as much as Norwegian. After 4 years in Prague, it was a culture shock to visit Norway — and it was an even greater shock to move to Denmark, even though it was supposed to be almost like moving home. The greatest shock was realising I hardly understood a word of Danish.
So when a Dane came by with his son today, speaking Danish both of them, to have a play date with our youngest son, it was nothing less than exotic and strange. Our sons played happily (my sons have of course picked up quite a bit of Danish since we moved here in August), while we fathers sat in the kitchen clutching at our teas and trying desperately to use only words the other one understood. His numerals always confused me, while my pronunciation (ie actually pronouncing the sounds and not just swallowing them) always made his eyes glaze over.
I think we drank five cups of tea each.
When they left, the father and his son, I got this terrible feeling of uneasiness one always gets after meeting people from a different culture. Did I do anything wrong? Did they want to stay longer, to have dinner here, or did they stay longer than they wanted out of sheer politeness? Did he find my jokes offensive? Was I too hard or too soft on the kids? Is it comme il faut to let 4 year olds play with Wii for more than half an hour? Did I talk too much about money? Should I have refrained from bringing up religion? Was it a mistake to shake his hand as he left? (I’ve made that mistake before. Don’t they shake hands here in Denmark they same way they do in the Czech Republic?)
Summa summarum, as they’re fond of saying here, it was a clash of different cultures, of two people with very different cultural backgrounds. But he stayed for five hours, and our sons played for five hours, including Wii for 90 minutes, and we did connect. Through our mutual similarities (yes, we did found some!) we developed a common platform on which our occasionally very dissimilar thoughts and habits could meet and evolve into the higher virtues of understanding, respect and compassion.
A platform made out of tea, mostly. But still. I give myself one point. It was good enough.