You would think that after nearly four years in a country my day-to-day exposure to the language would render me fluent enough to understand, say… a television commercial.
You would be wrong.
I tried the other night: not a single Danish word penetrated my mono-linguistic brain.
As someone living in a country not your own, you hear talk about the expat bubble, that strange no-man’s land between local and foreigner, between real life and a life less ordinary. Usually the term is used to describe living with a false sense of reality. To an extent, that’s true. Most of us as expats are getting the spruced up, brochure version of the places we’re posted. The corners are sanded down, the finish is glossy. You’re kept far away from the grittier edges, firmly on the side of the greener grass.
Sometimes it can make you feel as if you’re not living real life, but an idealized one.
A big portion of that bubble is the advantage of remaining blissfully, ignorantly unaware of stuff that’s happening right under your nose.
You see, like many expats, I have spent my time abroad sitting pretty in a bubble of babel.
There are plenty of times when not speaking the local lingo can be a hinderance: public transport announcements are always fun and you never find out about the two-for-one scarf sale in time. But there are other times when non-fluency is a blessing.
“Undskyld, jeg taler ikke Dansk!” is a lovely, inoffensive way to ignore the grumpy woman screaming at me from the bike lane. (My time abroad has also taught me a well-timed middle finger translates across most linguistic borders. But that’s a post for another day.)
Most of all though, non-fluency in your local language allows you to move through your expat space in a cloud of relative innocence. In a bubble.
All things considered, Denmark is a remarkably safe place to live. But it’s even safer in my bubble because, well, I can’t read the news. Or listen to it. For all I know all sorts of horrors are taking place in Hellerup, nastiness in Nørrebro, but in my bubble I remain, blissfully clueless.
Have you ever gone on vacation and nixed the newspaper or skipped out on the six o’clock news? You go about your days not knowing about all the bad stuff that’s going on. All the stuff that’s getting everyone else all riled up. Elections and gas prices and political in-fighting. Crime sprees and car crashes and all the other human misery below the fold. Have you ever noticed how nice it is to steer clear of all that news? Life just seems a little bit…kinder.
That’s a little bit what not speaking the language is like.
Views on the local political election? Nope, got nothing. The latest on the break-ins in Østerbro? Oblivious. Price-gouging of flødeboller and frikadeller? Where’d you hear about that?
I feel safe here, not only because Denmark is a safe place to live, but because I don’t hear about all the no-so-safe stuff. It’s quiet, because I can’t understand what the hell is being said around me. The stuff that gets the locals all riled up? I get to bypass it completely. I have no real stake in the long-term politics because I know I’m not going to be here forever. When I hear about forecasts for the welfare state, it doesn’t affect me in any meaningful way. When I hear about the zero growth birth rate? Oh well, they had a good run.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s plenty of bad news to go around. I’m American, just looking at the current lineup of GOP candidates is enough to make me run and bury my head in the sand, not to mention the state of the rest of the world. But my everyday, run of the mill stuff?
What? I can’t hear you! There’s really good sound-proofing in this bubble.
It’s safe and cozy in the bubble. It’s warm..ok, maybe not in Denmark, but you get the idea. The bubble isn’t necessarily all tangible perks–maids and tennis club memberships and exotic travel. It isn’t getting to live a life completely different from what you would back home. Personally, I’d like to think if I was living out some day-to-day fantasy it wouldn’t smell so strongly of lemon-scented cleaner and involve as much grocery shopping, but…I guess it’s faux real.
The language part of the bubble is the small kindness that is not worrying about everything going on around you. You’re able to cycle through your days just getting on with it. The food shopping, the laundry, your job, the dusting, whatever. I do all that. I just get to do it without worrying too much about the price of milk. Not because I can afford it when it goes up, but because I never read the article telling me it was going to go up.
Every now and then I have to prick the bubble and let some air out–usually when the milk has gone up enough that even I can tell. But for the most part, remaining slightly removed and aloof from your host country through language is probably the best kept secret of living abroad.
When you can’t understand the noise around you, it’s actually pretty damn quiet.
16 Comments Add yours
Fascinating! I can certainly see the attraction…
Yes, it has it’s attractions! The flip side is that when I’m home for the summer, I also very much enjoy having random conversations with people I don’t know in my own language. Maybe I appreciate it more because it doesn’t happen every day?
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I’m addicted to news but it makes me miserable. I think that’s why I always love other countries better. I recently read there are growing nationalist movements/white-power groups gaining popularity in Scandinavian countries. It made me a bit sad because I imagined Scandinavians we nicer folks than Americans…I guess people are people no matter where you go.
It’s true. But I know nothing about it (not on a deep level at any rate), because I don’t read/listen to the news. It’s a funny thing about the word ‘nice’. If I had to generalize, I’d say Americans on the whole are ‘nicer’ as a group. Scandis are just and fair and devoted to the ideal of the good of the whole. All fine things to be devoted to. But that doesn’t necessarily translate to thoughtful, polite or ‘nice’. Still, if I had to take my pick
I liked Denmark much better before I learned the language.
Ha! It’s the age old expat lament…”(fill in the country) would be great if it wasn’t for the (countrymen).
Oh I understand ! After 5+ years my Russian is good to order tea , please & thank You , yes & no , how are you , typical greetings .. Shrimp or chicken for my “Ceazer salat “! But then their English has Much Improved ! So I have impacted them as well as they have impacted me. We trade the important daily phrases . Everyone at the office has Great English ! In 15 days my expat days will come to an end.. 4 locations we have had the opportunity to live in, travel and experience the culture, language, food , people transportation, religions. With our daughters in 2 of the locations .. I will miss my expat life but I am looking forward to time at home in TX with my grownup newly married daughters and their Fantastic husbands and time with our supportive and loving it aging parents . … Home is where Chevron Sends us .. But God is in control of the Destination. So make the Best of each Domestic & Foreign and after 31+ years thus far we have no real comp,aunts, lots of interesting stories , FB & Address Books full of friends all across the globe . Home is where the Heart is so no matter where you are be there for your spouse, your family and yourself. And you will find it very hard to leave .
Monica K Nance mknX2@me.com Novorossiysk Russia
What a wonderful attitude you have regarding this whole topsy-turvy world! Best of luck in your re-pat, which is no different than an expat in my opinion. May the roots you plant bear fruit enough for all. 🙂
Another good one! I completely recognize this bubble of which you speak. The right wing is on the ascendant in Poland, so it’s bad news all around for me. I subscribe to one English-language Polish news site on Facebook to give me the highlights, so to speak. I honestly don’t want to know any more than that. I’m just a tourist: one day I’ll say “so long and thanks for all the pierogies,” and that will be that.
It sounds horrible to say it, but I think most of us do it. Maybe it’s a means of coping? It sure is comfy in here though!
It is funny to realise that if you have been off your news junkie addiction for a while and then flick on the News, not much worrying about has actually happened. And those really big things, like the Paris terrorist attacks or the Russian jet shot down by Turkey, you hear from sources other than the News, anyway.
Nice post about language and the reality it creates.
Thank you. I’d never stopped to think about it before, how much quieter (and sometimes nicer) it is w/o the language. You’re 100% right. The important stuff you’ll get word of in whatever language you need to understand it. it makes you wonder how much of the rest of it is simply fluff we’re better off without.
Okay, this is a ridiculously roundabout way to reply to the comment you left on my post “Are You Smarter Than a College Student?” but I accidentally did that maddening thing where my hand slipped on the keyboard and permanently deleted your comment. Much cussing.
Anyway, I wanted to say THANK YOU for your support on that issue. I felt like I was really putting myself in a precarious position that would piss people off. I think most of my blogging audience is pretty progressive and liberal, but I’ve been burned by living in a seriously backward conservative state for so long that I really appreciating hearing your voice on this issue.
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I don’t think you need to worry about my voice. It’s pretty loud ;-). My husband is always telling me not to engage, not to read comments etc, but oohhhh sometimes!!!!
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I’ve been reading your blog for sometime now and I am always amazed at the similarities between our experiences in spite of our differences (I’m an expat woman of color living in West Africa). This is another post that resonated with me to a certain degree… My life in the bubble though blissful, can also characterized by boredom and despondence. After a while the nagging feeling that you are not living in “the real world” leaves you feeling out touch. Here, the language barrier is not a blessing but a burden – with all the poverty and suffering you witness comfortably from the cozy confines of your bubble, it is a unacceptable to remain aloof and unaware…still, perhaps not fully understanding what the hell is going on is a good way to prevent a “savior mentality” from settling in.
I’m so glad that despite the differences you’ve found something familiar in my experiences. I’ve always thought that being an “expat” is the common denominator for so many of us. We’re so different, and bring so many different experiences to the table, and yet the idea that we are all living this sort of half home/half away life binds us in some way.