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.