It is election time here in Denmark. On 18 June 2015, Danish citizens residing in Denmark have the opportunity (the right, not the obligation) to vote for their favourite candidate for the National Parliament – Folketinget. The election was called on 27 May 2015 at 11am and just before 3pm when I left a seminar on innovation in the public serve, every fence and vacant wall space was filled with election posters.
The plan to come to Copenhagen for a year did not come to me in a flash – it evolved slowly from that feeling of not quite belonging where I was. A tiredness from being a just little bit out of place, a little bit different. A feeling of being surrounded by truths a little bit – or sometimes a lot – different from what I knew to be true when I was much younger than today.
We have now been in Denmark for eight weeks and in our flat for five. It is four weeks since our older son left to go back home to Brisbane, Queensland, Australia – home to our younger son who did not want to come. Thankfully, they report that they are both doing well.
In that time we have been exploring our new place. And: I love Copenhagen. There are so many things to see, to do, to enjoy. I love hearing Danish language around me. I even love the cold, especially on a sunny day when every spot of sunshine on the street walks fills up with people catching just a bit of that sun. I love seeing my family and my friends. And I love that my husband is so completely on the journey with me. But it is too soon to say if I belong here.
It is hard to come home when you don’t belong writes Maren Uthaug in her debut novel Og sådan blev det (And so it was) from 2013. Like the main character, Kirsten, Uthaug lives in Denmark, but her parents are Sami and Norwegian. The story is about going back to ones roots to discover identity. Kirsten is born as Risten in Northern Norway into a Sami community. When she is seven years old, her parents separate and with her Norwegian father she moves into the home of a well-meaning Danish woman. In all her well-meaningless and desire for minimum conflict and otherness in her midst, the woman changes the girl’s beautiful Sami name to a Danish one. She also changes the name of the Vietnamese orphan who came to live with her when Vietnamese boat refugees came to Denmark in numbers so large that authorities had to billet them with private individuals.
Kirsten’s plan to reconnect with her Sami family also does not come in a flash and when she finally visits her mother in Northern Norway, her sense of belonging to the country and community in which she was born is blurred by years of absence, growing up in a different country, community and culture. Even the belief system for keeping evil away that she learnt from her grandma; the silver, the chants in an old Finnish language, Kvensk, the warning to never look at the northern light; are foreign to the Sami community to which she returns.
Just before she leaves with her father for Denmark, young Risten commences a massive project to draw a fantastic tree covering numerous taped together pieces of A4 paper. She wants to draw the roots, the crown, the branches. The roots of this tree – of this girl – are clearly deeply buried in the northern country near the arctic circle. When she returns she probes to discover just how deeply her roots are buried – they are so well covered up by an alternative truth that they are nearly impossible to discover.
This is a touching and moving story, well written and beautifully told. Being out of place in a well-meaning, but much misguided ‘civilisation’ parallels stories of first nations people across the world. And I am happy to say, it is a far cry from my own experience: my struggle for belonging are nothing on a scared little girl far away from home, clutching her grandma’s silver ring and chanting to keep evil spirits at bay and holding tight to cultural truths that no-one surrounding her has any possibility of understanding.
My story has none of that drama at all. I deeply respect the genuine struggle of all people who are displaced, especially to those who did not – and cannot – themselves chose to be where they are.
After all this time of worrying and fretting, we suddenly hold the Open Sesame that lets us access the multitude of riches and offers of Club Denmark. While it took some waiting at International House, wondering if we were in the right place for the right purpose, suddenly we were registered in the Central Person Register with our bohemian address and assigned to a doctor.
My residence card runs out in December 2019 and I am required to send it back should I leave the country to take up residence in another country. My husband, as an EU citizen, is not required to even have a residence card or return anything. Smugly, I swear to myself that I will not return the card: on the commencement of new laws enabling dual citizenship on 1 September 2015 I will reclaim my Danish citizenship without losing my Australian one. I hope.
Aside from the judicial technicalities involved in being a former Danish citizen wanting to be let back into my country, there is also the question of welcome. We have received an overwhelming welcome from the people we know – who seem genuinely excited that we are in Denmark – but what do other Danes think about us staying?
Nørrebro, our new neighbourhood, is quite multicultural. On the street I hear a multitude of languages spoken by people from all over the world. The food stores, restaurants and even fashion stores signal origins from the Middle East, Africa, India and Asia. Around the corner is Copenhagen’s Verdenskultur Center or World Culture Centre, a place for growing cultural projects, with particular emphasis on people from ethnic backgrounds other than Danish.
On Monday night we were stopped in our path. We were walking home from the inner city and were stopped by a demonstration. It turned out that Pegida-dk held their first demonstration in Copenhagen. A spin-off group from the German Pegida – which stands for Patriotische Europäer Gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes (patriotic Europeans against Islamisation of the West), their message is against the influence of Islam in Denmark and easily builds on a fear that Christian indigenous Danes will become a minority. The leader, Nicolai Sennels, claims to be the middle class and this fits with Pegida’s slogan, We are the people. This seems to parallel the Occupy movement’s We are the 99%. It claims a space for ordinary people, who are concerned about the impact of muslim immigrants and fundamental Islamism on Danish society. The 10-year-old Danish Mohammad drawings and the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo are also somehow mixed into it as Danish support of the publication of the Mohammad drawings has grown larger than in 2005.
Right next to our flat, a counter demonstration started. It was a group labelling themselves Revolutionary Antifascists. You are not the people rang through the air and placards advised that refugees and muslims are welcome here. Given the nature of our neighbourhood, it is probably not strange that such a counter demonstration should start here.
In our street is a rather puzzling message of apparent prejudice on the garage door that protects the entry to the very busy lolly shop when it is closed. The message reads: Hvad er der galt med Jylland? (What is wrong with Jutland?) The intention of this message is not at all clear, but the best interpretation I can think of is that it is a manifestation of an age-old power struggle between the main land and Copenhagen.
According to H.C. Andersen’s lyrics Jutland is Hovedlandet (the head or main land). During the earliest mentions of Denmark as a country in the 10th century, the locus of power and control was in Jelling in Jutland. To this day, the Danish legal system takes it root in Jydske Lov – the law of the Jutes – a codification of the laws of Jutland from 1241. Around the same time Copenhagen was established as part of the Bishop of Roskilde’s jurisdiction and grew in importance over the next centuries. By the 16th century King Christian IV expanded the city and made it the centre of power for all of the Nordic countries.
But why would a lolly shop owner in a small street just outside the lakes in Copenhagen think it ok to remind people of this old rivalry? I think it is a way of constructing identity by differentiating oneself from others: Copenhageners defining themselves in juxtaposition to their fellow Danes, the Jutes, perhaps feeling that the migration from Jutland to Copenhagen is cramping their style and their claim to ancestral lands? Why are you all coming here – why not stay in Jutland?
The sign of the lolly shop somehow reminds me that my ‘real’ identity and roots are not here in Copenhagen, but in the sandy soils of Midtjylland. Just like the judicial difficulties associated with my loss of Danish citizenship, it questions whether I belong here. While I admire graffiti artists whose work is humorous or thought provoking, I am not for graffiti of the destructive sort. But I must say I was secretly pleased when one morning the security door’s message had been obscured by another message.
Perhaps it is symbolic that it is a message in a language I do not understand.
Travelling half-way around the world and shifting 10 time zones in 24 hours turns day into night and night into day, playing serious havoc with sleep patterns. But possibly what has kept me awake in the middle of the night is the long list of things we need to achieve as quickly as possible so that we can become part of Danish society.
You see, Danish society is like a closed and exclusive club, nervously assessing the worthiness of potential new members. Denmark’s tracking of its members is streamlined across many public and private systems – a veritable dream for the Australian bureaucrat, whose cross-agency work is stymied by the absence of a single unique identity number and further complicated by privacy legislation. The key to Danish efficiency is the CPR number, a unique number made up of your birth date and four additional numbers, under which you are registered in the Central Person Register.
Admission into Club Denmark requires registration of your address with the local government of your residence, using your CPR number. Once you have this Open Sesame, an abundance of possibilities emerge, which are otherwise unattainable to the outsider. We quickly found out that without a registered address you cannot get a Danish mobile phone account; you cannot set up a bank account in a reasonable time period and you cannot get NemID, the digital identity system in Denmark required for online transactions, including buying the best value Rejsekort for discounted public transport. You cannot access services that Danes take for granted.
Luckily, we both have CPR numbers – I was allocated mine when born and my husband got his when we married in Denmark in 1991. But to register an address we also have to have lawful permission to stay in the country. As a citizen of the United Kingdom, all my husband needed to do was to register as a EU citizen wanting to reside in Denmark. Because I am no longer a Danish citizen, my situation was more complicated: I could apply for permission to stay based on my former Danish citizenship or apply for family reunification with my husband. I baulked at the latter: why should I, born and bred Dane, rely on a foreigner to get into my own country?
We followed the instructions online – nyidanmark.dk. We are both university educated and I have native command of Danish. Yet when we stood in Furesø local council service centre, we realised nothing is straight forward. Firstly, the take-a-number system we know in Australia from delicatessen counters are omnipresent in public administration and retail in Denmark. The lack of queue culture in other areas of Danish life is amply compensated for by these machines – provided you know about them. You can almost hear the snickering by people jumping in front of you in the queue, while you wait and wait for your turn which will never come until you discover the number system. Secondly, it turned out that we needed to go to a government department, Statsforvaltningen, rather than the local council to register as an EU citizen first.
So the next day we travelled out to the department – a strangely out-of-the-way anonymous-looking building, with poor signage and an unwelcoming entry. Now wisened to the take-a-number culture, we quickly claimed our place in the queue with a diverse bunch of folk in a cacophony of different languages.
Unfortunately, our documentation to demonstrate Mick’s financial self-sufficiency was inadequate since the currency of our Australian bank holdings were not identified. I guess it could have been Indian Rupees or Russian Rubles. So we were sent away again to get acceptable documentation. They also clarified that I would be best off to apply for family reunification, rather than rely on my former Danish citizenship. In spite of my initial misgivings, I saw the sense: it saved us from dealing with yet another public service entity.
Third time lucky, by day 4 in Denmark, I got a stamp in my Australian passport that I have lodged my application for permission to stay, so I will not be deported when the three month holiday available to Australians expires. The application may take up to six months to process – while my UK husband will have his registration card in a couple of days.
All this anxiety and humiliation associated with reclaiming ones birth right will soon be a thing of the past. On Thursday 18 December 2014, Danish Parliament passed a law to permit dual citizenship. This law is expected to commence on 1 September 2015 and has transition provisions for people like me, who had to relinquish our judicial Danishness because we wanted to be part of the country we happened to live in. I will be first in the queue on 1 September 2015.
Citizenship seems a formality – a judicial technicality – but as my experience with returning to Denmark demonstrates, it has real and significant consequences not to belong to Club Denmark, quite aside from the emotional effect of feeling locked out of one’s birth country.
I love and belong in both Denmark and Australia and I look forward to being able to be formally recognised by both exclusive clubs. Then I can worry about other stuff in the middle of the night – like a cure for jetlag.
This week, one lunch time, I took a moment to sit in Queen Victoria Park. Just sit still and watch people milling about, eating their lunch, enjoying the not-yet-too-hot Brisbane sun. What struck me was the diversity around me. A cacophony of accents from people with features originating from all the continents in the world. Of course, the vast majority of people here are still of British or continental European origin, but our local strength in this globalised world is surely our diversity.
When I was a child in monocultural and provincial Denmark, I thought the Korean girl in my grade was beautiful and exotic. Her beautiful black hair, dark brown eyes and golden skin was different. She was one of the first children adopted into Denmark through the international adoption program. This ‘difference’ was unusual where I grew up in the early 1970s. Yet, she was just like any of the girls in my grade – we rode our bikes to school, sang in the choir together and went on camp with the local scout group together.
When in the late 1970s Danish Photographer Jacob Holdt visited our small town with his Amerikanske Billeder – a collection of photographs documenting life of African Americans in the early 1970s – my parents took me along to his talk. It had a huge impact on me to see how people – families with children – lived in contemporary America: the squalor and poverty, right there in the wealthiest country on earth. The African Americans too were different, yet they were not embraced by the privileged mainstream society.
At about the same time, the television series of Alex Hayley’s Roots came on Danish television. The family saga begins with a young African man brutally captured, trafficked on a sailing ship to America and sold as a slave. As if he was not human. It offended my sense of identity when I learnt that Danish sailors and ships were engaged in this human trade.
Safe and healthy in middle class provincial Denmark, my parents taught me that my comfortable life of opportunity was not a given for everyone. It was my luck that I was born to free parents in a place with democracy, social mobility and a strong sense of social justice and equality. Looking back, I can also see that it was easy to be tolerant of difference when you rarely meet it in monocultural Denmark.
It is at the edges of cultures that innovation and new thinking happens. When we are all the same and all think the same, it can be hard to generate new ideas and to imagine things could be any other way. At the edge of our ‘we group’, we are challenged by difference and, if we let it happen, new perspectives come together to see our issues and problems in a new light. This diversity of points of view helps join the dots in new and different ways. Monocultural societies – and ‘we groups’ – tend to protect their way of seeing, thinking and doing. And tend to fear difference.
A quarter of all Australians are born overseas. Another 20% have at least one parent born overseas. With more than half of Australians either born overseas or being children of people born overseas, we are still very much a country of migrants. Perhaps it is only Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population, the people of Australia’s first nations – who make up only 3% of our population – who are not migrants to this country.
In Denmark, 10% are ‘Danes of other ethnic background’ though this number may include third and even fourth generation of ‘other ethnic background’. In my own extended family, I can count:
– one Swede and two children
– one native American and one child
– one Kurd, two children and two grandchildren
– one Pole and one child
– one German, three children and one grandchild
– one New Zealander, two children and two grandchildren living in England
– my own family of four living in Australia, including my husband born in England.
Mine is a rather multicultural family – though I would venture to say this is not the Danish norm. When does one’s identity change from Dane with other ethnic background to just Danish? Four hundred years and ten generations back on my father’s side is a German soldier and Rittmeister from Rodinger – does that make me a Dane with other ethnic background? If not, at what point did that change? Seven generations back, six, four? Or does it take 40,000 years to truly belong to a country?
Sitting in multicultural Brisbane that lunch hour, I saw people of many different backgrounds, who call Australia home. Some may have been here for generations and some, like me, be first generation migrants. You cannot really tell just by looking at people. However, at the end of the day, no matter how our government statistics classify us, we are all humans with fundamental human needs – including the need to belong and find our place in the sun. We are going to have to figure out how we live with diversity for it will not go away. Thankfully. It makes our lives all the more interesting.
‘One can never leave home’ wrote Maya Angelou in Letter to my Daugther in 2008, because ‘one carries the shadows, the dreams, the fears and dragons of home under one’s skin, at the extreme corners of one’s eyes and possibly in the gristle of the earlobe.’
I have been thinking a lot about home lately. As a child I had a stable home. We moved around a little at first, never straying far from that centre of my father’s universe that was Lundfod where he grew up. Once I started school we stayed in the same place until after I left home. My childhood was spent in the little village community of Gjellerup, smack in the centre of Jutland peninsula, as far away from the water as it is possible to get in the little island country of Denmark, where people are of the land and have both feet firmly planted on the ground. Once settled here, my parents got on with their business and we kids got on with being kids and growing up.
It was safe and it was summer, and I played with friends on the street until we were called in to go to bed, even if it still seemed like broad day light. Or it was winter with snow piled high outside and candle light on the well-decorated, freshly felled pine tree, cosy inside, and we played board games and card games with our parents. It was safe and we were never in doubt we were loved. It was a good place from which to go and conquer the world. And so I did, but that is another story.
This was home and I belonged to the place. My community was a very ancient village, the one with the oldest church in Denmark, from 1140. This community was tight knit and deeply religious, but growing fast in the secularised, liberated 1970s. Though we were newcomers, we were all able to find our community, our belonging, here in this rapidly expanding village as it merged to become a suburb of the larger town, Herning. I started at the new school as soon as it opened in january 1973, sang in the choir, joined the scouts, roamed the streets playing cowboys and indians, princesses and dragonslayers and racing our bikes down the gently sloping hills. Friends, whom I still hold dear and count among my very best friends, are friends from my childhood home (you know who you are).
No matter how much I go back and walk the streets I used to play in, look at the homes I used to live in or visit the school I went to, in that little village, I know that there is no going home. It is never the same as the memory of home I carry under my skin. Because I am not the person I was and I will never be that person again, never belong in that place as I did. Similarly, the people I associate with my belonging to that place are no longer there and are no longer the people they were. Experimental philosopher Joshua Knobe questions the notion of an essential self – the person you are can never be the person you were or the person you will be: Even physically, 98% of atoms in your body changes every year.
Nevertheless, when I go to Denmark and look at the landscape, the architecture and the people, hear the language and the songs and feel the place, I know that I belong. I am recognised, I fit in. I belong to this country, this people, this language, this history.
And I don’t. Having lived for 23 years in Australia, away from Denmark, my mother tongue is 23 years old and the society I knew then has moved on, through several crises and cultural shifts. Some of these shifts are significant and others more subtle. For any migrant, this is a significant experience and sometimes cause of sorrow. It reminds us perpetually of the flux of all things: ever-newer water flows and one cannot step in the same river twice (Heraculitus).
It may be true you never leave home, as Angelou asserts, but I have found the home under my skin has morphed and changed, as I run through its manifestations inside my head and adjust the shadows, dreams, fears and dragons to fit into the narrative of my life. One may never leave home, but home is never what it was.
And this is exactly why I need to go home to Denmark: so I can adjust the home under my skin, at the corner of my eye and in the gristle of my earlobe. Thanks Angelou, and rest in peace.
Diogenes (404-323 BC) was a Cynic and even though he lived in a dog house, he called himself ‘citizen of the world’. In today’s increased mobility and connectivity, we can all be citizens of the world, virtually and actually. Except reality is that we are citizens of one country, maybe two, but always only one if you are Danish.