Thursday, July 19, 2007

A Fly on the Wall: Inside conversations in Denmark

For the uninitiated American, danish people just might be some of the rudest on the planet. God love ’em.

But here’s the rub – and it’s a big one – they are only kidding. Danish conversations are rife with irony, always detectable to the native speaker by the stressing of certain vowel-rich sounds infusing the greater sentence with a blunt sarcastic edge. What I’m starting to realize is that danes, 90% of the time, might mean the opposite of what they say.

Especially when leveling insults or rather, compliments. Often, forms of flattery are cloaked in wicked garb. During my first lecture at Roskilde nearly 11 months ago, the Head of Studies Carsten took a swipe at the Department Counselor he was encouraging students to consult, by dead-panning “Peter doesn’t know much about anything! He’s been at this university waaaay too long.” Peter stood at the back of the room, cracking a dim smile.

Confused, I later inquired with Anne Louise if it was normal for professors to insult colleagues in their midst. She explained that, evident by the fact that Carsten mentioned Peter at all, he was actually complimenting him. Nevermind the rude context, it was intended ironically.

Denmark is a society uncomfortable with flattery. Compliments are deliberate, thoughtful and harder to spot than real boobs in Hollywood.

It’s a huge departure from the trademark embellishments Americans tend to make. We exaggerate and make extremist statements, we consider everyone our “friends,” we send Christmas cards to our therapist. Statements such as “Target is my most favorite place on Earth!” would earn you a funny look in Denmark. (Not that I’ve ever said that, but I have). The consequence of all this is that a received compliment can be taken all the way to the bank, provided you convert the insult into a flattering currency you understand.

In a fleeting moment of insecurity I once let slip to a male friend that I would love to drop a few kilos. He politely nodded and called me the word “flodhest”… which means hippopotamus. American men could take some pointers from the danes in sure-fire ways to end maddening conversations about weight. By calling me a river-cow, he was actually calling me skinny, or at least, not too fat. It was ironical.

Yesterday, following an afternoon jog around the city-lakes, I found myself in a popular American eatery ordering take-out as a reward for the vigorous workout. I was clad in loose-fitting spandex and a running cap that I received at the finish line of Ironman Idaho.

The blonde gentleman behind me in line gestured to my hat and asked me if I had raced the Ironman triathlon. Ever the shy, proud girl, I responded with a smile that I had completed the race last June. So had he, it turned out. As often happens with two competitive people -- tri-geeks nonetheless -- we sized each other up from our respective corners in the restaurant.

“So, you’re still showing off?” he said with a straight face, once again referencing my hat.

One point Denmark.

“Yes, I’m an American, so I can get away with it,” I countered.

One point USA.

“I try to be as un-danish as possible.”

Two points USA.

He managed a smile as I grabbed my food.

“Well, enjoy your M-c-D-o-n-a-l-d’-s,” he enunciated.

Two points Denmark.

“Tak. They make a mean c-h-i-c-k-e-n s-a-l-a-d.”

One point USA.

I breezed out of the restaurant with my iPod blaring, looking back at the handsome, 40-something stranger who had just called me a show-off. Somehow I managed to be the ruder one in that conversation.

You can find sparring partners in the oddest places, in the most remote corners of the globe, I’m learning.

The fact that this stranger even spoke to me, in this shy, impassive country, is a huge compliment. I will call him my mean friend from Copenhagen’s McDonalds.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Zeitgeist of Camryn’s pop-life in Denmark

What I’m reading:
Critifiction by Raymond Federman………………. ..“Brilliant and sexy wordplay.”
The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon…………. “Quirky, emotional, stunning. Dakota Fanning reads him. So should you.”
VeloNews and………….. “If only to cry at how f’ed up cycling’s become.”


What I’m watching:
Klovn w/ Kasper Christensen……….................. “Denmark’s Curb your Enthusiasm. Hysterical.”
Kindergarten Cop with Arnold Schwarzenegger…......................……………... “I miss my old boss.”
The Christening of Denmark’s newest princess………………….….... “Isabella Henrietta Ingraa-da Something Something. The baby has 5 names. Precious.”

What I’m eating:
Noget. That’s danish for nothing, baby………………. “Need to lose 10 kilos by yesterday. I think that’s maybe...5 pounds?”

What I’m eating when I'm eating carbs:
Frøsnappers & thebirkes…….. “Danish pastries, fluffy confections with a bottom layer that tastes like marzipan snowflakes on the tongue. Light and delicious.”

Who I’m rooting for:
For President…............................ Rudy Giuliani, Barack Obama or Nancy Reagan
For the Tour de France………………..Jens Voigt, Dave Zabriskie, Frank Schlëck, Carlos Sastre.

What I’m chewing:
Stimorol gum….. “Denmark’s original gum -- like vintage Chewells. The 1st bite gives a squirty surprise. Delightful.”

What I’m listening to:
Soko, Katie Melua, the new Wilco, the new India Arie, and Johnny Cash…. “Soko is a crazy/angry French ingénue. Make her the centerpiece of a CD-mix you send your parents, just to make sure they still worry about you.”

What I’m wearing:
Mary Jane flats, espadrilles, flowy feminine skirts (shocker), black and pink and turquoise. Yves Saint Laurent mascara (most lush-ious around). And LOTS of rainboots these days.

What the boys are wearing:
Euro-gay skinny jeans. Faux-hawks (like a mohawk, only cool), sweatshirts with skulls & crossbones, Converse, speedos at the beach.

Who I’m seeing:
My good friends from Roskilde—Liza & Emilie…. “We aced our group project.”
(Pictures below from the "end of finals" party I held at my flat last week).

Who I’m seeing, after hours:
You’d like to know.

What I’m smoking:
Marlboros……………. “Lights” these days

An evil friend of mine plays a little game with me called “danish lesson” where he teaches me generally offensive words by having me use them in sentences as descriptions for myself. Resultantly, my counter-culture vocabulary has become top notch. “Hej. Jeg er en luksusluder” means, “Hi! I am a high-priced luxury hooker.” My “friend” thought it would be a handy icebreaker for use in job interviews or making friends on the bus.

He claimed generosoity for not teaching me the word “narcluder”. Unlike her high-priced cousin, that winner-of-a-gal is a “crackwhore.”

Welcome to Dark Danish Humor

It must be the six months of spirit-crushing darkness in Denmark’s winter that motivates danes to sprinkle their sassy with just enough black sarcasm to confuse the perplexed newcomer. It’s a side of Denmark I love, as I’ve been told I'm a tad bit sarcastic myself.

This same “friend” came up with a terrific practical joke I could play on my parents during my next visit home to the States… whereby I will pretend I’ve gone “European” and picked up a 2-pack-a-day habit. I brushed him off, saying they would be highly skeptical their naïve, triathlete, teetotaler daughter had crossed over to the dark side with smoking. In my youth, I wanted so badly to rebel against my parents, for 16 months I became a democrat (and a vegetarian, to complete the look). But that was as far as I could take the joke. As pissed as I hoped to make mom and dad – and my Rush Limbaugh-loving grandparents—they only snickered in the corner and challenged me to donate my early weekend mornings to helping campaign for Barbara Boxer, California’s beloved liberal Senator. My mom got the chance to rebel before I did when she lovingly took me aside during my UCLA years and said it wouldn’t be the end of the world if I tried mari-juana.

But they would draw the line at cigarettes. I think there are only 5 or 6 smokers left in California anyways, and they’re either in jail or headed home soon to Europe.

So my wicked friend and I hatched a plan where I could secretly burn cigarettes out the window of my old, Laura Ashley bedroom in my parent’s house. I would have to act irritable on occasion (not a stretch) and excuse myself frequently to use the bathroom. The trick would be in capturing an authentic smoker’s cough that I’m defensive about.

As appealing as it sounds to be a prankster for a day or two back home, I confess that I love my parents too much to attempt such a charade. I miss them a lot, and I’m so proud of them for raising me. A high-priced, smoking luksusluder. Just as long as I don’t become all liberal, we won’t have a problem.