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The little black book of International Aarhus

If the slogan was not already taken, their motto could be "connecting people." But the story of three women connected in their drive for the internationalisation of Aarhus runs deeper - it is also a tale of a city of cooperation.

Photographer: Lars Kruse - AU Foto

Text: Michaela Medvedová

"Who will start?" "The oldest one… Well… in experience, of course!"

Fits of laughter, dynamic banter, and well-meaning jabs traded so quickly they are at times hard to keep track of. When chatting with them in the conference room at Dokk1 - the cultural centre at the Aarhus harbour - watching them exchange ideas and build on each other's thoughts, it was not difficult to see the lively energy between these three women and how easily it can transform into a solid professional cooperation.

However, one would not expect the professional paths of Daniela Trifiletti, Kirsten Vestergaard Lauridsen, and Tiny Maerschalk to overlap, even if all three work at major institutions in Aarhus: university, municipality, and International Community, respectively. But they do share a common goal: the internalisation of Aarhus.

Life as a whole

In 2008, when Tiny started to work with internalisation at Erhverv Aarhus - an independent organisation representing approximately 600 member companies - it was not as present in the city as it is now. "There were several large companies which attracted international employees but had difficulties retaining them. Work-life was good, but something was missing in life as a whole," says Tiny, a Belgian who originally planned to stay in Denmark for two semesters after her studies – and remained for almost twenty years during which she married a Dane and had two kids.

When she compares 2008 to today, it feels as if light years have passed to make Aarhus a more receptive city for internationals. At Erhverv Aarhus, their aim is to ensure that Aarhus is the best possible career destination for internationals and that companies do not have too many issues with recruiting, welcoming, and retaining internationals.

Their focus on internationalisation is known as the International Community, which has various social and professional events and matches internationals with clubs and associations. "We also work together with companies - where do they find difficulties? We cannot solve or organise everything; our aim is to point them in the right direction or address the comments to the city of Aarhus and see how we can, in close cooperation, improve the issue." The International Community can point to small things; if you alter those, you can change internationals' lives for the better – and motivate them to stay. "There is a company that used to have a retention rate of nine months. Five years later, it was up to 3,5 years," concludes Tiny.

Choose Aarhus

With internationalisation and globalisation, attraction came as well. At Aarhus University, where Daniela is part of the internationalisation efforts, the city is competing with the likes of Singapore. "Workplaces, including Aarhus University, want the best highly skilled employees in the world. We have an extraordinary campus and research environment, but we need to make sure that things work out the same outside the university. We all need to cooperate to attract," explains Daniela, a journalist from Colombia who came to Denmark in 2013 for a year to do her MA degree.

Now, she is married to a Dane and a mom to two kids. "I did not have any resources at hand to learn how to build my new life as an international mother here. It was challenging and lonely," remembers Daniela. The drive to work with internationalisation stemmed from her own experience, which she combined with her credentials and started a blog. She started reaching out to people, trying to get organisations to address the issues of internationals and building bridges to create a sense of community in Aarhus.

Then, she accepted a job as Coordinator of Aarhus University International Club, allowing her to assist international staff and their families settle in Denmark. "That's where these collaborations really come as a joint effort to tackle the need everyone shares. Everyone needs international talent. It moves from retention to attraction: Choose Aarhus over any other place," says Daniela, while in the same breath appreciating the municipality for taking action and creating initiatives to tackle the challenges.

A warm welcome

Kirsten, the self-proclaimed Dane in this relationship, has a short and simple answer to the question of what brought her to Denmark: "My mom and dad," laughs Kirsten. - Always interested in the world and other cultures, she chose international studies and her path to being a project manager in the Innovation Department at the municipality led through studying abroad in France, volunteering as a teacher in Tanzania and Kenya, and working in Belgium to have a different outlook on the world.

Now, she works with internationalisation, where the focus has been shifting to reflect not only the needs of international companies. "We should make sure that Aarhus is a good city for everyone that lives here." For the past months, Kirsten has been working on the website for internationals in Aarhus called, so everyone gets a wide range of practical information or insights into the cultural and social life when moving to Aarhus. "Over the years, there has been an understanding of how we need to focus on the attraction part. But you also need good reception – coming to Denmark should be smooth, and you should feel welcome. For instance, the annual Aarhus City Welcome - a day dedicated and tailored to internationals living in Aarhus - is part of this vision," explains Kirsten. The focus of internationalisation needs to be three-legged: attraction, reception, and retention.

"It is great to have the Danish view always on the table. It confronts, in a very healthy way, our international mindset"

Co-designing internationalisation

Just as the three aspects of internationalisation are interconnected, so are the three women working with it, yet each bringing something new. "We come from different worlds – business, municipality, and education. We have different perspectives on what can be done and who to reach out to," Kirsten chimes in, after which Tiny, very cryptically, claims: "We have the black book of Aarhus!"

But this is meant as a joke. Their cooperation is simply a reflection of the strong collaboration between all players in Aarhus who are united in working on a shared goal of making Aarhus more international-friendly. "Our organisations are entangled from lower to higher levels. The three of us are just a small piece in a huge puzzle," reflects Daniela on the collaborative network in the city, reaching even beyond their organisations.

In their personal cooperation, Daniela highlights the importance of bringing a Danish perspective into the conversation as Kirsten could challenge some of her and Tiny's views. "It is great to have the Danish view always on the table. It confronts, in a very healthy way, our international mindset," she concludes. But the open discussion also helps Kirsten understand the perspective of internationals on a deeper level.

Home is where the effort is

Home is a simple word, but for an international, it is not an easy concept to define or a feeling to recreate - and the process of building a home in a new territory can be vastly different.

In Tiny's case, one of the most significant barriers cited by internationals that stop them from feeling at home in Denmark – the strangeness of the language suddenly surrounding them – was gone before she arrived. Tiny studied Danish in Belgium before coming to Denmark to perfect it – so she requested to only live with Danes, which, naturally, included speed learning through watching Matador. She also realised that the way to the heart of Danes was participation in clubs and associations - and making an effort. "It can be hard to get to them, but once you have a Danish friend, you have a friend for life."

"You need to have an interest in the country you move to. But it does not mean you need to do everything the Danish way and eat rugbrød med leverpostej."

Daniela, on the other hand, personifies the duality of international life. It has taken her a lot of time to fully realise she now has a life in the Nordics, too. "I have not pursued the feeling of home in Denmark for a long time because I thought I was going back home," explains the Colombian. Instead, she found a sense of belonging in the international community – and it has made Aarhus her home. Daniela no longer sees herself as an expat. "Being a part of the growth of the city makes me feel like I am creating a home."

An attempt to leave Kirsten out of the conversation about (re)creating a home in Aarhus is met with a quick protest from Tiny. "It is a misconception to think that it is only difficult for internationals. Even for Danes moving to another city – it is a struggle." Kirsten can easily empathise with the experience of the internationals – she felt the same way while studying abroad. "But it is quite true for Danes as well. If you move to another city, you do not get friends right away. It takes years. Why? Well, because they are Danish," laughs Kirsten. "But how do you grasp culture?"

A safety net

Cultural assimilation and integration are much-debated subjects in all multicultural countries. The three women agree, however, that the concept of assimilation is not necessary. "You need to have an interest in the country you move to. But it does not mean you need to do everything the Danish way and eat rugbrød med leverpostej. There are very different understandings of what Danish-ness is," explains Tiny. But Danes can be interested in what internationals bring along with them too. "It is not humanly possible to adapt fully and forget where you come from – we come with so much cultural baggage. But it's also our responsibility to show this luggage to your new country," Daniela elaborates.

The trio hosts a recurring event called Newcomers' Info Evening, which gives internationals the pointers they need when they first arrive in the country - or even before. Kirsten covers the practicalities of language learning, job search, or the healthcare system; Tiny speaks about volunteering and gaining a network, and Daniela walks them through Danish society's cultural and social topics. They also organise theme nights where they talk about everything from banking through birthdays to giving birth. "It encourages people to have a conversation and ask: Why do you do this in that way?" reflects Kirsten.

The event should provide an understanding of how Danish society works. "It is never a claim from us that this is how they should act," says Tiny. It also gives the internationals an opening to enter an international community in Aarhus, which Daniela considers valuable. "When you move to a new country, you need to find something that resembles you."

Daniela explains that it is the first eight weeks that decide the impression of a new country. It is key to seeing the strong community and good accessibility – that there is a net that will catch them when they inevitably fall. Having someone who understands both challenges and joys is fundamental. But so is having someone tell them that the key to leaving the international bubble is joining clubs or associations. "It is a mix. You find people who are in a similar situation – but you also meet Danish people. You step a little bit into this and that direction until you feel that this is home. It is not a straight line," concludes Kirsten.

Many initiatives are a part of making this safety net possible - careful planning, good communication and coordination are crucial to ensuring that there is a space for each of them and that the events do not overlap.

But in a system of organisations resembling a breathing organism, this is not a big worry. They understand they do not compete for the attention of internationals.

They work together to make Aarhus feel like home.

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