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Throwing Caution to the Wind - part 2

A column devoted to deconstructing and demystifying immigration and integration in Denmark, one disruptively uncomfortable and embarrassingly trivial emotional meltdown at a time.

Photographs: Visit Copenhagen

Text: Antesa Jensen

How to be resentful of a whole country? Well, goodness me, if I could only tell you. But one thing I know for sure is that our brains will do very tricky things to avoid embracing reality, and my brain was especially sophisticated.

The earnest Danes I knew at the time (bless them) addressed my resentment in one of three ways:

  1. Tried to reassure me by telling me the story of the time a guy ran for parliament promising that, if he were elected, he would ensure we would only ever have a tail-wind during our bike commutes ever again (which was funny and so very Danish but not really helpful), or

  2. Quoted Alfred Wainwright and insisted that there was no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing (again, a painfully pragmatic and mostly accurate statement, but not really helpful — see the point about where to find adequate rain gear in my November article), or

  3. Told me that the problem was not Denmark or Danes but rather my expectations. They were simply too high.

Even though these responses were always well-intended, and it was absolutely true that my expectations were way too high (I mean, I moved to Scandinavia, not Morocco), I needed compassion at the time.

Something like “Gosh, it must be tough to move your entire life to a new country, not having any idea what to expect from one day to another, all the while navigating in an obscure foreign language even the locals don’t understand. So I get why something as insignificant as constantly contending with wind and rain might feel overwhelming for you.”

If someone had said that to me, I surely would’ve melted into a bucket of tears. Because underneath my lofty expectations and stubborn attachments to wanting to be in control was the reality that I had just done something really vulnerable.

I left my home — and everything familiar to me — in pursuit of a better life elsewhere.

In the personal growth world we have this expression: the thing is rarely the thing. What it means is, the thing we perceive as “the problem” is rarely what the real issue is, but focusing on it as though it is definitely prevents us from feeling satisfied, and from seeing what the real thing is.

This is the part where I tell you it wasn’t about the wind or the rain. Instead, it was about the incessant feeling of discomfort that is intrinsic in the experience of immigration and that it was amplified exponentially upon immigrating to a country with a global reputation for how comfortable and content everyone is.

Perhaps the biggest (unconscious) expectation I had when I got here was that if Danes were so happy (or even just content and secure like the fine print says), I would be, too.

"No amount of candles, cake, and cosy nights on the sofa can make immigration feel “hyggelig."

I mean, hygge might as well be Denmark’s national mascot (right after The Laws of Jante, naturally).

Here’s how it can seem given these circumstances: everyone is comfortable except you, and everywhere you turn, your face is being rubbed in this fact. No amount of candles, cake, and cosy nights on the sofa can make immigration feel “hyggelig.” No amount of knowledge that you are living in a country which prides itself on social welfare and togetherness can compensate for the isolation of being an outsider with no evident community to lean on.

Have you ever had an experience where you really needed to feel consoled, but you had no idea how to achieve that, and neither did anyone else around you because society is not set up to address something presumed to be innate within it?

That was me for at least my first five years living in Denmark.

Life experiences like these have their way of revealing to you the things you never knew you needed precisely by them not getting met enough times that you start paying attention. And when you’ve just moved to a country where the cultural narrative is that all of your needs are met (isn’t that why we pay such high taxes?), the emotional/spiritual need to feel seen and heard precisely where you are without needing it to be any other way than it is (compassion, by my definition) feels…irrational and inaccessible.

And especially when you don’t know that you actually have this particular need, and the byproduct of not having the need met is a sort of emotional volatility that is totally foreign to your tough and well-put-together self-image, well, it’s very subtly crazy-making.

I could only pinpoint a general sense of internalised suspension or dis-ease. Like I couldn’t quite exhale all the way.

I was outside my comfort zone, trying to act “normal” and flailing.

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