A year in Denmark

2011-01-28 00:00

IN 1989 I was fortunate enough to persuade a very special Danish person to join me in South Africa. We got married, we had two children and we lived in Hilton for 20 action-packed years. Then we decided we wanted to experience a different part of the world, so we packed our bags (and a lot else besides) and now we are all in Denmark. My wife and daughter arrived here two years ago, but I arrived at the beginning of 2010. So I have a year of living in Denmark on which to reflect.

The new year saw my ears ringing for hours after midnight from the fireworks that went off. After about half an hour of it, I said to my wife that Danes obviously have money to burn. Fortunately for us, and our two cats, who took it all surprisingly calmly, the bangs stopped at about 1 am so we were able to get some sleep. It reminded me of Guy Fawkes when I was a child in Cape Town. We lived next to the Rondebosch Common and we got to enjoy (hanging on the gate and standing on the hedge when we were very young) everyone else’s fireworks as well as our own.

One of the tasks I had set myself before I came here was to learn to communicate with the Danes in their own language. We had been coming here for holidays for at least 10 years, but I had never had the time to knuckle down and learn Danish properly. So now I am taking Danish lessons four days a week at the local Danish school for foreigners­. It is free and I get about 14 hours of tuition a week (since last Easter now).

I have passed exams up to level three and I have two more levels to go. Danish is not as complicated a language as English, by a long chalk, but the pronunciation and rhythm of speech are very important and difficult to learn, even for someone who speaks two other Germanic languages (English and Afrikaans).

The Danish “r” is particularly difficult. It is a bit like the Malmesbury “brei”, but a bit further forward on the tongue. One needs to have just the right amount of saliva on site to lubricate the tongue appropriately. Too much and you may drown, and too little and your soft palate may get flipped under and suffer a severe injury. It takes practice. I have been surprised by how much of a help it has been to have a good knowledge of Afrikaans­. Many of the longer words are identical or nearly identical; it is just a matter­ of pronunciation. Also the difficult part is not reading a text in Danish, even a fairly academic one, because one can always look up difficult words on a computer. The difficult part is understanding people chatting to each other at the shop or at a party. I am almost at the magical “Oh, so that’s what they’re talking about” moment, but not quite.

As most of you are aware, we had a cold winter last year with lots of snow and we have had a cold snap again for the past month, again with lots of snow on the ground. This time it has been really cold with temperatures going down to less than minus 15 at night sometimes. This is when your first impulse when you go out of the front door is to cough. Danes, at least some of them, also seem to have very well-perfused ears. Some of them manage out of doors at these temperatures without something covering their ears, but the average South African has to have a beanie. I have a really nice one, with a happy face on the front, which I inherited from my daughter. It raises smiles wherever I go. What is more, it fits under my bicycle helmet, of which more later.

One of the things that really struck me when I first got here was that everyone, or so it seemed to me, was wearing black. They all have black cars too, or at least black is far and away the most popular colour for cars here, rather like white is in South Africa­. I think, and hope, that this is just a passing phase. I don’t remember being impressed by this when I came to Denmark 20 years ago.

One gets used to it after a while and one can understand the obsession with dark coloured cars, as they are warmer to get into on cold days if they have been standing in the sun. But the clothes — I thought the Danes had more imagination than that. At least my own personal Dane does. She has a blue jacket and it makes her very easy to find in a crowd.

Bicycles. This is the perfect country for cycling, apart from Holland of course. The highest point in the whole country is only 173 metres above sea level. So there are no hills to speak of. But what the country lacks in hills it makes up for in winds. Fortunately for me, they are usually crosswinds on the route I take to cycle to my Danish classes, four times a week.

It is 11 kilometres to town and 11 km back and it is (nearly) all flat. So I have become pretty fit since I have been here. I am also learning fast about bicycle maintenance. Wikipedia is a good place to start. The roads are set up so that you can go most places on a bicycle without having to worry about being run over by a truck or a car or a bus. And the motorists have all been trained to look out for cyclists at junctions and they nearly always wait for you. Bicycles make you free. You can go almost anywhere almost any time and it is free except for the few extra potatoes you have to consume to replenish your glycogen stores and the small amount of money expended on maintaining your cycle. You can even cycle in the snow. It is a bit like cycling on a beach, but you need to dress up a bit more.

What do I miss about South Africa? I miss our friends and I miss my patients. What do I not miss about South Africa? I don’t miss most of the politicians.

What do I like about Denmark? See above and the fresh clean air. What do I not like about Denmark? Having­ to look out for cyclists when you are driving a car, having to look out for knallerts (small motor scooters) when you are riding a bicycle and the fact that the young people get too drunk too often.

There’s a lot more to be told about Denmark­, but I am going to save it for another time.

• Jim Muller was chief physician and metropolitan head of the department of medicine at Grey’s Hospital until he retired at the end of 2009. He now lives in Denmark with his wife and two children.

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