After more than a year away from Denmark, I took a weekend trip away from Hamburg to visit my friends in Aarhus.
Aarhus has changed, and it hasn’t. After a 4-and-a-half hour train ride due north, I found myself downtown in a city which I had once called my home. It was a surreal feeling, with everything at once so strange and so familiar.
The EU has designated Aarhus the European Capital of Culture for the calendar year 2017, which means the city will be organizing a series of cultural events in order to draw visitors and make a name for itself.
According to Wikipedia, Preparing a European Capital of Culture can be an opportunity for the city to generate considerable cultural, social and economic benefits and it can help foster urban regeneration, change the city’s image and raise its visibility and profile on an international scale.
You know what another word for “urban regeneration” is? Gentrification. And the gentrification was hard to miss.
At some point when I was living in Aarhus, they started building a new, badly-needed public transportation overground, and construction was ongoing.
There is a project literally called “the ghetto cleanup” that’s going to screw over a lot of people who already live on the outskirts of the city, because they couldn’t afford to live downtown.
Remember Gellerup, the densely-Arabic “ghetto” to the east of Aarhus where the supposed Islamic radicals came from? The infamous housing project out there, Gelleruparken, has had large chunks torn away from it to make a new road, and is being subjected to new social projects.
One of my friends was kicked out of his beautiful apartment in the middle of downtown because the owners decided the rent was too low so they wanted to renovate it to attract wealthier tenants.
Students are being placed in mobile homes in the government-owned-but-looks-like-a-squat artistic center Godsbanen when there are no rooms for them in the dorms, and paying 4000kr a month to do so – around €540 or $600, or nearly twice as much as I paid to live in a proper dorm (2650kr).
As tends to happen with “urban regeneration,” high-end housing is replacing affordable housing, and the affordable housing is getting pushed further and further away from the city center. One of my Danish friends rightly pointed out to me, “How on earth are students supposed to be able to pay 4000 kroner in rent when SU (financial aid) is only 5000 kroner per month?” Aarhus is already bordering on Copenhagen prices, though it doesn’t have the infrastructure or the culture that Copenhagen offers. And lack of affordable housing is a real problem – after all, even welfare states are not exempt from homelessness.
So strange, yet so familiar (and why I’m glad I stuck it out and kept going to Danish classes until the end)
Even as I gawked at the new businesses and construction sites downtown, my feet knew exactly where to go as I went to first the grocery store, then a 7-11, then the bus stop. I even remembered the PIN to my Danish debit card, and the meager Danish phrases I had memorized came floating back.
“Ja, jeg vil betang med.” (Yes, I’d like the receipt.)
“Jeg vil gern en klippekort. Ja, to zoner.” (I would like a public transportation ticket for two zones).
“Det forstår jeg ikke. Vil du gentage?” (I don’t understand. Please repeat?)
I tried to speak Danish with my friends, shocked at how much I could remember even after not having used it for a year. I was mostly only capable of mundane question-and-answer conversations. “Where are you from in Denmark? How long have you lived in Aarhus? Do you have any siblings?”
At one point I tried to ask a friend how his wife was doing, and I asked: “Hvordan går Katrin?” (literally, how goes Katrina?) My friend laughed, and said “She’s walking quite well, thanks. Did you mean hvordan går det med Katrin?” (How is it going with Katrina?) I laughed, embarrassed. I probably won’t make that mistake again!
Old friends and geography lessons
Remember Kate, the American friend who was my tour guide around Lüneburg? Well, she lives in Aarhus with her now-finance Magnus (pronounced like “mouse” but with an extra syllable – “mow-noose”) were preparing to visit his family in the Faroe Islands. I had heard of the Faroe Islands before but didn’t know much about them and couldn’t tell you where they were on a map, so this was an excellent opportunity to ask questions and to learn.
The Faroe Islands are a group of 18 islands located north of Scotland. The islands belong to the Kingdom of Denmark, and the people speak Faroese, which is related to Icelandic and fairly unlike Danish.
Their main livelihoods are fishing and sheep farming. They are volcanic islands with many hills and valley and one airport near the capital. The capital city, Torshavn, has 11,000 inhabitants. One of the islands has just 40 people living on it and is accessible only by boat. People sail to the next island over once a week to buy groceries.
The weather and climate are basically pretty dreary like northern Scotland. In winter, there are terrible storms, and people are literally forbidden to go outside because the police do not want to rescue them.
They still hunt whales, which today is a highly-regulated activity, but it is still controversial and every now and again makes international headlines.
The society is very closed and old-fashioned. Gay rights are not really a thing, but traditional gender roles very much are. Many young people, especially young women, go to Scotland or England or Denmark to study and never return. That’s what Magnus’s mother did.
On the train ride back to Germany, I was subjected to an unexpected delay in Flensburg: An unexploded hand grenade from World War II had been found on a train route near Neumünster, and the trains were delayed briefly while the appropriate authorities de-fused the explosives.
Unexploded ordnances left over from the World Wars sounds alarming, but their discovery is actually a near-everyday occurrence in this region of Europe – which I’ve written about before. I will still never, ever get used to this.
I wrote my dad a few text messages while I waited.
“Got held up in Flensburg because they found an unexploded wwii bomb on the route and need to defuse it before any trains can pass. So now I am just chilling on the German/Danish border for an hour.”
“Now I’m being told it’s ‘just’ a hand grenade.’ I get safety first, but honestly, if it hasn’t blown up in the past 70 years, it probably won’t today…”
My dad drily replied: “I know it’s the 4th of July, but I would stick to firecrackers and stay away from hand grenades!”
Impressions of a city with growing pains
After being away from a year, it was refreshing to see Aarhus through new eyes. With some time and distance away from the deep-seated depression that had gripped me during the Danish winter, I was able to see Aarhus from the big picture: a small city, with a small but vibrant cultural life, trying desperately to put itself on the map but losing a lot of doers and thinkers to the nearby cities of Copenhagen and Hamburg with which it can’t compete, cozy and friendly, colorful and charming, but not without its own array of social problems arising from immigration without integration and gentrification without increased median income – and horribly, horribly overpriced. I’m glad I went and I look forward to visiting in the future and watching the city’s growth, but I am also glad I moved to Germany.