Ania is a diplomat’s wife, among many other things, but that’s the part of her that brought them to this home in Denmark. It’s also the part that seems to be breaking her heart a little these days, as you’ll read near the end of her interview. She’s got some truly lovely, stick-to-your-soul thoughts about raising kids in a somewhat transient lifestyle, knowing full well your home won’t be your home in a few short years.
I really enjoyed this peek into her diplo-lifestyle, and I hope you feel the same way! Welcome, Ania!
Hej! That’s what they say here in Denmark, although they pronounce it “Hi!” I’m Ania, a thirty something who seems to be a little bit of everything. By profession, I’m an HR Consultant. By hobby, I’m a writer and an enthusiastic, but still very amateur, photographer. By marital status, I’m a diplomat’s wife. And as a mom, I’ve got two little diplo-tots: Clara, age five and Stanley, age one.
We don’t have any pets in our family due to allergies, and this is much to our daughter’s terrible dismay. So we make up for it with a menagerie of animal toys and figurines that we seem to have acquired from all over the globe that stand in for the puppy she really hopes will join us some day.
My youngest is pretty easy going. He loves avocados and removing his socks and is always game for a laugh. He’s been a real joy for all of us, and I’m excited to watch his personality grow. He probably won’t remember much from Denmark, but life has been good for him here.
My daughter, on the other hand, has definitely two sides to her personality that come out in different ways depending on which language she’s speaking. She’s quite well integrated here and speaks the language fluently. We put her in a particularly Danish school — in a forest school — so she spends all day every day having adventures outdoors in the woods or on the beach, regardless of the weather. I found this all so fascinating that I started a blog on it. When she’s in her Danish mode, she is more group oriented, more collaborative, more horizontal. When she’s in a more American mode, you can really see the more unique quirks of her personality shine, and her competitive streak really comes through. It’s funny how quickly kids can respond to the world around them.
We live just north of Copenhagen, Denmark in one of the seaside suburbs. We’ve been here for about two and a half years and have about six more months to go…and I have to say, we are going to be extremely sad to leave. Which is something I thought I would never say! We were so excited to come here to Copenhagen; there was so much said about the city, about the restaurants…about the design…about all the happiness. We got here and once the initial euphoria wore off, I had this realization that I didn’t love it all that much. I actually had a hard time adjusting. That was confusing for me since of all the places we have lived, this was the first time that’s really ever happened to me.
Part of that was the fact that we were giving suburban living a try for the very first time and I wasn’t used to all the quiet — all the hiding behind walls, which is compounded by the fact that Danes are naturally more reserved. Part of it was due to the fact that as I kept my own career going, I was traveling constantly — often times, three, or four days a week — so I never even really felt like I lived here the first year. I just had a closet here, and a family I didn’t see nearly enough, and I took that out on everyone else.
And part of it was due, I think, to having so many expectations. There are so many more articles and blogs and books and opinions about places now that you can read ahead of time. It’s good to know about where you’re going and to some degree, you’re expected to hit the ground running. But I was so busy thinking of how life would be in Copenhagen, that I didn’t make enough room to accommodate the way that life actually is.
The thing that really turned things around for me was perhaps the most Danish thing of them all. I received 14 months of maternity leave once my second child was born; I only recently went back to work this month. Ironically, I was having such a hard time in Denmark before he was born that I decided to deliver outside of Copenhagen, in Vienna, where we had our first. There was just something about having the same doctor and same midwife and same hospital that was very comforting at the time. So I took a bit of a hiatus. Everyone thought I might not come back at all, but the opposite happened. It was almost as if taking a break — a real break — gave me the opportunity to start over, and make peace with the city, and really take in all the good things that make this such a fantastic place to raise a young family.
Copenhagen has changed a lot over the nearly three years we have been here, mostly for the better. It’s a little more vibrant, it’s a little more diverse. There is more to choose from, which is a big deal in a place that values not rocking it outside the norm too much.
The restaurant scene has really blossomed beyond just the New Nordic, as alums of those kitchens break out and start their own places that are exiting and more attainable. Things are open later, service is a lot more friendly, and especially with the big exchange rate swing (things have gotten about 25% cheaper since we’ve moved here), it’s not as taxing — literally — to try the myriad of new places.
We love going into the city for the many museums, but what we really love and recommend to anyone visiting is to set aside time to see the area north of Copenhagen. It’s often called the Danish Riviera, and there are so many lovely little towns and seaside gems to discover. They’re small towns, often simple and humble former fishing towns, but they have their own history and feel to them. The coast really comes alive in the summer time when things open up, and everyone flocks away from the city to take in time to relax and recuperate. If your ideal vacation is equal parts do nothing and do it yourself, this place is perfect for you.
The slower pace of life takes a little getting used to, especially when you first move here, because that’s the time when you are actually trying to do the most to set up your home and your work quickly. The sometimes measured responses here, not to mention the cost of everything, can drive you crazy. But once you settle into your own groove, the time to be with family, the ability to leave work without guilt, the freedom to accept or decline invitations based on what’s best for your family, and the nearly carte blanche you can give your kids to explore outside in nearly total safety, is absolutely priceless as you find your feet as parents.
In the foreign service, we get a bit of a double whammy. Someone picks where you live (although you have input through questionnaire), and your furnishings are picked for you, too. In some ways, for some it’s comforting to see the same couch you had in one country pop up in another, even though the climate and the visual surroundings are totally different. But for us, we try to go a little further to make it feel like home.
We travel with some of our own furniture; not a lot, but a few pieces that tend to be lighter in weight, that are important to us, but not too precious. Most of those pieces are in our living room since that’s where we are most often as a family. Our couch is our own since that’s where we sit every day. Someone at the start of this journey had told us if you bring one thing, make it your couch. And I still consider that one of the best pieces of advice to this day, ten years in.
We try to mix things up, too. For example, everyone has nearly the same standard issue large brown wooden dining table. Some people hate it, but I love it. It can expand to seat 16 in a snap, it has real dovetail joinery, and it makes a great work space too if you like to spread your stuff out to think, like I do. But we make it ours by changing out the chairs; right now we have molded plastic chairs with wooden bases. Again, not too precious, but it feels more modern, they are definitely more comfortable, and it’s something you won’t see at every single diplomat’s home. It’s a great way to personalize your space without too much headache.
Finally, we try to add visual things that can change things up, but again, we keep it lightweight. Artwork and photographs make a big difference, and it’s always fun to see what others have collected in their own spaces. We also travel with a few rugs that are cotton dhurries; they can change the whole feel of a room, but are easy to clean, easy to fold up, and don’t weigh a lot. And I think anyone in this type of lifestyle will tell you that ultimately it’s the people and the personal things that make a random home, your home.
So our third year of our time here in Copenhagen is what’s called an unaccompanied tour. Basically, it means that your spouse goes on to somewhere where families and/or spouses aren’t allowed because of safety or other concerns. Sometimes they give the family the opportunity to stay at post while the spouse is away to minimize the disruption to the family, and in our case, it worked out. I often think of how much of Copenhagen I would have missed if we weren’t here for this third year.
It’s hard having my husband gone, no question. Especially since I just returned to work after leave. But full disclosure, we do have help; we have a wonderful nanny who lives with us and has been with us for the past five years. She started working for us when my daughter was two months old, so my kids really have not known life without her. She’s also raised five children of her own, who are now all adults, so she’s as much a nanny to me sometimes as to my kids. I grew up with my grandmother often being around, and I like the grounding presence of an older person in the home. I still feel like I’m playing house sometimes, and I like that we have a real grown up around! She’s a very calming influence and very much respected by all of us.
Sometimes the work and travel schedules are such that my husband and I were on back to back trips, or even gone at the same time, so our nanny is pretty key to making our household run and is always a constant presence. We don’t live close to family, and we’re always making friends from scratch, so we don’t have some of the traditional support networks that are present if you live in the same place for longer stretches of time. Some people were surprised that we kept a nanny while I was on leave for so long, but as I mentioned, she is very much part of our family.
My husband is gone for a year, but we’ll have a couple of breaks during which he can come home for a couple of weeks and we can regroup as a family. As you can imagine, we’re very much looking forward to those. But at the same time, we’re very mindful of the fact that we are extremely lucky to receive them. Many who serve in Iraq and similar places, most notably our armed forces, do not often get that same reprieve.
The unaccompanied tour is becoming more and more of a reality in this line of work, but the truth is that my husband chose it. He loves what he does and I stand by him in his career choices, much as he stands by mine.
We are in a house here, our very first time. Although our house isn’t huge, we weren’t used to the space. We didn’t know how to use a lawn mower, and we weren’t used to not seeing a regular cast of characters in hallways and doorways. The house also needed a fair amount of work when we first moved in and it took us awhile to clear out the cobwebs, so to speak.
But now that it looks like us, we’re very much at home here. We have a small outside yard that’s perfect for the children and their friends, and I never appreciated that as much before. We have extremely large windows in the back of the house which means that we can always see the kids in the yard, but also it means we get a lot of natural light. This is a big factor in Denmark since so much of the year can be rainy and gray, so if you’re prone to seasonal moods, this place can be tough. Even on the gray days, the back of the house is filled with light, right where our living room is, which is why you can find us here most of the time.
There are a lot of great things about living here, but there are also a few darker things, most notably a fear of the outside and outsiders that I’ve observed, that sometimes the utopia style articles about Denmark don’t pick up. From my perspective, the Danish life is so delicately balanced on everyone having mostly the same expectations, that they worry that those with different expectations will upset the system.
I get it; they want to protect what they have. But I also wanted to be mindful of my daughter having perspectives on the outside world. So while we have traveled a fair amount in and around Denmark, we also try to include a trip or two per year to some place far away like the Middle East or North Africa. At the end of our trips we always talk about what was different about we saw — that, in some ways, is the easy question. But we also ask my daughter what was the same, so that she also gets in the habit of looking for the things that bind people together no matter where they are from.
In terms of what’s next, we will leave this summer for Washington, DC, for a year and are waiting to hear what’s next. It could be more time in DC, it could be a departure for a mystery destination. We’re anxious to know and it’s quite possible the Middle East will be our next stop. But if I had my own pick, with no constraints, I’d love to live in Mexico City or Buenos Aires…Rome…South Africa….Warsaw. I’m originally from Poland and I would love for my children to know the country. But we’re always up for an adventure wherever it might be.
One thing I’ve learned from this lifestyle is that there is no such thing as setting up home truly fast — and over time you are at peace with that. I think the first few moves I was frustrated that I couldn’t immediately make a decision on some things. The truth is, sometimes you have to live in a space for a bit to figure things out.
But that being said, we are on a short timeframe. Our posts are often two years, you pack out a few months before departure and often times get your things a few months after arrival, so there’s a lot of limbo time. To make the most of the time, we’ve learned over the years to keep our living room as it is. We literally had the almost exact same set up in our Vienna apartment. We keep it in a box formation so that you can pretty much drop it into any living room around the world.
Pack only the things you love; the other stuff takes up not only space, but valuable sanity. Pretty soon, you find yourself wishing most of your things would just fall off the back of a shipping container into the depths of the Atlantic anyway. And speaking of which, that happens. It really does. So at the same time, if you’re not comfortable watching your grandmother’s china fall to the bottom of the ocean, don’t bring it.
For more immediate gratification, pack a set of sheets and towels with you in your suitcase for each family member. That way, at least the stuff that goes on your body is yours and feels like you the minute you arrive. Washi tape and poster prints and family photographs can do wonders while you’re waiting for your things to arrive, especially in the spaces for little ones. And when all else fails, just buy some fresh flowers or greenery. That always makes a home feel better.
I hope my kids remember how much freedom they had here to just be. The safety for kids here is almost unparalleled, and I hope that they not only remember that, but that they realize that is something everyone should have a right to. I hope they remember to love the outdoors no matter the weather. I hope they remember our many holidays here in this house, and that holidays are for families and friends, and not for running around at all hours trying to buy more, do more, and get more.
As for me as their mom, I hope they remember the good things, and not the moments when I’m on my last nerve trying to get everyone out the door! I hope they remember the times I was around, instead of the times that I wasn’t because of work.
I’m not too worried about my husband being gone. We’re lucky in that we get to chat, sometimes just quickly, every couple of days; and sometimes if the signals are good we can sneak in a little face time here and there. The breaks help, too. Instead of thinking about it as a year, we tend to think about it a series of long trips. We keep a lot of photos around — on paper and digitally — so that he feels very much present in the home.
Our kids are always cracking us up — probably sometimes unintentionally! — but if you have a healthy sense of humor as a parent, you’ll have a grand time. I love how quickly kids adapt to their environment; it makes me wonder what takes me so long. And specifically for now, I love how they interact with each other. While there might be the slight twitch of jealousy here and there over a toy or bedtime attention, they love each other tremendously and it’s a beautiful thing to watch. They look out for each other, scheme with each other, and have a very unique relationship that I think only siblings can have. We knew that we would always be moving in this life, and it makes me happy and relieved to see that they have a friend in each other. I hope that stays true always.
The thing about living with kids is that it makes you acutely aware of the passage of time; you’re always questioning where the time went. I always tell people that when your kids are born, it’s like they hand you a remote control to the movie of your life stuck on fast forward, and from that moment on you keep frantically searching for the pause button.
I love my daughter in the age she is now but I also miss when she was the age of my son, with the chubby thighs and one word demands. And I miss the days when my son was at his smallest, sleeping for hours on end on my chest. I think two is it for us, so I will miss the new hope of a newborn. One day after my son arrived, my husband found me in tears in the hospital simply because I was afraid that this might be the last time we leave the hospital for a happy occasion.
I wish someone had told me that this life, exiting as it is, gets harder as you have children, your family grows, and your parents age.
I wish that someone had told me how much it would break my heart to make my daughter leave here. As I mentioned, she is incredibly well integrated, so everything from her functional memory is really from Denmark. She speaks Danish, her friends are Danish, and while she still is aware of her American side, she feels that her home is here. She knows we are moving but she doesn’t really know yet what that means.And it crushes me to think that we will shatter her world for her.
This is really the only time in her life where she will look at a place we are living, and believe that it is forever. After this, she’ll know that all of our arrangements will always be temporary. My biggest fear is that she might become jaded, never wanting to integrate again in the same way. She’ll know how all of these stories end now.
I wish someone had told me what a big burden it is to take away someone’s belief in forever. It’s not one I realized I would have to shoulder when we started this life.
I wish someone had told me how much we would miss our families once we had children of our own. I grew up very close to my grandparents and I hope we can create the same experience for our own children. They are lucky enough to have all four grandparents in their lives, and we shouldn’t take that for granted. We’ve always been on the hunt for adventure, never really thinking how it affected others.
I appreciate much more now having had kids, how hard it must be for parents to say “Go, and do whatever it is that makes you happy, no matter how far away from home it is.” Being a parent now, I hope I have the courage to say the same to my own children, since you know part of you will always wish that they choose you instead.
Ania, when you shared your thought “I wish someone had told me what a big burden it is to take away someone’s belief in forever. It’s not one I realized I would have to shoulder when we started this life,” it really shifted my thoughts. I’m sure you get a lot of reactions to your chosen career — from “How romantic and adventurous!” and “Why are you moving again?” to “Why would you move there?” — but it’s refreshing to hear your own doubts and concerns added to the mix. How reassuring that we all share similar wonderings about whether our family’s chosen lifestyle is the best for our families. Thank you for being here with us!
Also, food for thought: “There are so many more articles and blogs and books and opinions about places now that you can read ahead of time. It’s good to know about where you’re going and to some degree, you’re expected to hit the ground running. But I was so busy thinking of how life would be in Copenhagen, that I didn’t make enough room to accommodate the way that life actually is.” Have you ever experienced this? Traveled or moved to a city or neighborhood that was supposed to be perfect, and you knew everything you possibly could about it from your extensive research…only to find that it wasn’t anything like you anticipated? How did you deal?
(One last thing! I just stumbled on this quote: “Traveling is like flirting with life. It’s like saying, ‘I would stay and love you, but I have to go.’” Isn’t that so true? Where have you been flirting with lately? I’d love to hear!)
P.S. – Take a peek at all the homes in my Living With Kids series here.