I grant that the prospect of leaving the comfort-zones of daily routines and stable circles of friends, only to throw oneself into the expansive unknown is daunting. But the advantages of making these sacrifices are worth every tear, every twang of homesickness and every frustrated oath muttered against the administrative nightmare that is an inevitable part going on exchange (academic requirements to meet, papers to fill out, study permits to apply for…). Stepping outside the habitual frame through which you see the world, you realise how vast and diverse a place it is; you become aware of how standards that apply within your own community are not necessarily transferable, and find yourself naturally adapting to the conventions of your new setting.
Moving from the safety of my home in Denmark to Glasgow for university back in 2010, one of the things that struck me most during my first months was the chattiness of Glaswegians. It’s a stereotype to say that Danes are naturally reserved people who prefer not to engage in conversations with complete strangers; I’ve always fought this accusation off ardently with the argument that people in Denmark are just as outgoing as people anywhere else in the world. After a few days in Glasgow however, it quickly dawned on me why Glaswegians would be inclined to label us European northerners as peculiarly uncommunicative: I found people in Glasgow to be chatty in the extreme.
My experiences with shop attendants at the supermarket asking me how my day had been and what my plans for the evening were was an unexpected culture shock, and left me in a state of confusion every time I paid for my groceries. My thoroughly sceptical Danish way of thinking didn’t understand whether they expected me to reply with a lengthy, informative answer or not (and if not, then why bother asking?). I gradually learned to respond to these politely conversational stock questions in the expected manner (“Not bad, not bad, yourself?” or alternatively deliver a short rant about the weather), and appreciate the cheerful way they compensated for long queues at Tesco, suffered with rain-drenched hair.
Then last September, I found myself uprooting once again when I went on exchange to Montreal, Canada. I quickly realised that this move across the Atlantic meant re-adjusting the settings I’d set for my student life in Glasgow. French is the official language in Quebec and should be respected as such, taxes were not included in store prices, tips were required in all sorts of unexpected situations (ranging from eating out to going to the hairdresser), and shop attendants did not ask me how my day had been, making long queues at Provigo (Montreal’s Tesco equivalent), suffered with snow-drenched hair, that bit more annoying. However, Montreal had much to compensate for these minor differences which, after all, ceased to be annoying or even noticed, once they had been incorporated into the daily routine.
Glasgow, Montreal and Copenhagen are not cities that are normally compared for their dramatic cultural differences; all three are generally considered to be highly developed, western, urban metropolises, sharing many characteristics associated with this status. Yet my experiences with all three have taught me how wrong it is to generalize between cultures that might seem almost indistinguishable at a superficial level.
The lessons I have learnt from my close encounters with the three cities stand as examples of how important it is to learn to navigate in a world that is as diverse as the number of people that inhabit it. Travelling for longer stretches of time, and engaging intimately with different countries and cities and the ways of life they represent, you learn to be tolerant and open-minded, and not to judge or criticise the unexpected. You learn that home is special because of the unique composition of qualities that make it “home”; qualities that you can’t presume to find anywhere else.