“One may ask, why is it necessary to have a student exchange program at all?” asked Head Master Dorte Fristrup while addressing an audience comprising of 26 Danish and eight Indian students. The auditorium was adorned with a larger-than-life Asger Jorn painting called ‘The Journey’ and a massive grand piano which was to be used for a welcome song. Dorte answered her own questions by saying, “We cannot hope to live in a peaceful world without understanding cultures that are different from our own. When we learn to appreciate the difference, we learn to temper our response to things unknown.”
The Asger Jorn painting is important in understanding this statement by Headmaster Fristrup. At first glance, ‘The Journey’ is a display of confusion and lack of cohesion. It is challenging, and it doesn’t explain how to read it. One could go from left to right, or just see it as it spreads across 30 feet of canvas from the centre. The colours are vivid, the figures are abstract and the message is coded.
It is very easy to discard it as a splash of colours that a five year old could do over a summer. We could pass a scathing judgement that easily, but only if we didn’t allow ourselves to be affected by it.
Maybe that’s how foreign cultures are - confusing, amazing, sometimes distressing.
We fear what don’t understand, we hate what we don’t subscribe to. And cultures and traditions make us that much more rigid to change.
Culture - expressed through Individuals and Society
Culture can be individualistic and social. The success and failure of a society can be attributed to these two. An individual can be considerate and well-mannered, or unkind and ruthless. A society can be welcoming and functional, or reserved and dysfunctional (and everything in between).
Danish culture can be understood through these two lens.
As individuals, we met some of the most warm and welcoming people. We were wished well at our hotel, we were given warm smiles by strangers, and given a great dose of laughter by our hosts who we had never met before. Sights in Amsterdam warmed the cockles of our heart - a woman riding her bicycle with her dog walking by her side on a leash, an old couple sitting at a quaint Irish pub smoking a cigarette and drinking wine while it drizzled, a mother with her kids on a basket attached to her cycle riding freely.
These individuals represented a society that stands for freedom and individualistic expression. It makes sense for Banksy to choose Amsterdam as the destination to showcase some of his most riveting and unapologetic art. It makes sense that Keith Harring whose art was considered too risqué by his critics, finds a permanent spot for exhibition in Amsterdam’s Moco museum. When people are free, they become capable of the most captivating expressions. The cheese stores with an elaborately designed tasting room, the unguarded Royal palace at Dam Square left a lasting impression on our mind. In a funny conversation with a local about the legalisation of marijuana, he said, “You don’t have marijuana because of a free society, it is because of a free society that you have marijuana.”
As a society, the Dutch and the Danes have set up some of the most functional systems for a free functioning society. The public transportation is comfortable and punctual, the roads are as well maintained as their green lawns. Danish canals are not the ‘ganda naala’ we see in our cities. In fact, the city draws its sense of beauty from them. My host, Lars, burst into laughter when he saw me make a video of how Danes stick to their lanes even in peak traffic. He found it hard to understand why something that is supposed to work is working well, and that should fascinate someone. It is equivalent to someone’s awe and confusion when someone is surprised by a vase that falls to the ground. Nothing shocking there, just how gravity works.
As a society, they have figured some values of their own that are simple yet so charming when seen in effect. Women are not stared at, they are free to wear what they wish, do what they please and say what they feel. At a museum that sells nostalgia, Den Gamle By, an old commune in Århus is shown with men and women sharing the load of household chores, smoking and drinking all the same and representing their history in equal measure. Men shed their toxic masculinity to take care of babies and women cut logs of wood. It is a simple idea, and so powerful and liberating. Almost shockingly liberating this one time - I froze in a public urinal when a female janitor came in to clean up the place. I was shocked for the fear of having walked into the wrong section of the washroom, only to be immediately reminded that women don’t use urinals. That female janitor was doing her job, mopping the floor and maintaining supplies, something that needn’t be attributed to a particular gender.
The Danish society describes itself as a welfare state but it is far far from socialism. The three pillars of a healthy society - education, healthcare and sanitation, are taken care of by the state. That doesn’t mean that it implores you to be lazy, it in fact empowers you to be a well functioning unit of the society. A teacher at Århus Statsgymnasium, Tove, says that the economic disparity is almost negligible. The richest are taxed 50% of their wealth and labour is expensive. The rich contribute heavily towards the betterment of the society and the Erhvervsuddannelse or the working class (plumbers, carpenter and painters) work with dignity. That creates a society that is truly equal, unlike an Orwellian society where some are more equal than the others.
Århus Statsgymnasium is a special name for a school (Arhus meaning first land from the sea, stats gymnasium meaning school run by the State). If the fact that a school is called a gymnasium (gym for the body and the mind) isn’t strange enough, then the fact that education is free should make it more strange. Actually education in Denmark isn’t free, it is lucrative. My host, Lars’ son Rasmus told me that he received 5,500 DKK (approx. ₹58,000) per month to take care of his cost of living as a student. I saw that as a very evolved version of the mid-day meal scheme in India.
All teachers in Denmark mandatorily have to teach a minimum of two subjects. Lars teaches History and physical education. Tove teaches physics, business economics and social studies. Mette teaches Physics and Mathematics. Their mastery over more than one subject makes them very intellectual. Though they generally struggled to express their ideas in a flow, as english is not their language of choice.
The students and teachers shared a very informal relationship. In one history lesson, Lars insisted on hearing a yes from the students if they understood him. The students gloomily chanted ‘yes’ with one young rebel saying ‘yes, Lord Lars!’. These things weren’t seen as insubordination. The teachers worked in close association with the students to ensure their attendance was on point, their grades didn’t slip and their participation in class was adequate. Those who showed signs of slipping on these parameters were called out of the class separately and spoken to like they were responsible adults capable of taking charge of their own life.
Every wall in the school held a painting, constantly exposing students to art. Some artworks were compelling, some were plainly abstract. All were a pleasure to look at.
Danish Philosophy and Nationalism
In a visit to the museum of modern art -ARoS, the students of history told us a picture or painting of a sunny Danish landscape was a source of their nationalism. The Danes value their sense of happiness immensely, and reflect that in their art form. In a series of paintings that represented their subjugation to the Germans during the wars reflected sadness and grey tones. These paintings weren’t considered very nationalistic. It came as a pleasant surprise to us that they chose to feel one as a country through nature. Nationalistic pride, for all its vices, didn’t seem so problematic when represented through a gleaming sunny beach at Risskov, Arhus.
The Danes also believe in the philosophy of Janteloven (pronounced Yaan-teh-loven) which propagates the idea that ‘you are not better than the others’. It is a humbling thought and one that definitely needs to be expressed to the world leaders.
These things together give us a very functional, happy Danish society, one that is starkly different from our own. For all its wonders, Indian society runs on desperation of a depressing kind. People are desperate to get to places on time, in effect breaking road rules. They are desperate to get by economically, in effect crushing their dignity and that of others. They are desperate to be successful, in effect trampling on our complex social structure and actually promoting social and economic disparity. Though Europe is richer and it would be unfair to compare it with Inida, Europe is considerate in a way we all need to ponder over. We are not machines that need running, we are human bodies that need breathing, feeling and loving.
I was deeply humbled by the experience and found it very easy to get by with the students of our school who were very well behaved through the trip. Our students felt very much at home with their hosts and the Danish students were excellent in their hospitality. My colleague, Annie ma’am was a great partner. We shared responsibility and took charge when the other felt tired.
Personally, I felt that getting a hang of the European cities before going to the school in Århus helped our kids to be very well settled with the hosts and teachers. The European experience can come as a culture shock for our kids who are raised in a very different society, and a couple of days of roaming around first definitely helped them understand how the European temperament works.
It would be my strong advice to the next group to explore first and then visit the school.
Before leaving, I went back to see ‘The Journey’ one last time.
This time I saw cohesion, strokes made sense, the colours spoke meaning. In a few days, a new culture helped me reflect on my manners and my thoughts on life and all that jazz. The painting remained the same, as it will for years to come. I came out of the auditorium having changed.
I guess I had learnt to temper my response to things unknown.
Mange Tak St. Mary’s School (thank you very much in Danish)