Whenever I say, “I am from the Faroe Islands,” the most common reaction I get is “Sorry, what, where is that?” So here is a brief description of the Faroe Islands before we continue: The Faroe Islands are located between Iceland and Scotland, a group of 18 small islands, 545 square miles, with a total population of 50,000 people. The Faroe Islands are a possession of Denmark, but we speak Faroese (with roots in Old Norwegian) and we have our own flag. While they may not be well known, National Geographic recently crowned the Faroe Islands “the most beautiful islands in the world, with a small amount of flat land, historic architecture, and preservation of nature.”
For most of my life I’ve lived in a town of 5000, apart from the five months when I attended a school program in Denmark. Not surprisingly, I craved getting out of my little island cocoon to try something different, which I was pretty certain would involve living in the States.
I searched for weeks on the Web for potential opportunities to come to the United States. One au pair program particularly appealed to me. It came well recommended and seemed secure; I could live with a family and have room and board, and while I would be working, I would still have time to get out and explore. From there, things happened fairly quickly. I filled out an application online, was interviewed the next day, and was placed with a family here in San Diego. Then I waited for what seemed an eternity, as I completed my final six weeks of school before flying to New York City for the initial au pair training. Every au pair must attend training in New York; afterward, they continue on to their final destinations with host families, which are sprinkled across the United States.
I was excited to land in New York. I didn’t know what to expect, and most of what I knew was from movies. So, feeling very Sex and the City when I first arrived in that huge, modern, fast-paced city, I was surprised at how dirty and how fast it really is. This didn’t make me enjoy the city any less. I saw most of the tourist attractions and absolutely loved them. Many of the other au pairs were envious when I told them that I was going to Southern California after the training, especially the girls that were going to the Bible Belt area. This added to my excitement.
I arrived at San Diego’s Lindbergh Field at 5:00 p.m., sleep-deprived and nervous. My plane landed early, so I got my bags and waited for what seemed like a long time but was probably only 10 to 15 minutes. I slowly started to panic; here I was, alone in a strange, big town where I didn’t know anybody, and in my head I began concocting a plan of what I would do if my host mother did not show up. I had heard several horror stories, where au pairs had waited for hours. This, of course, did not help.
Before I got halfway with my plan, there she was, my wonderful host mother. She apologized for being late, even though she was on time and it was I who had been early. And now my adventure began. Having just spent a week in New York, my thought was that San Diego was lovely as we drove up I–5 and passed Mission Bay, Mount Soledad, and too many palms trees to count. It was love at first sight.
We arrived at the house in University City where I would live for the next year. I met the two-year-old boy-and-girl twins who would be my charges. My host mother showed me around the house and the room she’d decorated in a way she hoped I’d like. Then I had a lovely meal and toddled off to bed.
It wasn’t until the next day, Day One, when I woke up, that it hit me: I am in San Diego; I am going to be living here for an entire whole year. I was overcome with excitement at the prospect of exploring this new city I was living in. My host mother took me for a little tour; she showed me La Jolla Cove, Windansea Beach, and Mount Soledad Memorial. We drove around for a while, and she pointed out other things that escape me now. It was almost too much to take in; everywhere I looked there were things new to me.
While I had traveled to good-sized European cities, nothing prepared me for the bigness of things here. Day Two included a trip to Target for a bathing suit, where the quantity and variety of merchandise was stunning, followed by a visit to Costco, with its odd overgrown-garage ambience filled with everything from diapers to diamonds. I loved it all.
Soon, the shock of bigness wore off and became expected. A trip through the buffet lines at Souplantation delighted me, and I wondered if people back home would embrace this concept. Frozen yogurt, a staple of SoCal culture, which seemed odd to me at first, soon became a necessity (which troubles me as frozen yogurt is nonexistent at home). The sheer number of people in the city was awe-inspiring at first. I went to see the Killers at Viejas Arena; it was an amazing show, with more people crammed into the arena than lived in my entire town. That was pretty weird to think about but interesting at the same time.
After a week I was pretty much settled in; I had started working and was having a lot of fun with the kids. I began taking an evening class at SDSU. Before long I was thinking and dreaming in English.
The heat was harder to get used to; I am from a place where the temperature during the summer averages between 55 and 60 degrees. But in San Diego, it seemed as if no matter how hot it was outside, I still needed a sweater, because whenever I would go inside somewhere, the air-conditioning would be on and it would be freezing, so I needed to put my sweater on. I am used to it being the other way around, jacket on when you go out and jacket off when you get inside.
My girlfriends back home asked about the guys here — “Describe them!” —prompting me to really look at the guys on campus, in the gym, at the beach. They all seemed to look similar to me, husky, wearing a big T-shirt, long shorts, sandals, or flip-flops. They looked like big versions of boys. Even at clubs or bars, the look was the same, whereas the women tended to dress up more.
This contrasted starkly with the style of the younger people back home, which is edgier, more playful and adventurous. My short, spiky, silver hair seemed more at home in South Park than Pacific Beach and elicited comments such as “Your short hair tells me you are definitely not from around here.”
Also, on the topic of men, I was a little curious about the whole “dating” thing. You see, back home one doesn’t really go on a “date.” You get to know each other, meet a few times with friends, and basically “hang out” until it gets more serious…or not. I think this is better. Here you go on a date because you kind of like each other. But right away there’s pressure to decide if this will be something romantic, which seems unnatural and might even doom what could actually have had romantic potential.
Then there’s the whole date-setting thing. As in “Shall we try for Saturday night?” And then…nothing. Or Saturday night, late-ish, a “Come meet me and my friends for a drink!” And then there’s all the texting…and no talking. Or the “Let’s have lunch” at 11:30 on the very day of the proposed lunch. Ugh. My impression is that little planning is given to dating. Or perhaps guys are keeping their options open to see what else is out there. Overall, men seem to be on the immature side, which is probably no news to San Diego gals…or maybe I just met the wrong guys?
I also thought that everyone — especially in California — was going to be fit, blond, sun-kissed. There was much more diversity than I anticipated, and I heard Spanish all around. However, what surprised me was how big the Spanish language is in San Diego; that instructions or other kinds of information are given in English and then in Spanish. I thought, well, that is probably because there are so many people who speak Spanish here. One day I had to go to the doctor with one of the kids, and there was this paper on the wall in Spanish. I looked around to see where the English one was so that I could know what it was saying, but I couldn’t find it. There was only the one in Spanish. After this, I came across other things like that. This was shocking to me. If the city makes it so easy for people who speak Spanish, will they ever really learn English? Aren’t they just thinking, Hey, I don’t need to learn English, everything is in Spanish too? Or am I off track here?
Then the Arizona immigrant bill was in the spotlight and talk about immigration reform. This seemed to be a hot-button issue. I thought, If one does not have proper documentation, shouldn’t there be consequences?
I remember when I first heard about the bill and thought, Well, that is a good idea. Then I heard about all the people that were against it and comparing it to Nazi and Communist techniques. Really? What is so horrible in wanting everyone in the country to have the proper documentation? If they have all the papers, they have nothing to worry about. Right?
I am not saying this to be racist, nor do I have anything against Mexicans. It doesn’t matter if you are green or blue, illegal is illegal no matter where you are from. Keep in mind that this is only my opinion.
The Faroe Islands are in the middle of the ocean and therefore have little trouble with illegal immigration, or immigration at all, because no one knows where we are. We are so small that if someone was to go there illegally, we would know. However, in Denmark you have to have all the right paperwork to get into the country, which is the same as in the United States. But a baby that is born on Danish soil does not automatically get citizenship; both parents have to be legal citizens for the baby to get it.
Another issue that got a lot of coverage during my year here was health care, if it should be provided or not. I saw one doctor here using the health insurance my au pair program provides. The red tape and paperwork astounded me; I was still getting forms months after my appointment.
I needed to see the doctor for a minor pain in my back, and had I known how much of a hassle it was going to be, I would have waited till I got back home. Mind you, I am new to the country, and it probably turned out to be more of a pain than it needed to be. I had to find the right doctor that I could go to, and afterward, I kept getting these letters from…? Here there was a debate raging, and I couldn’t understand why. Wouldn’t it be better to make the taxes higher and get proper health care? You are going to be paying one way or the other. In Denmark, health care is provided; however, everyone needs to pay a share of the dental bills. The taxes are high, but what we get out of it makes it worth it.
When many people hear that I am at the end of my year, they assume I want to live here. They suggest trying to find an American man to marry. All this is said with good intentions and the assumption that here would be better than there.
I am aware that the majority of people migrating to the United States are doing it to get a better life. For me, this is not the case. When I go back to school, the government is going to pay for it, and in addition I will be getting a certain amount as a monthly stipend, so it is almost like being paid to go to school. Not to mention all the other benefits such as health care; generous unemployment benefits; 52 weeks of maternity/paternity leave to be shared between both parents — 24 weeks is usually at full pay and the rest sometimes as high as 90 percent. A work week is usually around 37 hours, and parents only pay 25 percent of child care. That doesn’t sound so bad, eh?
According to a study done at the University of Leicester, Denmark is the happiest nation in the world. Countries with good health care and access to universities were more likely to be happy. We do not have to bust our butts — working two jobs while we are in school — and this definitely helps on the stress level.
As I am sitting here writing this article, I only have a short amount of time till I leave this country and go back to the Faroe Islands. It is a bittersweet feeling; on one side, I am so excited to see my family and friends again, and to start thinking and dreaming in my native language is going to be nice. On the other side, I have grown accustomed to many things here, everything being so convenient, and being able to get whatever your heart desires, like Splenda and frozen yogurt. These things will definitely be missed. After living in such a big place (by my standards) for a whole year, and now going back to a town with a population of 5000 people, it is going to take some adjusting.
Moving to a city with a population of close to 1.5 million, the changes have been too numerous to count. It was quite the culture shock. I arrived nervous, shy, and overthinking everything; now I just go with the flow. And, hey, after this, what could be scarier? Everything from meeting my first American (very friendly and loud, but not so easy to get to know as you might first have thought) to my first burrito.
I leave with an amazing experience, a broader perspective, and many funny memories, knowing that there are wonderful things beyond the shores of the Faroe Islands, where I will have no more Target or Walmart in which to lose myself (and my money) for hours, no more palm trees, no hot sun. Time to go back to rough weather, stunning mountains, my lovely family and friends.
Goodbye, San Diego. Thanks for an amazing year. ■