An expat tale straight from the books

There’s only one dedicated English Bookstore in Aarhus. You may have been there before, and probably noticed that this place is more than just your ordinary book store. It’s also a haven for conversation, ideas and international community. Jutland Station finds out who the lady behind the book store is, and what’s her expat tale.

Story: Sara Catalini / Photos: Meng Wu

There’s a shop in Aarhus with such a unique atmosphere that when you go inside it feels like you are traveling back in time. The Århus English Bookstore is a safe hideout for those who want to take a rest from the confusion of the city, where everything is fast and it’s hard to move with the times. Here you can stop and stare at the piles of books that are left around. One might be surprised at the precise manner in which they are categorised; despite first impressions there’s calm in the chaos of this store.  Books ogle customer from the top of the shelves, they’re draped across chairs and even stare up at you from the floor, each trade-in book having a specific spot in the store .

Jutland Station has been wandering who the person behind this magical place for English-speakers is and what is her story. So, from a book to another one, we had a talk with Beth Merit, the owner of this haven. As a long-time Aarhus resident and an American expat, she took some out time to tell us about her experiences integrating into live in Denmark.

Beth Merit. Photo: Meng Wu

Beth Merit. Photo: Meng Wu

It’s been 25 years since Beth arrived in Aarhus from New York, then a fresh college graduate. That was the first time she had traveled to Europe. Friends initially sparked her interest in visiting Denmark, where she’s ended up staying. Shortly after making her home here she started Århus English Bookstore, filling a much needed niche market. We asked Beth how she settled into life here, a sometimes difficult yet exciting time which many internationals go through.

Often when someone leaves their home country, they are suddenly surprised by new feelings and an unexpected, distant reality to cope with. On one hand being far away has its advantages – not understanding a single word of what other people are talking about can make you feel more relaxed. Recalls Beth: Coming here “was like having a break”. But on the other hand, traveling and becoming an expat can be both exciting and frustrating in terms of navigating new cultural norms and losing touch with those you’re accustomed to.

But as Beth says, reflecting on her experiences in Aarhus, “I have not become the culture, I am part of it.” The truth in her words make us understand how important is for an expat, as she is, to keep hold of who you are and where you’ve come from. Of course it’s about getting used to new habits, but at the same time never compromising your own identity. “I haven’t changed,” says Beth. But “when I go back to the States people say to me that I’m quite different”.

And there are always some bitter-sweet memories of the first steps taken in the country you have chosen as your new home.  Beth recalls with a smile one day in particular: “I remember once being corrected by a little girl when I took food from a pot. She said to me, ‘we don’t do this in Denmark’.” As to be expected, there are always some things that are hard to get used to in a new culture. This exact way of doing things, perhaps a Scandinavian trait, was very far removed from Beth’s experiences of life in the USA. “In my country, in every apartment people do things in different ways.”

What about the well-known coldness of the northern Europe people? Beth is confident about this topic. She believes that Danes “might be not very social with each other but they are good people and they have a base of fairness, it’s a cold fairness but they have it.” And of course it is difficult at the beginning to break walls and establish new relationships, since the way we approach others often depends on our cultural background. Also Beth, who loves getting to know new people, explains that she isn’t so comfortable with the static way of speaking she has had to get used in Denmark since, as she told us, “Here there’s a different method of talking; it’s like fishing. Someone says something and someone else answers. I prefer an interactive style of communication”.

So, if something doesn’t work at all, the right way to react in Denmark is simply to accept the situation. But according to Beth the most important thing to do is socialize and respect your neighbor. And above all, remember that “if you make friends here in Denmark they will be friends for life even if it takes time. For instance I have the same friend since I arrived here 25 years ago”.

Photo: Meng Wu

Photo: Meng Wu

But there are some things left behind when you decide to become an expat. In one way or another the people who leave home lose things they can hardly exchange or replace in a new environment, as Beth knows well. There are some things that are still missed even if years have passed by – whether this be a smell, a food or even an attitude towards life. What Beth misses most about the USA is hard work. As she told us: “I miss seeing a real passion for work, hard work. I get tired of hearing about people stressing about their jobs. I get offended sometimes, in New York hard work means something very different.”

This is why being completely integrated into a new country doesn’t mean that your perspectives are totally changed. All in all, nothing matters more than little things even when you are up to radically change your life moving to another country and you are carved from the loss of the things and people you leave behind. So, as Beth suggests, “Bring your favorite food and keep close the ones who open up to you.”

Listening to her great passion and commitment to Aarhus and her love for the book store, it seems like not many years have gone by since Beth first started her business. The only give away is the millions of books stored in the inventory of the shop – which are now piling up like her memories of life in Denmark.

Visit Beth and the Århus English Bookstore Frederiks Alle 53, Aarhus 8000 C or find the store on facebook for more information including English-language book clubs and how to trade in your books.  

This is part of an ongoing series of articles looking at life in Aarhus and Jutland through the eyes of our international and expat community. Archived stories can be found in the section expats in Aarhus