Expat Voice: Intense Experiences
There is a lot of wisdom hidden in India, many treasures yet to be explored and shared with the rest of the world, says Danish lawyer Benedicte Thymann Nielsen who moved to Pune from the United States.
Born and brought up in Denmark, Benedicte Thymann Nielsen moved to Pune with her family in April 2017 after her husband Jacob was offered a promotion at a multi-national company here.
“Jacob works for Schlumberger and was based in Houston, United States, for close to 8 years. The company offered him a promotion at the Schlumberger Technology Centre in Pune and we decided to move. It is a very pleasant place to live,” Nielsen tells Little India.
Nielsen, a lawyer by profession, talks about her life and experiences in Pune.
Perception Vs Reality
I thought everybody would be more or less fluent in English, which is not the case. I may have been naive because I believed India to be more Western, more organized. Also, my perception of India was that of a homogeneous country. Soon after moving here, I realized that India represents a diversity of people, traditions, cultures, climates, history, languages, and cuisines depending on the state you live in.
I have developed a love for the country as I have gradually learned more and more about the culture. India has such a rich history and offers ancient philosophy teachings like yoga and Ayurveda the West could learn from. I have realized there is so much wisdom hidden in India, many treasures yet to be explored and shared with the rest of the world.
I don’t have a business visa. Therefore, I’m not allowed to work here. I am engaged in volunteer work at a village school outside of Pune where we teach young girls to read, write and speak in English. The NGO is called Ashta No Kai. Our goal is to empower teenage girls in the rural community by helping them develop English language proficiency. We also expose them to games, group activities and public speaking, among other things.
I am also a writer. I have written a memoir about our oldest son Marcus, who died of leukemia at the age of 10. My memoir is yet to be published. It is a book that will help empower other people to cope with severe illnesses or other life crises.
I am also a Reiki Master (energy healer) and Iyengar yoga teacher. In Pune, I am a member of an international cooking club, a small Nordic Group of Scandinavian expats, and the Pune Expat Club. I am also a member of the local chapter of Schlumberger Spouses Association.
Life in Pune
It was very difficult adjusting to the culture and climate. We arrived during the peak of Indian summer in April of 2017. Since air-conditioning is not available everywhere, dealing with the heat is difficult. The food and spices are definitely a challenge. Lack of Hindi and Marathi skills is a daily problem for me because many people I need to interact with don’t speak English.
Lack of predictability in my daily routines is something that still bothers me a lot. We have a driver and are dependent on him to get around. The freedom of driving by myself as I am used to doing in Denmark and the United States is something I miss. I also miss having a proper job. I used to work as a lawyer in Denmark and as a paralegal in the United States.
I love that Pune is so international and full of restaurants and shops selling traditional Indian stuff. I love a part here called Koregaon Park. The area is very charming, with old trees, cafes, etc. There is a lot of atmosphere there.
Pune is cheap to live in. Groceries are inexpensive except if you need to buy imported goods and branded food products. I enjoy the selection of fresh vegetables and fruits. We are so spoiled to have easy access to exotic agricultural items all through the year.
The expat community is very strong and helpful. It’s easy to make friends here. The support I have received from them has been invaluable for me.
I dislike the traffic situation. The infrastructure is horrible. There are very few traffic lights and they never work, causing traffic to back up, especially during monsoon. No one seems to be responsible for improving the traffic situation. On a good day, some police officers will be around directing traffic, making it a little easier to travel.
I also dislike the trash, especially plastic, floating on the streets. It’s very sad that there is such a lack of responsibility towards preserving the environment clean for future generations. I dislike that animals are mixed with humans. I sometimes feel like I live in the middle of a zoo – stray dogs fighting at night, cows on the street. The smell can be really bad.
It’s kind of disgusting how Indian men just pee anywhere in the street they want. The lack of infection control in public places is rather shocking. With animals all over, germs spread easily.
India vs Denmark
It’s colder in Denmark. People there are very homogeneous and all speak the same language. India is like many small countries united into one massive nation.
Danes are less religious than Indians. We don’t have so many festivals and traditions. Danes are efficient, organized, and hardworking, and spend more time outside of work compared to Indians. In Denmark, we don’t use strong spices. The only exotic spice we use is black pepper.
The only similarity between both nations lies in the emphasis they place on their families and friends. Loyalty is a big thing.
It’s very intense to live in India. People sit on the streets for hours talking to each other showing no signs of stress. I often wonder how they do it. Why are they not in a hurry to get things done? I have noticed mainly men hanging around on the streets.
Acceptance is Key
If I move back to Denmark, I will appreciate many things that I used to take for granted before, like being able to communicate with people around me again and having easy access to things I use and like.
I will miss the people and friendliness the most. Indians are very humble, always smiling. I have learned to accept other cultures and appreciate their perspective of life and values. I may not incorporate them in my life but I’ve learnt to appreciate and accept it.
I have become a better-rounded person after having lived in Pune for one and a half years. I have learnt to slow down and be present in the moment. After having witnessed poverty first-hand, I learnt to appreciate what I have and not crib about what I don’t have.
The interview has been condensed and edited.
Expat Voice is regular column on expats in India. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to nominate yourself or another expat for the column.