6 Questions with Greenland Expert Sarah Woodall

Photo credit Pilu Nielsen

Photo credit Pilu Nielsen

TPF:  Tell us a little about how you came to work in Greenland and how much time do you spend there?

Sarah: The cut-to-the-chase answer is that I was in graduate school getting a Master of Tourism Administration and in November 2011 a representative from Visit Greenland, the national tourist board, came to my school to give a recruitment presentation about summer internships. The pitch was to travel to Nuuk, Greenland for a four-month internship in summer 2012, work at the national tourist board, and live with a local family to get a close experience with the typical Greenlandic lifestyle. As exciting an offer as this sounded on paper, it was actually a beautiful video showing Greenland’s nature, smiling people, whales, and incredible ice, that hooked me with goosebumps and all. Watch the exact video here!

After the internship period, Visit Greenland proposed to hire me, which I most happily accepted. I just recently celebrated the three year anniversary of my first day in Greenland, at which point I marveled over the fact that between work and holiday both, I have spent a total of 16 months in Greenland – not only in the capital but also in many other towns around the coast. It’s the most amazing life I could imagine.

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TPF: What surprised you the most when you first arrived in Greenland?

The first place I ever experienced in Greenland was Nuuk, the capital city. What surprised me was how incredibly cosmopolitan it was! Even though I knew the population of Nuuk, I guess I expected a place more along the lines of what small towns look like in Greenland. There’s so much infrastructure, fashionable clothing, beautiful homes with even nicer furnishings than my own home in Washington, D.C., and everyone had the full line of Apple products. I remembered thinking, ‘In terms of material life, there’s nothing to ‘adjust to’ in Greenland!”

Now that I’ve traveled to 19 towns and settlements in Greenland, I know that all of Greenland cannot be generalized by the Nuuk ruler. I suggest to anyone traveling to Greenland that they experience multiple places in Greenland to be able to understand the great lifestyle spectrum that Greenland has.

Photo credit Sarah Goodall

Photo credit Sarah Woodall

TPF: Have you had any funny cultural misunderstandings?

Sarah: Yes! I was attending a colleague’s kaffemik, a social gathering to celebrate everything from birthdays to weddings to first days of school. When I got to the door and started removing my shoes – because Greenlanders never wear outdoor shoes inside the house – I suddenly realized I wasn’t wearing socks. My colleague said I should just wear my shoes inside, no problem, but I wasn’t going to do that, and I definitely wasn’t going to walk around barefoot. So I ran home to get a pair of socks! Fortunately I lived just down the street.

There’s also definitely a noticeable cultural difference in how shy Greenlanders can be, especially at first meetings. While in other cultures one might start with a firm handshake, a big smile, and jump right into a firing squad of questions, in Greenland this would almost be an over-the-top infringement on personal space. It takes time to get to such an open level with Greenlanders, so even at a celebratory kaffemik, it is not uncommon to sit in shared silence around the table.

TPF:  Do you speak any Danish?

Sarah: Danish is the colonial language of Greenland, one of two official languages. I do read, write, and speak quite a bit of Danish, though I would not consider myself fluent. I learned it more or less by osmosis. Danish is the more common working language around the office, not to mention when I am in Nuuk, I’m living in a home where Danish is the first language.

However, what is more exciting for me is that I am also reading, writing, and speaking some Greenlandic, though also not fluently by any means. Greenlandic is the mother tongue of Greenland and looks like nothing you have probably ever seen before as it is a polysynthetic language that adds multiple suffices to a root to create full sentences in what looks like a single word. Therefore, I’m pretty proud to be learning it! Want to see what it looks like? Check out the website for Sermitsiaq.AG, one of the newspapers.

Taken at 11:50 pm in June 2013

Taken at 11:50 pm in June 2013 by Sarah Woodall

Since I am not fluent in either of the official languages in Greenland, my daily interactions are some combination of English, Greenlandic, and Danish. By the way, in autumn this year (2015), there will be a book out called ‘Inussuk’ about internationals’ experiences living in Greenland, and I have made a written contribution to the chapter about language. (The book has already been published in Danish, and now this is the English version on the way.)

TPF: Wow, that’s exciting! Here’s some questions from other Phil Factor readers

From Done Dreaming : Coincidently I’m reading Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig and have just got to the part where he says if you live in Greenland you are 27 times more likely to kill yourself than if you live in Greece.

Sarah: While this is certainly the darker side of life, I feel that since the topic has been proposed I should address it the best I can citing findings from a report from the Greenlandic government. Danish title: “Selvmord, Selvmordsforsøg, og Selvmordstanker i Grønland”. Translated English title: “Suicide, Suicide Attempts, and Suicidal Thoughts in Greenland”.

Suicide has increased over time in Greenland.
-Male Greenlanders commit suicide much more than females.
-Suicide is more common in towns than in settlements.
-Younger Greenlanders commit suicide much more than older generations.

Many outside of Greenland will hypothesize that it must be the dark, cold winters that drive Greenlanders to suicide, but this is just so superficial and, no offense, so ignorant of an assumption. Aside from the fact that mental disease can affect any population in the world, there are far more complex Greenland-specific factors at play than latitude.

For example, the political climate of the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s was full of turmoil and still has implications today. At the time, Denmark was a firm colonial power and, for example, forced Greenlanders to move from small settlements – where life was close to nature, self-subsistent, and full of space and physical activity – to larger towns – where life was farther from nature and totally lacking of space and privacy. If you can get your hands on them, I HIGHLY recommend two films that explain this period in Greenlandic history extremely well. They have English subtitles. Sume is a feature-length film that uses music as the storytelling method, and Qaannat Alannguanni / I Skyggen af Kayakkerne / In the Shadow of the Kayaks is a more academic 5-part narrated series.

From Outlier Babe: What things did the great book “Smilla’s Sense of Snow” get wrong about Greenland?

Sarah:  I’m sorry to say that I actually have never read this book, although I certainly know of it as many tourists say it was one of their first connections with Greenland. What I can say they got right from just the title is that Smilla is a common name in Greenland. In fact, I have a friend whose beautiful daughter is called Smilla.

Outlier Babe: Is the population growing or shrinking? If the latter, why?

Sarah: The population is generally shrinking. The all-time high population was a decade ago (56,969 residents in 2005), and since then, aside from a few years of growth from 2009-2011, there has been gradual decline. The total loss is just under 2%, which for such a small population can have great implications.

There are so many factors that contribute to population size in Greenland, so I won’t make any definitive correlations here other than to simply identify some of them.

There’s quite a high prevalence of temporary foreign workers living in Greenland, primarily from Denmark. Nurses and others from the medical field, for example, will come to Greenland for work for 1-3 years and then return home.

There’s quite a high prevalence of young Greenlanders leaving the country for higher education, again primarily to Denmark but also to other countries around the world. Many return to Greenland after receiving their degree, but many do not.

There’s quite a high prevalence of Greenlanders leaving the country, again primarily to Denmark, once their children reach school age – presumably to put them in a better school system, however there are absolutely schools in Greenland, public and private, where Greenlanders can be educated from the first class up to PhD level at Ilisimatusarfik (Greenland University). Degrees at the University include Language/Literature/Media, Journalism, and others.

Outlier Babe: How did Thai’s wind up in Greenland? The others I can work out, but not so much the Thais.

Sarah: Well, I won’t dare to speak on behalf of all Thai people in Greenland! But it’s the same mentality as why Thai tourists want to visit Greenland – Greenland is exotic, unique, and totally different from what they know at home in terms of culture, nature, and yes, temperature! We hear continuously from tourists living in tropical countries that they are fascinated with the Arctic because of the winter snow and ice.

TPF: Sarah, thank you so much for your time. You have been a wonderful ambassador for your second country. For my readers, you can follow Sarah’s blog on WordPress at Adventures of a Polarphile and you can find out more info on Greenland.com. Have a great Friday! ~Phil

5 responses to “6 Questions with Greenland Expert Sarah Woodall

  1. when do we leave for Greenland? 🙂

    Like

  2. Sounds like a fascinating country. Oddly enough, during WW2, my father was offered a stint in Greenland. He did not accept it, mainly because he didn’t want to subject my mother and me to such a drastic change of living from New York. Interesting to think that I might have been a high school student there.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Polarphile on The Phil Factor | Adventures of a Polarphile

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