Af Astrid Hellerup Madsen
The red bricks of the Nobel Park have been darkened by the afternoon rain. A group of students are smoking outside the entrance to building number 1451, huddled together with their backs against the wind like tiny sparrows.
The Centre for Black Sea Studies is located on the second floor. The first thing you see is a big pot plant resembling a palm, which sets the scene very nicely. Both Vladimir Stolba and his wife Elena work at the centre – he is an associate professor, and she is a librarian.
Following a couple of short-term visits, Vladimir Stolba has lived and worked in Denmark since the year 2000. Before the family moved here from Russia they had no prejudices about the Danes because they hardly knew anything about the country.
“It’s not all that different from Russia. The winters are colder in St. Petersburg, but otherwise the weather – and the wind – is the same. The people are similar, too. We’re the same colour – the Danes are just as pale-faced as the Russians!” says Elena Stolba.
“But people smile more in Denmark, and they say hello to strangers. In St. Petersburg you only take eye contact with people you know. So we can clearly feel that Aarhus is a smaller city. Even in Copenhagen the pace of life is slower than in St. Petersburg,” adds Vladimir Stolba.
Researchers in St. Petersburg often have a second job to help them pay the bills – teaching at other universities or high schools, for instance.
“You only have to turn up at your university two days a week. And if you spend the other days doing your second job your research gets pushed into the background. In Denmark you have easy access to libraries, the internet, computers, and fax and photocopy machines. Things aren’t so easy in Russia, and that makes your job more difficult. Being a researcher here in Denmark is a full-time job with full-time pay – so you can concentrate on it all the time, which is great,” says Vladimir Stolba.
Unlike her husband, Elena Stolba did not come to Denmark to work. She came along as his wife because the couple wanted to keep the family together.
She is a fully qualified librarian, and she helped to build up the library when The Centre for Black Sea Studies had just opened. But during her first years in Denmark work was not the only important thing in her life.
“I’m not good at remembering dates. But I can connect events in our lives with the age of our daughter at the time – or the class she was in. And she was in eighth grade when we arrived in Denmark,” says Elena Stolba.
Their daughter started in a Danish school, but continued her Russian education at the same time. Danish school and high-school teachers took care of the Danish side of things, but Elena Stolba had to teach her daughter in accordance with the Russian system of education.
“I had to make sure she understood lots of different subjects, so I was kept busy preparing and reading all the relevant literature. As a result I didn’t have time to work much at first,” she says.
Nearly left Denmark
The Danish media sometimes say that in general Danes are not good enough at welcoming new colleagues from abroad. But Vladimir and Elena Stolba beg to differ.
“Of course it was difficult when we first arrived, but that had nothing to do with the Danes. We hadn’t found anywhere to live before we got here, and it was difficult to arrange many practical details while we were still in Russia. For instance, the internet isn’t all that common in Russia. But my colleagues here in Aarhus helped us to find a flat,” says Vladimir Stolba.
Aarhus University and the department have also helped the couple a great deal. The biggest problem the family have encountered in Denmark was when their daughter started studying at the Aarhus School of Business. According to an act passed in 2006, students from countries outside the EU have to pay extra fees to study at Danish universities.
“We were worried about our daughter’s education,” says Elena Stolba, and her husband adds: “We couldn’t pay the extra fees. The case attracted media attention, but the Minister for Science, Technology and Innovation refused to change the law based on two isolated cases.”
The problem was solved in the end. The family stayed in Denmark, and their daughter got an education.
“If the university hadn’t helped us we would have been forced to go back home to Russia,” says Vladimir Stolba.
The couple feel that Aarhus University has treated them very well – not only in terms of working conditions, but also with regard to their private life.
“Right from the start we were invited home for dinner by lots of different people. So we quickly made friends outside work. Through our Russian friends we also met other Danes who had no connection with the university.”
The Danish language has not been a barrier for Elena and Vladimir Stolba – they have both attended a Danish language course organised by Aarhus University. They say that researchers who are not here for long and do not manage to learn the language must find it hard to understand messages from the university that are only issued in Danish. But for work purposes language is not a problem because most research is published in English.
As far as language is concerned the couple have found one difference between Denmark and other countries they have visited.
“In other countries people want to speak their own language – but not the Danes,” says Vladimir Stolba.
“Danes are often really keen to switch to English,” smiles his wife. “Even when we start by speaking Danish.”
Join the club
Every Wednesday Elena Stolba goes to the International Club. This is a social meeting place for the international staff of the university and their spouses – although some Danish staff come along as well. She did not start attending meetings until she had been in Denmark for a few years, but in retrospect she thinks she should have started earlier.
“My advice would be not to be so sceptical. It takes time to find good friends, so it’s no good being afraid of meeting people,” she says.
“Join the International Club! They can help you to solve all kinds of problems: finding a flat, furniture and even jobs. We’d like the university to support the club as much as possible because it does a great job in integrating staff from other countries,” adds Vladimir Stolba.
Vladimir Stolba’s contract runs out in 2010. Their future depends on the opportunities available next year – but the family can definitely imagine staying in Aarhus.