What’s it like to live in Denmark as an expatriate? Kay Xander Mellish has lived in Copenhagen since 2000, and her blog about life as a foreigner among the Danes includes a podcast as well as drawings and photographs. If you are moving to Denmark, studying in Denmark, or simply thinking of visiting Denmark, you may enjoy this blog about the experiences of a foreigner in Copenhagen.
It’s springtime, and the cherry trees are about to bloom in Copenhagen Northwest, which is usually the only time people who live outside Northwest bother to go there.
Northwest is a working class neighborhood, so much so that the streets are named after working-class occupations.
While other Copenhagen neighborhoods have streets named after kings and queens and generals, Northwest has Brick-maker street, and Book-binder street, and Rope-maker street, and Barrel-maker street.
But there are other things to see in Copenhagen Northwest besides the cherry trees, which have become a bit of a crowd scene since they were reported on by a national news network.
Old city, new neighborhood
Like many industrial districts in a post-industrial society, Northwest has become a bit of a trendy neighborhood. I live here, and when I first moved here ten years ago it was hard to find a café to meet up in. Lots of cafés and restaurants now, lots of young people, lots of activity.
Newcomers to Denmark often complain that the locals aren’t chatty. They don’t want to converse on the bus, or on the train, or in line at the supermarket, or really anyplace that isn’t a designated social zone. Like the company canteen at lunch, or a dinner party at home to which they have invited a precise number of people to match the number of chairs that they own.
In general, Danes rarely talk to strangers unless they are drunk, but there is one exception: Danish people over 75 years old.
Danes over 75, or even 70 or 65, often live alone, and they are often eager for conversation. There is even a special municipal program called Elderlearn that matches older Danes with newcomers who are eager to improve their spoken Danish abilities. The internationals get to practice speaking Danish, and the older person gets some company.
This does create some comic situations. I remember seeing a video – one of those videos I saw online years ago and haven’t been able to locate since – in which a nice fellow from India was matched with Kirsten, a Danish lady in her 80s.
While outsiders sometimes see the three Scandinavian cultures as “pretty much alike”, there are significant differences when it comes to working styles, in particular Danish working culture vs Swedish working culture.
Working with a Danish boss can be a shock for Swedes, with their extreme need for consensus and passion for sticking to whatever has been agreed on by the group.
The Danes’ more free-form, flexible approach can take Swedes by surprise, as can the Danes’ directness and sometimes lack of political correctness.
Here are a few tips for Swedes (or anyone else!) working with a Danish boss.
Tip #1: “The plan” is whatever works best today.
Swedes are famous for their careful planning process, spending all the time they need to collect consensus and make sure that everyone is on board with the plan. And once the plan is agreed upon, it is carefully followed by all.
Danes aren’t quite as keen on long planning processes: they’d rather put their oars in the water and start rowing, correcting course as needed.
If new information emerges or customers don’t respond as expected, “the plan” may be ditched without hesitation – and without discussion.
As an employee, it can be disconcerting to be working in one direction and then suddenly be pulled in another, but the Danes are proud of what they see as their practicality and flexibility.
This approach may also mean that the Danes on your team will follow a consensus agreement only to the extent that they think it is useful. If not, they may try to wiggle out of it, or “forget” to implement some of the measures you thought you’d agreed upon.
In this approved Royal media, children are always well-dressed and smiling, marriages are always happy, and royal parents are always deeply royal proud of their offspring. Everybody trims the Christmas tree together, or goes for a healthy run together, or attends large galas in fancy dresses and glittering jewelry.
But there are also some Danes who dislike the monarchy and the roughly 100 million kroner they cost Danish taxpayers each year. These people call the royal family Denmark’s biggest welfare recipients.
If you enjoy getting very drunk at Christmas parties, so drunk you can barely find your way home, you will fit in well at the traditional Danish Christmas party.
Alcohol is the blood that flows through Danish Christmas parties, and flows and flows. An evening will probably start off with cocktails – or perhaps some gløgg, hot spiced wine with brandy – then move into plenty of wine with dinner.
After dinner there will be beer, and more wine, and perhaps some more cocktails in between turns on the dance floor.
Even corporate employee Christmas parties are sometimes so wild and soused that people forget themselves with their colleagues and end up in trouble with their partner at home.
So what do you do if you’re invited to a Danish Christmas party and you’re a non-drinker?
I missed a gala opening last week. It wasn’t of an opera or a nightclub, but of Copenhagen’s big new Genbrug Center, a place set up by the local government where people can leave stuff they don’t want and other people can take it for free.
The party seems to have been a hit. I saw photos of people leaving with chic leather chairs, kitchenware, lumber for building, even an electric guitar.
There is a network of these “genbrug” (recycling) stations all over all over the country, 13 in Copenhagen alone, full of lovely things that people simply can’t use any more.
Maybe they bought a new one, maybe they’re cleaning out the basement or a storage locker, maybe they’ve fallen in love and are moving in with someone who already has a toaster.
Getting to Sweden from Copenhagen is easy: you take a quick trip across the Øresund Bridge in your car or on the train. Getting to Norway from Copenhagen isn’t too hard: there’s a ferry that runs every day from Nordhavn.
Getting to Germany from Copenhagen, on the other hand, is a headache.
If you don’t want to fly or take the long way around through Jutland, you need to head for the little Danish town of Rødbyhavn, on the island of Lolland. Then your train or car or truck drives into the belly of a giant ferry. Then you get off on the other side in the little German town of Puttgarten and continue along your way.
The giant ferries are fun. Up top, they have duty-free shops and game arcades and restaurants where you eat very quickly, because it’s only about a half-hour trip.
But, as of 2029, the trip will be a lot quicker and a lot easier.
That’s when the tunnel between Denmark and Germany is scheduled to open.
One of Denmark’s cheapest and most colorful vacations is a few hours riding back and forth on Copenhagen’s big yellow harbor bus, or “Havnebussen”, a commuter ferry designed to transport ordinary citizens between downtown and the urban islands of Christianshavn and Amager.
For those of you who have no summer vacation plans yet, or who don’t have the cash to go very far, the harbor bus can take you from tourist trap to high culture to party culture, from shabby little wood shacks to neighborhoods of chic glass apartment houses with their own private beach.
All for as little as 14 kroner, or 2 euro, if you pay with Denmark’s popular rejsekort, or nothing, if you’re a tourist with a Copenhagen Card. (Beware – you cannot buy a ticket onboard, although you can pay with with the DOT Tickets app on your phone.)
You can start at any of the currently operational 7 Havnebussen stops, but let’s start at Nyhavn, in part because it’s the easiest stop to find if you don’t know Copenhagen well.