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.
I’ve just come back to Denmark after some time away, and I’m happy to be here, particularly since the Danish summer weather has been lovely this year.
Of course, this creates problems of its own – Denmark is built for cool weather, not hot weather, which means that air conditioning is rare, even in the fitness center. Lifting barbells inside a room that feels like a toaster oven with thirty other sweaty people is really something. And not something good.
Still, it’s nice to be in Copenhagen during summer. The sidewalk cafés are open, and you don’t need a blanket to sit outside and enjoy your coffee.
I don’t think there’s a prettier city in the world on a lovely summer day, which is something you have to remember on one of those days in November when pelting grey rain angles into your eyeballs.
Swimming in Copenhagen harbor
One of my favorite things to do is swim in Copenhagen harbor, a formerly industrial waterway that has been cleaned up enough to become a giant swimming zone, although you’ll still see some seaweed and barnacles on the pull-up ladders.
There are spots set aside for swimmers as opposed to boaters, and these areas can get pretty crowded – lots of exposed pink flesh on display. Although, contrary to what many might believe, Copenhagen swimmers are not nude and the women are not topless.
An American journalist called me recently to ask about nude bathing in Denmark. In Copenhagen, I don’t see much of it, and the few nudes I do see are mostly men.
When I noticed that the podcasts and blog posts about working in Denmark seemed to be the most useful, I collected them into another book, How to Work in Denmark, which is also available as a live How to Work in Denmark presentation.
But what if you just want to listen to the podcast?
In addition, many people have commented on the theme song that opens each episode of the podcast. It is the Danish national anthem, “Der er et yndigt land” (There is a lovely land) done in a surf-punk form by a freelance musician.
One international listener told me that he attended a match featuring the Danish national football team at Parken stadium in Copenhagen – and was very surprised to hear the match begin with the theme song from the “How to Live in Denmark” podcast!
It’s hard to be a teenager no matter who you are or where you live, but spare a thought for the two teenagers who are currently part of the Danish Royal Family.
Christian is just 16 years old, and he’s the future King Christian the Eleventh of Denmark. Danish kings alternate between two names, Christian or Frederik, and his father’s name is Frederick, so Christian’s name was in place before he was even conceived, before his parents even met. He was always going to be Christian the Eleventh.
His sister, Isabella, is 15, and she and her young twin siblings are the spares. They have all of the media attention and the responsibility for good behavior that their brother has, but with no royal job waiting for them when they get older. Sure, they may cut a ribbon here or there, but they will have no guaranteed income from the Danish taxpayers.
Christian and Isabella have been in the news this week because the boarding school that Christian attends, and that Isabella plans to attend, was the subject of a TV documentary on bullying. This a school for Denmark’s elites – and yes, there is an elite class in Denmark, although they generally stay very well hidden. And this is an old-fashioned boarding school that still begins each educational year with a bird shooting, using bows and arrows.
According to some former students, violence was a part of daily life in the school. New students were dragged out of bed in the middle of the night and assaulted by older students. Many of those students are now leaders in Danish government and business life.
It’s spring in Denmark. The sunny days are longer, the daisies are popping up through the grass, and the sidewalk cafés are full again, even if you have to sit there with a blanket, which many cafés provide.
And Denmark’s amusement parks are opening up for the summer. Denmark has several amusement parks, including the original Legoland, but the ones I know best are the ones in Copenhagen – Tivoli Gardens and Bakken.
Tivoli and Bakken show two different sides of the Danish character.
Tivoli is the sleek, confident, high-end image that Denmark likes to present to the world: it has exquisite flower gardens, fancy shops and restaurants, and a theater that hosts world-class performers. Bakken is more homey, more quirky, a little shabby, and a bit more hyggelig, under my own definition of hygge as “unambitious enjoyment”.
The difference between the two parks also illustrates the class differences in Denmark – even though Danes like to pretend there are no class differences in egalitarian Denmark.
Bakken is clearly the more working-class of the two and opens every year with a huge convoy of thousands of motorcycles roaring through the city. It happens every April – I hear a huge mechanical growl in the distance, and then I realize, ahhhhh, Bakken is opening today.
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.