When I first came to Denmark, I had a bunch of confusing thoughts.
“Why is everything so expensive here?”
“Did I just hear someone say an entire sentence in English in the middle of their Danish conversation?”
“How are Danes never cold?”
“How do those beautiful women bike with heels on?”
“How do you get from Point A to Point B in this country without the rain messing up all your makeup?”
Okay, honestly, a lot of the questions were about model lookalikes biking to work without breaking a sweat.
When you live abroad, you are bound to learn new perspectives you never encountered before (for me, that was the 6 things I’d never done before moving to Europe). Cultural immersion can open your eyes to a new way of doing something you’ve only ever done one specific way (and no other! ever!), or even entirely new ways of living.
Some are silly. Some are more meaningful than you’d think. And some are pretty damn fulfilling.
That’s the expat life – chasing the high of learning that everyone does it differently. Living in quirky Denmark, I’m lucky to have found some fantastic philosophies to incorporate into my own routine – including ones I’d like to take with me on all my future adventures.
Biking can be easy and fun – and a part of the infrastructure.
Where I grew up, there were no bike lanes. You’d have to bike on the side of the street, squished between moving cars and parked cars – and that was a chance you didn’t want to take. Although CitiBike has become popular in New York City in recent years, NYC is simply not a bike city.
On the other hand, Denmark is a bike country. Starting in the 1940s, urban planners Steen Eiler Rasmussen and Christian Erhardt “Peter” Bredsdorff turned their attention to building Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark, to incorporate a lot of green space, pedestrian areas, and bike lanes. Their goal was to make city life livable – and it worked! And then spread to the rest of the country.
Bike lanes were not even necessarily built for leisure, although that’s certainly one of the benefits. They were built as an alternative to public transportation and clogging city streets with cars. When I think bikes, I think exercise – getting my gear on, gearing up to move – but for Danes in the 21st century, it’s simply a way of life – from work to day trips, a simple route to the library, and any commitment you can think of.
Sounds romantic, right? But after reading the book “How to Be Danish”, I learned that a lot of Danes don’t even like biking!
Apparently, Danes bike because it’s a learned habit, it’s good for the environment, and it’s just the way they go to work and school!- and not necessarily because they enjoy it. (Again, ask the many elegant women biking in dresses and high heels – maybe she’s born with it, and maybe it’s her way of life?)
A philosophy for managing your mood regardless of the weather.
Except for the recent spate of absolutely gorgeous weather in Odense (why did beautiful weather have to coincide so ironically with an international pandemic?), Denmark generally has one form of weather:
Okay, not just rain. Pour. Not the ‘what a pleasant shower’ kind. The windy and ‘I didn’t realize rain could blow in a zig-zag fashion’ way it can only do in Denmark, where the rain blows upwards, downwards, sideways, and even diagonally. Yeah, don’t even bother with that umbrella.
Have I overdone it yet?
I am the type of person who doesn’t check weather before getting dressed, so it helps that I know what to expect. But my roommate and I joke that if you look outside in Denmark and it’s sunny, you had better bring your rain jacket. See the famous Copenhannah blog post “How to Look Like a Dane” for more on this.
Typical scenario: You wake up excited to go out, but it’s raining – or it will rain. So what’s a fashionable person to do?
The Danes have a wonderful philosophy about battling the native weather – which is that they don’t battle it at all:
“There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.”
I never laughed so hard as when I saw Danes sunbathing in windy 18° C / 64° F weather. But everything is relative – for them, that’s practically a beach day!
Still, the first time I heard this saying, it was revolutionary for me. Danes are the happiest people in the world in the most miserable of weather (most of the time). How do they manage it? They don’t let it bother them. They have to live, so they go out in any kind of weather (except monsoons) without letting it interrupt their lives too much. See also: creating hygge.
That leads us to the cardinal rule of Denmark: Go out when sun shines.
The same philosophy that had me so upset with Danes during a literal pandemic is the same kind of positive opportunism that makes for satisfaction with exactly where you are. And that’s what we should always strive for – life isn’t always rainbows and bunnies, so make the best of the good days.
It’s possible to absorb multiple languages at once.
As a language lover, I loved moving to Europe, where most products have labels in multiple languages.
Products bought in Czech Republic often have labels with information in all the Visegrád languages, namely Czech, Slovak, Polish, and Hungarian.
Products bought in Denmark almost always have labels with all the Scandinavian-area languages, including Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, and Finnish.
It’s a fun experiment to compare and contrast the spelling and sound systems of these countries over your breakfast cereal or during your nightly shower.
Danish is famously obscure in its pronunciation, so it’s not necessarily the case that you can move from country to country speaking one of those languages and be understood. But it certainly makes it much easier to read street signs and menus, similar to how knowing one Slavic language will help you get by in another country in the region.
Yet unlike in the Slavic nations, Danes grow up with English as second nature (and sometimes German, depending on where in the country they live). English content that appears on Danish television and cinema is not dubbed, the way Czech TV/film is famous for. Kids grow up hearing English consistently, which allows them a different level of fluency than other European countries.
The kind of fluency that makes me stop on the street and ask myself, Did that person just say, “easy peasy lemon squeezy” in the middle of their otherwise Danish sentence?
You can always cross things off your bucket list, no matter your interests or price point.
As an expat, I love to try new things and cross them off my bucket list. I did this a lot in Czech Republic, at first unintentionally and then by explicitly seeking out the experiences, from ballroom dance to skiing and even mushrooming.
One thing you’ll learn the first week you move to Denmark? Damn, it’s expensive.
It took me a while to realize that there are always options to reach my goals – I just have to look for them. Even in this “small city,” there are opportunities and clubs. Denmark has a huge hobby culture and it’s often a matter of, “if you like to do it, there’s a club (forening) for it.”
This is also cost-effective. Clubs are usually lower-cost than lessons. Volunteering is another great option, because not only do you meet Danes and internationals, you get experience in a professional Danish environment that you can include on your CV/resume to your great benefit when interviewing for jobs.
So, step 1: Investigate clubs and volunteer opportunities. Step 2: Show your commitment to Danish culture and language.
Denmark is a culture that values effort and participation, and even when people can speak English doesn’t always mean they remember to or want to continuously (see also, the people who speak in Danish for 20 minutes and then say, “sorry, I was talking about [one sentence]”). To be accepted, you have to show that you want to learn Danish and try to actively speak it. I haven’t mastered that part yet.
Danes are said to solidify their social circles early in childhood or young adulthood. Anecdotally, there’s also a degree of nationalism and uncertainty that it’s worth it to “invest” in international friendships. (Pro tip: Find internationally-minded Danes.)
It’s famously hard to make friends in Denmark, but shared activities help. My strategy was to meet the Danes where they are – from volunteering at the cat shelter to joining a Danish kickboxing club.
What life hacks have you picked up in your home or adopted countries? Comment below!