Have you ever heard the saying “Time flies when you’re having fun?”. Turns out, time also flies when you’re terrified. Ok, perhaps not terrified, but definitely stressed. In any case, it’s hard to believe it’s been more than 3 months since Mihir and I have moved to Denmark. We made the decision to leave Finland about a year ago and ultimately settled on Copenhagen in June. To be honest, it was a hard decision, but I was sure I would be totally happy with our choice and never look back. The truth is, I love Denmark. But the first few months here were hard. Or harder than I expected they would be, anyway. Who knew I could actually suffer from culture shock in Denmark?!
Big City Life
Copenhagen is not a big city by international standards. With about 600.000 inhabitants it’s a mere blip on the map next to New York, Beijing or Mexico City. How hard could it be to adjust, right? For me, very hard. Copenhagen is still triple the size of both Graz and Turku and, what’s more, a capital city. I felt out-of-place the minute we stepped off the airport train at Copenhagen Central Station. It probably didn’t help that we arrived during rush hour with thousands of people passing through on their way to work. Trying to read departure screens, I was disoriented. S-trains, regional trains, intercity trains, metro lines, buses. This should not be so confusing! Thankfully Mihir seemed to have more of a handle on things and managed to get us to our apartment quickly.
We ventured into the city often afterward trying to explore a little beyond our own four walls. We visited the main tourist sites and then went a little further. Norrebro, Vesterbro, Osterbro, Frederiksberg, Amager. How could this tiny city feel so big? Why was it that Mihir always knew where to go while I just followed him like a clueless child? I’m a grown woman for Christ’s sake. Thankfully it got better after the first couple of days. I finally started to recognize streets, corners, and landmarks. But I still felt out-of-place. While Mihir was admiring the amount of graffiti all over the streets, I could not help but wonder why every single street corner seemed to smell like piss. Three months later I’m now happy to say that my nose seems to have gotten used to the stench, but it was novel to me at the time.
That’s the Deal with Reality
We made an honest attempt to get to know our new home. Only it didn’t feel like home to me at all. And that was strange. Do you know that feeling when you’re in a new city for a couple of days and towards the end the area of your hotel starts feeling really familiar? You go to the same shop to buy your snacks, you take the same bus from the same bus stop every day. It becomes so familiar you’re almost sad when it’s time to leave your new “home”? Yeah well, I never got that feeling. Wherever we went, I just felt even more out-of-place. Perhaps it was the reality of it all. I was not on a holiday, I was ACTUALLY living there. When we went “home” in the evening, we really went home, with dirty dishes to be washed and shower drains to be cleaned. Not to a hotel room void of any responsibilities. And quite simply, it was overwhelming.
Why does Everything Need to Be so Difficult?!
I think what stressed me the most was the initial paperwork after arriving in Denmark. Naively I had assumed it would go smoothly like in Finland. Let me tell you something: Denmark is nothing like Finland. Everything here just seems overly complicated. The process is something like this: First, get an EU registration certificate. Next, get a CPR number. We have not received the necessary paperwork from our landlord. A lot of back and forth, we finally get it done. But we need to wait for our yellow health care card before we can actually do anything.
It took us two attempts to open bank accounts (and I just found out that they ordered the wrong type of account for us). Three attempts to join the gym. The name on my student ID is misspelled, I tried to get it changed a total of 5 times (it’s still wrong). Recently I tried to pay a bunch of bills, but instead of a normal bank transfer, most Danes use an external service (“Betalingsservice”). Turns out my bills were never paid through that service and we incurred a bunch of late fees. Ugh. Even now I feel like there is a problem around each and every corner. It just never stops. Everything just seems to be so difficult here.
The Rental Market, Seriously
Speaking of difficult, the rental market in Copenhagen is absolute hell. I don’t even want to talk about how the only way we found a place to live was by paying thousands of Euros to a relocation agency. Or about the absurd amount of money we paid for our first apartment. But I do want to talk about how we nearly became homeless despite paying rent in two places. We had just signed a rental contract for our new apartment and notified our old landlord that we would be leaving in three months (btw, why the heck is the period of notice for this THREE MONTHS?!). We were duly notified that we had to move out of our old apartment one week before the end of the contract. So they could renovate, naturally.
However, we were also notified by our new landlord, that we could only move into our new apartment two weeks after the start of our contract. So they could renovate. I’m not making this shit up, alright? After a lot of crying our old landlord thankfully agreed to let us stay two extra weeks. I have never heard of anything like this in any other place where you could not live in a place you were currently paying rent for. It just seems insane to me.
Rødgrød med Fløde
I think one thing that contributed to my disorientation, in the beginning, was the Danish language. Before we moved here I set myself an ambitious goal of being fluent in Danish within one year. Ok, maybe not fluent, but you get the idea. And really, I somehow managed to learn Finnish, so I should be able to learn Danish practically overnight. Needless to say, I was wrong. The Danish language is just strange and I didn’t understand anything in the beginning. We enrolled ourselves into some Danish classes and my understanding has gotten much better since. I can still not say a word, but I don’t feel completely lost when the cashier is trying to give me my receipt.
Another thing that threw me off was the fact that I didn’t know as much about Denmark as I had thought I did. After coming here I realized I actually knew very little about the people and the culture. One example would be the Danish love for “J-Day”. Yeah, I had never even heard of it until I found myself on a midnight train full of jolly drunk Danes. I had no idea rice pudding was a traditional Christmas dish or how much marzipan Danes seem to eat. I think it will still take me a lot of time to become intimate with the Danish way of life. But at least I’m on a mission!
Work and Other Hells
In order to sustain our life in Denmark, I needed to get a job urgently. I was pleasantly surprised at the number of jobs which were available for non-Danish speakers. I went on three job interviews and received three job offers. I chose one and regretted that choice during my very first work day. With three years of experience in the service industry, I thought this would be the easiest part of our relocation. Boy, was I wrong. Turned out that the work dynamic in the service industry here is completely different from Finland. Honestly, I could not have hated this job any more than I did. That’s why I jumped on the opportunity to give up my permanent work contract for a temporary work contract at a different location. And thank God I did. I now have some wonderful colleagues and a lovely work environment. I only wished my start into Danish work life had not been so bitter.
I actually thought the biggest adjustment would be returning to full-time studies. Surprisingly, this has actually been the easiest part of our new life. Sure, the Danish system is different from both the Austrian and the Finnish system (there’s a grade of -2, I’m serious), and some things are a little strange to me at times. But it’s relatively easy to go with the flow, especially because the Danish students in our course are amazing people.
The Devil is in the Details
So, the first few weeks were hard. But I’m really glad that the big and important things have turned out well. We now live in a lovely apartment which is almost affordable. I actually enjoy going to work every week. And our studies are progressing well. I’m trying not to lose sight of that, but it can be difficult at times. Especially, when you’re confronted with little hick-ups every day. Like the excessively hard water which makes my hear unbearably greasy. But enough of my rant…
… I Actually Love Denmark
I suppose one could get the impression that I hate Denmark and regret my decision of moving here. Actually, I don’t. I love Denmark. I love how the sun shines during November (looking at you, Finland). I love how our neighbors welcomed us to the neighborhood. I love how accepting Denmark is of foreigners and how many opportunities are here for us. I love window-shopping in Copenhagen. I love the traditional architecture and the fresh design. I love hygge. I love all the people I have met here and how they have helped us feel more at home in Denmark. Sure, sometimes our future here feels uncertain and uncertainty is scary. But I have a feeling Denmark might just be worth it 😉
Now, what do you think? Have you ever experienced culture shock when moving to a new place? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below. Let’s stay in touch!