Denmark, Europe, Expat Tales, Living in Copenhagen

Dealing with Danish Culture Shock

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.

 

copenhagen denmark culture shock

 

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.

 

copenhagen denmark culture shock

 

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!

 

 

10 thoughts on “Dealing with Danish Culture Shock

  1. A very interesting read! I’m a Danish and an expat, and I tend to think that Denmark can be very hard for foreigners to understand and live in. Visiting, sure, sure, it is very beautiful and all that stuff but we also have some very strange administrative things. And your post just confirmed that!

    The thing about your rental situation seems completely odd. It is true that it is the norm in Denmark to have three months notice. But usually, it is in the new place, that you will have to wait to move into so that they can renovate, and not the old place. But you are right the rental market is insane! Even for Danes.

    I’m happy to hear that after all you are happy with Denmark, and enjoy living there. If you have any questions or issues, please feel free to write me 🙂 Thanks for sharing this very honest opinion about Denmark!

  2. Oh, honey, I want to give you a great big virtual hug! This post is great, you’ve absolutely nailed the disorientation and discombobulation one can feel moving to a new place (be it a huge international move, or just the next town over). I’m so grateful that you’re lifting the veil on the whole “travel and adventure is always wonderful 100% of the time” BS that we see so often elsewhere. It sounds like you’ve got a really great support system in Mihir – or, at the very least, someone who can point you to the right bus stop. 😉 Keep fighting the good fight, and thank you a million times for sharing!

  3. Interesting story and I’m sorry to hear you had such a rough start. I am from Aarhus, the second biggest city and I feel Copenhagen is very overwhelming as well. And yes, the system is not made to be easy, but I think its like that in many public sectors. I Live in Chile and just thinking about the migration process I have been through and what I am going through makes me 10 years older! I love nem-id where all information is found in one place online! Here I need to go to each place, wait in line forever to be told that I need some other documents and have to come back again. Like jesus.. f.. christ!
    Good luck with your new life in Denmark 🙂

  4. I can completely relate to this — except I just moved to Helsinki! 😀 My first year here was the absolute worst year of my life (I had tons of issues with paperwork/people not helping me out, but also with lack of a social life and seeing the sun….I’m really jealous you still have sun in November!). I’m sure looking back on it after a year, you will have even fonder thoughts of Copenhagen. Good luck <3

  5. I can TOTALLY relate to this. I didn’t really have this feeling when I moved to Australia, but I definitely did initially when we moved to Berlin. I think part of it was that I didn’t have a full time job and money was tight and things were a little stressful, but that combined with a really tough housing market (super competitive), visa crap and not knowing the language, it was definitely super overwhelming. Eventually I learned to overcome that and I loved living there, but those first couple of months were hard. I definitely cried when I was in the grocery store and didn’t know which was laundry detergent and which was fabric softener hahaha

  6. It’s great that you are able to love the place in spite of the difficulties! I hope it gets easier for you with time. When I moved to Bogota I felt super lost at the start – it just feels so weird to not even be able to figure out which bus to take…

  7. This was interesting to read. I met a Danish couple in Mexico several months ago. They live in Bangkok because they say they cannot afford the Danish rental market . Plus, they are retired and do not want to spend money like that. At least, there are jobs available. Wish you the best!

  8. What an amazingly honest post! I loved reading it, it made me think of how I felt during the time we lived in Belfast (5 months). I would have never imagined it could be that complicated to relocate to Copenhagen, and it definitely seems complicated and hard…. it felt a bit like this in Belfast, but I think it was easier, and we had less things to worry about (I honestly didn’t try to get any health care as I wasn’t working, and my husband who was didn’t have too many issues to get it). I totally get it when you say that despite all of that, you love Denmark 🙂 Good luck with the rest now that you might be a bit better settled 😉

  9. Having recently made a move to a new country myself, I can totally relate to all of this. All the little things that are so easy in my home country and are frustrating and confusing here. And the overall feeling of strangeness that we kinda sort of live here now! But I also relate to it all being amazing and wonderful and that I’m so grateful we’ve done it. Good luck with your new life in Copenhagen! It sounds like it will be great.

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