Questions and Answers about Living in Denmark
Of all the things I've posted on this website, nothing has brought in more comments than My Life in Denmark.
I get support from other foreigners in Denmark, and queries from people thinking of coming here. I get a few laughing Danish men who see themselves in Danish Men: Not John Wayne, and the occasional angry Danish man who tells me to get the hell out of his country if I don't like wimps.
Anyway, most of the questions were pretty standard, so I decided to put together a Q&A for Foreigners Coming to Denmark. I hope this answers the basic questions, even for people too lazy or shy to email me.
Even for summer, plan on bringing a few sweaters and a solid jacket - leather is ideal. Danish summers are often rainy and cold.
You'll be doing a lot of walking, so bring comfortable shoes, waterproof it possible. Bright white tennis shoes will identify you as an American. Danes tend to dress in subdued colors - brown, navy, grays - that match the colors of nature in Denmark.
For women, long skirts are more practical than short, even for summer, since skirts that are knee-length or shorter are too revealing when riding a bicycle. (I often wear bike shorts under my dress until I get where I'm going.) Danish women wear little makeup and simple hairstyles, so there's no reason to drag along a suitcase of fancy products. High heels are a nightmare on cobblestone streets, so if you must wear them, bring along a pair of flats to wear until you reach your destination.
You probably won't need much in the way of fancy clothes, unless you're a real nightlife aficionado. Business suits are not necessary except in extremely formal workplaces, like banks. Otherwise, a nice sweater and wool or cotton work trousers or a skirt will do - not too sexy, not too tight. Jeans without rips or holes can be worn almost everywhere.
You can always purchase the clothes you need when you arrive in Denmark, but prices are at least double and sometimes triple those elsewhere, once 25% sales tax is factored in.
If you'd like to bring home gifts for family and friends, I recommend Danish housewares.
Mom or Grandma will enjoy china from Royal Copenhagen (and you can get it half-price in the basement of their Copenhagen headquarters), your newlywed sister might like a modern glass vase from Holmegaard, and even your buddies will like brushed-steel bar accessories from Georg Jensen or his imitators.There are also beautiful home textiles on sale in Denmark - tablecloths, dish towels, etc.
Denmark is a small country, and many people still hang out with the people they grew up with. That can make it hard for a foreigner to make friends: some Danes simply have all the friends they need, and really don't want any more. My Danish friends are almost all people who came from outside Copenhagen, so their childhood friends don't live nearby.
To make things even harder, Danes value privacy very highly - it's part of their general policy of tolerance. Neighbors, for example, may feel that by not greeting you or asking where you come from, they are respecting your privacy. If you smile and introduce yourself, most people will respond positively.
Get to know people in your work or study group. It's easier to do things in groups than one-on-one. Asking people over for a dinner of some of your native food is a great way to make friends, or bring some native sweets to your office on one of your national holidays. (My American chocolate chip cookies and brownies are very popular.) Invite a bunch of people out to hear some music from your part of the world. Danes love to see themselves as international, and they will be flattered that you think of them that way.
One quirk of Danes is that they love to make plans far in advance, and they are very good about sticking to those plans. You can invite a bunch of people for dinner on a Tuesday two months from now at 8pm, and although you may not see them in the meantime, they will all turn up, precisely on time.
When dining at someone else's house, bring a bottle of wine or some dessert. A fancy present isn't required. And Danish dinners are long. You should be prepared to sit at the table for at least two to three hours, possibly longer, talking and talking and talking and drinking wine or coffee. When I first arrived in Denmark, I made a number of faux pas by leaving after dessert, as I might have done back in the U.S. out of courtesy for hosts who had to get up in the morning. But Danes are in it for the long haul. They can easily sit in the same chairs and talk to the same people from 7pm until midnight.
One more tip: When you enter a room containing a group of people, it is your job to go around and shake everyone's hands, saying, "Hi, I'm so-and-so." Just keep going until you have shaken hands with everyone in the room, upon which time you can stop and talk to whomever seems interesting.
If you want to start a conversation with a Dane you don't know well, ask about the places he's travelled and his future vacation plans. Danes get six weeks of vacation per year, and they love to spend it in places with better weather.
Another good topic is home renovation. If a Dane isn't fixing up his home in some way, he is thinking about how he would like to.
Even Danes have trouble with this one. As I explain in Get Drunk and Find Your True Love, Danish men don't approach women in the way men do in the rest of the world, and consequently, Danish women don't get much flirting practice. The whole thing can be very awkward, and sometimes succeeds only because both parties are drunk.
Foreign men sometimes assume they are getting turned down because they are foreign, or because they are not white. Not true - Danish men get turned down just as much.
I'm probably not a good source of advice on this one, since I'm single myself.
If you are a non-white person from a western country, probably not - at least as soon as people hear you speaking English. You will then be considered exotic and fascinating, and may get some very interesting dates with blond Danes who are interested in expanding their horizons. There are a lot of multi-racial babies among the younger set in Denmark. Spanish-speakers are considered particularly desirable; Danes love Spain and Latin America.
But there is racial prejudice in Denmark, most of it directed against local Muslim immigrants, who can be of Turkish, Palestinian, Iraqi, Pakistani, Afghani or African origin. In the 1960s and 1970s, "guest workers" were invited to Denmark to help fill a labour shortage, and in the 1980s and 1990s, Denmark made the noble decision to accept refugees and people who were persecuted or tortured. Many of these people came from rural areas, had little education, and were very conservative and religious. Of the more recent immigrants, many have had trouble finding work in Denmark and trouble fitting into Danish society.
There are certainly individual success stories - immigrants and immigrants' children who make important contributions to Danish life - but generally, there has been an unwillingness to integrate on both sides. Danish employers have not been quick to offer the immigrants jobs, which makes it hard for them to show what they have to offer. On the other hand, some immigrants see the Danes as unclean and immoral, and make great efforts to keep their children from becoming "too Danish." It's a story with no heroes.
What this means to you as a foreigner is that if Danish people think you are a local Muslim, they may be unkind to you - until they find out that you are not, upon which time they will be very courteous.
Being gay is no big thing in Denmark - in fact, the non-Danish gay people I know who have visited or lived here have been a bit disappointed, since the lack of prejudice means there's not much of a gay or lesbian community and not much solidarity.
The Danish world "kaereste" which means partner, can refer to either sex. In professional or social circumstances, feel free to refer to "my partner, same sex so-and-so," but prepared for listeners to be neither shocked nor impressed.
If you are here for less than a year, it may not be worth it. Danish children begin English instruction when they are 10, and most Danes are very proud of their ability to speak English. You may find some elderly people or blue-collar workers who are less confident in English, but they will probably understand whatever it is you're saying.
That said, learning basic words like "Tak" for thank you (there is no Danish "please") and "Goddag" (Good Day) will be much appreciated. Saying hello is easy - it's just "Hej!!" (pronounced Hi!) Goodbye is "Hej Hej!" (Hi Hi!) So you've got that one mastered already.
If you plan to stay longer, the Danish government provides free Danish classes. I found these a bit slow, and preferred to work with a private tutor. I also drilled with "Danish in Three Months" (available on Amazon.com) although I did not, in fact, learn Danish in three months.
There are some terrific things to eat in Denmark:
There is also plenty of dreadful food - hot dogs dyed bright red, fried fish balls and fried meatballs, fatty pork in a variety of disguises, overcooked cabbages and root vegetables, shots of "Gammel Dansk" breakfast alcohol, and waxy chocolate for dessert. Don't let anyone in Denmark tell you that your homeland's cuisine is uniquely unhealthy.
The selection of ethnic cuisine in Denmark is improving, but if you really love Italian, Mexican, Chinese, Thai, Indian or Japanese food, fill up on it before you leave home. The Danish version is rarely authentic - and watch out for Danish pizza!
A good steak is also hard to find, and expensive if you do find it. Hamburgers can be iffy. In general, Danes eat less beef than Americans, and more fish and pork.
Vegetarians will have a tough time in Denmark, since the dishes on offer aren't very impressive. If you eat fish and dairy products, you should be able to get by. Tofu is not popular, and often available only in jars or in ethnic supermarkets. There are, however, shwarma shops all over the country where you can pick up hummus, babaganush, and felafel.
If you like peanut butter, you may want to tuck a big jar into your suitcase. The Danish version is not encouraging.
As a student, I believe you are allowed a certain number of work hours - but don't quote me on that. If you're out of school, finding work will require tremendous commitment and aggressive tactics. The best thing you can do is to get a Danish company in your field to sponsor you before you leave home. To do so, they will have to prove that no Dane can do your job. Engineers, IT specialists and nurses are the most sought-after at the moment.
Some large, export-oriented Danish companies, like Novo Nordisk and Lundbeck, have English as their corporate language and are happy to employ qualified non-Danes. They are great companies to work for, with great benefits, and therefore receive a lot of applications from both inside and outside Denmark. For more information, try the official government site workindenmark.dk and expatindenmark.com and three privately-run sites for English speakers, jobsincopenhagen.com, careerguide2denmark.com and foreignersindenmark.dk .
Working off-the-books in a restaurant or as a cleaning person is possible, although illegal and not always reliable.
If you are coming to Denmark to be with a boyfriend or girlfriend, getting married will not necessarily make things easier for you, work-wise. In fact, your partner will have to prove to the Danish government that he or she can support you before you can get a "fiancee visa" - and since you won't be eligible for government support, you should plan on living off your partner for at least a year or two before you know enough Danish to get a full-time job. Can your relationship survive that?
Danish policemen are usually quite polite and almost timid compared to their counterparts in other countries, although they do have the right to stop and search you at any time without a warrant. Most of the time they are looking for hashish, which is illegal in Denmark.
There are two exceptions to the general rule of cheerful, friendly government service.
One is the Udlaendingservice, or "Foreigners Bureau." The clerks here are overworked, underpaid, and spend their days listening to sad stories that Denmark's strict immigration laws don't allow them to do anything about. If you're not from an EU country and don't have the "points" to match their new earn-your-way-into Denmark system, it's back home for you. It wears down the staff, leaving them pale and short-tempered.
The second exception is the ticket-checkers on the Danish train system. Tickets are checked only occasionally - perhaps once every ten times you ride - but the checkers make up for their infrequency with fierceness and a Kafkaesque disregard for common sense. Everyone you meet will have a story about being screwed by the ticket-checkers, and they do not spare foreigners: last week I saw them imposing a huge fine on some confused Spanish students who had indeed bought a ticket, but not the RIGHT ticket. I finally got so sick of them that I have been shopping for a car.
Danes greatly admire people from Latin countries like Spain, France, Italy. They love their relaxed nature and high style, and go to night school to learn their languages. Danes enjoy visiting Southern European countries, and sometimes retire there.
That said, Latin-style behavior will cause problems for you in Denmark.
Being relaxed about appointments is a good example. If you have a 10am meeting at a Danish office, your colleagues will expect you to be there at 10:00.00. Arriving at 10:05 is bad manners, and at 10:10 you will find the meeting room door closed, with a lot of sour faces when you open it.
The same is true of social appointments. If dinner is at 8, you are expected to be there at 8. It is considered appropriate manners to circle the block until 8.00.00, upon which time you press the doorbell. Arriving after 8:10 is intolerably rude. Do not cancel social arrangements unless there is an emergency, or unless you are ill.
Do not lose your temper. If someone upsets you, by all means tell them so, but in cool, measured tones, without using any bad language, and don't wave your arms. I violated this rule myself, at my own expense. On day I tripped over a heavy iron refuse bin that some idiot had left in a hallway at my office. I was badly bruised, and I swore loudly. Several months later, the incident turned up in my annual employee evaluation. Apparently several of my colleagues had been disturbed by my loss of composure.