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How to Live in Denmark
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How to Live in Denmark

Author: Kay Xander Mellish

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Life as an international in Denmark, one of the world's most homogenous countries, isn't always easy. In Denmark’s longest-running English-language podcast, Kay Xander Mellish, an American who has lived in Denmark for more than a decade, offers tips for enjoying your time in “the world’s happiest country” plus insights on Danish culture and how to build friendships with Danes.
106 Episodes
When I mentioned going to Esbjerg for a few days off this spring, many of my friends in Copenhagen said - why? Esbjerg doesn’t have a reputation as a vacation spot, even though its fifth-largest city in Denmark and the youngest big city.  For Copenhagen snobs, Esbjerg is a fishing town, which it was 50 years ago but isn’t really anymore. It’s an oil and wind energy town, industrial but very modern. I like Esbjerg, perhaps because it is a very masculine town. If you’re a woman who likes men, if you’re a guy who likes men, really rough and ready type men, Esbjerg is your town, because it is the home base for the oil workers and windmill mechanics who work on the North Sea coast of Denmark.  In addition, all that oil makes for great museums, and Esbjerg is also a great base for visiting the Viking town of Ribe and Fanø, a picturesque fishing island turned tourist attraction. 
No matter what the tourist brochures suggest, you probably won’t go *everywhere* on a bike in Denmark. And along with food and housing, getting around is a big part of the cost of living in Denmark. Here are a few tips to save money on trains, buses, cars, and even bike maintenance.
Anyone who has spent time living in Denmark knows that it’s one of the most expensive countries around. That’s true when it comes to food shopping, too. One Dane who had lived in the US explained it this way: “In Denmark, every supermarket is priced like Whole Foods.” For those of you who haven’t visited the States, Whole Foods is a high-end grocery chain nicknamed “Whole Wallet” or “Whole Paycheck.” But there are a few creative ways to save money on food in Denmark. Danes hate food waste, so the prices of some food in grocery stores actually drops near the end of the day or right before the item's expiration date.  You can visit farmer's markets, or if you live near the border, go shopping in Sweden or Germany to save cash.
I love old books. I love the kind of old books you get at antique bookstores or on the Internet Archive. And I have a good collection of old books about Denmark. I like old travel guides, most of which are still pretty useful because Denmark doesn’t tear a lot of things down the way they do, in say, Los Angeles or Hong Kong. In Denmark you’ll pretty much fine most castles and monuments right where somebody left them hundreds of years ago.  If you want to see a famous church or square or the Jelling Stone, your Baedecker guidebook from 1895 will work just fine for you in most cases.  But I can also recommend two great old books on Denmark, which you can probably find at your local antique book shop, or on DBA, the Danish auction site owned by eBay. 
While I’m not an authority on the Danish visa or immigration systems, I’m often asked for practical tips about moving to Denmark. So here are a few things to think about when you’re packing your suitcases or, if you’re doing a corporate move, packing your shipping container. Number one, make sure you bring money. Denmark is an expensive place to live where you will own less stuff, but better stuff. That said, there’s no need to bring much furniture, even mores if your furniture is nothing special. You can often buy Danish design furniture cheap at local second-hand stores and flea markets, and for everything else, there's always IKEA - in Denmark, or across the water in IKEA's homeland of Sweden. 
Denmark has had two female prime ministers and about forty percent of the people elected to the Folketing, the Danish Parliament, are women.  But when it comes to private industry, Danish women have one of the lowest participation rates in management in Europe. According to the OECD, only 26.5% of managers in Denmark are female, compared to 39.8% in the US. It’s not unusual to see a senior management team made up entirely of Danish males, with perhaps a Swedish or German male thrown in for diversity.  That said, the majority of adult Danish women hold paying jobs. The Danish tax system makes it very difficult for a couple to survive on one income, even a hefty one. 
It might seem like a counterintuitive time to talk about beaches, in the middle of a long, very cold winter. But in these times of COVID, beaches are one of the few places in Denmark you are currently allowed to meet up with family and friends. Beaches, parks, frozen-over lakes: these are the big social meeting points at time when cafés, restaurants, bars, shops, gyms, schools, theaters, museums, places of worship, and hairdressers, barbers, and nail salons are all closed.  But getting a small group together outdoors is still allowed, and the beach can still be a nice place to be – even if you have to put up with sand’s that frozen solid, slippery rocks, and bitter, bitter wind off the icy cold water.
Driving in Denmark

Driving in Denmark


I like to drive. I like to be on the open road, like in the American Southwest - Arizona, Nevada, Utah. Put your pedal to the metal, no one in front of you, no one in the rear view mirror. Just you and the road. You will not get that experience much in Denmark, a small country with a lot of people packed into a small area. There’s not a lot of open land here, not much living off the grid. Which doesn’t mean drivers don’t long for it. You’ll see those open roads in Arizona and Nevada in a lot of Danish TV advertisements. It’s frequently said about Denmark that it’s not a car country. You hear a lot of well-meaning internationals say that in Denmark you don’t need a car that you can bicycle everywhere you want to go.  That is true in the big cities - I don’t own a car myself. But most of my Copenhagen neighbors do. And cars are pretty much a necessity in the countryside. There are now 2.5 million cars in use in Denmark, roughly one for every other resident over age 18. 
When visiting Denmark, you’ll be offered Danish food, and expressing enthusiasm for it will go a long way towards generating harmony with your Danish friends. The good news is, Danish cuisine offers something for everyone.  If you’re a carnivore, don’t miss the Danish pork dishes, particularly "flæskesteg". That’s a crispy, fatty fried pork that’s the official national food. For people who prefer fish, there’s a great selection in this country surrounded by water. Curried herring and fried plaice are popular, and so are many types of salmon. Vegans can enjoy a wide choice of root vegetables, wonderful fresh Danish berries, or the sweet elderflower juice that is sometimes blended with vodka or champagne.
It’s a funny kind of summer this year in Copenhagen, quieter than usual, and more like a family event than a cosmopolitan city. Coronavirus came early to Denmark, the borders were shut down early, but they’re mostly open now to other Europeans. But the change came too late for many people to make summer vacation plans, so many of the usual tourist attractions are slightly forlorn.  There are a few Europeans around the Little Mermaid and the Royal Palaces, but not many. And there are no huge cruise ships full of Americans docking at Langelinie, or the busloads of Chinese tourists stopping to take pictures with the statue of Hans Christian Andersen. Copenhagen has become less of an international city than it was a year ago. Meanwhile, many Danes are spending their own summer vacations in Denmark, which has one major drawback - the Danish summer weather.
Among the many cultural questions I ask audiences during my How to Live in Denmark Game Show is “Which animal represents Denmark best?”? There never seems to be an obvious or generally agreed-upon answer. Sure, the bear represents Russia, the elephant Thailand, and the bald eagle the United States. But what about Denmark? Denmark does have a national animal – the mute swan (Cygnus olor) – but an image of a swan doesn’t provoke the kind of immediate association with Denmark that, say, a koala bear does with Australia. That said, mute swans are easy to find in Denmark. You can see them sailing down the quiet streams of the country’s historical parks, such as the vold in Fredericia or Utterslev Mose in suburban Copenhagen. But these strong, individualist, and often angry animals are a strange fit for a country that prides itself on co-operation and peacefulness. They’re also not really mute – in fact, they have a noisy hiss that can signal an attack if they feel their nest is threatened. Given that these muscular birds are about a meter tall and their wingspan can be twice that, you may feel threatened too.
Alcohol has a long history in Denmark. The Vikings brewed four types of beverages: ale, mead, fruit wine, and syra, a fermented milk – and for many centuries Danish babies have eaten øllebrød, which is a mix of old bread scraps and beer. Fast forward a few centuries, and alcohol is still part of almost every Danish gathering. Early in 2020, the EU Commission reported that Denmark placed an unhappy first in Europe in binge drinking and that it was one of the reasons Danes have the shortest expected lifespan in Western Europe. According to the report, 37% of adult Danes said they had “regular major alcohol usage,” which was nearly double the EU average of 20%.
Debt in Denmark

Debt in Denmark


January, February, and March are some of the dreariest months in Denmark – it’s dark, with no Christmas lights to pep it up – and many people are dealing with a heavy load of year-end debt from traveling, parties, dining out, and gifts. Along with religion, personal finance is a topic that is rarely discussed in Denmark. But the country has one of the highest rates of household debt in the world.  And once you get into debt in Denmark, it can be very difficult to get out.   Mortgages, credit cards, text-message loans Much of the debt in Denmark is mortgage debt, since buying a home has tax advantages and prices in the big cities are six times what they were 20 years ago.
If you’re newly arrived in Denmark, making Danish friends is not easy – in fact, surveys show that one of the main reasons internationals end up leaving is the difficulty of building a network. The irony is that Danes are actually very good at friendship. Their friendships are strong, reliable, and deep-rooted. Friends can count on each other. But because Danes take friendships so seriously, they like to keep their number of friendships under control. They don’t want to take on more friends than they can keep their deep commitment to. The statement “I just don’t have room for any more friends” sounds perfectly sensible to Danes, and utterly stunning to foreigners. When internationals ask me how they can make Danish friends, I have one primary piece of advice. It is: find a Dane who did not grow up in the part of Denmark where you live now.
The relaxed approach to nudity in Denmark can be a surprise for many newcomers. It’s something they’re often confronted with at the local swimming hall, where a very large and strong attendant insists that they take off their entire swimsuit and shower thoroughly before going into the pool. Stripping off in front of strangers is new for a lot of internationals, and some try to place it a larger context of Danish morality. It hasn’t been entirely forgotten that Denmark was the first country in the world to legalize pornography in 1967. Some people still think of Denmark as a place where there is easy sex available and a generous display of naked boobs and butts.  
“Is there politeness in Denmark?”  That was the question I was recently invited on a national TV show to discuss. The implication was that I was supposed to say that Danes were not at all polite, because effusive praise and cheerful agreement make for a rather dull TV show. But Danes are not impolite. They have their own version of courteous behaviour, which is based on reinforcing aspects of their culture that they care about.
One of my favorite types of speaking engagement is introducing Denmark to some of the smart, motivated young people arriving from around the world to study at Danish universities. Since the publication of my first book, How to Live in Denmark, I’ve been speaking regularly to audiences of new arrivals, and I probably learn as much from them as they learn from me. Among the things I’ve learned is that the aspects of Danish culture that the Danes are most proud of can be troublesome for newcomers.
Planning your summer vacation in Denmark is like playing the lottery. You could hit it lucky, with golden days and long, warm evenings, when you can sit with friends in the soft light and drink hyldeblomst cocktails. Or you could get grey day after grey day, interspersed with a little rain whenever it is least convenient. The weather could be chilly, leaving your cute new summer clothes to sit disappointed in your closet while you wear your boring long trousers again and again. I find that locals tend to base their decision about whether to stay in Denmark for the summer on the previous year’s weather. Last year’s summer was great for anyone who is not a farmer: it was unusually hot and dry. This year, so far, the weather has been very good for farmers with crops that need a lot of rain, and not so great for anybody else.
April 1st is April Fool’s Day – Aprilsnar in Danish – and each Danish newspaper will feature a clever but false story for the unwary to be fooled by. To some extent every day is April Fool’s Day in Denmark, because Danish humor is a rough humor. Danes show affection by making fun of each other. And, as an international, they might make fun of you too. This is a good thing: that means they have accepted you into the circle of Danishness. But it doesn’t mean that the intersection of non-Danes and Danish humor is entirely painless. If you come from a culture where you are easily offended – and that, unfortunately, includes the American culture these days – you may spend a lot of time with your feelings hurt. If you come from a culture where honor or face is prized, the Danish insistence on taking nothing seriously and taking everyone down a peg can be shocking.
Motivating Danish employees is very different than motivating other groups of people because there are two big factors missing – hierarchy and fear.  We don’t like to talk about the fear part in our various countries of origin, but the fact is true that in the US, UK, China, India, and in parts of Europe, someone who loses their job can be in a lot of trouble. They may have trouble paying their bills, might lose their house, might not have access to health care, might not be able to send their kids to university. That’s not the case in Denmark. Everybody pays for those services through their taxes, so losing your job doesn’t mean you lose access to these things the way it might mean elsewhere in the world. And that means that employees aren’t slightly afraid of their boss the way they might be elsewhere in the world - and they’re much more willing to speak up. They’re not going to do what you say just because you’re the boss. Hierarchy exists in Denmark, despite what the Danes sometimes want to believe, but you don’t always get a lot of respect from being at the top of the hierarchy. In this society where egalitarianism is a deep and cherished value, the person standing on a pedestal is kind of assumed to be a buffoon. You’ve heard of the famous "Janteloven" that informally governs Danish culture – and one of its rules is "don’t think you’re better than us". In a Danish environment, you’re going to have to convince your employees that what you suggest is the right course of action. They’re not just going to do it because you’re the boss.
Comments (1)

Ensieh Noroozi

Thank you so much for your detailed information about Denmark. Very useful and interesting! How will be for an Iranian pharmacist to immigrate Denmark?

Apr 19th
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