Culture Shock Denmark

If you are moving to Denmark you will experience Culture Shock Denmark at some time during your settling in period. Below is a story from an expat on that experience.

I contacted Jason and he kindly gave me permission to repost his views on adapting to life in Denmark. Sit back and enjoy.

Culture Shock Denmark contribution:

How to Integrate, Part 1: Welcome to Paradise

culture shock Denmark

Congratulations – you’ve arrived. You’d been anticipating it for ages, staring at all those life-affirming pictures of honey skinned people on the internet and wondering how it would feel to live among the world’s happiest folk. “Welcome to the Land of Passion and Luxury” the signs at the airport proclaimed as you stood waiting for your baggage, breathing in the air of a new life, your body tingling with anticipation and nerves. Even the airport itself told you you’d arrived. All that space and peace, and none of the sweaty chaos and shabby disorder you’d come to expect from lesser countries, like the one you just came from.

And then the taxi ride to your new home. A gleaming new Mercedes, powering its way along the smooth streets, leaving all those cyclists in its wake. Pretty soon you were going to be one of those cyclists too – you’d already promised yourself that. It’s a good way to keep the weight off, you had reasoned: how else to explain the lithe figures outside the taxi window? But then again, you also knew that those people ate things like rye bread – out of choice for chrissakes! – and sat down for dinner with their families, so they could probably get away with eating lots of bacon and hot dogs without it really showing. That’s some gene pool, you’ve found yourself swimming in!

You’d only been living here a few weeks, and yet settling in was like a fish going into water. To be honest, the language was a bit difficult to get your head round – not to say amusing to hear and see it written (Slut! Fart!) – but you could say ‘tak‘ when the baker handed you your Danish pastry each morning and you felt good you were making an effort. To be honest though, what’s the point, you wondered? Everyone spoke English anyway, some of them actually better than some of the folks back home. You’d also learned how to say yes – ja – and no – nej – and felt sufficiently culturally aware of your adopted land to fire off a knowing email back home:

Hej (hello) – how are you? I am settling in nicely here in Denmark so thought it was about time I let you know how I am getting on. Let me just say this: Denmark is awesome! I can’t believe I am actually here. The flat is in an incredible location and, from my window I can see out over the sea to Sweden. So far the weather has been great, not at all cold like some people had warned me, and I have actually bought a bicycle which I use to get around the city. You wouldn’t believe it here – the people are all so friendly and everywhere is clean and neat. I have been experimenting with Danish food and last night bought a jar of pickled herrings to eat with my rye bread sandwich (it’s an acquired taste). I’m actually plucking up the courage to book a table at Noma – although I haven’t found anyone to go there with yet, and I’ll let you know when I do. Otherwise, life is sweet here. I have been to a few modern art galleries and visited the Black Diamond. Everything is cutting edge here – after being here a while I’m sure everywhere else will seem hopelessly outmoded and dull. I’m beginning to see why Danes are the happiest people in the world. They have it all (well, apart from mountains) – and yet there’s hardly any crime. It’s like they were at the front of the line when God was handing out countries. I’m starting at language school next week – so hopefully by Christmas I’ll be fluent and then I can get a job (although everyone speaks English anyway in offices, but I feel it’s only polite to speak their language too). I’ll let you know who I get on. Hi hi (that means goodbye!) – I’m off to drink a Carlsberg at my favourite bodega (probably)!.

And it did truly feel like you’d arrived. If you needed any confirmation of this all you’d have to do is open a newspaper or look on the internet. Danes were happier than any other people, and they had the world’s best restaurant in the world’s best city to live in – these things were confirmed in black and white over and over again. The sea was cornflower blue and the countryside green and rolling and not full of ugly factories and business parks and other blots on the landscape. What’s more – this was a people who were in touch with nature. When every other country was rushing to cover itself in concrete and foul the rivers and air with pollution, Denmark was quietly persuading people out of their cars and onto bikes, putting up giant windmills to make clean electricity and building energy saving blocks of flats for people to live in. Not for profit, or because it was fashionable or cool, but because it was the right thing to do. Some of these flats, like the one you now found yourself living in, were even communal. Imagine how the idea of sharing cooking duties with other families would go down back ‘home’! Perhaps you’d better not mention the fact that you’re living in a communal block to your uncle Alfred, who has some strange (and misguided) ideas about Scandinavia in general.

Of course, you were careful not to get blown away by all this positivity. You were not naive enough to think that Denmark had no downsides at all – after all, name a country that doesn’t? You knew about the high taxes – the Canadian guy you’d met online had bemoaned the fact to you – endlessly. Secretly though you didn’t mind paying high taxes if it meant getting free health insurance and a host of other services – jeez, some people are never satisfied. And apart from the taxes there was also the crime. You hadn’t actually seen any crime but you knew it must exist because you’d seen the front pages of the tabloids and read the English press. But luckily, from what you could figure, it seemed mostly to consist of gangs of immigrants either shooting each other over drug deals or else fighting with Hells Angels – usually in the bits of town that you tended not to visit anyway. In a way, it was kind of decent of them, you thought.

And my, those Hells Angels! You saw them everywhere, roaring around on their shiny motorbikes like modern-day Vikings. Boys will be boys, you reasoned!

And, when you thought about it, you had to admit that you were a little dismayed with the prices of things. You’d brought a pile of savings to live off for a while, but had been alarmed to see it going down so quickly. 35 kroner for a coffee! 50 for a beer! You’d had to put aside that idea about eating at Noma – at least for the time being until you got a job. In fact, the way things were going, you’d be lucky to be eating out anywhere. No, it was a good job that you lived right next to a Netto supermarket! As a matter of fact, it was a good thing that the other people in the block cooked for you six times a week, because frankly you were having trouble finding the ingredients for a lot of the dishes in the cookbook you’d bought from home. Once a week you cooked for the others, but strangely enough they always seemed to have other plans that evening, even though you’d promised them some good-old down-home cooking from back home. Danes were a busy lot, you’d noticed.

But these were just minor annoyances when compared with the bigger picture. Just as soon as you got a job you’d be coining it in and you had already promised yourself to eat out at one of Copenhagen’s Michelin starred places at least once a month. And you’d have plenty of time on your hands too as you knew that the working week was only 37 hours long and overtime was frowned upon. Hard to imagine back home – just to save up for the move to Denmark you’d been working sixty or seventy hour weeks, and nobody thought that unusual at all. It was amazing how Denmark had avoided being corrupted by low wages and the tyranny of bosses – good on them, you’d thought! You’d heard that unions were pretty strong here (another thing not to mention to Uncle Alf) and had actually bumped into a crowd of angry grey haired women waving placards one day outside the parliament building. Being inquisitive, you’d asked one of them what they were protesting about and she said that the tight-fisted government was backtracking on earlier promises and trying to force people to work into advanced middle age. Corruption in government had even reached its tentacles into Denmark – the least corrupt country in the world! – you’d told yourself glumly at the time.

You were cheered a few days later to read that the protesters had got their way, so all’s well that ends well, you’d said. It was also decent of the politicians to come out and meet them to listen to their grievances. Another thing that would never happen back home! Actually, one of the main politicians was a little grey haired old lady, so maybe they could relate to each other better. You thought it was great that a little grey haired old lady could be a politician of stature at all – how tolerant and inclusive Denmark is!

You were particularly surprised that the politicians actually made time for them because they were particularly busy, you’d read, figuring out what to do about the terrorist threat that hung over their peaceful nation. To your mind, it seemed monstrously unfair that Denmark should be targeted by Islamic terrorists just because it had exercised its right to freedom of expression. Okay, so maybe it was a teeny bit provocative of that cartoon guy to draw a picture of Mohammed with a bomb in his turban but, hey, he only did it to prove that freedom of expression is a noble and virtuous thing. Jeez (see, I blasphemed, and I’m not beating myself up) can’t these people take a joke? In any case it wasn’t Mohammed, it was just someone who looked like Mohammed, explained the innocent cartoonist when he was collecting his freedom of speech award for his Mohammed cartoons. Don’t these terrorists ever listen? You had your own theories about the terrorist threat being linked to bacon (you’d read about the Indian mutiny some years back), but didn’t mention it in polite company.

Actually, speaking of bacon, you’d been here three months already and hadn’t seen a single rasher. Perhaps it was in another part of Denmark where they ate all the bacon? You could barely wait to get out there and see what hidden treats lay in store across this land! (jh)

Read the rest of the Culture Shock Denmark at Jason's Culture Shock Denmark blog ... very entertaining and informative. Return to main culture page.

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