MY JOURNEY AS AN EXPAT
Expat Insider’s The Best & Worst Places for Expats in 2017 sums up Denmark in a nutshell. Out of 65 countries, Denmark ranked: #1 for Work life Balance, #9 for Quality of Life, and #65 for Ease of Settling in. Canadian expat, and founder of Homestead Laura Wintemute, explains just how much of a culture shock Denmark can be.
If you told me 12 years ago that I would end up ‘a soccer mom’ in Danish suburbia, I would have never believed it. I’ve spent the past 25 years travelling exotic countries and living abroad, and never thought that I would end up in a tiny, cold Scandinavian country, but I did. The decision to settle down on the other side of the world, far away from my family and friends was a difficult one. Being so far away from everything familiar, everything I knew and everyone I loved was the hardest part of being an expat. It was hard for me to accept that life at home didn’t pause in the lack of my presence. I was missing birthdays, weddings, births, school reunions and memorials of loved ones. My family has always supported my decision (they didn’t have much choice), but if I was happy they were happy. I was happy, and in love!
A culture shock
Being Canadian, I feel that we have many similar cultural attributes to Danes. Like values for equality and community, respect for cultural differences and freedom of speech and most importantly we both believe that everyone deserves to be healthy and happy. Yet, with all these similarities, we are still so very different. Nothing prepared me for the culture shock I faced when I moved to Denmark. Canadians are extremely friendly and polite, almost to a fault. We smile and say hello to everyone who meets our eye. If we see a stranger in need, we ask what we can do to help, and if someone accidentally bumps into us on the street, we will apologise to them. We bring pie to all our new neighbours, we invite almost everyone we meet home for dinner and we try our best to make people feel welcome in their new surroundings. In comparison, Danish culture is best explained by its comparative lack of flashiness and disapproval of ostentation, snobbery or “show-off-ness”, putting society ahead of the individual, not boasting about individual accomplishments or being jealous of others. Danes enjoy a simple life with not much weight on possessions, job title, high income or how large their network is. This is almost the complete opposite of Canadians. Knowing this, I did everything that I could to adapt and fit in to the Danish culture. Not because I needed the Danes’ approval or acceptance to be here, but because I knew that I was likely to spend the rest of my life here. For me, the most logical first step was to understand how Danes think; their humor, sarcasm and straight forwardness. Danish humor is often described as sarcastic and dry. They make fun of almost everything; politicians, gender, sex, even their own children. Danes are much more blunt and transgressive than most people. But, to understand Danish humor, I soon realised that I needed a good grasp on the Danish language, otherwise things would get completely ‘lost in translation’.
“It’s been an adventure trying to adapt to a new culture. Sometimes, things are tough. Danes tend not to be so welcoming and friendly to strangers, which is something that is still difficult for me to relate to and understand. But, the work-life balance and family focus has helped me realise the importance of a child’s foundation and I’m grateful to be able to raise kids here with this focus in mind.” – Angelica Gandrup-Marino – American expat.
Talk the talk, walk the walk
No matter how long you’re planning on being here, learning Danish will make your time in Denmark that much easier. You don’t have to speak it fluently, just be able to understand it. One week after I arrived in Denmark I started Danish lessons at Studieskolen. I met a fantastic group of expats. It was so easy to just hang out with them (and speak English). However, we knew that this wouldn’t help us in the long run. We made a pact to speak Danish together and that helped immensely. We sounded ridiculous speaking in our broken-Danish, bad accents and incorrect tenses, but we didn’t care. The goal was to use Danish as much as possible in our everyday life. I spoke to everyone I met in Danish (well, I at least tried). Normally, after hearing me say, “Hej” Danes just automatically switched to English. In the beginning I thought it was rude of them, but I then realised that they were just being polite. I would kindly ask them to continue in Danish as I was trying to learn their language. They would smile and repeat the sentence in Danish. When it comes to the Danish working world, things are a great deal more relaxed. Danes have a high degree of flexibility at work, being able to choose when they start their working day, and have the flexibility to work from home. This is especially important when you have kids. In this respect Denmark strikes a good work-life balance, prioritising career and ambition on the one hand, and life (health, pleasure, leisure, and family) on the other. Danish society is not created for the upper class. Just the opposite. Nearly all things are geared to the middle class creating a great deal of contentment, which is key. There is little of the mentality of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’. Everyone is on the same level, regardless of whether they are teachers, lawyers or the big boss.
Get out of your comfort zone
I find that most expats remain in their ‘expat bubble’ because it is difficult to make Danish friends. Danes take friendship very seriously and it’s all about trust. A friendship is also considered a lifetime commitment and they prioritise this in their social life. They feel that they don’t have time for more friends, they hardly have time in their busy lives for the friends they have. After 10 years, I have more Danish friends than expat ones. All it took was me making the first move, and the second and the third… but eventually I broke the code. It takes perseverance and patience to make Danish friends. But once you have them, they’ll be friends for life. And so can you. Whatever your reasons for moving to Denmark, your time as an expat will be an exciting and frustrating experience in equal measure. Everything is so different from what we are used to. Normal everyday routines back home become daunting tasks. Just get out there and experience Danish life. Eat the pickled herring with lard on ryebread, drink a Carlsberg Special and wash it down with a Rød Aalborg while snacking on fried pig skin (flæskesvær). Watch Danish TV series with subtitles. Read the metro express and Ekstra Bladet. Go to Bakken, Louisiana and Galopbanen… The sooner you get out of your comfort zone and dive into your new life here in Denmark (be it temporary or long term) the sooner you can start enjoying your Danish life.
Text: Laura Wintemute – www.homesteaddenmark.com