‘I love how cool Copenhagen and its people are’

Irishwoman Alison O'Keefe moved to Copenhagen sight unseen and is now helping other expats make the transition.

'I love how cool Copenhagen and its people are'
Alison O'Keefe moved to Copenhagen earlier this year. Photo: Submitted
What makes people move to Copenhagen without ever having previously stepped foot in the city? 
For Alison O’Keefe from Ireland it was the desire to experience something new and to broaden her horizons by living in a new place. 
“I moved here in the depths of February 2016. Despite the cold introduction it was actually a beautiful time to move because I got to see the city come to life after the long winter,” O’Keefe told The Local. “I wanted to experience something new and I chose Copenhagen because of how exciting and interesting this city seemed and the fact that I could get by speaking English.”
O’Keefe said that she was born and bred in Ireland to Irish and Dutch parents but always knew that she would eventually live abroad. 
“I studied for a number of years in the Netherlands before travelling around Asia, moving back to Ireland and then moving here,” she said. 
O’Keefe landed a sale job before arriving in the city. “I took a sales job with a tech startup before moving over here which turned out to be a lifeline that really helped to settle me and to have at least one box checked. There are enough stressful things about moving countries without also having to look for a job.”
But O’Keefe said that she soon discovered “sales was not [her] calling in life”.
Using her connections and her Irish background O’Keefe spent the summer working in the popular Dubliner pub serving tourists from all over the world. She still works there part time but has been lucky enough to land a job with Copenhagen Housing, a company that assists expats in finding a home in the city. Having been in that position just a few months before, she can appreciate how people feel when they come up against the competitive housing market.
 “We find rental accommodation for internationals, be they students, expats or diplomats.  Everyone has heard the horror stories of trying to find accommodation in Copenhagen so we try and make the nightmare slightly more bearable for our clients.”
Working two jobs offers O’Keefe variety in her professional life.
“As I don’t have a regular 9 to 5 job I find that I have a lot more freedom. I can plan my days how I like and I feel like I have a lot more time to do all kinds of things, even though most weeks I work more hours than a normal working week. It doesn’t feel that way though as I enjoy what I do so much. 
“As most of my colleagues are also expats, we have a far closer bond than what I would have found in other jobs, where people are more preoccupied with their family or other friend groups. Here we are all in the same boat and this brings people very close, very quickly.
She said she has found the work atmosphere in Denmark to be very relaxed and informal, which she says leads to more openness and honesty amongst her colleagues. 
When not working her two jobs, she finds plenty to keep her busy in the capital. 
“There are so many things to love about Copenhagen! Especially in the summer, sitting out on one of the many amazing terraces, having some good food, coffee or drinks with friends is almost unbeatable,” she said. “I love how incredibly cool this city and its people are. I love the closeness of the expat community and how it forces people together in a way that you could never experience if you lived your whole life in your home country.”
Like many expats O’Keefe finds the level of taxes and the prices of everyday things something that takes getting used to but appreciates that the wage levels are a little higher to compensate and there are visible benefits to high taxes such as amenities, infrastructure and  healthcare.
“I am still getting used to the reservedness of the Danes but I do really like the people here and the vibe in the city is friendly nonetheless. When I am being particularly friendly at the Dubliner and I try to make jokes and have ’banter’ with a group of reserved Scandinavians I had some funny looks but that is probably down to my weird sense of humour more than anything else!”

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Moving to Denmark: The emotional challenges faced by mixed-culture couples

If you are living in a new culture or are in a relationship that crosses between cultures, you might be facing challenges you've not met before. But there are plenty of ways to tackle them, writes our guest columnist Hanne-Berit Hahnemann.

Moving to Denmark: The emotional challenges faced by mixed-culture couples
File photo: Christian Als / Ritzau Scanpix

It’s hard enough being a couple in a world loaded with responsibilities and stressors about children, finances, work, family obligations, etc. As a therapist, I often see couples of mixed cultures who have to withstand the difficulties of one or both adjusting to a new life with numerous challenges, such as having to create new social networks, learning a new language, and adjusting to new cultural norms.

The many small social cues that we become so accustomed to we take for granted, until we find ourselves in a new culture where the rules are completely different. When we are thrust into new cultural situations, we often misread the signals. For instance, small talk is generally much less prevalent in Denmark than in the U.S. This we may perceive as people being inaccessible and unfriendly.

It is similar within the “mixed couple”. Couples with partners from different countries can find themselves struggling with some of the same issues inside their relationship.

Different native languages within a couple can limit the couple’s deeper understanding of each other. The feelings of alienation or being “other” in a different culture can be transferred to the relationship and feed misunderstanding and a lack of connection.

Consider – for instance – the ongoing effects on the couple which differs significantly on levels of independence-interdependence.

One aspect of interdependence is an assumption that our partner should understand and react to our needs without being asked. A more independent person, on the other hand, may assume that the only reasonable way of behaving is to clearly communicate your needs, and to then negotiate around how to get these needs met.

Such a combination of traits can often cause confusion and disappointment when you feel unheard or misunderstood. We tend to expect our partners to at least hear us, to at least try to understand what we are communicating.

In my practice, I often see that such frustrations can lead to anger and judgment of the other.

Over time, cultural differences can wear on a couple in ways that are quite unique to the mixed couples’ situation. Even slight differences in beliefs can cause couples to repeatedly argue over apparently mundane things, like who does the dishes or who picks up the kids from daycare. Or less mundane disagreements, such as those related to religious and spiritual beliefs. Culture influences us in ways we often are quite unaware of.


There is a significant upside to these difficulties, however. Much like living abroad, living with a partner from a different culture can help you open yourself up to new possibilities and a deeper understanding and appreciation of others. Mixed culture couples must discover that the set of rules they learned growing up is just one of many.

The effort and mutual respect it takes to successfully make room for the other person’s values is often rewarded with a closer and deeper relationship that can better withstand life’s trials and tribulations.

It does require work to get there. You must be willing to look both at yourself and your partner with openness to the differences and a willingness to explore. As an expat, perhaps you already have these qualities?

If you and your partner struggle with cultural differences, here are some things you can do. Being as aware of the conflicts as possible is really useful. Only when you have identified the problem can you do something about it. This means becoming aware of your own values, as well as your partners.

I often give couples the following homework: Set aside at least one hour a week to spend together without distractions. During this hour, you are to practice listening to the other without judgment or disagreement. So, you can ask questions, you can repeat and you can reflect. This means asking questions to explore and deepen your understanding, not to voice your judgment or disagreement. Repeat what the person said, but in your own words, then wait for them to respond and add more to their message. Finally, reflect on what the other person has expressed, and see if you can express this reflection without judgment or condescension.

It takes practice and effort, but with time you can begin to change the way you communicate!

Hanne-Berit Hahnemann has a Master's degree in clinical counselling with a supervisory license from Cleveland State University and many years of experience in private practice in the United States. As an expat herself, she specialises in internationals and the challenges that come with moving to another country. She sees clients at the MacFarlane Psychology Group, a Copenhagen practice offering psychotherapy in English.


READ ALSO: Why moving to Denmark can cause feelings of loneliness – and what you can do to feel better