Integration is held up as the holy grail of successful expat life and whilst it is important to integrate into the community around you and to understand cultural norms, integration can look different for everyone and there is no set way to do it.
I always think of integration and settling in to a new country as a journey rather than simply focusing on the final destination.
Mixing up and adapting traditions and holidays to work for you
All communities have their own traditions and I have written about this in more length before. Understanding the traditions and holiday celebrations of your new home can certainly enrich your experience by adopting them in a way that works for you. However, integration is not made easier or better by completely rejecting your own traditions — whether they are personal, cultural or religious. This can lead to a feeling of isolation as you don’t quite fit with the new traditions and you have none of your own to feel grounded by. Sharing your traditions and ways of celebration with Danes helps an understanding of each other’s cultures.
Learning the language but accepting you will still be answered in English
Learning the local language is of course the best route to feel more integrated in your new country. When I lived in Berlin, I think one of the main reasons I found it hard to settle was my lack of German language skills. I took lessons but as anyone who had tried to learn a language, proficiency does not happen overnight.
We are lucky here in Denmark to be able to access free Danish language lessons and this is a big step towards integration (obviously the reason why they are free!). However, many Danes find it simply easier for them, and they think for you, to speak English to a non Dane. It seems to be a Catch 22 situation — many Danish people will often say how it is essential to be able to understand Danish to integrate yet they don’t actually want to hear you speaking it. Sometimes this annoys me, as I spent a long time learning Danish to be replied to in English (as apparently I sound Norwegian), yet most times I go with the flow as it is not intended with malice.
If you really want to get to know the language and Danes, look for Danish language clubs in your local library and other locations where you can sit and chat to native Danish speakers. You will learn better Danish and tons about Danish life at the same time. In Copenhagen, the Improv Comedy Theatre and Cafe is one place you could try for this.
A smile and a hello takes less than 10 seconds
Ok, so there are not hundreds of Danes beating your door down to be your new best friend. But that one neighbour who nods and says hello to you is your first step. That is enough to start with. It takes less than ten seconds to say hello and smile. Smiling releases serotonin, a brain chemical that acts as a natural anti-depressant. So smiling makes us feel happier and a smile makes another person feel good, so for 10 seconds you have already boosted your day and someone else's.
A long time ago, when I worked in public relations, I would work hard to turn negatives into positives. You look for a negative outcome and it is a self fulfilling prophecy that it will happen. This works the same way in reverse. To shroud yourself with a negative mindset will stop you from seeing all the good things around you and this prevents you from taking steps to join in and experience things and make friends.
Volunteering to help others and yourself
Volunteering is one of the best ways to meet people, practice your Danish, understand the local culture and social norms and — the focus of this article — to integrate. There are tons of places in Denmark where you can volunteer even for just a few hours of your week.
Break some bread at community dining and events
Society in Denmark is very much based around the community and communal events. This can be isolating if you feel you are not really part of a community but there are plenty of places and events designed to fill this need for those feeling on the sidelines.
Absalon in Copenhagen regularly holds community dining events (Fællesspisning), where for 50 kroner you can enjoy a freshly cooked meal and have the chance to chat to the people beside you and opposite you along the community tables. It is an environment where people actually want meet new people and share stories. If you google fællesspisning, you can often find one off and regular events.
Think.dk is a community project aimed at encouraging sustainable living. They run loads of events and workshop where you can learn new things and meet new people.
Melanie Haynes is originally from the UK and has lived in Copenhagen for nearly ten years. She writes about life in Copenhagen on her blog Dejlige Days and after experiencing relocation to Copenhagen and Berlin, she runs a personal relocation and settling-in service aimed at expats called Dejlige Days Welcome. Her book My Guide to a Successful Relocation is available here.