OPINION: Hacks for foreigners transitioning to life in Denmark

Moving to a new country can play havoc with one's sense of identity. But there are plenty of things that can be done to make transitioning to life in a place like Denmark more pleasant and homely, writes our guest columnist Judy Wanjiku Jørgensen.

OPINION: Hacks for foreigners transitioning to life in Denmark
File photo: Henning Bagger/Scanpix Denmark

I was talking to an exchange student the other day in Aarhus about how I never thought I would return to Denmark after my studies.

I first arrived in Denmark in 2009 for six months as part of an Erasmus Mundus Masters program, during which I lived in an international student bubble.

By bubble, I mean that I neither felt the need to learn Danish nor was I curious about the values or social dynamics of life in Denmark.

My stay in Denmark then had been about intense coursework, term papers, and parties every fortnight.

In 2013, I returned to Denmark – for love and family. Walking through the same streets that I once trudged as a student was now full of déjà vu.

I began to notice things, words, places that had never caught my attention during my study stint in Aarhus. It felt a little like stepping out of the bubble, with real-world considerations both specific and non-specific to relocation.

My life now involved motherhood, being a wife and career inspirations, as well as integrating while also learning the not-so-easy Danish language – a far more permanent state than during my student days.

These challenges are part of changing a known way of life into the unknown. From leaving the familiar, the security blankets and moving into a significant life event.

From being in-between a home culture that you once fitted into like a glove and adopting a new one, yet always feeling transient.

If you ask me whether I consider Denmark home, I will give a hesitant no. If you ask me if Kenya still feels like home, I will also reply with hesitation.

I am beginning to feel like a foreigner in my own country too, a land that I am intensely patriotic towards. This feeling of being between the two cultures is what I describe as being transient, fluid.

For example, I long for Kenya when I am in Denmark. I experience bouts of homesickness with a longing to sit and chat with my mum while basking outside in the hot Kenyan sun.

I miss attending Kikuyu church services or going to soko mjinga in Nyeri to buy fresh green bananas and all those tropical fruits that I crave.

However, after being in Kenya for a couple of weeks, I begin to miss Denmark. The order, punctuality, cosiness, freedom of individuality. I wish there were a way of combining the best of my two worlds, but all this is wishful thinking.

By adjusting my attitude, I am learning to appreciate the good in both countries, and count myself blessed for the opportunity of having two opposite cultures that make me grow in ways that I never thought possible.

Below, I have expanded some of the things I've learned into 'attitude hacks' that can make transitioning to living in Denmark, or elsewhere, more pleasant and homely.


Learn the basics

Learning tennis is an excellent example of the importance of learning the basics. Any keen tennis player will spend a considerable amount of time understanding groundstrokes. These are the basic swing patterns that separate an amateur from a pro.

The same analogy applies to building a foundation in Denmark. The basics of learning the language, understanding how the society works and being open minded are what will propel you to the next level of attaining what may seem like unattainable future goals.

Stay in the present

Moving to Denmark may feel like starting over, building up against so many odds. Where one once had a cut-out career, they may now be forced to change into something that doesn't quite fit into what their aspirations once were.

While it is easy to feel discouraged, it is essential to focus on what might be a plan B career move that will converge back into a plan A.

In a world of uncertainties and scaling daunting heights, it is only prudent to have a plan B that will keep you motivated, and sane.

Think along the lines of, when you don't know what to do, do what you know.

Stay in the present, appreciate what you have, what you are learning, and the good of the moment. Worrying about the future will only breed negativity and anxiety.

Be social

Getting out and socialising or networking is a prerequisite for understanding Denmark, the Danish way of life and discovering work opportunities.

It is tempting to stick to the same familiar group of people, say from one's home country. However, to understand and integrate smoothly, it is wise to surround yourself with diversity.

Each person you interact with will provide some positive or negative insight that you might need on your way to carving the life you want in Denmark.

Conversely, drop the attitude of thinking that Danes are hard to befriend. Making solid friendships, regardless of where one lives, always takes time and trust.

Moreso, building solid friendships in adulthood requires skill and patience. There is a jaded, fatalistic attitude, often stemming from past (failed) friendships that makes adults complicate the process of creating friendships in new cultures.

If you approach the idea of making friends with Danes as an insurmountable one, then that it is how it will become.

Instead of focusing so much on friendships, make situational friendships instead. With time, these may blossom.

READ ALSO: OPINION: My humbling journey into a surprising Scandinavian life

Judy Wanjiku Jørgensen is a Kenyan-born journalist, blogger, photographer and Mama to two Afro-Viking sons. Judy runs Memoirs of a Kenyan Mom Abroad, a blog which chronicles life and career abroad, motherhood, interracial relationships and race issues.

This opinion piece was originally published on Judy's blog and has been republished with the author's permission.

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OPINION: If you can’t go home for Christmas, Denmark is a good place to be

After missing out on seeing his family for Christmas 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, The Local Denmark editor Michael Barrett got to try out Danish Christmas for the first time.

A Danish dining table on Christmas Eve.
A Danish dining table on Christmas Eve. File photo: Vibeke Toft/Ritzau Scanpix

We’d always planned to spend last Christmas in the UK. My daughter was born in March 2020, coinciding with the outset of the global coronavirus pandemic but, as worrying and uncertain as everything was at the time, we were sure it would have all settled down in nine months’ time. We started planning for her to spend her first Christmas with her grandparents, cousin and the rest of our extended family in England.

As we all know, this was far from how things turned out. The autumn and winter of last year saw spiralling Covid-19 cases across Europe and countries responding by introducing more and more restrictions, including on travel.

I’m not sure exactly when we conceded we’d have to cancel our plans to go to the UK for Christmas in 2020, but I do remember the look of resignation on my parents’ faces when I let them know. The writing had already been on the wall for a while by then.

Visiting my partner’s mother in December, I looked out of the window at the greying skies over Jutland, the dim lights of a distant Føtex store and the limp red and white pendants on flag poles as bare as the trees, and nothing felt familiar.

This was because, despite having lived in Denmark for almost a decade and a half, I’d never spent Christmas in the country. Every year I’d head home by the 22nd or 23rd, usually returning just before New Year to enjoy the rowdy firework displays in Aarhus or Copenhagen after a week of putting my feet up and savouring the familiarity and comfort of Christmas at home.

Denmark famously has its own Christmas traditions, comparable but certainly different to the British ones. I knew about them – I’ve exchanged information about national Christmas customs with many Danes over the years – but never witnessed them first-hand.

The big day came around quickly, not least because it all happens on the 24th, not the 25th.

Festivities did take a while to get going, though. Not until 4pm in fact, when ancient Disney Christmas special From All of Us to All of You, known in Danish as Disneys juleshow began on main TV broadcaster DR. Usually I’d have been watching an early-1980s David Bowie introducing The Snowman around now. A cup of warm gløgg (spiced red wine with raisins and almonds) was thrust into my hand, and I missed Bowie a little bit less.

After a couple more glasses of gløgg and wine, we sat down for Christmas dinner: roast duck, brown potatoes, boiled potatoes, gravy and red cabbage. It was of course already dark and a prolific number of candles were lit on the table and around the room, adding to the festive feeling of the star-topped tree, paper hearts and other decorations.

For dessert, we had risalamande, the popular cold rice sweet mixed with whipped cream, vanilla and chopped almonds and served with cherry sauce. By tradition, one whole almond is left in the dessert and whoever finds it wins a present, which is customarily a julegris, a chocolate pig with marzipan filling. This game is often fixed so that a child (or children) wins the prize, but the only child present was a nine-month-old and I ended up finding the almond in my bowl.

Then it was time to dance around the tree and exchange presents. Most of us had too much dessert, so it was a more sedate affair than I expected. After the little one was fast asleep we sat back on the sofas and had a couple more glasses of wine or maybe a few snacks.

It was all over before Santa traditionally lands his sleigh on rooftops and hops down British chimneys in the small hours of Christmas morning.

Danish families with young children often assign someone to dress up as Father Christmas and come round to deliver the presents to excited youngsters before dinner on Christmas Eve.

Maybe I’ll get the chance to audition for the role next year because our Danish-British family will be in Denmark every other Christmas for the foreseeable future – by choice, not restriction. I’m looking forward to it, because my first Danish Christmas gave me a better understanding of why this time of year is loved by so many Danes.

READ ALSO: My five favourite Danish childhood Christmas memories