'Coming from a northern culture myself, Danish communication didn’t surprise me'

Michael Barrett
Michael Barrett - [email protected]
'Coming from a northern culture myself, Danish communication didn’t surprise me'
Ilze Zelgave with her family at Copenhagen's Botanical Gardens. Photo: Martina Lanotte

We spoke to Latvian diplomat Ilze Zelgave, who moved to Denmark in 2016 and is currently on maternity leave, about Danish social norms and her thoughts on bringing up international children in the Scandinavian country.


Zelgave, 35, who lives in Høje Taastrup, is the third The Local reader to be featured in our series on the everyday experiences of internationals in Denmark. She has previously lived in Brussels, the Netherlands and Jamaica, and has worked for both the Latvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the European Union.

What were you doing before you went on maternity leave?

“Before moving to Denmark I was working in Brussels for the Permanent Representation of Latvia to the European Union. Then followed the move to Denmark because my husband got a job here and it coincided with the time when I found out I was pregnant, so we both moved to Denmark soon after that.

“That was my first child, and now I’m on maternity leave for the second one.”

Given your relatively wide range of experience living in different countries, was there anything about Denmark that surprised you?

“Perhaps this isn’t what everybody would expect, but I would say the experience told me you should not expect anything in particular, you should just go to a country with an open mind, and I’ve realised that as different as countries can be culturally, for instance across Europe, there are certain things which are very similar. As polite and welcoming as you are to people, the same they will be to you, no matter where you go.

“If you are patient with administrative or bureaucratic things you will be okay in many countries and in Denmark I found that people are actually quite helpful and forthcoming, as long as you are as well.

“It’s a two-way road and I realised there are more similarities when you go from one country to another, realising that you have to work both ways of you want to have a good experience, and not to close yourself in with perceptions or expectations.”

You’ve become a mother since you moved here, but do you think your lifestyle would have changed in a different way had you not been in Denmark?

“I like being mobile. For me as a mum it’s important that you can jump on any train or S-tog or metro with the baby, you can just go anywhere. The mobility is really important here and it’s very user-friendly in that respect.

“Coming from a northern culture myself, in a way I didn’t find moving to Denmark so different in terms of say, communication or the way people perceive each other. I very much understand what foreigners sometimes call Danish ‘coldness’, being reserved, I totally understand that but I come myself from, you might say, a somewhat similar society. So that wasn’t a shocker.

“As I also said to my husband, don’t take it personally, it’s nothing about you, don’t think ‘what did I do’ or ‘do I look different’ or ‘is it because I don’t speak Danish?’. It’s just the way they are, they are comfortable and they want you to be comfortable with yourself, that’s all.”

How long do you plan to stay here?

“At the moment there are no fixed future plans, it will very much depend on our job situations when my maternity leave comes to an end, so we will see the options.

“I think Denmark gives us options to stay here, despite what people say about the job market. We are not scared of leaving but can remain open to whatever option better suits our family.”

Would you be happy for your children to go to school in Denmark?

“In Denmark there’s a good public school system and also the option of international schools. Coming from an environment of diplomatic people and seeing children grow up in countries which are not their home countries, and studying in a language which is not always their mother tongue… I don’t find it scary, I have to say.

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“Technology opens up the world for education for children. We would also face the same questions about culture or language in Brussels, it would be the same challenges for us across Europe.”

You’re keen for them to retain their Latvian heritage through their education as well as at home?

“Coming from a small nation – there are not that many Latvians – of course, for me personally there is a concern about maintaining the Latvian language, also for my children and for them to experience part of Latvian culture. In that respect, what is very nice is that Latvia supports small Sunday schools or weekend schools across Europe where there is a Latvian community.

“So there is a possibility for children with Latvian parents to maintain their culture and language, so there are always options. It just depends on oneself to go out there and use those options.

“It’s possible for them to have their Latvian identity in parallel, wherever we are.”

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