I moved to Copenhagen and expected to become a local. The reality was different

After two years of living in Copenhagen, I thought I’d have it nailed.

I moved to Copenhagen and expected to become a local. The reality was different
File photo: Liselotte Sabroe/Ritzau Scanpix

I’d know the best places to eat, understand every cultural nuance and I’d be chatting away in Danish, translating to friends who came to visit. 

But I have come to learn that moving to a different country does not turn you into a native by osmosis. If only it did. It takes work, patience and some resilience to ride out those excruciating errors of an expat.

“You’ve jumped the queue!” bellowed a voice, after many attempts to convey the message in Danish.

“Gosh. Sorry. Me?” I said, looking perplexed as no one stood in front or behind me.

Embarrassing lesson number one: take a ticket to be seen at the pharmacy, whether that’s for a prescription or just buying a toothbrush.

“Off we go!” I cheerily called to my toddler, while reversing the pram from a busy bus of wagging fingers. Only two prams are allowed at a time on most Danish buses. Another lesson etched into the memory of awkwardness.

“Please go and wash your hair.”

Yikes. I mean I haven’t washed my hair for a couple of days but really?! Mortifying lesson number 102: you must wash your hair before getting into a public swimming pool, or face a walk of shame with your nicely dry pony tail, back to the cubicles and into the shower.

READ ALSO: Here's what I learned after two years living like a Dane

And then there are the bigger moments.

Pick-pocketed while pregnant. “Don’t panic,” I thought. I know the non-emergency police number off by heart (114). I didn’t know the translation for the automated message on the other end of the line. And I didn’t know that Danish banks have a rather generous limit on a day’s cash withdrawal: 15,000 kroner (£1700) that took some time to get back.

A trip to A&E with my three-year-old. I turned up at hospital to then realise I didn’t know the word for Accident and Emergency (it’s akutmodtagelse, by the way). I had to get someone to write it on a piece of paper because there was no way I was deciphering that word in a fluster.

File photo: Liselotte Sabroe/Ritzau Scanpix

It’s in these moments, I know I have a choice.

To lament the fact I am no longer in my familiar, home country. Or do a Homer Simpson ‘doh!’ and move on.

Because, unfortunately, these moments happen rather frequently when you are a newcomer in Denmark, and they seem to happen even more when dealing with the Danish language.

“Oh, you’ll pick up the language by just living there and absorbing it,” everyone said before our move. I knew the word ‘tak’ (thank you), so how hard could it be?

Let me tell you; ‘tak’ is an anomaly. Most Danish words sound nothing like the spelling. You almost have to learn two languages. Even once you’ve understood how a word is pronounced, trying to say it yourself is a different skill altogether. Four subtly different ways to pronounce an ‘ooh’ sound (ø) and a ‘d’ that is formed somewhere in the back of your throat. Get the pronunciation slightly wrong and you have no chance of being understood. And I mean no chance.

READ ALSO: Danish: Is it really so hard to learn?

I am at the end of Module 3 out of 5 in the state-subsidised classes (they were free until July 2018). I’ve put in around 400 hours of lesson and study time. I still can’t converse with toddlers.

I’m the ‘mor’ (mum) who ‘snakker lidt Dansk’ (speaks a little Danish). The ‘mor’ whose play dates are popular, because the three-year-olds have the upper Danish hand. At baby music classes, I watch everyone’s mouths to decipher the song words. I sing loudly to the bits I know and laugh at the jokes…at least I think they are jokes!

If someone passes comment while out and about, I often don’t know exactly what they’ve said. I certainly don’t know how to respond in that fleeting moment. So I smile and nod. Or say ‘ja’ or ‘tak.’

Not only does it make you feel, well, a bit dim; you miss opportunities for an ‘in.’ An insider piece of knowledge, a bit of parent gossip at nursery pick-up, a potential friendship.

‘Expatriate’ by its definition means to be an outsider. “Living outside your native country,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. And that’s what being an international can feel like. Living not just outside your native country, but outside your new one too. This, for me, has been the most testing part of moving to Denmark.

The constant barrage of mistakes and miscommunication has sometimes left me being a quieter version of myself. Unconfident in both my incomprehensible Danish and apologetic English, and ever embarrassed by the big bright ‘expat’ badge I feel I wear.

But I have learnt the sooner you can get over this, the better. Danes aren’t the ‘say hi to a stranger’ kind of people, so you need to make the first move. Use whatever language you can; mime, if that is what it takes. But whatever you do, don’t stay quiet.

I once went to the extent of saying to a parent at nursery:

“Hi, I’m Emma. I’m trying to get more Danish friends for my daughter to play with, so we can all improve our language…”

“Ah we should do a play date. Let’s swap numbers.”


It was 10 seconds of cringe, for an opening, a new friendship and a new level of Danish understanding. Apply this to all your situations, and you really start to open the doors.

Two years after our move, Danish living has crept up on me. I find myself saying ‘tak for i dag’ (literally, ‘thank you for today’) within an English sentence. I take my baby outside in the pram to nap. I eat rugbrød most days. I know the words to Danish nursery rhymes. I understand Gurli Gris (Peppa Pig). I cycle in all weather. I even own a Rains coat.

I may not be the native I was expecting but that is ok. I get to live in Copenhagen; an incredible capital city with bike lanes and child-friendly parks aplenty. I’ve learnt to enjoy each stage I’m at and all the lessons and discovery it brings.

Perhaps being an international living in Denmark will always feel like a learning process. But isn’t that life? We will never know it all. We will never always get it right. The key is to embrace that experience and find joy through it. One excruciating error at a time.  

READ ALSO: I took the Danish citizenship test today. What was it like, and why did I do it?

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What changes about life in Denmark in June 2021?

Coronavirus rules, travel restrictions and car registration fees are among the areas set to see announcements, updates or rule changes in Denmark in June.

What changes about life in Denmark in June 2021?
An electric-powered harbour bus operating in Copenhagen in June 2020. Photo: Claus Bech/Ritzau Scanpix

Changes to coronavirus restrictions

Denmark initially outlined a phased plan to lift its coronavirus restrictions back in March. The plan has been updated (and accelerated) on a number of occasions, with politicians meeting regularly to discuss adjustments based on the status and progression of the epidemic.

Initially, the government said it would lift the majority of restrictions by the end of May, when it expected to have vaccinated everyone over the age of 50 (apart from those who choose not to be vaccinated). Although the vaccination calendar was pushed back, restrictions are still being lifted, with the government citing progress with vaccinations and general good control of the epidemic.

In an agreement reached earlier this month, the government said rules requiring the use of face masks and corona passports will be revoked when all people over 16 in Denmark have been offered vaccination. The end-stage of the vaccination programme is currently scheduled to be reached at the end of August. But more detail on the plans for phased lifting of these rules is expected to surface in June.

READ ALSO: When will Denmark stop requiring corona passports and face masks?

A return to offices and shared workspaces, already set out to occur in three steps, will continue. In the first phase, which began on May 21st, 20 percent capacity were allowed back at physical workplaces. Remaining staff must continue to work from home where possible. This proportion will increase to 50 percent on June 14th (and 100 percent on August 1st).

Public assembly limit to be raised indoors, lifted outdoors

The current phase of reopening, which has been in place since May 21st, limits gatherings indoors to 50 people. This is scheduled to increase to 100 on June 11th.

Outdoors gatherings, currently limited to 100 people, will be completely revoked on June 11th.

August 11th will see the end of any form of assembly limit, indoors or outdoors, according to the scheduled reopening.

Unfortunately, this does not mean festivals such as Roskilde Festival – which would normally start at the end of June – can go ahead. Large scale events are still significantly restricted, meaning Roskilde and the majority of Denmark’s other summer festivals have already been cancelled.

Eased travel restrictions could be extended to non-EU countries

Earlier this month, Denmark moved into the third phase of lifting travel restrictions , meaning tourists from the EU and Schengen countries can enter the country.

The current rules mean that foreigners resident in EU and Schengen countries rated orange on the country’s traffic light classification (yellow, orange and red) for Covid-19 levels in the relevant countries, will no longer need a worthy purpose to enter Denmark, opening the way for tourists to come to Denmark from across the region.

Denmark raised the threshold for qualifying as a yellow country from 20-30 to 50-60 cases per 100,000 people over the past week.  

However, the lower threshold only applies to EU and Schengen countries, which means that, for example, the UK does not qualify as a yellow country despite falling within the incidence threshold.


But the 27 member states of the European Union recently announced they had agreed to allow fully vaccinated travellers to enter the bloc.

A Ministry of Justice text which sets out the plan for Denmark’s phased easing of travel restrictions suggests that the fourth phase, scheduled to take effect on June 26th, will see Denmark adopt the EU’s common rules on entry for persons from outside the bloc, meaning non-EU countries could qualify for the more lenient rules for yellow regions.

New car registration fees come into effect

New rules for registration fees for new vehicles, adopted in February, take effect on June 1st.

The laws, which will be applied retroactively from December 18th 2020, mean that different criteria will be used to calculate the registrations fees applied to cars based on their carbon dioxide emissions, replacing the existing rules which used fuel consumption as the main emissions criteria.

New rules will also be introduced offering more advantages for registering electric and hybrid vehicles.

You can find detailed information via the Danish Motor Vehicle Agency.

READ ALSO: Why is it so expensive to buy a car in Denmark?