How three years in Denmark gave me a lifetime of memories

After moving from Copenhagen back to her native Sheffield in the United Kingdom, Emma Firth reflects on the everlasting impression Denmark has made on her and her family.

How three years in Denmark gave me a lifetime of memories
Nyhavn, Copenhagen in October 2019. Photo: Niels Christian Vilmann/Ritzau Scanpix

Three weeks ago my family and I packed up our Copenhagen apartment and said goodbye to Denmark after three and a half brilliant years. We have returned to our house in Sheffield, England, that we rented out during our time in Denmark. Unlike when we moved to Copenhagen, we know everything here; the area, the people, the culture, how to pay taxes. Yet there is still a sense of reverse culture shock as we embed ourselves back into UK life.  

Our Sheffield Victorian terraced house, sitting on a quiet street in the steel city built on seven hills, feels very different from our central Copenhagen apartment where life bustled outside the window on the wide flat open roads. The skyline is different. The people are different.

For one thing, they talk a lot up north in England. It’s the opposite of the Danish reserve. In addition to the fact we can understand every nuanced phrase and passing by comment again, it seems like there’s a lot of chatter around.

The lights in our house are bright. Why did we ever need a main light that shines like you’re under a dentist chair? Having not had a ‘main light’ for over three years, we are definitely converted to the low-setting hygge vibe of Danish living.

We haven’t slept in total darkness since 2016. We either had no blinds or very thin, let-the-light-in blinds, as many Danes do. Now we have black-out curtains and it’s actually led to both our children waking up during the night complaining it’s too dark.

We’ve taken a door off downstairs to make the house feel more open-plan like apartment living. Except it’s a Victorian terrace so it will never be this. But we can try.

Having spent nearly four years mainly hearing ‘mor’ in a playground, if there was ever a shout of ‘mummy’ it was 95% of the time my child. Now I think every “mummy” I hear in the playground is for me. The phrase “be careful” echoes around in a way “vær forsigtig,” the Danish equivalent never does.

I keep saying ‘tak’ and ‘undskyld’ and get taken aback for a moment that the response is in a northern English accent. But at the same time I want to keep saying Danish things automatically, so worried am I that the part of my brain I have trained so hard for the last three and a half years, will start to switch off. 

My four-year-old has started taking an interest in road signs because they’re now at her eye level, as opposed to high up on Copenhagen streets. She has also become very excited at the one cycle path in our local park. Bike lanes are such a rarity that I don’t dare to cycle on the busy hilly roads with a child on the back and it’s one of the things I miss the most.  Nothing quite replicates that sense of freedom and joy from cycling in wide bike lanes, in all weathers, with all children and baggage in tow, to get to where you need to be.  It also helps that Denmark is flat.

Courtyard life is something else that can’t quite be replicated. We enjoyed some memorable summer evenings, chatting and drinking with our Danish neighbours, while the children played freely around the courtyard until dusk.

READ ALSO: 'There's no need to join a gym when your nursery run is 30 minutes by bike'

But as each week passes, I am trying to draw less direct comparisons and accept the place I’m now in for what it is; not what I just had. Face masks are a way of life if you want to go to the shops or get public transport and going for a meal involves filling in a track and trace form. I can’t expect to walk through Sheffield town centre and compare it to Strøget, Gothersgade or Nyhavn.

A street in Yorkshire's 'Steel City', Sheffield. Photo: Lee Smith/Reuters/Ritzau Scanpix

Relocating and becoming an international living in Denmark is one thing. Returning home, it turns out, is quite another. It brings its own set of challenges because you’ve changed. The country you’ve just lived in has left an imprint and returning ‘home’ doesn’t bring the same feelings that it used to. The familiar is somehow unfamiliar. 

Relocating from Denmark to the UK during the coronavirus and just before Brexit certainly sounds odd on paper. But there were various reasons beyond this that meant we moved at the time we did. Denmark was never a long-term plan. It was an experience we took while the time was right, so we could discover more about the country my father was born in and learn the language. 

We moved out with a 16-month old, three suitcases, a two-month rental and no permanent jobs, to see what we could make happen. Two months turned to six, which turned to a year and my dream of living in Denmark came true.

Nearly four years and four apartment moves later, we were at a cross-roads.

Whether to move apartment yet again and begin school life in Denmark, entering a longer-phase of living there, or go back to our old house, a job at a family business, two sets of grandparents living nearby, and a local school place back in Sheffield. It was the hardest decision I’ve ever made because a move to the UK means no going back to live in Denmark, not without a lot of hoops to jump through at least. We certainly couldn't have moved in the way we did, without being members of the EU.

The prospect of Brexit and what that means for my children’s future relationship with Denmark has caused me sleepless nights. The Danish citizenship requirement for nine years residency plus one to two years process time was much longer than we would ever have stayed for and having a Danish father unfortunately doesn’t grant me any concession because of my age. Such is the high bar for rooting yourself in the Kingdom of Denmark.

But what we gained from our experience is more than I ever expected. We had another baby, our almost five-year-old is bilingual, I discovered more Danish family and learnt so much about the culture and childhood upbringing. Denmark will never leave us.

Not only have I stocked up on Danish children’s books from second hand shops, downloaded a Danish audio book app, kept Danish on Netflix, bought some Danish design items and enough children’s outdoor wear to get through the next eight seasons. But I have gained a lifetime of memories.

A Danish flag-bearing breakfast after giving birth, a christening in a Danish church, babysalmesang, vuggestue, børnehave, 18 months of language school, friendships, family gatherings, summer house breaks, fastelavn, julefrokost, the children skinning a deer at Christmas, Rasmus Klump hugs at Tivoli, getting soaked on the cargo bike commutes, learning various ways to sing Happy Birthday, my astronomical fine on the Metro, the first time I was understood in Danish, the many times I wasn’t, beach days, smørrebrød, gløgg, nights out by bike.

I threw myself into Danish life and it’s hard letting it go. But I think that’s the key – you don’t have to let it go. My English life is now a Sheffield-Danish one. Bolle med ost (a roll with cheese) will always be the snack that saves the day and I will always call it this. The painting on the fridge that says ‘mor’ will always be for me. And now I have a new community- ‘Danskere i Sheffield.’

Yes, this group actually exists on Facebook and I am proud member number 19. So far we’ve met up with a mum and her three-year old daughter. We spotted each other straight away from the matching termotøj our children were wearing and she even understood my Danish. With so many more to meet and forge friendships with, I know it will help me remember that the last few years haven’t just been a dream. Denmark will be forever with me.

READ ALSO: I became a dad at the start of the coronavirus crisis in Denmark. Now my daughter can finally meet her grandparents


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What are the hardest things about moving to provincial Denmark as a foreigner?

Foreign residents who have moved to lesser-known regions of the country share their experiences of life in provincial Denmark. 

Provincial regions of Denmark want to attract skilled foreign workers, but what are the biggest challenges faced by relocators?
Provincial regions of Denmark want to attract skilled foreign workers, but what are the biggest challenges faced by relocators? Photo: Signe Goldmann/Ritzau Scanpix

Editor’s note: there are of course also many positives about living in provincial Denmark, and people based in those areas were happy to share those too. Read what they said in this article.

When Lea Cesar moved from Slovenia to the town of Ringkøbing in 2011, she didn’t know much about the region of western Jutland. 

“In the beginning, I didn’t like how difficult it was to find a job as a foreigner in a smaller city,” Cesar told The Local. Back then she didn’t speak Danish, and that made it hard to find a job that matched her skills and qualifications. 

“I later took it as a challenge and started my own company,” Cesar said, opening a cafe and bakery called Baking Sins in central Ringkøbing. Once she’d taken things into her own hands, she thrived and came to love her town. 

“I love the small shops with handcrafted products,” she said, drawing a comparison to the big shops and chain stores of larger cities. “The culture here is totally different. Ringkøbing is a smaller town, but feels big enough for me.”

Considering the pros and cons of a life in lesser-known parts of Denmark has never been more relevant, as the Danish government amps up efforts to decentralise Denmark and municipalities look to internationals to balance out declining populations. 

READ ALSO: Is it easier for foreigners to find a job outside Denmark’s major cities?

There may be fewer job opportunities, depending on your industry and Danish language skills

Fewer job opportunities, Cesar said, is one of the primary differences between living in a town like Ringkøbing versus a larger city. 

“There aren’t as many companies here searching for employees that only speak English,” she said. “I think it’s important to speak at least basic Danish; otherwise it would be hard to come here.”

Antoniya Petkov, originally from Bulgaria, faced similar challenges finding work when she moved to Ringkøbing several years ago after her husband accepted a job at a wind energy company in the area. 

“Most of the job opportunities in my field in the area require a high level of Danish language, which I am still working toward,” Petkov told The Local. 

In the meantime, she continues to commute to Aarhus, where she works as a technical recruiter in systematics at a large Danish software firm. “However, there are a lot more opportunities for developers, engineers and people with a technical job profile where Danish isn’t required,” Petkov said.

Even in technical roles, Danish proficiency helps. 

Victor Balaban, originally from Moldova, moved to Vejle while working at Siemens Gamesa. Although he said there are plenty of job opportunities in the region, Balaban said his options would be significantly more limited if he didn’t speak Danish.

Candice Progler-Thomsen, an American living in Lolland, said Danish proficiency is “almost essential” to find a job in the municipality. “There will be greater job opportunities here for individuals who learn Danish,” she told The Local. 

And, because it’s a smaller area with fewer employers, Progler-Thomsen said people may need to be willing to commute or otherwise expand their job search.

READ ALSO: Why (and how) Danish provincial areas want to hire skilled foreign workers

On the other hand, there may also be less competition for jobs in lesser-known parts of Denmark, said Mariola Kajkowska. 

Originally from Poland, Kajkowska moved to Vejle in 2019, where she works as an employee retention consultant. “There are often fewer applicants for each job, which increases your chance to be selected for the position,” she said.

Speaking Danish is important, professionally and socially

When Petkov first moved to Ringkøbing, it was challenging that she didn’t speak Danish. It was hard to do daily tasks, like communicate with workers at her children’s daycare or chat with her neighbours.

“People were distant at first when we bought our house in a typical Danish neighbourhood,” she said. 

It was very different from Aarhus, where they had lived before moving to Ringkøbing. “Aarhus has a huge international community,” she said. “We were always able to find friends and it was easy to get by speaking English.”

Petkov also missed the variety of English events and activities available in Aarhus. “But, we compensate by going to international events in the municipality,” she said.

Balaban, who established baseball clubs in both Herning and Vejle, said being a part of the community and getting involved is integral to building a social network and making friends in Vejle. “You have to be an active part of society,” he said.

Although learning Danish was a challenge, Petkov also saw it as an opportunity. “I’m not sure I would have learned Danish if we were living in Copenhagen or Aarhus,” she said. “You just don’t need it much there.”

Now, she’s learned enough Danish to engage in small talk with her neighbours. “Once people got used to us, we felt very welcome,” Petkov said, “though I don’t think we will ever blend completely.”

Chris Wantia, also a resident of Ringkøbing-Skjern Municipality, has found Danish to be integral to life in rural Denmark. 

He lives in the village of Bork Havn, population 300. “When I walk out of my house, I don’t expect my 65-year-old Danish neighbour to speak to me in English,” Wantia told The Local.

“English may be fine in the big cities, but speaking Danish here is important,” he said, adding that it would have been very challenging to purchase and renovate the two homes he and his wife, Janine, own in the municipality if he didn’t speak Danish. 

A second silver lining Petkov has identified is that living in Ringkøbing has also enabled her family to engage more deeply with Danes and Danish culture, adding that most of her friends are Danish. 

“If you really want to dive into Danish culture, a place like Ringkøbing is amazing,” she said.

There’s less to do, depending on your interests (and you might need to drive)

“You can count on one hand the number of good restaurants within 50 kilometres of Bork Havn,” Wantia told The Local. Although that wasn’t a dealbreaker for him and his wife, Janine, it might be worth some consideration before moving to a village like Bork Havn. 

“If you want many restaurants, parties, or meeting new people all the time, this isn’t the place for you,” he said. “It’s quiet here. Some people might not like that, but it’s perfect for us.”

Vejle, though much larger than Bork Havn with a population of 113,000, also isn’t a very lively city in terms of nightlife, according to Balaban.

“I’d say it’s a mature city,” he said. “It’s a quiet city that attracts a lot of families and people who are more settled down.”

Ultimately, having ‘things to do’ nearby depends on which activities you prefer. 

In Lolland, Progler-Thomsen said it’s “a bit of a sacrifice” to not have easy access to the cultural activities the family had in Copenhagen. 

READ ALSO: Are provincial parts of Denmark a good option for international families?

In exchange, her family has access to activities it enjoys that weren’t available in Copenhagen, including many outdoor activities and sports. “We love the Safari Park that’s only a 7-minute drive from our house,” Progler-Thomsen said. 

That’s something else to consider, though: driving. 

Kajkowska, in Vejle, said driving will play more of a role in one’s life, living in these parts of Denmark. “I was at a party the other night and two cars had driven one and a half hours from Sønderborg to come to the party,” she said.

READ ALSO: What benefits does life in provincial Denmark offer foreign residents?

For the most part, Petkov said she doesn’t feel like she’s missing out by living in Ringkøbing.

She enjoys several favorite cafes in town, an Italian restaurant where they are regulars and enjoy chatting with the owners, exploring the beaches and woods, and escaping to the wellness hotel near their house for mini-breaks. “In the summer, it feels like living at a resort,” Petkov said. 

“Ringkøbing is a great place for our family,” she said. “The benefits outweigh the drawbacks for us.”