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Five things about life in Denmark you’ll probably never get used to

Try saying
Try saying "fiskeri frarådes" and then tell me the Danish language isn't surprisingly difficult. Photo: Mads Claus Rasmussen/Ritzau Scanpix
Adapting to Danish life takes some practice and a lot of patience, but with good will and a little bit of luck, you can get there. Some things can still stump you, though, even after many settled years.

Like every country, Denmark has laws and cultural norms, both written and unwritten, that many new arrivals —and even some older ones — have a hard time getting used to.

Do you agree with the examples we discuss in this article? Are we being too harsh? Praising too enthusiastically? Have we missed something major? Let us know – if we receive enough responses, we’ll write a follow up article.

The language

It’s perhaps an obvious one to start with, but no less relevant for it. Learning to speak Danish is a challenge, albeit one that varies in difficulty depending on the languages you already speak.

READ ALSO: Is the Danish language really that hard to learn?

Although many will tell you Danish is a hard language to learn, I’d contend that it is in fact quite a ‘learnable’ language, with fairly logical grammar and sentences. The pronunciation is what makes Danish difficult.

And when someone judges your Danish proficiency on your ability to say rød grød med fløde, they’re not testing you very rigorously. Other words and phrases, like krydderier, forældre, Fredericia – basically, anything with more than one ‘r’ followed by different vowel sounds – are what I struggle the most with.

The above is based on personal experience of course, and probably only really accurate for native English speakers. Others may experience learning Danish quite differently.

The numbers 

Before we leave the subject of language… the numbers. They are hard to remember, hard to pronounce, and follow a mind-blowingly arcane system.

READ ALSO: How did the Danish language end up with its crazy numbers?

Even after speaking Danish as a second language for years, my brain still stalls when trying to process telephone numbers relayed as two-digit clusters. I don’t think it will ever become easy to immediately understand and write each set down. (‘Did they say 67? 77? 76? I’m going to need to ask them to repeat it…’)

Even Norwegians and Swedes, whose languages have perfectly normal numbering systems, will readily admit to finding numbers baffling in their Scandinavian sister tongue. 

High prices

It’s no secret that all of Scandinavia is expensive, and Denmark is by no means an exception. There are regional variations – perhaps most notably the cost of renting housing in Copenhagen compared to elsewhere in the country – but high prices will be felt by almost anyone arriving in Denmark from other parts of Europe or the world.

Anything from buying a drink at a bar, a sandwich at a café, running a car, deposits and rent up front when moving to a new flat, insurance, and of course taxes will feel like it’s hitting you in the pocket hard, even if higher wages offset this to some extent.

Reserved responses from residents… or not?

Danes typically aren’t outgoing, joie de vivre types. This is probably just as well known as the high prices, so you could argue it shouldn’t count as a surprise. Especially when the number of people who have point blank ignored you, when a simple ‘hej’ would have been a lot less awkward, has reached the thousands.

But I’m going to include it here, because I’ve also crossed paths with people who have confounded the stereotype and displayed memorable friendliness and neighbourly spirit towards me as a stranger.

A few years back, an octogenarian man who lived in my building offered me his tickets to a jazz concert because he had a bad back and couldn’t go. It was last minute notice so he couldn’t give the ticket to anyone further away, so decided to knock on my door. They were not cheap tickets nor easy to come by, but he went out of his way to give them away for nothing.

Another neighbour, whom I barely knew, gave me some pavement drawing chalk as a present for my 1-year-old daughter when we moved out. The neighbour had noticed her fascination with the colours doodled by her own child in our building’s back yard.

You might continue to be surprised and even frustrated by the reserved nature of people in Denmark, where friendly gestures are not given away cheaply. But when they do come along, you’ll perhaps be even more surprised at how thoughtful they are.

The well-functioning state 

Things that surprise you about Denmark don’t have to be problems. I’m still impressed by how well-functioning the social safety net is and the stability of the political system and society. In fact, I get more impressed with it as the years go by.

People who live in Denmark can take a university education up to postgraduate level for free. They are fully covered by the public health system if they get sick, apart from dental visits and other paramedical things like physiotherapy, but even these are easy to substantially discount through an opt-in, cheap private insurance. Childcare is accessible and people on lower incomes can have their rent subsidised by applying to their municipality.

During the coronavirus crisis, the government was able to compensate the majority of businesses that lost revenue, setting the country up for a quick economic recovery after restrictions were lifted.

There were bumps – some controversial and expensive – along the way, but a government which can be very divisive on other issues got the country through two lockdowns, and periods with restrictions like face mask requirements, without the large-scale political and societal polarisation seen in other parts of the world.

It’s a society with problems, like everywhere, but how well Denmark works continues to make an impression on me and even sometimes surprise me.


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