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LIVING IN DENMARK

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

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.

Try saying
Try saying "fiskeri frarådes" and then tell me the Danish language isn't surprisingly difficult. Photo: Mads Claus Rasmussen/Ritzau Scanpix

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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LIVING IN DENMARK

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.”

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