10 Things They Don’t Tell You About Denmark
1. English is a second language and Danglish is real
Even though in Denmark people speak English better than in many other European countries, Danish is and still remains the first language. This means that you’ll have to learn Danish if you want to find a job there, especially if you work for a company that only operates in Denmark. Knowing another Scandinavian language helps a lot, since Norwegian, Swedish and Danish are quite similar to each other. However Danish is the language that will take you places.
The only exception is found in large international companies, where the lingua franca is English. But in that case, your English needs to be excellent, at least in written form. Yes, because Danes do have an accent, even if they often think they don’t. I know quite a few people who had to “readjust” to the way Danes speak English. Don’t worry, after some time you’ll become completely desensitised to the F work and might even start to understand the many meanings of “good style” — expression that Danes use as much as poppy seeds on their Tebirkes. Icelandic comedian Ari Eldjárn does a great impression of Danglish — he also has a show on Netflix, a must watch.
2. You might be an “expat” forever
International companies do hire people who speak English fluently, as I wrote before. But, if you never manage to create a network of Danish friends, you’ll always be perceived as the expat working at the international company who will eventually leave. Having a professional network of Danish people is also incredibly helpful if you intend to switch jobs. Denmark is a small country and connections and referrals are really important if you want to land a new job. Fitting in is such an important part of the Danish work culture, therefore having a good network will definitely give you more chances to be considered a “good fit”.
3. Salaries are high, but so are taxes
As a general rule, you should halve your salary to know how much will be left after taxes. Taxation in Denmark is one of the highest in the world. SKAT, the Danish tax office, knows everything about you; they know how much money you have, how much money you make, and how much you spend in things like A-kasse (the unemployment insurance). Ergo, don’t try to trick the system, because they’ll simply take the money from your bank account if something is not right. I’ve also heard that if you won’t pay your fines, SKAT will deduct it from your salary or take from your bank account. Being so surveilled might feel a bit like Big Brother, but, on the other hand, if you declare any wrong amount in your tax table, SKAT will fix it for you. Every March, SKAT tells you whether you are going to pay or receive money, depending if overpaid or underpaid on your taxes the year before. Danes go bananas on the day this piece of information is disclosed; they queue for hours to log into their SKAT account and discover their own destiny.
4. Services work well…if you live in the city centre and it’s a working day
You don’t need to live in the countryside to experience not-so-great services. If you live in one of the newly built areas of Copenhagen, for example, Metro stops are still under construction. In those areas, buses are few and don’t run so frequently, and bus stops are pretty far from each other. On top of this, if you plan to leave the city to visit other exotic locations, you’ll probably end up hopping on and off a bunch of buses and trains. Møns Klint, a location that is in the UNESCO World Heritage list, is only a couple of hours drive from the capital, but if you choose to get there by public transport, pack a few snacks and read Bear Grylls’ “how to stay alive — the ultimate survival guide for any situation” before embarking on the mission.
5. Housing is hard to find
A room in a shared flat in Copenhagen can easily reach 7.000 kr — approx. 1.000 €. If you choose not to live in the city and opt for the outskirts, you’ll most likely pay less in rent, but you’ll have to deal with public transport, which I mentioned above. And it’s not even that cheap.
Anyway, finding a flat can be quite a challenge. Contracts usually last no more than one or two years. My boss once told me there is a law in Denmark that allows a tenant to stay in the same place indefinitely after two years and one day. Quite scary to think that you might not be able to get rid of a tenant, if you’re a landlord. For this reason, the contracts are usually short term. Also, finding a new tenant every 6 or 12 months allows landlords to bump up the rent even more. As if rents weren’t already high enough.
Something I did not expect before moving to Copenhagen was the size of the bathrooms; 99% of the times they’re tiny and windowless. Tiny sinks are pretty common too. Often times the bathrooms are so small that it’s hard to tell where the shower space ends.
Let’s not forget the showerless bathrooms. Luckily, there aren’t many left. But in those cases, the shower is usually located in a special space, generally at the ground floor, in the same or nearby building. This might explain why the shower is built in the corner of the bedroom in some flats — Danish design at its finest. On a side note, I find it ironic that bad in Danish means bath.
Last piece of advice: don’t expect huge flats if you’re planning to live on your own or with another person. Flats in the most central areas of Copenhagen tend to be quite small and have weird floor plans. Arranging furniture in these places can definitely feel like a Tetris game.
6. Public transport is expensive
If you own the Danish Yellow Card — a passe-partout that works as ID, medical card, tax number, and much more — you can get reduced prices. However, the cost of public transport will still be quite high. A single ticket usually costs 24 kr (a bit more than 3 €). The cost of a monthly subscription varies depending on how many zones you cover; it goes from ca 400 kr (53 €) up to ca 1.300 (175 €).
Bikes are surely the most used means of transport. Be ready to say goodbye to high heels and a sedentary lifestyle. Cycling paths are almost everywhere and they’re usually wide and in very good conditions. People in Copenhagen cycle a lot, and in all weather conditions — yes, hail too. So, get yourself some good rain-proof attire and an indestructible bike chain, and you’re ready to go!
7. Food is expensive
You can save up by doing your food shopping in some supermarkets like Aldi, Netto, Rema 1000, Lidl, and Fakta — some of them are pretty decent. Kvickly, Føtex, Super Brugsen, Spar are higher tier supermarkets, and Irma is by far the most expensive. Too Good To Go is a great solution if you want to get some food for very little money; download the the app and buy a blandet pose — a bag of mixed goods — from restaurants, bakeries, cafés, and some supermarkets, right before closing time. Doing this allows you to “save” some food from the dumpsters and contribute to reducing food waste.
Eating out every day is not really financially sustainable. A coffee normally costs between 35 kr (4.70 €) and 45 kr (6.00 €), and a pastry is usually between 25 kr (3.40 €) and 45 kr (6.00 €). Kebab is an affordable option with a great calorie count/price ratio. You can get pretty decent kebab for 45 kr. Pizza is quite expensive, reaching even 130 kr (17 €) for a Margherita in authentic Italian restaurants — coming from Italy, where you can get a pizza for less than 10 €, this feels wrong. Alcohol is ridiculously expensive. A glass of wine can easily cost 60 kr (8.00 €), if not even more. Canned beer is relatively cheap, but if you go to one of the many hip bars in the city you’ll pay as much as a glass of wine. Again, coming from Italy, in particular Venice, where you can get one goto de vin at Bacaro da Lele for 1 or 2 €, this feels like a violation.
8. It’s cold. It’s windy. And it rains a lot. Most of the year.
Repeat with me: “it’s very windy. All year long”. It may sound nice, but when the windspeed reaches 35 or even 40 km/h and you’re cycling, it’s not fun anymore, especially if it’s also pissing down. Winters are very long and very dark; in December and January you get about 6 or 7 hours of sunlight a day. At 3 pm it’ll be pitch black outdoors. Vitamin D tablets and coffee will become your best friends.
Despite being in Scandinavia, Denmark doesn’t have the idyllic White Christmas kind of weather that most people imagine. Denmark is flatter than flat, the highest “mountain”, Møllehøj, measures only 171 m. This means that it’s not elevated enough to consistently have snow in winter, so nothing stops the winds and the weather they bring with them. You can in fact experience all fours seasons in a day in Denmark without moving a mile; clear skies, heavy rains, clouds, hail, icy winds, you name it.
Summers, on the other hand, can be absolutely enjoyable, if it’s a lucky year. From April til August the days are very long, and in the most central months of the warm season you can easily read a book outdoors with no artificial lighting at 10 pm. If you’re lucky, together with the light, you also get warm temperatures and sunny days. The temperatures never really go above 25 C degrees, but rare exceptions might happen for very few of days a year.
9. It’s a very small country
Copenhagen is the capital city and only has about 600.000 inhabitants. This makes it a very livable city — there are plenty of parks and green spaces, the metro can be full but never Tokyo-full, and it doesn’t take 2 hours to reach the other end of the city. However, it might feel like the things to do and the places to visit end relatively soon. Also, Copenhagen — and even more the rest of Denmark — is rather homogenous, so you’ll never find a Chinatown or the same vivaciousness and diversity you’d find in London or New York.
If you come from a larger and more densely populated country, the definition that Danes give to city will make you go giggle. After Copenhagen, the largest cities are Aarhus, Aalborg and Odense, which respectively are made up of 336.000, 210.000 and 200.000 inhabitants. If you are a city lover, think twice before moving to Denmark.
10. Making friends is not as easy as you think
This is probably the most complicated subject to tackle. We all know that generalising is wrong; people have different values, personalities, and taste. But it’s safe to say that when we look at a culture, we can often spot patterns in people’s habits, values, and behaviour.
An article I read once defined foreigners inn Denmark “the unhappiest expats in the happiest country in the world”. Denmark, in 2020, ranked second happiest country in the world — after Finland. Danes are satisfied with their lives because of reliable and extensive welfare benefits, free healthcare and universities, low corruption, good work-life balance, and well-functioning state institutions among other things. But is this enough to make people truly happy?
Denmark is also one of the biggest consumers of antidepressants in the world and has one of the highest cancer rates in the world — this may be because it has a good record of diagnosing the disease, but its smoking and drinking habits surely shouldn’t be underestimated. The long and dark winters noticeably affect people’s mood — the UV-index is zero for about 5–6 months a year. Unsurprisingly, Scandinavia holds the gold standard for SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder or simply winter depression). As Helen Russel writes, a study from the Danish Ministry of Climate and Energy showed that there were only 44 hours of sunlight in Denmark in November 2020 — which is less than an hour and a half a day. Winter depression and the lack of daylight hours are the most significant explanation for seasonal variations in suicidal behaviour, according to Denmark’s Centre for Suicide Research.
So, perhaps, we should interpret the word happy as content.
But let’s go back to why expats in Denmark seem to be the unhappiest. Denmark was even rated as the worst country for making friends. There will thousands of explanations for this, and no one will have a solid answer. However, Danes, in general, are pretty reserved and hard to crack. If alcohol is involved things become much easier, but don’t expect to walk into a bar and leave with a bunch of new friends. And don’t expect them to act as warm and friendly the next them you see them not inebriated.
Many say that Danes are non-confrontational and afraid of conflict. In my experience, this is true for all Scandinavians in general, but I find Danes to be direct in certain contexts, such as work. In many other situations, they’re incredibly non-confrontational; for instance, if a person is being rude in a café, people’s reaction will be very measured. But be careful, non-confrontational doesn’t mean quiet. Danes are among the noisiest and loudest people I’ve ever met — and coming from an Italian, it says it all. I still get startled sometimes when I’m going for a walk and the people around me shout as if they were trying to communicate across a field.
Another thing I wasn’t prepared for when I moved here is people always being in their own “bubble”, which probably links back to being non-confrontational. If you’re dragging yourself on the pavement carrying something heavy, or if you’re laden like a pack-mule and are desperately trying to open a door, almost no one will stop to offer some help. Similarly, if something not-so-right is happening in the street, people will just mind their own business and keep walking; once, my partner and I saw a couple fighting, it wasn’t really clear whether it was a “simple” heated discussion or if she was being harassed. We weren’t the only ones there, but we were definitely the only ones asking if everything was ok.
Is it easy to make friends in Denmark? As Anatolie Cantir writes in an article, join associations or be excluded. As bad as it sounds, the Danish society is very small, homogenous, and closed off, which makes it much harder for a foreigner to integrate and learn the language. I found that Danes are very “compartmental” in the way they socialise and hang out with their friends; they have a group of school friends, a group of university friends, a group of colleague friends, a group of sports friends, etc., which rarely mix. This explains why a lot of foreigners feel confused when their Danish friends never introduce them to their group of friends. It’s easy to wonder, “are they ashamed of me?”. But, in reality, you just don’t belong in any of the pre-existing groups, you’re a separate category. The sad thing in all this is that if you are relegated to meeting your Danish friends one by one, you’ll never really have a chance to expand your network and be introduced to potential new friends. The best thing to do is signing up for classes or activities of any sort to try to create your group.
It’s time to close this long section with a brief reflection on dating and mating. Let’s be honest, Scandinavians are generally pretty hot. I don’t struggle to believe that many foreigners fall for their fair complexion, which can feel quite exotic. But don’t let your guard down! Pretty frogs are often the toxic ones and one needs to know how to handle them. I’m no expert in dating Danes, but like many people who want to get to know a culture a bit more in depth, I tried to keep an open mind. Without going into details about my personal experiences, I can say that, as a general rule, men tend to mature a bit later than their European contemporaries. Close to age 30, many Danish men are still finishing their (free) univeristy studies or are trying to figure out what they want to be once they’ve grown up. At the same age, many of their European peeps already have a degree, a job, probably a student loan to pay off, and perhaps a family in mind. So, penis lovers out there, expect a lot of sex…and unsolicited dick pics as well. Women, on the other hand, tend to have their shit together more; many have “romantic plans”, which they’re willing to realise at whatever cost. Don’t be shocked if she interrogates about your personality, job, and future plans because she’s planning to be married and have a kid within 2 years, tops. Independently from your sexual orientation, expect a lot of ghosting. As I wrote earlier, Danes prefer to avoid confrontation, so they’d rather suddenly disappear from you life — and still watch your Instagram stories — than letting you know that they don’t think you’d make a great match.
This article will be available in Italian soon.