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Life In Denmark

Carlie: Hey there it’s Carlie with the Expat Focus podcast. What’s your motivation for moving abroad? British expat Melanie Haynes was ready for an adventure, and it led her and her husband to move to Denmark. More than 8 years later, they’re still there, living in the capital of Copenhagen.

And Melanie’s blog, Dejlige Days, has become a go-to for many English-speaking expats in the city. She shares her discoveries, recommendations, and gives newcomers advice for settling in. In this episode, Melanie shares her relocation story, and provides a little insight into the Danish way of life.

Melanie, you’ve lived in Copenhagen for more than 8 years. What brought you to Denmark? Can you tell me your expat story?

Melanie: Yeah, I can. Very unusually for people in Copenhagen, both my husband and I are British. Normally people that move here, they come for love, but we just came here for an adventure really! We’d recently got married, and we thought, why not try something new? And for many, many years my husband worked for a big multinational company. They’d been offering him opportunities to work in one of their other offices.

And I’d always been very adamant that I was building my career, I was working hard, blah blah blah, and I worked for a not-for-profit, and it was just as the financial crisis was, I suppose the very early rumblings of the financial crisis, and we were having to lay people off, and I was on the management team, and it just felt like every day, it was just a frustrating time, and I came home and I said to my husband, where can we go? And he said oh, you want to go out for dinner, or let’s go and have an Indian, takeaway or something like that, and I said no, no, where can we go, where can we move to, let’s just do it, let’s just have an adventure.

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So, very very quickly, we went from that moment to having an opportunity in three different countries, and we plumped for Copenhagen. And I’d not been here, I had no idea about Copenhagen, and if I’m very very honest, I thought that Denmark was just that bit that was attached to Germany. I didn’t realise that it was more than just Jutland. So, it was all going very very fast, and we moved, that started I think in the September, and we’d moved into our apartment the end of March the following year.

Carlie: My other question was going to be, did you know much about Denmark before you moved, and it’s really funny that you said you really didn’t know very much, because probably the first time I’d actually heard of the country was when I was in high school, with the news that this Australian woman married, [unclear], was going to marry Prince Frederick after meeting him in a pub during the Sydney Olympics. It is one of those countries that is so well-known now but that wasn’t the case, you know, 10 or 20 years ago.

Melanie: Oh absolutely, when I first told people that I was moving to Denmark, people thought I was moving to Holland! I had a very long conversation with a taxi driver that baffled me, in London, ‘cause he was talking about oh, the football team there, and I was thinking I don’t think Denmark’s really well known for their football team! And by the end of the taxi journey I realised he thought I was moving to Holland, not, people make this mistake all the time, which is very very strange! Two very different countries, I mean, they, they have bikes in common, and people who speak excellent English, but apart from that they are very very different!

But no, I knew very little about it, and it was sort of pre-, well very early blog days, so there weren’t any expat blogs that I could read. I got some, you know, guide books, and I remember lying in the bath with a glass of wine in our house in, in England, and reading these guide books, and actually getting so excited, because it sounded like a really fascinating city.

And then the December before we moved, my husband was coming over to get to know his new work colleagues, etc, so I joined him for a long weekend, and it was just before Christmas, and Copenhagen does Christmas really really well, and there was sparkle everywhere, it was just beautiful, and I came home and I thought yeah, this is gonna be, this is gonna be fun, let’s do it! So, we did!

Carlie: I can really relate, when you said that you were very career-driven in the UK, but then you just reached that point where you decided to go for it. Do you have any regrets about leaving your career, or were you at the point it, was the environment at the point where it was just the right decision to, to make a change?

Melanie: I think it was the right decision. I worked in public relations, and I’d done so since I’d finished my Masters degree, and it wasn’t necessarily a career that I’d actively, you know, always wanted to do. And I enjoyed what I did, but, the irony of it is the higher you get up in your career, the less you do of the things you actually enjoy. So, I was at a management level, so I was busying myself with budgets, and management things, whereas the guys on my team were doing all the fun stuff, you know, they were writing press releases, they were talking to the journalists, they were doing all the things that I actually really liked doing. But I had to delegate that to them.

So I realised that, I’d sort of got to a point in my career where I wasn’t doing what I liked about it, so it seemed a good time to move on. But all the things that I learnt during that time really put me in good stead for future work that I’ve done in the last 10 years, since I left the UK, to really give me that grounding and also some confidence in myself, I think.

Carlie: So when you did hit the ground in Denmark, did you find yourself in the position of a trailing spouse, or were you going to be working as well?

Melanie: I was working as well, the company that, or the not-for-profit I was working for in the UK were launching a new project, and they needed somebody to build the website, to do all the PR around this new project, and that was gonna be a year’s worth of sort of freelance work, so I took that with me, so I had something, I had some money coming in, but I also really really wanted to learn Danish. So it meant that I could enrol in, in language school, and I was going 4 days a week, 4 hours a day in the mornings doing that, and then in the afternoon I was either exploring the city or I was doing the, the freelance work.

So I did take something with me, but I think that the difference was that, I knew that I wanted to come. I think sometimes spouses go because their partner’s work is taking them there, and it’s just something that they’ve accepted as part of their life, rather than actually thinking yes, let’s, let’s do this as a joint venture really.

Carlie: You said you enrolled in Danish classes straight away, and you really concentrated on that when you got there. How important was that, moving to Copenhagen, to get immersed in the language and quickly?

Melanie: Then, it was really important. Although people speak excellent English here, they didn’t seem as willing, not willing, that’s the wrong word. It didn’t seem to be as prevalent that people, if they noticed that you didn’t speak their language, automatically spoke to you in English, like they do now. I think the city’s become much more cosmopolitan.

But then I really felt that it was something I wanted to do. I thought it was the right thing to do, when you move somewhere, to learn the language, it seemed the polite thing to do. But also, in the time that I’d been out of the UK, we did spend 2, almost 2 years living in, in Berlin, and I found there, where I couldn’t speak German, how isolating I found that. And I was learning, but it’s just those simple things of standing at a bus stop and not being able to understand an advert on the bus shelter, or, you know, somebody asks you a very simple question, or just listening to announcements, you know, if you’re on the train and the train stops and you have to get off and all the announcements are in, in Danish, and you have no clue.

So I think, from my experience, I think it’s really important to learn that language, and I’ve found as well that it opened up opportunities to meet, it made me meet people, it made me meet my fellow students, but it also made me meet my neighbours, because I wanted to try out my new language skills.

Carlie: For sure I’ve had those same experiences here in France, sitting on the train, and especially, when I first moved, having no idea what those announcements said! And I’m like yourself, I’m working, within professional communications, and to be a communicator for a living and not be able to understand and basically communicate is such a strange and inhibiting feeling.

Melanie: Absolutely!

Carlie: So there’s this World Happiness Report which is quite famous for naming the Danes quite often as the happiest people on the planet.

Melanie: Well I think we’ve been knocked off the top spot now by Sweden, but one of the funny things we were told when we first came here and we were with our relocation consultant, and I, already, these reports, they’ve been coming out for years and years about the Danes being the happiest people on Earth, and I mentioned this to him, and he sort of laughed slightly ironically, and he said, it’s not so much happiness, it’s settling. And I said well what do you mean? And he said that, it’s a sense of contentment.

Because people don’t strive for the same things that perhaps people do in the UK, and in the US. You’re very much contented with your life. So, you enjoy your job, but you also have a good work-life balance that you can enjoy your time outside of work. There’s a big safety net from the government here, so that if you do lose your job you get some support, although you do have to pay into a, sort of a system for that. But you get child care at a very cheap price, but good child care, so it enables people to go back to work. You have excellent health care, which is paid for through your taxes, so it’s like free health care I guess.

So, all those things that worry other people in other countries, those worries aren’t here. So I think that that’s one of the reasons why Danish people seem to be happy and contented. But perhaps it’s also that they’re not striving quite so much for the, the material things in life, and the competition that you get, and, which was one of the reasons why I wanted to leave the UK as well, because, I mean there’s that old adage, you know, we work in jobs we don’t enjoy to make money to spend on things we don’t need to impress people we don’t like. And I think that that element isn’t here quite so much, so people are more content with their everyday life.

Carlie: What other life differences have you found from your life in the UK to, to living in Denmark?

Melanie: I think, in a way I felt I could come home a little bit coming here, because I’ve always been very concerned about the environment. There’s a lot of infrastructure that is here that means that it is a green, both in the sense of lots of green space, but also green environmentally, and I liked that, but I think that can be a bit of a change for people, you know, using a bike instead of driving everywhere, and different kind of outlook in life, so I, I did find that there were differences, but they were differences that I welcomed.

I welcomed those changes, I loved being on foot or on public transport or cycling, I felt much more of a connection with the city that I was in, rather than being in a, a little metal box, you know, I mean if you’re on a bike, and you’re cycling, and you see something interesting, a new shop, or a park, or something you’ve not noticed before, you can just put your hand up, you pull to the side on your bike, and you’re there, and you can go and experience it. It’s not the same in a car.

So I think one of those, that, that was a big change for us, was being more out there in the world. And also the fact that my husband’s commute, when we moved here, was probably around 15 minutes on a bike, so he would leave work and be home almost immediately, which meant that we had whole evenings to do things, not just collapsing in front of EastEnders, drinking a bottle of wine and going to bed and doing the same thing again. You know, we could actually go out, and we’d often see things or hear of things that were happening and just go and experience them.

And with the long days you get in the summer, you know, it’s daylight until almost 11 o’clock at night. So there were so many more opportunities for us to, to enjoy life and enjoy time together as, although we’d been together many many years before we got married, but enjoy being married, together, rather than just being at work all the time.

Carlie: And you do have a son. How has raising a child in Copenhagen made expat life easier or more difficult?

Melanie: It’s interesting, because when we first came here, it was just the two of us. I had my son a year after we’d moved here. And we only lived here until he was 2, before we moved to Berlin. But I found that having a child makes the city almost new again, because whilst you know lots of things to do as an adult, you don’t know lots of things to do as a mum of a baby, mum of a toddler, and as I am now, mum of a school-aged child.

So, I think in a way it makes the experience new all over again, because you’re finding out new things, and finding your feet. I recently wrote a, an ebook about having a baby in Denmark, because I remembered when I was at that stage, you know, it was my first child, in a new country, and where do you find things? You can’t just go to Mothercare. Where do you go? And I think that it was, again, it reignited my excitement of living here, because I was starting again with a different hat on almost.

Carlie: You said when you moved to Denmark for the first time, more than 8 years ago, you and your husband both being English and moving there was quite a, a strange phenomenon and not very common. How has the international community changed since then? You said it’s a much more cosmopolitan city, of Copenhagen, now?

Melanie: Yes it is. I think that, I didn’t live in the area where lots of English-speaking expats live, and still do, so I didn’t really cross paths with the people who would have been in, sort of, you know, two Brits together world, I very much lived in the city, rather than out in the suburbs. So I think that it’s changed because there are more international companies here, there’s a lot of gaming companies, and a lot of start-ups, and those kind of companies attract talent from all over Europe.

So, you know, you can, I’ve done some work with a start-up and they have people from Poland, from England, from the US, from Denmark, you know, you name it, they’ve probably got people from about ten different countries there. And I think people are starting to recognise that people do want to live here, from outside of Denmark, and reflecting that the city has changed.

And the food scene has changed an awful lot as well. There’s a lot more international-type food restaurants with the new Nordic food revolution, it has changed, and I think people are much more open and welcoming than perhaps they were when I first moved here.

But it does help if you’re European. Because I think the people see you more as their kind of people, they recognise you, where you’re coming from a little bit more, and they’ve heard of your countries. And people are very very interested in why you’re here. I’m always asked, even now, even after all these years, I’m still asked by new Danish people I meet, why are you here? Because they’re just fascinated.

And then if you comment that oh, I love living in Denmark, they always go, thank you! Like, everybody here is responsible for you being happy! And they’re often flattered that you’ve chosen to make your life here for a length of time as well, rather than being transient, and perhaps working for one of the companies that, you’re an expat here for 2 or 3 years, and then you move on to the next posting. So I think being a long-term expat really does help you with, with that side of, of seeing the city in both a cosmopolitan way but also in a Danish way. It’s easy to balance the two things.

Carlie: In the face of Brexit now, have you noticed any attitudes shift, and have you had to do anything to secure your life in Denmark, with so many unknowns at the moment?

Melanie: Yeah, it’s a difficult one, because I would like to, as a family we would like to get Danish citizenship, but you have to have lived here for so many consecutive years, so the fact that I lived for 18 months in Berlin means I went back to zero again, with the amount of time that we’ve lived here.

And the current government is not especially pro-immigrants of any description, so a lot of the rules have been changed to make it quite hard to get that citizenship. I personally would like to have it, simply because I think it makes travel easier. But I would like my son to have the opportunity to keep an EU passport, because I want him to have the opportunities that I’ve had, and that we’ve had, to be able to move to another country easily, to study or to live.

At the moment there are so many unknowns, and I know a lot of expats are quite, that have been here less time than me, are quite worried about what it will mean for them, will they have to return to the UK? But at the moment, I’m slightly pragmatic about it, perhaps I’ve lived here long enough to be more relaxed about things, but I kind of think, it’s a logistical nightmare to move everybody back to where they’ve come from, and I can’t see they’re going to do it.

But I do foresee that in the future it will be obviously harder for British people to move, to Denmark or wherever in Europe. But at the moment, just kind of biding my time, I have 3 more years to wait before I can actually apply for citizenship, so I just have to, you know, stick it out and see what happens from that point.

But one thing I have noticed through my relocation company that I run myself, that I’ve had a lot fewer people wanting to come from the UK to here. I used to get, a lot of my clients were from the UK, and I’ve noticed over the last, probably since the result came out, but certainly in the last 8 months, that that has gone down to a trickle, and I’m working more with people from the US or from Germany.

Carlie: We’re recording this in the middle of winter. So it’s peak, and excuse my Australian accent and wrong pronunciation here. It’s peak, is it hygge time?

Melanie: It’s hygge, if it is hygge, it’s hyggelig, but yeah – hygge.

Carlie: It’s peak hygge time right now. How do you feel living in Denmark to see, especially now, you know, all over Instagram, there are books about how to live life more Danishly, there’s, you know, so much décor and design and style about how you can bring hygge into your home. Do you think it’s over-rated, or do you think it’s something that’s quite special about Denmark?

Melanie: It’s a real thing, but it’s not a thing that means that you have to spend money on lots of home décor things. It’s, it’s about being, I remember my Danish teacher saying you can be hyggelig on your own, you can be hyggelig with others, but what it essentially comes down to is being cosy. So you know, you just have a blanket on your sofa and you, you sort of cuddle up with your family, or your husband, and you watch a movie while you eat some sweets. That’s being hyggelig.

But people say, even just, you know I hear young people saying it to each other, oh, you know, they’ll say in Danish, ooh, yesterday when we did that thing, it was so hyggelig, you know, we really enjoyed it, and it’s, it’s something that is in people, and when you ask Danish people about it, it’s just the way they approach life. It’s not an excuse to buy a lot of stuff for your home.

And I do think that people in countries where people race around a little bit more, and there’s a culture of busy, I think that people in countries like that could really do with adopting a little bit of hygge in their life. You know, just, it’s, it’s almost, I know mindfulness is almost on the same thing of, you know, becoming something of a cliché, but, it’s that living in the moment, and enjoying the time when you’re doing things, and who you’re with, and just relaxing and keeping warm. But you can be hyggelig in the summer as well!

Carlie: Really?

Melanie: Yes, you can be hyggelig all year round! It’s a whole year thing. But in the winter, definitely, I mean we have a wood-burning stove upstairs, like a fire, and, you know, it’s really nice to, if it’s a cold, rainy, grey day, and some days it doesn’t even feel like it gets light, you know, it’s really nice to light that fire, and sit, and just sort of sit on the sofa and, and maybe watch something on TV, or just sit and talk, or just, you know, be warm and cosy together. But there are so many books about it, and there’s one or two that I think are really good, and the others are somewhat on a bandwagon.

Carlie: Along with your relocation company, you also have a very comprehensive blog that you keep. The pronunciation absolutely evades me, even in phonetic form, so you’ll have to let me know how that goes! (laughs)

Melanie: It’s Dejlige Days. It’s a cross between English and Danish. The Dejlige means lovely in Danish, and the Days is spoken, written the English way, so it’s sort of like ‘Happy Days’. I often go to things and people come up to me and go, ooh, you’re that blogger, of the blog I can’t pronounce, but I really like your blog! (laughs)

Carlie: Two of your most popular posts, called ‘Becoming Danish’ and ‘Tips on Enjoying Life in Denmark’, so first I wanna know, after more than 8 years, do you feel like you are actually becoming Danish?

Melanie: It’s difficult to say. I, when people ask me, you know, where are you from, are you Danish, are you this, and I say I’m British, but I’ve lived in Denmark for a long time, I find that when I go back to the UK, it doesn’t feel familiar to me any more. I don’t know whether I’ve changed, or it’s changed, or a combination of the two. So I feel that I sort of fall somewhere between the two. I feel a definite affinity to Denmark and Danish lifestyle, and it’s my life now, it’s my lifestyle, but I wouldn’t say, I still, you know, there are still so many cultural things that evade me, or confuse me, about living here. And I think that’s, that’s normal, and I think it’s healthy, and probably after 20 years I’ll still be surprised about some things I see or discover. So, I wouldn’t say I’m becoming too Danish, but I don’t feel as British as I used to.

Carlie: And what are your tips to anyone planning a move to Copenhagen, or elsewhere in Denmark, to get the most out of their expat life, however long they’re going to spend in the country?

Melanie: The first thing I would say is come with an open mind, and don’t, don’t bring your, your experiences of what you expect life to be like from your home country to here. I did that when I first came, you know we looked at an apartment, we looked at five apartments in one day, and we had a very new house in England, and in my mind you know new was good.

But actually it wasn’t, and it wasn’t right for us, and it’s that, you have to look at your new city and look at what’s normal there, because that’s your new normal. The other thing I would say is to do a little bit of learning of the language before you come, you know use something like Duolingo, some free app that you can get, and get at least a little bit of grounding of the language.

And the other thing I would say is just be curious, just have your eyes open and your ears open all the time, you know when you go somewhere and you see something that interests you, or you think, ooh that’s different, I don’t really know what that is, or how does that work, or what is this shop, just go in and ask. People love nothing more than somebody who’s interested in them or what they’re doing or their business.

So it’s that thing, it’s really, you know, just explore and just be curious, and you know, you will have days which are rubbish, and you’ll come home and you’ll cry because you didn’t understand how to use the post office or you didn’t understand something, or you’ve come home with yoghurt instead of milk, and you’ve poured it in your coffee, and all you wanted was a nice cup of coffee, not one with yoghurt in.

You know, there are days like that, but there are other days when you can just laugh at that, and move on to your next exciting thing, and even when I was in Berlin, where I wasn’t very happy and I wanted to be back here, I still led with that philosophy, you know, let’s just go out and explore things, and find out things, and when I first came, although I did start the Danish lessons, I didn’t start them for a month, so, and I didn’t start the freelance contract for a month, so I had a whole month where I just got up in the morning with this fizz of excitement in my stomach, and I got out a paper map, and I looked at an area and I thought, right, today I’m going to catch the bus and I’m going to go to that part of town, and I’m going to walk around and I’m going to explore, and I took my camera out, and I took pictures, and then when my husband came home from work I would be like, oh, I was like a child, or a puppy, you know, I did this thing today! And I shared it with him.

And that is the advice I would give to people, whatever country you’re in, is just get out there, put your comfy shoes on and walk the pavements and explore things, and I know not everyone has the time to do that, but at least do it at the weekends, or in the evenings, and really get out in the real world and don’t just sit on social media. Social media is brilliant, it connects people, it gives you advice, but you need more than that to really settle in somewhere.

Carlie: Well that’s it for now. If you want to share your own experiences of life in Denmark, or ask Melanie any questions, head to expatfocus.com, follow the links to our forums and facebook groups. Be sure to check out her blog, at dialydays.com, you’ll find a link in our show notes. And for more episodes on expat life, you can search for the Expat Focus podcast on iTunes, or simply head to expatfocus.com/podcast. I’ll catch you next time!

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