Kay: How To Live In Denmark
Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Who you are, where you come from, when you moved to Denmark, etc.
I’m originally from Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, and was trained as a journalist at New York University. I worked in New York City, Berlin and Hong Kong before coming to Copenhagen in 2000. After an exciting decade-long tour through corporate Denmark, I now run a company offering Copenhagen-based native English copywriting and English voice-overs for documentaries and corporate video.
When and why did you decide to start blogging about your experiences?
Blogging about Denmark is the latest episode in a lifetime of writing – I’ve been a newspaper and magazine journalist; run news, entertainment and finance websites; and failed spectacularly at getting a couple of novels published. My short story and cartoon website has been online since 1995, but I found my dispatches about living in Denmark were really striking a chord with people, so I broke them off onto a separate site this year. I also started a podcast about life as a foreigner in Denmark, which you can subscribe to for free via iTunes.
Do you have any favorite blog entries of yours?
- Danish manners, expatriates in Denmark
- Danish names, why it's bad to be Brian
- The Danish companycorporate Christmas party
- Danes on vacation, Danish tourists
- And the podcast
Tell us about the ways your new life in Denmark differs from that back home. Did you have trouble getting used to the new circumstances? Did you experience culture shock?
The area of the U.S. where I grew up had a strong Scandinavian, German and Polish population, so moving to Denmark wasn’t that big of a culture shock. For me, the biggest change was the way this country substitutes co-operation for competitiveness. Striving to be the very best is actually looked down on, since it would place you above others. That was a big change from dog-eat-dog Manhattan.
Do you think you were fully prepared for what awaited you in Denmark? If you could, would you change some decisions/preparations you made?
Well, I would have saved more money before moving here. After paying 50-60% in income tax and 25% in sales tax on everything you buy, it’s very difficult to save money in Denmark. Prices, too, tend to be wildly inflated: I use one particular hair product that costs precisely three times as much in Copenhagen as it does in New York City. The same little bottle! I realize that much of that differential is due to the level of taxation in Denmark, and I do appreciate the services I get from the Danish government. But I like to be able to put a little cash aside at the end of the month, and that’s hard to do here.
Every expat knows that expat life comes with some hilarious anecdotes and funny experiences. Care to share one with us?
When I arrived in Denmark, I had just come from the Manhattan media world, where the greatest sin is to be a nobody. In that world, when you’re invited to a party, you arrive late to demonstrate how busy you are, and leave early to make it to the next party, to show how much in demand you are. Staying too long is a no-no; it suggests that you have nothing else to do and that your host is stuck with your boring, loser self. It took me awhile to understand that Danish parties are pretty much the opposite: you are expected to arrive precisely at the time indicated and stay all evening, quite possibly sitting in the same chair for the entire time. My Danish hosts were wondering why I was running out the door moments after eating the last bite of dessert, but in a Manhattan context, that was the proper thing to do. In Copenhagen, it made me look like a jerk.
Which three tips would you like to give future expats before they embark on their new life in Denmark?
Denmark is a pretty nice place, so my tip is to appreciate it for what it is, instead of complaining about what it isn’t. The weather is bad, the food iffy, the people can be difficult to get to know, and everyone seems to share one of about five last names. But it’s also a safe, clean country, a good place to raise a family, and a place where women are respected and given a fairly broad palette of opportunity. As an expat in Denmark, you are a guest in someone else’s home. So don’t bitch. It’s unseemly.
Also, don’t take it personally if you can’t fit and become one with the Danes, because it’s nearly impossible. I’ve lived here for almost 15 years; I speak fluent Danish and send my Danish-born child to a Danish-speaking school; I even look Danish, with light skin and blonde hair. But I still feel like an outsider every single day. Danes are a tribe, a thousand-year-old tribe, and there’s a big unwritten rulebook that everyone here grew up on and knows by heart. You don’t know that rulebook. You may learn parts of it, but you’ll never learn the whole thing. So just chill out, relax, and enjoy doing everything wrong all the time, at least from a Danish point of view. Once you accept that, it’s liberating.
How is the expat community in Denmark? Did you have a hard time finding like-minded people or fellow expats?
I have to admit I don’t know much about the expat community. Most of my friends are Danes. The expats I’ve met, through InterNations and elsewhere, have been extremely friendly and very nice.
How would you summarize your expat life in Denmark in a single, catchy sentence?
I’m happy here, and plan to stay here as long as I remain so.