You should have seen me five years ago. I got off the plane, all excited, flicking through my ‘Teach Yourself Danish’ book to get to the bit about public transport. The few phrases helped me to board the right train. When I stepped off, the heavens opened, drenching me and the contents of my two backpacks. When I arrived, my host’s daughter greeted me with “Welcome to Denmark, I guess. Bathroom’s through there.”
So without further ado, here are the top five lessons I have learned about living in Denmark – there´s one for every year!
Queue jumping is wrong here, but it is your responsibility to say something
My culture shock went through three distinct stages with regards to queue jumping, and each stage took about a year.
The first stage was acceptance. I accepted that Europeans cannot queue, it’s not their fault, and who was I to come into a country and try to change that?
The next stage was outrage. Who were these bloody Danes who were supposed to think they weren’t anything special, deciding that my time was not as valuable as theirs? Did they think that standing right next to me in a line meant that a new line magically opened up just for them?
The last stage was zen calm and it started at Roskilde Festival 2010. A man pushed in and a lady in front of him said: “Excuse me, there’s a queue here.”
All that time when I had just assumed that a couple of friends were chatting, it turns out that queue-pushers were actually being told off. It was a breakthrough both linguistically and culturally.
So now, whenever a Dane jumps in front, I tap their shoulder and they say “Gee, I had no idea there was a queue,” and I smile beatifically.
Get a massive dining table
I am lucky enough to have a collection of very cool and very interesting Danish friends. If I did not have a dining table, however, I would never see them. Dinner parties are known as ‘parties’, so if I want to have some fun, then I need to dust off my lasagne dish and invite my friends to supper. And because everyone is inviting everyone over for dinner all the time, you have to give at least a month’s notice.
Volunteering is worth the time and effort
There’s something about volunteering that is more satisfying than spending your free time at a social or sporting club. You get to meet people you probably would not have met otherwise. You get to feel like you are part of the community. Nice people volunteer (when I volunteered in London, there were volunteers who were not nice and I assumed they were there by court order), and they will tell you things. Little gems of local knowledge, interesting local expressions, fun things to do in the area. You feel like you are more than a guest when you volunteer, like you are actually at home.
Being clumsy is socially acceptable
Sometimes when I get off the bus, I bash into people. In the UK, this a big deal. If you brush arms in the street, you must exchange insurance details. In Denmark, you can let it wash over you. My most zen moment to date occurred when I accidentally knocked into someone in the street and not only did they not care, they didn’t even seem to notice that it happened. Even though my body touched their body as if I was trying to walk through them briefly. I did not apologise.
You can say anything you want as long as you phrase it with care
When I was a wet-behind-the-ears immigrant, I was nervous of giving offence or saying something that could be interpreted as an insult. The thing about northern Europe is you can be direct and straight with people. You can say whatever you want. But you have to phrase it properly. For example, I’ve said: “When you use that tone, it makes me not want to speak Danish anymore,” to a teller in the bank. She took it in stride and apologised. If my life were a movie, that scene would have been at the end of a montage of me getting upset with people being rude about my Danish language skills with ‘Eye of the Tiger’ as the backing track.