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How to Live in Denmark

Life as an international in Denmark, one of the world's most homogenous countries, isn't always easy. In Denmark’s longest-running English-language podcast, Kay Xander Mellish, an American who has lived in Denmark for more than a decade, offers tips for enjoying your time in “the world’s happiest country” plus insights on Danish culture and how to build friendships with Danes.

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Nudity in Denmark: The naked truth

The relaxed approach to nudity in Denmark can be a surprise for many newcomers. It’s something they’re often confronted with at the local swimming hall, where a very large and strong attendant insists that they take off their entire swimsuit and shower thoroughly before going into the pool. Stripping off in front of strangers is new for a lot of internationals, and some try to place it a larger context of Danish morality. It hasn’t been entirely forgotten that Denmark was the first country in the world to legalize pornography in 1967. Some people still think of Denmark as a place where there is easy sex available and a generous display of naked boobs and butts.

5mins

2 Nov 2019

Rank #1

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Danes and Stereotypes: The superficial American and the Copenhagen cheater

As an American in Denmark, I get to experience Danish stereotypes about Americans on a regular basis: we are superficial, too outspoken and direct, and are apparently controlled by a small cabal of right-wing nutcases.  But the Danes have stereotypes about other nationalities as well.  Spaniards and Italians are seen as fun and sexy and romantic, but unlikely to arrive on time. Eastern Europeans work too hard, at wages that are much too low, at least by Danish standards. Asian immigrants are seen as OK because they work hard at things Danes aren’t interested in, like high-level engineering degrees. Danes also have stereotypes about other Nordic people. Norwegians are seen as happy, friendly people with a humorous language.  Everything sounds funny in Norwegian because everything sounds like singing.  Swedes are seen as kind of stiff, humorless types who can’t dance, and can’t hold their liquour.  Finns are silent, angry drunks that carry knives. Oddly, given their history, Danes really like Germans.  Really, really like the Germans.  Many Danes will say that Berlin is their favorite town. Danes also have stereotypes about each other, something that amazed me when I first arrived here.  You have 5 million people, and you’re dividing yourselves into groups!  But Danes themselves see a big difference between people from Sjelland, the island with Copenhagen on it, and Jylland, the bigger part of Denmark that is connected to Germany. As the stereotype goes, people from Jylland are seen as quiet, reliable, trustworthy, and likely to marry young and start families. They are also sometimes seen as stubborn, and very tight with money. They want to drive a hard bargain. People from Copenhagen are seen as slick. Smart-ass, fast-talking, prone to exaggeration- everything’s the biggest and the best.  The men wear expensive business suits, and everyone wears overpriced eyeglasses. They have jobs that are non-jobs, like Senior Communications Consultant or SEO specialist.  People from Jylland have real jobs, like pig farmer, or Lego designer. 

6mins

9 Mar 2014

Rank #2

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Sex and Denmark

Even though Denmark is very open about sex, it isn’t very…sexy. Everything’s so accepted, out in the open, so practical, that sex in Denmark is a bit dull. The post Sex and Denmark - Podcast #21 appeared first on How to Live in Denmark.

5mins

8 Dec 2013

Rank #3

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Dating in Denmark, Part 2: Dating Danish men, a guide for the foreign woman

If you are a romance novelist, the Danish man is not your dream man. He will not write poetry and pursue his beloved to the ends of the Earth. He won't send flowers, he won't buy chocolates. He won't even help carry packages.  That said, if you’re a feminist, a Danish man IS your dream man. He will cook and help with the housework, and spend time with the kids.  He'll respect your opinion, and he won't force himself on you. In fact, you may have to force yourself on him.  But if you do, he’ll usually be really grateful.

5mins

16 Feb 2014

Rank #4

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Arriving in Denmark: Some tips from my experience

August in Denmark brings the first signs of fall: a crisp chill in the air, the changing color of the leaves, the annual posters warning drivers to be aware of small children riding their bikes to school for the first time. And foreign university students in the local 7-11, asking that their buns be warmed up. I saw a newly-arrived young American student in my local 7-11 this morning, asking that her newly-purchased bun be warmed. The 7-11 clerk told her sorry, but there were no bun-warming services available at that branch. She wasn’t too pleased, but it’s always a mistake to expect U.S., U.K., or Asian-level concepts of customer service in Denmark: in this egalitarian country, nobody serves anybody, and if they do they are frequently grumpy about it. You and the store clerk are equals, and nobody’s going to warm anybody’s buns unless it was agreed to in the original deal. While I didn’t dare approach the angry American bun-woman, I thought it might be useful to her and to others list a few tips for arriving in Denmark at any time of year. You know, random things I wish people would have told me before I arrived.

8mins

23 Aug 2015

Rank #5

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Dating in Denmark, Part 1: Meeting Danish women, a guide for the foreign man

 A lot of the mail I get at howtoliveindenmark.com get is from men, wanting to know how they can meet women in Denmark. I can understand this.  Danish women are very beautiful.  And I can tell you now, most of them will not immediately exclude you because you have a different skin color.  I know of several babies of mixed heritage here in Denmark.  That said, dating in Denmark is hard, even for the Danes, and it will probably be hard for you too.    That’s because the process that works in much of the rest of the Western world doesn’t work in Denmark.  In most parts of the world, a man will see a woman he likes, and he’ll approach her.  He’ll try to start a conversation.  Maybe he’ll ask if he can buy her a coffee, or some other type of drink.  If they’re in a nightclub, he might ask her if she’d like to dance, or maybe go outside and get some fresh air. These tactics will get you nowhere in Denmark.  

6mins

9 Feb 2014

Rank #6

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The Things I Do Double: Thoughts on Denmark’s offer of Double Citizenship

There was big news this week for foreigners in Denmark.  It looks double citizenship will soon be permitted.  Previously, if you wanted to be a Danish citizen, you had to give up citizenship in your home country. Meanwhile Danes who had moved abroad, say to the US or Australia, and became citizens there had to give up their Danish citizenship. There’s now been a proposal to get rid of all that.  It hasn’t been finally approved, but all the Danish parties say they’ll vote for it, with the exception of our anti-foreigner friends in the Danish People’s Party. Now having been here for 14 years, I will probably apply for Danish citizenship.  I realize I’ll have to do a lot of studying about Danish history, and learn things like the difference between King Christian the Fourth and King Christian the Seventh.  But that’s true of any country.  I’m sure people wanting to be American citizens have to learn the difference between, say, George Washington and George Bush. I want to be a Danish citizen for a lot of different reasons.  Right now, my ‘permanent’ residence permit expires if I’m out of the country for more than a year.  That could easily happen if I travel, or have a family crisis back in the US. Also my daughter has no rights here.  She was born here, and has only lived here, but she has no residence rights here, or right to attend university here.  Under the current law, she’d have to apply for a Danish residence permit when she turns 18, and there’s no guarantee she’d get it.  If I’m a double citizen, she can become a double citizen.  And if she’s a double citizen, it means she can hold the Danish flag in her girls marching band.  Right now she’s not allowed. Most importantly, I’ve been paying Danish taxes for 14 years, and I want a say in how those taxes are spent.  I want to vote.

6mins

23 Mar 2014

Rank #7

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Is learning to speak Danish worth it?

Learning to speak Danish can be difficult, even if you speak its close linguistic cousins, English and German. While the written language isn’t too tough to figure out, the spoken language is a headache. Danes pronounce only small bits of each word and smash those small bits together. Even the Swedes and Norwegians have trouble understanding spoken Danish. If you’re only in Denmark for a short time, is it worth it to learn more than just the basic pleasantries in Danish?

6mins

7 May 2018

Rank #8

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Danes and Beauty: Miss Denmark, the empty museum, and why you shouldn't expect compliments

If you really want to get a Dane all hot and bothered, start talking about some thing that is beautifully designed. In Denmark, beauty is usually found in something practical that has been very well designed. Housewares, particularly kitchenwares, are a Danish design favorite. They don’t have to be from expensive materials, but they have to be simple, streamlined, and work flawlessly. The beauty is in the usefulness.

7mins

21 Sep 2015

Rank #9

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More Snow Tomorrow: Surviving winter as a foreigner in Denmark

I’m looking out the window as I record, and it’s snowing again. It’s pretty, but it’s not a novelty any more. It’s been like this for the past couple of weeks, Danish winter weather. Nearly every day there’s fresh snow and ice. When I wake up on winter mornings, it’s still dark, and cold, and I can hear the wind whistling outside my window.  Every day I think, ahhhh, I don’t want to get up.  But I do. Of course everyone in Denmark suffers a little bit during the winter.  But I feel particularly bad for people I can see come from warmer climates, and are experiencing one of their first winters here. 

5mins

2 Feb 2014

Rank #10

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Are you a good foreigner, or a bad foreigner? How the Danes categorize newcomers to Denmark

Have you ever seen the movie The Wizard of Oz?  It's a classic.  When Dorothy arrives in the land of Oz, the first thing she's asked is - are you a good witch, or a bad witch? I was having lunch with a friend this week, and, over club sandwiches she said, its a shame there's only one word for foreigner in Danish, when actually there's two types of foreigner here. I got her point, even though I think there's only one word for foreigner in most languages.  But what she's was really saying is, there's no single way in Danish to say,  Are you a good foreigner, or a bad foreigner? If you've been to Danish dinner parties, often later on in the evening, whenever a fair amount of wine has been consumed, you'll hear a Danish person complaining about foreigners in Denmark.  They come here just to take advantage of the our system.  All they want is free education, free health care and welfare payments.  They don't contribute to Danish society at all. And then, at some point, someone will turn to you and say, Oh, but we don't mean your kind of foreigner. You know, a good foreigner.  The kind who works or studies.  The kind who is an trained carpenter, or engineer, or a doctor.  The kind who open restaurants with unfamiliar but unchallenging food.  Smiling, young, healthy, industrious, good foreigners. Good foreigners are highly sought after at the moment.  This week, for example, one of the big business groups said that Denmark should aim for at least 150,000 new immigrants in the next 20 years.  The Danish population is aging, so the country needs younger workers to drive Denmark's economy.  The business group held a conference on ways to attract them, and make them feel welcome. Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schimidt came by to offer more international schools.  She promised less red tape.  These are things we can do to attract good foreigners. On the other hand, in just the past couple of months, more than 20,000 Syrian refugees have arrived in Denmark. But no one's too worried about how to attract more refugees or make them feel more welcome.  In fact, some Danish political  parties are trying to change the asylum conditions and send as many of these people as possible back home to the battlefield. It reminds me sometimes of an old fashioned faucet, with the hot and cold knobs.  Denmark is trying to turn one knob on, and the other one off.

6mins

5 Oct 2014

Rank #11

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How to date a Dane: The two-speed bicycle and the flexible word

In Denmark, romance is like a two-speed bike. Speed one is casual sexual affairs with someone you may never see again: speed two is a serious relationship where you’ll be expected to go to all your partner’s dull family events. There’s not much of a middle. And what there definitely is not is dating.

6mins

1 Nov 2015

Rank #12

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Making Danish friends: A few tips based on experience

If you’re newly arrived in Denmark, making Danish friends is not easy – in fact, surveys show that one of the main reasons internationals end up leaving is the difficulty of building a network. The irony is that Danes are actually very good at friendship. Their friendships are strong, reliable, and deep-rooted. Friends can count on each other. But because Danes take friendships so seriously, they like to keep their number of friendships under control. They don’t want to take on more friends than they can keep their deep commitment to. The statement “I just don’t have room for any more friends” sounds perfectly sensible to Danes, and utterly stunning to foreigners. When internationals ask me how they can make Danish friends, I have one primary piece of advice. It is: find a Dane who did not grow up in the part of Denmark where you live now.

7mins

1 Dec 2019

Rank #13

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Danes and Vikings, plus: Two words to use to get Danish people to do what you want

I play a little game sometime when I look at Danish people. I imagine them as Vikings. It’s easy now that big beards are in fashion on young men. Sometimes on the metro I’ll look up at the hipster guy playing with his iPhone next to me and imagine him wearing a big fur cloak. Maybe a rope belt, with a sword dangling from it. I imagine him stepping off the boat in Newfoundland in the year 1000, freaking out the local American Indians.

6mins

26 Jan 2014

Rank #14

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The Danish Flag: 800 years old and going out fashion?

People visiting Denmark can’t help but notice that the Danish flag is everywhere. Christmas trees here are decorated with little Danish flags. Cucumbers in the supermarket have Danish flags on them to show they’re grown in Denmark. Whenever a member of the Danish royal family has a birthday, two little Danish flags are stuck on the front of every Copenhagen bus. The Danish flag is closely associated with Danish birthdays. If you have a birthday when you’re working in a Danish office, one of your colleagues is likely to put a Danish flag on your desk. It means – happy birthday!  You may see a birthday cake with tiny Danish flags stuck into it, or the Danish flag recreated in red frosting. The Danish flag is not really a statement of nationalism. It’s a statement of joy.  So it was a bit of a shock a couple of weeks ago when the FDF, a kind of a Danish boy scouts or girl scouts organization, said they wanted to remove the Danish flag from their logo. 

5mins

3 Sep 2017

Rank #15

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Christmas gift giving in Denmark: Package games, Almond Gifts, and Why It's OK to Exchange Whatever You Get

Like so many other aspects of life in Denmark, gift giving in the holiday season comes with dozens of unwritten rules and unspoken expectations. Should you give a gift to your boss? What about your colleagues? Will you and your Danish friends exchange gifts? And why does almost every store in Denmark ask if you want a “gift sticker” when you buy something? Here are a few basic tips about gift giving in Denmark.

8mins

2 Dec 2018

Rank #16

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Danes and English, or "Can I live in Denmark without speaking Danish?"

I get a lot of mail at the How To Live in Denmark podcast, and some of it is from people who want to move to Denmark, but they’re not sure what to do to make money once they get here.  But, I do speak English, they say.  Can I make money in Denmark just off of just speaking English? Generally, no.  No you can’t.  I mean, I do, but I was an experienced journalist before I got here. But English is not a rare commodity in Denmark.  Danish children start learning English when they’re six years old.  And because British and American TV shows and movies and are not dubbed, children are constantly hearing English even earlier.  Danish adults often read novels in English, and by the time you get to university, pretty much all the high-level textbooks are in English.  There’s just no economic case for translating textbooks into a language that only 5.6 million people speak. So, English is everywhere in Denmark.  And Danes love English.  When you come to Denmark, you’ll find that shops and youth programs and rock bands have English names because the Danes think it sounds cool.  Danes also like to tuck bits of English into their Danish speech, like ‘Du fik et nyt job!  Nice” or ‘Er det her den billigste togbillet til Roskilde?  I don’t know.” For some Danes, particularly younger Danes, the Danish language is seen as provincial, old-fashioned, kind of like those dusty little porcelain knick-knacks your grandparents keep around the house.  So another question I get a lot is, if you already speak English, is it worth learning Danish at all? Yes, it is. Parties are more fun if you can speak Danish. There's nothing worse than everyone laughing uproariously at some very funny joke, and you having to wait there like a piece of furniture until someone takes the time to explain it to you.

5mins

24 Aug 2014

Rank #17

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Understanding your Danish boss: Less like a general, more like a sports coach

In an anti-authoritarian country like Denmark, being a boss is a precarious (social) position. Danish bosses don’t like to flaunt their authority. In fact, when you enter a room of Danes, it is often difficult to tell which one is the boss. The social cues that point to a big cheese in other cultures – the flashy watch, the oversize office, the glamorous yet servile executive assistant – are considered poor taste in egalitarian Denmark. So are the booming, take-charge personalities many foreigners may expect from a boss. Denmark is a flat country. It is flat geographically, you are expected to keep a flat temperament and vocal tone, and (as they love to tell you) Danish companies have a relatively flat management structure. This means fewer layers of people to keep an eye on you, which can be a refreshing thing, but also fewer people around to help if you’re going off the rails entirely.

8mins

29 Oct 2017

Rank #18