I never had any plans to visit Denmark. I wasn’t even sure where it was and the only thing the word “Denmark” brought to mind were some vague ideas about melancholy princes who ate a lot of bacon. Despite my ignorance, however, I somehow ended up in Copenhagen airport in July 2010 for a year long Erasmus exchange in Aarhus, Denmark’s second city, where I was enrolled as a student in Aarhus University’s Philosophy department.
As an exchange student I was involved mostly with other international students and had not made many attempts to integrate aside from the few Danish lessons that I took in the first two weeks of term. Although I had a great time on exchange, I hadn’t really seen myself coming back to Denmark until, in the last week of my exchange, just as I was preparing to say goodbye to Denmark forever, I met my boyfriend Casper and we began a year long, long-distance relationship.
Cara and Casper in Silkeborg
So after finishing my degree in May 2012 I found myself back in Aarhus only this time as a proper immigrant, rather than a student who was just passing through. The experience was completely different, and much harder than I had imagined moving to another country could be. As students everything was done for us – all the paperwork, permits and permissions were sorted out by the University but this time it was just me and Casper trying to work out the endlessly complicated rules and regulations regarding foreigners living in Denmark.
One of the most important things for me when moving back to Denmark was learning Danish. Although most Danes speak good English, learning the language is a huge part of assimilating to the culture and is an obvious way of showing others that you are making an effort to become part of Danish society. However, although I was keen to learn Danish, and enjoyed attending classes, it was sometimes difficult to practice what I’d learnt outside the language school. More often than not, when I approached a Dane they would recognise that I was a foreigner and immediately start speaking English. I think they did it to make non-Danish speakers feel more comfortable but it always felt a bit like failure in my eyes, as I had mustered the courage to say something in Danish only for my attempt to converse in the native language to be rejected.
Cara embracing Danish culture
Despite the difficulties of practicing the language I really enjoyed living in Denmark, with its high levels of social security, slower pace of life and strong family values. And although stereotypes are not always accurate, most of the stereotypes about Denmark and Danes are mostly true. It is a very safe place to live without much crime or social exclusion and although Danes do often appear aloof or distant, once you have cracked their tough exterior they are warm and very open. And yes, Danes are tall, and they are blonde and they actually do cycle everywhere no matter the weather, which was something that took a bit of getting used to, especially when professors would turn up to class soaking wet or covered in mud without anyone batting an eyelid.
Casper taking the only mode of transport known to Danes
Although the cycling culture was not something I was used to my bike was something that I soon learnt to love. So much so in fact, that I took several long bike trips to visit sights outside of Aarhus such as Himmelbjerget, the highest point in Denmark, the ruined castle at Kalø, and the eco-village of Friland. For such a small country, Denmark has a surprisingly varied landscape and there is a lot to see outside of the cities. Of course, everyone has heard of Legoland, but did you also know about the reefs on the island of Samsø, the desert of Råbjerg Mile, or Skagen, the northern most point of Denmark, where you can see the meeting of the North and Baltic seas?
Unfortunately though, after about eight months in Denmark, Casper and I decided to move to London. My Danish was not good enough to work in a Danish company, and international businesses were recruiting primarily at a managerial level, which, as a recent graduate, I was unqualified for. Also, with Casper soon to finish his Masters and enter the job market we thought we would be better off in London where there are more opportunities for both of us.
Although I miss the pace of life and creative community in Aarhus, London is a great place to be. Hopefully, if I can keep up with learning Danish, increase my skills and experience I should be in a good position to one day go back to Denmark to work and perhaps raise a family. But for now, as I’m sure readers of Vikings in London know, the Danish community here is vibrant enough to stop me missing my second home.
A guest post by Cara Jones