Family Life and Fitting In – A Month of Danish Living

It’s a month since we arrived in Denmark and if you’re following on Instagram or Facebook you know that we’ve already done a lot of exploring round these parts. Meanwhile, we’ve also been getting our heads around our new life and lifestyle; although we’ve yet to fully settle in, we’re already getting a sense of what Danish living is all about, and how well it’s going to suit us. Checking out local attractions has been interspersed with admin appointments, starting school and negotiating the local approach to Getting Things Done. (Spoiler alert: it’s different from the Congolese one…)

So much of Danish living as I’ve seen it so far is just what you think it is, thanks to this country’s reputation as one of the happiest countries in the world, and that oh-so-popular idea of hygge. Some of it is more surprising.

But there’s a question I’ve found myself asking a few times when encountering a feature of life here: ‘Is this a Denmark thing or an Esbjerg thing?’ Often it’s the latter, as it’s a town with a uniquely international outlook.

So read on for my (very) first impressions of Danish living and of life in Esbjerg:

5 Observations on Danish Living

Life is Organised

Marie Kondo could learn a thing or two from the Danish. It’s been a very refreshing change for me after chaotic African living! From before we even arrived, all the ducks were in a row: we had the address of our temporary apartment ready to roll, fully equipped and set up for family life. Our welcome pack contained two labels with our names (neatly printed from a label-maker) ready to signal our presence on our letterbox and front door. (Without it our mail wouldn’t get delivered.)

That was just the beginning. Every roadside is clearly marked with a bike lane and a pedestrian pavement. At the school – an international school, yes, but which seems to be very influenced by Danish habits – we’ve had a steady stream of information coming home, and a series of welcome and orientation events which I’ve had noted in my diary since I consulted the school calendar on their website way back when I began the application process. Every process in public life is streamlined and has a name, and a person whose job it is to keep things flowing. When we registered as residents of Denmark, each of us received our health card with our CPR number, a unique identifier necessary to access all government services. With that, next on my list is to get my NemID (‘Easy’ ID) which I’ll be able to use online to organise paperwork, apply for a driving licence, or keep them up to date with my change of address – all from the comfort of my laptop (without having to fill in forms in triplicate pushed across to me by unsmiling functionaries). It certainly does sound easy!

EU Residence

Danish social life centres around clubs, so that everyone can find a community that meets their interest, and make it a regular feature of their life. For everything there’s a source of information, readily available, much of the time in English.

Right now, it’s a breath of fresh air to have everything so ordered, efficient and predictable; to know that life can run smoothly here. Mind you, I’m already wondering when that might start to feel constraining (did you notice that part about having to tell the government my change of address straight away?) …my mischievous side is wondering what will happen if I rebel against doing everything the Danish way down the line. But it’s ok! For now, I am revelling in the liberating effects of an organised life, after too many days of African chaos.

Family is the Focus

We’ve not yet made our bike purchases, so I’m still doing work runs as well as school runs to get MT to and from the office. The first couple of weeks of this were very disorienting for us. Here’s why.

After the first few days of working through till 5pm, MT realised he would be pretty much alone in the office. Towards the end of the first week, our mid-afternoon phone calls would go a bit like this:
‘What time will I pick you up?’
‘Well…I’ve no meetings…maybe 4.30?’
‘4.30? Are you sure?’
‘Em…I think so?’
Then later, in the car, we’d be looking at each other, looking over our shoulders, waiting for the office police to come chasing after us, seeing only an empty car park.
‘Well, what do we do now?’ Everyone home, and it wasn’t even dinnertime. This is taking a bit of getting used to!

It’s not a short day mind you. Work starts at 8, and the school bell rings at 7.55. There’s no long lingering lunch at the office canteen. There’s a canteen, but lunch is ordered, eaten and then it’s back to work. That too, is something MT will have to get used to, after many years of long chatty lunches with French colleagues, followed by everything stopping at midi in Congo (you know how much I loved that!) But for the Danish, why have all that time in the middle of the day, thinking and talking about food, when you could be home with your family at the end of the day, sharing time and activities with them?

It’s this focus on family that’s the most striking aspect of Danish life so far, and the one that will be the biggest change for us. And although the working day ends at a sensible time, that working day is accessible to EVERYONE! Why? Because childcare is considered essential, and seems to be accessible to all – meaning every parent can have a working day without having to juggle and negotiate extortionate nursery fees, wraparound or after-school care, or midday catering. At our children’s school, although the teaching takes place during typical academic terms, childcare is available almost year-round (the school closes for just 4 weeks) so that attendance can continue throughout school holidays allowing working parents to continue their routine.

And that routine? Outside teaching hours, kids can be dropped off from 6.30am, and picked up until 5pm – all included in the school’s fee structure. Full disclosure: with our expat status, our school fees are paid for by le company, so I have no idea how expensive this is. But I do know that many local families are also in the school. I also know that this is the standard structure to the day in local schools and nurseries. My also-newly-arrived neighbour has chosen a local nursery for her younger children while she learns Danish, and the full-time fees there are around the equivalent cost of what one day a week can cost in a UK nursery. There is even the option of 24-hour care for parents who do shift work. I can’t say for sure how well this works for every Danish family – maybe it’s not so easy for everyone. But the way the Danish have structured their society – so that everyone can work, then everyone can go home and have time with their family – makes it seem easy, that’s for sure. It’s not rocket science. So why does it seem so radical? More on this story later, I suspect.

All the Things Are Beautiful

Danish design is not just something you see on the set of Broen or Borgen. As far as Scandi style is concerned, Ikea is just the tip of the iceberg. Danish design is real, it is gorgeous, and it is everywhere. There are almost as many interiors stores on the high street as there are fashion stores, and they are all – ALL – even NICER than the interiors department of John Lewis! Stores like Sostrene Grene and Flying Tiger may be full of barely-needed bits and bobs, but the design attention to detail makes them utterly covetable bits and bobs. Even supermarket basics beg to be brought home. No wonder I’m dying to get my hands on our new house, and the furnishing budget!

Supermarket design
Danish design in the weekly shop.

Boundaries are Down

In many ways, Danish life is very open. It’s disconcerting at first to realise that there are no fences or boundaries of any kind around the school. The children know how far they’re allowed to go and what they need express permission to do when they’re playing outside, and somehow it works. They’re climbing trees, exploring patches of woodland, trekking over to the football pitch with a ball under their arm, and even though the kids feel free and trusted, the staff are aware of where every one of them is. You realise that the children have no more desire to get lost or stray away from the unfamiliar than you want them to. And you relax.

Meanwhile I’ve learned that with adults, the concept of trust is perhaps the most important social lubricant they rely on (although, by all accounts, liquid social lubricants are important too!) The worst thing you can do when getting to know someone Danish is suggest that you don’t trust them. You don’t ask for references when hiring someone, for example. I’m glad I learned that before making any potentially insulting faux pas!

Everyone is Out and About

Back in the school playground, the bike racks are packed with bikes of all sizes, including ones belonging to the parents doing their school run on two wheels. Rush hour in Denmark sees roads busy with positive pelotons of commuting cyclists. And those children at playtime (several times a day) are not just climbing trees and exploring woodland in fine weather. They will be outdoors in almost ALL weathers, with only the very worst days of winter meriting indoor play. On my first orientation visit to the school, I expected to hear a bit about the curriculum, the daily routine perhaps, but the first teacher spent a good 20 minutes or more explaining the logistics of how many layers of outerwear and pairs of footwear each child should bring to school, how to store it in the cubby, the procedures for changing shoes, how many sets of contingency spare clothes should be supplied… They’ll play outside, in rain, snow and wind. They’ll wrap up warm, get wet, do a quick change, and get on with learning. And they’ll sleep so very well.

Esbjerg’s Unique Energy

As for Esbjerg, it may not be Copenhagen (I have been Googling hotels on an almost daily basis – first weekend to the capital will be very soon!) but there’s a lot to recommend this town for a great family lifestyle. So much of what I’ve already described about Danish living seems to be amplified in and around this growing town. As the self-styled ‘Energy Metropolis’ it’s very much a town for work and daily life, rather than a must-see destination, but it’s the hub for an area packed with interesting attractions and holiday spots. The beaches nearby stunning, as are the islands just a short ferry ride away, the biggest of which being charming Fanø.

Hjerting Strand
Danish Beach Life

When we arrived in the middle of summer, the area was busy with Danish and German tourists, who were also taking in Ribe, Denmark’s oldest town, just 20 minutes away and a centre for Viking heritage attractions, and of course Legoland, less than an hour away at Billund, which now has a cluster of other holiday theme parks and attractions nearby. We’ve yet to explore the reputedly beautiful beaches further up the coast, or to take advantage of our proximity to Germany – Hamburg is about the same distance from here as Copenhagen.

Before I came here, I referred to Esbjerg as ‘another oil town’ when telling people about our move. As I type, I can see a forest of platform legs waiting to be added to an oil rig, and the harbour has daily visits from North Sea supply boats. But it’s not just oil that gives the town its Energy Metropolis status. Further along the port there’s the even more striking sight of giant fins reclining beside the road, waiting to be added to the wind turbines being built here.

Man Meets the Sea

There’s energy too, in how the town is growing, and constantly seeking to boost its population. To that end, the kommune provides a unique Newcomer Service. Every new arrival to Esbjerg is heaped with information, both in Danish and English, as well as being given direct contact with staff who are there specifically to help new people find their place in the town. It all adds to the sense of organisation and streamlining that’s making settling in here a very smooth transition.

I’m certainly energised (sorry!) by our first few weeks here, and we’re just getting started.

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8 thoughts on “Family Life and Fitting In – A Month of Danish Living

  1. Always love reading posts about expats living and adjusting in a new country. Having lived in Africa I can understand the contrast between there and Denmark! I moved to France a few years ago and the although things are ‘organized,’ the paper work is rather tiresome, often requiring multiple trips in person bringing many documents to various offices. But hey, it’s their country 😉 Good luck in Denmark. A good place for kids.

    1. Thanks for reading! It’s certainly a refreshing contrast. We lived in France too. I must admit I’ve been surprised by the level of bureaucracy here in Denmark, but compared to France it’s at least a much more streamlined and modern process!

  2. Nice reading, glad that you have settled in well and quickly – as you say time away from office is very much organised around clubs .. feel free to take a look at the riding-club where we have english speaking classes every Monday evening from 20.15 or like that .. and also take a look at facebook pages for Fanø Tango (Thursday evening) or Argentine Tango Esbjerg at Remisen(Monday from 19.00) .. we love newcomers and that Esbjerg has such an international community. Margrethe – hope to see you soon.

  3. A charming read! I do hope you have a wonderful time here in my city of birth and I wholeheartedly welcome you to “The Pearl of the Western Coast” (or “Denmarks Chicago”, depending on what you prefer 🙂

    1. Thanks so much! Hope my words can do it justice. I’ve already lived in ‘The Pearl of Africa’ (Uganda), and I didn’t know Esbjerg was a pearl too, so I’ll take that one! 😉

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