Identity, Life

Here’s what shocked me when I got to Denmark

I thought I'd done all the research I needed. Turns out, not quite.

When you are travelling to a new country, you plan for everything in advance.

Or at least, you think you do: you research the local culture and traditions, you check the weather and purchase clothes accordingly, you make sure to have local currency and that your credit cards work, and most importantly you buy a charger adapter (life stops if your cell phones and laptops are not working). And did I mention food? When you go to a new place, you want the everyday traditional dishes your family makes at home, so you look for the best local food. But even after you think you’ve done all your research, there is always something that surprises you. That is exactly what happened to me when I moved to Denmark as an exchange student from San Francisco.

As soon as I got my visa, I researched endlessly. I looked for local traditions and found out about Shrovetide, the Danish version of Halloween. I found out about their freezing weather and got sweaters and boots, got Danish Kroners – the local currency – and of course, bought the charger adapter.

I thought I was ready, until I landed in Aarhus – the second largest city in Denmark. And boy, did I have another thing coming!

Dark nights:

My plane landed around 21:50. Now for someone coming from one of the busiest-and-never-sleeping cities in the world, Aarhus was a complete shock. Everything was closed, and I mean everything. You could count the cars on the road and barely see people on the streets.

Aarhus has clubs and bars open at night but other than that you are all by yourself. But still, surprisingly, the city is one of the safest places for women.

Pedestrian rights, right?:

You know how,  in America, you can cross the street without getting honked at? Right?

Yeah, you don’t have that in Denmark. Maybe you have the right-of-way, but drivers don’t care. They will stop at a red light, but if there are no lights, they won’t. As somebody who has been living in the Bay Area for almost five years now, getting honked at for crossing the street was a shock.

As one of my tour guides in Italy explained, “We do have pedestrian laws theoretically. But it is always good to look both ways twice.”

Dates:

When it comes to writing dates and prices in Denmark, it is completely different. In US, we use mm/dd/yyyy format while most European countries, including Denmark, use the dd/mm/yyyy format. You don’t think it’s that big of a deal until someone’s yelling at you for putting a date on a form wrong, or you’re trying to figure out what the 24th month is and why the 12th day is a holiday. I found a simple solution to this confusion: I spell out the month. No more confusion.

Time:

For as long as I remember, my phone has always been set to military time, so when I moved to Denmark, where everyone uses military time, I fit right in (finally!). For a lot of people, though, it might be confusing as to why school ends at 16:00 instead of 4pm.

Prices:

Thirty-eight thousand kroners for toothpaste! I’d rather not brush my teeth!

That’s what I thought for a good minute when I  went to the store to get toothpaste. Yeah, it’s unhygienic, but was I really going to pay 38,28 DDK for two tubes of Colgate Max Fresh?

Turns out yes I would, because the Danes use comma instead of a dot for their prices. (Even my text editor doesn’t seem to recognize this style).

Gap year:

Taking a gap year after high school is socially acceptable in Denmark. It is so common that the government proposed a law to provide some sort of incentive to students to opt out of this norm. A lot of Danes I’ve met in school and my dormitory have taken a year off after high school. They usually go abroad and volunteer in different countries.

Bicycle culture:

Davis, California, may be the bike capital of America, but Copenhagen is the bike capital of the world. It is very common to see people of every age riding a bicycle in Denmark. According to the Denmark’s official website, 45% of students and workers bike to school and work in Copenhagen, while 48% of Danes in Aarhus bike to work every day.

The moral of the story is when it comes to travel, research is great, but nothing beats the actual experience. If you’re getting ready to travel this summer, expect the unexpected!