Aarhus in December

I usually have a reason for posting stuff to my blog – sometimes I want people to read it, sometimes it’s just something I don’t want to forget and occasionally I just need an outlet to rant.

This post is just to capture a snapshot of where things are, because I’m really hoping I’ll be able to come back to this in few months and laugh at it, or at least put it into some bigger context that makes things ok.  Since I don’t maintain a private journal, I’m putting it here.  However, this will probably sound like one big whinge, so I’m not going to suggest you read it – and if you do so, it’s at your own peril.


Moving to Denmark has been difficult, but mostly because my expectations were high and have repeatedly been dashed to pieces.  Where I didn’t have expectations, I think everything has gone along quite well, but what I really needed before coming was a reality check: You will have to start your entire life over again when moving to a new country.

I think our biggest problem was that we saw some of the city during the summer, enjoyed it, and thought we’d be able to enjoy it.  We had expectations that we’d be able to walk around in the streets, visit shops, and participate in the atmosphere of the city.  The reality is that the only house that was available to us was WAY out in the suburbs, leaving us in a tiny residential hamlet where everyone commutes.  Worst still, Canadians can’t get drivers licences in Denmark without a major struggle, leaving us without a reasonable access to transportation.  The bus system here runs once an hour for most of the day, and it’s a half hour bus ride to downtown.  Thus, we find ourselves limited to walking out for groceries in the evenings for something to do.  (I walk home from work every day at a competitive walking pace, and I’ve gotten it down to 33 minutes – downtown is about 20 minutes further.)

The house itself is also not what we expected – in addition to it’s location in a hamlet, it’s also expensive, leaving us with a lot less disposable income than we’d expected, meaning that we’re still living in grad student mode, but with a big house.  I have expectations that this will change in the future, but that won’t be for at least another month or so.  A lot of our cash reserves have gone to buying things that we just can’t live without, like lights for the house, food for the cat and dog and such, which has made things somewhat tight, as well.  No eating out in Denmark for us, yet.

Our stuff also hasn’t arrived, although I just received word that it is expected to arrive in the city on January 19th, which is only a few weeks away.  That, at least, is encouraging.  But, that means we still have 3 more weeks of sitting in a nearly empty house – we’ve shut off three of the four rooms so it echoes a little less when we talk. (I would like to again emphasize that I am not ungrateful for what we have been given by the company to help us until our stuff arrives – but it’s minimal, and a far cry from having your own possessions.  A little bit of furniture is a huge help, but doesn’t really fill a house.)

And then, there was Christmas.  This year’s christmas was a disaster for us – again, because of unmet expectations.  We had been told before we moved that we’d been invited for christmas by some other expats and that we’d have some company over the holidays, however that never occurred, leaving us on our own.  Added to that, I also found out I’d have to work over the holiday break and that no time off would be given in exchange for Christmas eve and Christmas day falling on a weekend, which made this past week pretty miserable.  Thus, every hour that things were open for the past week, I was at work, and any time I had to go exploring in the city fell on the three days where the entire city shuts down. (And I mean entire city – even the convenience stores shut down for the three days of Christmas.)

Needless to say, we didn’t get out much (although we did find the art gallery was open), and so we mostly spent our holiday weekend at home in an empty house, desperately trying to come up with stuff to do.

To compound the expectation problem, I’d also been told, upon arrival, that the wonderful holidays that Danish employers give (nearly 6 weeks of holiday per year) actually don’t apply to employees in their first year.  I have 48 more weeks of slogging through before I can get my first vacation.

Furthermore, what we’d been told about Denmark and Christmas turned out to be absolutely correct:  Danish people are all into cozy-ness (hygge), which I had interpreted to be about friends and family: the equivalent to a Newfoundland kitchen party.  Unfortunately, what I missed was that it’s mainly about family and close friends – and we just haven’t been here long enough to make any of those. We haven’t earned our hygge yet.

Part of that stems from the language barrier.  My expectation was that it wouldn’t be a problem to communicate in English here – and for the most part it’s not.  94% of Danes (or some equally high number) can speak English, which means you can get away with not speaking Danish for a while.  However, asking people to speak in English all the time seems to be too much.  The work environment, despite promises that it would be in English, devolves into Danish much of the time, whenever I’m not being addressed directly or not in an official meeting.  Again, expectations dashed.

I hardly expect a whole country to shift languages to accommodate me, but it’s difficult – and I now fully appreciate what other people have said in their blogs:  I appreciate when other people make the effort to chat with me in English, but I recognize that it is an effort… conversations are slower, people don’t make jokes in English, and I consequently find myself just shutting everything out and ignoring whatever is going on around me because it’s futile to try learning a language by osmosis while trying to be productive at the same time.

Worse still, there are times when English just isn’t available.  If you call the doctors office, you get a recorded message in Danish. (It says “just stay on the line and we’ll get to you as soon as possible”, but I had to ask a Dane to translate it for me.)  If you call a store, you get a menu of options – in Danish. (“Press 4 for the animal food department”)  Simple tasks become inordinately difficult, and I find myself dreading some of the simple chores.

And, of course, all of those chores are being done in in the dark, because lets not forget that sunrise and sunset in Aarhus in December are about 9am and 3:30pm – which has been accompanied by frequent (several times daily) wind and rain storms.

Add that to the steep learning curves of starting a new job and trying to finish my thesis remotely, and this has become a recipe for depression and despair.

I don’t really expect the arrival of my stuff to make a big dent in the difficulty of moving to a new country, but it will change the feeling that I’m living in a hotel in the suburbs.  At least I’ll be able to pull out my camera and take pictures, or to hop on my bike and ride out to pick something up from the store, or even just to have my kitchen supplies so I can cook something decent.

Yes, I know, I’ve only given the bad, and not the good.  There are things working out in my favour: I have a cool phone to play with, I’ve met some interesting people, I love the projects I’ll be working on at work, and I’m thrilled with the progress I’ve been able to make in written Danish on my own.  And, google translate’s existence has saved my life a few times.  Not everything here is bad… but the struggle goes on, and sometimes that’s just what you need to rant about.

Hindsight is 20/20…  but as they say, I’ve made my bed, and now I’ve got to lie in it.

15 thoughts on “Aarhus in December

  1. Keep that note and read it in a few months. Most things will get easier, you’ll adapt to some, and you’ll find multiple reasons why this was a good idea to move in Denmark. Arriving in December was definetely a strange idea, but after winter comes Spring and you’ll see how everything explodes in a few weeks: Nature, people’s mood, better weather. Great feelings…
    For sure, living in an hamlet and not being able to drive do suck badly. You should fix at least one of these, urgently! (See, that makes an occupation).

    Are you going at some conferences this winter (AGBT, for instance?). That would make a good break. Sorry if that’s not the case….

    Good luck for the next few weeks. Keep ranting here if that helps!

    • Thanks for the comment – and yes, that’s exactly why I’ve put this here. In two or three months, this will all be better, I hope, and I’ll have this post to remind me of where we’ve come from.

      Unfortunately, we can’t fix the lack of transportation (Canadians just aren’t eligible to get a Danish drivers licence without spending thousands of dollars in lessons and translation services) or relocate, as it appears there are just no houses/apartments available in the city if you have pets.

      Honestly, that’s exactly the problem with moving to a small town city. There just aren’t options.

        • I can’t really justify buying a bike when I don’t really have any spare cash, and I know my bike will be here in a month. That’s really the problem with international moves; you spend the first couple months living in limbo, and it’s not easy to work with what you have when you really have nothing. :/

          I am, however, looking forward to having my bike. I’m not sure it will be quite as useful to my wife, however, when her bike shows up. But that’s another story entirely.

  2. Oh, so familiar:)
    First thing…we had the same issue in Sweden with the drivers licence. However, your Canadian License may be just fine..ours were in Sweden. I think technically, you are allowed to use it for 3 months, but no one really cross-checked it with entry dates or anything. Of course they expired about 4 months before leaving. But since lund was so small and police were pretty scarce, we just drove anyway…only when we absolutely needed to:)
    You may want to look into downsizing to a flat in town after a bit. It will likely make a huge difference.
    Another thing Brent and I did, and I’m sorry I didn’t mention it before (it may not have been possible this year for you anyway)…we booked away for Christmas every year. One year was Vienna, another was Prague. It made the holidays away from family much easier and fun for us…and made it so no one was obligated to host us at their family dinners.
    Find out ASAP when all the danish holidays are and if they saddle up on a weekend. Try to book a long weekend away to someplace cool..paris…barcelona….rome. A few days on a long weekend will help. We tried to always have the next trip booked by the time we left on one, so that we always had something to look forward to.
    For the language thing, it is hard. If you can bear it try some evening classes…we quit pretty quickly but it was still a bit helpful. I understand the struggle to be productive at work vs studying a language you won;t likely use later, but it will improve your quality of life and your feelings of isolation…and that is important.
    Finally bear thru it. It gets easier. It is like starting over but eventually you’ll work your way thru all the stuff (paying bills, doctors visits etc), and it will become familiar.
    Grocery shopping is a good adventure. To this day all our spices are labelled in swedish…to remind us of how daunting is was to identify cumin (spiscumin, not cumin!) and others when we first got there:) Some of it you’ll look back on fondly:) The rest of it just makes you stronger. Hold tight guys!

  3. sorry i just re read the pet in the city part…dang. and really on the no holiday days until next year. I would try to contest that. maybe not the full 6 weeks, but you should get something!!!!!

    • Yeah, it’s a pretty crappy corner to be backed into. There’s not much I can do about it, unfortunately.

      I’m also pretty sure the no vacation in the first year thing isn’t just applied to me, so getting an exemption at this point in the game is probably going to be difficult, if not impossible. It is a good idea to try, though. I’ll have to see where it gets us.

      Although, I really appreciate the comment – I know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, I just wanted to record where I’m at currently. A lot of the blogs out there just skip this part – they stop commenting for 4 months, and then suddenly start on how great Denmark is. I think it’s important to show the highs and the lows, because someone else is going to follow behind me, and they need to know. (-:

      I love the spices labeled in Swedish – that’ just awesome. (=

      • Actuelly you are saving vacationtime from April to April. If I rememberthe month right. That means if you started in november you should have two or three weeks of vacation you can use from April to April. Confusing system.

  4. Anthony, you have my sympathy.

    I faced many of the same problems that you are describing quite a few years ago now, when I left Canada to do a one-year post-doc in France, and then moved on to the UK. And at least I didn’t have the language problems to deal with.

    Many things, especially in France, just didn’t seem to be set up for someone who was going to be there for just a short while.

    The public transport problems are typical of smaller towns anywhere – buses that run only once an hour, whereas in larger cities, like London, for example, you get buses coming along every few minutes,

    Is there a Canadian or American Women’s Club that your wife could join, or an alumni group for any of the Canadian universities that you have graduated from? I was over here for many years before I learned that such groups existed, and they would have been a big help at the start.

    Happy New Year!

    • Hi Maria,

      Thanks for the comment, and a Happy New Year to you as well!

      Yes, I realize that most of the transportation issues are symptoms of small towns – and I know I’m far from the first person to face many of the issues I mentioned. This is all just part of the relocation process, so I’m sure it’s old hat for those who’ve been there before. I hope I haven’t given the impression that we’re the only ones to go through these challenges!

      The city where I did my undergrads was quite similar to Aarhus, with buses that ran only once every half hour or so – and the layout of the city was similar: chaotic twisting roads. We were prepared for the smaller city part – but we just weren’t expecting to have a house in a sleepy suburb of the small city. At this point, there’s not much we can do about it, and we’ll have to learn to cope with it. C’est la vie.

      Unfortunately, we haven’t found any clubs that my wife is interested in yet, but maybe that will change in time. We’re not in Vancouver anymore and we’ll have to make new friends and find new communities. I think we’ve also been shocked by the amount of change we’ve had to absorb all at once.

      Either way, looking for alumni clubs or other out-groups of the things we do know is a great idea. It gives me a new direction to investigate.


  5. Hey there,
    Just found your blog by chance. I am South African, moved to Copenhagen 1 year ago, and the past Xmas was just as you described! It’s weirdly isolating here as Danes are not so quick to welcome one into their inner circle. And the language is an issue despite a high percentage of English speakers, I have the same thing in the lab where everyone is Danish and jokes are made all day that whiz by me without any comprehension. I have given up complaining about everyone speaking Danish, because, hell it’s their country!
    Anyway, despite suffering all the same stuff you mention, I feel like things have improved for me, and I am sure they will for you too. But I also realize I will be happy to be in an English-speaking country again. In the meantime, Google translate plugin in Chrome has saved my life!
    As for your holiday, as I understand it, you are not entitled to PAID leave, but you are obliged to take leave i.e. you will not be paid your full salary every month during the first year, as they deduct your holiday. I lost 1.5 months of salary at the start of 2012, but they staggered it over 2 months to make it bearable.
    Good luck!

    • Sorry for my slow reply – I was out of the country last week.

      I’m really glad to hear that things have improved for you, and I’m really hopeing we’ll have the same experience, with things getting better over the next few months. Also, yes, Google translate has become my best friend!

      What you’ve said about the holiday, however, isn’t what has been communicated here, but I’ll look into that, just in case something has been overlooked.

      Best of luck with your Danish adventures, Mel!

  6. About the holidays :
    ” I have 48 more weeks of slogging through before I can get my first vacation.”
    Is that really true ?

    I thought Denmark was part of the civilized world, in that you get holiday hours at the start of you contract, and that you wouldn’t have to “earn” them during the year.
    But reading up on it, it does seem the case. Another weird culture thing between countries so close..
    In our company (in NL), there is a rule that you are forced to take at least two weeks consecutive leave per year, and that also holds for starters. Maybe not if you start in December :-)

    • Hi Jan,

      I think I mentioned that my company was willing to make an exception for people who moved here from elsewhere, but yes, it is true that you can wait up to a year and a half to get your first real vacation. In Canada, we have the same rules, although employees start with much less vacation (often as little as two weeks per year), they are generally given access to it immediately – and are often prevented from rolling over more than one week per year.

      In any case, Denmark is certainly a country of contradictions: some of the most generous holiday bonuses in the world, but the most restrictive access to that holiday. (I’ll have to write out HOW you get your vacation pay sometime – it’s even more bizzare, and involves filing paperwork with a government agency, as far as I can gather.)


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