For the past two years I have had the unique experience of dating a man from Denmark. I’ve always had a not-so-secret desire to date a European. It’s been both an exciting and an enlightening experience, and not just because of the romance.
Our intercontinental relationship has allowed me the opportunity to visit Denmark twice. Each time, I stayed with my significant other and his family. Being immediately exposed to a real, normal Danish family, rather than just being a tourist, gave me the chance to see what it is really like to live in the country.
During my first visit I participated in Danish Christmas (Jul) and New Year’s Eve (Nytarsaften) traditions, many of which I was a little hesitant about. For example, the Danish do not celebrate on Dec. 25; their celebration and gift-giving takes place on Christmas Eve. Growing up in the U.S., it was strange for me to hear people saying, “God Jul!” instead of Merry Christmas, and it was even stranger to wake up on Dec. 25 and not open presents.
Another tradition that really caught me off-guard was standing around the Christmas tree singing carols, followed by running maniacally throughout every room of the house chanting in Danish. It’s also worth mentioning that the stereotype of Danes drinking like sailors is true, and they become particularly boozy during the holiday season, which is something I had never experienced in conservative Utah.
Aside from being introduced to a whole new spectrum of holiday traditions, my time in Denmark exposed me to a culture completely different than the one I had been raised in. I was astounded by the amount of bicyclists and pedestrians filling the streets of Copenhagen. They have cars, of course, but they are small, environmentally friendly models; there are no flashy, gigantic gas-guzzlers polluting their clean air. My boyfriend and I never drive anywhere when we are in Denmark. We always walk, bike or use public transportation, which was another thing I had to slowly accept, being so used to driving everywhere. It didn’t take long for me to start really enjoying a car-free life.
We’re all aware that there’s a serious problem with fast-food and processed food in the U.S. If you want to get away from it, move to Denmark, where it’s expensive to buy unhealthy food at restaurants and supermarkets. I won’t lie, I did miss my sugary American treats on occasion, but overall I was happy to have healthy, fresh foods like fish, rye bread and produce at my disposal.
Danes value education and hard work. Getting a master’s degree is encouraged in the U.S., but in Denmark it is virtually required. They want young people to become as educated as possible. As someone who has always planned on attending graduate school, I find this inspiring. However, when it comes to weekends, they are all about relaxation and spending time with family. Most shops close very early on weekends and some do not open at all, ensuring that employees get a break from work. Even though I complained about stores being closed a few times, I remember working long, late hours on weekends and hating it.
I’ve spent a lot of my life feeling out of place. I’ve never really felt as though I fit into Utah culture because my beliefs and interests are so different from everyone around me. Denmark is a progressive, generally liberal country, full of open-minded people, and when I am there, I feel like I fit in.
I think we all create safe little bubbles of familiarity and taking the chance to try something different can be uncomfortable and scary. There was a period in the beginning of my stay this past summer where I had a lot of fear and homesickness. As open-minded and culturally sensitive as I consider myself, sometimes I didn’t even want to try to accept new things. Once I pushed through this and decided that I was going to do my best to accept and appreciate this new culture, the culture of someone I love, the remainder of my time abroad was an incredible experience for which I will always be grateful.