A while back, there was a bit of a round robin circulating among the diplomatic blogging crowd about the pro’s and con’s of various postings. We weren’t abroad at the time so I did mine on returning to Washington, DC, which is an inevitable rotation if you stay in this life for a few years. Given that we’re coming up on summer quickly, when many people are either packing out for their new home or one year into their posts, I figured I wasn’t the only one that was getting a bit reflective on our time here.
We have been here for about a year and a half with another year and a half to go. Which means it’s been enough time to sort out some of the growing pains, but also enough time to really appreciate what’s great about this post. The idea is to share the positive but also the tougher things – I know some people will read this and think, “what could possibly be tough about Copenhagen?”. I get it. But each place has their gifts and their challenges and in the end, it’s all relative.
Here we go!
COPENHAGEN – THE PROS:
1. The safety: Copenhagen is about as safe as you can get…you will be fine, your kids will be fine (in fact, they can sleep outside in their strollers), your property will be fine. We always joke that we could leave $1,000 on our lawn when we go on vacation and it would probably still be here when we got back. It’s just that kind of place. You’ll see Denmark on all kinds of happiness and quality of life indices, and while I personally think you can argue some relativity in those, the fact of the matter here is that people don’t want for more here. You know when Roosevelt threw in freedom from want and freedom from fear as something to aspire to? These guys have figured it out. As a diplomat, and especially an American one, there are plenty of places to go where safety of you and all those around you isn’t a given – this is a place where you really don’t have to worry. And it’s a place where you don’t see others in danger or wanting; there’s a great amount of relief and security in that.
2. The forest school system: The best part of our experience hands down, has been the opportunity to really give our daughter an opportunity to grow up like a kid…. in the way that most of us remember growing up. Lots of time to explore and discover and skin knees and have adventures. She gets that through her forest school, where they’re out in the woods all day every day. We’ve had so many people ask us about how it works and how they can get it in on something like this that I started a separate blog, A Toddler in the Trees, just to shed more light on it. The safety that I just mentioned makes this kind of thing possible, but truly, I am grateful every day that she has the opportunity to be in the fresh air with that kind of freedom.
3. The ocean: What can I say, living near water is always a privilege in my book. We live about a 15-20 minute walk from the ocean, and I usually see the ocean most days. Even on the days that it’s full of dark, angry waves, it has its own beauty. It’s lovely to have it nearby and the corresponding little towns that make for great summer places to visit. People also tend to get into sailing and such here, but I’ll take it even for just the views.
4. The English: I hate that I love this one so much. I’m normally all about learning local languages and trying to blend in but the fact is, people speak perfect English here. Truly. And not just “English” but idiomatic English. Which makes it hard to need to learn, especially when you have a nutty travel schedule. My daughter has picked up Danish, rather fluently from what her teachers say, so she translates for me with the four and under set, but really, everybody does speak English here just about anywhere you go, which makes getting around and figuring things out rather easy.
5. The design: Chairs, furniture, food….there’s a lot of thought that goes into design here. Fashion is not much to write home about but in general, there’s a real dedication to the concept of making things cozy. I went through a phase where I was on the outs with Danish design, for the uniformity reason which I’ll talk about below, but the truth is, they have some nice things that really stand the test of time here, and it’s nice to be surrounded by people who care about that.
COPENHAGEN – THE CONS:
1. The cost of living: Ask anyone (except a Norwegian) about Copenhagen and one of the first things out of their mouths will be that it’s expensive. It is – I was so surprised by the difference when we first got here that I started the series on Danish Differentials. With time, you get used to it, and right now, the exchange rate helps a lot too, but it can, in fact, be expensive. Food is expensive, entertainment is expensive, taxes are absolutely bonkers expensive… That being said, one of the things I found though was that once you set up house, then there’s not as much temptation to spend your money. There are only so many of those designy chairs you can buy… School is subsidized and people who live here don’t pay for health care. You don’t go out to eat as much for convenience reasons, and I don’t shop much here for clothes, so actually while individual items can for sure be expensive, as a whole you buy much less of them.
2. The service: Sigh. This is one I have a hard time getting used to. There are of course exceptions to the rule, but once you get past certain friendly formalities and the english, service can be tough. And I say “tough” because it catches you by surprise – nothing is outright rude or anything like that. But it’s just that most situations sit squarely in the 80% effort category – because everything is so horizontal here, going over and above sometimes is perceived as something that would signal inequality. It’s not uncommon for a waiter to stand at a rather expensive restaurant (not the international ones) and wait for you to hand over the plates… Anything that adds time or labor cost to a procedure sometimes is left out for expediency and cost effectiveness. These aren’t huge things, and now I think they rarely phase me, but some of that stuff would drive me nuts in the beginning. Similarly, people can be a bit blunt here, which can be offputting in interactions – this goes for service and non service interactions but you might find yourself feeling offended. It’s not meant to be rude but it does come off that way when you’re an outsider sometimes.
3. The uniformity: This is a small country, where sticking within parameters is valued. That often makes things safe and predictable but it can also be suffocating. Especially when you yourself don’t fit the mold that’s expected, and especially once you venture outside of Copenhagen. As I mentioned above, Danish design is a great thing, but its’ not the only thing (for me anyway – there’s a world out there!). But it is here. When you go to the designer department store that’s a temple of design, you’ll see it all there – makes sense. But then you see those exact same items at the regular department store. And then at the corner store. And then at the consignment store… staying within accepted norms is valued but if you’re more individualistic at heart, you might struggle finding your place, and not just in the sense of design.
4. The winter: The winter here is gray, wet, and long. If you are in any way prone to SAD (seasonal affective disorder), you’d best be ordering some happy lamps in bulk before you come here. Frankly, you should probably order a few even if you’re not prone to SAD. I’d done many European winters but these have been by far the toughest. Because we’re on the ocean, we get quite a bit of rain, and the clouds hang low- it feels like their right above your head sometimes. You can go weeks in the wintertime before you’ll see truly blue skies… Vitamin D and a break to look forward to are pretty key items between November and March. But when the spring comes, it will most certainly be worth it.
5. The absence of je ne sais quoi: I struggled with what to call this one….in a way, its’ an extension of the uniformity piece. But this really has to do with that extra pizazz that is sometimes hard to explain. Things are practical here, they make sense, but every so often you wish for a little something that didn’t make sense. Something that was surprising or pretty for pretty’s sake… that you get dolled up and dressed up because you feel like it and not because it’s practical. That you pull out a little touch of hot pink or whatever and hop out of that uniform of black, white and gray they have here just for a moment. That your neighbor actually take a chance and invite you over for something, to go beyond the perfunctory polite reply in perfect english when you initiate a conversation. There’s a lot to be said for the safety here for sure, but every once in a while, a little step outside the box is not a bad thing either.
Update: The link up has closed out, but if you have pros + cons to share, just add them in the comments below or drop me a line and I’ll add them manually!
Five Pros + Cons on Islamabad, Pakistan (From Culture Shock/Traveling Cat)