A reader recently commented that she and her husband would be moving abroad and asked if I’d share a bit about my experience as an expat. I lived in Switzerland from 2004-2006 and my British husband lived in the U.S. for nine years, so while we were familiar with life abroad, Scandinavia has been something entirely new to us both. Below are some tips for expat living I’ve gathered from our experience thus far.
#1 – Research your new homeland. I had such fun reading about Denmark and the Danish people prior to our move. If you’re curious about Scandinavia, I highly recommend The Year of Living Danishly and The Almost Nearly Perfect People. They helped prepare me for life in Denmark and gave me strong sense of what to expect upon arrival. There have been countless times here that I’ve turned to Simon and exclaimed, “It’s just like in the book!” We also watched lots of Danish films and tv shows with English subtitles (we became addicted to Borgen, The Killing, and The Bridge). Simon spotted one of the actors at a cafe this summer and totally geeked out at his Danish star spotting.
#2 – There will be a lot of paperwork. Sharpen your pencils because you’ll be filling out lots of important forms. Luckily for me, Simon is an EU citizen (though due to Brexit, not for long…) and is working in Denmark so the process wasn’t outrageously complicated, but we still made several trips to the immigration office. Pay attention to detail (like when your residence permit expires, oops!) and get tons of passport photos taken (you’ll need them, trust me). It also never hurts to have multiple copies of your birth certificate, passport, and marriage certificate. We don’t know how long we’ll be here, but Denmark has graciously extended my residence permit for five years.
#3 – Don’t ship anything priceless. We’ve learned this the hard way. Boxes get lost and things get broken in transit. If there’s anything you own that you simply can’t live without (your grandmother’s locket, your first edition copy of Eloise in Paris…), carry it on you. This goes for important paperwork too. When it comes to fragile items, go overboard on the bubblewrap. You’ll be glad you did. Label every box with your name and the box number. Keep a detailed inventory of what is in each box. This is crucial for both customs and insurance purposes.
#4 – Bring your pet. Tons of people have asked how we got our pug to Denmark. It was tricky with Alfred because he’s too tall for the small carriers that fit under the airplane seat and pugs typically aren’t allowed in cargo because of their breathing issues. In the end, we obtained paperwork allowing me to bring Alfred into the cabin as an emotional support animal. He was such a good boy and sat on my lap the entire flight. I’m a nervous flier in general (turbulence is not my friend), so it was comforting to have my cuddly best bud with me. Be sure to check the rules of your specific airline as pet and service animal policies vary greatly. We are in the process of obtaining an EU pet passport for Alfred (amazing…) as there is also a great deal of immigration paperwork you need filled out when transporting an animal from country to country. Triple check that your vet has filled out the correct paperwork for your specific destination and that you’ve had it validated by the correct parties in the States prior to your departure.
#5 – Get settled. Even though we’re in a rental, I’m doing everything I can to make our Danish apartment feel like home. Paint the walls (we love our new pink hue!), hang your favorite art, and make things cozy. Coming home each day to an inspiring space that feels like your own can help ease the shock of a transition abroad (our living room, above, is a work in progress…).
#6 – Learn the native tongue. This has been a struggle for me because Danish is a very difficult language. There are countless words I simply can’t pronounce (much to the amusement of my new friends and neighbors). While most Scandinavians speak near flawless English, knowing even some Danish would undoubtedly give me more access into Danish society and culture. I’m working on it.
#7 – Accept that simple tasks may feel complicated. I still don’t understand why our Danish bank requires me to go to the post office to make a cash deposit. Or why when I went to the mobile phone store yesterday, I was sent to the post office to pay my bill….? It makes no sense to me, but it’s just the way it is here in Denmark. I’ve had to once again accept that stores aren’t open 24/7 (capitalism be damned…) and that things move at slower pace than they did Stateside. Learn to adapt and have patience. The more you fight the differences, the more frustrated you’ll become. Things won’t be the same as they are back home. Try new things and venture outside your comfort zone. Indulge in the local delicacies (even if they include smoked herring) and do your best to embrace your new culture.
#8 – Befriend locals. The greatest reward of being in Denmark is definitely the friendships I’ve formed. Upon arrival, I was lucky to meet people through this blog and my instagram. We’ve also become close with our Danish neighbors. Thor, their 3-year-old, stops by daily to terrorize his beloved “Alfie hund,” play hide and seek, and have Gangam Style dance parties (he taught me all the moves). We can’t understand a word each other says, but we have so much fun. If Simon and I get pregnant here, Thor’s mom, who is my age and a midwife at our local hospital, will deliver our baby. Our friendship with this wonderful family has taught us countless things about Danish tradition, parenting, and life. I am so grateful.
#9 – Play tourist in your new city. I’ve had such fun exploring Copenhagen and have made a big effort to see/do things I wouldn’t want to miss if I were here on vacation. I still have lots of places to visit, but I’ve covered a fair amount of territory (Frederiksborg Castle and the Louisiana Museum have been highlights). I’ll be sharing a Copenhagen city guide with all my favorite places soon. Exploring your new city will help integrate you in your new culture and help you to appreciate its complexities.
#10 – Accept that it can be lonely. Living in a foreign country (especially when everyone speaks a different tongue) will inevitably feel alienating at times. Simon works long hours at his new job in the private sector so I spend a lot of time alone. Combined with our infertility struggles and the fact that I suffer from depression, there have been some rough weeks. Do what you can to combat any isolation you may feel. I’ve tried to keep myself busy by reading more books, taking Alfred for walks in the park, and spending time with my new girlfriends.
#11 – Keep in touch with everyone back home. FaceTime dates with your friends and family are a must. It’s been difficult keeping in touch with my girlfriends because by the time they’re off work, I’m asleep. Luckily, my mom and older brother are both entrepreneurs so I can call them any time of day. Being in touch with everyone back home in California has helped to alleviate my homesickness.
#12 – Travel to neighboring countries. One of the best parts of living in Denmark is its proximity to so many other fascinating countries. Traveling by air is extremely affordable in these parts. Since we moved abroad in February, I’ve visited Stockholm, Vienna, Berlin, London, Milan, Paris, Amsterdam, and Antwerp. My direct flight to Marrakech in three weeks was only $85. Last month I flew round trip to London for $12 (I’m not sure how this is possible, but it happened). Take advantage of your new geographic location and all its surrounding areas. You won’t regret it.
I hope this information was useful to anyone interested in living abroad. Simon and I have found it to be an extremely rewarding experience. Should you have any specific questions, I’m happy to answer them in the comments below!
(all images from my instagram)