Copenhagen: Expectations vs Reality


I knew very little about Copenhagen before coming here as an undergraduate exchange student at University of Copenhagen.

The image of Denmark I had was very cliché; people on bicycles and smiling (because… it always ranks as one of the happiest countries. And Scandinavian countries are known for their high standards of living…)

However, after having spent the last 4 months in the beautiful city, my stereotypical expectations were met with interesting realities.

I will share three of them below.

Expectation #1: People ride bicycles everywhere.

Rows of bicycles around the “Black Diamond” Library

Reality:

Yes, Denmark is very flat and there are bicycle lanes throughout the city, so it is no wonder that 62% of Copenhageners commute by bike.

Especially for students, it is a necessity to save money and I find it to be the most convenient and reliable way to get around the city (usually faster than metro or bus, as you don’t have to wait and you can literally park anywhere.)

You can get second-hand bikes from bicycle shops (I got mine from one of the shops in Nørrebrogade), or on Facebook buy & sell groups. If you are lucky, you can get one as cheap as 500DKK but anywhere below 1000DKK seems to be a good price for second-hand.

Be aware though, as my 800DKK bike’s brakes broke after 2 months and A friend’s bicycle’s pedals fell off (Maybe invest in a better bike if you are here for two semesters like me!)

However, public transport is well functioning too.

The prices for metro and bus are connected in one system (using the “Rejsekort” card), and calculated by zone. 1 zone costs 12 DKK. The buses and metro are frequently serviced, and run till late as well, so you can get by without a bike although it would be a more expensive option.

Expectation #2: People speak English so I will have no trouble communicating.

Reality:

Yes, the Danes usually have no trouble speaking in English, at least in Copenhagen.

However, the default is Danish and I find that a lot of people assume you speak Danish (of course, one should not judge by the looks.) Many signs, websites or labels on things are typically in Danish as well, so you have to ask someone in person if you need help.

You can give a try in learning the language, but I found I can never get the correct pronunciation so I end up speaking English instead (their English is definitely better than my Danish.)

One more point is that societies are typically run in Danish unless it is specifically trying to be inclusive for international students. For example, I joined a society called Policy Forum, and though the wider society is run in Danish, their meetings I went to were in English because I joined a specific English sub-group.

On the other hand, a dance class I signed up for is taught completely in Danish though there are a few other exchange students.

So I can’t deny that I felt excluded on occasions because of the language barrier (and also, it is difficult to look for part time jobs without basic Danish knowledge.)

Expectation #3: Danes are reserved and difficult to get to know.

Danes go *really* crazy with fireworks in New Years!

Reality:

For me, I think this presumption also came from the talks I got in introduction week from the Political Science department (they gave a presentation on “how to make friends with a Dane”). Perhaps, it could also be because there is only one lecture per week for most politics courses, and not many students besides exchange students are really looking to build friendships in lectures.

However, I joined some societies as I have mentioned above, which made it easier to get to know local students through common activities / interests.

For the politics department, we also had a great “mentor” system, where an exchange student is paired with a Danish volunteer student. The mentors host a variety of events throughout the semester.

And once you get to know them (or go drink… but Danes are heavy drinkers!), they are very open and fun.

So yes, you do not expect to make a great deal of small talk with Danes, but they are definitely not unfriendly and are actually willing to know about international students and their cultures.

***This list is from my personal experience, and I obviously made a lot of generalisations. But, they are some insights that I found in my 4 months’ stay here!

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