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My truth about living in Copenhagen

Jeremy Henderson shares his truth about living in Copenhagen and how it compares to Holland, his previous assignment.

A lot of people, including some who should know better, confuse Holland and Denmark. At first glance, there are some similarities. Both are small countries in northern Europe, with rather flat topography and a strong bike culture. Both are well known for their cheese. On a more serious level, both have a social democratic style of government, with high taxes, and problems with a strident right wing element. Both have a language with some relation to German, and speakers of one will probably be able to read, more or less, the other - at least at an elementary level.

However, as one gets closer, the similarities get fewer, and the differences become more pronounced. On the subject of "pronounced", let's take language as an example. Dutch is not one of the world's most mellifluous tongues, in fact some cynics have suggested it is not so much a language as a respiratory disease. However, it has a fairly simple grammar, and a pronunciation that, while ugly, is at least generally consistent. Once you know how to make the sounds, you can usually make a noise that is intelligible to the locals. Not so Danish. Again, the strict rules of grammar are not the problem. Students of Ancient Greek, or, indeed, French, will scoff at the simple rules that govern verb endings and such. However, speaking is a different matter. It seems that each consonant can be pronounced in a variety or ways - "soft", "hard" and every consistency in between. The different consonant sounds are not easy to make, and feel wrong to the English speaker. Knowing which pronunciation to use in which situation is just a matter of ... knowing. There are hardly any rules. The same consonant is pronounced differently at different places within the same word. The same is true for vowels - only worse. Here there are many variants of vowel pronunciation, including "flat", "open", "dark", "semi-dark" etc etc etc. Here the problem is not just knowing which to use, and not just forming the sound. It is also that to the foreign ear, there just isn't any difference between a lot of these sounds. However, even if you can't hear the difference, a native can, and getting the wrong sound makes your sentence either unintelligible, or, worse, means something you didn't want to say. In short, then, learning to speak Danish is a nightmare. I have never tried to learn Chinese, but I suppose I might find that harder. At least Danish uses the Roman alphabet. Plus a few extra letters at the end.

However, help is at hand. Danes, in general, speak excellent English. If you need to, you can live happily (?) in Denmark with hardly a single word of Danish, if you find that satisfying. The same can, of course, be said of the Dutch. However, what is different is that Danes are more willing to let you try to speak their language, and to make an effort (not always, it's true) to understand what you may be trying to say, and to respond to you in kind. Your interactions, though basic at first, at least give the feeling that progress is being made, or, anyway, possible. In Holland, however, it happens all too often that your interlocutor professes to have no clue, or interest, in your attempts to communicate in Dutch, and switches immediately, and wearily, into English. In the face of this intransigence, the temptation can be overwhelming to just say "OK, you don't want to help me learn, to integrate, so I won't bother".

Something Beginning With "D"

Which brings me to the main difference between Denmark and Holland, at least the one that makes the biggest difference to me in my daily life - consideration. Hold a door for someone in Holland, and you will wait all day as half the country walks past you, not holding the door for the next person, not recognising your courtesy with a smile, not even acknowledging that you exist. In Denmark, as I guess most places, people notice that someone else is sharing the planet. Likewise getting on and off the (excellent) public transport - in Holland the doors open and you are confronted with a wall of people waiting to enter, and none of them seem to realise that they cannot get on until they let you off. In Denmark, people stand to one side. 

Reading through what I have written, it sounds a bit like a rant by a frustrated ex-pat venting at the little problems of daily life in a different country. It's not intended to be that. I wanted more to express a cry of relief that most of the negative stories I had heard about Danish life turned out to be false. I am glad to report that my fears about the Danish proved to be unfounded. The Danish and the Dutch are different - even if both begin with "D".