Living & working in Copenhagen – an interview with Laura

During my short visit to Copenhagen a few weeks ago, I’ve met with lovely Laura, a German expat turned Copenhagen’s local. Laura is the blogger behind thecopenhagentales.com – a hyggelig lifestyle blog showcasing life in Denmark from the expat’s perspective. She is also a risk manager at an investment bank, so the perfect person to ask about living and working in Denmark.

Laura has moved to Copenhagen to live with her Danish boyfriend four years ago. Working then as a financial consultant she was able to move from Frankfurt while keeping her job that made her travelling from Monday to Thursday around Europe. Three years ago though Laura has decided to look for a job on the Danish market and since then she works locally in Copenhagen.

We caught up for coffee in Copenhagen’s Meatpacking district and discussed what are the pros and cons of working and living in the country of the happiest nation in Europe.

Living and working in Copenhagen - Interview with Laura

Agnieszka: What do you like most about living in Copenhagen?

Laura: I think Copenhagen is such fun city. I don’t like large metropolises; even Berlin is too big for me. And here you have everything that you need, all the culture, the food scene, museums, but it still feels relatively small and familiar. It’s manageable for me. I don’t feel lost. I would probably feel overwhelmed and stressed in a city like London for example.

A: So you say it combines all the things that metropolis has with the feeling of a small city.

L: Yes, the city center is relatively small just space wise, and you can reach everything very quickly. No need to commute for an hour! I find it very nice and it just feels like you know the place right from the start. And you know where you are most of the time. When I worked on a project in London, I used to get lost in the beginning.

A: I agree, London is just crazy. Our impression after these few days is that Copenhagen is very relaxed, has a laid back vibe but in the same time you can see that the city functions well.

L: It does. And it’s still buzzing, it’s not a dead village where nothing happens. There is a ton of stuff going on all the time, but it all feels more manageable.

A: Was this a challenge to learn to move around the city?

L: At first yes, a little bit. I wanted to be super local and started to bike everywhere. That was really challenging. A lot of people are biking all the time , bike lanes are crowded and it turned out to be too much for me at first, but I got used to it over time – but I’m still not a hard-core cyclist!

Other than that I think at first the language was mostly a problem. Even if everybody speaks perfect English, it was just getting around and being surrounded by a language you don’t know. That was a challenge at first.

A: Do you speak Danish now?

L: Yes. When you move here, you get three years’ worth of language school for free. That is also a good way of meeting people because all the foreigners are in the same boat as you which really helps.

A: Is it offered to everybody?

L: Yes, if you are a legal immigrant, no matter if you are a student or you come here for work or as a spouse. If you have all the paperwork in place that’s part of the offering. It’s optional, not everybody does it, like people who think they will be here only a short time, they see they can do everything in English and it’s fine. But I found it was really helpfull. There is a bunch of language schools and three years is a time that actually allows you to reach a good level.

A: That’s great, I didn’t know about that. So you said you’ve worked for a year and a half for your previous company but then you decided to make a switch for a local job. Were you speaking Danish at this point in time or was it still mainly English?

L: I was speaking Danish on a basic level. It also helps being German, German is very close to Danish. The grammar is basically identical and that helps a lot to pick up things quicker. I was quite lucky with that and then, of course, my boyfriend’s family are all Danes and listening to them, being more immersed, helped. I was definitely not business fluent, but small talk was possible.

Life and work in Copenhagen - what local expat thinks

A: So you were still looking for a job as a foreigner speaking English and not the local language?

L: Yes. When you check job ads, sometimes they’ll say that the Danish language is required, for example, if you are customer service representative you need Danish. But often it is expected to know English and the knowledge of a Scandinavian language is beneficial, but not required. Or understanding of at least one Nordic language is expected. But there are not very many ads that say you must speak Danish, so with English you can get very far. Again it depends on your industry or function of course. If you are a bank teller, you obviously have to speak Danish.

A: So how do you perceive a job market here, for example comparing to the German one?

L: I think it’s very flexible. What I’ve noticed here is that people switch jobs a lot. My dad always used to say, you have to stay in job at least X amount of years otherwise it looks bad on your resume, but here it’s more flexible. I’ve already had three jobs here.

A: Oh, and you are here just four years!

L: Yes, and for the first year and a half I was working for my previous German company, then I was working for year a half for an investment bank, then I did a brief stint in a retail bank, and then I’ve just come back in July to my old job in the investment bank. And that’s totally normal. You get to try many things and it’s not perceived as something negative. I think the labour market here is obviously much smaller in general size, than the German one for example, because you have six million people versus 80 million people. Within the industry, people know each other. You know someone who knows someone and that’s how many jobs get filled. So once you have a foot in the door it’s easy to move around. That’s the biggest difference I could see.

A: And in terms of a labour law. Do you see much differences?

L: In Denmark everything is unionised. Unions are really big here. In Germany unions are more present in the manufacturing or heavy industry. But here I am in the union because I work in the financial industry which is all unionised. I am automatically part of that collective agreement. I can’t opt out. Just because I’m working in a bank, and that bank is a part of that group I am also automatically a part of it. And collective agreement specifies almost everything – salary levels, how much notice period people get when being fired, pension schemes, all these kinds of things. They negotiate holidays and extra days off. The nice thing is that when you switch from one bank to another, you know that your working conditions are not going to change significantly because you are still in the same union. Of course, you can still negotiate your salary, but you know that every year there is a mandatory percentage increase, because that’s negotiated by the union independent of your personal salary negotiations and performance-based pay etc. That makes you know the framework better. But also if I was switching from this industry to another, I would have to be aware of the differences. For example, my salary is paid in advance, for the month ahead. That is something I have never seen before. And that is again something that unions have negotiated for the industry. So if I now switch to another industry where it isn’t paid in advance this will mean that I have two months in between pay days and I’d have to calculate for that.

A: You said you basically became a member of this because you’ve started working in the industry.

L: Yes. To be clear, it doesn’t cost me anything, I don’t have any membership card or anything like this. It’s just that I am in the framework that is negotiated by the unions. In Germany for example if you want to be a member of the union you have to be active, you have to go and sign up. But here at some point, it was decided that firms themselves can decide to become part of unions and their employees are then covered by collective agreements. The Danes are very proud of this solution and they call it “The Danish Model”, the unionisation of a large number of industries.

A: Do you see it as a bad thing?

L: No, not at all. As I said it – it helps to know the framework and the negotiated conditions are very good, at least in financial services.

A: So when you started working in the Danish company, how was it at the beginning, the first few weeks? What were the challenges of settling in?

L: It was a very international team. My boss at that time was from Hungary. My colleagues were mostly Danish but also few were international. It was a mix. And English was my team’s language because my boss didn’t speak Danish. I’m quite sure he understood a lot, as he lived in Denmark for quite a few years and was married to a Dane. I just think he preferred to speak English at work.

A: And he still managed to be your boss, to be in a managerial position without the knowledge of Danish?

L: Yes, although I think this also depends on the company. It’s an international investment bank with locations around the world. I’m guessing that if you are in a smaller, local bank that mostly serves local customers, you probably have to speak Danish to work there. For me it was really good, it eased me into the situation because I didn’t feel comfortable enough with my Danish to speak it in a business environment all the time.

I was also really surprised by how nice working conditions are here. Many places have canteens, lunch is being provided. You have beautiful offices, and it’s not only the bank I work for. I’ve seen other offices and they are all nice. Lots of space. You have flexible working hours. And people also actually work their 37-40 hours a week, there is a good work-life balance. You’ll get there by 8am and leave at 4 or 5pm and that’s ok.

A: And there is no pressure to stay longer? Or everybody coming a little earlier and staying a little longer, etc?

L: No. Generally, Danes are very good in handling this. Also usually both parents are working, so at some point somebody has to go and pick up the kids from school or daycare. You just have to cut off and people accept that. I think it also makes them very efficient. Again I think it varies from company to company, but in general, it is very respected. I work in an investment bank, and it is crazy to see people working 37-40 hours a week.

Living & working in Copenhagen from expat's perspective

A: I am a headhunter as you know and I compare it across various sectors and obviously London which is very different. The attitude there is that you first commute for an hour (or two!) and then you stay 10-12 hours in the office and everybody considers this as standard. You also have this pressure of staying longer. And when you are on holiday, it is usually only one week and you always pick up your phone. So to hear what you are telling me here it sounds like a dream!

L: Yes, it is really nice. I’ve done the consulting career for a couple of years and I was used to working 13-14 hours a day. I worked as financial services consultant and have been on projects in London, so I’ve seen the long days and that at 6pm the office is still full, no one has left yet. And here you would see tumbleweeds in the office, no one would be here. That was a bit of a shock at the beginning, you know at 4 or 5 o’clock I was like: where is everybody going?? But I got used to it pretty fast (laugh).

A: Yes, I can imagine! In the same time do you see that the goals are still delivered, the job is done?

L: I think people have adjusted to it. So they work efficiently in the time they have, there is no dilly-dallying. Also, I think that if you know that these are your constraints then you plan accordingly. So you plan that project is going to take 2 months instead of one month because you will have people for 8 hours a day and not 12. But you also know that in the 8 hours they are there, they will put in really good work. I feel that I am more efficient now in my working time than I was in consulting when I knew I would be sitting in the office till midnight anyway. I feel I am much more efficient in planning my time. I don’t think there are big issues with things not getting done here. They are just planned better.

A: Is this just the case for Danish companies, or does it also look like this in Danish branches of international companies?

L: It does. Remember that Danish branch of an international company is competing here with Danish companies. And when people know that they are going to work for 8 or 9 hours a day in this company and 12 in that one for similar pay… You are simply not going to attract the best talent if you are working your people to the ground. And as I said – there is this knowledge and close network on the market, so people know what the situation is like at other, comparable firms. Now, this is all very broadly speaking – this might very well vary and there are probably a couple of outliers. But in general, companies do show an interest to offer the best working environment for its employees. Not only in terms of tasks but also in allowing them to have a life next to their job.

A: I have to say I rather like that! And in terms of the internal relationship with other colleagues, have you had any challenges?

L: No, not really. I wouldn’t say I am close friends with my colleagues. I don’t really see them outside of work, but I do have good relationships with them. Both international and Danish. Even before I spoke Danish there was no issue at all. They were open to speaking English, exchange experiences and to hear my thoughts on living in Denmark, what I like what I don’t like, to get this external perspective.

A: Was there anything you struggled with when you started to work here in Denmark?

L: I am sure there were things I struggled with but nothing major enough to remember it now. The only thing I still haven’t come to terms with is Danish vacation system, which is quite complicated. You have to earn your vacation, so in your first year of working you have no vacation. No paid vacation. You can take the unpaid vacation but for paid ones you have to work and in your second year you have accrued them. Additionally, they make you earn them in a normal working year from January to December, for your next vacation year and vacation year is from May to April. And when you switch companies and have vacation accrued the company will pay that money into the vacation fund, e.g. a three weeks pay into the state-owned fund, onto your vacation account and then you can take that money out when you take vacation with your new company, because you will have to accrue them again there. It’s really complicated, I’m still struggling to fully understand the system – and even Danes have had trouble explaining it to me, too!

A: It is indeed surprising, combined especially with the other employee oriented solutions you mentioned earlier like the flexibility of the working hours etc.

L: My theory – unconfirmed – is that it has something to do with the negotiations between the unions and the companies. There are some basic legal constraints, though. By law everybody gets five weeks of vacation, that’s the minimum. Then the financial services union has negotiated one extra week of vacation, which is really nice! So I have six weeks of vacation, but my boyfriend, who works in a different industry, doesn’t have that. Then you have a couple of so-called care days that you can take e.g. when your child is sick. And these you don’t have to earn. You get them at the beginning of the calendar year for the calendar year. See why I find the system confusing?

A: Well, that’s the way it is but I didn’t expect to hear about it after all the previous information.

L: Yes, it is surprising. Otherwise, it’s great working here, though (laugh). Companies, for example, will give you Christmas presents, which you can even choose. Every year in October there is a message saying: “Here are the six different choices this year, which one do you want?” Canteens are also very common as I said, so they really do take good care of you here.

A: Does the canteen mean that you can just buy your lunch or is it subsidised?

L: Usually, as in my case, it is subsidised, it is a small pay contribution, which is taken from my pre-tax salary and the rest is paid by the employer. But there are also places where you still have to pay for each meal, though a lower, subsidised amount.

A: And how is the food? Sometimes canteen food is known to be heavy, greasy and not tasty at all.

L: It depends on the company, but the one I work for has really good food, and the others I worked for also had nice choices. My boyfriend works for a very small company, they may have like 40-50 people, and they have a catering service that comes every day and is also subsidised by the company. I think it is broadly understood that lunch is a part of the deal, and I think you would struggle to find companies that don’t offer that, at least from a certain size. If you have 5 people they may not have it but from 30, 40 or so upwards I think mostof them do.

A: And how do you find the cost of living? Do you see that with the average earnings you can have a good quality life?

L: When I was first coming here, I really felt the increase in the cost of living, but I didn’t have a Danish salary then. Having Danish salary somewhat compensates for that. Also, you have a lot of double-income families here. Because the labour market is so work-life balance friendly and family friendly it is very common for both parents to work even if they have small kids. You get a guaranteed spot in a day care, all is geared to working families. I remember my mother didn’t work when my sisters and I were young, because it was not doable. Our school ended at 1pm, so the maximum my mum could have worked would be a half day job. But here it is very common. Your kid is in the daycare until 3 or 4pm and then you will pick him up because you are already after work. This is how it functions here and then you can capture this higher cost of living if you have two full-time salaries coming in.

copenhagen_2

A: Let’s talk now about more practical aspects of living. And I appreciate this may not be fully representative as you moved to live with your boyfriend who is a local. But let’s say that you were to move here and look for a place to rent. How is the rental market?

L: Copenhagen is a buyers market. Denmark is big on home ownership, so the rental market is not very big and renting is not easy. We first rented our place, which we’ve just bought, from a friend of my boyfriend’s dad so basically through the network. And from what I see that is how it functions for most of the people – through knowing someone, who knows someone with an apartment to rent. Again, the rental market is small. You will find that even some students already own their apartments which their parents bought for them. If you are coming here to work, I would recommend to start off trying on your own and if you can’t find anything, hire an agency. There are specialised expat agencies that help to rent for expats. But when you’re out looking on your own, be aware of scammers, there is also a bunch of those. You can always find stories on expat forums, usually it is: “send me the money, I’ll send you the keys. I am abroad so you can’t see the place” and that kind of stuff.

A: Is it easy to buy?

L: Easier than I would say in Germany for example. Banks have good offers. Until last year you didn’t even have to put a big downpayment. Now they’ve made a legal requirement that you have to pay 5% of the loan.

A: Wow! That’s not much.

L: Yes! And before that you could borrow the whole amount from the bank. And banks are rather flexible in offering mortgages because the market is very alive. You can always see the “For Sale” signs.

A: And how would you rate the general quality of the apartments? I’m curious about it because, for example, London rental market is huge but many of the flats are in really poor condition: small, dark, damp, in need of redecorating etc. How is it here?

L: Here it really depends on the area. Where you have a lot of new buildings, the ones build in the last 10 years, they are all super nice. And now more and more old apartments in the center are refurbished nicely as well. However, you have to be aware of the issue with bathrooms in Copenhagen. Bathrooms are really small. The old buildings, the ones built early 20th century, used to have communal bathrooms, e.g. toilet on the corridor. And you will find that many of those apartments, though renovated, they have a very small bathroom. Because in order to put a big bathroom in you have to cut away the living space. So usually they are very small: shower above the toilet and a small basin. When you shower you make the whole place wet, there is no separate shower cabin. One of my friends even used to live in an apartment that didn’t have a shower at all. She used the fitness center across the road to shower. The apartment was beautiful, and she had a toilet and a little sink, but no shower. Bathtubs – you can forget all about. I’ve been to one Copenhagen apartment that had a bathtub.

A: Even in the new build flats you don’t have bathtubs?

L: No, it’s just not prioritised. In Germany, for example, you almost always have a tub with the overhead shower, so you have two options, a bath or a shower. But not here. I’ll tell you a better thing! One of my friends knows someone who has just bought a beautiful , huge place in Nørrebro, which is the up and coming multicultural district, and it has communal showers in the basement that are shared by the apartments. Like in the gym. You have a row of showers.

A: Wow…

L: Yes, I read an article around a month ago that something like 13% of Copenhagens live in apartments without their own toilet, just a shared one in the building. Can you imagine living in a place without your own toilet??

A: Oh… well, I can imagine that. I just wouldn’t associate it with a European capital that has a high cost of living and high quality of living generally. Why is it so?

L: My observation is that some people here simply don’t prioritise it. The toilet, yes, but having a big, spacious bathroom is not perceived as a must-have here – or at least the focus is on other aspects of the apartment.

A: The final thing I wanted to ask you about is generally the social life , how it is here to make new friends. This is usually a challenge when you move to the new country, you have to build the entirely new social circle. How did you find it here?

L: Obviously I was lucky that I had my boyfriend here, and his friends are great, but at the same time I didn’t want to be only his “plus-one” all the time, I wanted to have my own friends. And the language school helped me a lot in getting to know other expats and forming bonds. I am still friends with some people I’ve met in my first class of Danish. Generally, the consensus among expats is that Danes are not so easy to crack. And I think it partially comes from the fact that e.g. in Copenhagen area people generally don’t move that much around. They stay in or around Copenhagen, and stick withthe same group of friends they have from school because they always lived in the same place. It’s different in Germany. With my friends from high school, I see them for high school reunions, but they are not my core friends now because we all moved for university and later work. But here people tend to stay in the same area, so you are always close to your friends and then you don’t really seek to find the new ones, or you just sort of add them to your existing group.

My impression is that Danes will be nice and friendly, but will stay in the phase of being casual acquaintances longer than expats might be used to. But once you’ve cracked that and you make it to the friendship phase then they are friends for life. And I think many people give up on making friends with the Danes because that requires persistence and tenacity, and maybe Danes are not always so easy to read for us foreigners. But once you’ve made friends with them, it is totally rewarding. They are loyal friends forever.

A: So if you were hypothetically in a situation that your boyfriend was more flexible with work and you can choose again, will you again decide to live here?

L: I don’t have any concrete plans to go back to Germany. I really like it here, really enjoy it and for now at least, I don’t feel like moving – I’ve just bought my apartment, too! I feel at home here now.

A: That sounds great. Thanks a lot for your time!

L: My pleasure!

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