I’m An American Parenting In Denmark. Here’s What I Know.

Among the things I’ve learned: Hot dog doesn’t mean what you think it does.

Written by Brooke Black
Courtesy Brooke Black

I had my second kid a week before lockdown began in Los Angeles. During the height of the Covid hotspot summer in July 2020 we decided to visit my Danish husband’s family with our two young daughters. We packed two week’s worth of clothes, not realizing this fateful trip would result in a total upheaval of life as we knew it. Upon arriving at Billund airport, I was sure we’d get grilled by immigration with so many country borders being shut at that time. Instead, a woman in uniform flatly asked my husband, “Are you Danish or what?” and upon confirmation, let us in with no problems.

When we first got to town, it felt as if Covid had never happened. Things were open, orderly, and calm. Danish summer in the countryside was in full technicolor swing, with fruits on the trees ripe for picking, wildflowers, forests and lakes everywhere. It was incredibly idyllic, almost too good to be true as if it were a “Midsommar” situation. A few weeks in, we put our two-year old in daycare, since my husband and I were both working remotely. My friends were nine hours behind in LA and I was lonely, but I had a new baby I could spend all the time in the world with, while working my LA job at night.

Then after a week of Danish daycare, my eldest switched to speaking Danish and stopped speaking English entirely. Needless to say, my ability to parent her became very difficult. She would get frustrated when I couldn’t understand her. In one comically horrific moment, we were in our local grocery store and she kept bugging me about “pølse,” which means "hot dog" in Danish. I kept shooing her away saying, "We just ate. You don’t need to eat any more food." My husband rushed up to me and said, “She has to go to the bathroom!” Because “pølse” in Danish also means “poop” (which, don’t get me started on this language, but I felt like a horrible parent at that moment).

I quickly realized that, despite popular belief, not everyone in Denmark is that comfortable speaking English. I had neighbors with kids the same age, but we could never forge a deeper friendship besides a neighborly “hej.” I thought maybe they had enough friends, but then more Danes moved into the neighborhood and joined their circle easily. Okay, it was me. One day I was walking with my husband and a neighbor, who was talking about how she had just quit her job, but I didn’t pick up on that. Instead, I just smiled and waved goodbye laughing idiotically. I would’ve reacted in a much more compassionate and “normal” way, had I known.

I had a lot of these “stupid American” moments in my first months there. Sure, I had some “hygge” moments – like learning to pick berries in the forest like Red Riding Hood – but they were paired with passing strangers offering polite or funny comments and me laughing and waving back like Forrest Gump, having no idea what they said and hoping they hadn’t insulted me. I hate when I can't tell if someone is being sarcastic (ask some of my exes), and the inflection of some Danes speaking English sounds very rude, and had me following people around saying, "okay??, I don’t really know how you mean that sir??”

When we realized we wanted to stay in Denmark for all the reasons you might’ve heard: trust, healthcare, education, safety, a house came on the market, and we took the chance. It was exciting, but it also meant mourning the loss of my former life. I had to tell my best friends I wasn’t coming back; I had to reckon with Denmark’s “fake spring” and the sun not actually coming out in earnest until May. It’s been almost four years and I still don’t understand money, because Denmark’s kroner is divided by 7 to get the dollar equivalent, which is just enough math for me not to get it. I’ve made mistakes I’ve paid handsomely for, not only in taxes (at least I see where my tax money goes), but in the many parking tickets I’ve received because I misread part of a sign, or didn’t set the dial on the windshield. I was no longer the ‘master of coin’ in our family, and had to give up my independence in many areas, putting a LOT of trust in my husband. I can’t tell you how many big ticket items I’ve signed blindly.

As time goes on, we’ve basically become a bilingual family — with three of them (my husband, and children, ages 3 and 5) speaking Danish and me trying my best. Sure, we have a lot of fun learning from each other, but there are moments ranging from harmless or sad, where we’ll be listening to a Danish program and the three of them will laugh and I’m not in on the joke, to gut wrenching, where recently my oldest daughter made fun of my Danish in front of her friend. It’s only been once so far, but I’m waiting.

Almost four years in, I’m very grateful for our move to Denmark. It’s a beautiful country and our town is shockingly exactly what I envisioned raising my children in. I’ve been able to grow in ways I’ve never dreamed of, but in this lifelong process of assimilating, hopefully I’ll remember to laugh in the tough moments, or in hindsight at least. In the meantime I’ll still be here, failing, laughing, and waving at my neighbors, still hoping to make a friend or two.

Brooke Black has a bachelor’s degree from Boston University’s College of Communication, and has written for several news and lifestyle publications. Raised in Chicago, with many years spent in New York, London, and Los Angeles, she relocated to the idyllic Danish countryside in 2020, living in a 1722 farmhouse in a tight-knit community surrounded by Scottish Highland cows. She currently lives and works in Copenhagen with her Danish husband and two young daughters, and shares about her experiences living and parenting abroad as an American in Denmark on Instagram and TikTok as BrookeBlackJust.