Winter in Denmark is often cold and dark. At winter solstice, we only get just over 7 hours of sunshine. There is a Danish word, hygge, which roughly translates to cosiness. But it actually means a bit more than that. It’s actually a way of life. Instead of being cooped up inside because we cannot go outside, we choose to be inside and cosy up. It’s just a simple change of perspective but incredibly empowering. No longer are we a prisoner of the weather, we take charge over it.

Christmas is also a weird time in Denmark. Not a lot of Danes go to church anymore, yet Christmas and the traditions around it are still lovingly celebrated. One such tradition is julestue, which I guess translates to Christmas celebration. It’s an event where people gather around making julepynt (Christmas decoration) for the juletræ (Christmas tree), while drinking gløgg (mulled wine) and eating æbleskiver (literally apple slices, but they are actually round pancakes served with jam and powdered sugar).

I went to one of these julestue events organised by the University of Copenhagen’s International Staff Mobility. It was a fun event. We made julehjerter (Christmas hearts), which is a very Danish thing to do. They are basically paper baskets that one weaves out of paper, which one then hangs on the Christmas tree and fill with goodies.

The Christmas hearts I made before I got bored and started chatting with people instead.
The Christmas tree that we decorated.

Kulturnatten 2014

In Denmark, there is a week of holiday called efterårsferie (autumn holiday), which is also known as kartoffelferie (potato holiday), as in the old days schoolkids get a week off to help with potato harvest. These days, schoolkids still have a week off and there are no classes (including at universities and language schools). However, there is no longer any need for these kids to work at a farm picking potatoes.

On the Friday preceding the potato week, there is kulturnat (Culture Night) in Copenhagen. (I guess kulturnat is somewhat similar to White Night in Melbourne.) On that day, a lot of institutions open their doors to the public, and people can come in and check out what’s behind the normally closed doors in Copenhagen. In a very Danish way, everything is free… as long as you have a pass. These places are supposed to be open from 6 pm to midnight, but there are many which close much earlier (8-9 pm). Public transport around Copenhagen is also free from 5 pm to 5 am on Saturday. There are of course a lot of people in the City, and there are queues everywhere.

Kulturnatten 2014 badge.
Kulturnatten 2014 badge

This year, a group of us went to several places:

  • The first place we went to was Sankt Petri Kirke (Saint Peter’s Church), where we visited the catacombs. It’s actually not as impressive as it sounds. We were expecting to go under the church, but the catacombs were only at the back of the church. We didn’t even need our torches.
  • We briefly visited the Metro construction at the Rådhus (City Hall), but unfortunately didn’t get to see the tunnels, as the line was so long!
  • At the Rådhus, we visited Jens Olsens Verdensur (Jens Olsen’s World Clock). This one I really like, actually.
  • Jens Olsens Verdensur (Jens Olsen’s World Clock) at the Rådhus (City Hall).
    Jens Olsens Verdensur (Jens Olsen’s World Clock) at the Rådhus (City Hall).
  • At this stage, the rest of the gang left for beer-tasting. I decided to go to the Brandvæsen (Fire Department) and checked it out.
  • I went past the fængsel (prison) and a photography exhibition as I made my way to catch up with the guys again. Of course, they were still in line. It would take them another half hour to finally get into Europa-Huset and get their beer. Meanwhile, I caught up with another group and went to the barracks of the Kongelige Livgarde (Royal Life Guards).
  • Shortly afterwards, we joined forces with the beer-tasting group again and visited the Botanisk Have (Botanical Gardens). There were some light show at the lake and the palmhus (palm house). They were quite cool, but slightly underwhelming.

Those were all that we could see that night. I think next year if I am still in Copenhagen, I will go and check out the prison and the Rosenborg Slot (Rosenborg Castle). The latter you can explore in the darkness! They turn the lights off, and you are free to wander around using torches.

Air raid siren

Another thing that happened last week but I haven’t had the chance to write about was the sounding of the air raid siren. Denmark has a network of warning sirens around the country. They are tested every night without any sound, but once a year they are sounded across the country. This happens at noon on the first Wednesday in May.

You can read more and listen to the air raid siren on the Danish Emergency Management Agency website.

Locked out

I got home today and was confronted with this:

Missing lock
Missing lock.

If you can’t see the lock on the photo, that’s because it was missing! On top of that, I found that one of the decorative handles on the gates was also missing. Hmm… suspicious! Naturally I thought someone had tried to break in. But speculations aside, I was still locked outside with no way in.

So I tried the intercom and tried pretty much every apartment in the building… with no luck. This made me consider that if it was a burglary, then they might have messed around with the intercom system as well. At this point, I was considering crashing at some friends’ place, but then decided to try ringing the apartments again, just in case.

This time, someone actually answered! At that time, I didn’t even remember which apartment I pushed. After I explained the problem, she came down and we then discussed how to proceed. Neither of us really knew who to call in this situation. But we did realise that everyone would have the same problem coming into the building and contemplated what we should do. I also contemplated working from home tomorrow and help open the gates for other people.

Shortly afterwards, another lady came in. She suggested we go to someone in another building in the complex (who seemed to be the caretaker, but I’m not sure). They talked in Danish (which I start to understand, but I became lost when they used words I hadn’t heard before) and apparently a repairman did come and take the lock away around to be repaired. (So, no burglary then.) The gates were left open when they did that, but someone had apparently closed the gates not knowing that the lock was missing.

So, the caretaker-that-may-not-be-the-caretaker said he will call the repairman and pressure them to fix the lock quickly. I am still considering working from home tomorrow. But I guess since everyone is in the same boat, something will probably happen. The building owner probably won’t want a building full of angry residents!

“Christmas in Danish”

Two weeks ago I attended University of Copenhagen International Staff Mobility‘s (ISM’s) “Christmas in Danish” event. It was a fun initiative of the ISM to help the international staff experience how Christmas is celebrated in Denmark. Naturally, we had to make traditional Danish Christmas decorations and have traditional Danish Christmas meal.

The first thing we had to do was to make julestjerne (Froebel star) and julehjerte (pleated Christmas hearts) while having pebernødder (literally means pepper nuts, but it contains neither pepper nor nuts). I was actually not at the event yet when this was happening, as I was at my Danish class.

By the time I get to the event, the main meal was just about to start. The traditional Danish Christmas meal consists of roast duck, caramelised potatoes, rødkål (pickled red cabbage), and risalamande (rice pudding). I don’t remember if æbleskiver (round pancakes served with jam) was served as well at the event. If it was, then I must have missed it.

Risalamande is an interesting dish. Nowadays it is cooked in a large batch with one (or a few) almonds hidden inside it. Whoever finds the almond wins a present. I really don’t like it, though. I guess it’s because I am used to having rice as a main dish, that having it served as dessert just doesn’t sit well with me.

All in all, it was a very enjoyable occasion. A good meal with good company. The only thing I didn’t like was the guest speaker. We had a French-Danish comedian, Thierry Geoffroy, whose humour I simply do not get. Everyone else seemed to enjoy his humour, but I simply cringed. Oh well, can’t have everything perfect, I guess.

My first Lego

I was deprived of Lego as a child. I grew up with cheap Chinese imitation which either fits too tight, too loose, or not at all. So, yesterday I bought myself the Back to the Future Lego set. After all, Denmark is the home of Lego. It took me ~2 hours to complete, but by golly, I legede godt.

Lego Back to the Future
Lego Back to the Future
Completed project
Completed project


The day we almost got scammed

From the annals of forgotten stories…

This is something that happened a while back in September when I was visited by a friend from Indonesia. One day we decided to go to see the Little Mermaid and then walk back to see the changing of the guards at Amalienborg.

So there we were, walking through a quiet street in Copenhagen. We saw a guy fiddling around with his map. He asked us if we could help him. Of course, I said yes. My friend was a bit wary though. So he walked a bit ahead of me while I helped the stranger. I pointed out that the first thing he should do was turn his map around (he was holding his map upside down).

Out of a sudden, two guys came out. They claimed to be undercover policemen and showed us their badges. They did it very quickly, so I asked to see them again. So they did, but prevented me from touching them for a closer inspection. Anyway, they then started asking questions, e.g. what we were doing, where we were from, etc. So I explained that I was helping this poor lost stranger. I then asked them what this was about. They replied that they were making sure we were not doing any illegal activities.

Things took an interesting turn when they started asking for my ID. So I asked them to see their IDs again, which they declined to do. I also declined showing my ID before they showed me theirs. After a brief stalemate, they asked me what I was doing in Denmark. I said I worked here. That seemed to settle the issue once and for all. They then said I was free to go. As they were leaving, I asked then what they would do with the lost stranger. The policemen said they would take care of him.

Moments afterwards, my friend who had been looking over the incident from a distance asked me what I thought had happened. So I told him that there were two undercover policemen who were patrolling the streets and making sure no illegal activities is taking place. Then my friend replied that to him, that was not what had happened. They were scammers who were trying to get me to hand over my ID so that I had to pay a fine to get it back. I then thought for a moment and realised that he was right! Holy crap! We were almost scammed!

Of course, thinking back to the incident, it was painfully obvious that they were trying to scam us: the upside-down map, the reluctance to show their IDs, them backing off when I told them I worked in Denmark. I guess I was too trusting with people in need. But fortunately I always ask for IDs from people claiming to be an authority. When I told some of my friends about it, they asked me if the “policemen” look like Danes. Well, they didn’t look Scandinavian, but that doesn’t mean they were not Danes.

Anyway, lesson learnt: always be wary when a stranger approaches you in a relatively quiet neighbourhood.

Job contract

KU Contract
KU Contract

So, after 4 months, I have finally got my contract at KU.

Wait, did you say that you just got your contract?

Why, yes I did.

After 4 months?


So you’re finally getting paid now?

No. I have been getting my salary since my first month here.

That’s bizarre!

Yes. I guess that just shows how trusting Danes are.

That is unheard of in Australia… at least as far as foreigners are concerned.

That’s right. In Australia, you need to have a contract before you can even apply for your work visa to enter the country. And speaking of work permit, in Denmark, you are free to enter the country as a tourist and then apply for a work permit once you are in. As for me, I got my work permit sorted out before I even landed on Danish soil.

So how come it took a long time for you to get your contract?

Well, my contract was only processed when I arrived in late May. It took some time to process because the HR person has to go through my education and work history to assign the correct amount for my salary. Also, when I arrived, it was the beginning of summer, so a lot of people were away for summer vacation.

I see…

Actually, there’s more to it than that. I only got my contract because we stumbled into it accidentally.

Accidentally? What do you mean?

Well, I went to a workshop in Germany. So I wanted to lodge a travel expense claim form. I needed to know where my funding comes from. So the group administrator tried to look for it in my folder, and she came across my contract!

That was lucky.

The funny thing is, it was dated the end of June!

Wait a minute… so the contract was actually ready for 3 months?

Yes. It was actually sent to my previous address! I moved out from my old place at the end of June. I didn’t get a mail redirection because I wasn’t expecting to get any snail mail. I was expecting the contract to be sent electronically.

Ah, so that was your fault.

Hmm… I guess so. But it all worked out in the end. I signed it, despite the contract saying “return within 14 days”. The International HR staff just laughed it off. Like I said, Danes a pretty relaxed about this kind of things.

Well, all’s well that ends well, I guess!

Yes, I agree completely.

The state of science in Denmark

Last Thursday, we had a visit from the leader of the Head of Department of Chemistry. It was the usual deal with everyone introducing themselves and then he gave a brief spiel on what he wanted us to do or concentrate on.

One of the things he mentioned actually surprised me a bit. He said that we (as in the Department of Chemistry) needed to increase our number of students. In the past year, the first year intake for Chemistry has been about 50 students, whereas Physics intake is about 150 students. He said that the reason for high school students not to take Chemistry was that it is viewed as a hard science where you will be stuck with research, i.e. it didn’t lead to a “real” job.

Contrast this with, say, Australia, where Chemistry is undoubtedly more popular than Physics, precisely because it leads to more job opportunities. I also had a chat with a Swedish friend who confirmed that Chemistry is generally more popular there as well. I wonder if the Danes take up more Physics than Chemistry because of the legacy of Hans Christian Ørsted and Niels Bohr, who have undeniably changed (and improved) our understanding of electromagnetism and atomic physics.

Also last week, there was an interesting article in the Department Newsletter. The article states that job security for hard science graduates (is) untouched by financial crisis. This also surprises me. Coming from Australia where these hard sciences constantly face budget cuts, which is compounded by plans to further cut A$2 billion from the whole university sector. Although, now that Julia Gillard is no longer prime minister, who knows if this plan will still go ahead or not.