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In this featured comment, exchange student Emmanuel from Singapore explains how he has adjusted to student life in Copenhagen, starting with an understanding of Denmark’s most untranslatable word…
I had a real culture shock adjusting to living in Copenhagen. Here I was, a city boy who’d been used to the tall buildings of Singapore, the bustling streets of Hong Kong and the diversity of metropolitan cities such as London. And there I was, right in the ‘capital city’ of Denmark, which seemed more like an Icelandic suburb. I recall standing at the exit of the metro closest to my student dormitory, looking out at what seemed like a ghost town – the street was deserted and no building stood taller than the surrounding trees. I was horrified – I had just touched down in… a village?!
Apparently, there are some strict regulations about how tall you can construct buildings here in Copenhagen. What that leaves you, is a wonderful view of the sunset from just about anywhere in the city. However, what that also leaves you with is some of the most treacherous winds (because there’s nothing to break the wind) that make you shiver from the frigid cold even on a sunny 18 degree Celsius afternoon.
You gotta love one thing about Copenhagen though – the architecture. It really would be easier to describe what it’s not than to describe what it is. It isn’t overly grand like the marble-clad, larger than life buildings of Rome or the gold gilded monuments of Stockholm. Neither is it mechanical and soulless like the grey walls of Berlin or Tallinn. The architecture of Denmark embodies the apex of what it means to live the ‘Danske’ way of life – ‘hygge’.
There is no accurate way of translating ‘hygge’ (pronounced ‘hew-guh’) into English. ‘Cosy’ is as close you get to translating this admirable way of life that is best illustrated when you picture tipsy Danes sitting by the fire with friends and family, enjoying too much wine and dinner, sheltered from the depressing cold and dark of winter. It is the highest compliment to a Dane if you remark that the evening you spent together was ‘hyggelig’ (pronounced ‘hew-guh-lee’) – offering the compliment would almost instantly have you added to their speed-dial list.
A splendid example of this ‘hyggelig’ architecture and way of life would be my student dormitory – Tietgenkollegiet. It’s one of the most sought-after (and expensive) student accommodation opportunities in Denmark and (possibly) the world.
The seven-floored, circular shaped, modern architectural masterpiece captures Danish style, utilitarianism and ‘hygge’ perfectly. The residents enjoy student life with a balance of socializing in spacious common kitchens shared with 12 other students, as well as the privacy of their Nordic wood-cabin inspired rooms.
So, why is it ‘hygge’? The circular shape of the building means that there is always warmth once you get inside. Dinners from your kitchen leaves you with a view of all the kitchens in Tietgen having a ‘hyggelig’ evening in front of their televisions or playing board games. Alternatively, sipping a glass of wine from your room balcony leaves you with a view of the vast and often starry night sky, surrounding swan-filled canals and parks. It’s a sight and one that’s enjoyed with the company of others.
It’s taken me some time to get used to the ‘danske’ way of life. The quietness and relaxed tone of the city drove me close to losing my mind at some points. But I’ve finally grown to appreciate the simple joys of ‘hyggelig’ living and home-cooked dinners with my housemates.
Moving to a foreign city to study will be tough and overwhelming. With the Scandinavian weather far from exotic, I will need to fight the upcoming chills of winter by embracing coziness. I will add ‘hygge’ to my Danish vocabulary.
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