I've been in Denmark just over a month, and I'm pretty stressed. This update is going to be somewhat disconnected. You can get some idea of what my experience has been like by watching the famous Bank Account Man commercial.
The first piece of mail I actually received at my boarding-house address was a letter from the people in charge of the NemKonto system warning me of the dire consequences should I not get a NemKonto. This letter was, of course, entirely in Danish. I think they got my address from the CPR number agency (see previous update).
A NemKonto ("name account") is a bank account officially registered with the government. In Denmark you can have whatever bank accounts you can convince the banks to open for you, but only one can be designated as your NemKonto, and that is where all the payments from the government to you are sent - income tax refunds, social benefits, etc. It's socialism, eh, so in many cases those payments run to a fair bit of money. Since I am a government employee, more or less, my salary can only be paid through the NemKonto system. And so, yes, the letter is right, it's important that I should have a NemKonto.
It is also Danish law, because someone once had a moment of clarity, that the banks are not allowed to refuse opening a basic account for you to use as your NemKonto. The banks seem not to know this; at the very least, they absolutely will not admit that they know it.
I selected a bank on the basis that it seemed to be the only serious Danish bank that had a real English translation of its Web site. They all have translated their "about us" and investor information pages, but this was the only one whose Web presence seemed to indicate a possibility of actually offering services in English.
With my CPR number and other documentation, I went to that bank's branch nearest my workplace and said I wanted to open an account. The receptionist told me that the easiest way to do it was to go to their Web site and fill out the online form, and all I would need would be my CPR number.
She seemed to speak good English, but maybe language was a factor: what she said to me very definitely led me to believe that what I could and should do on their Web site was to actually open the account, with immediate effect, all by myself without needing further human intervention. That seemed pretty surprising to me, almost too good to be true, but it was what she told me. So I went back on the Web and tried to do just that.
Possible? No. What the Web site would actually let me do was schedule either an in-person appointment or a phone call. Since I did not have a phone, and didn't expect to have a phone until after I had a bank account because I would be using the bank account to get the phone, I ticked the box for "in-person appointment" and explained, in the free-text comment section, that I had no phone. The Web site led me to believe that I could pick a convenient time, very soon, for the in-person appointment and that that appointment would be the last step, after which I could use my account. This was in the second week of September. Since I needed access to my Danish account not only to receive my salary but also to make payments for things like rental deposits and cell phone bills that can't easily be done with cash or my Canadian credit card, it was a high priority for me to get this done immediately. This was the second week of September.
Later that night I got a nice email message from someone at the bank explaining that I had to send my documentation - including several items not previously mentioned and which I was still waiting to receive from the Kommun by postal mail - by postal mail to Aarhus. Then, if they approved me as a customer, they would phone me.
I was not pleased. That bank had now disappointed me with new requirements added after I thought I was about to get what I wanted twice, and they had introduced at least two postal-mail cycles' worth of delay in the process I needed to complete immediately, but what upset me most was that there was no acknowledgement whatsoever of the fact I'd carefully explained to them that I did not have a phone and could not receive a phone call. The fact that it would take longer than I wished it could, might not really be their fault; it'd even be possible to imagine that there could be a reason they genuinely needed me to receive a phone call, troublesome as that would be; but to not even acknowledge my communication on the subject was a dealbreaker.
So I figured, to Hell with them, and I tried a different bank, after consulting with my co-workers about where they did their banking. I went to the branch in person and had what seemed to be a much better experience. They looked askance at my address ("c/o Hotel Pension"), as had the people at the CPR number office. They weren't happy with my lack of a telephone number, either. But they put through the application right then and there. They warned me it might take as much as three weeks, or as little as four days, for the head office to approve it; I said, well, I hope it will be fast, but I don't have a better offer.
In fact it was less than two days before I got the email from the bank telling me to come in to the branch to do the final paperwork. I suspect that unlike our friend in the video, I do look like a bank account kind of person. Maybe they also read my North American credit report. I went to the branch and filled out many forms, and was told they would send me three things by paper mail. Immediately.
- 1. My ATM card (usable worldwide! they emphasized, even back in Canada!)
- 2. The PIN for the card, separately for security reasons
- 3. My NemID
NemID is another of these Danish central government things. It's a card with a bunch of one-time authentication tokens (basically random numbers) on it, for use with online banking and other online transactions that require authentication. Each time you make such a transaction you use a fresh token from the card, to prove you're really yourself. When you have used up most of the tokens, you're supposed to order a new NemID in plenty of time for it to arrive before you really run out of tokens on the old NemID, but running out of NemID tokens and not being able to do any work until the new card arrives is pretty high up on the excuse list.
While we wait for the mail, let's talk about some other things.
Fun fact: The only thing that is cheaper in Denmark than in Canada is beer.
Minimum ages in Denmark:
- To buy beer: 16.
- To apply for a driver's license: 18.
- To operate the centrifuge: 15.
I've been asked about the food. Mostly what I know is the food provided at the boarding house, and the cafeteria food at work. I don't know how representative these are, but I think I can draw some reasonable inferences about Danish cooking in general.
It's very heavy on meat, especially pork. Meat is expensive here, but they consume a lot of it anyway. Salads are very popular, but except for salads, vegetables are usually disguised in casseroles. I have the impression that the Danes like strong flavours that are of a salty or pungent nature. Lots of smoked, fermented, and pickled stuff. But they don't seem to like hot-spicy things. I scored a few points in the boarding house dining room by being the only white person willing and able to eat the Chinese hot sauce. When the boarding house attempted tacos, it was quite evident that somebody in the kitchen was doling out the chili powder with extreme caution and a very small spoon.
I've been a little surprised at what seems to be a strong Mediterranean influence in Danish cuisine. A basically Greek salad (tomatoes, feta, olives, oil, lemon juice, no lettuce) is frequently served, and those kinds of flavours often feature in the pork and fish dishes.
There seems to be a strong cultural value of "you eat what's put in front of you." This is not a salubrious environment for vegetarians, Muslims, Jews (though all three exist here), nor others with restricted diets. "Gluten-free" is not heard-of here without a prescription from a real doctor.
When it became apparent I would not be getting my bank account immediately, I decided I'd better go ahead and get a cell phone even though that would be harder without the account. Everyone tells me "Oh, you can just get a Danish SIM card to put in your Canadian phone." Yeah.
As some of you know and all of you should guess, I don't have a Canadian cellular phone. I have never been a cellular telephone user before coming here. I'm not happy that it seems clear I have to become one now. But there's no getting around it that that's what I need to do.
So I bought an unlocked GSM cell phone, an "Alcatel 20.05." This is what's called a "feature phone," meaning that it does things other than just originate and answer phone calls, but it is not a "smart phone" that is part of a third-party "apps" "ecosystem." Basically, the lowest level of cellular phone I could find that wasn't absolutely disposable crap. I really wanted to get a phone with no support whatsoever for Facebook, but they don't make that kind anymore. And to coin a phrase, it does not bend unless you sit on it.
Restaurant deal of the day: the Burger King cheeseburger, DKK 10. Other restaurant food, including the rest of Burger King's menu, is crazy expensive. This is also the only way I know of to obtain "American cheese" in Denmark. All other cheese in this place, and there's a lot of it, is Serious Cheese.
I powered up the Alcatel and familiarized myself with its menus, but I would need a SIM card before I could actually use it. I ordered a prepaid SIM card from the only seller of appropriate ones for my needs that had a real English-language Web site. I had to wait a week for that to arrive in the mail. By this time it was September 27. I had by now received the PIN code for my bank card, but not the card itself nor the NemID, both of which I would need to actually make transactions.
I plugged the SIM card into the phone and found that as soon as it connected to the network, the phone would power itself off. On power-up it would function normally for the five seconds or so it would take to make its network connection, but then it would freeze, no longer responding to the keypad, and a few seconds after that the screen would go dark. It wasn't a true power-off state, usually, but it prevented the phone from being usable. With the SIM removed it would function correctly, but couldn't send or receive calls. With careful experimentation I found that it would not misbehave while on the "contacts" screen, so if I could quickly get into that screen in the few seconds before it connected, I could actually send text messages, and even receive responses that I could read by removing the SIM card and rebooting. But this was definitely not acceptable behaviour.
By the way, I didn't find out until too late that the only way to put money on the SIM card online was with my Mastercard fershlugginer SecureCode. And I changed my password on that before leaving Canada, the record of the new password is on my computer that's being shipped, and three tries wasn't enough for me to recall the new password before it locked me out. This happens basically every time I try to use Mastercard on a Web site that requires the fershlugginer SecureCode, enough that it really deters me from using such Web sites, but it's more serious this time than usual because to get it unlocked I have to phone Mastercard during North American weekday business hours. And my phone was defective, and would have no service anyway until I paid for it using the fershlugginer SecureCode, which would remain locked until I phoned Mastercard, and so on.
I managed to break the loop and top up the prepaid SIM card by going to a 7-11 and paying cash for a code number which I could send by text message to the SIM card company. With the phone that didn't work. But after hours of fooling around I just barely managed to get the message through. The SIM had come with two dollars' worth of credit on it, so it was able to pay for the text message to recharge itself. (And that message was probably free anyway.)
The defective cell phone went back to the shop for warranty service. They will let me know when that is finished. By sending a text message to my cell phone.
I bought another phone, a Nokia 225, which the salesperson assured me was "a better phone for the same price as the Alcatel!" It seems to be very similar. Cheerier in its user interface. No ability to use an MP3 as a ringtone, despite the claim "MP3 ringtones" in its specifications. And it works.
Soft drinks: expensive, because of taxes meant to reduce consumption. People drink water, and beer. The relatively popular soft drinks are Coke, Pepsi, Fanta, and "Faxe Kondi," which is a Danish product. It resembles Sprite, but contains both caffeine and quinine. These are sweetend primarily with sucrose ("real sugar"), but Faxe Kondi also contains glucose. That's advertised as a quasi-health claim, because it's theoretically a sports drink. Meanwhile on the other side of the pond, premium soft drinks advertise that they have sucrose instead of glucose, as a quasi-health claim.
At this point I was still waiting for the mail from the bank, and starting to worry about that. I had thought - given that it's clear I must have access to that account to pay the deposit on any apartment I try to rent, landlords will not accept cash or Mastercard - I would wait until I had access to my Danish bank account before searching for a new place to live. But I was starting to be restless.
The boarding house has much to recommend it. It's the equivalent of $2000/month for one room. That's a lot of money. It does include furniture, and cleaning, and meals, and the meals are mostly pretty good.
But we only get a cold breakfast and hot dinner on weekdays, a hot brunch on Saturdays, and a cold breakfast on Sundays, so one must make one's own arrangements for other meals on the weekends. And I have a fridge but no other kitchen facilities in my room, so it means eating out (at crazy Copenhagen prices) or else making do with things that don't require preparation, on weekends. That knocks down the value of the meal plan a fair bit, because it's incomplete.
A few days after moving in here I had a knock on my door at about 9:15 in the evening and it was the woman from the next room over, complaining about the noise from my typing on my laptop computer. That's not a noisy activity by any stretch, and I don't think it's an unreasonable thing to do in one's home at any hour. But the desk in my room and the bed in the next room are bolted solidly to the same wall, and it seems that the sound of the keystrokes is conducted right through, at considerable volume. So to keep the peace, I can't use that desk as a desk, and I have to take the laptop over to the POANG on the other side of the room and try to type quietly. For me, this is a big deal, and again it knocks down the value of the accomodation.
And I can't realistically take delivery here of my possessions shipped from Canada, which the moving company will only store for free for 30 days starting September 30. There's nowhere in the room to put that stuff. And no desk I can use to set up the non-laptop computer. My Winter clothing is in those boxes and it'd be nice to have it before Winter really hits. And this is not a place where I could invite a girlfriend to spend the night, not that I have one anyway but that really matters. And so on. I toyed with the idea of just staying here indefinitely, resolving those issues in other ways, and not having to go through the apartment-hunting process which I'd really like not to have to go through, but it's not going to work. I have to have a proper place to live.
By the way, before I came here I gave the management my credit card number so they could charge the first month's rent and the rental deposit on my card. (I knew, of course, that I could use online transfers from my Danish bank account to pay all future charges, because I'd get one within a few days of arriving, eh?) They asked me for my credit card number. I thought that by giving it to them, I was paying. I got a credit card bill a few days after moving in, and it's true that bill didn't show the hotel's charge, but it was for a billing period ending in late August before I came to Denmark anyway, so I expected they would have charged me immediately before I moved in, and it would come through on the next credit card bill.
Three weeks into September I got an email from the manager reading "Any news conc. payment?" It turns out that the Pension Hotel management don't have the type of credit card merchant account that would allow them to place a charge on my card given just the card number. Instead, they need the actual card to be inserted in a chip-and-PIN machine. Payment through the machine is more secure, so it's easier and cheaper to have a merchant account if you can live within that limitation - but it's a strange tradeoff for a hotel to make who are accepting reservations internationally over the Net. Anyway, despite requesting and accepting my card number during the reservation process, despite having met me and helping me move in at the start of September, despite my living there three weeks, eating their food, despite my having strong reason to believe that I had already paid them, the boarding house was expecting me to just somehow know that I had to come to the office to pay in person my now three weeks overdue rent and deposit totalling more than $2000. And they were content to wait three weeks for me to magically figure this out without being told, before sending me a very mildly-worded email query about it.
That's exactly how things work in Denmark.
Most Danish death ever: Jørgen Pedersen Gram, mathematician, of "Gram-Schmidt orthonormalization" fame. Died in Copenhagen in 1916, of being struck by a bicycle.
For October, I made a point of asking the manager a few days before the end of September, when he would like to be paid. He looked surprised, and said "Around the 1st." So, on the 1st, I showed up in the office and paid my rent. The thing is that where I come from, rent is a debt you really must pay on time. There's more leniency on almost anything else. Things are evidently different here, but not understanding how or why, I don't want to push it.
And when I paid my rent on the 1st, he warned me that I probably can't stay here past the middle of November - they have other, conflicting bookings, and I'd only reserved this room through October when I made my own booking. Well, I really want to be out before the end of October anyway. But it's further stress. What I hear from others who are apartment hunting is that the market is really bad, right now even worse than the very bad usual status of the rental market in Copenhagen. The clock is ticking.
And apparently it's especially bad for single, foreign, males, because landlords don't want to rent to such, and that kind of discrimination is routine here. I don't know if it's legal. It wouldn't be, in Canada. But it's routine, legal or not. I suspect that single foreign brown-skinned males are the most heavily discriminated against, and I face fewer obstacles because I look like a Danish person and can "pass" as long as I don't try to talk. But I lose on all the other counts.
Remember that bank card and NemID I was supposed to receive from the bank? So that I could access my account, which I really needed immediately in early September?
Yesterday, October 3, I phoned the bank. I nodded and grinned my way past the all-Danish IVR system until I got to an English-speaking human being, who explained that they couldn't send my bank card and NemID to me care of the hotel because my name isn't written on the door. The post office won't deliver your mail if your name isn't written on the door. Bear in mind that although they had complained about my address being an hotel, they had not only promised that I would receive these things by mail when I opened the account, but I had received several other pieces of mail including the PIN for the bank card already with no trouble. I had no reason to suspect that not all of my mail was being delivered. They hadn't phoned me because I hadn't given them a phone number because at that time I had still thought I would be getting access to my bank account on a reasonable schedule and I could use it for setting up phone service. They also hadn't emailed me, even though they did have, and had used, my email address before and they knew or should have known that email was the best way to contact me. They were content to wait weeks for me to figure out, without being told, that I had to make some other arrangement.
So on Monday I will go to the bank branch in person and see what can be done. Before that, I had better make some real progress on going through these rental classified ads online, even if I won't be able to actually put down a deposit anywhere until the bank gets its act together. I hate that process, and I wish I could just pay someone to do it for me, but it doesn't appear that that is possible.
By the way, the wireless Internet access in the boarding house comes with an acceptable use policy forbidding me from using it for any kind of audio, video, or games. It is abundently clear that the people who set it up did not have the technical skills to in any way enforce any such policy, but the fact of the policy's existence reduces the value to me of that service, too.
The cheap Australian wine: it says on the label that it's "full boiled," with "lifted red berry aromas." I think that's what you get when you try to translate English into English and you only speak Danish.