Moving to Denmark was often full of the unexpected for Derek and Mike - so they decided to make content they would like to have seen prior to the move.
Text: Michaela Medveďová
At first glance, Denmark might seem like a pretty homogeneous country. But Derek Hartman and Mike Walsh know it is a home of people from different backgrounds.
After all, the couple, originally from the U.S., are among them. And with their YouTube channel and a new podcast, they share these perspectives with the world.
Like the movies
Derek and Mike met in 2014 in Philadelphia in an LGBTQ sports league. During the fall season, they played kickball and often hung out at a bar afterwards. By January 2015, they were dating. "We got married last year. Our first anniversary was actually last month," says Mike.
One could say the couple met on Derek's home turf. Born and raised in the Philadelphia suburbs, he moved to the city after finishing university. Mike is originally from Syracuse, upstate New York, and moved to Philadephia for uni. They both agree they had the typical 90s suburban life. "It's funny, trying to explain to our friends, from Europe or elsewhere in the world, that life in the suburbs is pretty much what it looks like in the movies," laughs Derek. But of course, the culture gets a lot of things wrong and creates a lot of assumptions. "It's not like one of my friends was a cheerleader and another a football player. It's hard to paint America with just one brush - it's so large, with many different geographies, ways of living, and backgrounds."
Being away from family and friends never gets easier when living abroad, so Derek and Mike usually go back in the summer and for Christmas - and the occasional extra trip. Given the magnitude of the U.S., Mike mentions it's lucky that both of their families live on the East Coast. "But we've been gone for almost seven years. It became almost a routine of how we keep in touch with everybody. Unlike the first couple of years, living abroad is no longer interesting to our friends and family - it's where we live. It's just as normal as if we had moved to Seattle. You see people when you see them."
A seven-year-long work trip
The couple decided to move to Denmark together, but they essentially moved for Mike's job at a company that now operates in Denmark. At the time, he was working at their headquarters in Philadephia and was asked to go to Denmark for a one or two-week trip. "They came to my desk on a Friday afternoon and said: Hey, can you be in Copenhagen on Monday morning? I called Derek, and he said, joking: Do a good job - maybe they'll ask you to stay."
Soon after, the offer came to move to Denmark for an assignment for a year or two. Mike recalls deciding while on a trip to New Orleans for his birthday. "So we're in New Orleans, where only good decisions happen," laughs Mike. "We talked about it and said: Let's do it, let's move to Denmark. I basically never really came back to the States. The work trip never ended. It all happened out of the blue. We just bought a house in Philadelphia. And it just turned into: Nope, you're going to Copenhagen."
It helped that they experienced Denmark just as the holiday season was rolling in - Christmas markets, lights, gløgg, people walking outside, having a good time… "And then I returned after the New Year's break, and all that was gone. No more happy people on the streets. So that was a bit of an abrupt start to transition from happy winter to January," remembers Mike.
Luckily, Derek missed most of the winter and did not move until March. "I had already been over in November because otherwise, it couldn't have been as easy to make that decision. I had work obligations in Philadelphia until then, but I also had to shut down our lives there and prepare things for transition."
Mike mentions that, in some ways, they had an easy landing in the country because they could jump into a group of friends right away - a friend of a friend who had just moved there, too. "We're still friends with a number of them to this day. It was helpful for us to have that soft landing into a group of people, which is always a challenge when you move to a new place where you don't know anybody."
However, Derek remembers more difficulty. "Mike was basically working two jobs while I wasn't working. I didn't have a CPR or bank account. I really couldn't do anything. I wouldn't say it was easy. Plus, we were in our 30s when we moved over, so we had three decades of acquired knowledge on how things work and how to do stuff. Suddenly, you're in a new country and don't know how to do anything." The little things we take for granted - knowing how to do laundry, go grocery shopping, ride a train, mail a package - all of a sudden get deleted from the skill set. Of course, there are also great days and experiences, enjoying the honeymoon phase of exploring a beautiful city and meeting exciting people from other countries. "Especially in the beginning, the highs are so much higher, but the lows are so much lower because the simplest thing could ruin your day. Where do I pick up this package that came from Post Nord? It's something that a child should be able to do, but I can't. Eventually, everything sort of comes back to the middle. But occasionally, there's a thing where I'm like: Well, that's a new one."
With all the cultural influence and new experiences, both Derek and Mike agree that Denmark definitely changed them to a point. "But not so much we're Danish. We're obviously still American, so we don't completely fit in. But then we go back to the U.S., and there are things about us that Denmark fundamentally changed," says Derek.
Mike chimes in with another source of influence - their social circle consists of people from many different countries and cultures. "You feel like you're around a much more global environment. The opportunity to travel is also a part of it. We've been able to experience many more places than when we lived in Philadelphia, and getting these experiences exposed us to the globe differently."
Travelling abroad was definitely something they were able to do more since moving to Denmark - there's more time for holidays, and it's more accessible. "When you cross a bridge from Philadelphia to New Jersey, it's not that much of a difference. But crossing a bridge from Copenhagen to Malmø means you're in a new country, with a new language," says Derek. Initially, Mike's contract was only two years, so they decided to take the opportunity to travel a lot. "When else are we going to be able to just go to Rome or Berlin for the weekend or spend Easter in Greece? Initially, we were treating Copenhagen as a launching-off point," explains Mike.
After a while of being in Denmark, however, they realised they liked living there - and wanted to get to know it to see if it could be their home for longer. So they slowed down their travel. "That helped us get to know the place and realise we wanted to stay long-term." They also changed the way they travel. Mike says that when he planned a big Europe trip while still living in the U.S., there would be a packed itinerary of all the sights to see during the limited time. So when they first started travelling together, the instinct was to see as much as possible. Over time, they stopped to think - why not just enjoy where they are? So now they focus more on getting lost in a new city, sitting in a cafe and seeing what life is like seeing how the culture differs.
Focusing on local life is also the go-to strategy whenever they have friends visiting them in Copenhagen. "We tell them: Yes, we can go to Tivoli. And if you really want to go see the Little Mermaid, we can do it. But the most interesting things are going to be something else. Sometimes, I just hope it rains. I want them to see what that's like. Let's go to a boardgame cafe, a cosy bar in a basement, and see how we live in this city," explains Derek.
"You feel like you're around a much more global environment. The opportunity to travel is also a part of it. We've been able to experience many more places than when we lived in Philadelphia, and getting these experiences exposed us to the globe differently."
But the couple is not just focusing on showing off the life in Denmark to those visiting them. In December 2020, they started a YouTube channel called Robe Trotting, where they created content focused on explaining life in Denmark through their eyes. It started a lockdown project, learning how to make and edit videos. "It started with our family and friends. My uncle was subscriber number 67 and would comment on all our videos: Subscriber 67 here! We were not sure when we would see our extended family again, so we wanted to share what our life is like here, what our apartment looks like, how different the outlets look, the little things," describes Mike.
They hoped the channel would take off but were still amazed at how it did in March 2021 when their video "14 Things You Don't Know About Denmark" went viral. Since then, they've been sharing videos on their experiences in Denmark, about comparisons between Denmark and the U.S., and dived into some Danish history and culture.
And they have found their niche. "When we started it, we assumed that most of the audience would be American. But it's mostly people watching from Denmark, a mix of Danes who appreciate our perspective and foreigners living in Denmark who share our experiences."
The feedback to their content has been overwhelmingly positive - and what is more, they have a very engaged audience. "A lot of people that comment are continuing the conversation, adding to things we bring up in our videos," appreciates Mike. After all, the spirit of the channel is to help other people. Derek describes that when they choose their topics, they think: If I hadn't decided to move to Denmark so quickly, what would I want to watch a video about to be prepared? "Moving to Denmark was really sprung on us. Obviously, we jumped in enthusiastically, but that also meant we didn't do much research. We didn't know many of these things we try to discuss in our videos."
They try to give a fair picture of Denmark, share their experiences, and let the viewers decide for themselves. "There are a lot of cultural differences, even though you think Northern Europe and the U.S. cannot be that different. There are so many unwritten rules in Denmark we didn't know about. But there is no right or wrong. One thing I've learned overall is that I can't look at things through the cultural lens I was born with - and I also realise I am judged as an American from other people's cultural lens. That's where the cultural clash happens."
The un-Danish New Year's
Derek realises the one cultural shock that comes with them being American - their reputation for being so open, welcoming, and extroverted. The openness is something he misses about the States - and he realises that he carried with him to Denmark and might have "weirded" out a few people. "I now understand more how this outgoing attitude can clash with the reserved, private Danish personalities. I realised the number of people I met once or twice and said: Oh, you should come to our apartment - we're going to have brunch. I didn't go to school with them since they were four. They probably feel weird coming to my house." He thinks that's why Danes will often say Americans are superficial, wanting to be friends too early. But Derek feels sometimes it is nice to just have a conversation with somebody, with no strings attached. "It doesn't have to be deep or multi-year friendships. Sometimes, I don't have 10 years to invest in a friendship. Sometimes, I'd just like a friendly chat now."
Mike recalls the most "un-Danish" things they've ever done. When they just started their Danish lessons, they invited their Danish class for a New Year's party - with an open invitation. "We ended up having the most random mix of people at our flat - someone's coworkers, someone's roommate… All of us were new. On top of that, we didn't realise grocery stores weren't open or closed super early on New Year's Eve. At 4 PM, we realised only one Netto was open in the city. So we raced there to get whatever was left in the frozen food aisle; otherwise, everyone would have 7/11 taquitos for the New Year's dinner. We had no idea about the Queen's speech. It's a funny thing to look back on - how little we knew about the place we lived in, but at the same time, how many of us were in the same boat, just needing other people to hang out with for New Year's Eve?"
Derek finds it fascinating how, in Denmark, at Easter or Christmas, one could peel off the roof of any building - and the traditions of each family would look the same, varying so much from the diversity he is used to from the States. "And it depends how you look at it. You can say it's so rigid that it has no diversity. But you can also look and see how rich the tradition is."
Now, at New Year's, Derek and Mike have a proper dinner and watch the Queen deliver her speech at 6 o'clock. A far cry from their first celebration. "But then I think of our social circle and how we're experiencing different cultures with them. Last year, we watched the speech - and then also watched the Norwegian king, and ate 12 grapes just like they do in Spain. And then put on the Times Square because they are still counting down."
Embracing new perspectives
Highlighting the different perspectives and backgrounds in Denmark was the driving force behind the couple's new podcast, "What Are You Doing in Denmark", which they started in the summer of 2023. "We had discussed starting a podcast for about a year, but the timing was perfect this summer. The focus of the podcast is to be able to share voices besides our own, bringing on guests who are either fellow foreigners who have made Denmark a home or Danes who can share their perspective as well."
They simply like the idea of embracing Denmark - but also cultural plurality. "I strongly feel like I can embrace every part of Denmark and Danish culture and life - and have every part of my American personality and traditions. At the same time, I bring some of the Danish traditions to our families. When my oldest nephew turned five - he's nine now - I returned to the States to celebrate. I brought a table flag for him and explained the tradition to him. This year, I saw my family on my birthday, which I hardly ever do. And when I went over to have cake with my family, my nephew put the flag on the table for me," Derek said with a smile. Mike joins in: "We played pakkeleg with our families for Christmas. That's the joy we get to embrace all of this."