Denmark might not have been the original plan, but Shannon Frederiksen quickly found her footing and carved up a cosy piece of Denmark for herself and the children she educates.
Photographs: Anastasia Sevriukova
Text: Michaela Medveďová
When you're talking to Shannon, it's not hard to see why her students are happy to see her when it's time for tutoring.
Full of excitement for her Danish life and helping children progress through play, she's made Denmark her home after love brought her across the ocean.
Pittsburgh for life
But before she opened up the Danish chapter of her life, Shannon grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and stayed in the same state for college. "I would describe Pittsburgh as such a homey city. Once you've lived there once, you're Pittsburgh for life. Everyone's so friendly, and it's almost like everybody knows everybody. And there's such a good culture around sports and family… I just think that when you're in Pittsburgh, you feel like you're at home."
No wonder Shannon likes to go back and visit once or twice a year. Going there for a few weeks never seems like enough time to enjoy with friends and family. "It's hard because there's so many things here in Denmark that I love, and then there's so many things in Pittsburgh that I miss." After all, she had taught in Pittsburg for eight years.
That is, until love brought her to Denmark
Jakob, her husband, was studying for his Master's, and they were doing a two-week exchange during which they came to New York City. Shannon was just there for a girls' trip. They met at a bar one Friday night and hit it off. "But I was like: You're from Denmark, I'm from here, this isn't going anywhere. We didn't even exchange phone numbers or anything. I never thought I would see him again, and the next night, we ran into each other again, which, people would say, seems like fate because you don't really run into people in New York City twice."
They stayed in contact, Jakob visited her again, and they decided to give things a go.
They spent two amazing weeks together and knew right then they had something that would last. For two years, they dated long-distance. "I would come to Denmark during Christmas break or on summer holidays because I had the summer off as a teacher, or he would visit me. Those times when we were actually together were so special and exciting. But then the time between was hard, and we missed each other."
They got married in July 2019 in Frederiksberg in a small, sweet ceremony. They wanted Jakob's grandparents at the wedding and knew they couldn't travel to the US. The plan was to follow it up with a big US wedding the year after. "We got married, and four days later, I had to return to the US because I still had a job there. We planned for Jakob to come to the US, but while his visa was being processed, he wasn't allowed to live in the US with me. We thought it would just be a couple of months. And then COVID happened, and we were locked out of each other's countries.
The government buildings were shut down, things were taking a long time, and they couldn't expect the visa to come anytime soon. "So many people asked me: How's married life? I didn't even know how to answer that question because I lived with my parents, and my husband lived across the world."
So when, in May 2020, the borders opened up in Denmark to foreign spouses, they decided for Shannon to come to Denmark instead. Two weeks later, she packed up two suitcases and moved. "We didn't have a lot of time to think about it. They didn't give a timeline for how long they kept the borders open. Jakob and I are both big planners; in this instance, we just had to go with it and hope for the best."
Meshing cultures together
At first, being in Denmark was great because Shannon and Jakob could finally be together. On the other hand, Shannon landed in Denmark just when everything was shut down, so she couldn't explore the country like a new expat would. Jakob was home with her for a while. "But when he returned to work, I think that's when it really sunk in with me. The schools weren't looking for teachers, and finding a job was very hard for me. So then I was just at home all day - and it's not like I could go to a coffee shop or try to meet friends because everything was shut down."
Luckily, Jakob's family and friends made Denmark feel more like home. "Danes get a bad rap sometimes for being cold and standoffish, but I have never had that experience. They've been so warm and welcoming. They're just going to take their time to get to know you." With Jakob, there are definitely little cultural differences in their relationship. "He wants an open-face sandwich, and I'm like, no, it's like a smushed burger, and I'm going to eat it with my hands, whereas he grabs a fork and knife. It's funny little things like this that we started to learn about each other and the cultures. But we both value each other for who we are and try to mesh the cultures together." Jakob's family, for example, always wants to celebrate the big US holidays like Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July. Shannon also loves learning more about Danish Christmas traditions or Festelavn through them.
Still, it wasn't easy for the independent Shannon to relearn everything in a new country and rely on other people. "Grocery shopping took me an hour because I had to Google translate every label. I really had to rely on Jakob a lot. I mean, there was a day when I wanted to do laundry and didn't even know how to work the laundry machine without him translating the settings. But he's been so sweet, going above and beyond to ensure I feel at home here."
Eventually, Shannon also found her professional footing. She made some connections and started tutoring online. "But I was still itching for the school environment where I had colleagues and could make friends. In spring 2021, that's when things kind of changed because I got a job at Copenhagen International School (CIS). I felt like I had found my groove a little, found my own friends, started to learn Danish, and felt a little more at home."
"She really appreciates Danish schools because they value childhood in the early years, and there's not too much pressure and stress put on kids."
Learning through play
Shannon knew she wanted to be a teacher from when she was little. She used to come home from school and continue to play school. She had imaginary students on a chalkboard in her room and would do homework and pretend to be a teacher. "I was always around kids growing up. I love their pureness and how fun and curious they are. I just think there's so much to learn from kids. My family is full of teachers, so it was a no-brainer for me to become one. My friends in high school had no idea what they wanted to do, and I've known I wanted to be a teacher since I was 5."
She found every opportunity to work with kids - from babysitting to being a swim coach for younger kids. "I love spending time with them and seeing their growth through the years." Of course, teaching comes with challenges, but Shannon loves going home at the end of the day, knowing she did something that day that really mattered.
Having worked in Pittsburgh and Copenhagen, she had the chance to compare the education systems. "In the US, kids start kindergarten at 5, but it's not like here. By the end of kindergarten, they're expected to read, write, and do math. Here, it's more about enjoying childhood, learning through play, and learning through nature." She really appreciates Danish schools because they value childhood in the early years, and there's not too much pressure and stress put on kids. "They can just be kids and have fun. I know some parents think they're just playing all day. But there's so much to it: when you're in it with them, you see how they're growing and how their minds are working. I'm a firm believer that kids learn best through play."
The Hygge Corner
After a year of working at CIS, Shannon could reapply for a new contract or try something different. At the back of her head, she always had this idea of working with kids differently. "I found a lot of families who moved here throughout the school year, and I would help them settle in. They needed extra support, but they only found extra activities in Danish - and no one in the family speaks the language. That's where the idea of The Hygge Corner stemmed from."
Shannon talked to Jakob about her idea, and he was supportive from day one, saying that she should take a risk and try it out. "And so far, so good."
The Hygge Corner offers tutoring and homeschooling help, working with children one-on-one on skills where they need extra support. She's also the person who helps parents navigate the educational system for their kids. In addition, she works with families that have English as their second or third language. "I had a little one who didn't speak any English when I first met her a year ago. Now, she's just blabbering away about everything and anything. It's cool to see the progress and say: We did this together."
As another part of her business, she's also creating sensory playboxes - for example, a make-your-own-pizza box or a construction box where kids can pretend to be construction workers - and then she's creating maker kits. Here, kids can work on different skills - sewing, creating their own herb garden, or creating their own nightlight aquarium. "We really try to make fun boxes, and the kids want to do it, but we're also trying to weave in some learning simultaneously. I never want to do tutoring with a kid where they think, oh, here comes Shannon again. And I would say right now, all my kids are super excited when I arrive at their door. The same goes with the products - we want the kids to want to open up their box and try and learn something new."
As any small business owner would likely agree, especially at the start, you must wear many hats behind the scenes. So Shannon's not just the tutor and maker of the boxes. She's also the accountant and secretary and is getting increasingly into Instagram as the social media manager. "I love making boxes and branding our whole product series. I would like to give somebody else those tedious tasks like invoicing and talking about pricing."
Luckily, she has Jakob to help her run the business. By day, he is a full-time IT and finance consultant; at night, he is Shannon's business partner. She's the educational and creative side of the business - he's the operational side. "We've been trying to find the balance because when he's been working all day, and there are things I need to work on with him afterwards, it can get tricky. But we have come up with a little system where I give him some downtime, and then I ask: Can we talk about the business, or do we just need to relax tonight? I never want this to become a strain in our relationship."
Now, they're both looking forward to expanding their business and product line, starting collaborations with other companies, and organizing events like free story times in the park. "Being out in the community where we can meet more families is one of our main goals - we want to keep bringing the hygge to everybody and provide more community events where families can meet each other. I know from working at the CIS that it's hard for families when they first move here and don't have the community."
And as for their life in Denmark? "We've really found our home here. Jakob and I feel so settled here, and we hope to start a family soon. We think it's the best place to have kids and let them grow up and feel safe and supported. So, we are pretty set on staying in Denmark. Once you're here and see how great things are, you couldn't ask for anything more."