We'll always be foreigners in this beautiful land: The Danes may have voted for closer European ties, but they remain suspicious of outsiders, says Margaret Dolley

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Indy Lifestyle Online
MY FAMILY has just been celebrating a year of living in Denmark. It's a move that started as an adventure while our children were young enough to tolerate the disruption to their schooling. England seemed tired and directionless, and we felt there was no better time to experience the new Europe at first hand and still have some hope of getting back on the career ladder at home.

Denmark is said to have a lot in common with England, but our daily life leaves us constantly surprised by the differences. While many English people look out to where the grass may be greener, Danes look in. A year of fervent debate about the Maastricht treaty has brought home to them how much they love the smallness and uniqueness of their country. Their high standard of living has been built on hard work and high taxes, and many are deeply afraid of it being undermined by an influx of foreigners.

In material terms, there is no comparison with the part of England we left behind. Our first home after leaving our London terrace was a low-cost flat on a huge red-brick estate beside the motorway in Copenhagen. The space was tiny, but at least we didn't have to sleep in the living-room, like many Danish parents. Lovely wooden floors and fresh paint relieved the monotony of the buildings.

The estate had a high percentage of recent immigrants, unemployed and people regarded as having problems. But we quickly felt able to let our six- and four-year-olds run down to the several play areas within sight of the balcony. Seven-year-olds frequently travel to school alone by bus or cycle.

Washing could be done for a minimal charge in the communal launderette, where there was an exchange shelf for outgrown clothes. On your child's birthday, you could hire a fully equipped party room for only pounds 5. Not letting bathwater out between 10pm and 6am was just one of the unwritten rules.

Yet amid these high standards, we have often felt very much alone. At my eldest daughter's Danish school we are the only foreigners, but in nine months only one parent has inquired why we are in Denmark, and she was married for several years to an Englishman.

In the suburb where we live now, our prosperous neighbours fly the national flag. 'I'm staying in Denmark for my holiday this year,' says our family doctor. 'Why on earth go abroad when you live in such a beautiful land?' Pride in one's country is healthy; what is so disturbing about Denmark is that the belief that it has the best system in the world is so deep and widespread, that the spirit of learning from other people falls away.

Our life is complicated by exclusion from Denmark's register of residents. My husband works for an international organisation and does not pay Danish taxes, so none of our family has been able to get a national identity number.

Our younger children therefore have no chance of a place in a local authority kindergarten. Private Danish-speaking alternatives barely exist. So until they are rising seven - the age of compulsory schooling - they must be chauffeured miles to an expensive international school. It is an uphill battle for ours to learn enough Danish to play with the next-door neighbours.

Lack of an identity number also brings a string of petty annoyances, from the refusal to hire us a video player to difficulty joining the local library (whose collection of English children's books outclasses the one we had access to in England). What is hardest to put across to people is the huge range of social provision in England - some of it admittedly awful but much very good.

Some people think our lack of an identity number means we are unemployed and here to enjoy the country's superior welfare benefits. Last time I claimed a discount on children's medicines, the shop assistants spent five minutes discussing how scandalous it was, assuming I could not understand - and unaware that they would have received it free in England. My ears burnt with humiliation, but I know this must happen often to immigrants in England. 'There is no doubt we are looked after better here,' the Pakistani taxi driver from Leeds now living in Copenhagen told me on referendum night. 'But they like us less.'

We are unlikely to settle permanently in Denmark and we are sometimes taken to task for subjecting our children to great disruption to satisfy our whims. I am often amazed at their tolerance. 'We can still write if we go back to England,' said my daughter happily after a night with a Danish friend. Another priority has been to exchange regular visits with friends in England, to maintain links.

The time for planning will soon be upon us again. But far from Denmark being the last trip before settling down, we are asking ourselves, where next?

(Photograph omitted)

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