Blog: Culture shock in Cambridge


Our reporter Louise Axelsen has taken six months’ leave from RUSK to study at Cambridge. Instead, she will be blogging during her stay. This is her first post.

Det ser både smukt og tilforladeligt ud. Men ak, Cambridge kan godt være overvældende for en dansker. Foto: Louise Akselsen.

It looks beautiful and peaceful, but Cambridge can sure be overwhelming for a new Dane in  town. Photo: Louise Akselsen.

“No way am I going to suffer from culture shock in Cambridge,” I thought to myself when they told us at a pre-departure meeting for RUC exchange students that we’d experience culture shock in four phases, no matter where we were going. That thought was still with me in September when I arrived at Cambridge and my first impression told me things didn’t look very different from Denmark.

But yes, you do get culture shock. I’m quite sure that I’ve now gone through the first two phases.

The euphoria phase

The first phase is called the tourist phase, and it’s associated with very positive feelings. I was on a high from joy and euphoria during my first couple of weeks at Cambridge. The weather was much better than it was in Denmark; I met so many nice people, and I joined so many sports clubs. I loved the town, so full of students and its impressive old buildings, especially the various colleges belonging to Cambridge University. I need to make it very clear, though, that the university I’m attending is a completely different and modern-looking one: Anglia Ruskin University. It is NOT one of these Harry Potter-like universities. And no, it’s not nearly as prestigious, and you can tell the difference around town.

Generally, I fell in love with Cambridge, and I was excited to spend four months here.


Our special correspondent punting in the canals of Cambridge.

It was a really nice surprise to see how the instructors took an interest in each student, quickly learning our names and making sure that we were settled in, ready to participate and so on. It was wonderful to have only eight hours of lectures and no project I had to work on afterwards. It was a positive surprise to experience the openness in the local society, being called ‘love’ by shop assistants, that strangers come up and talk to you on the street and in the shops (as a Scandinavian, that’s something I’m not used to).

I also thought it was absolutely fantastic to see how important sport is to the university. It’s so important that everyone takes Wednesdays off to play or watch games.

Generally, I fell in love with Cambridge, and I was excited to spend four months here.

The frustration phase

Then, slowly, more negative feelings began to emerge: I became tired of the cultural differences between here and Denmark. I went from finding it very convenient and smart to chain my bike with a huge lock to iron poles around town to getting extremely tired of having to spend an extra ten minutes trying to find something to lock my bike to, from being absolutely mad about pubs to being tired of the fact that they close at 11 pm, and from being excited about all the many cyclists and bike lanes to discovering that car drivers don’t respect you like they do in Denmark and that bike lanes can end very abruptly.

I was tired of not being able to go anywhere without having cash on me due to the £5 minimum on using a card. I got tired of having to check in to each class, of having to say something in every class and of being the only student with a computer. I got tired of those split English faucets that give you either scolding hot or ice-cold water. I got tired of speaking English all the time, not being able to find the right words and feeling like I wasn’t quite myself in this second language.

Very soon, I also found out that sport clubs expect a lot from you: for example, that you turn up for every single training session and every single game unless you’re going to a funeral (not unusual, I know, but it didn’t quite match the idea in my head at the time that I was free to do what I wanted during my stay).

It all came to a head a couple of weeks ago, when I was run down while riding my bike. I was very fortunate to only bang up my one knee, but it was a struggle even at the ER, because they wouldn’t talk to me unless I had an British phone number.
I think that was what marked the turning point of my second phase, the one of frustration.

On the other hand, it helps being with other exchange students who have much the same feelings (and then we can make fun of Britain a bit). But don’t get me wrong: even with this second phase, I’m absolutely thrilled to be here. I still have to pinch my arm now and then, because I find it so hard to believe that after the long and arduous process of eternal applications, calls and getting all those different signatures on various documents, I’m actually here. It’s all been worth it.

Time will tell if I also make it through the last two phases of culture shock. If I do, you’ll be the first to know.

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