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Just back from Denmark – first time I’ve visited in many years – and I’m struck by how things just work over there. I know that viewing a foreign country through the prism of a 10 day break isn’t sound or best practice, but I wasn’t expecting the Danish vibe to feel so stark.
Numerous authors and commentators have written about the quality of life, the happiness index, the quintessential sense of hygge. Some, like Kay Mellish, have devoted themselves to explaining Denmark to the innocent and inexperienced. I can now start to see where they are coming from.
In Copenhagen, you notice the seamless organisation of train, bus and bike. Driving across Zealand on near empty, high quality roads makes you feel that traffic jams and grid lock are dystopian fictions. Despite talon-like multi-lane highways raking into the city centre past some brutalistic architecture, you can be surrounded by calm and dignified streets and sounds in less than a block.
Waiting to cross the street, and working out which way the ubiquitous peloton would come from, I noticed a casually uniformed guy – smart trousers, open necked shirt, peaked cap. Some sort of laptop was tucked under his right arm and his left hand grasped three bulging and clearly heavy money bags. He knelt to re-tie a shoelace, the bags placed on the ground beside him. It was instinctive, normal. I felt I was the only one who noticed, expecting an imminent street robbery that simply wasn’t going to happen.
Now I’m not so naïve to presume that Copenhagen has a zero crime rate or that the moneybag man wasn’t being a bit too complacent. But it is also clear that there really is something different here.
Particularly for visitors from the UK, US, Canada, Oz, New Zealand and so on, that feeling borders on embarrassment when it comes to language. English is so widely and effortlessly spoken. Which actually is just as well, given the impenetrability of Danish (despite the efforts of the aforementioned Ms Mellish).
And I speak as someone who does at least try to mug up on a few words of the place I’m visiting beforehand (and got to 9% fluency on a certain well-known online language tutorial, I’ll have you know!) I also was convinced I could at least understand Danish because I watched The Killing and didn’t need to rely on the subtitles – or so I thought.
But all my preparation and…er…. expertise…. didn’t get me past the first “Hej” – meaning and pronounced “Hi” with an uplift at the end. My response was a disappointingly and inevitable “Do you speak English?” (Those words precisely – not even “Taler du engelsk?”). It was so easy, I’m afraid I succumbed almost entirely, thanking the Danish education system every time I did so.
(I did once ask what a particular type of pasty was in Danish. The response left me none the wiser. It wasn’t just me: The SatNav’s pronunciation of street names sounded like someone speaking with a mouthful of candy floss).
There may be obvious reasons why the Danes seem to have it sussed. For a geographically small country, they have more space (130 people per square km, as opposed to our 262). And per capita income puts Denmark at No 6 in the world rankings – the UK is 19th at around 75% of Denmark’s figure. But underneath that sits a real sense of history and influence stretching back over a thousand years.
Go to Roskilde to see resurrected Viking longboats which predate rival European explorers by centuries. Danish amber was being traded with ruling elites in the Nile delta before the horn-helmeted raiders pitched up on our own east coast. The castle at Fredericksborg is stuffed – absolutely stuffed – full of paintings and furniture from what was clearly a very well established and powerful ruling elite from the 17th century. You can walk in the footsteps of Shakespeare’s Hamlet at Elsinore. The National Museum of Modern Art has a world class collection of sculptures and paintings, from Warhol to Giacometti.
I say this not to repay any (strictly theoretical) bung from the Danish Tourist Board, but because we often overlook the significance of our smaller neighbour. And that sense of history and substance reinforces a sense of Danish identify which in turn acts a platform for other behaviours and attitudes.
So what to conclude for my “two weeks of living Danishly”. Well, apart from a really good holiday, it seems that the cost of preserving the things that, by consensus, give happiness, satisfaction and hygge is a high degree of conformity. And that speaks very much to the security/liberty trade off that we are more used to debating here.
That conformity has a distinctive character – the latest Danish census describes the country as nearly 80% Lutheran. And the official Danish website says “Compared with most other countries in the world, Denmark’s societal institutions and popular mentality have been shaped by Christianity to an exceptional degree. It can be asserted that religion is more firmly entrenched in Danish society than in many other countries.”
The legacy of progressive social policies and a highly cohesive community is what is reflected by authors such as Russell, Kingsley, Wiking and Mellish. I’ve enjoyed my break but I wonder how what I have seen will change over the coming years, and what lessons that may have for the idea of society across Western Europe.
So that’s been my last couple of weeks. Anything happen whilst I was away?
*With acknowledgement and apologies to Helen Russell, author of a similarly titled (and very readable) book.