I talk a lot in my speeches about how people bring their own work culture with them when they come to work in Denmark, but they also bring their own dating culture.
The way you expect to meet a potential partner, to flirt, to show you’re serious, to take the relationship to the next level, these are expectations you bring with you to Denmark from your home culture.
When you get here, you will meet Danes who have very different expectations.
Romance in Denmark
Denmark’s doing a big recruitment campaign now, trying to get young professionals to bring their skills to Denmark, and a lot of them are single when they arrive.
If they want to meet someone and don’t meet someone, and if they want a serious relationship and a family but can’t get started, they often go home again.
So, in the name of economic development, here are my tips on romance in Denmark.
I frequently work with internationals who have arrived in Denmark from sunny countries like India, the UAE, and the Philippines, and they all share one common challenge – finding light in the Danish winter darkness.
Actually, Danish people struggle with it as well. The darkness that starts to fall in the early afternoon means that 5pm looks just like 8pm, which looks just like midnight, which looks just like 5am, which looks very similar to 8am. Dense, inky black sky.
During the daytime there’s a dim grey light, sometimes accompanied by a soupy fog of tiny raindrops. It’s tough to handle.
Many people living through this time in Denmark describe feeling low-energy – sløj is the very descriptive Danish term. It translates directly to “sluggish”. Others feel deeply depressed. Some eat too much, or drink too much. Some sleep all the time.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Here are my tips for handling these dark months, which generally stretch from November until the end of February.
It’s almost Week 1, in the weekly numbering system that’s widely used in Northern Europe, where the year starts with week 1 and runs through to Week 52 or 53, depending on the calendar.
It’s very efficient for planning, so you don’t have to say something messy like “What about that week that starts Monday June 3…” Week 1 starts on January 1, and everything follows that in perfect order.
But before that we have New Year’s Eve, a day that fills me with trepidation to be honest, because in Denmark, New Year’s Eve is all about amateur fireworks.
Cannonballs, Roman Candles, Ding Dongs, Triple Extremes – these are what you can purchase to set off yourself in a local parking lot, terrifying any nearby dogs or cats.
Having a family member in the hospital business, I can’t help but think that today, December 26, there are a few amateur fireworks fans who have perfectly well-functioning eyes and fingers who won’t have them on January 2.
When I first arrived in Denmark, I saw something I haven’t seen since, which was a parade of Danish soldiers walking down the street.
These were soldiers that were just back from duty in a very violent war zone, and what I remember most about the parade is that the crowd was entirely silent.
I gave a weak little cheer – hooray! – because that’s what I would do in my own culture, but I was the only one.
I remember reading in the media afterwards that it was difficult for Danes to understand how well-raised Danish boys could get involved in any type of war, any type of military activity that might involve hurting people.
Well-raised Danish boys would always be peaceful.
I don’t know if the recent conflict in Ukraine has changed that belief, as people realize that aggressive warfare can still happen in Europe. Violence sometimes comes to you, whether you like it or not.
But I’m often told that in their daily lives Danes are “conflict-shy”, or konfliktsky in Danish.
I don’t think this is true. They are happy to loudly share their opinions in situations where they don’t have to deal with the fallout, like yelling at you as they whizz past you in the bicycle lanes. If you try to catch up with them to continue the conversation, they’ll bike away pretty fast.
They’re happy to share their opinion, they just don’t want to hear yours.
When it comes to drugs, Denmark’s approach is inconsistent. Getting illegal drugs doesn’t seem to be too difficult, but getting legal drugs can be.
Hashish, which is illegal in Denmark, was until recently easy to procure at “Pusher Street”, in the so-called Free State of Christiania in Copenhagen. Christiania is one of the tourist attractions of Copenhagen.
This old military base, which was taken over by hippies during the 1970s, is a unique place, with dirt roads and ramshackle wooden buildings put together with odds and ends and some gorgeous wild nature which is surprising to find in the middle of a European capital city.
Pusher Street was a row of wooden booths where until recently buyers could choose from a selection of hashish being sold openly, although the dealers would smash your camera if you tried to take a picture of it.
It’s been shut down again and again in the past, usually after violent incidents, but it always risen up again. The truth is many Copenhageners like the fact that hashish dealing is centralized in one place. They don’t want the dealers and customers coming to *their* neighborhoods.
Snowflake doesn’t mean winter weather
Anyway, much of the drug dealing in Denmark today doesn’t take place on Pusher Street, it takes place via smartphones like everything else. Via text messages, or on apps that are popular with young people, like Snapchat.
When someone has a snowflake emoji next to their Snapchat profile image, it doesn’t mean that they like winter weather.
When I first arrived in Denmark, you could shut down any dispute in Denmark by appealing to the common good. Solidarity – solidaritet– and fælleskab, or community, or even samfundssind, societal spirit.
These were magic words, and they still are, particularly with the older generation that built Denmark’s welfare state. If you want to convince this generation of anything, just make a reference to solidarity and community and societal spirit. Works like a charm.
What about “Jante Law”?
I’m often asked if the younger generation is as dedicated to these principles as their elders, and if they still follow the Jante Law.
Jante Law is not really a law – it’s like a legend, in which people living in Denmark are not supposed to act like they’re better than anyone else, or smarter than anyone else, or know more than anyone else.
This, of course, is tricky if you actually are better than someone else, or smarter than someone else, or know more than someone else. But the idea is, don’t try to speed ahead of others. We all move at the same rate.
Young people aren’t too keen to put up with that, in particular in an environment where they are competing internationally.
For many Danish young people, the idea that all Danes are equal and we must all move together, at the same pace, seems outdated.
And one contemporary example is the rise of the electric bike.
Many people who visit Denmark are fans of the Vikings, the familiar name for Scandinavians before the medieval era, although technically speaking the Viking raiders were at their peak in the years 800-1100.
There are plenty of opportunities, especially now during tourist season, to see modern-day Danes dressed up as Vikings, building wooden ships, cooking over open fires, and fighting with swords and shields. Exhibitions like this are very popular with visitors from overseas.
What they might not know is that you can see actual Vikings in Denmark, or what’s left of their bodies. It was common in the Viking era and before to toss sacrificial items and people into peat bogs, which, it turns out, preserve bodies and clothing and hair very well.
So there are several places in Denmark where you can see actual humans from the Viking age, more than a thousand years old, and sometimes their clothes and hairstyles, sometimes even the last food they ate, reclaimed from their stomachs.
Some bodies are so well-preserved that they still have fingerprints.
In Denmark, the right to a long summer vacation is enshrined into law – the national vacation law, which states that all employees have a right to three weeks’ vacation between May and September.
July is peak vacation time, and some companies close down entirely for a week or two, forcing their employees to take some time off.
Shops close, too. An ice cream shop in my neighborhood closed down for the entire month of July last year. You would think this would be peak time for ice cream, but for the owners of the ice cream shop, their own vacation was more important.
Bicycle shop closes
This year, I noticed that the bicycle store up the street is closed for three weeks – hope you don’t get a flat while out biking in the summer sunshine. So is the local “smørrebrød” sandwich shop. (Too bad about your picnic.) Even a local boutique selling swimwear is taking a summer break.
Danes believe that if you take a good, long, Danish summer vacation, you’ll come back refreshed, with new perspectives.
Free time is precious in Denmark – certainly more important than prestige, since people don’t generally use their job titles, and far ahead of money, since whatever you have the government will be taking a big bite out of. Free time is cherished, free time is wealth, and that’s one of the reasons the summer vacation is so prized.
You’ll often hear Danes ask each other how many weeks they’re taking for summer vacation. “So, this year, are you taking 3 or 4?”
Denmark is a rich country, but does it have rich people?
It does, but Denmark’s wealthy tend to keep a low profile, due to the informal Jante Law that prohibits too much showing off.
That said, spring and summer is great time to see Danish rich people in their natural habitat.
That’s when they put the roof down on their expensive German cars and drive through the medieval old towns, drink rosé chilled in silver buckets at fancy outdoor cafés, or sail through the harbor on their personal boats of various sizes.
In the summer, Denmark’s rich come out to play.
Two types of wealth
There are two types of wealth in Denmark, old wealth and new wealth.
Old wealth is the leftovers of Denmark’s nobility, Dukes and Counts and Barons, even though noble privileges were officially abolished in 1849.
Many of these families still own their old castles and country houses, some of which have been turned into hotels or fancy restaurants. You can stay there for a weekend with your sweetheart. Very romantic.
And then there’s new wealth. Denmark’s richest man owns Bestseller, a fast fashion chain that owns names like Vero Moda and Jack & Jones.
The heirs to LEGO, which is less than 100 years old, are also quite well off, and so are the heirs to the Ecco shoe fortune.
When you’ve been an international in Denmark for a while, as I have, you sometimes forget what it was like to arrive here for the first time and know nothing.
I remember arriving just about this time of year and being astonished by all the public holidays in spring. I’d arrived to work, but the office kept shutting down.
Now one of my various gigs is cultural training for newcomers, paid for by the big corporations that bring them here. The questions they ask bring me back to the time when I first arrived.
One of the most popular questions is pretty basic: How do I send a letter in Denmark? What does a postbox look like? Where do I buy a stamp?
First of all, you can buy a stamp through your phone. Denmark is a highly digitalized society, you rarely use cash for anything, and you can pay to mail your letter through an app. It will give you a nine-digit code that you write in the space where the stamp usually goes.
Then you drop it off in one of the red postboxes that can still be found around Denmark, even though the Swedes took over the postal service a few years ago and repainted everything else to do with the post office Swedish blue, including the carriers’ uniforms.
The red post boxes survived, maybe out of nostalgia. You will frequently hear Danes describe a color as “postbox red.”
The Swedes also sold off all the good real estate that Denmark’s post offices used to occupy, so Denmark doesn’t have post offices any more. If you want to send a package that can’t fit in the postbox, you take it to a special counter in one of the big supermarkets.