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.
The hottest competitive sport in Denmark over the past year hasn’t been handball, or football, or badminton.
It’s been chasing cheap butter in the supermarket.
Recent inflation has doubled the price of butter – in some places, up to 30 kroner – but if you rush, you can get…a package of butter for 10 kroner at one supermarket…wait, only three packages per customer…but hey, this competing supermarket has matched the price…look, this other one has it for only 5 kroner…ohhhhhh, it’s sold out for today. Better come earlier tomorrow.
Butter chasing is how even high-achieving, high-earning Danes have been spending their time. Nobody wants to pay 30 kroner for butter.
Butter and the Danish soul
Butter is a part of the Danish soul. The Danish word for butter is smør…you might be familiar with smørrebrød, the famous open-faced Danish sandwiches. Smørrebrød means buttered bread.
“The unwritten rules of Danish working culture” – Berlingske Business
“Starting a job in the Danish workplace can be hard for foreigners” – Danish regional newspaper network taler med amerikansk gaesteforelaser Kay Xander Mellish.
Danish “freedom with responsibility” can be misunderstood by internationals – Børsen Ledelse taler med Kay Xander Mellish, foredragsholder om dansk arbejdskultur.
“Ask for help when you need it” – Sondag Magazine interview med amerikansk gæstetaler Kay Xander Mellish.
“No one told me how important it is to eat cake in the office” – Femina taler med amerikansk oplaegsholder Kay Xander Mellish.
Four ways to avoid conflict with your international colleagues – Berlingske talks to Kay Xander Mellish, expert on Danish working culture:
Kay Xander Mellish speaks to TV2
A brand new version of the “How to Work in Denmark” book is now available, with three new chapters.
“How to Work in Denmark:Tips for Finding a Job, Succeeding at Work, and Understanding your Danish Boss” has helped thousands of newcomers since it was issued in 2018 – but things change, and I have updated the book for the times.
Three new chapters
One new chapter talks about internationals managing Danes. Five years ago, a non-Danish boss with a Danish team was a rarity, but it isn’t any more. What’s it like to manage and motivate Danes?
We also look at what it’s like to work with Danes virtually – the top boss may be wearing a hoodie and dialing in from his summer house – and how Danes work with their neighbors, including Swedes, Norwegians, and the all-important Germans, who are Denmark’s top import and export partners.
The brand new “How to Live in Denmark” book is already available in eBook form via Saxo and Amazon. Paperback is open for webshop orders and you can also order it from any Danish bookstore. Order in bulk for your company or agency to get a volume discount.
Why job titles aren’t important in Denmark
It explains why job titles aren’t that important in Denmark, how to fine-tune your approach to the Danish job market, and look at whether joining a union is worth it. It also has tips on your first day at work, handling a meeting in Denmark, and the secrets of socializing with your Danish colleagues.
The book also talks about birthdays and gifts in the Danish workplace, decoding your Danish pay slip and your Danish taxes, and when to take sick leave.
It includes the special chapters “Will I ever be promoted?” and “Can I date my Danish colleague?“
Every country, it seems, has a city or region that is the butt of jokes. The rest of the country makes fun of the locals’ abrasive accents and supposedly low-end behavior.
In the United States, it’s New Jersey. In Sweden it’s Skåne, the area close to Denmark that includes Malmo. I’ve been told that in England it’s Essex, in Scotland it’s Aberdeen, and in Ireland it’s Kerry.
In Denmark, it’s Randers.
Randers is a city in Northern Jutland, about a half hour away from Aarhus. It used to be bigger than Aarhus, and bigger than Aalborg too, but it was a manufacturing town, and when manufacturing fell apart in Denmark after the Second World War, so did Randers.
Today, the stereotype of Randers locals involves muscle meatheads, possibly criminal, possibly in some sort of motorcycle gang, with a rough, gravelly accent, and lots of tattoos and leather.
And that’s just the women. The men are the same, but with shorter haircuts.