For a foreigner, life among the Danes can have its challenges. This podcast looks at the humorous aspects of living in Denmark as foreigner, whether as an immigrant, expatriate, student or simply a visitor from abroad. Kay Xander Mellish lives in the Danish capital, Copenhagen.
Newcomers to Denmark often complain that the locals aren’t chatty. They don’t want to converse on the bus, or on the train, or in line at the supermarket, or really anyplace that isn’t a designated social zone. Like the company canteen at lunch, or a dinner party at home to which they have invited a precise number of people to match the number of chairs that they own.
In general, Danes rarely talk to strangers unless they are drunk, but there is one exception: Danish people over 75 years old.
Danes over 75, or even 70 or 65, often live alone, and they are often eager for conversation. There is even a special municipal program called Elderlearn that matches older Danes with newcomers who are eager to improve their spoken Danish abilities. The internationals get to practice speaking Danish, and the older person gets some company.
This does create some comic situations. I remember seeing a video – one of those videos I saw online years ago and haven’t been able to locate since – in which a nice fellow from India was matched with Kirsten, a Danish lady in her 80s.
Many Danes adore their Royal Family, and follow every twist and turn of their story in glossy magazines and now, a glossy Instagram feed.
In this approved Royal media, children are always well-dressed and smiling, marriages are always happy, and royal parents are always deeply royal proud of their offspring. Everybody trims the Christmas tree together, or goes for a healthy run together, or attends large galas in fancy dresses and glittering jewelry.
But there are also some Danes who dislike the monarchy and the roughly 100 million kroner they cost Danish taxpayers each year. These people call the royal family Denmark’s biggest welfare recipients.
If you enjoy getting very drunk at Christmas parties, so drunk you can barely find your way home, you will fit in well at the traditional Danish Christmas party.
Alcohol is the blood that flows through Danish Christmas parties, and flows and flows. An evening will probably start off with cocktails – or perhaps some gløgg, hot spiced wine with brandy – then move into plenty of wine with dinner.
After dinner there will be beer, and more wine, and perhaps some more cocktails in between turns on the dance floor.
Even corporate employee Christmas parties are sometimes so wild and soused that people forget themselves with their colleagues and end up in trouble with their partner at home.
So what do you do if you’re invited to a Danish Christmas party and you’re a non-drinker?
I missed a gala opening last week. It wasn’t of an opera or a nightclub, but of Copenhagen’s big new Genbrug Center, a place set up by the local government where people can leave stuff they don’t want and other people can take it for free.
The party seems to have been a hit. I saw photos of people leaving with chic leather chairs, kitchenware, lumber for building, even an electric guitar.
There is a network of these “genbrug” (recycling) stations all over all over the country, 13 in Copenhagen alone, full of lovely things that people simply can’t use any more.
Maybe they bought a new one, maybe they’re cleaning out the basement or a storage locker, maybe they’ve fallen in love and are moving in with someone who already has a toaster.
Anyone who has spent time living in Denmark knows that it’s one of the most expensive countries around. That’s true when it comes to food shopping in Denmark, too.
One Dane who had lived in the US explained it this way: “In Denmark, every supermarket is priced like Whole Foods.”
For those of you who haven’t visited the States, Whole Foods is a high-end grocery chain nicknamed “Whole Wallet” or “Whole Paycheck.”
One reason is that unlike most Western countries, Denmark imposes a full sales tax on food items, adding 25% to the price of almost everything.
I love old books. I love the kind of old books you get at antique bookstores or on the Internet Archive. And I have a good collection of old books about Denmark.
I like old travel guides, most of which are still pretty useful because the Danes don’t tear a lot of things down the way they do, in say, Los Angeles or Hong Kong. In Denmark you’ll pretty much find most castles and monuments right where somebody left them hundreds of years ago.
If you want to see a famous church or square or the Jelling Stone, your Baedecker guidebook from 1895 will work just fine for you in most cases.
Denmark has had two female prime ministers and about forty percent of the people elected to the Folketing, the Danish Parliament, are women, which one might think is a good indicator of gender equality in Denmark.
But when it comes to private industry, Danish women have one of the lowest participation rates in management in Europe. According to the OECD, only 26.9% of managers in Denmark are female, compared to 40.7% in the US.
It’s not unusual to see a senior management team made up entirely of Danish males, with perhaps a Swedish or German male thrown in for diversity.
It might seem like a counterintuitive time to talk about beaches, in the middle of a long, very cold winter.
But in these times of COVID, beaches are one of the few places in Denmark you are currently allowed to meet up with family and friends.
Beaches, parks, frozen-over lakes, these are the big social meeting points at time when cafés, restaurants, bars, shops, gyms, schools, theaters, museums, places of worship, and hairdressers, barbers, and nail salons are all closed.
Unlike the Norwegians, Swedes, and some Germans, the Danes don’t show their cultural pride by dressing up in 19th century folk costumes. (As a matter of fact, the first time I ever saw a Danish folk costume was at a festival in California.)
Instead, Danes express their cultural pride through food.
When visiting Denmark, you’ll be offered Danish cuisine, and expressing enthusiasm for it will go a long way towards generating harmony with your Danish friends.
Flæskesteg, Denmark’s national dish
The good news is, dining in Denmark offers something for everyone.
If you’re a carnivore, don’t miss the Danish pork dishes, particularly flæskesteg. That’s a crispy, fatty fried pork that’s often called Denmark’s national dish, served with sugary caramelized potatoes and braised red cabbage.
For people who prefer fish, there’s a great selection in this country surrounded by water.
While a car is useful for exploring the Danish countryside, a car in one of Denmark’s larger cities can be a millstone around your neck.
The traffic is terrible, the fuel costs stratospheric, the parking spaces doll-sized. Bicyclists own the road and often ignore traffic rules.
If you’re just visiting, don’t feel you need to rent a car when you land at the airport.
Even if the home or business you’re visiting is in the suburbs, there’s a good chance you’ll save money by taking a cab – and most Danish taxis are Mercedes-Benz or Teslas. (There is no Uber or Lyft in Denmark.)
Watch out for bicyclists
If you do choose to drive in the city, be very careful about right turns.
Several Danish bicyclists are killed every year because a car or truck took a right turn and the bicyclist (who may be drunk, grooving out to music on his earbuds, or simply not paying attention) continued going straight.
There is no legal right turn on red in Denmark, and even on green, the bicyclist has the right of way.