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.
Getting to Sweden from Copenhagen is easy: you take a quick trip across the Øresund Bridge in your car or on the train. Getting to Norway from Copenhagen isn’t too hard: there’s a ferry that runs every day from Nordhavn.
Getting to Germany from Copenhagen, on the other hand, is a headache.
If you don’t want to fly or take the long way around through Jutland, you need to head for the little Danish town of Rødbyhavn, on the island of Lolland. Then your train or car or truck drives into the belly of a giant ferry. Then you get off on the other side in the little German town of Puttgarten and continue along your way.
The giant ferries are fun. Up top, they have duty-free shops and game arcades and restaurants where you eat very quickly, because it’s only about a half-hour trip.
But, as of 2029, the trip will be a lot quicker and a lot easier.
That’s when the tunnel between Denmark and Germany is scheduled to open.
One of Denmark’s cheapest and most colorful vacations is a few hours riding back and forth on Copenhagen’s big yellow harbor bus, or “Havnebussen”, a commuter ferry designed to transport ordinary citizens between downtown and the urban islands of Christianshavn and Amager.
For those of you who have no summer vacation plans yet, or who don’t have the cash to go very far, the harbor bus can take you from tourist trap to high culture to party culture, from shabby little wood shacks to neighborhoods of chic glass apartment houses with their own private beach.
All for as little as 14 kroner, or 2 euro, if you pay with Denmark’s popular rejsekort, or nothing, if you’re a tourist with a Copenhagen Card. (Beware – you cannot buy a ticket onboard, although you can pay with with the DOT Tickets app on your phone.)
You can start at any of the currently operational 7 Havnebussen stops, but let’s start at Nyhavn, in part because it’s the easiest stop to find if you don’t know Copenhagen well.
Moving to Denmark as an American has become a hot topic recently; I hear a lot from Americans interested in immigration to Denmark.
Since I’m selling books called How to Live in Denmark and How to Work in Denmark, you’d think I would encourage as many Americans as possible to look into Denmark immigration.
But moving to Denmark with a U.S. passport isn’t as easy as just buying a plane ticket and a lot of sweaters.
When I mentioned visiting Esbjerg for a few days off this spring, many of my friends in Copenhagen said – why? Esbjerg doesn’t have a reputation as a vacation spot, even though it’s the fifth-largest city in Denmark and the youngest big city.
My daughter, who is more clever than I am, told her Copenhagen friends that we were going to the “West Coast of Denmark” making it sound like we would be relaxing on one of the west coast beaches.
For Copenhagen snobs, Esbjerg is a fishing town, which it was 50 years ago but isn’t really anymore. It’s an oil and wind energy town, industrial but very modern.
Still, I think the city has a bit of an inferiority complex.
To celebrate the anniversary of the “How to Live in Denmark Podcast” – which launched in summer 2013 and has since racked up more than a million downloads – I wanted something special and memorable. This new Welcome to Denmark drawing is it.
I have long been a fan of Danish cartoonist Claus Deleuran’s 1992 image, “Danes, Danish, More Danish”, done for an exhibit at the Nikolaj Kunsthal, but had always been frustrated that it only seems to exist online small, low-res versions.
I thought it would be fun to recreate it – and as long as I was redrawing it – to reflect the Denmark of today.
Although I have drawn cartoons in the past, this particular image is not drawn by me. I commissioned Polish graphic artist Karolina Kara to help me to create it, explaining to her exactly how I wanted each of the characters to appear.
I also gave her photos to work with, such as a picture of the trademark “Copenhagen bench” the beer drinkers are sitting on in the foreground to the right.
Along with food and housing, getting around is a big part of the cost of living in Denmark. In fact, the less you spend on rent, by living outside of the most expensive downtown zones, the more you’re likely to spend on transport.
And no matter what the tourist brochures suggest, you probably won’t go everywhere on a bike in Denmark. Bikes are great in downtown Aarhus or Copenhagen, or in a campus-type area like DTU in Lyngby.
But the further you get outside of urban areas, the more useful a car is. That’s why there are 2.5 million personal cars on the road in Denmark plus 0.5 million “business cars.” Three million cards on the road means roughly one for every two people.
Cars are brutally expensive in Denmark, and if you live far away from mass transport, you might be stuck buying one.
Otherwise, there are many ways to lower your cost of transport in Denmark by getting around for less, and it has a lot to do with how well you plan.
And the Danes are, in general, very good advance planners.
Incredibly cheap train tickets
My personal favorite way to cut the cost of transport in Denmark are the Orange train tickets you can get for incredibly cheap prices if you book in advance.
I was stunned to find that you can get from one side of Denmark to the other – from Copenhagen to Esbjerg, to be precise – for only 99 kroner.
That’s cheaper than a 10-minute trip in a Copenhagen taxi. And it’s 3 1/2 hour journey.
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.