This essay is from a series I wrote in co-operation with the Danish tabloid BT in 2003, shortly after I arrived in Denmark. The line drawings are my own.
On my very first night in Copenhagen, I went with an American girlfriend to a downtown discotheque. I’m a blonde, and she’s an attractive black woman, so you could say we had something for every taste.
We sat at a table roughly the size of a pizza. Three men sat across from us, a distance of approximately 25 centimeters. For an hour. Without saying anything. I think Zulus or spacemen would have found some way to communicate with us, but this was apparently beyond the capability of three well-educated Danes.
Finally, fortified by gin and tonics, we spoke to them first, and they turned out to be nice guys. But that was a lucky night: Since moving here, I have been to many a discoteque where women shake their booty with their girfriends for hours while men watch with pretend disinterest from the sidelines, their eyes radiating invisible beams of desire: Please, miss, ask me to dance.
Dating in Denmark
How do Danish men and women meet each other? I know it happens; the streets are full of Danish babies. But much like other reported miracles, such as Christ walking on water or an American president delivering a speech he wrote himself, it’s something I’ve never seen with my own eyes.
For one thing, Danish people seem to think that talking to strangers is uncouth. Ask Danish men why they don’t chat up women, and they say that women don’t want to be approached. They’ll make fun of you; they’ll think you’re desperate. They’ll think you want something from them.
What men want of course, is the same thing that has produced a world population currently approaching 7 billion. Most women want the same thing, although they’d probably like it to last longer than three minutes. Yet you see Danish men and women in parks in the summer, sitting alone on blankets, or in cafes in the winter surrounded by their buddies or girlfriends with their hair carefully gelled, lonely and horny but contemptous of anyone who dares to approach.
Extreme drunkenness is socially acceptable
The icebreaker of course, is alcohol, and I have little doubt that if it vanished from the Earth tomorrow Danes would never reproduce. It didn’t take me long to learn that in Danish parties and nightclubs, there was a window of time, roughly from 1am to 3am, where social interaction was possible. Before 1am, Danish men weren’t drunk enough to talk, and after 3, they were too drunk to talk.
Extreme drunkeness seems to be the accepted way to meet that special someone, as explained to me in the days when I still was seeking a Danish boyfriend.
“What you do,” a Danish girlfriend explained to me, “is you get trashed and go home with somebody. Then in the morning you decide if you want to be boyfriend and girlfriend.”
This one-night stand culture is very difficult for foreigners to understand. One-night stands certainly take place in the US, but it is something unusual and embarassing, like making a lot of money in Denmark.
What do we tell the kids?
Here, drunken sex with a complete stranger seems to be the hopeful prelude to a serious relationship, possibly marriage. If children result from this, it is hard to imagine what their parents tell them about the night Mom and Dad first met. My grandparents once told me that they met outside a Depression-era dance hall, since my unemployed grandmother didn’t have the 10 cents necessary to get in, but maybe I just didn’t hear the whole story.
Which leads me back to dancing. Here is what I have learned: in Denmark, it is bad manners to ask a girl to dance, but it is good manners to get very drunk, make sure she is drunk too, and ask her to come back to your place. She will quite likely say yes, if only in a misguided audition for the role of girlfriend, leaving you both a little sad and bitter the next morning.
Long ago, before I ever thought of living here, a Danish woman told me that her country was a place with a lot of sex but not very much love. I wonder.