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Podcasts, Stories about life in Denmark

Danes and Norwegians: Bitter envy and brotherly love


Danes and Norwegians were part of the same country for hundreds of years, and they’re still family.

Although I’ve chosen to live in Denmark, I have a personal relationship with Norway. My grandmother’s family comes from Norway, and as my mother was growing up, her mother told her that our family was Norwegian royalty. 

Never mind that there was no modern Norwegian royalty until 1905, when the country became independent, and our family came to the U.S. thirty years before that. My mother grew up being told she was a lost Norwegian princess. I think it was something that her grandparents, who were immigrants, did to make their kids feel special.

Fast forward sixty years, and my mother and her sister, who would, of course, also have been a Norwegian princess, got a chance to visit Norway for the first time. My mother, who has a good sense of humor, wore a crown on the plane. She and her sister got crowns at a costume store and wore them on the SAS flight to Norway. She said the stewardesses really loved it. When they got off the plane, they did the royal wave. And they went to the Royal Palace and had their picture taken out front, wearing their crowns.

So, bottom line, I’m not sure the Mellish family is welcome in Norway anymore.

Family envy

Danes and Norwegians were part of the same country for hundreds of years, and they’re still family. Written Danish and written Norwegian are very similar – so similar that I once tried to find a Danish-Norwegian dictionary and was told there was no such thing. The spoken language is a little more different, but Danes and Norwegians can understand what the other is saying. 

Danes and Norwegians like each other. They care about each other. They sometimes even cheer for each other’s soccer teams.

But like any family, there’s envy involved. Envy. 

For example, there’s envy of each other’s geographical pleasures. Norway has beautiful mountains, great for skiing. Denmark has windswept beaches, which the Norwegians seem to love. Lots of summer holidays are spent in Denmark. 

Denmark has Copenhagen – which, let’s face it, is a cooler city than Oslo. It just is. Sorry, Oslo. 

But Norway has those beautiful, isolated towns on the fjords, with their brightly-colored wooden houses and their long summer nights. If you know any Danish doctors, you’ll know that they frequently take a week or two off and go work in one of those isolated Norwegian towns, where they make a lot of money. 

And now we come again to the envy in the relationship. Norway has money. And it didn’t used to have money. 

For hundreds of years, Denmark was sort of the big brother in the Danish-Norwegian relationship.

Even the Norwegian royal family – the real one – is descended from a leftover Danish prince. His name was Carl, he was a second son, and they sent him to Norway where he took the name Haakon. It was the start of a long royal story followed mostly by the weekly Norwegian supermarket tabloids.

Danes used to see Norwegians as non-threatening, kind of cute. Colorful mountain people with a pleasing, musical dialect, sort of like the English see the Scots. 

The little brother is now rich

But over the past thirty years, Norway has become rich, possibly the richest country in the world, because of North Sea Oil. Denmark has to worry about how it will finance its welfare state in the future. Norway doesn’t. 

Some Danes feel that oil should have been Danish oil. During a meeting to divide up the waters between the two countries in 1963, the Danish negotiator Per Haakerup was photographed with a glass of whisky in his hand.

The rumor was, he was drunk during the meeting and good-naturedly gave up the Ekofisk oilfield, which has since earned Norway billions of dollars. 

For the rest of his life, he denied being drunk. His family has actually hired historians to dispel the rumor. And the truth is that at the time, no one even knew about the oil. They thought they were dividing fishing grounds. 

But a lot of Danes still believe this story. They believe that some of Norway’s money should have been theirs. Envy. 

Some Norwegians may believe it, too. There’s an urban legend that there’s a secret room in the Norwegian National Museum in Oslo that holds the empty bottle of Johnny Walker whisky that maybe, just maybe, made Norway rich. 

Kay Xander Mellish books

Buy Kay’s books about Denmark on Amazon, Saxo, Google Books, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble Nook, or via our webshop.

Image mashup copyright Kay Xander Mellish 2022

Read also:
“Life in Norway” on “How to Live in Denmark”

Danes and Swedes: The World’s Worst Haircuts are Swedish
Denmark, Dutch, Deutschland: Why Denmark gets confused with its neighbors

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