This essay is from a series I wrote shortly after I arrived in Denmark. The line drawings are my own.
I must admit I envy Danes at vacation time.
Danes on vacation have so much time, and it must be so much easier to travel when your country hasn’t started any wars lately. But I have a lot of trouble understanding how they use it. They seem to be on an endless search for other Denmarks with better weather.
There is no Jantelov when it comes to comparing Denmark with other countries. I have seen Danish women furious when men in Italy and Spain flirt and flatter and generally act like Italian and Spanish men, instead of their wimpy Danish counterparts. If only men here respected women, like they do in Denmark.
Danes shake their heads at drunks sleeping on the sidewalk in New York City – If only they had social workers to help them, like we do in Denmark – and at veiled ladies in Africa. If only they could wear what’s in the weekly ladies’ magazines, like we do in Denmark.
In general, they feel a quiet shock and pity for anyone who can’t eat fried fish balls and watch Danish reality television. Why can’t everyone be tolerant and open-minded, like we are in Denmark?
So why leave Denmark at all? Well, there is the weather, although I have never understood why Danish people insist on traveling during the summer, in the only few weeks of the year when the weather in Denmark is any good. November in Copenhagen is dreadful, March is a misery, but in July, Copenhagen’s Ørested Park is one of the prettiest places on the planet.
But good weather in Denmark is an exception, and no one ever seems to suggest Danish weather serve as a model for anywhere else. In fact, it makes Danish tourists easy to spot during the winter months: they are the ones standing in the airport parking lot in Tenerife with their faces up to the sun, trying to get the last drops of light before they board the plane.
This, I think accounts for the eternal popularity of Australia, which can be counted on to be sunny. It has other things in common with Denmark, too – lots of athletic, blond people, an endless supply of beer, and even its own Jantelov, in the form of a Tall Poppy Syndrome. (A friend of mine once tried to mail an important letter first class letter in Australia; “Only one class here, mate,” the postal clerk told him.)
Most Danes have been to the United States too, and I always quiver a little when they start to tell their America stories. Did they have a good time? Or am I about to have to apologize for something?
Fortunately, most of the time they’ve enjoyed themselves and my fellow Americans have been pleasant. In fact, most Danes seem pleased by the willingness with which Americans will strike up conversations, say, in the line at the supermarket, although they always seem slightly hurt that these supermarket-line relationships turn out to be so short-term and superficial. (“And then the checkout lady said, How are you today? But she didn’t really care about me.”)
Danish as a code language
I’ve actually enjoyed vacationing a lot more since I’ve come to Denmark, in part because I’ve learned Danish, a great a secret code language when traveling abroad. Incomprehensible to anyone but Norwegians and sharp-eared Swedes, it makes the communication of sensitive information easy and fun. “Do not buy that. That is clearly not an authentic ancient papyrus,” you can tell your friend in an Egyptian bazaar. Or, in a bar in Italy, “Buy him a drink if you insist, but conversation is all you’re getting. The man is clearly gay.”
Of course, this technique works a lot better in Texas or Tokyo than it does in London, and if you guess wrong about who speaks Danish you can easily get your block knocked off. Especially since, as an American, I am constitutionally required to speak very loud. But it’s a good concept all the same.
Secret language or not, Danish will soon be heard in the campgrounds of South France, on the beaches of Thailand, and in the supermarkets of Mallorca, for the Danish summer vacation season has begun. Danes will be opening their hearts and minds to exotic cultures (while hanging out with any Swedes or Norwegians they may happen to meet) and secretly checking out foreign newspapers in the hope that the weather is really bad back home.
Image mashup copyright Kay Xander Mellish 2021