When I first arrived in Denmark during the summer – summer 2000, for those who are counting – one of the things I immediately liked about it was that there was no air conditioning. I had spent the past ten years working in tower blocks in Manhattan, where you are hit by an icy blast of air as you enter on a sunny June day, and with an oven-like blanket of heat when you exit.
In Copenhagen, the summer air is the same inside as it is outside, except perhaps a bit stuffier, what with Danish ventilation technology being somewhat less advanced than Danish heating technology.
That summer of 2000 was a good education in Danish summers, since the sunny weather never actually turned up. In June, it was rainy and cold, and people told me it would probably get better in July.
In July, the weather was also poor, but the Danes told me you could generally count on August.
August came, grey and drizzling, and people started extolling the general glory of September.
And so on. I believe there was some sunshine around Christmas of that year.
Despite the unreliability of summer, there are some well-known Danish summer signifiers. One of them is sommersild, which translates to ‘summer herring.’ There is indeed a lunchtime casserole called summer herring, but that’s not what I’m talking about now.
‘Summer herring’ is a Danish media term for a feature in which attractive young women on the beach or at a local park are photographed wearing not very much clothing as part of a news story.
The news story is generally pretty thin: this year, I have seen summer herring presented with the shocking news that ice cream bars cost more in corner stores than in supermarkets. This was illustrated by some close-up photos of the ice cream bars and girls in bikini tops enjoying them.
You could certainly get angry about this objectification of women. Alternately, you could spare some sympathy for Danish men, whose observation of the female form is limited to padded jacket and fleece-watching for eleven months of every year. (In 2000, all 12 months of the year.)
There is also a male version of ‘summer herring.’ It’s called strandløver, or ‘beach lions,’ usually muscular blond types, although muscular immigrants are also represented. Beach lions don’t appear in the media quite as much, and they don’t test out ice cream bars, except maybe in publications directed at an all-male audience.
Anyway, even if the weather is bad during the summer, I still always enjoy a trip to Tivoli, the 150-year-old amusement park in downtown Copenhagen.
Tivoli has it all – roller coasters, rock bands, pretty gardens, and most of all great people-watching.
If I’m still in Denmark as an old lady, I plan to get a season pass and spend all day sitting on a bench watching the awkward teenaged lovers, joyful families, panicked single dads, and pretty children with their parents’ telephone numbers written on their arms in case they wander off. The restaurants in Tivoli are wildly overpriced, but you can bring your own food and have a picnic.
Blackberries by the train tracks
The fruit in Denmark is very good during the summer – fresh red strawberries in June, cherries in July, and wild blackberries in August. Even in downtown Copenhagen, you can still sometimes pick blackberries off the bushes by the subway tracks.
Eat them with crème fraiche, or as a companion to koldskål, the curious buttermilk dish that appears next to the milk cartons in Danish supermarkets the summer.
And, as always with Danish summers, I suggest you run outside as soon as you see the sun shining. You never know how long it’s going to last. There’s always the chance you might not see it until next year – or, in the case of the summer of 2000, not even then.
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Image mashup copyright Kay Xander Mellish 2021
Summer vacation in Denmark: The Agony and the Ecstasy
Summerhouse or doll house: What to expect if you’re invited to a Danish summer home
Danish summer: The downside of the “light times”
Danish beaches in winter: White light and bitter wind
More Snow Tomorrow: Surviving Winter as a Foreigner in Denmark
Danes and Spring: Hot wheat buns and highly-educated drunks
Autumn in Denmark: The Slow Fading of the Light