While a car is useful for exploring the Danish countryside, a car in one of Denmark’s larger cities can be a millstone around your neck.
The traffic is terrible, the fuel costs stratospheric, the parking spaces doll-sized. Bicyclists own the road and often ignore traffic rules.
If you’re just visiting, don’t feel you need to rent a car when you land at the airport.
Even if the home or business you’re visiting is in the suburbs, there’s a good chance you’ll save money by taking a cab – and most Danish taxis are Mercedes-Benz or Teslas. (There is no Uber or Lyft in Denmark.)
Watch out for bicyclists
If you do choose to drive in the city, be very careful about right turns.
Several Danish bicyclists are killed every year because a car or truck took a right turn and the bicyclist (who may be drunk, grooving out to music on his earbuds, or simply not paying attention) continued going straight.
There is no legal right turn on red in Denmark, and even on green, the bicyclist has the right of way.
Earlier this year, my daughter and I visited several Danish high schools to help her decide where she’ll continue her education. We looked at the classrooms, and at the laboratories – my daughter likes science. We looked at the athletic faculties, and we looked at the bars.
Yes, most of the high schools we visited had a bar, or at least a café where they serve the students beer on tap, or hard cider in cans, or alco-pops in bottles when they want to relax after class.
Now, high school students are usually 16 to 19 years old, and the legal purchase age for wine and beer in Denmark is 16, so it’s all totally legal.
It’s just a bit surprising when you come from anyplace where teenagers are encouraged not to drink alcohol to find a bar conveniently located next to the school gym.
I’ve been living in Denmark so long that I sometimes forget what it’s like not to live in Denmark. Specifically, I forget that in most countries, adult men and women don’t want to walk around in an elf hat, even at Christmastime.
Wherever alcohol is served
In Denmark, the red and white elf hat is part of any Christmas activity where alcohol is served, and even a few where when alcohol isn’t served. Children occasionally wear the elf hats, which are called Nissehue in Danish. At my daughter’s school pageant, the girls wear long white gowns and carry candles for the Santa Lucia procession, and the boys wear elf hats.
But you’re more likely to see an elf hat on an adult, quite possibly on your boss or your professor or somebody else you’re supposed to respect. Wearing an elf hat as a grown-up in Denmark is the way to show you’ve got a sense of humor about yourself, that you’re up for a party, that you see the fun in Christmas. Or, that you can see any fun in life at all after four weeks of nonstop grey skies and rain during Danish November.
Elf hats will be out in force during Danish corporate Christmas parties. You’ll see them on the dance floor, and quite possibly see two of them making out in the printer room. Danish corporate Christmas parties get pretty wild, which why furniture movers say their big season is December and January. One half of a couple misbehaves at the Christmas party, and the movers are there the next weekend.
The 12 days of Christmas is an old French Christmas song. But those 12 days have nothing on the Danes, who have more than two months of Christmas, and would probably have it last all the way to spring if they could get away with it.
Little cookies in shops
If you’re here in Denmark right now, you probably saw the Christmas wrapping paper hit the shelves at Netto a couple of weeks ago. That, and the first of the gingerbread Christmas cookies. You’ll notice that a lot of Danish shops put out little dishes of brown Christmas cookies that look like overgrown M&Ms. Pepper nuts, they’re called.
You’re invited to take one, they’re free and they are very tasty. That said, you might not be thinking about all the other little fingers that have touched those cookies. I recommend buying your own pepper nuts and enjoying them at home.
Christmas beer bikinis
Anyway, the official start of the holiday is this week, November 6, when Tuborg rolls out its annual Christmas beer. It’s released at precisely 20:59, and everybody hangs out in bars waiting for it, some specially dressed in blue Christmas beer hats, Christmas beer neckties, or even Christmas beer bikinis.
Christmas beer tastes a lot like regular beer, a little bit sweeter, and a lot stronger. This is why a man I once knew, who was a bit of a wolf, told me that Christmas beer day was the best day of the year to ‘score’ with married women. The beer is very strong.
I help out at a flea market sometimes near Copenhagen, a flea market that’s held a few times a year to benefit my daughter’s marching band. We sell things people have sent for recycling – at the local recycling center, you can put things that are still useful in a special room, and then community groups sort through those things and sell them to raise money.
We have one persistent problem: too many shotglasses. Each new week brings dozens of beautiful crystal shotglasses, prized for a lifetime by someone from the older generation, perhaps now the dead generation. These people to used to drink clear snaps before fancy Easter lunches, and or a dark bitter alcohol called Gammel Dansk before breakfast.
People in Denmark don’t do that much any more. They go jogging before breakfast and drink wine for holiday lunches, if they drink anything.
And most young people already have a set of grandpa’s old shotglasses gathering dust somewhere at the back of a cabinet, and they don’t need any more.
So week after week, these lovely little etched crystal glasses line up like fragile soldiers on the storage shelves at the flea market. Nobody needs them, nobody buys them, but we just don’t have the heart to throw them out.
More than a decade after moving to Denmark, I am pretty well integrated into Danish society.
I’ve learned to speak Danish, I pay my taxes, I bike everywhere, I send my daughter to a Danish school. I enjoy a nice slice of dark rye rugbrød – even when I’m on my own and don’t have to impress anyone with how healthy I’m eating.
But there are a few ways I simply refuse to integrate. I will not do things the Danish way.
This essay is from a series I wrote shortly after I arrived in Denmark. The line drawings are my own.
Americans can’t be prissy, can they? After all, we invented Las Vegas.
So why am I so shocked at the debauchery of a Danish corporate Christmas party?
It’s not the drinking that shocks me – God knows, Danish people do that all year – or even the sex. I think it’s the proximity of work and sex. In a land with few limits, Americans draw a firm line between work and sex, based on the (rather prissy) notion that no one should have to put up with sexual come-ons or even sexual talk in order to keep a job, and that anyone who does should be compensated with a hefty legal settlement. All I can think about at a Danish Christmas party is how much an American lawyer could earn off the proceedings. One stalk of corporate mistletoe, I am sure, would generate more than enough business for him to redecorate his office with the high-priced furniture at Illums Bolighus and his wife with silver from George Jensen.