The worst-case coronavirus scenario is as terrifying in Denmark as it is everywhere else. There is no guarantee that the Danish health system will have the resources to help everyone who needs care. And the economy might be in tatters when the quarantine ends.
But for now, there is a certain pleasure in watching the gentle social machinery of the Danish state swing into action.
At the lakes in downtown Copenhagen—the city’s former moat—kindly city employees in safety vests make sure everyone runs or strolls in a clockwise direction, minimizing the chance of close face-to-face encounters.
The Danish police sent a friendly message to every mobile telephone in the country, reminding recipients to practice social distancing as you “enjoy your weekend.”
And Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen made an appearance on the Instagram account of Denmark’s top Gen-Z influencer, Anders Hemmingsen. She empathized with teens’ desire to go out and party, but encouraged them to stay home and tolerate their parents for a little longer.
I occasionally write for other media outlets and websites. The above is an excerpt for a piece about how Denmark handles coronavirus that I wrote for Quillette, an international magazine devoted to free thought.
Read the entire piece in Quillette here.
Hear all our How to Live in Denmark podcasts on Spotify and on Apple Podcasts (iTunes).
The first Danish Coronavirus case was diagnosed on February 27, and so many things have changed in Denmark over the past four weeks.
Most notable, of course, is the misery of the people infected with the virus, the pain of the families who have lost loved ones, and the Herculean efforts of the health care workers who care for them.
But daily life has changed for ordinary citizens as well, and not just because many of us aren’t quite sure what will be happening with our jobs and exactly how we will be paying the rent in the future, not to mention all that online shopping from home we’ve been doing during quarantine.
Schools are closed, with the kids (more or less) learning from home, and many of their parents are (more or less) working from home too. Cinemas, shops, gyms, and swimming halls have been shut down in an attempt to break the chain of infections. Concerts and sporting events are canceled.
Confirmations scheduled for the spring have been put off – a crushing disappointment for the teenagers who have spent the past 6 months in Bible studies with hopes of a big spring party.
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.
January, February, and March are some of the dreariest months in Denmark – it’s dark, with no Christmas lights to pep it up – and many people are dealing with a heavy load of year-end debt from travelling, parties, dining out, and gifts.
Along with religion, personal finances (privatøkonomi, which many Danes insist on directly translating to “my private economy”) is a topic that is rarely discussed in Denmark. But the country has one of the highest rates of household debt in the world.
And once you get into debt in Denmark, it can be very difficult to get out.
As this new year and decade begins, let’s take a moment to think about all the people for whom this will be their very first year, all the Emmas and Emils and Aasmas and Szymons whose birthdate will be 2020.
If trends continue, there will be more than 61,000 newborn Danes joining us this year. And according to Denmark’s Statistik, 22% of children born here will have a mother who is not ethnic Danish.
That’s something I know a little about, being a non-Danish mother myself.
As Christmas Eve approaches, we’re nearing those few magical hours that happen only once a year. Not just when the 24/7 Netto briefly closes…not just when the buses stop running, and the electrical grid hops because everyone turns on their ovens at once….but those precious moments when Danish churches are actually full.
Really full. Needing crowd-control full. Pushing each other out of the way full. Very Christian, loving, I-have-saved-these-seats-for-my-extended-family-and-you-will-just-have-to-sit-somewhere-else full.
A couple of weeks before, there was plenty of room at the inn.
It’s unusual for us Americans to miss a business opportunity – it feels a little unnatural, to be honest – but for some reason, I have never before written about hygge.
Hygge is big business. Hygge housewares catalogues offer candles, soft blankets, earthenware coffee mugs, and warm socks that will help you, too, experience hygge. Hygge tours are offered in major Danish cities.
And authors who do write about hygge are richly rewarded. They’re interviewed by glossy magazines, their books are arranged in elaborate piles in the shops at Copenhagen airport, and they speak to adoring audiences in London, Paris, and Rome. Meanwhile, my next exciting engagement is at Holsterbro Gymnasium. (I really am excited, kids – see you there!)
Selling hygge has become an industry. But hygge, like love, is not really something you can buy.
“Is there politeness in Denmark?”
That was the question I was recently invited on a national TV show to discuss.
The implication was that I was supposed to say that Danes were not at all polite, because effusive praise and cheerful agreement make for a rather dull TV show.
But Danes are not impolite. They have their own version of courteous behaviour, which is based on reinforcing aspects of their culture that they care about.
The relaxed approach to nudity in Denmark can be a surprise for many newcomers.
It’s something they’re often confronted with at the local swimming hall, where a very large and strong attendant insists that they take off their entire swimsuit and shower thoroughly before going into the pool.
Stripping off in front of strangers is new for a lot of internationals, and some try to place it a larger context of Danish morality.
It hasn’t been entirely forgotten that Denmark was the first country in the world to legalize pornography in 1967. Some people still think of Denmark as a place where there is easy sex available and a generous display of naked boobs and butts.
If you’re newly arrived in Denmark, making Danish friends is not easy – in fact, surveys show that one of the main reasons internationals end up leaving is the difficulty of building a network.
The irony is that Danes are actually very good at friendship. Their friendships are strong, reliable, and deep-rooted. Friends can count on each other.
But because Danes take friendships so seriously, they like to keep their number of friendships under control. They don’t want to take on more friends than they can keep their deep commitment to.
The statement “I just don’t have room for any more friends” sounds perfectly sensible to Danes, and utterly stunning to foreigners.
Danes from other parts of Denmark
When internationals ask me how they can make Danish friends, I have one primary piece of advice.