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.
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.
Fall is one of my favorite times of year, because it is time for one of my favorite types of speaking engagement – introducing Denmark to some of the smart, motivated young people arriving from around the world to study at Danish universities.
The university people have wisely decided that another foreigner might be best suited to explain some of the quirks of Danish culture when welcoming newcomers to Denmark.
So since the publication of my first book, How to Live in Denmark, I’ve been speaking regularly to audiences of new arrivals, and I probably learn as much from them as they learn from me.
What Danes are most proud of
One of the things I’ve learned is that the aspects of Danish culture that the Danes are most proud of can be troublesome for newcomers.
This column originally ran in the Danish tabloid BT on July 3, 2019.
As summer vacation season begins and some of my Danish friends and business contacts tell me they are heading to the US on holiday, I’m always pleased but also a little nervous. Oh, dear, I think to myself, I hope they have a good time, and get to see the good side of America and not the bad.
And I try to give them a few tips for Danes visiting the USA.