It’s spring in Denmark. The sunny days are longer, the daisies are popping up through the grass, and the sidewalk cafés are full again, even if you have to sit there with a blanket, which many cafés provide.
And Denmark’s amusement parks are opening up for the summer. Denmark has several amusement parks, including the original Legoland, but the ones I know best are the ones in Copenhagen – Tivoli Gardens and Bakken.
Tivoli and Bakken show two different sides of the Danish character.
Tivoli is the sleek, confident, high-end image that Denmark likes to present to the world: it has exquisite flower gardens, fancy shops and restaurants, and a theater that hosts world-class performers. Bakken is more homey, more quirky, a little shabby, and a bit more hyggelig, under my own definition of hygge as “unambitious enjoyment”.
The difference between the two parks also illustrates the class differences in Denmark – even though Danes like to pretend there are no class differences in egalitarian Denmark.
Bakken is clearly the more working-class of the two and opens every year with a huge convoy of thousands of motorcycles roaring through the city. It happens every April – I hear a huge mechanical growl in the distance, and then I realize, ahhhhh, Bakken is opening today.
Newcomers to Denmark often complain that the locals aren’t chatty. They don’t want to converse on the bus, or on the train, or in line at the supermarket, or really anyplace that isn’t a designated social zone. Like the company canteen at lunch, or a dinner party at home to which they have invited a precise number of people to match the number of chairs that they own.
In general, Danes rarely talk to strangers unless they are drunk, but there is one exception: Danish people over 75 years old.
Danes over 75, or even 70 or 65, often live alone, and they are often eager for conversation. There is even a special municipal program called Elderlearn that matches older Danes with newcomers who are eager to improve their spoken Danish abilities. The internationals get to practice speaking Danish, and the older person gets some company.
This does create some comic situations. I remember seeing a video – one of those videos I saw online years ago and haven’t been able to locate since – in which a nice fellow from India was matched with Kirsten, a Danish lady in her 80s.
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.
Planning your summer vacation in Denmark is like playing the lottery. You could hit it lucky, with golden days and long, warm evenings, when you can sit with friends in the soft light and drink hyldeblomst cocktails.
Or you could get grey day after grey day, interspersed with a little rain whenever it is least convenient. The weather could be chilly, leaving your cute new summer clothes to sit disappointed in your closet while you wear your boring long trousers again and again.
April 1st is April Fool’s Day – Aprilsnar in Danish – and each Danish newspaper will feature a clever but false story for the unwary to be fooled by.
Last year, for example, there was a story that the Danish police were switching their siren colors from blue to red to match the Danish flag.
There was also a report that the perennially messy discount supermarket Netto was launching a discount airline – Jetto.
And a local TV station ran a piece about how an acute shortage of daycare workers meant the Danish army had to be called in. It showed video of the battle-hardened tough guys in combat uniforms, reading aloud from storybooks and helping with toilet training.
When you’re not from Denmark, understanding the way Danes think can take a little time. And if you’re an international manager in charge of managing and motivating a group of Danes, you may not have a lot of time to experiment before you’re expected to produce results.
So I wanted to share some of the tips I gave to a group of international managers recently on motivating Danish employees.
Motivating Danish employees is very different than motivating other groups of people because there are two big factors missing – hierarchy and fear.
Travel brochures usually talk about the sights and the smells and the tastes of a new place, but they don’t always talk about the sound of a place. Denmark has a sound, a default sound. And that sound is quiet.
Denmark is a quiet country, even within the cities. Especially this time of year, February, when it’s too cold to do anything but scurry from place to place, when the street cafés are closed and no one wants to eat their lunch in the park. The Danes are hibernating in their homes until the spring.
And especially when a blanket of snow covers the cities and countryside. Then everything around you will be beautifully, peacefully, totally quiet.
This Danish quiet can freak out a lot of internationals when they first arrive. If you’ve read my first book, you’ll know I tell the story of a refugee who’d just arrived in Denmark from Cairo, Egypt, and he asked another more established refugee to show him downtown Copenhagen.
The established friend took him to Strøget at, like, 9pm on Tuesday night in February, and the refugee was like, this is not a city! There’s no one here! He accused his friend of tricking him.
But it was the city. It was the capital city. And it was quiet.
If you’re Danish or have friends or family who are Danish, you may enjoy my new book, “Top 35 Mistakes Danes Make in English.”
For the past 16 years, I’ve made my living at least in part by correcting Danish people’s English at big companies like Danske Bank and Carlsberg. And I run into the same mistakes again and again.
Confusing ‘fun’ and ‘funny.’ Mixing up ‘customer’ and ‘costumer’. Spelling ‘loose’ with two ‘o’s and ‘see’ with only one ‘e’. Confusing ‘learn’ with ‘teach’ and ‘loan’ with ‘borrow.’ And saying ‘meet’ to mean the time one starts work. “You must meet at 9.” Meet who?
This book is an attempt to put myself out of business.
When you’re just starting to learn Danish, some people may tell you that Danish and English are very much alike.
In some ways, they are. The Vikings invaded England several times and left behind their language as well as their genes.
The Danish word sky, meaning cloud, became the English word ‘sky.’ Øl – Danish beer – is ‘ale’ in English.
But in some ways, English and Danish are not alike, and that can cause problems. Back in the days when I was learning French, they called them ‘false friends’ – words that look identical but mean entirely different things.
The one I noticed first when I arrived in Denmark was slut. Slut means ‘finished’ in Danish, all done, but the same four letters in English spell ‘slut,’ which is a not very nice name for someone, usually a woman, who is very friendly in a naked sort of way.