It’s spring in Denmark, and spring is by far my favorite season here. The wonderful white Scandinavian sunlight is back after the dark days of the winter, the flowers are coming out on the trees, and everybody’s in a good mood. The outdoor cafés are full of people again – sometimes draped in blankets to keep warm, but outside all the same.
April and May are often the best months for weather in Denmark, along with September. Summers can be rainy. And April is when Tivoli opens in Copenhagen. (Side note: when you see a man in Denmark with his trousers accidentally unzipped, you quietly inform him “Tivoli is open!”)
Tivoli is one of the world’s great non-disappointing tourist attractions – it’s constantly updated, with new shops, new rides, fresh flowers and fresh restaurants. And in the spring, it’s not as crowded as it is in the summer. You can hang out all day, have a picnic, ride the rollercoaster, even hear some bands play.
I’ve applied for jobs in Denmark and been hired; I’ve also been the person doing the hiring and sorting through applications.
Here’s the truth: It’s really no fun on either side. On the applicant side, you can feel like a beggar, desperate for someone to recognize and reward your talent. It wears on your confidence, particularly in a long hiring process, which is common in Denmark even for Danes.
And on hiring side, you’re facing a huge stack of applications, mostly from people who know nothing about the company, nothing about the job, and are sending you a standardized letter or cv that gives no indication about why they’re a good fit.
For example, when I was hiring for a copyediting position at a financial company in Copenhagen, I got a letter in flawless English from an Eastern European woman who was a display artist at IKEA. She put together the sofas and pillows to give the imitation living rooms a chic and homey atmosphere. It’s noble work, but it had absolutely nothing to do with the job we had advertised, and she’d given no indication of how her skills would transfer.
My Danish friends who are about to spend some time in the U.S. often ask me for advice about surviving American culture, and I give them all the same two tips.
First, in the U.S. it’s a good idea to be polite to police officers. Danish cops often come from the countryside and have funny rural accents and since Danes generally don’t like hierarchy and authority anyway, they have no problem being sarcastic and a little smart-ass with a police officer.
That doesn’t work in the States. That Highway Patrol lady with the mirrored sunglasses who has just caught you speeding down Route 66 is unlikely to have much of a sense of humor. If she pulls you over, say “yes, ma’am” and “no, ma’am” a lot and keep your hands in view at all times so she can see you’re not reaching for a gun.
That’s the first tip. The second tip is that, should you go to a bar, it can happen that a stranger or two will offer to buy you a drink. If the stranger is of the opposite gender, or same gender depending on the bar, that person is interested in you. Let them buy you a drink. And chat with them while you drink it. If there’s no chemistry, when the drink is finished, you can both go your separate ways.
That’s a little shocking for Danes. Buying a drink for someone is a big deal in Denmark, a place where a loving couple who go out for a romantic candlelight dinner often split the bill. For Danes, buying someone a drink is like buying them a birthday present. Many Danes are not comfortable with a stranger making that level of commitment.
I get a little local newspaper in my mailbox every week, and this week – in between the usual stories about which local project has been able to squeeze the biggest subsidy out of the Copenhagen city government – there was an article about the Miss Denmark pageant.
Two teenagers from the neighborhood, one an ethnic Dane and one of Middle Eastern descent, had been selected to represent us in the pageant.
Now that surprised me. I’ve lived here for 15 years, and I’d ever even heard of the Miss Denmark pageant. Denmark is usually not the sort of place where women in bathing suits walk around while fully-dressed men debate their merits.
And quite frankly, most Danes are less interested in the beauty of people than the beauty of things.
August in Denmark brings the first signs of fall: a crisp chill in the air, the changing color of the leaves, the annual posters warning drivers to be aware of small children riding their bikes to school for the first time.
And foreign university students in the local 7-11, asking that their buns be warmed up.
I saw a newly-arrived young American student in my local 7-11 this morning, asking that her newly-purchased bun be warmed. The 7-11 clerk told her sorry, but there were no bun-warming services available at that branch.
She wasn’t too pleased, but it’s always a mistake to expect U.S., U.K., or Asian-level concepts of customer service in Denmark: in this egalitarian country, nobody serves anybody, and if they do they are frequently grumpy about it. You and the store clerk are equals, and nobody’s going to warm anybody’s buns unless it was agreed to in the original deal.
Denmark is a small country, and Danish people tend to think small things are good. Small cars. Small homes. Small ambitions when it comes to international team sports. But one thing in Denmark is never small – a baby carriage.
Danes seem to believe that a carriage (or pram) for a new baby should be roughly the size of a hotel room on wheels.
Inside, baby will be wrapped up warm with a fat feather blanket – even in the summer. There will also be room for pillows, books, toys, snacks, diapers and extra clothes in the giant baby carriage.
Danish babies are like rolling royalty. Everything they need is at their tiny fingertips.
There have been very few international singing stars from Denmark, and that’s a surprise, because Danish people love to sing.
Joining choirs is very popular, and Danish schoolchildren often start the week with a song – in my daughter’s school, all the grades get together and sing something from the school’s common songbook.
There’s actually a kind of common songbook for all the children of Denmark, called De Små Synger, where you can find classics like Se Min Kjole (See my dress), Lille Peter Edderkop (Little Peter Spider) or Oles Nye Autobil, (Ole’s new car). Ole’s new car is actually a toy car that he uses to run into things, like his sister’s dollhouse.
In general, the Small Songs are a throwback to an older Denmark, a quieter Denmark where most people lived in the countryside. Many of the songs refer to green hilltops, or forests, or baby pigs or horses, or happy frogs that live in a swamp. And of course, all the humans in the Small Songs are entirely Danish – or ‘Pear Danish,’ as the local expression goes. One out of five children born in Denmark today is not an ethnic Dane, but there’s no such thing as Little Muhammed Spider or Fatima’s New Toy Car.
I was on Danish morning TV recently, which isn’t really something to boast about. In a country of 5 million people, 10 guests a show, 365 days a year – you do the math. Just about everyone gets on TV sooner or later.
Some of my friends and colleagues mentioned that they had seen me, stumbling through with my imperfect Danish, trying to promote my book, How to Live in Denmark. But just some of my friends and colleagues. Specifically, it was my friends and colleagues who work in trendy creative industries – advertising, app designers, actors.
That’s because I was on TV at 8:45 in the morning, when people in those industries are just getting out of bed in preparation to roll into the office around 10.
My friends who have more conventional office jobs, like working in a bank, have to be their desk at 9am, so some of them had seen teasers – you know, coming up next, someone who doesn’t speak Danish properly, trying to promote a book – but they hadn’t seen the show itself.
And my friends who do real, physical work had no idea I was on TV at all. Airport tarmac staff, postal carriers, builders. They start work at 7am. Or even earlier, as you’ll know if you’ve ever had your deep sleep interrupted by a Danish builder banging on something outside your house at, say, 5:30 in the morning.
While there’s no official class system in Denmark, there is when it comes to working hours. And working clothing – people who work with their hands often wear blue jumpsuits to and from work, or painters pants, or bright fluorescent vests if they work outside in the dark. People in the creative industries wear aggressively ugly eyeglasses, and unusual shoes, and the men have chic little Hugo Boss scarves around their necks.
Different clothes, different starting times, that’s not big news, but recently other forms of inequality have been increasing in Denmark. In fact, according to the official Danish Statistics, the GINI coefficient, which measures inequality in Denmark, has been rising faster than in any other country in Europe. It’s now 27.9, compared with 22 at the turn of the century.
Danish first names are very strongly stratified by age.
Ole and Finn and Knud and Kaj and Jørn and Jørgen and to some extent Poul and Per, are almost always over 50. Their female counterparts, their wives and sisters and secret lovers, are Inger and Karin and Kirsten and Ulla.
Or Bente. A nearly guaranteed old ladies’ name is Bente. There are no young Bentes. Or Bent, the male equivalent. Being named Bent is a problem for Danes who travel, because in many English-speaking countries, ‘bent’ is old-fashioned slang for ‘gay.’
In those countries, if you hold out your hand and say, ‘Hi, I’m Bent,’ you may get an unexpected reaction.
I was in London this week, and did a little fall wardrobe shopping. I got tired after walking for awhile, and it was lunchtime, so I sat down in a pub. I had a beer and a fish and chips and a British guy next to me was also having a beer and fish and chips and so we just chatted through lunch. We talked about politics, the weather, the job market. After lunch, we waved goodbye and I went back to shopping. I never found out his name.
The reason I mention this is that it never could have happened in Denmark. Danes don’t talk to strangers. They talk to their friends. The idea of a casual lunch with someone you will never see again makes no sense to them.