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Stories about life in Denmark

Christmas Eve: The Danish Church’s Big Moment

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.

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Podcasts, Stories about life in Denmark

The Danish Flag: 800 years old and going out of style?

I’ve never seen a country that loves its flag as much as Denmark does – and that’s a big statement, coming from an American. But foreigners who come to Denmark can’t help but notice that the Danish flag is everywhere.

People love to fly Danish flags over their summer houses – the bigger the better. Christmas trees in Denmark are decorated with little Danish flags. Cucumbers in the supermarket have Danish flags on the label to show they’re grown in Denmark. Whenever a member of the Danish royal family has a birthday, two little Danish flags are stuck on the front of every Copenhagen bus.

The Danish flag is closely associated with Danish birthdays. If you have a birthday when you’re working in a Danish office, one of your colleagues is likely to put a Danish flag on your desk. It means – happy birthday! You may see a birthday cake with tiny Danish flags stuck into it, or the Danish flag recreated in red frosting.

And if you’re invited to a party by a Danish friend – any kind of party – you may find paper Danish flags stuck into the ground to guide you to the right house.

The Danish flag is not really a statement of nationalism. It’s a statement of joy.

I’ve never seen anyone say anything negative about the Danish flag – until a couple of weeks ago.

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Podcasts, Stories about life in Denmark

Danish gangsters: Night-time helicopters and the risks of a knit cap

 

If you live in Denmark or follow the Danish media, you’ll know there’s been a lot of talk of gangsters over the past week. One Danish gang is trying to expand at the expense of another gang, and this summer there have been about 25 shootings in Copenhagen, generally in the northern neighborhoods – my neighborhood.

Somebody was shot outside my supermarket, somebody else was shot outside the school near my house, and a couple of people have been shot just walking down the street.

Most of the victims are other gangsters, but a few have been unlucky civilians in the wrong place at the wrong time. All have been young men, and the Copenhagen police went so far as to suggest that young men stop wearing knit hats. Knit hats can be a gang sign.

I should point out that this summer in Denmark has been so cold that wearing a knit hat in August can actually seem like a good idea.

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Podcasts, Stories about life in Denmark

Danes and Fear: What is there to be afraid of in Denmark?

 
I was walking towards my home in Copenhagen the other day, when I walked past a kindergarten. It had a big, open playground with lots things for the kids to climb on, but nobody was climbing. The kids were all gathered around a giant, open bonfire. Now, these kids were 3 to 5 years old, and the flames of the bonfire were probably twice as tall as they were. But there was no restraining fence or barrier to keep them away from it. Just a couple of adults and some pails of water.

Big open fires, which are called bål, are pretty common in Denmark, even around children. Sometimes the kids even roast little pieces of bread over the fire, or rather, a long piece of dough curled around a stick. Snobrød, it’s called. Kids grow up learning not to be afraid of fire. Maybe that’s a legacy of Denmark being such a cold country; fires were once very important to staying alive.

Even at Tivoli in the winter, you’ll see open containers of flaming hot coals – you know, the sort of things you usually see in depictions of Hell in Dante’s Inferno. But at Tivoli Danish parents are carefully showing their children how to warm their little fingers over the hot coals. No fear.

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Podcasts, Stories about life in Denmark

More Snow Tomorrow: Surviving Winter as a Foreigner in Denmark

I’m looking out the window as I write, and it’s snowing again. It’s pretty, but it’s not a novelty anymore. It’s been like this for the past couple of weeks – Danish winter weather. Nearly every day, there’s fresh snow and ice.

When I wake up on winter mornings, it’s still pitch dark, very cold, and I can hear the wind whistling outside my window. Every day I think, “Ahhhh, I don’t want to get up.” But I do.

Of course, everyone in Denmark suffers a little bit during the winter. But I feel particularly bad for people who come from warmer climates and are experiencing one of their first winters here.

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Stories about life in Denmark

Salam and Goddag: Muslims in Denmark

There’s a new mosque opening down the street from me this spring, a big one. It will be the first mosque with minarets in Denmark, although the minarets are legally prohibited from calling to prayer.

The people behind the mosque are doing everything they can to blend in with the local neighborhood – they even went to observe at a local church service a couple of Sundays ago. Given the Danes’ lack of interest in religion, they were probably the only ones there.

There are a lot of Muslims in Denmark, about 250,000 out of a population of five-and-a-half million, most of who have arrived here in the past 40 years.

And contrary to what the Danish right-wing parties might say, they’ve brought a lot of good things to Denmark, and not just Shwarma shops.

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Podcasts

The Deeper Meaning of Pigs

Calling somebody a pig is an insult in most places, and it is in Denmark, too. You can call your ex-lover or your political opponent et svin – that means pig in Danish. Do something really low and immoral, like cheating in a soccer game, and it’s called svinestreg, a pig stroke.

And when you behave really badly, you’re letting out your inner svinehund, your inner pig-dog.

And so on. But pigs are loved in Denmark, too.

First of all, there are more pigs than people – about twenty million pigs to five million humans. That’s the highest pig-to-person ratio in the world. Now, most of the pigs are invisible to your average Copenhagen sophisticate. They live out on big factory farms in the countryside. But they bring in billions of kroner a year from exports to places like Germany, the UK and China.

Pigs are not just big business. Despite what you may have read in glossy magazines about the New Nordic Cuisine, featuring exotic berries and reindeer, most Danish supermarkets feature a great deal of pork.

✚ A Persian carpet of pork

There is the sausage section, with dozens of different pig-related sandwich toppings. My favorite is rullepølse, which is made up of pink and white swirls, sort of like a Persian carpet of pork.

That’s just to look at; I don’t actually eat it.

I also don’t eat flæskesteg, which is crunchy fried roast pork. Basically fat plus bone. It is sometimes called the national dish, and is very popular. When I used to work at a large Danish company, they would serve it in the canteen. All the foreigners would have soup for lunch that day.

But there are more and more foreigners in Denmark now, and that’s threatening the pigs’ power base. Muslims, of course, do not eat pork, and many kindergartens are now not serving pork at all, so they don’t have to make a separate dish for the Muslim kids or serve them soup for lunch that day.

Denmark has not gone as far as the Netherlands, which has eliminated piggy banks for children in order to avoid offending Muslim customers.

That’s because children in Denmark put their extra change into a penguin, the plastic mascot of the biggest local bank. Penguins, apparently, don’t offend anyone.

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Image mashup copyright Kay Xander Mellish 2022