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.
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.
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.
My apologies that I haven’t been blogging for the past couple of months – I’ve taken some time off to promote my book Top 35 Mistakes Danes Make in English, which you can get on Amazon or Saxo.com, or at any Danish bookstore.
But taking time off is a very important part of Danish life – in fact, some people would say it is one of the best parts of Danish life.
The best example, of course, is the famous Danish summer vacation. When I first began working in Denmark, people used to start saying around April or May, “So – are you taking three or four?”
What they meant was, are you taking three or four weeks off for your summer vacation?
If you’ve been asked for a job interview at a Danish company, congratulations. Danish companies don’t like to waste time, so they wouldn’t be setting aside time to meet you if they didn’t think there was a solid chance they might hire you.
Job interviewing in Denmark is a difficult balance, because the Jantelov makes all forms of bragging or self-promotion distasteful to the Danes. You’ve got to convince the person interviewing you that you’re skilled and capable without sounding like a used car salesman.
What I tell potential hires to do is prepare by reviewing their working history and coming up with three good stories about projects they’ve worked on – two in which you did well and succeeded, and one that went very badly, but where you learned some important professional lessons.
By admitting to have made some mistakes in your work life or have been less than perfect on the job, you’ll give yourself a lot more credibility with Danish companies, where the default motto is “Work hard, but don’t take yourself too seriously.”
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.
It has been said that Danish birthdays are the most important in the world. Adults, children, even the Queen of Denmark make a big deal about birthdays. And there is specific set of birthday rules and traditions for every age and role you play in life. Let’s face it, Danish birthday traditions are a minefield for foreigners. Get it wrong and you could make some serious birthday faux pas.
For example, if the sun is shining on your birthday, you may find Danish people thanking you. ‘Thanks for the sunshine’ they’ll say. This is because in Danish tradition, the weather on your birthday reflects your behavior over the past year. If you’ve been good, the weather is good. If you’ve been bad….well, then. You get depressing, grey, Danish rain.
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.