Anyone who takes a walk around Copenhagen is bound to run across one of the hundreds of concrete bunkers that were built to defend Danes from air raids during World War II.
There are a couple in the park near my house, huge slabs of grey concrete now partially covered by greenery. Many of the interiors have been renovated, and the bunkers are very popular with up-and-coming rock bands, who use them as soundproof rehearsal halls.
The bunkers were never used for their intended purpose.
The German occupying force rolled in by land, and Denmark surrendered almost immediately – the flat Danish landscape would have been no match for the powerful Nazi tank divisions of 1940. Denmark was occupied for more than 5 years.
Tomorrow evening – Monday, May 4, 2020 – many Danes will put a candle in the window to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of that occupation.
The worst-case coronavirus scenario is as terrifying in Denmark as it is everywhere else. There is no guarantee that the Danish health system will have the resources to help everyone who needs care. And the economy might be in tatters when the quarantine ends.
But for now, there is a certain pleasure in watching the gentle social machinery of the Danish state swing into action.
At the lakes in downtown Copenhagen—the city’s former moat—kindly city employees in safety vests make sure everyone runs or strolls in a clockwise direction, minimizing the chance of close face-to-face encounters.
The Danish police sent a friendly message to every mobile telephone in the country, reminding recipients to practice social distancing as you “enjoy your weekend.”
And Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen made an appearance on the Instagram account of Denmark’s top Gen-Z influencer, Anders Hemmingsen. She empathized with teens’ desire to go out and party, but encouraged them to stay home and tolerate their parents for a little longer.
I occasionally write for other media outlets and websites. The above is an excerpt for a piece about how Denmark handles coronavirus that I wrote for Quillette, an international magazine devoted to free thought.
The first Danish Coronavirus case was diagnosed on February 27, and so many things have changed in Denmark over the past four weeks.
Most notable, of course, is the misery of the people infected with the virus, the pain of the families who have lost loved ones, and the Herculean efforts of the health care workers who care for them.
But daily life has changed for ordinary citizens as well, and not just because many of us aren’t quite sure what will be happening with our jobs and exactly how we will be paying the rent in the future, not to mention all that online shopping from home we’ve been doing during quarantine.
Schools are closed, with the kids (more or less) learning from home, and many of their parents are (more or less) working from home too. Cinemas, shops, gyms, and swimming halls have been shut down in an attempt to break the chain of infections. Concerts and sporting events are canceled.
Confirmations scheduled for the spring have been put off – a crushing disappointment for the teenagers who have spent the past 6 months in Bible studies with hopes of a big spring party.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’ve just arrived back in Denmark after a couple of weeks in the US and the night I got back, my cat bit me. This was not just a little affectionate peck – Fluffy used her sharp teeth, her fangs, to create four bleeding puncture wounds in my leg. I suppose it was partly my fault – I put a call on speakerphone. Fluffy doesn’t like speakerphone, because she can hear a person, but she can’t see one, so she assumes I’m some evil magician who has put a person inside a little glowing box, and she bites me.
So I was bleeding, and I did what I did the last time she bit me….which was a couple of months ago, the last time I used speakerphone: I called 1813, the Danish government’s non-emergency line for off-hour medical situations.
I waited about 5 minutes for a nurse to take the call, and she asked me some questions about the size and location of the bite, and whether or not I’d had a tetnus shot recently. I hadn’t, so she made an appointment for me at the local emergency room for about an hour later.
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 did a little crowdsourcing for this week’s podcast. I asked some of our listeners, and some people on Facebook – what were some of the small cultural mistakes – the dos and don’ts, the faux pas – you made when you first arrived in Denmark?
I got a whole selection of answers. Don’t keep your shoes on while entering someone’s home was one thing. Don’t arrive even a few minutes late was another. The 8:00 meeting is not an 8:05 meeting. Trying to bum a cigarette – not done in Denmark. Telephoning a friend after 9:30 in the evening or so – if you’re beyond university age, this is not done in Denmark. Dropping by to see a friend unannounced – not done in Denmark. Danes like to plan in advance – and they are proud of their homes, and don’t want you to see them messy.
One girl mentioned that she had eaten the last piece of cake on a plate. You should never eat the last piece of anything in Denmark, at least without asking every single person present. If you don’t want to do that, the proper etiquette is to slice the piece of cake in half, and take half. And then the next person will slice that half in half. And so on. In the end there will be a little transparent slice left to shrivel up in the middle of the plate.