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.
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 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. It was a fun lunch, but 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.
I get a lot of mail from readers of this site, but a lot of the mail I get is on one particular topic.
Here’s one from this week, from Teddy in Ghana: I WANT TO KNOW IF DANES WOMEN WILL DATE A GHANAIAN MAN. I AM VERY MUCH INTERESTED. And one from last month, from Alex: “Hi, I’d like to know if Danish girls would date a bi-racial Brazilian guy.” And one from late last year: “I’m a gay African American male who would like to date a Dane. Any advice?”
Basically, a lot of the mail I get is from men, wanting to know how they can get some action in Denmark.
I can understand this. Danes are very beautiful. And I can tell you now, most of them will not immediately reject you because you have a different skin color. I know of several babies of mixed heritage here in Denmark.
While I can’t offer any personal insights on gay dating in Denmark, I can tell you that male-female dating in Denmark is hard, even for the Danes, and it will probably be hard for you too.
I saw a movie this week. It was the latest in long-running series called Father of Four. The series has been running since the Fifties. As the kids grow up, they just replace them with new actors.
Anyway, in this episode, there was a romance. The oldest sister, who’s about 20, meets a handsome young man with a guitar. What struck me watching the movie was that the male romantic lead was visibly shorter than the female lead. I’d say at least a couple of centimeters shorter, maybe an inch.
Now, in Hollywood, they’d have that guy standing on a box, to look taller, or have the actress standing in a hole, to look shorter. In the Danish film, there was no attempt to hide it. They had them walk side by side through a meadow. I had to admit, I couldn’t focus on the love scene. I kept thinking. He’s really short, or maybe she’s really tall.
In general, Danes are not gossips, particularly about the sex lives of people they know.
It’s partly the Danish fetish for privacy, partly the basic acceptance of all things sexual, partly the lack of naughty excitement about all things sexual.
Danish politicians, for example, don’t have sex scandals. French politicians have sex scandals. American politicians have sex scandals. Danish politicians have tax scandals.
They could be bedding down every night with a chimpanzee and the Danish media wouldn’t touch it.
There’s a postcard you can buy at souvenir shops called The Perfect European. You’ve probably seen it somewhere. Last time I went through Kastrup airport, there was a poster version in the customs area.
The postcard has been around since the 1980s, and it has several small cartoons, illustrating each nationality within the 1980s EU, and making a sarcastic remark about what it does best. It says: The Perfect European is as humorous as a German. The Perfect European drives like the French. The Perfect European is as humble as a Spaniard, as organized as a Greek, as calm as an Italian, and serves traditional British food.
And, according to the postcard, The Perfect European is as discreet as a Dane. A little cartoon in the lower-right-hand corner shows a blond Danish man opening his coat to show off pictures of naked ladies.
Denmark was the first country in the world to legalize pornography, in 1969. And for awhile, it was the world’s leading exporter of pornography.