I would like to start this short
tale of the Danes, which I have called: "A Horrible Place with Good
Food and Pretty Lamps", with a quote:
"If you are interested in horrible
places, I can recommend Denmark. No one starves. Everyone lives in
small, pretty houses. But no one is rich, no one has a chance to a
life in luxury, and everyone is depressed. Everyone lives in their
small well-organized cells with their Danish furniture and their lovely
lamps, without which they would go mad," V.S. Naipaul.
This is how this years' (2002) Nobel
Price winner in literature V. S. Naipaul described Denmark. And he should
know as he has lived in both Trinidad and England and traveled the world
extensively. But does this negative description fit a small country
known for its liberal ideas, windmills, original Lego toys, and the
alternative village Christiania with free hash and marihuana?
Well, after the results of the last
elections in Denmark, which was won by the political parties that promised
strict limitations on immigration, Denmark all of a sudden does not
seem like such a nice place anymore. A party called the Left won the
elections, and for your information the Left is actually a conservative
right wing party. Denmark's new politics have been compared to the politics
of Austria's Jürg Haider and a BBC reporter even compared the new laws
for foreigners in Denmark to South Africa's former apartheid system.
So it is easy to feel uncomfortable as a foreigner living in Denmark
right now, especially when newspapers daily feature articles on the
"immigration problem", and when you meet Danes who say that they do
not wish to live in a multi-cultural society.
So when I was asked to say something
about my encounter with Denmark and the Danish culture, I decided to
try to find out why I actually like living in Denmark - even after the
elections when Denmark doesn't seem as hospitable as it used to.
Despite his negativity Naipaul manages
to identify several aspects of Danish society: Danish design (meaning
maybe the pretty lamps that saves Danes from insanity), the well-organized
society (with people living in small cells), the Danes' love for good
food (no one starves), and the Danish depression (because they can't
get rich, according to Naipaul).
In addition to world-famous lamp
designers such as Poul Henningsen, who designed the ph-lamp, Denmark
is the home of designers such as Arne Jacobsen, who among other things
designed the famous egg and aunt chair, and Bang and Olufsen who give
form to stylish CD-players and telephones. Even former president Bill
Clinton commented on the Danish sense of style when he visited Denmark.
When visiting Danish homes they
are often surprisingly modern with minimalist furnishing, Bodum-coffee
makers and Georg Jensen cutlery. It is therefore no surprise that the
editors of the design magazine Wallpaper absolutely loved Denmark when
they made an 80-page country report about Denmark. The Wallpaper staff
could hardly believe their eyes and described the entire country as
an outdoor museum of architecture and a study of modern design.
But Danish style and design are
not the only important aspects of Danish homes. A Danish home is also
a place for people to enjoy the much-appreciated coziness. It might
seem like a contradiction that this elegant packaging is coupled with
the Danish idea of cozy, and for an outsider it might be difficult to
picture a cozy atmosphere in homes with almost no furniture, and where
every accessory is in the color gray and made out of steel. But in order
for a Dane to feel comfortable the surroundings have to be impeccable.
And in Denmark you can sometimes get the impression that it is all about
the packaging. So whatever you do, make sure you look good doing it.
Danes know that they have a good
sense of taste, especially compared to the Danes' significant other
namely the Germans. In Denmark it is commonly known that Germans have
bad taste. But Germans are also known for eating crappy food. In Denmark
on the other hand food tastes good, and food is important for creating
a cozy atmosphere. Denmark is actually the only country, which literally
consists of more pigs than people, and Danes enjoy their pork ribs and
their world-famous Danish Bacon.
In Norway we say that Danes sound
like they have a potato in their mouth when they are speaking. I always
thought this was a manner of speech, but maybe they actually do have
a potato or another piece of food in their mouth, as Danes seem to eat
a lot, and enjoy good food, good drink, and good company. Maybe as a
result of their lavish eating and drinking habits, Denmark has the lowest
life expectancy in Western Europe.
A Danish anthropologist, who has
studied European drinking patterns, found that in southern European
countries such as France people drink small amounts of alcohol frequently.
But in northern countries such as Norway, Sweden and Finland people
drink large amounts of alcohol only on Fridays and Saturdays and on
other special occasions. Denmark, on the other hand, was a special case
and seemed to fit both descriptions, as the Danes drink beer and wine
with their regular meals, but also got dead drunk on the weekends. Danes
are indeed proud of their beer and agree with the preferred royal beer
Carlsberg's slogan: "Probably the best beer in the world", and every
Dane know when a Tuborg beer tastes good - and that is every time. And
for a foreigner it might be useful to know that when Danes talk about
the first snowfall it has nothing to do with the weather, it only means
that Tuborg is presenting this year's Christmas beer. The launch of
the Christmas beer is done by little Santa Clauses, and is every year
eagerly awaited by most Danes.
Something good to drink is thus
essential for a perfect and cozy dinner party or lunch, but a meal also
needs good conversations, and maybe it is from conversations accompanying
meals that the Danes have developed their famous wit and irony. You
have world acclaimed Danes such as the late entertainer Victor Borge,
who the New York Times described as "The funniest man in the world",
and the mathematician, inventor, designer, and poet Piet Hein who is
known for his Grooks. Piet Hein invented the word Grook, and a Grook
is a small verse or rhymed epigram, which goes something like this:
"If they made diving
six inches shorter
- think how much sooner
you'd be in the water"
Another Dane known for his wit is
the satirical cartoonist Storm P. who among other things explained how
smoking and drinking actually can be good for you. Storm P. explains
it like this:
your blood vessels, but a couple of beers decontract them again."
With this much wit, irony, good
food, and drink it is difficult to imagine how Danes can suffer from
depressions. But for some reason Danes will tell you that many people
are lonely and depressed. The Indian anthropologist Prakash Reddy, who
studied life in Denmark, also noted the Danish loneliness and said that:
"In Denmark only
thief's and the Jehovah's witnesses knock on people's doors without
Maybe as result of no spontaneous
visits Denmark has one of the world's highest suicide rates. Some Danes
I have met have described the suicides and depressions with the harsh
and dark winters. But if this theory were to be correct there would
be absolutely no people living in places like Norway, Sweden, or Finland.
According to Naipaul, Danes are
depressed because they cannot get rich, and maybe that is why they always
complain about the high taxes -which in fact are the highest in the
world-, and the high price level. Personally, I secretly think that
Danes enjoy their complaining. In fact, complaining is almost like a
national hobby. Danes complain about the weather, which admittedly is
a little sad at times. And at one point a delegate was actually elected
to the Danish parliament because he promised better weather.
Danes also complain about the Danish
welfare system, which is among the best in the world. But most importantly
Danes complain about "the Law of Jante". "The Law of Jante" was written
by the Danish/Norwegian author Axel Sandemose, and consists of 10 laws,
and starts with: "You shall not believe that you are somebody". The
"Law of Jante" describes the Danish obsession with not sticking out
in a crowd and the social restrictions on people who somehow make themselves
The only thing Danes actually never
seem to complain about is their very popular Queen Margrethe, who reins
the world's oldest monarchy. The queen is known for her nice personality
and her artistic skills. And she has, among other things, illustrated
Tolkien's famous book "The Lord of the Rings". Even though Danes hardly
ever complain about their Queen, they do complain about her husband.
-Maybe because he is from France and a foreigner…
In a country where you never ring
a doorbell without an appointment, it is hardly surprising that organization,
system, and law and order are valued highly. According to Naipaul, Danes
live in well-organized cells. Danish cells can be their stylishly decorated
homes or the different boxed in parts of the society. It seems like
Danes can do almost anything as long as it is part of a regulated system.
You can for example enjoy an alternative life style in Christiania where
no one can own property, and Marihuana and Hash is sold openly. Christiania
is in many respects different from the rest of Denmark, but it does
share the Danish tradition of making laws and regulations, and is a
well-organized society within the society. In this well-organized country,
traffic regulations are no laughing matter. If you cross on red or break
any of the other traffic regulations you can be sure that a Dane will
tell you that you just broke a very important law. The same goes for
riding your bike without proper lighting. Let's hope that one day in
the future it is just as common to publicly correct someone who is rude
to a Muslim woman in a veil, as it is to correct someone breaking the
traffic regulations. One can
maybe say, that it is typically Danish to be a good citizen who is making
sure that people abide to the various laws of society.
Why I Like
So why do foreigners keep coming
to this, presumably, horrible, well-organized country with stylish and
concerned citizens, and more importantly why do we stay here? Well,
I think it has something to do with when you ask your Danish doctor:
"Do I have to stop drinking and smoking", and he answers "No" and only
recommends that you should cut down a little. And when you are invited
to a Danish lunch and it lasts for hours and you never worry about the
fatty food you eat, and the conversation is nice and mellow. And it
has to do with the lovely Danish cheeses and the hot dog outlets on
wheels that inhabit every Danish city. To me Denmark has to do with
the simple pleasures of life, like not eating too much in good company:
And Piet Hein had a little something to say about this in his "First
principle of Gastronomy":
"There's a rule
for proper doses
in the dinner-eaters lore:
one should stop the filling
while one still has room for more.
And if someone
at the table
had reminded me before -
Hallelujah! I'd be able
to absorb a little more."
And, that's why I like it