Regardless of what you think of Bernie Sanders, when he recently said “…I think we should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people,” I have to agree. I’ve visited two of those countries, and they’re great places, especially Denmark. Here is my brief “letter home” from a visit to Denmark.
A bicyclist lazily rolls along, not in any hurry. It’s a beautiful day. It’s a wonderful place.
I left Hull on a cold, gray, rainy English morning at 5am, and arrived in beautiful, clear-skied Copenhagen. A city so beautiful that it’s reflected in every person there.
The Danes are wearing black clothing, with some festive gray and white thrown in, and sunglasses that prevent their pale faces from fully being seen. Not all of them are super tall, but many of them tower over this rather short American, a hybrid descendent of only stocky European stock, with no Vikings in the family tree.
Smiles everywhere. By scientific measures, this is the “happiest” city on earth, and it truly shows. (This year, for the first time, Copenhagen was surpassed by a city in Paraguay. And according to North Korea, Pyongyang is happier than anywhere else, under penalty of death no doubt.)
Everyone is friendly, calm, and sagacious. They speak several languages fluently, and effortlessly glide back and forth between them. They’re all engineers or scientists who decided to become baristas, or sailors, or political science students with grand plans to work in Israel and climb the Himalayas.
Copenhagen is a city in a bubble. I say this because it is so pleasant, it feels fake. But not in the glitzy Las Vegas-meets-Miami Beach-with-a-dash-of-Dubai style. It just doesn’t seem possible an island in the cold North Sea, as far north as Glasgow, that should by all rights be bleak and inhospitable, can be so nice.
The guy at the hot dog stand speaks English perfectly, even though he’s a random street vendor in a random part of a city that has its own unique dialect. Danish-style hotdogs are vastly superior to what we have, like a mix of Italian sausage and apple-smoked breakfast sausages, served with pickles, (Denmark always does smell of the ocean, cigarettes and pickles) and a dab of onions, mustard, and ketchup served on a hot fresh hard roll. Delicious.
I finally met up with my friend, and he showed off his wonderful city, from the beautiful buildings to the waterfront, where you feel like you’re on the edge of the world.
Copenhagen is situated on an island, closer to Malmo Sweden than to other cities of Denmark. And, perhaps due to this relative isolation, the city feels trapped in time. No one is in a hurry, though they move quickly and get things done fast. There is no sense of stress you find in large cities, just sensibility and calmness. People are relaxed to an almost lulling degree. And to me, it felt fragile, and knowing its history I can see why it has been conquered or occupied a few times, it seems like a place like this can’t handle stresses, though it clearly has survived and thrived.
Denmark is clearly not a model for the U.S., for many reasons, but if we modeled our cities on Copenhagen, I think America could see some vast improvements. Infrastructure was great (even though their roads freeze, just the same as in my homeland, the pot-holed and crumbling Upstate NY). Everyone is educated (America, step up your education game), and everyone seemed stress-free, despite talk of a depressed economy.
When I first arrived, I walked through the “ghetto”, really a bohemian area with lots of African immigrants, sex shops, places selling various apparatuses for smoking pot (legal in one square mile district of Denmark called Christiania). And yet, I didn’t get the vibe you get when you quickly duck through those parts of an American city. Walking alone in an area where I didn’t speak the language, carrying my camera and backpack, I’d be an easy target. But I didn’t feel alarmed in the slightest. There are many parts of the US, where I’ve felt uneasy just driving through.
My fondest memory from the very brief time I spent there was nothing to do with the many amazing tourist sites my expert guide took me to, but rather three brief moments. The first was when my friend told me to try a Tuborg beer, his favorite and only found in Denmark. His eyes lit up as I tried it, and I could see he was very excited to share a bit of his culture with me. That connection, just one can of good beer, to a place he wanted to share affected me.
But my favorite thing (and I loved everything about this city) was getting the famous pork sandwich of Copenhagen. The city for so long depended on the sea for food, but years of overfishing by other Europeans (ahem, England and Russia) and American fleets depleted the number of fish that could be sustainably harvested. So, left with two options, continuing to deplete a battered-down population of northern fish and pay hefty fees for the privilege of eating them, or go to the southwest of the country to the pig farms, the Danes chose pork. The pork sandwich was proof that some higher power exists. Crispy pork, red cabbage, pickles, some mysterious unnamed sauce, a leaf of lettuce and a crispy yet soft warm bread roll made this the best thing I’ve eaten (save for dim sum and barbecue ribs) ever. Just getting to try the “best” pork sandwich in Denmark, which I’d never find otherwise, was an exalted experience usually only known by the locals.
I loved that about Denmark, I just arrived and felt like I belonged there. I was clearly an outsider (though one drunk girl approached me speaking rapid fire Danish, apparently thinking the guy with the camera and map was a local who could tell her how to find a nightclub rather than his very Danish-looking friend) and yet they made me feel welcome. It was like I just walked into the city and they were like: oh yeah, we’ve been waiting for you, now let’s go.
I became a local in Hong Kong in a few weeks (in some parts), acclimated to my college campus in Maryland after a semester, and never felt at home in Hull. But when I came to this place, it was the most instantaneous and seamless transition. Very magical.
My Danish friend and I ended our time together by going to a “brown bar”. This is one of the only places in Denmark where smoking indoors is allowed, and my friend and his friend Rune who joined us both smoke a pack a day. I don’t like smoking, but the windows were open and despite the huge crowds there was room for everyone. We played Danish pool, actually billiards, which has its own alien rules, but it was fun.
What struck me about that bar, was, in my haste to win the game (which I did to my amazement), I bumped into a guy and spilled his drink all over him. Maybe it was my two Danish friends standing behind me who are six foot three and former military firemen, but he didn’t start a fight. He realized it was just a mistake, I bought him a new beer and we shook hands. In a British pub you’d be looking for your teeth on the ground and I’m familiar with the American “tough guy” (read that as: insecure punk trying to prove himself in a juvenile cult of masculinity) drinking culture to know that wouldn’t have been the case at home. Even when he’s had a Carlsberg poured down his leather jacket and a thwack in the chest from a pool cue, he was still friendly (it probably didn’t hurt that at that moment, he was doing quite well in chatting up a French girl).
A trivial incident, just a spilled beer — but proof that the Danish and their “no worries”, relaxed, and in-control nature can make us re-think our “American way of life”. We can still learn a lot from our old world friends.