Danmark & Sverige

Published Categorised as Books, Denmark, Sweden, Travel No Comments on Danmark & Sverige

(Öresund Bridge photo from Wiki­pe­dia)

Tomor­row I’m going on holi­day to Copen­ha­gen for 5 days, some­where I’ve never been before. I’ve visited Iceland, Finland and Esto­nia before, the outliers in the Nord­ic group of coun­tries, and all in the winter, but I’ve never visited the core three Scand­inavi­an coun­tries in their famous long-dayed summers (although I’ve been in the High­lands of Scot­land in the summer before, which is very simil­ar). Copen­ha­gen is with­in a short train ride of Malmö in Sweden (in fact Scania used to be in Denmark at one time), so I’ll kill two birds with one stone and visit Sweden too. As well as Copen­ha­gen, I’m going to try to visit Roskilde, the Louisi­ana Art Museum and Elsinore, which are all nearby. (I’m not going to Lego­land because it’s at the other end of the coun­try, and I’ve been to the UK one loads for work anyway).

There has been a bit of a craze the last few years in the UK for Denmark. It’s a neigh­bour­ing coun­try that we already knew for having excel­lent pastry and bacon (although I don’t eat bacon), and in the last few years Danish tv shows like the Killing, Borgen and the Bridge have been massive hits over here. Prob­ably most people in the street would recog­nise a photo of Sarah Lund from the Killing. News­pa­pers wrote articles about how Denmark is a well-run coun­try with excel­lent social services that usually comes out top in life satis­fac­tion stud­ies, and a lot of Brit­ish people were suddenly inter­ested in moving there, espe­cially as the UK has been a bit depress­ing in the last five years or so and Denmark’s not very far away. At one point the north­ern half of England was ruled by Danish vikings as the king­dom of the Danelaw anyway, so maybe it was time to return the favour.

After book­ing my tick­ets, I ended up buying two differ­ent books about Scand­inavia- The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scand­inavi­an Utopia by Michael Booth, and The Year of Living Danishly: My Twelve Months Unearth­ing the Secrets of the World’s Happi­est Coun­try by Helen Russell. Michael Booth devotes most of his atten­tion to Denmark, having a Danish wife and having spent a number of years living in the coun­try, but he visits Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland too. The cover­age of the other coun­tries felt a bit rushed and curs­ory though, like a brief article on one or two points stretched out into a book section.

Helen Russell is a London based journ­al­ist whose husband was offered a job with Lego in rural Jutland. Although she felt cautious first of all, it seemed too good an oppor­tun­ity to turn down, and because the couple were feel­ing over-worked and stressed and strug­gling to conceive the baby they wanted in London, thought it might be a good life move.

Of the two books, I much preferred Russell’s. Michael Booth comes across as snide and sneery a lot of the time, and like the stereo­type of the North London journ­al­ist who lives in a media bubble of other super­fi­cial, faddish, social status obsessed media people and assumes his life is typic­al for every­one. For instance he complains that Danish parties are too pleas­ant, and the guests gently get on with each other, and he misses the “gladi­at­ori­al” parties in London. I live in London, and don’t recall having ever been to a “gladi­at­ori­al” party where I’m jock­ey­ing for social cachet. It doesn’t sound like much fun.

Helen Russell is more inter­ested in integ­rat­ing and trying to make friends and build a prop­er life while they’re living in rural Denmark. She enrols in language classes, and uses her journ­al­ist­ic skills to inter­view people about the soci­ety and culture. She’s also very funny, espe­cially in the pseud­onyms she picks to protect people’s anonym­ity- for instance her husband becomes Lego Man and the offi­cious neigh­bours who like to check up on the recyc­ling bins and the like are Mr Beard I, II and III. On one occa­sion, after seeing that Danish people like to put up flags on special occa­sions, she decides to put up a Swiss flag on the flag­pole her house comes with, to welcome a Swiss friend who is visit­ing. Two of the Mr Beards imme­di­ately turn up with a freshly lamin­ated copy of the nation­al flag-flying rules and fret about wheth­er she’s acci­dent­ally symbol­ic­ally declar­ing war by flying a foreign flag on a build­ing that isn’t an embassy.

Both writers paint a simil­ar picture of Denmark and the Danes from a Brit­ish perspect­ive though, as a coun­try that is indeed well-run and a great place for chil­dren and famil­ies, but also a bit insu­lar and set in its ways. The culture comes across as a mix of a love for rules, regu­la­tions, schedul­ing and offi­cial clubs like Germany, but also free and easy in other ways, like about drink­ing, smoking and eating badly, and with a relaxed pace of life. People come across as very attached to specif­ic ways of celeb­rat­ing holi­days and birth­days, and get outright confused by outsiders doing things differ­ently, and also a bit unad­ven­tur­ous with food and drink (which I imagine is pretty differ­ent in Copen­ha­gen too), and with a strange (from a Brit­ish perspect­ive) anti­pathy towards cold remed­ies. People seem aware that life is pretty comfort­able in Denmark, and their repu­ta­tion for coming top in inter­na­tion­al qual­ity of life surveys- in fact it becomes a running joke in Helen Russell’s book that when she asks her inter­viewees to rate their happi­ness, every­one rates them­selves 8/10- but it seems like although things are well-organ­ised, life could be a bit stifling if you didn’t fit in, espe­cially outside big cities. I think I’ll have a pretty differ­ent exper­i­ence going on holi­day in Copen­ha­gen, rather than moving to rural Jutland plan­ning to have chil­dren or settling down as a middle-aged upper-middle class couple with chil­dren though!

I’m look­ing forward to visit­ing anyway, and I don’t think I’ll have to worry about the neigh­bours twitch­ing their curtains about how I’ve done the recyc­ling wrong on a short holi­day to cent­ral Copen­ha­gen. Language-wise will be inter­est­ing. I don’t speak a word of either Swedish or Danish, but I get the gist well (espe­cially from read­ing) because I speak German and stud­ied linguist­ics so the cognates are really easy to spot, and I’m used to the sound of the languages from TV. Espe­cially Danish, if you don’t listen prop­erly it just seems to go into your brain as some kind of north­ern English that you’re not prop­erly paying atten­tion to (the dialects of York­shire and the North East owe a lot to the Vikings) until you listen prop­erly and remem­ber it’s anoth­er language. Danish has a very pecu­li­ar number system, but as I speak French, a language that thinks “four twenty ten nine” is a perfectly reas­on­able way to say 99, I’ll get used to it. The major­ity of Scand­inavi­ans speak English well anyway, so there won’t be any language barri­er issues for a tour­ist. I’m also meet­ing up with Sanne, an old work friend who’s a local, so I’ll get to have some prop­er Danish recom­mend­a­tions.

I got a small amount of cash from a travel agents today (my bank does better rates for cash with­draw­al while abroad). Sweden wins on this one. The 20 SEK notes I got have the Wonder­ful Adven­tures of Nils on (and the new ones issued later this year will have Pippi Long­stock­ing on). The Danish ones have bland illus­tra­tions of bridges and archae­olo­gic­al find­ings on. Wiki­pe­dia tells me Denmark used to have much nicer bank­notes. At least the exchange rate of both is nice and straight­for­ward: £1= roughly 10 DK or 12 SEK. None of this £1=380 Forints nonsense I had to deal with in Hungary. I will have to judge the rest of the Inter­na­tion­al Scand­inavi­an­ing Compet­i­tion after visit­ing.

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