Closing Time In Copenhagen (Part 1)

by Tim Anderson (

August is my last month living in Copenhagen, after five extremely interesting and certainly not predictable years here. With that in mind, and inspired by various other blogs which I enjoy reading, (particularly City of Sound,a fascinating blog inspired by life in London) I'm going to change the tone a bit in my last few blog entries to a more rambling one. I want to try to capture a bit of what exactly Copenhagen is all about - that which is notable and oftentimes unique about the place.

Hopefully in using what is for me a more experimental approach and writing style, I will manage to reveal something that I previously was not able to and better paint the scenes I wish to portray. Since it is a type of writing I most enjoy reading myself, I may as well try. It is also a way of drawing a bit of a line which separates the various issues I have touched upon up to now, from the things I want to say in these last entries. I do hope I manage to succeed.

My time in Copenhagen, my introduction to Denmark and all that is valued here is soon coming to a close. This departure may be definitive – once and for all - it may not. I plan to be back in a year, but all the same it is by no means certain that I will return. If I should return, or when I do, I will no longer be viewing this place through the same eyes – rather I will be comparing what I am seeing to the images of a Denmark I remember, but that may never have been. The comparison is bound to be somewhat romanticised.

The introduction I have had to this place has been rather thorough, I would judge. It has been just short of five years since I arrived here, and it will be five years and two days from this arrival when I leave. I never expected to be here this long, but it's not like any other existing plans of mine were disrupted by staying. Five years seems a good round number and therefore a good one to part on, in my mind.

To begin to understand what it is to be part of daily life in Denmark, one must first realise just how exclusive a little club the Nordic countries are. These are amongst the richest in the world, taken on a per capita basis (and also the coldest and cloudiest). They are countries that have taught themselves how to succeed (speaking now of countries as if they were people). This is not some poor karaoke attempt of larger economies such as the U.S., the U.K. or Germany. The Nordic countries have created a model that is all their own - it is not an adopted one.

Many foreigners coming to Denmark to live for a time quickly become somewhat critical, at least of how daily life is structured, and how willingly people (Danes) accept this way of being. It seems so organised, so coldly efficient, and though the people are generally well-behaved, the streets seem empty and a things generally bit dull as a result. However, such a view is far to simplistic to represent the reality of the place. There is a rich past that has lead to this way of being, this unequivocally modern system. The state of things as they now exist is hardly an involuntary occurrence.

Denmark is a small, fairly uniform (and quite northern) country in comparison to many other western countries after all. If one expects a more extreme sort of diversity and less uniformity, one should not choose to live in a place with the characteristics of Denmark. France, England, Canada or the U.S. spring to mind as better choices.

Southern Europeans, for example, don't only complain about the weather being a little to cold (as most foreigners living in Denmark do). At a much deeper level they tend to feel frozen out of the Danish way of being, after a short while here. Danes are friendly, and genuine in their friendly gestures, but they have little interest in humouring or for that matter sympathising much at all with those coming to live here who refuse to adopt to their way of being - which is not to say they are not willing to meet somewhere closer to the middle. This is not a critisism, as Danes hardly the only nationality who are this way, and there are good reasons for their actions.

On the other hand when Danes travel, particularly for extended periods of time (which they do in huge numbers), it is often as if some alter ego seizes their personality and takes it over while they are out of the country. Consequently, many an unsuspecting foreigner has been lured back to Denmark by a beautiful (dyed-) blonde mane, a set of luscious curves, and an irrepressibly free-spirited personality - all of which can be overwhelmingly enchanting being so at odds with what they encounter typically in their daily lives, wherever they are from.

The thing is, Danes can afford to be carefree and a bit reckless when they wish to be. This is one of the luxuries that the system they have created for themselves permits, which is incidently something that is rather unique. Few countries offer a level of support to their citizens comparable to that which is offered in Denmark. Danes are generally aware of this, and they are also aware that they pay for dearly for this privledge with one of the highest tax rates in the world (68% at the highest level!).

So, many a foreigner that has fallen in love with one of these travelling Danes, once pulled back to Copenhagen, is suddenly shocked to discover how Danes behave at home . It can come as a surprise to many that the same factors that permit such freeness also enable one to more comfortably apply oneself in countless less carefree directions as well - education, jobs, kids, family and so on - knowing that change is not only possible (because one will never wind up with no income), but will be widely accepted to boot. This way of being is something that can be said to be distinctly Danish, or perhaps more appropriately, distinctly Scandinavian (but I've only lived in Denmark). Perhaps this is one of the reasons the divorce rate is so high in Denmark (50% and climbing), a figure which does not include the countless couples who live together for a time, and then split up. Of course there are countless relationships that succeed!

Even more shocking for foreigners, can be to experience just how abruptly and definitively Danes can move one when they decide to. (For the record, I came to Denmark alone and for the purpose of studying, which I did for the first three years I was here, so I speak from the position of observer in saying all of this, not from some bitter personal experience.)

In Denmark, there is no stigma whatsoever with moving in with a boyfriend or girlfriend, then moving out after a time, and then moving in with another, and so on. Even though most western countries are moving in this direction, Danes were already there 20 or 30 years ago. Oftentimes, a foreigner in Denmark who has suddenly been cast aside once the relationship hits a rough patch, have little from their own cultural background they use to relate to and understand just what has happened and how it can be like this. Not that anyone expects (much less plans!) from the outset that a given relationship they are in will eventually end.

There are not many places where people allow themselves this level of uninhibited personal freedom. Of course, there are other ways that Danes appear to inhibit themselves, it's just that sex and relationships are not among them, to generalise of course.

But life in Copenhagen is like that, because getting on with things is a pretty simple process, all things considered. One only has to take their salary (which is always an amount one can live comfortably on), or their SU money (provided by the Danish government to all students for up to six years of studies), or their unemployment money (which is generally just below the typical salary of whatever their previous job was), along with any supplemental money offered by the government if they have children, and get on with life.

I’m not at all suggesting that Danes are cold or calculating in any of this. Just that Danes rarely find themselves in such dire straights - whether from relationship troubles, trouble finding a decent job or even an unexpected pregnancy and various other unanticipated situations - as to feel the need threaten to throw themselves from the nearest bridge (much less actually do it) when things get a little rocky and uncertain from time to time. The result is a relative calmness and stability, not only behind closed doors, but also in the office and on the streets. It is just not always apparent, at first glance, why things are like this.

So this is my introduction, there is much more I have to say on many divergent areas of life in Denmark. Next up, Part Two.

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