Denmark has it all. Seemingly endless array of toppings to fulfil your rye bread fantasies. White wind turbines peeking out over the horizon everywhere. Deluxe hotdogs. Peculiar shops and top designs. Beer and cocktails. Tivoli. Attractive men cycling in suits who clearly invented the fashion beard. The most amazing community centers. Snegels. And an extra-terrestrial language.
With my self-proclaimed Viking heritage, my blonde hair and blue eyes made it very easy for me to blend into Denmark. Perhaps a little too well. Shopkeepers would speak to me in Danish because I looked the part and I didn’t give them any helpful cues that I wasn’t local because Hi and Hej sound so similar so they often couldn't immediately discern that I wasn’t speaking Danish. I could never successfully master the phrase I don’t speak Danish without sounding like I had a mouthful of toffee, I resigned to bashfully asking if they could please speak English.
To avoid owning up to my failed Danish directly, I also got really good at using social cues to interpret what people were saying – which in a shop was usually something about letting them know if they could help me find anything or if I wanted my receipt in the bag – and then responding in English to the question I thought they were asking as if I understood Danish but couldn’t yet speak it (Liar, liar. Pants on fire). While this sounds like a recipe for a communication disaster, sadly no horrible awkward misinterpretations unfolded that would make for epic blog stories.
You may be wondering what I was shopping for since everything in Denmark is very expensive and I currently have no work and therefore no money? A leather jacket. Admittedly, I desperately wanted to fit in with the effortless scandi-chic thing that Danish women have going on. Skinny black jeans, chunky wool sweater for winter or substitute a casual t-shirt in “summer,” topped off with a moto-styled leather jacket and a pair of comfy runners. Practicalities and the laid-back quality of the Danish way of life have definitely shaped their less-is-more sartorial philosophy. I get it. It’s not easy to combine high heels, short summer dresses or tight trousers with the Danish weather, biking and cobblestones.
The most noticeable thing about Danish style is the colour – or lack thereof. While their national dress code was fun at first, it’s basically a uniform. ‘Orange is the new black’ doesn’t apply to Denmark. Style comes in black, white, slate grey. In fact, every store has the same grey wool sweater. Wait, that’s not entirely true... sometimes you can also find a navy blue sweater and, if you want to live on the edge, I’ve even seen bottle green and burgundy sweaters!
The only more ubiquitous than the Danish leather jacket is the Dannebrog flag. It’s kind of hard to miss when it’s stuck on every birthday cake and graduation card, flying off masts in harbours and waved at airports to greet people coming home. In Denmark almost every house, small or big, has its own flagpole. Secretly, I wanted to ask every Danish child to draw a happy, normal home to see if they would draw a flagpole with a Danish flag blowing in the wind next to it. I also learned that flag flying is seriously regulated business.
“Permission should be granted (to fly a foreign flag) – conditional to the flying of the Danish flag of at least the same size and on as good a placement- as the foreign one. This condition may be wavered should the applicant possess only one flagpole.”
Glad we got that covered in time to avoid a costly fine for ‘misbehaving.’ With that in mind, I should probably warn you about a more likely offence: jay walking.
In Demark, jaywalking is the equivalent of treason. My host, Sarah, kindly informed me of this during her locals-guide-to-Aarhus orientation, and I did my best to oblige. But every now and then, my instincts would take over when I saw an empty street. Seriously, who has time to wait until the light turns green when there is no traffic? Danes, that’s who. As I flitted across the street, cavalierly breaking the rules, nearby Danes would look at me with scorn like I'm the Donald Trump of street etiquette.
A number of people mentioned that while Denmark is lovely for tourists, where it really shines is for its residents – to many the holy grail of civilized society with its focus on progressive politics, social care programs, urban planning, and sustainability (but shockingly it still doesn’t have compost pick up!). My extended stay gave me a chance to try-on “living Danishly,” and I feel like I had a rare glimpse into what it means to live here... albeit at the best time of year when the weather is “warm” and the days are long. It may seem like I’ve had the model Danish experience but alas I must report two great failings: coffee and cycling.
Coffee in Denmark is like Guinness in Ireland. And since no one ever misses a pint when roving around Ireland, it seems logical that I should partake in coffee-swilling culture when in Denmark. Denmark ranks among the top ten coffee drinking nations with an average Dane consuming 1.46 cups of coffee per day (which is about the same as the daily Guinness consumption in Ireland). The finer nuances of single-origin beans and roasting profiles that characterizes different coffees and trendy cafes are lost on me. As a non-coffee drinker, I just never felt compelled to sit and sip when my precious kroners could be spent slyly snorfing a second snegel.
Reflecting on my Danish experience, I wonder if I’ve accidentally missed a quintessential experience – a brewing regret if you will. Danes are one of the happiest nations in the world and I am curious about correlation of happiness and caffeination status. After all, most images of hygge include a pair of cozy wool socks and a cup of java. I suppose this means I will just have to go back one day to test my hypothesis. But if you twist my rubber arm, I’ll take one for science.
Abdicating my responsibility to see Denmark from two wheels is my biggest failure. Essentially it’s the most un-Danish thing I could do. Regardless of weather, the Danes have managed to make bicycles an integral part of daily life, with everyone from the postman to Danish royalty preferring to pedal. And children get lots of practice so they can quickly move on from the child-carrier bike to tearing up the road on their own.
But just because Denmark is mind-bogglingly bike friendly, it doesn’t mean I was automatically ready to join in on pedal power. After a few less than enjoyable cycling experiences in the last couple years (most recent one detailed here), it is well documented that I am timid cycler at best. I imagine I look like a clumsy foal walking for the first time. Compound this ineptitude with the fact that had no idea where I was going and I would need Siri to be directing me through the grid-less maze of streets. I could foresee the treacherous momentary swerving when I try to hand-indicate my direction while clutching my precious phone and attempting to turn my handlebars with my remaining free limb. It seemed overly ambitious for a cycling Bambi. The prospect of it all was just too much. I would have happily played follow the leader in a bike gang but no way in hell I was signing up for death-by-bicycle on my own. So instead of conquering my fears, my cycling anxiety rages on – at least for now. Perhaps this is just another reason I have to come back?
All of the magic of Denmark doesn’t top the kindness of friends and the power of serendipity. For all of this to be possible, I needed to meet three super-hero women along the way. I’ll let them remain partially anonymous on the interwebs as simply Sarah, Katie and Mia but they will know that this elephant-sized THANK YOU is especially for them. Snegels on me when our paths cross again!
Nice to meet you...
I'm Andi (hence the blog name). I'm a travel aficionado, passionate eater, tireless explorer of internet rabbit-holes, and amateur thinker. Join me as I give it all up (ok, that's a bit of an exaggeration) and go around the world on a mid-career "soul sabbatical" & year-of-learning to figure out what to be NEXT when I grow up. Won’t you grab a cup of chai and stay a while?
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