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Notes on Denmark: People and Practices

20/05/2016 13:11 | Updated 20 May 2016

It's ill-advised and even dangerous to try and profile groups of people into a few general characteristics, especially when, as is the case, that group is 5-point-something million individuals strong. But nearly eight months after moving to Denmark, I'm now straddling that crepuscule between things being novel and others becoming the norm, so in this lucid moment I wanted to jot down a few observations, about my experience of Denmark and, more importantly, about the people who hail from it - an invitees examination, if you will.

We're told the Danes are happy, both in spite and arguably because of the high taxes. We know Senator Bernie praises Denmark for its Social Democratic model. Most are aware that Danes can balance being effortlessly well kempt with cycling through gale-force wind and rain. But what other baseless generalisations about an entire populus can I safely get away with?

Trust & Trustworthiness

You walk past a popular café, or a sample sale at Acne, and you see a pram or two parked neatly outside. "How sensible", you muse. "Dad or Mum has left the buggy outside and carried baby in. It's congested enough in there without miniature 4x4s clogging the space". Then, suddenly, you notice movement - a chubby little arm, perhaps, or a squeak. Baby is still there and neither parent is anywhere to be seen.

Did Baby's Day Out teach people nothing?

This is, by all accounts, not as common a sight as some might have you believe, but it's a sight nonetheless, even in the capital of Denmark. In London, I wouldn't leave my old bike unattended for more than a second unless it was D-locked to a sturdy looking pole with a chain clamped through both wheels. It's not that life here is cheap, or that Danish parents are neglectful - quite the opposite, actually. It's just... safe.

And what is the point of living somewhere safe if you can't enjoy the perks of that safety too? Perks like being able to savour a quiet moment with friends or try on last season's discounted cast-offs, without worrying about that small thing. And let's be brutal here, that small thing is probably the reason you need a quiet moment and a cut-price new wardrobe in the first place.

People here behave, evident in the markedly fewer CCTV cameras winking ominously from the corners of buildings. If I were so inclined, I could probably cancel my gym membership and waltz unchecked into any number of exercise classes, or ride the metro ticketless. The key here is not to be an idiot or an opportunist, or both. Surveillance might not be heavy, but fines apparently are. Mild to medium forms of stupidity like jumping a red light (guilty), taking a selfie while cycling (not guilty) or cycling with no hands (guilty) might cost you anywhere between 700 and 1000 kroners (£70 - £100).

Just behave, and cycle safely.

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Health

Despite a periodic smokers' wheeze and a stubborn little paunch from excessive drinking and countless bags of Sour Patch Kids, I never thought I was in particularly bad shape - until I moved to Denmark.

A friend visiting last weekend even commented on the distinct lack of obesity, and I concur, it's a rare sight. But it's by no means accidental or even genetic.

Firstly, a lot of people here exercise. Of course, people everywhere including Britain take lots of exercise, and Danes are skilled at binge-drinking too, but fitness here it's something far more omnipresent. You wonder why the streets are so quiet of an evening, then you go to your once-a-month penance at Crossfit and you're reminded exactly why. Inside is like a clammy nest of glowing and wholesome-looking 20- and 30- somethings hurling kettle bells across a warehouse to the pounding instruction of Britney.

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It is 100% worth noting that exercise here is not only extremely popular; it is also extremely affordable. Denmark has some of the cheapest fitness centres in Europe (approximately £25/month) and people make good use of them. I remember paying around twice that amount in London even with corporate membership. Now, not only do I save ≈ 50%, but I also experience only ≈ 50% of the guilt for never bothering to go.

Secondly, diet here is overall pretty good. Danish demand for organic food is much higher than many other countries in Europe and the small Nordic country is in a race with the even smaller Bhutan to become completely organic by 2020.

The following is hardly an anthropological study, but hear me out. I've worked in a variety of advertising agencies, and those I worked at in London stocked fizzy drinks for employees, had biscuit runs most afternoons at around 3pm, and boozy pub lunches and hangover bacon butties were practically company policy. Here, other than cake for desert once a week and the obligatory Friday afternoon beer trolley, I've not encountered that sort of wanton, almost-fetishised snacking culture. I miss it terribly, obviously, but my shrinking A-cup certainly doesn't.

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A few days ago, as I was limbering up to face-plant a packet of chocolatey, nutty, marshmallowy P-tærter, someone in my immediate midst announced that she hadn't eaten sugar for 12 years. TWELVE YEARS*. I almost retorted with Edina Monsoon's immortal line, "Patsy hasn't eaten since 1974", but instead quietly pushed another P-tærte into my insatiable face-sphincter while making a mental note to never, ever bake her a birthday cake. I can't give up one vice for more than a month without having a meltdown and penning a blog about the experience.

*An average UK prison life sentence.

P-tærter, for reference:

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Pride & Patriotism

In the UK, and in England certainly, patriotism is a big, bad box of eggshells we circumnavigate with prudence. It is a part of our identity we might loosely dismiss with a few quips about the weather, fish and chips and our birth-begot ability to form an orderly queue. There are lots of things we could celebrate about where we're from but we don't like patriotism. It makes us uncomfortable. Flag-waving and national pride are the preserve only of right-wingers and a fair-weather chunk of the population whenever the World Cup or Olympics is on the telly. I'm uncomfortable just writing this.

Here, however, people don't seem to fear it so, and consequently the flag is everywhere: brandished by friends and family awaiting their returned at Copenhagen airport arrivals lounge; stapled to the walls at birthday parties; or wrapped around cocktail sticks and offered to guests as toothpicks to pluck out unwanted morsels of a cake that had been iced in the style of the Danish flag.

For example:

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To begin with, this made me feel awkward, likely because the Danish flag is basically an inverted St Georges cross. Have I unwittingly walked into the Danish chapter of a Britain First convention? No, in a country as small as this, pride in a nation is more akin to pride in society. And it's wholly possible to take pride in a society while remaining a progressive thinking people of the world. The Danes appear to have struck the balance in their brand of Social Democracy, and if a few waving flags are fanning this breath of fresh air from dog-eat-dog, London-style individualism and widespread hatred of the UK political establishment, then so be it.

Anyway, Bernie loves Denmark, so why can't Denmark love Denmark?

Conformism

Still in the spirit of collective psyche, there is a level of sartorial uniformity I wasn't expecting here, given Denmark's reputation as a burgeoning style capital. To some, particularly regarding fashion, compliance and conformism carry negative connotations; to others, positive ones (see: Janteloven).

There definitely appears to be a 'look', though. That's not to say it's bad or boring by any stretch of the imagination, rather, it's an apparent national ability to dress tastefully - interestingly, even - while managing to not stand out one iota. Curious.

Whether it's the ubiquitous head-to-toe in black, topknots, ultra-short back and sides, or post-luxury, slightly utilitarian get-up to which many local designers subscribe, there's a 'safety-in-numbers' feel to it all.

Even in traditionally seditious circles, like the local punk and extreme metal scenes, a certain brand of internal-conformism is still heavily prevalent - a paradoxically manicured anti-image shared by many. The drag, even - a risk-taking, chaotic form of expression - is, in my frankly worthless opinion, a little polished and safe here.

Take all this with a fistful of salt, though. I spent the last 5 years in a part of the world that took dressing individually so seriously that it quite literally swallowed itself and shat out 'Normcore', a bona fide subculture, based around finding liberation in being plain, and dressing 'normally'. Today, as someone who is running headlong to the front door of his thirties, dressing to stand out isn't high on my to do list.

So there it is. My thus-far limited experience of the Danes is just that - limited, and largely groundless. I welcome any backlash and hope to be enlightened in the spirit of gaining deeper understanding of my now-compatriots. Overall it seems they set a pretty good example, and I hope that blend of honesty, trusting and desire to self-preserve eventually rubs off on me.

I may even end up with a topknot and a wardrobe full of black, but I'm definitely quitting Crossfit and there's no fucking way I'll give up sugar.

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