Anna Gibbs

Where in the world is Denmark? and other things you may not have known about the happiest country in the world

When I chose to study abroad in Denmark, I only knew that it was once ranked the happiest country in the world. I didn’t know its population size, or its cuisine, or its traditions, or even its location. I wasn’t alone in this boat either. The day that I left to study abroad in January 2018, I stopped by a cafe for one last chai latte and bumped into a few friends. I told them that I was leaving for Denmark in just a few hours. One of my friends asked, “Do you know how to speak Dutch?” (Danes speak Danish.) The other friend mistook the Netherlands for Denmark, though he himself had (maybe?) been there: “I’ve been to Denmark. I loved Amsterdam.”  

I had the same misconceptions (aka, total lack of knowledge) about Denmark before I moved there to study. For instance, I had no clue that it was a peninsula, and I did not know it was so tiny. A few weeks before I landed in Copenhagen, I learned that Denmark borders Germany to the north and is otherwise surrounded by water. I learned that it only takes about three hours to drive across it from east to west – only slightly longer than driving across Massachusetts. Denmark is incredibly flat – no hills, no mountains, no skiing. I learned that there are more pigs than humans in Denmark. On a related note, it’s also only the HOT DOG CAPITAL OF THE WORLD (well, after, apparently, New Castle, Pennsylvania).

I’m sure I’ve made you curious now. So, here we go. Time for a quick crash course on Denmark.

Nyhavn is probably the most famous/recognizable landmark in Denmark, with several narrow colorful houses lining the harbor.

Hot dogs?

First, hot dogs. Called pølse in Denmark, they are served at hot dog wagons (pølsevogne) all around Copenhagen. The Fransk hot dog is served in a bun that wraps entirely around the sausage. Otherwise if you get a normal hot dog and order “all the toppings,” you’ll receive: ketchup, mustard, remoulade (only the best sauce in the world, impossible to find in the US), raw onions, roasted onions, and sliced pickles. My favorite Danish hot dog is the ostepølse (the cheese sausage) – but the most famous is the red hot dog. Recently Denmark banned the use of most food additives used for coloring. But people threw a fuss about the red hot dog, and so an exception was made: no food dyes, EXCEPT for the red hot dog.

My first red hot dog, with the hot dog wagon behind me. 

What do the Danes eat?

When I got home from Denmark, I immediately looked up where to find the closest Danish restaurant or grocery store or food market or something. And I couldn’t find… anything. Danish food is really hard to find in Massachusetts. I suppose it’s not surprising considering there’s only 6 million people in Denmark and most people around me think Denmark is Holland.

So what the heck is Danish cuisine?

Day to day the Danes eat a lot of something called smørrebrød, which is an open-faced sandwich on dark rye bread. The toppings can be almost anything – sausage and remoulade, potatoes with mayo and salt, curried herring. There are some traditional types of smørrebrød, but on nights that we had it for dinner, the table was covered in various meats, cheeses, fish, and sauces, and we mix and match whatever seems good together. I used to pack these for lunch most days when I was studying.

This is a “fancy” smørrebrød bought a restaurant – potatoes, onions, and herring and rye bread underneath. My homemade ones look tastier.

(The similarity between the words “smørrebrød” and “smorgasbord” isn’t a coincidence. We use the word “smorgasbord” to mean “a large heterogeneous mixture,” or a bunch of random things. But it’s originally a Swedish word for a traditional buffet.)

 

Other common Danish foods: meat, lots of potatoes. Denmark is, after all, home of the Vikings. Fish filet and shrimp are also common. At most meals we would have red cabbage as a side, which is actually really tasty. They have many traditional dishes that are associated with holidays, in the same way Americans eat turkey on Thanksgiving. On Christmas, the Danes eat a dish called flæskesteg – roast pork with a crispy rind of fat called crackling. Mmmmm.

Smoked salmon, shrimp, and fried plaice, which I think is some sort of flounder. It doesn’t look like much, but I will never forget this meal.

What’s the weather like?

I thought that Denmark would be practically the Arctic. That’s what I prepared for. I hit the stores and bought long johns, a down winter coat, faux-fur-lined snow boots, new mittens. It was if I didn’t already live in a frigid part of the world where no one bats an eye at single digit temperatures. So I was as surprised as anyone when I arrived in Denmark in January to a temperature that always hovered just above 32 degrees F (0 degrees C). It never snowed, though precipitation was common: the skies spit constant mist and light rain for two or three months straight. The constant dampness does chill you to the bone, but it rarely drops into the 20s or, god forbid, the TEENS.

This was also shocking: the consistency, especially coming from tumultuous, indecisive New England. I no longer had to check the weather every morning. It would be dark, rainy, and approximately 33 degrees F without fail.

In the spring and summer, the weather is very nice – sunny, warm, comfortable. Fun fact: anything over 25 degrees C is officially referred to as “a summer day” in Denmark. The summer after I left Denmark, they had more summer days than they had had in years.

Do the Danes speak English?

Most do! In all my time there I only encountered one man who didn’t know much English. Some Danes feel more comfortable than others with the language, but particularly in service, retail, etc., you can expect that you’ll be able to communicate. Even my host grandma who has some trouble with English is able to joke in the language – which, to me, is the mark of having a pretty good handle on it.

What does Danish sound like?

The Danes themselves describe Danish as sounding like speaking with a potato in your mouth.

Is Denmark actually full of bicycles?

Yes, there are bikes everywhere, and with them, the most incredible infrastructure that allows this to be true. Bike lanes everywhere. In my small town of Ishøj, there are even bicycle lanes in the rotaries. While I biked around it, I think I even exclaimed aloud. I felt so seen.

The bike lanes in Copenhagen move incredibly quickly – it’s like driving on the freeway. I was passed by a small child on a tricycle. One time I was just cruising along in a bike lane and all of a sudden I was riding over the harbor. (I later learned it’s a rather famous bridge called the Bicycle Snake Bridge.)

 

stock photos of the BICYCLE SNAKE BRIDGE

On the trains, large sections with bike stands allow people to prop up their bikes and sit next to them. Around the city there are parking lot equivalents just full of bikes. They’re really everywhere – it’s incredible. (Though the Netherlands holds the record for most bikers in the world, followed by Denmark at number 2.)

What are the Danes like as a people?

I’ve been lucky to have had the chance to travel to many different parts of the world, from China to Cuba to Canada. But my travels have always only lasted a week or two, and so I’ve never been more than a tourist, a visitor passing through. One of the best parts of living in another country for an extended period of time (besides my incredible host family experience) was having the chance to understand the vibe of the place and the people that live there. The Danish way of experiencing life is quite different than I had ever experienced back home in the US. If I had to describe the Danes in four words, they’d be: straight-forward, trustful, humble, and quality time.

First, straight-forward. Blunt. The Danes say it like it is. They do not mince their words; they do not sugarcoat; and they do not tell you only what you want to hear. The example that my roommate likes to joke about is the time my host mom said that her shoes look like hobo shoes. The Danes give their honest opinion. They must be great to shop for clothes with. You don’t have to wonder if you ACTUALLY look good in that dress; they will tell you if you don’t.

But it’s not just being straight about their opinion. One thing I love about the Danes – and which I think is incredibly distinct from Americans – is that when they offer you a favor, they want to do it. There’s an unspoken social code in America that you do not simply accept a favor without hedging for a minute. The two of you must do a little dance: “Waiter, here’s the card – “ “Oh, no, Bob, I’ll pay – “ “Deb, I insist.” We are trained to have a little pushback, a shy hesitant gratitude, an “Are you sure?” before proceeding with accepting. It’s not uncommon for an offer to be insincere, too. Sometimes when someone offers to make dinner or be the designated driver, you can tell they hope you decline or give a counter offer. Since I returned from Denmark, I spotted this social exchange much more often. A friend would offer something, and I KNEW I was meant to say “Oh no, that’s okay.” Just like I knew they’d respond, “oh, ok, cool.”

Denmark doesn’t deal with the grey area of cordiality. For a while, my roommate and I struggled to accept my host parents offering us a ride from the train station late in the evening or them buying us our favorite snack at the store. With time I realized that sometimes when I asked for a ride, they said yes, and sometimes, they said no. No dance necessary. It is so refreshing to take things at face value, I tell you. The catch is that everyone has to be on the same page for it to work. I didn’t even notice these unspoken exchanges until I got back to the US. When I returned home, I had to check myself, because I realized my immediate acceptance of a gesture came off as rude, because I wasn’t following the script of American norms.

Second, trust. The Danes are known for their trust in their government and in one another – something we do not see nearly as much in the US. I don’t have much to say about that besides the fact that it’s an important part of Danish culture.

Third, humility. The Danes are systematically humble. They even have something called “the Law of Jante.” To be as accurate as possible, as nuance is important in cultural differences, I’ll quote the definition from none other than Wikipedia: “the Law of Jante is a code of conduct known in Nordic countries that portrays not conforming, doing things out of the ordinary, or being overtly personally ambitious as unworthy and inappropriate. Used generally in colloquial speech in the Nordic countries as a sociological term to denote a condescending attitude towards individuality and personal success, the term refers to a mentality that denigrates individual achievement and places all emphasis on the collective.”

In retrospect, it’s perhaps not surprising that this attitude exists in a country with high taxation, free healthcare, and an overall governmental interest in supporting the collective. But it’s still a bit of a shock coming from America. The US and Denmark are night and day when it comes to individual vs collective. The US is practically synonymous with individual achievement; the American Dream may be a shared one, but it’s chased separately.

My host family gave an example of janteloven: if someone gets a really nice car and flaunted it around their neighborhood, that is seen as show-offish, done in poor taste, and generally disliked. In terms of professional achievement, parents are not as encouraging of promising writers or scientists to achieve their dreams – not necessarily negative, but less supportive.

Some of my study abroad friends bristled somewhat at this cultural difference. I see both sides. On one hand, the drive to fulfill individual potential gives purpose to individuals and betters the world with their action. On the other hand, pressure to succeed weighs so heavily on young people – and adults – in the US and other countries around the world, to the point of high rates of depression and suicide. (And perhaps this helps explain why Denmark is “the happiest country in the world” – just a thought. But more on that later.)

And fourth, quality time. This is my favorite part of Danish culture, and it even has its own word. Hygge technically doesn’t have an equivalent in English, but it has a translatable essence: one of coziness, time spent with family and friends, long meals and conversations, curled up in front of the fire or a movie with a cup of coffee. It’s a feeling we can all recognize. The Danes have put their finger on it, and they have learned to value it.

In the US – and especially in college – I struggled with guilt whenever I took time away from work. I scheduled lunches with friends as a half-hour “break” from papers and studying. Sleeping in, watching a tv show, or chilling with friends – I always had a nagging feeling that I should be doing something “better” with my time. It’s a common view that work is the most important thing we could be doing, and that everything else helps restore us in order to continue doing that work.

In Denmark, I learned not to berate myself for watching a movie with my host dad when I had reading to do. Every evening, I arrived home from school at 5 pm, and my whole host family – mom, dad, grandma, roommate, and me – sat down for an hour-long dinner sharing stories and talking about our countries. In Denmark, quality time with family and friends is seen as valuable time. It’s a priority. And as much as I would assure myself in college in the US that having downtime was okay, I never achieved the feeling in the same way until I made it to Denmark. They have figured something out. (At the cost of achievement? I’m sure that janteloven and hygge complement each other at times, but many Danish people are very successful, so I wouldn’t say that. See below.)

Try it sometime. Hygge was one of the best things I ever discovered. Just having a word for it validates it, makes it important.

Are they the happiest people in the world?

Denmark ranked at the top spot of the World Happiness Report for three years in a row, from 2014-2016. Norway won in 2017, then Finland in 2018 and 2019. Scandinavia is doing something right.

Many people asked me when I got back from Denmark: Is it true? and Why are they so happy?

Happiness is such a subjective and transient emotion that it’s obviously impossible to simplify so drastically across an entire country for a whole year. The measurement is based on personal happiness evaluations, but also the country’s levels of GDP, life expectancy, generosity, social support, freedom, and corruption.

My own evaluation is that the Danish people seem to be content. There’s a lot of financial safety nets (and perks) for the Danish people: they get paid to go to school, they get paid for having children, they get free healthcare, and when they’re at rock bottom, they can get money from the government to help them get on their feet. Because of this, I think there’s less fear related to money, and money affects most things that bring people happiness (not just material possessions, but also staying healthy, keeping our family healthy, getting an education, having a home, etc). People walking by each other in Denmark don’t often say hello; students in my class observed that Danes don’t move out of the way of each other while walking down the street. So it’s not like enthusiastic hunky dory hand shaking left and right. But generally people seem content, if not happy. I’m biased because my host family are some of the most lovely, kind, fun-loving people who are living their best lives, so the Danes seem pretty darn happy to me.

Do I know any Danish people?

Given how few Danish people there are in the world, and how little the average American might know about Denmark, it’s funny to realize how many Danes I had actually heard of. It feels like Danes have talented representatives in every field.

A short short list:

Lukas Graham (singer)

Caroline Wozniacki (world champion tennis player)

Mads Mikkelson (actor)

Hans Christian Anderson (fairytale writer)

The world’s best badminton player in 2006 (Peter Gade)

The featured artist in “Lean On” by DJ Snake (MØ)

Do I know any Danish things?

Again, Denmark is so small, and Americans know so little about it, and yet we interact with so many Danish/Scandinavian companies and inventions.

H&M: H&M is a Swedish company. It’s an acronym for Hennes & Mauritz – “hennes” meaning “hers” in Swedish, because it was mostly women’s clothes, and “Mauritz” for a menswear collection it acquired. Who would have thunk that a global clothing store was from Sweden!?

IKEA: Also Swedish. The name comes from the founder’s initials (Ingvar Kamprad), and then the first letter of his family farm, and finally the first letter of the village he grew up in. Most of the names of the products are proper names – often towns in Scandinavia. (Apparently this was because the founder was dyslexic and he found proper names easier to remember. But it means you can buy a couch called “Landskrona” or a rug called “Torslev.”)

LEGO: Lego is a Danish word!!!!!! WHAT!!!! Specifically, it’s a portmanteau (or combination) of two words: leg (play) and godt (well). Lego literally is short for play well. (If you’re interested, it was founded in 1932 by Ole Kirk Kristiansen, master carpenter, in the village of Billund, Denmark.)

Carlsberg: Beer!

Bluetooth: Literally named after a Danish king. Apparently King Harald Blatand (aka Harald Bluetooth – seriously) liked eating blueberries. He ruled from 958-970 BC and is famous for uniting modern Denmark. It doesn’t stop there. Bluetooth’s logo is a combination of the old Danish runes for H and B. Yes. 

And just some small discoveries:

  • Personal income taxes are reallyyyy high: 60.2%.
  • An artist hid giant wooden troll-like sculptures made out of recycled wood around Denmark. There’s one a five minute walk from my host family’s house hidden under the bridge.

   

  • Denmark is home to the most concentrated population of harbor porpoises in the world.
  • Recently a politician ran on the platform that he could turn the winds to always be at your back while you’re biking. He was a satirist.. but he won.
  • When the red lights are about to turn green, the yellow light comes on.
  • Shakespeare’s Hamlet is set in Denmark, and you can go visit the castle in a town called Helsingør.
  • Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts” are called “Radishes” (Radiserne) in Denmark.
  • Many kids’ characters are named Peter there… Winnie the Pooh is Peter Plys and Curious George is Peter Pedal.

   

  • On birthdays, people will decorate the table and cake with Danish flags. And they’ll put the Danish flag on Christmas trees too.   

  • The national statue in Denmark (its “Statue of Liberty,” if you will) is a Little Mermaid statue. It’s very tiny in person. 
  • When saying “Bye,” the Danes say “Hi hi” (spelled “hej”). 
  • A legit tradition: if a man turns 30 years old and he isn’t in a serious relationship, he is deemed a “pepper man.” He will be gifted a pepper shaker, and often he will wake up in the morning to find a oil can filled with concrete in his front yard telling the whole world that he is single, ladies. (Even engagement isn’t serious enough to save you from this humiliation – you have to be married.)
  • In Denmark, a “life sentence” actually means 16 years, on average – even for murderers. Luckily it can be extended.

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