Fuelled on countless films, crime drama series and trips to as many Scandinavian hang outs in London – the Nordic Bakery, the Scandinavian Kitchen and Kosmopol to list a few – as I had time and money for, I was gagging to go to Copenhagen. A couple of blogs, a haphazard to do list and an app were as far as my planning took me prior to landing at Kastrup.
I had been forewarned of extortionate prices, the reserved nature of the locals (at best cold; at worst rude), the absence of chivalry among the men – very apparent from pretty much every character Kim Bodnia has ever played throughout his acting career – and the racism. Not four qualities that will sell a place. Over two weeks – with a five day interlude in Russia – I had every one of those myths shattered and found myself deeply in love with a city one twentieth of the size of London.
Three months living in Seoul at the start of 2011 opened my eyes to the threshold of happiness one can expect and demand from the place you live in and how that place should make you feel. For the longest time I had an enforced prejudice that London was It. The Holy Grail. People look at me bemusedly when I admit to not liking living here. If thousands upon thousands herded from afar to this heaving city and it was supposedly (one of) the beating heart of everything from finance to the arts, one could ascend no further, right?!
Seoul’s energy, open and optimistic attitude, design – functionality meets beauty – and attention to detail (the small touches which are not technologically advanced but which make life just that little more easy and ordered), as well as all its home grown fashion, music, nightlife, art, film and independent boutiques and cafes completely wooed me. And Copenhagen uncannily has all those qualities. It also has in common with Korea a very substantial and important place in the maritime industry – another world that has ensnared me. It was my first time in Denmark, but the place felt reassuring and familiar and I took to it like a ship to water.
Ever since being introduced to Geert Hofstede’s study on cultural dimensions, I cannot help apply his theory to what I see around me when I visit a new and foreign culture. The Scandinavian nations are known for their egalitarian attitude to the roles of men and women and this filters down to many levels of both individual mentality and that of their society. The palpable difference in atmosphere when one transitions from the England to Bulgaria, say, where men dominate and women dress to impress (read: slutty) is of pretty similar scale to the change in tone when one enters Scandinavia from the UK. One is left thinking that there is a lot of catching up to do in finding that equality between the sexes we seek… without resorting to artificial political correctness.
Less distinct gender roles – man works, woman cleans – actually translate into a society where work-balance is much more healthy and focused on family and friends. If both the mother and father have equal stakes in caring for children (you see a LOT of hot Daddies pushing prams in the parks and around town) it gives both more time and energy for play and work. There are very few alpha males – LADS, if you like – and while the Danes love to drink and revel (thank God for that) they never resort to the loud and boisterous behaviour that many, many men over here never grow out of.
Working hours are less severe, Saturdays see a decided downturn in activity and Sunday’s are almost dead in comparison to most metropolises.
Danes are some of the happiest people in the world – according to the UN’s first World Happiness Report – and one can feel this implicitly. Being happy and content is such a given that there does not even exist a literal translation (that is used with regularity) for the English phrase “I am happy”. There is a genuine love for their country and culture – the Dannebrog is present at parties and celebrations and is very much a feature of the brand landscape in Denmark –that has nothing to do with politics or nationalism as we know it.
People look healthier and more attractive: a combination of lifestyle habits, positive mentality and can-do attitude (it’s contagious) and in the way they choose to dress. Plunging necklines, heavy make-up and VPL are things you see very little of. A comment I enjoyed the most from a Danish friend was, “you can always tell if a person is English… because they just have a sort of unhealthy look about them.” (Little wonder I find it extremely flattering and cheering when someone tells me I do not look English!).
While the Danish pastry may be one of its most well known exports, it is rare to see an obese person here and their supermarkets are almost devoid of the large amounts of processed and sugary products that dominate many British supermarket aisles. Rye flour is the default option for bread. The muesli is always unsweetened. The base quality of products in even the budget supermarkets like Netto equals or surpasses those of higher-end British equivalents.
Living an active lifestyle is made effortless thanks to wide and ubiquitous bicycle lanes and the fact you can park your bike virtually anywhere. The city is filled with bike shops on almost every corner – should you get a flat tire or other bike-related woe. Being able to get from one end of Copenhagen to another in under 40 minutes on two wheels is liberating and affords you a lot more time to spend on everything else an energetic person might wish to do. Most parks are kept open late and even come with lamps that light up the path for nocturnal runners.
If you chose to take the train, you can pay via an iPhone app and even their electronic musical festivals have their own application to keep you informed on who is playing where and at what time.
Copenhagen may be small in square miles, but has such a rich variety of cityscapes. Stunning cemeteries like Vestre and Assistens (resting place of Niels Bohr and Little Mermaid author HC Andersen), calm and beautiful parks like Søndermarken and the adjacent Frederiksberg have; the lakes, the canals and surrounding cobbled streets; the hippie free town of Christianshavn; the harbour that is home to the little mermaid (den lille havfrue); a waterfront of stunning modern architecture like the royal library – the Black Diamond (den Sorte Diamant) – and the Opera House… which gazes directly onto Amalienberg palace, the Queen’s residence, the courtyard of which one can simply stroll around (especially lovely at night); the botanical gardens; Kastellet and other old fortresses; the green-roofed buildings of old – the original Copenhagen Stock Exchange with its tower made of the twisted tails of four dragons is just one impressive example; the second oldest amusement park in the world, Tivoli – the oldest is just north of Copenhagen in Klampenborg – that is magical when lit up after dark; the edgy, arty, urban neighbourhood of Nørrebro and its resident hipsters; the old Carlsberg factory that has now transformed into a post-industrial playground; the marina that borders the wide open space of Amager Nature Reserve… and Kødbyen: meat-packing and hacking in the morning, cafes and galleries in the afternoon, drinking until dawn. If you did not know any better you would walk straight past, dismissing it as nothing but a cluster of wholesale warehouses. Did I mention Copenhagen has beaches, too??
A hefty appetite for activity goes well with the delicious Danish fare one can enjoy – for very reasonable prices that hardly differ a cent from those in London. Open-faced rye bread sandwiches – smørrebrod – are heaped with anything from egg, smoked herring, potatoes, lettuce and sour cream and traditionally washed down with caraway snaps. Then there are fiskedeller (fish balls) and pølse (sausage) that come with sliced gherkins and crispy onions. The bagerier keep a baked goods and cinnamon lover smiling and rød grød med fløde – strawberry compote with cream – is an extremely simple and delicious dessert that is extremely difficult to say…if you are not a Danish speaker.
Things may be calmer and cleaner but that does not equal lack of character. Over the next articles I will delve deeper into the beginning of my Denmark adventure: the galleries, the electronic music, the hangouts, the shops, the nightlife.
For a local, insider’s perspective on Copenhagen through few words and lots of lovely photography: Classic Copenhagen.
Never gone Nordic? From 6-7th October head to the Scandinavia Show at Earl’s Court for a taster.