If you’re feeling all warm and fuzzy from the overwhelming togetherness in Lap Dansk Part 1, let’s keep peeling off the layers of this lap dansk.
When I arrived aimlessly in Copenhagen in February 1994, I came to visit Danish friends I had met while backpacking in China a few years prior. I had been living and travelling all over the world for five years and, in retrospect, I needed to grow some roots. I was kindly invited to camp out on the living room floor in Lars and Lasse’s apartment in Vesterbro. At that point I had no inkling that I was embarking on a quarter century of Copenhagen living. Looking back, there were certain clues. As I schlepped up the stairs upon arrival, I passed door after door with Danish names on them — Rasmussen, Larsen, Andersen — and felt strangely at home.
To begin with there were only immediate needs to deal with. Lars spelled it out clearly. “You are now an FC Copenhagen fan. It’s not up for discussion. Oh, and you’ll need a bike.” The guys found a bike key and tossed it over to me. “It’s green, I think. It’s in the backyard somewhere. You’ll find it”.
You can discuss preferences in local football teams over litres of beer but you can’t discuss the necessity of having a bike in Copenhagen. It was an easy start to life in this city. Well, after spending 30 minutes looking for the damn, green bike. Little did I know where that bicycle lark was gonna take me.
The primary reason that I felt instantly at home when I decided to stick around Copenhagen for a while was one that crept up on me. I slowly discovered that my dry, dark, no filter humour was in its element. It had come home. I no longer needed to add a hurried disclaimer at the end of a funny comment like “just kidding!!”, like I did elsewhere in the world.
The reputation of “British humour” is well known and most people understand what you mean when you refer to it. “Danish humour”, on the other hand, lacks the same brand value. Let’s face it, it’s a little country in the Northern corner of Europe with an unintelligible language, so fair enough that its humour was never a major cultural export. But damn, it’s really one of the defining factors for me sticking around as long as I have.
One of my interns at my design company really made me think more about Danish humour a few years ago. After six months in Copenhagen, this well-travelled American woman responded when I asked what she’d remember from her time in Denmark, that it would be the humour. “You people say things to each other that would get you killed in other countries”. Until that point I had only happily engaged in humourcide with my fellow citizens and hadn’t thought about it much. Her comment changed all that.
I started seeing what I previously took for granted. Someone behind you in a supermarket line drops something. You pick it up and hand it to them but then say, “First day with the new arms?” A complete stranger. They’ll fire back a dryly delivered salvo. You both smile wryly and that’s it. You don’t engage in further conversation. You’re done. It was a success for both parties.
My ex-wife noticed years ago that when I came home from one meeting or another and she asked how it went, I would most often reply, “they were funny” or “they got my humour…” even though I wasn’t even auditioning for a stand-up show but rather just going to normal work meetings. It was my personal indicator.
How do you describe Danish humour? It’s dry and dark. There is no too soon or too much. You rarely hear anyone say, “that’s not funny!” if you step over a blurred line. If they don’t share the same level of humour, they at least recognise your right to your brand of it.
It is really hard to travel to other countries, believe me. I have to tiptoe through cultural landscapes peppered with humour landmines and I’ve lost more than a few toes. In my experience, only a few other cultures fully appreciate Danish humour. The Brits seem to get it — and by cultural extension the Canadians and Australians — even if it’s less self-depreciating than their style. For some awesome reason, the Thai get a kick out of the Danish darkness.
I spend far too much time thinking about this. One thing that fascinates me is… why?! What happened to enable a dark, rich culture in Denmark — an oasis of humour in the northern Empty Quarter of Unfunny. C’mon, we’re surrounded by Norway, Sweden and Germany. Not exactly pillars of hilarity in the giggly, cultural annals of humankind. Denmark and Sweden are the two countries in the world who have been at war the most in history. How many battles started because a Swede didn’t get a Danish joke? We may never know the truth. Beyond that there are the Finns, with dark, dark humour but nobody else on the planet understands them or their weird, private club.
One theory is that Denmark historically punched above its weight. This small country was a feared military power for centuries, in the Viking era and again later from the 1600's. We had colonies (not something to brag about, but let’s use historical context here) in Africa, India and the Caribbean, were in a union with Norway, owned bits and pieces of countries in the Baltic, still have Greenland and the Faeroe Islands in the Kingdom, as well as Iceland until 1942. Perhaps this big britches mentality fuelled a sense of grandeur and internationality that spawned a deep-rooted culture of irreverent humour.
I had a discussion with an extremely unfunny young Canadian at a bar in Copenhagen a couple of years ago. A privileged, snooty better-than-you type. She was tired of hearing Danish humour used to excuse a whole long list of cultural failings she saw in Denmark. It would have been a much more interesting conversation if she had humour and — as described in Part 1 — had a sense of the agree to disagree modus operandi of Danish discussion. Nevertheless, it was food for thought. I still think this culture of humour is unique, useful and extremely valuable.
Nudity, please, we’re Danish
There is one aspect of life in Denmark that many people can never really prepare themselves for. You’re going to see a lot of flesh. In the summer of 1995, I went to the beach at Ishøj with my first wife and her dad. We lay out the towels and settled in. Without ceremony, her dad stripped off all his clothes. He saw me noticing and informed me proudly that it is his right to be nude on any beach in Denmark. It’s been legal since the 1970's. He strode out into the sea. I was never a prude so I was just merely surprised. The beach was busy that day. I saw families with kids around us notice his nudity but the reaction was nothing more than “huh… look… naked dude…” before they forgot about it again.
You don’t see nudity on beaches very often, to be honest. But you see a fantastic, casual relationship to nudity — and various stages of undress — everywhere. I’ve seen both women and men arrive in parks on summer days, park their bike and proceed to slip out of their work clothes and strip down to their underwear to lie on the grass and soak up the sun.
Just going to a swimming pool is an eye opener for people new to Denmark. It is the accepted culture to stride naked to the showers to wash off before putting on your bathing suit. Signs are posted informing you that this is mandatory. Naked strangers will school you about it if you fail to do so. A female friend from the States told me that she had seen exactly one vagina in her life — her own — before coming to Denmark and seeing dozens every time she was in a swimming pool dressing room. Women casually chatting with each other while putting creme on their bodies after a swim. In the mens’ dressing room, it’s much the same. Everyone wandering around naked and in no hurry to put their clothes on.
This body confidence has its roots in the 1920s and 1930s and the German Freikörperkultur (FKK) — free body culture — which was also popular in Denmark. It is also firmly connected to the whole horizontal structure of the society. We’re all equal — clothed or unclothed. Danes also have the lowest level of gelotophobia — fear of being laughed at — than any other country measured in a study by the University of Zurich. Only 1.6% of the population say they have a fear of it. In Britain, for comparison, it’s 13%. After gym class, my kids are expected to shower in an open shower room with their classmates of the same gender and have done so since a young age.
A healthy secular culture and a liberal attitude to sexuality also play a role. It may come as no surprise that Denmark was the first country to legalise pornography back in 1969 and today 60% of Danish women and 80% of Danish men watch it.
Once you get over the initial shock, nudity in the company of strangers becomes a normal part of daily life in Denmark.
When I first moved to Denmark in the mid-nineties, the country was much like all the others I had lived in regarding banking and communication with authorities. I got a bank card and letters were sent to me from the city, tax office, what have you.
What has happened since, with the advent of the internet and digitalisation, is quite remarkable. I’ve seen a nation transform.
All payment at supermarkets, shops and restaurants is done by card — like many places, sure. Except I haven’t had cash on me for years and it is a rare occasion if I have cash lying around the house. This is as close to a cashless society as you can get. When travelling just down the road to Germany, I still have to find one of those cash machine thingys and withdraw Euros for the many bars and cafes that only accept cash. On occasion, my youngest kid needs cash for a school event or something and I scramble around to find it. I usually get it in the supermarket, where I can ask for 100 kroner over the amount of my groceries and get cash that way. I can’t remember the last time I used a cash machine in this city. Luckily, at 12 years old, my daughter now has a bank card.
When I arrived here, there were checkbooks available from the bank. I never had one and using checks was already in decline back in the late 90's. Now, in Denmark, checks are officially obsolete. They have ceased to exist, and rightly so. They are a vintage payment system — like travellers checks — that serve no purpose any longer. One international project I was working on sent a check as payment a couple of years ago — before they were finally phased out — because we forgot to mention we needed a bank transfer. The amount was around 3000 USD. Out of curiosity, I called my bank to hear if it was possible for them to accept it. The lady had no idea. She had never processed a check before. She called back an hour later, having asked around in the office. She told me that there was a fee of 500 USD to process it. Or at least she thought so, since no one in the bank really knew. Needless to say, I got the client to use a wire transfer. Even this year, in 2019, an American client wanted to send a cheque and was incredibly confused that they couldn’t cut a check. I’ve received wire transfers from dozens of countries through the years, but in the States, it’s a battle for them to figure out how to do it.
My postbox is lonely these days. There’s rarely anything in it. So much so that I can go for weeks before remembering to check it. Every communication from the city, state, tax office, bank, power company, et al is sent to a digital postbox as a message and pdf. Usually with an text message or email to let me know that I should check my digital postbox. Paper letters from authorities and service providers have been rendered almost obsolete.
I communicate with my doctor online. I get a text message from the school nurse or dentist when my kids have had a check up, with a link to their online medical or dental journal. I receive a push on an app when I have a package on the way. I communicate with the school and after-school club through an app/website. I use an instant cash transfer app to transfer money to my teenager, buy things at a flea market or even pay my phone bill.
Many of these things are in place elsewhere but here it’s all at once and most of the transformation happened smoothly and efficiently over just the past five to ten years. It’s pretty wild.
Nice to Be Home
Copenhagen is a pretty cool city. Copenhageners love to travel and do it often but I’ve noticed through the years how they always like to come home. “Just spent a week in New York/London/Bangkok and it was amazing! But great to be home…”
Very unscientifically, I’ve determined that Copenhageners really only have one city that they grudgingly look up to. Berlin. For years, the default response when a new funky cafe or bar opened up, featuring funky flea market furniture or something, was “It’s soooo Berlin”. It’s as though Berlin has a cool, raw edge that clean and tidy Copenhagen lacks and on some deep emotional level, Copenhageners envy it.
Ironically, I have many friends and acquaintances who came to visit Copenhagen for a week or more — as opposed to a long weekend. Many of them report that Copenhageners, when hearing they were here for a longer period, would often respond with an incredulous but impressed, “why?!” As though they’re aware that all the touristy things can be done in a weekend and it must be dull to just hang around our chill chity for a whole week.
Settling in Copenhagen or elsewhere in Denmark is famously difficult. There are regular articles about people who came here to study or work and never had a Danish friend. Danes are reserved like the other Nordic cultures, absolutely. They loosen up when they drink, sure. They like talking to foreigners — in excellent English — at bars or parties. But it remains difficult to develop deeper friendships.
For me it is simply because of what I wrote in Part 1 about how they are formed into tight knit units from an early age and taught about the importance of group bonds. Many of my friends are still very close with friends from school on a level I have rarely seen elsewhere. Tight, intimate circles of friends that are difficult to penetrate.
It’s not just foreigners who have difficulty. Danes socialise with their work colleagues the least among European countries, preferring to spend their time with friends and family. I was lucky when I arrived, ending up in a circle of friends that overlapped into other circles of friends and I hit the Danish ground running with a social network. I know many foreigners who came here and had a much harder time of it. In a way it’s nobody’s fault. Danes grow up in their circles and they remain comfort zones for most of their lives. That cultural development makes it as hard to move out of a circle as it is for others to move in.
Bring on the Lux
Everything you just read about the reservedness of Danes is thrown out the window in the Nordic spring. The spring and summer have unique qualities that are difficult to explain. After long, dark winters, the world opens up and the light embraces you. You are giddy. The light is the defining factor. In the spring you’ll hear people commenting excitedly about how the days are getting longer.
Light illumination is measured in units called Lux. On a moonless, overcast night you get about 0.0001 lux. The lighting in an average family living room is about 50 lux. The Nordic winter — overcast, snow, rain and with a sunset, in Copenhagen anyway, at around 3:30 PM in mid-December — is not generous in it’s distribution of lux. Rarely does it rise above about 400 lux.
On a sunny spring or summer day, on the other hand, your body and mind are splashed with upwards of 100,000 lux. What a shock in the first sunny days of spring. It triggers that feeling of a rush and it increases your energy levels and even your sexual desire. It’s quite a difference between winter and summer.
When spring returns and eases into summer, Danes exude a wild energy due to the effect of lux on us but also because we don’t know how long it will last given the vagaries of the Danish weather. We milk it for all it’s worth. On occasion we are graced with a long, amazing summer that stretches into September or even October. I have observed a fascinating behaviour change when that happens. The hurried “enjoy the sun as much as you can” attitude melts away. The body language changes as Danes relax at cafés. The pace slows. We morph into Mediterraneans.
I had little knowledge about sex education in Danish schools since I didn’t grow up here. I know that I received exactly none from my schooling or my parents. Talking to friends my age here, they were taught useful sex-ed when they were young and things have only gotten better.
Sexual education has been on the curriculum in Denmark since 1970. My kids have been taught sex-ed from the beginning of their schooling and they keep getting it, in advanced versions, until 9th grade. It’s obviously different in 2nd grade than in 9th grade but the official goals are that kids know how babies are made after 3rd grade and they are aware of gender and diversity. Then it gets more advanced as they get older.
Every February, a week is dedicated to sex-ed in schools across the country. Danes often use a weekly calendar so Week 6 into the year is Uge 6 — the number six rhyming with sex in Danish. Yes, it’s awkward for the kids every time, by all accounts, but the importance of it is clear.
Like any civilised country, there is universal medical care in Denmark. It’s like an all-inclusive resort where you get an armband and never have to pay for anything — just for injuries and ailments instead of margaritas and buffet food. The system works fine, although waiting times can occur. One episode really hammered home, for me, how well it works and the attitude towards helping people.
My dad was visiting from Canada a few years ago, with a female friend in her 70's. She was under the weather for a few days and I finally asked her what was wrong. She didn’t want to talk about it — that generation is tough and don’t want to be a bother. But I insisted and she finally admitted that she had the same symptoms as when she had a heart attack a few years prior and that she had forgotten her medicine in Canada. I told her we were going to the hospital right away but she refused — until I pulled rank on her in a way her generation understands: my house, my rules.
I spoke Danish at the desk at the hospital emergency ward and they took her name as well as my name and phone number. The doctor had a look at her and decided to keep her overnight for observation and more tests. We picked her up the next day and the head nurse in the ward said she was good to go and gave me a prescription for the medicine she had forgotten.
I said to the nurse that my guest had travel insurance to cover the costs of hospitalisation, but the only thing the hospital wrote down on the form was her name and my name. The nurse shrugged and smiled. “We took the Hippocratic Oath”, that’s all that’s important. That blew me away.
When I turned fifty, I received a thick envelope in the post — one of the rare envelopes in an often empty postbox. It contained a brochure about screening for intestinal cancer, now that I had entered a higher risk group, and a handy DIY kit for taking a faecal sample. As well as an envelope for sending it back for testing. The results were sent back and all was good. But what a system. So cool.
The kids have a school nurse who tackles most issues like playground scrapes and what not, as well as regular check ups. If something is more serious, the parents get a phone call and we pick them up.
When you arrive in Denmark as an adult you do what you do elsewhere — you go to the dentist and pay for treatment. Little do you know — until you have kids here — that the rugrats receive free dental care throughout their schooling, from the very first day. At daycare, a mobile dental unit rolls up regularly and the kids get check ups. Once into school, there is a school dentist who regularly checks all the students. I have no idea when they go to the dentist at school until after the fact, when I receive a text message complete with a link to their online dental journal so I can see the results.
It turned out that my daughter needed a retainer so we were sent to a municipal dentist office and went through all the motions. My kid got a retainer at no cost. Well, she ended up with three, since one got lost and another broke. After the third retainer was made, the dentist said that maybe we should take better care of it since it’s getting a bit expensive. Fair enough. Now she is getting braces and it’s all covered.
I book appointments with my doctor online and can also communicate with her. Text messages are sent reminding me of appointments for me or my kids. There is always criticism of the system but it still amazes me how it works so well.
Bits and Pieces
When growing up and learning math in other parts of the world, the symbol for division is an obelus: ÷. Simple and effective. It took me a long while to realise that in Denmark it is used differently. If a shop has a sign saying “÷40%” to advertise a sale, I don’t have to find the regular price and divide by 40. It just means 40% off.
There’s one thing I’ll never master even after a quarter century in Denmark. Danes often use weeks when talking about dates. “We’re thinking of going to Spain for holidays in Week 29 and 30 and then spend some time at the summer house in Week 32…” I have no idea what they’re talking about. I can start well each January in Week 1 but by Week 9, I’m lost.
This is the country in the world that buys the most candles per capita. Light in all forms is integral to survival and candles are standard fare in Danish homes in the winter months. It’s a gender equal issue. Years ago I was at a friend’s house to watch a Champions League match on a dark, late-November evening. Beers and pizza and banter with the boys. Until one guy looked around and said to the host, in a confused, incredulous tone, “Jesper… don’t you have any candles?!” Jesper looked around and, with an expression of embarrassment, he hurried off to fetch some. Once they were lit around the living room, the evening could commence. Without them, something was fundamentally wrong.
You probably don’t spend a lot of time contemplating wind speed and fair enough. I just find it interesting that in Denmark the default measurement is meters per second. Km/h or mph or knots are, when you think about it, not very intuitive. Meters per second is a human scale measurement. When it’s blowing hard at, say, 10 m/s, you can stand there on a sidewalk and imagine the wind moving ten meters in, well, one second.
Danes take pride in punctuality, which is another reason I dig living here. What’s funny is that you’ll get text messages reading, “Sorry… I’m going to be five minutes late”, with emphasis on SORRY. Because even just five minutes late is a massive fail that an apology will just barely fix. Ten minutes late? You don’t want to know what will happen…