25 Aug Cool Things We Learned About Copenhagen and Denmark
At the end of our Europe trip this summer, we spent two weeks in Denmark. To be honest, it wasn’t a country that was particularly high on our “must see” list before we went, but we have always enjoyed seeing new places no matter what. When things fell into place through a personal connection in Copenhagen, we decided to add Denmark to the end of our trip. We’re so glad we did.
We were first hosted by a young family we knew, just outside of Copenhagen, and then they connected us to another family that had moved out to a farmhouse on the island of Fyn (sounds like “few” with an “n”). The first family was Danish-American, the second Danish-Indian, and both graciously helped us learn about Danish food, culture, politics, and way of life. In exchange for this priceless experience, we offered a helping hand around their homes (mostly painting).
We realized upon arrival, that we actually knew very little about Denmark. There was a vague recollection that it was ranked one of the happiest countries – or was it the most depressed? (Actually, it’s both.) And we had an inkling that they had exceptional social services. Also, we expected to see a lot of blond people speaking an incomprehensible language. Beyond that, our awareness of Danish life was sadly very limited. So we thought we’d share a bit about what we learned about Denmark through our hospitable friends.
The Danish like their meat, especially pork. For special occasions, many will prepare pork in a special way that makes the skin salty and brittle – called flæskesteg (pronounced something like “FLESS guh sty“). Other typical foods include open-faced sandwiches on rye bread. And you’ll find a fair number of hot dog vendors on the streets of Copenhagen (we were advised to order a red hot dog with everything on it – mustard, mayo, pickles, fried onion – and it was delicious!) The Danish are also known for their pastries, and as a pastry connoisseur, I can attest that they are wonderful. According to our friends, organic food is becoming more in demand.
Our friends explained to us that Danish folks tend to stay within their own bubbles in public. They may not offer help to a stranger, but they’re usually happy to provide it if asked.
“Hyggelig” is a Danish word that refers to their ideal sense of well-being, most closely translated to “cozy” and related to a feeling of contentment. More than ambition, success, or thrill, the Danish strive for hyggelig (pronounced like HUE guh lihg). We’ve been told that most people are very content in Denmark -it’s ranked happiest country on Earth- which is a good thing, of course, to live without much stress and to be happy with what you have. The downside is that people may not be motivated to stand up for changes that need to be made.
Cost of Living
Things are expensive in Copenhagen, with Value Added Tax (like a sales tax) coming in at a whopping 25%. The Danish pay a lot of other taxes as well. But in exchange, Danes don’t really have to worry about healthcare costs, vacation days (five weeks per year is the minimum), pensions… They get paid a generous maternity and paternity leave, higher ed is free and includes a living stipend, and Danes benefit from a lot of other social services that take the burden off individuals and families.
To give just a general sense of the costs, a one-ride ticket on the Metro in Copenhagen is equivalent to $5.50 US. A 12oz smoothie from a cafe would be around $7.
This would be a tough language to learn! Apparently only 6 million people speak it – which is essentially the population of Denmark, plus 15-20% of Greenland and pockets of other emigrants around the globe. We learned that the Danish language is Germanic (so if you know German, that could help you decipher a few words), it has a few extra letters, 27 different vowel sounds, and some letters are (sometimes) silent.
Confused yet? As an example, we were surprised to learn that the name of the suburb we stayed in with our friends,“Herlev,” is pronounced something like: hah-lyoo. Fortunately, many Danes understand and speak English or we’d be in trouble!
While not the most beautiful city in Europe, Copenhagen has a certain sensibility of its own. When googling Copenhagen, you’ll mostly find images from this one particular, colorful canal-lined street.
Unlike Bruges or Amsterdam – where we had just come from – this one picture is not representative of the rest of the city, which takes on a wide variety of different looks. When walking around, you’ll find different pockets of town that are especially nice and you’ll come across lovely parks and plazas here and there. But they’re mixed in with somewhat mundane areas as well.
Where We Went in Copenhagen
Den lille Havfrue (The Little Mermaid) – It’s a statue of a mermaid on a rock in the water. There are plenty of tourists coming in by the bus load.
Nearby is the Kastellet, a preserved pentagon-shaped fortification, now home to the Danish Defense Intelligence Service. We were shocked to learn that you can walk around this place AND take pictures! (Just don’t walk on the lawn.) It’s essentially a park – and a very cool one at that.
Amalienborg Palace is the winter home of the Danish royal family. There are actually four separate, identical palaces on the square, each belonging to different members of the royal family. Changing of the guard takes place at noon. We were told that if a flag was raised above one of the buildings, that meant someone was home.
Nyhavn canal is the colorful place you see in all the pictures. Definitely picturesque! And you can see the opera house across the water.
Copenhagen Street Food is the kind of place we need in Portland – an artsy warehouse full of food carts. You can find food from a wide variety of cultures and though it’s not cheap, it’s definitely a cool place to experience.
Freetown Christiania is a self-governed, autonomous community within Copenhagen. Apparently it started with squatters back in the 70s and is now home to some 850 residents who are committed to the wellbeing of the entire community. It was a fascinating place to walk around, and notably the first place since leaving Peace Corps Jamaica where we’ve heard somebody use a Jamaican cuss word!
Tivoli Gardens is a famous and historic amusement park (opened in 1843) within the city. We didn’t go in but heard good things and saw it on one of our walks.
Frederiksberg Have is a large city park which is home to the zoo. You can actually see the elephants from the park without entering the zoo grounds. There are two more parks right next to Frederiksberg as well.
Being such a small country (which is essentially a peninsula sitting on top of Germany plus a bunch of islands), Denmark is roughly one fifth the size of Oregon. It seemed that wherever we went, we were never to far from farmland or the water, which is pretty awesome.
At the end of our time in Denmark, we got to experience country life on one of the islands. We loved the slow pace and sense of peace – or as the Danish might called it: hyggelig.
We’re curious: what are your impressions of Denmark? Have you been? Do you want to go? Did any of the things we’ve learned surprise you? Let us know in the comments!
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