It’s hard to fathom that I’ve been living in Denmark for the greater part of three years. On one hand, it feels like I’ve been here forever. But on the other, it feels like just yesterday I was packing up my apartment in Melbourne and signing-off on a new adventure.
I’ve hesitated long and hard before writing this post. It is difficult to be open and honest about my thoughts of Denmark for many reasons. First up, there are many Danish people who I do cherish dearly, people who have made my journey here better, and have contributed towards many moments of happiness. I want to give an honest appraisal of my experience, but at the same time, I want to be mindful not to upset anyone by generalising my thoughts about an entire population. And secondly, there are many parts of Danish culture that I do truly enjoy, admire and wish I could seal in a zip-lock bag and take with me. But now, I feel as though i’m in a good enough headspace about the experience to deliver a balanced analysis of my time here, the things I liked, and the things I didn’t like.
In this big wide universe, there are no perfect places. But for each and every one of us, there are places which might be perfect for us to live. I have assessed Denmark against a rather strict criteria — would I want to spend the rest of my life here?
No matter which way I look at it, where I continually land in my appraisal, is that Denmark is a fine country. Fine in the sense that I like it, but don’t love it. I enjoy hanging out here, but there are places I’d rather be. My existence on this particular block of land makes me feel alright, but it doesn’t make me feel alive.
It’s fine. I know that’s not necessarily a very articulate definition, but in all honesty, that’s how I feel about Denmark.
Everything, you know, works. People are friendly enough, but they also mind their own business. The infrastructure is excellent. The social welfare system is strong, albeit not without its problems. The work culture is relaxed and admirable (more on that later), there are lots of public holidays, the salaries are reasonable, and the whole country is set up to support the institution of the family. There is a lot to like. Denmark is, in all honesty, possibly the easiest place in the world to live.
Here are some things I really love about Denmark.
Life on the continent
What really takes the cake about Denmark, is the accessibility and ease of travelling to other parts of Europe. In fact, if you want to zip around Europe for a few years, having Denmark as your base is even more advantageous to say, London, given its location on the continent.
If you want to zip around Europe for a few years, having Denmark as your base is even more advantageous to say, London, given its location on the continent.
I’ve been lucky enough to experience so many parts of Europe that I hadn’t seen before. I’ve been able to spend my weekends hanging out in Amsterdam, Berlin and Oslo. Berlin, in particular has always been a city I enjoyed on previous trips to Europe, but over the past couple of years it has firmly moved into the ‘I must live here one day’ category, which is a pretty special place.
There have been longer trips, too. Melissa and I had the most wonderful six-week summer in Italy, getting off the beaten track and exploring the best of what Sicily and the wider Tuscan region has to offer. There was an easter road-trip through the Baltic countries of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, all of which were compelling in their own right.
I’ve had countless quick trips to Morocco, Spain and Poland. Spain — in case you were wondering — still has the world’s best food, and Poland, believe it or not, has the world’s best donuts. The latter you probably didn’t expect (hint: they’re called pakzki).
My best-friend-forever visited from Melbourne and we took a road trip through Amsterdam, Paris, and into the Loire Valley wine region, and across to the French coast. Hopping from vineyard to vineyard is the stuff fairytales are made of.
After 12 months living in Aarhus, (Denmark’s second city, behind Copenhagen), I decided to move to Billund, the home of LEGO, but more importantly, the home of Billund Airport. This made it even more accessible to use Denmark as a base to skip out of the country, and see other parts of Europe. (Fun fact, Billund airport was actually built by LEGO Group, to help the company ship its products all over the world. It was eventually brought out by the state and has become the second busiest airport in the country).
I still kick myself that I get to see so much of the world. I never, in my wildest dreams, thought my life would take me to these wonderful places.
A digitised economy
Ever since I attended a public lecture in Sydney many years ago around ‘digitising economies’, I’ve paid particular attention to how countries embrace the challenges that come with it.
More than other countries I’ve lived in and encountered, I truly enjoyed how digitised the Danish system is, and I’m convinced the rest of the world can learn from the Danish model. Let’s start with your citizen/resident number, which is automatically linked to the taxation system, your employment, banking, healthcare and schooling. As the end user, you have one synchronised login that serves the purpose for all of the above, and it works seamlessly. And then there’s the digital inbox (known as eBoks), which is where your employer and other registered senders deliver your payslips, bills, car insurance information, so on and so forth. It works so well that I haven’t had to open my physical letterbox since I moved here. Denmark has successfully killed the postal service — surely the mark of a well-developed western economy.
And then there’s the cashless society too. Recently, I touched a Danish Krone note for the first time, because MobilePay (a fantastic consumer-to-consumer and consumer-to-business payment network and mobile app) wasn’t working at my barber shop. But in three years, that was the only time. It rocks my world whenever I travel to Germany and the whole place is still cash-only. It feels like I’ve stepped back into the dinosaur era.
Of course, the system has its quirks. For example, you’ll occasionally find a shop here that only accepts something called Dankort (Danish Card), which is effectively their way of saying ‘only Danish people can shop here’. But these instances are becoming few and far between as foreign tourism starts to grow beyond Copenhagen.
Work culture in Denmark
A true assessment of Denmark cannot be made without a clear shout-out to the fantastic work culture, which surely must be the best in the world.
Let’s start with the working hours. A normal day is from 8–4, but really, people can come and go whenever they want. Most employees pop into the office after they drop the kids off at school, and duck-out whenever they need to be collected. It’s not unusual for people to be in the office from 9–2, and then log back on in the evening to clock the additional hours they missed. Nobody really asks questions, and there seems to be a great deal of trust between employers and employees. It’s almost as though, ‘I’m paying you to do your job, so I’m going to trust you to do it’. Funny that.
I am regularly the last person in the office at 4pm. Somewhere around this time, the window shutters descend and the lights turn off.
The benefits of these shorter working days can be truly enjoyed in summer, when you’re out of the office at 3pm, and the sun doesn’t set until 11pm. It’s like you have this whole second segment of the day to live, and it sort of bamboozles you for a while until you get used to it and find meaningful things to do during the long summer evenings. Because god knows you’re not going to be sleeping at 11pm when the sun is shining through the apartment.
It also turns out that in Denmark, Friday is effectively a working from home day. And yes, you can basically put ‘working from home’ in parenthesis. From what I can gather, Danes great Friday as a ‘I’ll log in and check my email a few times just to make sure everything’s under control’. If you try and book a meeting on a Friday, particularly if it’s after midday — the start of the weekend — you will get some rather nasty looks, and your Microsoft Outlook will quickly start filling up with meeting declined notifications.
It also turns out that in Denmark, every Friday is effectively a working from home day. And yes, you can basically put ‘working from home’ in parenthesis.
Whatever you make of this, (likely jealously), it’s a wonderful temporary adjustment to work culture back home, where what you do for a living can absorb, and in many instances, overtake your life.
Indeed, living in a society where work is literally, such a small component of what you do, forces you to re-evaluate who you are, and the kind of things you want your life to stand for.
In Australia, the United Kingdom or the United States when you meet someone, the first thing people ask is generally ‘what do you do’. Whereas, in the Nordics, people will often ask you ‘what are you into?’ and you’ll usually respond with your real passions — i.e. skiing, coffee, travel, etc. It’s possible to be on a date with a lovely girl for a whole evening and not even know what she does for work.
In this part of the world, what you do for crust really doesn’t matter. It’s a wonderful perspective to experience and understand, although quite the shift if you’ve lived a life where your identity is so closely tied to your occupation.
Working at LEGO
Working at LEGO has been in many ways, a dream come true. This is a product I played with as a kid, a toy that I absolutely cherished. I never thought i’d get the chance to step inside the corporate headquarters, let alone create advertising for this wonderful, wonderful, brand.
And you don’t simply work for LEGO, you become part of LEGO. The whole experience has been incredibly absorbing. I’ve been effectively living on LEGO campus, eating food prepared by LEGO chefs, and drinking coffee prepared by LEGO baristas. It really has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
You don’t simply work for LEGO, you become part of LEGO.
The company itself is large, complex and incredibly bureaucratic, as you would expect in any large organisation. But it’s full of passionate people, many who have been with the company for more than 10, 20 or sometimes 30 years. These are people who have seen the company grow to extreme highs, but have also witnessed some turbulent times too. It has been absolutely wild to be part of this ride and contribute in some small way to something much bigger than myself.
Even after more than a decade working in advertising, it still excites me whenever the ads I’ve been involved in get launched. Making kids smile, laugh and play, are good enough reasons to get up and go to work in the mornings.
But play, creativity and fun aside, there are things about Denmark that didn’t click with me.
The first thing. Yep, i’m going to talk about the weather, which scientifically, actually is the worst in the world. If you look at the volume of sunshine days per year, Denmark has less sunshine than anywhere else in the world (at less than 1500 hours per year).
I originally wrote this piece back in June, on a thirteen degree day, which is indeed a fairly normal summer day. And while this is entirely bearable, the worst part is the period between September and April, in which you have eight months of darkness, coupled with rain, overcast skies, and a very consistently boring 6–10 degrees.
If you’re from the UK, you probably won’t care so much (indeed, my English and Irish colleagues don’t understand what all the fuss is about). But if you’re from anywhere on, or south of the equator, the eternal grey will make your life miserable. And when the Danish summer starts to look like the average winter day back home, you’ll be putting in an order for your very own SAD lamp and a collection of vitamin D tablets.
A life indoors
One of my earliest observations since moving to Denmark, was that the Danes seem to spend a lot more time indoors, than they do outdoors.
The simple, and more politically-correct response is that people stay home because it’s cold, and more often than not, dark. But the more complex and controversial response, is that even if you manage to get your head around the miserable climate, there just isn’t a great deal to do anyway.
Let’s start with nature and the great outdoors. When you close your eyes and think of the Nordics, you’re probably thinking rolling fjords, plunging cliff-faces and dog-sledding at the North Pole. Sorry, that’s Norway, Sweden and Finland. Compared to its Nordic neighbours, Denmark’s landscape is flat and uninspiring. It’s like the Netherlands, without the tulips and the pretty windmills. And while this lack of elevation might be perfect for pushing the kids around town in a christiania bike, it also means that the Danes miss out on two of the great pleasures that the Swedes and the Norwegians enjoy — going cross-country skiing after work, or lacing up the hiking boots on the weekends. And while Denmark does have magnificent beaches along the west coast, it’s just too cold most of the year to enjoy them.
One point to Netflix, here.
And then, there’s the restaurant, bar and cafe scene, which although reasonable and of a high standard, can best be described as highway robbery. Because in case you didn’t know, Denmark is Europe’s third most expensive country.
A mid-range dinner for two, along with a bottle of wine is going to cost you $A250/€155. Take-away cappuccino on the way to work? That’ll be $A10/€6.5. A glass of house wine? $A24/€15 unless you like drinking wine from a box. Couple these prices with the average person’s 52% income tax, and you can see why going out to eat and drink isn’t an everyday activity, like it is in Spain, Italy or Australia.
The impact of a high cost society goes beyond the actual price you pay for things. It impacts your behaviour, and changes the way you approach particular social activities. It’s normal to ‘go dutch’ when you take your girlfriend or boyfriend out for a meal. And fancy restaurants for the first date are out of the question. When I proposed taking somebody out for lobster, I received a pretty strange look.
It’s particularly amusing to watch a group of Danes mathematically divide their restaurant bill with alarming precision, down to the very last kroner. ‘But didn’t you order the extra sauce with your fries, Jesper?’. That is, until you start doing the same thing, too.
This is such a shame, because Denmark does have a wonderful food and restaurant scene, particularly in Copenhagen. We’re talking Michelin-starred Noma, or Geranium for example — two establishments who single-handedly put New Nordic cuisine on the map. But for a lot of Danes, this is an occasional experience, rather than a regular one, because spending a week’s income on a meal just isn’t feasible, no matter how good that food might be.
It is changing, slowly. The last few years have seen the establishment of street-food style pop-ups (Aarhus Street Food, and Reffen in Copenhagen) where you can enjoy affordable student-priced fare. The problem is, there’s nothing in between — you’re either booking months in advance for your twelve-course Michelin-starred degustation experience, or you’re eating cheeseburgers and pizza in a big shed full of university students.
As it turns out, Denmark is more about staying in, lighting a bunch of candles, firing up HBO and enjoying all that Danish ‘hygge’. If you’re an introvert, this might sound like heaven. But if you were planning to fill your weeknights and weekends with exciting culinary escapades, rooftop parties and fancy cocktail bars, you should probably look somewhere else.
A homogenous society
Wandering around Jutland, Denmark’s western island (the part connected to Germany), you can’t help but feel that Denmark might be the world’s most homogenous country.
You see, Denmark is a white country, with lots of Danish people, mostly called Niels and Mette. And the only flag you’re likely to see out in the open, is a Danish one.
Historically, Denmark’s intake of immigrants has been far lower than other European countries. This, coupled with declining birth rates in recent decades, means that the Danish population count is stagnant, and along with it any great hope of ethic infusion. More recently, when neighbouring Sweden and Germany put their hands up to support the European refugee crisis, Denmark closed its borders and said no.
Of course, Denmark is free to govern itself as it sees fit, based on the specific needs and wants of its population. Even if I disagree with the country’s stance on immigration, I don’t intend to turn this reflection piece into a political debate.
But what I will say, is that Denmark is even more Danish than I expected. At a time where Europe has experienced rapid change, to the point where I’m eating Polish dumplings in London, and sensational ramen in Berlin, the Danish cities have maintained, and at times even insisted, that they remain as Danish as possible. When its neighbours have been introducing new cultures, new flavours, and new religions, all the while assimilating migrants from around the world, Denmark has remained oh, so Danish.
I personally found this profound level of white-ness to be peculiar, and at times, a little uncomfortable.
You see, I’m Australian. Which means I have a very different view on what it means to be multicultural. In Australia, 28 percent of the population was born overseas and Melbourne — my hometown — is the tenth most multicultural city on earth, growing by approximately 400,000 migrants each year. At school and university, everyone around me was different. My friends were Korean-Australian, Italian-Australian and Chinese-Australian. They spoke different languages in the playground, and would bring interesting food to school in their lunchboxes. At some point, this multicultural flair and blend of cultures became the new normal in my life. It became the way I saw the world.
But in Denmark, I just couldn’t get my head around the sameness of it all. I kept asking myself, every single day, for the three years I lived in Denmark. Where is all the cultural diversity? Where are all the different-coloured people, speaking different languages, serving up different tasting food? And why do I only see Danish flags in the streets?
Where is all the cultural diversity? Where are all the different-coloured people, speaking different languages, serving up different tasting food? And why do I only see Danish flags in the streets?
Just once, I would have loved to stumble across a pop-up Cambodian food festival, or to have been invited to a Bollywood movie night. I want to mingle with French people and drink wine straight from the barrel in an inner-city basement enoteca. I keep looking for late-night noodle markets, but haven’t been able to find them. There aren’t any graffiti-infested laneways, or karaoke bars, or cash-only Chinese restaurants charging $3 for a plate of dumplings. Not once did I find an Ethiopian restaurant, or an authentic Korean bibimbap. And why on earth can’t I walk out of the office on my lunch break and have a gorgonzola jafflechute parachute its way into my hands?
Denmark doesn’t have these things. But quite possibly, I was the only person here looking for them.
Janteloven is Denmark’s biggest disappointment.
If you haven’t heard of Janteloven before, I’ll provide a Wikipedia definition for context.
The law of jante is an unspoken social code in the Nordic countries that denotes a condescending attitude towards individuality and personal success… through denigrating individual achievement and placing all emphasis on the collective.
Put simply, it’s not about you.
Now, on first glance this might sound pretty good. We’ve all been on a date with someone, or met someone at a conference, who seems to think that the best way to spend the afternoon, is to talk about themselves for hours. It’s all about them — their qualifications, their career, their life. We all know how annoying this can be. After all, bragging and showing-off is never cool, in any culture.
But in the Nordics (and from my perspective, Denmark more so than my experience in Norway and Sweden), any conversation about personal achievement or success, must be avoided at all costs. Have a Master’s degree you’re proud of? Don’t you dare talk about it. A side-hustle that’s bringing in extra income in your spare time? Keep it to yourself.
Completely removing this sort of dialogue — even the modest celebration of accomplishments — from society has enormous social implications. By penalising individuality and downplaying the celebration of personal accomplishments, you get an entire population that is so focussed on fitting in that they dress the same, purchase the same types of cars, and without fail, buy tickets to the same three music festivals each year. Nobody wants to rock the status quo, because doing so, might give the impression that they think they’re above the status quo.
Socially, this leads to a lot of conversations where everyone just agrees with one other. Even if they don’t really agree with each other. And in business environments, janteloven leads to groupthink and fuels consensus culture, the ultimate enemy of innovation.
In business, janteloven leads to groupthink and fuels concensus culture, the ultimate enemy of innovation.
I can’t help but feel that the law of jante strips away the unique qualities that make people quirky, weird, and interesting. It also prevents people from being big people, from living their lives out loud.
My favourite people on this planet are far from typical. It’s the colleague that’s crazy enough to quit her job to volunteer at an orphanage in Tanzania. It’s the teenage kid with the purple hair who asks to borrow a dollar at the petrol station. The unshaven, rather retched-smelling alcoholic selling hot dogs outside the football stadium. The elderly man in his military jacket on the bus who insists you try the biscuits his wife has baked. You just don’t see these people in Denmark.
My favourite people on this planet are far from typical. It’s the colleague that’s crazy enough to quit her job and volunteer at an orphanage in Tanzania. It’s the teenage kid with the purple hair who asks to borrow a dollar at the petrol station. The unshaven, rather retched-smelling alcoholic selling hot dogs outside the football stadium. The elderly man in his military jacket on the bus who insists you try the biscuits his wife has baked. You just don’t see these people in Denmark.
As The Economist put it in their Nordic special edition, ‘Scandinavia is a great place in which to be born… but only if you are average. If you are averagely talented, have average ambitions, average dreams, then you’ll do just fine. But if you are extraordinary, if you have big dreams, great visions, or are just as bit different, you will be crushed, if you do not emigrate first’.
You don’t want to be extraordinary in Denmark. It’s easier to fit in, than it is to suffer the social repercussions of trying to stand out.
On reflection, I can’t help but acknowledge that Denmark isn’t broken. There’s nothing rotten about the state of Denmark. In fact, it might just be one of the cleanest, most functioning and progressive countries on earth.
But for whatever reason, I was a square peg in Denmark’s round hole. The sum of my experiences, the places I’ve lived, the people I’ve seen and loved and befriended, were grossly incompatible with my ability to live my best life in the world’s happiest country.
Denmark isn’t broken. It’s just the sum of my experiences, and the places I’ve lived, seen and loved, seem to be grossly incompatible with my ability to have a great time here.
This has been a remarkably rewarding experience. I’ve grown infinitely as a person, and at the same time, I’ve met the love of my life here — funnily enough, a Norwegian. But at the same time, I’ve had to put aside some of the parts of my personality that I thought made me, me. Anybody who knows me personally, will probably acknowledge that this might have been a difficult thing for me to do.
There is a wonderful quote from Ove Kaj Pederson, a Danish professor from the Copenhagen Business School that i’ll use to sign this post off. He said, ‘I like Denmark, but I like to work abroad. I pay my taxes with great honour because I know for a fact that whenever I need something it will be there… every day I conclude the best place to live is Denmark, but for me this kind of social cohesion, these middle-class-oriented societies do not present the kind of challenges I am looking for’.
That’s how I feel. I’m overwhelmingly grateful, thankful, and happy to have had this experience. But also happy to acknowledge that Denmark, for all its strengths, is not the right place for me.
But if there’s one thing I did learn from Denmark, it has been the art of balance. Don’t work too hard. Don’t drink too much. Don’t go out too often. Don’t try and have too many friends. Try to save a little money. Exercise regularly. Talk less, listen more. Perhaps this is the prescription for a comfortable, simple and easy Danish life.
I have also never before been so self-aware of the ingredients of life that matter to me. I don’t want to go another day without sunshine. I want to have conversations with strangers on the bus. I want to eat interesting food, with interesting flavours, prepared by interesting people. I’m craving explosive culture, a touch of danger and a sprinkle of the peculiar. And I just didn’t find it here.
This is the sliding-door moment where I say goodbye to what has been an interesting and memorable chapter of my life.
I’ve been living in the slow lane for three years. And i’m jumping out of my skin to see more, laugh more, smile more and do more. I have this innate, overwhelming desire to climb to the top of a mountain in a city far away, and scream something, anything, at the top of my lungs. So I better go and do that.
See you on the other side of that mountain,
Originally published at https://www.bencampbell.co on July 31, 2019.
After writing this post, Ben took a short career break to backpack through south-east Asia. He then returned to the Europe to set up a base in Norway where he continued working for the LEGO Group.