Tales from an American girl living in Denmark
Today we went to a class taught by a DIS instructor, Jacob Buksti, who educated us about some of the basics of Danish history, life and society. Jacob is quite an expert having taught for many years, being a member of parliament, etc. Denmark is a small country of only 5.5 million people, but it actually used to have a huge amount of land and power. Over the past 350 years, however, various wars, alliances, and battles weren’t kind to the Danish power. After a final defeat in 1864, the Danes were forced to learn how to exist as a small nation state. They adopted the mindset, “What is lost outside shall inside be gained.” And it’s apparent that they’ve gained a lot here.
My favorite aspect of their culture is this idea of Hygge. Hygge is partially an emotional state, partially an atmosphere. It can’t really translate to anything in English, but the closest equivalent is probably coziness. They also have what I consider to be an excellent political system. It’s a parliamentary, multi-party system with proportional representation and no one party ever grows large or powerful enough to out voice another. This requires dialogue, negotiation, compromise, and consensus. Because of the willingness to compromise (in a positive sense), the Danish government actually get things done, unlike the U.S. one that is so keen on kicking the ball back and forth indefinitely. Denmark, as it is somewhat famous for, has a well-oiled, willingly embraced welfare system. Taxes are high (Jacob says 50% tax pressure), but no one complains much because they are provided for, the public sector creates 30% of jobs, and among native Danes there is equal opportunity. Danes trust their government. Part of this is due to the tribe mentality in Denmark. They are small, and they stick together. Sir James Mellon, a former British Ambassador to Denmark said, “Denmark is not a nation – Denmark is a tribe.” The majority subscribe to key core values including tolerance, human, understanding, and solidarity, and it’s reflected in their political proceedings as well as daily life.
One crazy (to me) example of this is all of the babies and small strollers (I think they call it a pram) that are left outside shops and cafes in Copenhagen. The parents go in and leave the baby outside to sleep or watch life go by!!! If a passer by notices that the baby is waking or upset they step into the building and announce to the occupants that the child in the grey pram has woken. Talk about a village raising a child! Wow!
Despite the open-minded nature of the Danish people, the view of outsiders of the tribe, mainly immigrants, seems to lose some of that openness. I was surprised at how prejudice Jacob’s manner of speaking came off when discussing diversity. To hear him tell it and make a long story short – Denmark is a special club and unless you were born into it, you’re not invited. Other Danes I’ve talked to don’t seem to see it from an extreme a position, but I see the evidence of that mindset to some extent in many elements of Danish culture. And I don’t know that I really blame them… They’ve themselves a nice little nest up here in Scandinavia. If it were mine I might not want new birds pooping in it either.
Denmark isn’t without its challenges of course; Jacob listed the global economic crisis, the future of the welfare state, immigration, foreign policy, and skepticism toward EU integration as consistently being discussion points in Danish politics.
That’s quite a bit about this mornings class… I split the rest of the day between getting a yummy lunch, going on a bike tour led by a nice architecture student who showed us some of the sites by the amazing JDS Architects, and ending with a student art opening at the Danish Architecture Center before a great dinner with all the new DISers at RizRaz. I’ll try to add more details and pictures from the second half of the day when I have consistent internet access and a larger supply of energy. Here are a few summarizing pix for now: