E&M’s Adam Kousgaard reflects on Denmark and his experiences travelling to its thriving capital, Copenhagen, in an attempt to dissect what it means to be Danish — through the eyes of a Dane. 

A cosy state of mind

I’m sure you’re familiar with the Danish word hygge. The craze took the UK by storm and had people across the whole country going crazy about this cosy state of living and the newfound serenity and contentedness that was now finally within reach. After all, it was simple to achieve: articles, books, guides, even evening classes were all quick to declare that they’d found the key to living ‘Danishly’. (Whatever that means.) After a year, it was replaced by the next fad: out went hygge, and in came the Swedish lagom. Since then, multiple ‘living concepts’ from across the world have been repeatedly touted as the new hygge, but the British public has become wary of such promises of fulfillment-through-lifestyle.

It’s easy to see why.

British advertisers and industry turned hygge into something that could be bought — a state of mind that could easily be reached by parting with a little more of that hard-earned cash: a few candles here, and a Faroese jumper there. As soon as you visit Denmark, you realise rather quickly that this misses the mark somewhat.

Realising it is the easy part — actually understanding why, though, is a bit more difficult. You have to keep an eye out for behaviours and anachronisms that may suggest the little ways in which the Danes see things differently when it comes to being ‘happy’ and what it really means to ‘live’. Pretty soon it becomes clear that hygge is something that is embedded much more fundamentally in the fabric of Denmark, and the way its citizens go about their lives.

Denmark in a nutshell

Let’s get the facts out of the way first: Denmark has a population of 5.8 million, give or take, is perched neatly atop Germany, and consists of three main landmasses: Jylland on the left, Fyn in the middle, and Sjælland on the right. The capital, Copenhagen, is located on the far right of Sjælland. Denmark’s flag, the Dannebrog, has been in constant use longer than any other flag. Legend has it that during Danish King Valdemar II’s crusade in Estonia in 1219, God himself intervened to help save the Danish army’s plight — parting the clouds and floating the flag down from the heavens to the Danish people, urging them on and helping them win the battle.

King Valdemar II’s crusade
It allegedly looked something like this | Photo: Wikimedia Commons; CC0 [Dannebrog falling from the sky during the Battle of Lyndanisse Christian August Lorentzen (1809)]

As soon as you land in Copenhagen Airport, there’s something that strikes you as odd; something that’s hard to put your finger on straight away. The wooden floors, muted colours and typical 1950’s Scandinavian lamp shades are certainly nice, yes, and very Danish, but that isn’t it. You can have nice airports in other countries, after all. There exists both a simplicity and peacefulness that slowly reveals itself as you take the lift down to baggage collections, even after the conventional stress and discomfort that is synonymous with the modern air travel experience. After an innocuous 20-minute train journey into the town centre, you step out into the invigoratingly refreshing[1] Copenhagen weather.

It’s almost like you’re looking at everything through a tilt-shift lens: there’s a comfort in feeling that you can compartmentalise and understand the environment you live in — a comfort I believe is often lost in bigger and less personal cities

Looking around, the Danes seem to be wrapped up warm and getting on with it, cycling around, seemingly oblivious to the bitter winds lashing at their faces. That the Danes (and their neighbours the Dutch) love cycling is another phenomenon that is understood worldwide — a mode of transport facilitated by ample cycle lanes and a uniform geography that means it’s easier to cycle than try anything else.

Most children in Denmark cycle to school on their own — as soon as they start at age six! — nearly half of all commutes in Copenhagen are made by bike, and two-thirds of all Danish MPs travel to parliament, på cykel, on their bicycles. It’s a bit of a national pastime.

A typical street in Copenhagen | Photo: Adam Kousgaard

Copenhagen: An endearing European capital

Copenhagen is a sprawling and leisurely city, with new hip districts popping up faster than you can keep up, ever since members of various counter-culture movements occupied and founded the Freetown of Christiania on the land of a former military base in the early 1970s. The motto of this peaceful commune that deals mainly in art installations, cafés and semi-legal cannabis is I kan ikke slå os ihjel — ‘you cannot kill us’. This typifies the general disposition of Copenhageners: if we’re not hurting anyone, leave us alone and let us do what we want. There is no ban on drinking in public, and what’s more, you never feel as if its frowned upon. Smoking weed is similarly tolerated.

I’ve repeatedly noticed that community, family life, and tradition seem to feature a lot higher in the lives of Danes than their British counterparts

As we’ve discussed, the bicycle is the way to get around Copenhagen and, in fact, every other Danish city. You can cycle from one end of Copenhagen to the other within half an hour, give or take. Copenhageners will say such a long journey is arduous and probably not worth taking. But having lived in London, where it seems to take half an hour to get anywhere, living in Copenhagen seems a dream. It’s this diminutive feel to Copenhagen, and indeed Denmark, that is one of its charms, and I think actually part of the reason Danes are happy. It’s almost like you’re looking at everything through a tilt-shift lens: there’s a comfort in feeling that you can compartmentalise and understand the environment you live in — a comfort I believe is often lost in bigger and less personal cities.

The streets of the Danish capital are flanked by tall and simple four or five-storey houses, but hardly anything taller. The disinclination to build higher means that in the city centre, the tallest buildings remain the church spires and the town hall. This, along with a fair few cobbled streets and other antiquated quirks, make Copenhagen seem like a city that could exist in any of the last five centuries.

Note the windmills in the background on the left—Denmark is famous for its wind energy, delivering more than 40% of the country’s electricity since 2015 | Photo: Adam Kousgaard

The archetypally Nordic architecture culminates on the quaint and vibrant Nyhavn (New Harbour). A former port for the fishing boats of the 17th and 18th centuries, and former home of Hans Christian Andersen (at least according to Wikipedia), it is now home to eye-wateringly expensive restaurants that cater to tourists wanting to try smørrebrød (open sandwiches[2]), topped artistically with sild (pickled herring), leverpostej (liver paté), and roastbeef (roast beef, obviously). Here again, you’ll see Danes dangling their legs over the edge of the harbour, relaxing with a bottle of Tuborg, enjoying life.

The archetypally Nordic architecture culminates on the quaint and vibrant Nyhavn (New Harbour) | Photo: Adam Kousgaard

Danish culture and cuisine: Less is more

Danish food, in general, is simple, sensible, and no-frills; the typical Danish family’s diet will consist of various combinations of locally available meat, fish, and vegetables. Beyond trusty cinnamon, any spices and or exotic flavours were until recently viewed with certain weariness — and indeed still are in some provinces — but the new generation of budding metropolitan chefs is beginning to fundamentally reinvent Nordic cuisine.

The inescapable example of this is the incredibly popular two Michelin star, and four times winner of Restaurant magazine’s ‘Best Restaurant in The World award: Noma. The menu boasts — among other delicacies — sea urchin, reindeer moss, and squid: in the eyes of my Danish grandparents, this eclectic mix of unexpected ingredients and new-fangled cooking methods certainly doesn’t count as Danish, and most probably not even as food.[3]But for the younger generation of Danes, as well as for tourists from across the world, restaurants such as Noma constitute a new chapter in Nordic cuisine.

Usually, however, Danes aren’t too fussed about expensive food. For that matter, they seem to care less about expensive anything. There isn’t the same competitiveness for ‘getting ahead’ that I feel drives life in big parts of western society. I’ve repeatedly noticed that community, family life, and tradition seem to feature a lot higher in the lives of Danes than their British counterparts. It probably seems clichéd and almost self-evident written down like that, but it seems to me like these are the primary building blocks of hygge that we were trying to unmask at the start of the article.

There are fewer flashy cars, fewer mansions, and fewer stressed businessmen and women rushing around to their next meetings looking like hunched stick figures from a particularly depressing Lowry. Rush-hour feels less rushed. My Danish mother says the light in Denmark is cleaner, the clouds less oppressive. Maybe that also has something to do with it.

Living in a Danish town, you are more likely to know your neighbours, and I mean actually know them, rather than feel a jaded obligation to cheerily greet them whenever you see them. In smaller towns, the church remains a central part of community life — even though for a lot of people nowadays the pull is undoubtedly more social than religious. And I wouldn’t begin to know how to describe it, but Christmas just feels a lot more Christmas-y.

A state that cares

Up until now, everything I’ve touched upon has been anecdotal. But there are a few stats to touch on to help us try to get to the bottom of this country that seems to ‘get’ hygge. After taxes are deducted, Denmark has the second lowest Gini coefficient of all the OECD countries, pipped to the post only by Slovenia. Basically, this means that Denmark has incredibly low income inequality. It also has the lowest levels of corruption in the world; it comes fifth in terms of the Human Development Index, and is almost always ruled by coalition governments. Its welfare policies are world-renowned and seen by many as good a model as we have so far for a truly egalitarian society.

Of course, it has its problems — but from the outside looking in, it’s certainly doing a lot right. Free healthcare, free education (including at university level), and an enduring relationship between comprehensively unionised employees and employers all encourage a society whose citizens feel safe and cared for by the state. These are the things that I think are crucial before starting any discussion about hygge and living ‘Danishly’. After that’s all taken care of, it’s easy: just a few candles and a log fire, and what more do you need?

[1] i.e. cold. The weather in Denmark is decidedly bipolar. For the long winter months, expect short days, wind, snow and a biting cold. As summer approaches, the population of Denmark collectively emerge from their cocoons and barbecue, drink beers and swim in the (still cold) sea to their heart’s content.

[2] Which, by the way, are much better than sandwiches — you’re essentially doubling your filling-to-bread ratio

[3] This article unfortunately doesn’t go as far as to provide a judgement on eating at Noma — the waiting list is regularly longer than six months and a taster menu will set you back well over £200, which thank you, but no thank you.

Cover photo: Jon Anes, CC BY-SA 2.0 (Flickr)

  • retro

    Born to a Danish mother and Polish father, Adam Kousgaard grew up in Manchester, England, and studied German at UCL. He is now in his first year of the Civil Service Fast Stream. Adam spent his year abroad in Berlin, where he honed his language skills and undertook a work placement. He loves exploring new European destinations and sampling the local culture, cuisine, and especially the local tipple.

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