Flat hierarchies, respect for rules and a sense of community, but also high prices, are some of the things that Katharina Frick found when she moved last September to Aarhus.
By Katharina Frick
Monday morning – a busy week of uni courses is lying ahead of most of my 12 flatmates. Before they will get on their bikes towards university, first thing that needs to be prepared is the obligatory lunch sandwich. But in Denmark it is not a simple cheese and butter sandwich as in Germany. No! The Dane fixes his Rugbrød (similar to the German version of rye bread) preferably with salmon, chicken, leverpostej (liver paté), tomatoes, cucumbers or what else he has at hand. Then wrapped in ecological sandwich paper and then tucked into the stylish Fjällräven bag pack. Yes, food – and especially cooking – is important to Danes. Very important! One could believe it is their favourite task.
A life under Danes – and off we go
About eight months ago I packed my bags and off I went to the land of the Vikings. To be more precise, my journey led me to the small and contemplative town of Aarhus on the east coast of Midtjylland. One year of master studies were lying ahead of me. Expectations were high, since Denmark is considered as a role model when it comes to education, equality and health. However, I was particularly interested in the question, why the Danes – despite the freaking cold weather, in forms of on-going snow and rain – are known to be the happiest people in the world. Living with 12 Danes in a shared student housing gives me the perfect opportunity to investigate it and to get to the bottom of this matter.
In half a year of Danish student life, I have seen more culinary delights than in three years of studying back home in Germany. Self-made bread, 24-hours-rost-beef or fancy chocolate cakes – when the Dane is cooking or baking, he is doing it properly. So it is not surprising at all that each week someone invites for dinner club. Every time it is someone else`s turn to cook for the rest of the flatmates. These meetings are however more than just eating. It is all about the hygge, the Danish concept of cosiness. Candles, good music and nice talks all make for this special feeling of being at home. It always has to be cosy or ‘hyggelig’.
Danes love rules
Back to everyday university life. After the sandwich has been stowed into the bag pack, the thick black scarf has been tucked around the neck and the typical Danish bun (a palm tree-like hairdo for girls) has been fixed, off they go to university on their bikes. The two metres big bicycle lanes are excellent for that purpose; a highway for bikes. And what strikes most: the Danes follow every single traffic rule.
Dare you, if you try to cycle next to your friend in order to talk to him! Not one second later it will ring from the back and you will be punished with evil looks. I once got those looks from my flatmate as we were cycling back from a night out in town. At a deserted crossing I wanted to turn right and I cycled across a red traffic light. Not a good idea. He looked at me as if I had just wholeheartedly committed a crime. Note to myself: Danes like their rules. In fact, they are in love with them. So better stick to them!
Back to everyday life. Once arrived at university, you can notice many stylish Danes sitting around with their Macbooks before the lesson starts. Always on time for the lectures of course. Being on time is a crucial thing in Denmark. More surprising it was for me when the honoured professor with three titles was greeted with a fairly easy-going “Hi Søren”. In Denmark you will use the second-person – flat hierarchies in work life regardless of one’s position and age is what they are known for. For the stiff Germans that can be a challenge at times. However, one that is easy to overcome and to get used to.
Don’t count the Danish Kroners
Something that I had more problems adjusting to were the prices. Denmark is expensive! Food in the cafeteria you can hardly find under 4 Euros (30 DKK). But even more expensive is the alcohol. Five Euros (40DKK) for a beer from the draft you have to expect at most bars, and that can even be considered cheap. A merry drinking session can end therefore with empty pockets. The best bet to safe some Kroner is to visit one of the famous Frejdagsbars (Fridaybars). Every Friday afternoon students gather at different faculties to purchase beer for less than two Euros (15 DKK) – a real bargain! So from 15h on after an exhausting week of studying, students gather for the first skâl (‘Cheers’) and it can turn out to be a long, long evening.
Danish is NOT an easy language
In order to find my way around the Nordic habits, I started to visit a Danish course twice a week. Not that it is needed, because all Danes know how to perfectly speak English. But in the beginning I thought, it might be easy to pick up the language since German and Danish didn’t seem too far apart from each other. BIG mistake as it turns out! There is a reason why everybody is saying that Danes are talking like they have a hot potato in their mouths. The Danish grammar might be easier than the German one, but nothing is pronounced the way it is written. So, on a regular basis my flatmates are laughing at my first attempts of speaking Danish. “Jeg vil gerne have en øl” (‘I would like to have a beer’) is the phrase I probably know best to say. And for all the rest, it will just take more patience. Especially from my listeners.
Not only the Danish language remains a mystery to me, also the male Danes do. As beautiful those blond blue-eyed guys are to look at, as little they reveal about themselves. That immediately changes after the second beer. Then the normally shy and distanced Scandinavians change into completely new creatures. Within one hour you can be their new best friend. The next day, however, it seems like you have to begin again from zero. One of my Danish course mates once explained it to me this way: “It is hard to be friends with Danes. But once you made it, you have a friend for life”.
But what is it that makes the Danes so happy then?
My professor once said that all the surveys about the happiest nations are always done on the same day in Denmark. That is when the sun is shining. A possible explanation, it seems. The joy that Danes experience when the sun is out only a little tiny bit is amazing. But I believe it is most of all the sense of community that makes them so happy. In back yards, at uni or as decoration in street displays, in every place you can see the Danish flag. And it is the flat hierarchies, the cooking, the eating together and meeting up with friends that unites them. A feeling of cosiness and light heartedness. That way, also the short, dark and cold days can be easily overcome.