The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell
This was our book group’s read for January, chosen when our of our group had just come back from Copenhagen enthusiastic to learn more about the Danish way of life. The whole group enjoyed reading it – it’s very easy and the author has a nice line in self-deprecation. We also found plenty to discuss.
Helen Russell was a journalist for one of the women’s glossy magazines when her husband was offered a year’s contract to work for Lego at their HQ in Billund on Jutland. He was keen, and Helen knowing that they wanted to plan a family decided she could make a go of going freelance. So off they went arriving in the depths of winter in what feels like a ghost town. Billund is famous for two things – Lego and having Denmark’s second largest airport (because of Legoland), otherwise situated as it is in the rural heartland of Jutland, it’s rather looked down upon by the more cosmopolitan capital.
Helen and ‘Lego Man’ as she calls her husband, ask where all the people are? ‘They’re getting hygge,’ she’s informed by a cultural integration coach she consults. ‘It’s a private, family time in Denmark and everyone hides behind their front doors. Danes are very wrapped up – literally and metaphorically – from November until February, so don’t be surprised if you don’t see many people out and about, especially in rural areas.’
Hunkering down and getting cosy in candlelight (a big hygge feature) with family for three months which peak at just under 8 hours daylight struck many of us as like an overlong Christmas holiday – too much time for family arguments and feuds to develop.
One thing that came through very clearly in this book was that Danes love, and I mean really love, rules. From not being served in an empty shop until she’d taken a ticket, to an hilarious episode when they wanted to fly a Union Jack – there are rules for everything. The Danes work hard – but only for a very short working week – staying late is just not on. The lowliest workers are paid a decent wage which encourages them to excel at their jobs, (one reason why a meal at Noma will cost a fortune). Their taxes are also very high but everyone is happy to pay them because they are so well looked after. The Danes are also a pragmatic race – if a relationship isn’t working out they can divorce easily – they have a high divorce rate but lots of rules to get through it without fighting.
Talking of fighting though, Helen finds out that the Danes turn out to be a rather violent people. Men fight men, women fight women, men fight women and women even fight men sometimes. As one of Helen’s contacts says, ‘We are Vikings.’ Viking culture is still very macho and alcohol-fueled and Helen confesses, ‘This glimpse of the darker side of life in Denmark has made me feel a little lost.’ She had been asking every Dane she consulted about their happiness rating – most said 9 or 10 out of 10, an 8 is rare and I can’t remember a single lower rating in the entire book. Questioned like that, the Danes seem extremely happy, but there are obviously unhappy undercurrents – some of which have recently come to the fore with the right-wing government pushing through legislation to seize refugee’s assets and make immigration stricter.
Another intriguing section dealt with the Danes’ attitudes towards animals – they are remarkably unsentimental. You may remember an outcry a couple of years ago when they put down an otherwise healthy giraffe who wasn’t suitable for breeding, rather than sell him to a sub-standard zoo or institution. The Danes went one step further:
So on 9 February 2014, the young giraffe was given a last meal of some quintessentially Danish rye bread before being shot in the head with a bolt gun. All in front of an audience of zoo visitors. After this, staff conducted a public autopsy, enthusiastically attended by crowds of Danish children and their parents curious to see the inner workings of the creature. Marius was dissected and fed to the lions – again, in full view of all who cared to watch.
There aren’t many vegetarians in Denmark.
Given that the subtitle of this book alludes to Denmark’s status as the world’s happiest country, I’ve unwittingly tended to dwell on the less positive (to us anyway) aspects of Danish life above. As well as her serious look about how Denmark works as a country, between the covers of this book are many lovely and fun moments – from the joy of eating real Danish pastries to dancing cows, Lego (of course) to Danish design, and not forgetting adult night at the local swimming baths! As for what happens at the end of their year, I can’t tell. This book is a lovely blend of memoir and reportage told with wit and I can thoroughly recommend it. (9/10)
To round off our discussion we went around the table saying whether we’d like to live in Denmark. It was around 50/50. I’d love to visit Copenhagen, but I’d get cabin fever hunkering down in winter, also pickled herrings rather put me off the idea of living there. However, I really ought to catch up with The Bridge which seems to be universally loved, but I’ve not had time for.
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Source: Own copy.
Helen Russell, The Year of Living Danishly (Icon Books, 2015). Paperback, 354 pages.