COPING IN COPENHAGEN: 10 THINGS I DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT DENMARK

Before I tell you my list of ten things I didn’t know about  Denmark, indulge me as I tell you a little story. A story I was told by an old friend of mine over dinner during my recent visit to the Scandinavian country which boarders Sweden and Germany. The story concerns an erstwhile Danish-American chef who wanted to cook a traditional Danish dish it could have been dessert but I don’t remember exactly.  He searched the web for a recipe and found one written in the Danish language, which he duly translated into English. According to the recipe the dish required sweet milk (sød mælk) in Danish. So the American-Danish went and bought condensed milk and added it to the ingredients which resulted in a less that perfect dish. The Danish American soon found out that while sød mælk literally translated from Danish to English means sweet milk –   sød mælk in Danish actually means full cream milk.  Basically in the Danish language sweet-milk is not sweet-milk even if it is called sweet milk. So obviously I was curious about the etymology of the term or word, a curiosity which sparked a series of questions which led my friend to retort with some irritation that: ‘I didn’t invent the language’. So perhaps there is a reason for this perhaps there is no reason – but this particular story sums up my overall impression of Denmark.  But as with most things, places and circumstances in life things are often never what people say they are nor are they what they seem. So Denmark in this context is not in any way peculiar. So without wasting any more of your time… here are some fun facts about Denmark. Yes it’s an odd country.

1. THERE ARE MORE PIGS THAN HUMANS IN THE COUNTRY

Denmark produces approximately 28 million pigs a year, that’s five times the Danish population of 5.6 million people according to 2013 populations figures. The pigs are reared in around 5,000 pig farms, most pigs are slaughtered at the co-operative abattoirs Danish Crown and Tican. In addition, a substantial number of live piglets are exported, mainly to Germany. Exports of pig meat account for almost half of all agricultural exports and for more than 5 percent of Denmark’s total exports.

2 .  FOREPLAY IS KEY TO THE FLOURISHING PIG INDUSTRY

I’m sure you’re wondering how it is that Denmark’s pig population is larger that the human population, the reason is quite simple. Researchers found that if  female pigs are aroused before insemination they are likely to become more fertile or produce more piglets.  So farm workers are tasked with performing professional foreplay on the animals before they are inseminated to increase fertility rates. You can check out the actual video here to see how it’s done.

3. ANIMAL BROTHELS ARE A POPULAR TOURIST DESTINATION

Laws in both Denmark and Norway are fairly open when it comes to a person’s legal right to engage in sexual activity with an animal. The law states that doing so is perfectly legal, so long as the animal involved does not suffer. According to the Danish newspaper 24timer, this interesting gap in the law has led to a flourishing business in which people pay in order to have sex with animals. On the internet, several Danish animal owners openly advertise their services. The newspaper contacted several such individuals and was told that many of the animals have been engaged in this kind of activity for several years and that the animals crave the sexual stimulation. The newspaper found that the cost charged by the animal owners varied from DKK 500 to 1,000 (USD$85 to $170).

4.    AT HEART DENMARK IS A GREEN COUNTRY

Denmark is well-known the world over for its progressive environmental policies and sustainable living. From cycling to work and recycling but within Denmark’s Capital City Copenhagen, there’s a different kind of green living. In Christiania, Copenhagens’ worst kept secret, is a free green zone. Meaning once you enter, you can buy and smoke  weed, marijuana, or cannabis, freely without fear.  You only have to obey three rules: Take No pictures, Don’t Run and just have fun.  It’s a fascinating place. My friends took me there one night at my request. It was as if I was walking into a western-cowboy movie set, without the image of the bumble weed floating aimlessly against the piercing hot sun. The lighting was dim and the walls were illuminated with green lights which made the place suddenly feel like a ghost town. Being winter there were braziers lighting the way to the main eating areas.Vendors sold their product behind camouflaged tents which looked like set-dressing from horror or  ghost movies. Everyone spoke in hushed tones and whispers, no loud music could be heard. Only  the faint sound of money exchanging hands and the thick scent of purple haze which danced around nostrils on pusher street. Christiania had a distinctly illicit lane feel about it, far from the breakfast at Tiffiney’s boutique or the silicone valley  image I often associated with the free or ‘legal’ consumption of weed. It’s a place for hippies, for stoners, it’s off the grid, or rather it is an autonomous town because by  law it’s allowed to exist. Police conduct  raids once in while but it’s not frequent. The last time they tried to close down Christiania, drug peddlers  scattered around the city, increasing crime rates in an otherwise peaceful city, creating choas in a well ordered environment. So authorities changed their minds. This way it’s all under control. Everyone knows everyone. It’s ‘crime’ but it’s organized so for the most part it’s fine. Everyone raises their  eyebrows in shock at the sound of the word Christiania. Most people would rather pretend it didn’t exist. Everyone has a relative like that.

5. DEMOCRACY WORKS IN DENMARK

Not far from Christiania is the country’s parliament, the Christiansborg Palace –  the only building in the world to house  three of the countries executive pillars of government. The country is proud of its democracy, because as residents like to say, Democracy works in Denmark. I imagined it would work but what I didn’t know was that until recently the Danish parliament was the only parliament in the world to offer free access to the public. You can still walk through the building but since the cartoon incident – Denmark has earned the wrath of the Arab-Muslim world which has necessitated screening for those wishing to attend parliamentary proceedings. There are sporadic bomb threats in the city every now and then.

6. CHRISTMAS IS NOT CHRISTMAS WITHOUT SNOW.

‘I’m dreaming of a white Christmas” is a song almost every Dane sang even though they didn’t know the words or had never heard the song before – because Christmas is not Christmas without snow fall.  I was quite surprised when people openly expressed disappointment at the warm temperatures  (+5 degrees Celsius). Many lamented  at the possibility of not having snow in the winter. It is beautiful, pretty and everyone looks forward to a white Christmas every year. People were downright depressed that they would not after–all have a white Christmas. Apparently when it snows it’s not so cold. Anyway it made no difference to me. The air was always fresh and  crisp. There’s a euphemism for everything.

  1.  YOU CAN PARK YOUR BABY OUTSIDE WHILE YOU SHOP

I forgot about the chills beneath my feet when I noticed that parents  routinely parked their baby strollers and prams outside in order to go shopping. Perhaps there is nothing strange about that, except that they left their babies in the prams/strollers outside while they continued to shop inside. No one seemed to worry that their children would disappear or get cold, because no one steals  in Denmark. Children learn to live with the cold at a very young age. It took me a while to get used to seeing that. I had wow moments each time. possibly the coolest thing about Copenhagen if you love shopping.  You don’t  need  a baby sitter!

8. FOLK HIGH SCHOOLS ARE  COOL

There are  approx. 70 folk high schools spread across the country, most of them are situated in rural areas or smaller towns, and they are typically named after the local district. In the early 1800’s, thoughts of enlightenment in Denmark were peaking and the tradition of national romanticism were  developing. Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig (1783 -1872) was deeply inspired of these thoughts, and after personal experience from the Trinity College in England, he developed the concept of the folk high school. Grundtvig identified a growing democratic need in society – a need of enlightening the often both uneducated and poor peasantry. This social group had neither the time nor the money to enroll at a university and needed an alternative. The aim of the folk high school was to help people qualify as active and engaged members of society, to give them a movement and the means  to change the political situation from below and be a place to meet across social boarders. Key feature of folk high schools is the fact that there are not exams or age restrictions with two or three exceptions to the rule. Some schools are specialized ( film, music or sports) while others are more general and any community can start a folk high school which is funded and or subsidized by the state.

9   THERE ARE HOLIDAY TAX RETURNS

Though Denmark maybe one of the richest countries in the world its citizens are heavily taxed  in order for the government to provide social services such as free health care and education among a host of other benefits for its citizens. But what surprised me most is that there is a holiday tax too. Government deducts a certain amount from your salary every months and then refunds it when  you go on leave or holiday.  Many Danes use the money to travel the world; having a Christmas office party at a Michelin star hotel in Italy over the weekend is not unheard of. It’s par for the course.

  1. IT’S BASICALLY THE LAND OF FAIRY TALES

Fairy-tales have a huge following  in Denmark, especially those produced by Walt Disney and they feature prominently in people’s TV screens around Christmas time.  The Danish National broadcaster screens  a series of Walt Disney Movies and the latest animation film for that year-  it is now par of the Danish tradition . The fairy tale is topped on Christmas eve when families join hands and dance around the Christmas tree while singing Christmas carols. Christmas would not be Christmas without singing and dancing around the Christmas tree. Most adults acknowledge that it’s a strange practice – but they do it anyway, wherever they may be around the world because it is their heritage after all.

WAAW! A CULTURAL SHOCK

In conclusion these are ten things I didn’t know about Denmark until I went there.  But the most interesting thing of all, the most heart-breaking thing I didn’t know  did not make it on the list, simply because  the headline says 10 things I didn’t know not 11. Another reason is because technically speaking the 11th thing is not a Danish thing necessarily.

IT’S JUST  ANOTHER BUS SCENE

Picture it.  My friend and I caught a bus on a sight-seeing  trip around the city. We sit opposite a man who immediately looked to me like a West African, because he was  very tall, very thin and  very dark. He was speaking loudly on his mobile phone. A white old woman sat next to him looking quite distressed by his loudness. I listened to the conversation and discovered that the man was speaking  a mixture of Wolof and French, which led me to assume that he might be on a long distance call to Senegal.   My friend and I were thoroughly amused by the scene as the man seemed quite oblivious to the discomfort he was causing around him. Soon the old woman  moved seats as soon as one was available, and this seemed to free-up the mans’ lungs. He spoke with free abandon with no one sitting next to him, laughing and saying sweet nothings between exclamations of waaw! Wolof for yes! my friend and I laughed and I was secretly  glad  and  pleasantly surprised in fact to hear someone speak Wolof in Denmark,  I mean what were the odds? He reminded me of home. It’s been two long years since I last heard those words.  Soon another black-African passenger who was sitting at the back of the bus  approached the man and told him to keep quiet, to keep it down as he was disturbing the peace in the bus. The man went silent, as if he had been shot with a silencer. And even though he continued on the phone  his hello? hallo? waaw… had become lifeless. For the first time he looked around the bus and our eyes met briefly, I quickly looked down in mutual embarrassment because I had never seen the face of a man seconds after being stripped of his voice. ‘ That’s a first’ my friend commented ‘ seeing another African tell a fellow African to keep it down, not embarrass us in public’.  It was an ordinary day, in an ordinary bus, no big deal. But for some insignificant reason, in an insignificant moment my heart broke. For some reason, I think a man died that day.

Godt Nytår! That’s Danish for Happy New Year!

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