Newsflash: Denmark Clean, Orderly, Expensive; Danes Happy and Beautiful!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Ok, perhaps this is not news. In fact, I've been having trouble thinking of things to write about Denmark, since at first blush it really seems to be as advertised. Apparently Denmark topped a 2006 survey of the world's happiest places to live, and I can see why. Everyone seems to be skinny and smiley and oblivious to the fact that their beer costs about $15.00/pint. The whole country feels a bit like it came out of an enormous flat-pack box from IKEA. (And if that's the case, I'm pretty sure there's a gold-plated allen key displayed somewhere in a tastefully lit case in a tidy and inviting museum with free public bathrooms.)

The hostel I'm staying at is the epitome of all this. My Rough Guide* to Denmark claims that The Danshostel Copenhagen City has 1020 beds and is the largest city hostel in Europe. I can confirm that it is 18 floors of spotless white corridors and pale hardwood floors. Efficient, but a bit soul-less.

The hallway outside my room on the 14th floor. It's a long way from the Millennium Falcon Room...

And it's true about the bicycles. They're everywhere. Businessmen in suits ride them, women in high heels ride them. There are special lanes on the streets and special traffic lights just for bicycles. It's quite charming. Apparently there are more people than bikes in the city and 40% of Copenhagen residents bike to work, year round. Also, they get parked everywhere. At first I I thought they weren't even locked up, but it turns out the Danes just have really clever, almost invisible, built-in bike locks**. I've rented a bike for two days, and it's great, as was the 4-hour bike tour I did***. (Bike with Mike!)

Gratuitous pretty picture of Copenhagen, which has little to do with the surrounding text

All of this wholesomeness has inspired me to clean up my act a bit after the vodka-fueled days back in Russia. I got up early on my first morning and went for a 10k run before breakfast, which meant I got to see the famous Little Mermaid statue long before the crowds of tourists were there. It is small, underwhelming, and about 4km from the centre of town - a perfect destination for an early morning jaunt since I was able to check it off the list without taking up prime touristy time.

Here it is. Whoop-de-doo. Even the duck seemed unimpressed.

But back to my bike tour, which was very informative. Mike had loads of interesting tidbits that he passed on about Denmark, and Danes, and Copenhagen. Lots of the stuff in this post is from him, but I suspect Mike is not actually a professional statistician or anything, so take them with a grain of sale. Then again, he did tell good stories.****

As I've mentioned a few times, Denmark is expensive. The latté and tuna sandwich I've just finished was 83 K, about $17.00. Part of the reason things are so expensive is that taxes are high, to support a cradle-to-grave social welfare system. Another part of the reason is that Denmark's minimum wage is positively lavish - 105 K per hour, or about $21.50/hour. That means that not only is the guy preparing the latté making over $20/hour, but so is the guy in the back washing the cup, and the woman who comes in at midnight to mop the floors, which is lovely for them. On top of that, everyone gets seven weeks of paid holidays every year. So Danes (and tourists) pay to support all that, but the results seem quite impressive.

See? Even a slurpee is $3.00

And of course Danes are recyclers and environmentalists. 20% of the country's power comes from wind, and the whole infrastructure for that didn't even exist 25 years ago. Also, the waters in the port of Copenhagen are so clean they're certified as "blue flag", the only big city with that distinction. Again, 25 years ago the water was crap, but now it's clean and lovely. And they're also huge buyers of organic foods. And there are machines in supermarkets to help recycle bottles, and on and on and on.

Not surprisingly, their attitudes on stuff like homosexuality are pretty progressive too. They legalized it in 1930, and were the first country to legalize same-sex partnerships, in 1989. At the same time, though, Denmark is also a very homogenous, somewhat xenophobic society, and in 2001 they elected a right-wing government "which immediately passed strict laws curbing immigration." (Rough Guide). In 2002 the same government enacted legislation discouraging Danes from marrying foreigners, and they were re-elected in 2005.

So it's not all twisty pastries and open-faced sandwiches and happy blonde people. Still, after the chaos of Russia, it's a nice place to land for a while. Now just let me check my credit limit so I can order another beer.

* No, not Lonely Planet. What can I say? The Rough Guides were on sale for 20% off in Dublin, and I was feeling miserly. Never again. I don't like how they're organized, and I'm not fond of the maps, and some pages have already fallen out. To top it off, on my first night I tried to do a 9:00 pm walking tour listed in the book, and showed up at the right time and place and there was not even a sniff of a tour of any kind. I even asked a friendly and helpful waitress at the restaurant outside of which this event was supposed to take place nightly, and she had no idea about it, and neither did the colleagues she went and asked on my behalf. My kingdom for an LP Copenhagen City Guide.

** My tour guide, Mike, actually said that bike theft is terrible here - about a quarter of a million thefts per year in Copenhagen alone. Most of them between 8pm and 2am Thursday to Saturday. So it's a good thing they have those crafty locks, which look like this:

See how the shiny bit slots in between the spokes? No messing about with chains and such. And no one seems to be bothered about locking bikes to an immovable object, they just get parked, locked and left.

*** Ok, the tour was great, but after 4 hours of on-and-off cycling over a lot of cobblestones the area of my anatomy usually referred to by yoga instructors as the "sit bones" is, er, tender.

**** Like the one about Denmark's Crown Prince Frederik, unmarried, who visited Sydney during the Olympics and snuck off to a quiet bar one evening for a bottle of Carlsberg. There he met Mary from Hobart, Tasmania, who had no idea who he was, and was possibly even completely unaware of the existence of his tiny Nordic kingdom. As in all good fairy tales, the Prince fell in love and married the charming commoner, who will now become Queen Mary of Denmark when the Prince ascends to the throne. Mike said, "I'm an anti-monarchist, but stories like that just melt my heart."


Amanda Isaak said...

We talked about you a bit today... Tania's goodbye party... thanks for sharing the blog.

Phonella said...

I bet being able to bike around in such a bike-friendly place adds dimension and freedom to your traveling, eh? Good post Pam, interesting photos especially the one of the mega-hostel.

eme said...

I had a layover in the Coppehagen airport last year - I think that I paid $35.00 for lunch (maybe it was $40.00). Glad to hear that they are doing something good with all that money.

The Danes are super nice and I found very friendly.

Have fun and keep us updated.

Scott said...

We really found the same thing when we were in Copenhagen last month, that it was exceptionally expensive. There are some deals to be had if you look around, and buffet's seem to be the way to go. But all in all, one of our most expensive cities to visit.

That being said, it's probably the city that's closest to being like Vancouver, Canada where we're from. And it's one of our favorite cities that we've visited, the liberal attitudes, cleanliness, good English all make it fantastic and not to miss. Just don't stay long!

Heather Moore said...

I'd pay prices like that for 7 weeks of holidays. ;)

And I was glad to see the picture of the Little Mermaid. ;)

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