The problem with visiting Denmark in May is that it makes you think you regret leaving.
I moved to Berlin almost exactly two years ago. Last week, I visited Copenhagen for four days, the longest I’ve been there at a stretch since 2011. The buildings were adorable, the sun was slanty, the locals were height-weight proportionate, I started to have moments like ‘why did I ever leave this magical place?’
Then reality kicked in and I realized why I left and I would never move back.
On Friday night, on my way home from dinner, 9 pm, 10 tops, I biked past three different groups of people carrying someone too drunk to walk. Sure, it was Friday, and fine, if I lived in a country whose most famous export was Aqua I’d probably be drinking too, but get it together, Denmark.
One of the reasons I quit drinking three years ago was how normal it is here, how essential for basic social life to function, how acceptable Danes find slurred Fridays and slept-through Saturdays. All week no one spoke to me, not even to hold a door open or say pardon me. After 10 pm, with grandpa-breath and teetering, they won’t shut up.
Which brings me to…
The Social Culture
One of the things I was looking forward to about my little trip was visiting all my old haunts, places I used to drink coffee or smoke shisha or—OK, those are basically the only things I ever did when I lived here. But anyway, I visited my old cafes and everything looked exactly the same, right down to the baristas, but there was never a flicker of recognition, never an acknowledgement that I came to these places regularly for years.
Then I remembered that at the coffee place closest to my house, the one I went to probably twice a week for two years, no one ever once remembered me, never once remembered my order, asked me if I lived nearby. I would sometimes try to start it off, all ‘how’s business?’ after I ordered my same old Americano. We would chat for a few minutes, then next time I came in it was Memento, no recognition, no ‘Americano, right?’ After awhile I stopped bothering. Six years into this country, I realized that resignation, that learned misanthropy, is called ‘being Danish’.
Ahhh, Denmark, the Mississippi of Europe. While living here I was constantly confronted by casual ugliness (‘you’re visiting Turkey? But it’s full of Turks!’), bone-headed public policy (If you want to marry a Dane and get a visa to live here, you have to speak Danish and your spouse has to pay a $10,000 bond), and Mad Men-era political discourse (one of the political parties ran an ad this year that published the names of all the foreigners who had been granted Danish citizenship with the tagline ‘One person on this list is a danger to Denmark’s security’).
Just in the four days I was visiting, two friends told me about ethnically motivated beatings that had taken place in their neighborhoods and two other friends told me they were moving to the suburbs because the local schools didn’t have enough white kids left. Another friend got mugged recently, and the first question everyone asked when he told them was ‘were they black?’
This shit is exhausting. Sometimes living here is like following your Republican friends on Facebook.
There’s nothing more depressing than living somewhere no one wants to be. Expats in Denmark are so miserable that the government launched a state-funded website specifically to create diversions (singles nights, English book clubs, flat landscape appreciation societies) to make living here more bearable.
But expat unhappiness in Copenhagen is so dense, not even light can escape. Get three expats together and it’ll be about six minutes before it descends into variations on the gripes I’ve just named (and I didn’t even get to the weather!). Get two together and they’ll you their secret plans to move back home, maybe start over again somewhere as rosy as Denmark once seemed. Get one alone and he’ll tell you he’s desperate to leave, but the jobs are too good, the romantic partners too perfect.
Yeah yeah, I’m being too harsh. Every country has problems, Denmark’s are just different from the ones I grew up used to. Overall, Denmark is quiet, introverted and socialist, my three favorite things. Also, if I ever want to spend a weekend being drunk, mean and discriminatory, at least now I know where to go.