Denmark is the Twilight Zone

Sorry to disappoint those of you who are big ‘Twilight’ fans. There are no vampires or werewolves in Denmark. Well none that I have seen anyway. If they do exist in Denmark then they are generally well behaved and peace-loving creatures like all other Danes. When I refer to the ‘twilight zone’, I mean a place where weird things happen. Things you wouldn’t expect to happen. Not shocking things, oh no. Not in Denmark, which was voted the most peaceful country on the planet! No, what I mean is weird things that make you stop and think: “That’s weird!” I first visited Denmark in 2006 when I ventured into the contracting market. The contract was to be in the sleepy town of Fredericia on the sleepy western island of Denmark called Jutland. My first impressions of the country, when stepping off the plane into Billund airport, were of the smart and efficient airport itself and the warm aroma of sausages and liquorice.

Denmark1

I rented a car from the sleepy car rental company and drove down a sleepy, straight road into sleepy Fredericia. I was struck by the orderly driving habits of the locals. They all drive at exactly 80km/h and at the correct following distance. The only drivers overtaking at breakneck speed were the foreign visitors fresh off the plane. I have rarely seen a speed trap in Denmark. They have those smiley-face signs, when you’re under the speed limit, that turn into scowly-face signs if you dare to exceed the speed limit. I was one of the naughty foreign visitors who would put my foot down hard on the accelerator to register a record speed on the scowly-face sign. Driving on the right-hand side of the road proved to be a challenge for me, specially when driving to work in the dark at 7 am. I was exiting the hotel parking area towards the main road when I was startled by a car turning into the hotel entrance directly in front of me…in the same left-hand lane! We faced each other for a period of time that was long enough for him to curse me in Danish and for me to curse him in English before realising that he was on the right side of the road and I was not. Luckily for me the Danes are not confrontational unlike the British who love nothing better than to have a stand-up fight wherever the conflict arises. Very similar to the Germans, come to think of it.

A geeky pommy colleague of mine, also a contractor in Fredericia, would tell me in rather an anal-retentive way that there are 2.5 pigs per person in Denmark. Since he took himself very seriously, he was a natural target for my impish sense of humour.
“Oh yeah?” I said. “If that’s so, then why have I seen neither hide nor hair of a anything resembling a pig in Denmark?”
“They’re there”, he stated categorically
“Well I haven’t seen any. Not even looking down from the plane.”
This is when he would start to get visibly upset, going red in the face and stating his case with alarming vehemence. This was my cue to push the boundary even further.
“It’s my theory”, I said, “that the Danish bacon industry is a big scam. The Danes buy the pig meat from the UK, process it and then sell it back to the Brits at a healthy profit as Danish Bacon.” Of course this just served to make him apoplectic at which point I reluctantly backed down, as I had to work with the guy after all.

I found my Danish colleagues to be relaxed to the point of giving the term ‘laid back’ a new, even more relaxed meaning. They appeared to enjoy a fair amount of the subtle British humour and were more than willing to converse with foreigners in English. I was surprised to see that the majority of them left the office by 3.30 pm every day. This was after my coworkers had raided the fridge at 3 pm and had deposited a can of beer on our desks by way, it seemed, of an end-of-day celebration. Such was my introduction to Denmark over the six months of my first contract. I left the country again telling everyone who asked that Denmark is the most boring country in the world. Not that I have seen a lot of the world, but enough to know that nothing much happens in Denmark….at all.

I returned some 7 years later to take up another contract in Denmark, this time in Copenhagen. Again, my coworkers proved to be amiable and non-confrontational. Having been used to working in the UK, this was something new for me. I tried, on numerous occasions to bully my coworkers in typical British style, but they refused to rise to the bait. The Danes are pretty much indifferent to things like project deadlines and tasks that should take a reasonable amount of time seem to stretch on into a state of limbo until somehow it all seems to come together way after the date the project was supposed to be completed.

So why do I say that Denmark is the Twilight Zone? It’s the little things like Tivoli Gardens, the main tourist attraction in Copenhagen, closing down at 9.30 on Christmas eve, because the employees want to go home. It’s seeing droves of tourists milling about Copenhagen, cameras slung around their necks, searching for notable things to photograph when there are none. It’s hearing that the city of Copenhagen burned to the ground several times throughout history such that there’s only one church steeple standing that’s part of the original city. Then I look up, while standing near this precious steeple, to see a naked flame leaping a foot into the air from a brass container outside a restaurant just next door! Have they learned nothing from history?! It’s seeing the Little Mermaid statue, portrayed on postcards throughout the world as an icon perched on a rock against an idyllic stretch of blue water, conjuring up images of a clean, sunny Copenhagen, when in reality the little mermaid is so little as to be practically insignificant and sits atop a rock in dirty harbour water. Across the bay a line of factories spew smoke into the air. It’s noticing that there are no tourist facilities near the Little Mermaid site at all. No coffee shop, no souvenir kiosk. Nothing. It’s hearing about the life of Hans Christian Andersen the iconic Danish national hero and his tragic life. The story tells of his obsession, at a young age, with a ballet dancer in Copenhagen to the extent where she had to take out a restraining order against him. Charles Dickens entertained Andersen at his house in England where the Danish author overstayed his welcome. Dickens wrote to a friend: “Hans Christian Andersen may perhaps be with us, but you won’t mind him—especially as he knows no language but his own Danish, and is suspected of not even knowing that.” Dickens’ daughter declared Andersen to be a ‘bony old bore’. Then there’s the story of the so-called spy of World War II, Thomas Sneum who is seen as a national hero, although his bungled attempts at spying provide many moments of mirth when hearing of his exploits.   

It’s the Danish social security system where residents must obtain a ‘CPR’ number. Nothing can be accomplished in Denmark without this number. Even entering into a mobile phone contract or opening a bank account requires a CPR number. However, the applicant has to prove that they will be resident at one place for a period of at least three months. So for a contractor working for six months in the country and moving from one hotel to another, it’s impossible to get a CPR number and therefore impossible to engage properly in Danish life. Whomever thought up this ridiculous system needs shooting. This and other anomalies paint a picture of a country where one appears to be in some sort of constant twilight zone where strange and unusual things can and do happen. This can cause endless frustration for the foreigner getting used to life in Denmark, but the Danish people are so happy and the lifestyle so relaxed and peaceful that I’m prepared to put up with a little twilight.

 

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