Impressions: An American in Denmark

It’s good for us Americans to travel—our views of foreigners come from our own little echo chambers filled with little real data. I’ve traveled to Denmark several times, though I wouldn’t say I know the country well.  Still, I’d like to share a few of my impressions from this past week’s trip.

The American geography sobriety test.

Socialist Economy.

Creativity—The cloth/paper carryall-bag.

Innovation–Cell phone Parking Meters.

Street-ready wheelchairs.

The Resistance Museum.

The American geography sobriety test. My U.S. brethren (and I) are often a little vague about points on the world map, much less their relative distances from each other. Try this test:  answers at the end.

  • Distance from Copenhagen to Rome
  • Distance from Copenhagen to Hammerfest, Norway
  • Distance from Copenhagen to Moscow
  • Distance from Copenhagen to Madrid
  • And, just for kicks, the population of Denmark

Socialist Economy.  My guess is that the average American thinks of Denmark as a “socialist” country.  Yet one Dane tells me, “I find that amusing; Danes would not consider our government or our economy socialist as such—we just (mostly happily) pay high taxes.”

According to the OECD:

US                        Denmark

GDP per capita                         $46,860               $55,986

Taxes as % GDP                        24.0%                     48.2%

Obesity rate                                30.6%                       9.5%

Divorce rate/ 1000 ppl            4.95                           2.81

Crimes/person                           80.1                         92.8

Murder w. guns/million ppl       30                           3

Life expectancy                           78.3                        78.3

CreativityThe cloth/paper carryall-bag. Your average American may believe that “socialist” economies sap the creative energy out of people. A moment’s reflection about Danish furniture (Americans well know the name Dansk) should give pause to that idea, but if not, here’s another.

I snapped this picture of a little bag they gave you at a coffee shop.  It feels half-paper, half-cloth.  It comes in packages of maybe 50, like paper napkins. Like a napkin, it lies flat on the counter.

But unlike a napkin, it’s cleverly slit—like a shark’s gills—so that when you pull up the edges, it becomes a 3-D bag, amazingly strong enough to carry several cups of coffee and various pastries.

Cell phone parking meters. Too artsy for you?  How about this…an entrepreneur struck a deal with the national government to combine GPS devices and a national database to bypass parking meters.

You find a parking place, text the service (which then determines the parking zone in which you’ve parked), enter the time you’ll be parking—and go on about your business. If you decide to stay an hour longer, no need to run down and get coins to feed the meter—just dial up and add an hour. The parking cops know you’ve paid—because they’ve got online access too.

No broken meters. No scrounging up coins or a credit card to buy a piece of paper, no going back to your car to put it in the windshield. Try picturing that in the U.S. Or in Manhattan. Heck, even just Syracuse. I don’t think so.

Street-ready Wheelchairs. Along with the Saabs and Audis and Citroens, you can see some fairly hefty wheelchairs moving along in the street in the right-turn lane. Not in the sidewalk, but out in the lane, not unlike bicycles (of which there are tons, of course).

I’m not sure what to make of it, just interesting.  Along with no obese people; I’m talking, none. Zero. Whatever they’re eating, we should too. (Me, I love herring!).

Or maybe we should exercise like the Danes. They walk like crazy, everywhere, have great posture, are slender, and very athletic.  Many smoke too, but only in moderation; the smokers also walk like crazy. They treat cigarettes like we treat espresso—a few a day.

The Resistance Museum. Maybe it’s my age, but I find history to be very helpful in understanding a country’s psyche. (If you get to Singapore, check out the National Museum of Singapore, you’ll understand Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and Singapore much better. And if you really want to get into it – Singapore is one of the most fascinating nations in the world – check out the aptly named 100 Best Things to Do in Singapore, from Jen Reviews).

In Copenhagen, I stumbled across the Resistance Museum. During World War II, Nazi Germany basically held a gun to the leaders Denmark in order to gain access to Norway.  With a population one-tenth the size of Germany and essentially no military, the Danes had little choice.  Their government agreed to be occupied by the Nazis, and yet be officially neutral. There are those who considered it collaboration; after August 1943, all cooperation officially came to an end.

The museum explains well this neutrality, as well as a real and significant Resistance. See for example the stories of The Torch and the Lemon, two courageous Resistance leaders.

When the Nazis threatened to round the Jews up, a great many Danes took serious risks to ferry the entire Jewish population across the sound to Sweden in just 10 days. The support was grassroots—as the word spread, people called up strangers with Jewish-sounding names in the phonebook to warn them.

When you occupy a border with the nation who invaded you and killed some of your citizens, you have some baggage to deal with. Younger Danes are quite forgiving and feel the Germans have punished themselves enough.  Older Danes make a distinction between the Nazis and the Germans, and seem to have come to terms with it in their daily lives.  But one senses they also have not forgotten.

Spending time in cultures other than our own is always enriching.  I find it also makes it easier to trust people.

One of the better things we Americans could do for ourselves and for the world is to loosen up on our restrictions toward tourism and immigration into the US; and also to invest in sending 100,000 high school students per year to a foreign country. That would go a long way in getting us outside our little echo chambers.
Answers to the American geography sobriety test:

  • Copenhagen to Rome: 952 miles
  • Copenhagen to Hammerfest, Norway: 1089 miles
  • Copenhagen to Moscow: 968 miles
  • Copenhagen to Madrid: 1289 miles
  • Population of Denmark: 5,529,270