My own ignorance of Denmark was almost total before I started coming here a decade and a half ago, so, before we attempt to divine the secrets of the Danes’ success in greater depth, I am going to take a moment to fill you in on some of the aspects of contemporary Danish life that I believe make it such a wonderful place to live, but of which you might not be aware. It is a bit random, but bear with me — I think it gives a good overview:
1. The landscape of southern Funen (Fyn, Denmark’s central island), which undulates like a reclining nude:
2. The pleasantly woozy feeling after a lunch of pickled herring with red onion on rye, a Tuborg beer, and an icy schnapps.
3. Flødebolle — a chocolate-covered Italian meringue with a wafer base (sometimes they have a marzipan base, but those are to be avoided):
4. There’s parking.
5. The view from the room that houses the numismatic collection at the National Museum of Denmark (the Nationalmuseet) looking across to the royal stables at the rear of Christiansborg Palace, the Danish parliament building:
6. The word overskud, meaning a kind of surplus of energy. As in, “I can’t cut the lawn now — after that great big boozy lunch I simply don’t have the overskud.” I don’t know how I managed without this word for so many years. Smaskis another great Danish word: it’s the annoying mouth noise some people make when they eat, say, an apple, or breakfast cereal, or when radio presenters have dry tongues.
7. The bittern that is honking like a foghorn outside my window as I write this.
8. The fact that I once saw the Danish prime minister on a pre-election walkabout in Copenhagen, on the equivalent of Times Square, and no one was paying him the slightest bit of attention.
9. Arne Jacobsen’s gas station on Strandvejen, the most elegant gas station in the world:
10.The TV series Klovn — a Scandinavian Curb Your Enthusiasm, only far ruder.
11. A visit to Bakken, the old amusement park to the north of the city. It is the best way I know of travelling back in time to 1968:
12. Babies left sleeping outside cafés; a perfectly normal occurrence throughout the country and one that happens in all weathers. (The former US housing commissioner Catherine Austin Fitts once came up with something called the Popsicle Index, which ranks countries according to the percentage of people in a community who believe that their children can safely leave their home, walk to the nearest possible location to buy a popsicle, and walk back home again. Denmark must surely rank at, or near, the top of this index. But as one Danish mother, the actress Annette Sørensen, discovered in 1997, this approach does not work in New York: her child was taken into protective care when Sørensen left it sleeping in a stroller outside a restaurant in Manhattan.)
13. The word Pyt. A dismissive exhalation that roughly translates as “Let it go, it’s not worth bothering with.” Midsummer party threatened by rain? Pyt med det! (“Pytwith that!”)
14. They sell wine and beer in movie theatres, and you are usually allowed to take it into the theatre with you. Is there any greater litmus test of a civilized society?
15. The actor Jesper Christensen (Mr. White in CasinoRoyale), upon whose wry, weary face is etched all the tragedy of the world.
16. The hollyhocks that spring up from between the cobbles of Christianshavn, the canal quarter of Copenhagen.
17. The rainbow of grey in a Hammershøi interior.
18. The Lego DeathStar.
Do great confectionery, pickled herring, and complex modular construction toys amount to the recipe for human happiness? Probably not (although for me, yes). There is more to Denmark’s success and the enduring Olympic-gold-level happiness of its people. Much more.
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