Quirks of Denmark

Every time we visit a new country, we’re struck by the ways in which it differs from other places we’ve been. As we leave Denmark for the Netherlands, here are some notable characteristics of Denmark (or at least of the places we visited, Copenhagen and southern Jutland). This list is based on our observations, things we read, and things we heard from local residents.

  • The Danish flag (a red background with a white cross) is everywhere. I tend to think of flag-flying and other overt signs of patriotism as being very un-European—the sort of thing that Europeans see as an American oddity. But the majority of homes and buildings in this area have tall white flag poles flying the national flag. We were told that it’s tradition for a family to fly the flag on each of its members’ birthdays, as well as on national holidays, and many houses do it every day. In southern Jutland—which was part of Germany as recently as 70 years ago and still has a large German minority—flying the Danish flag may also be a way of affirming one’s nationality. The house we looked after doesn’t have a flag pole; the owner guesses that means it originally belonged to a German family.
  • Another unusual thing about Danish flags is that they’re often long and thin, like pennants. That may have some historical basis. Or it may be that in a place as continually windy as southern Jutland, narrow flags are less likely to be ripped to shreds by the wind than square ones are.
  • Speaking of wind, those huge, modern, electricity-generating windmills are a common sight in the Danish countryside. Denmark is aiming to get 50 percent of its power from wind energy by 2020, and it appears to be well on the way. Solar panels on houses are also common—sometimes, in a wonderful mix of old and new, even mounted on thatched roofs.
  • Denmark is pretty flat (although not as flat as the Netherlands will be). A 150-foot hill counts as high. The map in the front of the Lonely Planet guidebook, which is color-coded by elevation, shows no areas over 600 feet, and very few over 300 feet. I suppose that’s not surprising in a country that was once all seabed.
  • With its flat terrain and environmental sensibilities, Denmark is a country devoted to bicycling. Most town roads have special bike lanes. (In historical zones, they’re sometimes indicated by a different color of brick or cobblestone). And many roads through the countryside have a dedicated bike path running next to them. Reportedly, half of Copenhagen’s workers commute by bicycle.
One end of Ribe’s old town hall, with a stork’s nest on top
  • The main building material is here brick. Everything from houses and barns to big institutional buildings, churches, and five-story apartment blocks in Copenhagen are made of brick, ranging in color from pale yellow to dark red. There are also some modern metal and glass buildings around, but we saw very few structures made of stone. And although Denmark appears to have plenty of trees, I don’t think we saw a single building made entirely of wood. Maybe they’re just too cold.
  • We’ve mentioned the weather before, but we just couldn’t get over how odd it was to see people wearing coats and scarves in the middle of July. The fleece blankets provided at outdoor cafes and the space heater in the living room of our house came in handy more than once. Much of Europe was suffering from a heat wave earlier this summer, but it didn’t make it to Denmark.
  • Another funny sight was men on Vespas or other small scooters wearing helmets and full motorcycle leathers. That’s the far end of the spectrum from Southeast Asia, where we routinely saw a whole family crammed onto a scooter, or a woman in a traditional skirt perched side-saddle on the back, sandals balanced on the ends of her toes, arms wrapped around a shopping basket.
  • On the whole, people in Denmark seem very quiet and reserved. No one expressed any curiosity about the two American women who suddenly showed up in their little hamlet, walking the dog several times a day. Even in the tourist office, no one asked what brought us to Haderslev; they just answered our queries and helped us find the pamphlets we were looking for. Maybe asking even what seem to us like innocuous questions is considered rude.
  • Apparently, it is a firmly held principle in Denmark that everyone is equal. This belief expresses itself in various ways. For example, unlike in German or French, there is no formal mode of address in Danish used with strangers or elders. It’s impolite to hold a door open for someone or do similar things that imply a difference in status. When meeting new people, children are greeted the same way as adults, with a handshake. And although Denmark has a royal family, the portrait of the queen that appears on coins is not terribly flattering.
  • Perhaps related to the point above, working in public is not a Danish thing. When we were looking for restaurants or coffee shops where we could sit with a laptop and work for a few hours—as we could at any Starbucks at home—our American friend said that Danes don’t really do that. The closest we could come was the public library (no one else was working there either).
  • The bread and butter in Denmark are wonderful. So essential is the notion of one’s daily bread that the vacation campgrounds have little stores selling the usual camping necessities—including freshly baked loaves of bread. Because in Denmark, that’s a necessity.
  • Everything is eaten with a knife and fork, even pizza, hamburgers, and sandwiches. Several of the restaurants we went to served sandwiches so tall and messy that picking them up was impossible (which we learned the hard way).
  • Danes seems to prefer wearing dark colors or earth tones, such as black, gray, tan, or brown. If you see people wearing bright colors, chances are they’re German tourists.
Haderslev’s pedestrian shopping street
  • Cars are also mainly gray, brown, black, or white. I think we scarcely saw five red or green cars during our three weeks in Denmark. SUVs are also uncommon; most cars are small sedans or hatchbacks.
  • It was unusual to us to see so many people with naturally blond hair. We also noticed many more women with gray hair than in the United States. Hair dying doesn’t appear to be as popular as it is at home.
People playing a game in the Haderslev library’s common room
  • What is more common than in the United States is game playing in public. We frequently saw families or groups of friends sitting at a picnic bench, cafe table, or library table playing board games, cards, or dice games. As gamers ourselves, that warmed our hearts.
  • Hunting is legal in Denmark, but some of the hunting laws seem very strange. If you’re hunting on foot, you have to have a dog with you. And although you’re allowed to build a deer blind (such as a wooden platform in a tree or a chair attached to a tall ladder), it’s not allowed to have a roof on it. I guess the authorities don’t want to outlaw hunting, but they don’t want to make it too comfortable either. (Just across the border, in Germany, those rules don’t apply.)


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