20 Questions About Copenhagen to Celebrate 850 Years
Golden Days Festival
This weekend marks the 850th birthday of Copenhagen – my new home. I haven’t been here for almost all of its history, but that won’t stop me from enjoying the Golden Days Festival – activities, and free programs around the city to mark its celebration. Most of the event info that I received was in Danish, which prompted the history nerd in me to read up on the background of Copenhagen and trace its founding back 850 years.
Denmark itself was unified as a kingdom in the 8th century and was Christianized in 960. In 1160, the King Valdemar I had a counselor, Bishop Absalon, who was a warrior as well as head of the church in Roskilde, the capital. For his service to the crown, Absalon was granted the land currently occupied by a small fishing hamlet. Seeing the potential for a merchant harbor, Absalon fortified the city and by 1167 Copenhagen was primed and ready to prosper into its current greatness. In 1443, Copenhagen became the capital of Denmark and 6 years later it held its first coronation as the Danish capital when Christian I took the throne.
In honor of the 850th birthday of the great capital, I decided to share even more facts about Copenhagen by answering 20 of the most common questions that I get about Denmark, Copenhagen and my life here.
1. What language do they speak there?
This one makes me cringe, but a lot of my American friends need help here… DANISH. Often they ask if it’s Dutch, which is the mother tongue of The Netherlands. The vast majority of Danes also have a high English proficiency – they just never speak it. Still, the cool thing about moving to Denmark is that they provide free Danish lessons to foreigners who move there. Mike and I are beginning our Danish lessons this month. Currently we can order a beer like a Dane – some things you pick up right away – Skål! (cheers)
2. What’s the weather like?
Well if you don’t like it you can always just wait 20 minutes. The weather has mood swings day to day and even hour to hour. Sometimes it’s 60 degrees Fahrenheit (15-16 Celsius) but in the sun it feels 80 (27 C) and in the shade it feels 50 (10 C). It’s usually the same as October in the Northeast United States at some point in the day but overall it’s windy and much more moderate due to being situated between the North and Baltic seas.
3. Can you just take a train everywhere else in Europe?
No. If you look at a map of Europe, Denmark is the land mass north of Germany and Copenhagen is on an island far east of that land mass. To take a train you would spend hours traveling over bridges and the entire rest of the country to end up in northern Germany. It’s much easier to take a plane anywhere and Copenhagen is a hub so we fly everywhere that we travel – but it is easy and cheap.
4. Is there a king?
No, Denmark has a queen – Her Majesty Queen Margrethe II. She smokes like a chimney and loves butter cookies. Marge replaced her father in 1972 and can trace her lineage back to the first king of Denmark, Gorm the Old, who reigned from 940-958. This gives Denmark the distinction of being the oldest European monarchy. Since the early 1500s all Danish monarchs have alternated names between Christian and Frederick. Margrethe is the first modern queen, her father was Frederick, so her oldest child, a son, is also named Frederick.
5. Do you guys have a car?
Mike is getting a company car, but it’s not necessary. Everyone in Denmark bikes or takes public transportation. The infrastructure in Copenhagen, Denmark and Europe writ large is tremendous.
6. What’s the food like?
Not great – when was the last time you went out for Danish food? The food is bland, but that makes sense – when you colonize the Arctic you don’t bring back a lot of spices to try. Open-faced sandwiches are popular and sea food is a staple, especially pickled fish. At the supermarket, most general items are available, but often there are fewer varieties than in America (late stage capitalism means heavy consumerism and differentiated competition). Almost all grocery items are organic and natural, which is nice. Living in the capital we can find all kinds of cuisines from Italian to Thai, so we aren’t missing any meals.
7. What do the people look like?
This one always make me laugh, Danes look like Jamie Lannister (yes, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is Danish) and those of Danish heritage tend to range between Daenerys Targaryen and Arya Stark in complexion. Due to a better diet than most Americans, they are generally fit and a lot of Danes are tall – but these are all generalizations. Like all people of Earth, there is no mold.
8. Is that where breakfast danish pastries come from?
Sort of… the term “danish pastry” originated in 1850’s Denmark, but they were brought there by Austrian bakers. Yes, the Danish bakers were on a long term wage-strike so back up was called in from Vienna. Therefore, what Americans call “danishes” are actually a pastry that the Danish people call “Viennese” (wienerbrød) brought to Denmark via Austria. Got it?
9. What do they think of the US?
Denmark and the United States have always been close allies. Denmark and the US were founding members of NATO and Denmark has helped in modern US military operations. Danes are a very proud people, and they have a quiet nationalism while being friendly to foreigners. There’s no issue being an American in Copenhagen although there are issues with views towards America – mostly because of President Donald Trump. At the time of the 2016 US Presidential election only 4% of Danes polled said they would prefer to see Donald Trump leading the free world. When we arrived in March there was still a sense of shock and questioning, but this evolved to a laugh at our expense and presently most Danes are just sympathetic. You may wonder why they know so much about our election, but in Denmark it is normal to talk about politics in any occasion, especially world politics and US politics is world politics.
10. Can you see the Northern Lights from there?
No, Copenhagen is a little south for that. Iceland or Norway (former Danish colonies) are still the ideal places in Europe to witness the Northern Lights. We have not been able to see them… so far.
11. Does everything there look like IKEA?
Yes! Scandinavian design is massively appealing to the locals and it’s present in most modern buildings. Copenhagen is also a very old city – 850 years to be precise – so there are places with a lot of old world charm and you don’t have to travel far to see design elements that are centuries old. The city itself is renowned for its architecture and they have done a tremendous job blending the modern design of newer buildings into the facade of a city almost a millennia in age.
12. Is it dark all the time?
The imbalance of light and darkness throughout the year is a little wild. In summer, the sun sets around 10:30 PM but doesn’t really get dark until after 1:00 AM and the sun begins to rise between 3:00 AM and 4:00 AM. Blackout curtains are a MUST. In the winter, it’s the opposite with the sun setting in later afternoon and darkness by 3:30 PM – most people chug Vitamin D all winter to avoid seasonal depression.
13. Why is everyone so happy?
Denmark is basically a socialist paradise. Sure, there are high taxes – but the Danish people get a TON of free benefits and services for those taxes. When you add those benefits up, most Americans pay more for living expenses than Danes do in taxes. There is also the Danish cultural ethos – hygge. It’s how a Dane relaxes and enjoys life, kind of like their secret to happiness and you can read more about it in another post of mine: Why Americans Can’t Hygge.
14. Are all Danes vikings?
Pretty much. During the Iron Age there were many Germanic tribes inhabiting Scandinavia and they were eventually consolidated and referred to in ancient writing as The Danes. These people later expanded their influence by building trading villages along the sea and conducting raids up and down coastal cities in the North Sea and the rivers that flowed to them. So the Vikings had their origin in Denmark, even ruling England and Norway for periods throughout the Middle Ages. According to my 3 year old nephew, they also fought dragons.
15. What’s the time difference like?
For most of the year it’s a six hour time difference to the East coast of the US. It can make it tough to keep in touch with family there, but we schedule calls and FaceTime.
16. What do they drink there?
A shit ton! Danes can drink! Culturally, it’s a beer country – like most of Northern Europe. You can get spirits anywhere and wine is cheap (yay being in the EU). Danes have a penchant for licorice-tasting liquors and their national drink is one called Aquavit. I don’t care much for it and unless it’s a Danish holiday, I stick to Carlsberg beer.
17. What surprised you the most?
Everyone smokes – even the queen! It’s bizarre because many things are so much healthier here, but literally every person here smokes.
18.What do you miss?
There’s so many little things, Danish Netflix doesn’t show every American series, we have to wait an extra day for some of our favorite network shows. I now crave random foods that I didn’t eat that often – some American flavors just don’t exist in the European pallet like peanut butter. Plus the obvious answer – family and friends being close.
19. What sports do they follow?
Like most of Europe, football is huge (soccer for any Yankees). Danes also love badminton, squash, handball and are very active.
20. Do you like it there?
LOVE IT – it took 4-5 months to feel this way, but it’s home.