Et kærligt, fremmed blik på os danskere.

“My year of Living Danishly” by Helen Russell, Turbine, 2015.

Citat fra bogen: “Er danskere så lykkelige, ikke fordi de har masser erfaringer, men fordi de lever i et forudsigeligt og stabilt miljø?”. Jeg tror det. Og jeg kommer til at tænke over, om vi mon er så lykkelige, når det kommer til stykke. For hvad er lykke egentlig?

An easy read page turner, that really leaves you thinking about the community you live in. I read it from start to finish on the day I gave birth to Ava, in the hospital bed, waiting for labour to intensify. A warm thank you for Helen Russell for keeping my company on a very long day.

UnknownFrom a world of glitzy, ever so rushed, but homey London, where a young journalist and her husband enjoyed all the action and social life but also suffered under a stressful lifestyle, Helen Russell follows her husbands bold career move and goes to live in Jutland. A rural part of tiny, dark and cold Denmark, where the couple from the Big City rent a small cottage close to the sea but very far from Starbucks.

She decides to investigate the so-acclaimed happiest people on the planet, and through meticulous investigations she writes with humor, affection and wonder about the  cosy homes and gardens, the flagpoles and cream cakes, the rubbish-sorting and the bureaucracy, the paradoxes and short working hours, that she finds to be at the heart of living danishly.  

The book and I: 

Jeg lo højt, da det morsomme i de danske ord “fartkontrol”  og “slutspurt” for en englænder blev tydelig for mig. Fart betyder “prut” og “slutspurt” ordret “ludersprøjt”….Jeg læste denne bog på dansk, men da bogen er interessant for folk udefra, der måske vil til Danmark og bo, så fortsætter jeg på engelsk. 

I was asked to write about this book, “My Year of Living Danishly”, about an English woman’s experiences during what turned out to be her first, but not last, year of living danishly. I am trained as a social anthropologist, so I happily accepted the challenge, although this is my first attempt of and chance to blog about a book. What a fortunate coincidence that it is actually a book about how cultural particularities are perceived by an outsider, who really tries to become to be an insider. Or at least understand her surroundings enough to feel more at home than completely lost at sea.

The trick used by the curious, hardworking and very funny author is a method scientificallly known to ethnographers as participant observation. You participate in something in order to understand it from kind of a split personality, both doing it and observing your self and others acting at the same time. It is difficult and often comes with sacrifices, because you use yourself as an instrument of enquiry, constantly testing your own and others interactions and trying to interpret what’s going on, how meaning and significance is being created in that particular setting. She also interviews various experts on life, happiness and activities taking place in her community, from farmers arranging the annual cow-dancing event to psychologists and statistics.

You can  burn the flag, but don’t leave it up after sundown.

In this book, the setting is rural Denmark experienced from a brit career city-girl from London. The cultural differences are obviously abundant. The book is a great and easy read, full of funny observations about how we Danes live our lives. I especially enjoy Helens neighbors who seem to linger over her bins, her flagpole and her life in general – I find the way she describes how they watch her, how the interpret their observations and his they choose to approach her with their grave complaints about her placing and usage of (for Gods sake) the bins outside her house and Oh Dear the FLAGPOLE that actually comes with a LAW and REGULATIONS and PUNISHMENTS – it is really spot on and hilarious. Love it. The title itself, Living Danishly, tells of a lady with a certain way with words, and the whole book is a smooth read with lots of wit and funny facts.

To a Dane, its always enjoyable to read about the most self-assured people in the world. Helen Russell makes the reader very aware of our funny little habits and culturally specific way of doing things, most of which we are not aware of at all. The investigation of how our happiness shows gives way to a long list of Danish weirdness. That is very, very amusing.

And there’s a baby, too.

One thing is the differences between Helen Russell’s well known English society and the Danish society – and there is a lot of difference, of course. More than you would think, maybe. Another thing is the difference that has to do with moving from a young and hip lifestyle in a big city to a rural village in a small house without a smart office to go to work in – and the author even becomes pregnant and gives birth to the couples first semi-viking at the end of the book. That in itself is enough material and wonder for lots of writers, without the change of national scene. Some of the lostness that the author tells us about is also a result of this change of lifestyle, from working young woman to work-at-home mother, which would also have been a cultural shock had the move just been to a village in Yorkshire.

There has been other investigations of Danishness, that I think could be enjoyable for most Danes to catch up on. In the early nineties the Indian Anthropologist Prakash Reddy came to live in Jutland and wrote a book about the Danes as well. In fact, he wrote several. The book in English is hard to come by today, but here is an article about it. The british anthropologist Richard Jenkins also did work here and wrote books on being Danish from an outsider-turned-insider point of view.

Are we lonely, rich and happy?

One of the things that stays with me after I finished the book is the idea that Danes frequently agree to being quite happy, but also stressed out, complaining and closed off. We live in houses and apartments where most of our social life also takes place. We rely on professionals to take care of the sick, the wanting and our children, so we don’t have to sacrifice time doing it ourselves. We actually work very little, but when we are off, we run around like crazies. We love rules and regulations to a degree where we are unable to make amends or approach a stranger if a certain rule doesn’t apply or demand that we do so and a regulation can direct the way we do it. Which is a very poor society, if you ask me. Especially Prakash Reddy found Denmark lacking the social glue and simply affection for one another. He thinks its really sad how a whole village is darkened and the streets empty every day before teatime; that we never drop by, that no social life takes place outside of the little neat houses. That people can live in a village, a community, and be lonely at the same time are a travesty to the Indian professor. Helen Russell also comments on the weird idea that there’s no pub in the village. Where do people go to talk, have dinner, have fun – and where do a stranger go to meet the locals? You don’t! It makes me think that we are a hard people to get to know. We ardmore often than not a bit full of ourselves and a bit too certain that we are the greatest country on the planet, which means that some have very little interest in getting to know and learn from other cultures. Recent political decisions shows how sad, but true this is. I beg to differ, but that democracy for you. Many people here suffer from the delusion that we live in a culturally secluded little place, where nothing should ever change, even though things and ideas perceived as particularly Danish are often from someplace else. People just choose not to think too hard on that. Lalalalaaaalalaaa…..

Helen Russell asks the question of we are happy, because we live in a predictable and stable environment – a place, where we can feel in control. I think she is right. And it makes me think about what happiness is. And that is pretty good going by Helen Russell, making the reader of a page turner think about what happiness is. From flagpoles to philosophy.

You should really read it.

Kristina Hobbs





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