Monday, August 10, 2009

On Denmark

Just returned from a fortnight in a sleepy suburb of a town I am sure you won't have heard of called Soro, not far from Copenhagen.

Two weeks in a non-touristed area of a new country gives you a sense of how a place works. You use the roads, the shops, the trains. I also talked to people. Taxi drivers, people in shops (they all speak English). I happen to have a Danish friend who has also lived in the UK.

So what are my main impressions? Well this is a Sensible Country. People drive with their lights on in the daytime. There is a strong sense of`rules' both on the road (where traffic accidents are uncommon) and off, where people have a Germanic sense of order, cleanliness and public solicitude.

The Danes themselves are, overall, more relaxed, quieter, less ostentatious and possibly a little duller than Englanders. They are, generally, well educated and
the society as a whole is definitely less divided socially than our own (though this is changing I am told).

In terms of politics and society, Denmark typifies Continental Europe. Taxes are high (about 50% of basic income) and unemployment benefit is about 80% of your work income. People work less intensively than in the UK and there is, generally, more gender equality, with Dads doing more at home than in the UK. While there is a much-talked about problem with free-riders (people `taking' the system for all it is worth), many Danes regard that as preferable to the kinds of problems created when an underclass has revenge on its mind.

Would I live there? Probably not, though I am not sure I would mind living there if I was born and raised in Denmark. There is a stronger form and structure to life here which the person I am now would fund a little too rigid. Careers are more traditionally defined and Danes change jobs far less. Professions are stronger. The state is, clearly, a bigger force than in the UK or US, where you're more `on your own'. The upside of this is clear: a safer, cleaner and probably less pressurised society than our own (Denmark is, apparently, the happiest country in the world). The downside is that the place lacks `edge' and you have to pay about £30,000 for a new Ford Focus (the state adds a whopping sales tax on just about everything).

My contact with public services was interesting. The libraries in Denmark are not like ours. They are a bit like a swank version of Waterstones that include funky play areas for kids. Its all open plan, lots of PCs, a swing for the kids and staff moving around, interacting, not sat behind desks. Everyone uses them. That's the key, I think. In the UK, they are for the committed, the elderly and the vulnerable. Staff are surly and god help you if you ever bring a book back late. Most of us, frankly, stay clear of the places.

On the trains, they are, again, quite swank, but no nicer than when I first went there in 1999. It was here we had our only crap, totally un-Danish experience when, having lugged our 20lb buggy and two small kids on the train, to be asked to leave the carriage by a young conducter who deemed the train too full (it was about half as full as trains I often travel on in the UK).

Thinking we were about to be escorted to the specialcarriage with the fitted play-area and coffee lounge, I obligingly got us all off but was then told that the next train would be in an hour, we could try our luck then. Needless to say, the special child-friendly Danish carriage doesn't exist! For anyone who has small kids, you can imagine how this felt and how utterly buggered up all our feeding, sleeping etc schedules were for the whole day. I felt like standing my ground, Brit-style, but sensed my fellow passengers would have no truck with a bolshy foreigner trying to flout the rules.

Overall though, the place is better than here for kids, though the UK is fast-catching up. My liking of Denmark comes from its people who are mild, friendly and socially-minded. I would rather lose my wallet in a Danish town centre than a British one. And I think I would rather walk through one on a Saturday night, if I am honest. It is clearly a place more at ease with itself in which there is a sense of perspective. More negatively, I think it is teeny bit boring. You haven't got the kind of diversity and fashion we have. And it capital doesn't pulsate even as much as some of our provincial cities.

Do visit if you get a chance. But take your wallet and a few good books.


Rob H said...

Looks like a holiday in Denmark isnt in the offing for me then!! I was aware it was an expensive country with high taxes (we shouldnt moan too much should we?). Our benefits system is less generous financially but we still have our fair share of 'free riders'. The costs associated with chasing 'free riders' are massive though and a business model without ethics would say dont bother as the chase costs more than the recovery (did you know that the Inheritance Tax Dept in our country costs more to run than it actually recovers in tax? Why Labour couldnt force themselves to use that as a vote winner or PR offensive is beyond me - raise the threshold to 1 million or scrap it altogether). Obviously the key is the benefits application and review system which is a delicate and tricky balance of social problems and disability. A gnarly piece of work (done effectively) that most labour politicians would much rather avoid (in my view).

Anyway i am glad you enjoyed the holiday in what sounds like such an orderly and somewhat pedestrian place. I guess we are conditioned for chaos....

Anonymous said...

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