Expat Chronicles: We Visited Copenhagen, And What a Lykkelig Tur* It Was

They say that Denmark is one of the world’s happiest countries, based on happiness measurements we learned about while visiting the Happiness Museum in Denmark this week. It was one of our stops during a four-night trek to Copenhagen as part of the girls’ half-term school break.

The last time we traveled to the European continent was 20 months ago, when we combined a trip to Morocco with a trip to Portugal. That was in February 2020, just as the decidedly unhappy COVID-19 pandemic was beginning to spread its wings around the globe. Since then, we’ve largely confined ourselves to vacations within the UK to avoid international travel restrictions, with the exception of a two-week visit to the United States over the summer, which sorely tested our patience with international travel restrictions.

Denmark was the first Scandinavian country we’ve visited since moving to London about four years ago, and the eighth country on the continent proper (Scotland and Northern Ireland don’t count because they’re both separated from the continent by bodies of water). While in Denmark we took a brief day trip to nearby Malmo, Sweden, which is about 40 minutes from Copenhagen by train. So that’s another country checked off.

Copenhagen is a just a short hop from London Heathrow Airport, about two hours from gate to gate, maybe an hour-and-a-half in the actual air, or roughly the same amount of time it takes us to get from our home in southeast London to Heathrow by taxi. I always thought the worst airports to reach by car were New York Kennedy or LAX in Los Angeles. But now I’m convinced it’s Heathrow.

So, is Denmark happy? Well, it sure seems so!  The people are friendly and smiling, healthy and pretty. Per capita, you’ve never seen so many symmetrically correct faces. Many of the countries that rate high on the Happiness Scale tend to be either from Nordic regions (Finland, Norway), or the south Pacific (Australia, New Zealand). Canada rates Happy. The United States less so, but still pretty happy compared with much of the world. Europe is probably the happiest continent. Australia and North America come next.

In other words, the wealthiest places tend to be the happiest, at least to the people who gauge such things. And many of the wealthiest places got to be wealthy off the backs (and blood, sweat and tears) of the less wealthy places. So, anyway….

Copenhagen is fairly compact, and not too crowded. It’s very walkable, with some roads closed off to cars. Cobblestone streets are ever-present, as are numerous examples of classic and eye-pleasing European architecture.

I’ve run out of ways to describe the picture-postcard perfection of European cities like Copenhagen. They are everywhere. Seriously, try finding an ugly European city. I have really yet to see one. Brussels: beautiful. Paris: beautiful. Zurich: ditto. Milan, Barcelona, Lisbon, Amsterdam, Edinburgh: ditto, ditto, ditto, ditto, ditto. Honestly, London is maybe the least attractive one in terms of the number of neighborhoods and buildings that could be considered pedestrian, and yet London is a lovely city.

{BTW: Malmo, Sweden is another of those charming European cities. It’s small, at around 300,00 people. Very walkable. Lots of clean, pedestrian-friendly streets, green spaces, and wide plazas. Very good shopping and cafes.}

Oh, and everybody speaks perfect English in these places. So if you grew up in an English-speaking country, count your blessings.

We stayed in the Copenhagen city center, at the Scandic Palace Hotel, an elegant old Art Nouveau building with large, handsome rooms, and walls that are maybe a little thin. But a fine place to stay, all around. The hotel is located right beside a KFC, Burger King and 7-11, all lit up in neon, and each reminding me that no matter how far I venture from my American homeland, it’s ALWAYS RIGHT THERE.

We didn’t hit the KFC or BK. But we did stop into the 7-11 at night to buy sweets and snacks. I grew up in a world of 7-11s, and the apple never falls far from the tree….

I also think they still have Blockbuster Video in Copenhagen. I saw a big ad for Blockbuster. I can’t remember the last time I saw one of those.

Biking is the preferred mode of transportation. There are bike lanes aplenty in Copenhagen – which warms my heart, being an avid cyclist – but you would do well to keep your eyes peeled for two-wheelers whizzing by at high speed.

I usually rate my vacations based on the food, and in that regard Denmark is a winner. I’d never eaten Danish food before, I don’t think. The classic Danish cuisine, I learned, is based on fish, fresh greens, and bread. This usually presents itself in the form of an open-faced sandwich, featuring fresh shrimp or smoked herring on a bed of greens, on a piece of bread, surrounded by roasted potatoes, avocado, and maybe an egg. Delicious!

I find that I love Danish sausages, too.

Our first night in Copenhagen I ate pretty decent enchiladas, refried beans and Mexican rice at an Italian restaurant that also served killer American style burgers. You read that right. I believe it was called Mama Rosa. My wife and oldest daughter ordered very good pasta dishes. My youngest daughter got the burger. I got the Mexican. I can honestly say it’s the first time I’ve ever had Mexican at an Italian restaurant. The servers were overwhelmed and panicky, and nice beyond words, and altogether wonderful people. We tipped them so well that they said no, they cannot possibly accept so large a tip, so we had to cut it back just so they wouldn’t slip a gear.

Tipping, I imagine, is not a big thing in Denmark.

Another night we ate at the fun – and happy! – Tivoli food hall. I had Mexican (yes). My wife went with a kind of Danish tapa. My oldest daughter had sushi. Our youngest had pizza. All were excellent.

If shopping is your jam, Copenhagen has you covered. You’ll see the usual collection of high-end chains like Prado, Tiffany, and Louis Vuitton, along with cute and pricey boutiques. But for bargain hunters, there are a few secondhand stores as well. And for the kids: Lego shops galore! Denmark is the birthplace of the wildly popular toy, and you can’t walk three steps without being reminded of that.

Speaking of shopping: The Danish currency is the krone, and it works sort of like the Japanese yen, only a little higher up the scale. So if you have 50 krone, it’s about 8 U.S. dollars, or 6 British pounds. Our youngest daughter – a value seeker if ever there was one – figured out that you can buy certain things cheaper in Copenhagen than in London. And buy she did.

I knew from my experience as a jazz fan that Copenhagen has a long and proud jazz tradition. Many American jazz players moved to the region to ply their trade, partly because there was plenty of work, partly because it’s inexpensive compared to jazz capitals like New York City and Los Angeles, and partly because cities like Copenhagen, Stockholm and Amsterdam were less antagonistic to African American jazz musicians.

We took in an excellent jazz show at the Drop Inn music club on a very noir street in downtown Copenhagen. One of the guys working the door was from the Tidewater region of Virginia, along the Atlantic coast. I told him we were from North Carolina – just one state south – so we chatted a bit.

I also found out that legendary American jazz saxophonist Ben Webster, who once played with the Duke Ellington band, is buried in Copenhagen. We found this out while visiting the grave site of Hans Christian Andersen, the renowned children’s author. So we visited both grave sites.

As graveyards go, this one was fairly uplifting. It’s nestled in a very Zen and lovely wooded area, as if you are strolling in a park, with plenty of fauna and wise old trees, right in the center city, a fitting place to while away eternity.

In Denmark, even the cemeteries are happy.

*Happy trip

2 Comments

  1. Thank you for the insights into a country I know only from football 🙃. Sounds awesome – as do all the Nordic countries. Norway is on our bucket list – for the sheer beauty, but also for the girls, the Frozen tie-in.

    What’s the racial situation like there though? As you mentioned, those wealthier countries were built off poorer ones, but it seems that discrimination is pretty strong in places like Italy and surrounds. Up top, are the people more chilled? (No pun intended 😎)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s an excellent point and question, Yacoob. You hear stories about far-right nationalist groups with racist undertones gaining momentum in many European countries (and elsewhere), and it’s something I wondered about myself (our family is mixed race, mostly Filipino-American with various European flavors mixed in). We were only in Denmark for four nights so it’s impossible to really get a sense of these things in that short a time period. I do know from what I read that Denmark has adopted a much more nationalist/populist immigration policy, supported by the left and the right.

      I will say that from what I saw, there is less ethnic diversity in Copenhagen than in London or where we come from in the U.S. But you did see a fairly large population of what I assumed were Middle Easterners (Lebanese, Arabs, etc). because there were pockets of the city where you saw many Middle Eastern restaurants and faces. You saw a smattering of various African ethnicities. You didn’t seen nearly as many East Asians (Chinese, Japanese) or South Asians (Indian, Pakistani) as in other places, but they were certainly there.

      But we didn’t feel any discomfort or see any signs that the natives resent the influx of other ethnic groups, though I know some people in Denmark feel that way. My sense is that most people just go about their business without thinking too much about it. I’m guessing if you asked a person of color who lives in Denmark what they think, they might have a different take. It’s like London. For all appearances it doesn’t seem like a city with racial problems, but ask a black or brown Londoner what they think and they might give a different answer.

      It’s hard for us as Americans to judge these things because America’s racial problems are often right there out in the open, a central part of life there. Which in a way is almost easier to deal with because you don’t have to guess as much. This is all a long answer…..

      BUT: I would recommend visiting Scandinavia. It is, as you say, very pretty, and great for kids because of all the Lego stores. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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