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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Almost Nearly Perfect People

Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia

Michael Booth





As the rainclouds finally part to reveal an electric blue, early evening sky, we venture out of the tent sniffing the cool, damp air like nervous rescue animals, turning to savor the last warmth of the vanishing sun. It casts a pinky glow, which, as the evening continues, transforms into a magical white, midsummer light and, finally, a deep dark blue-black backdrop for a planetarium-style celestial display.

Midsummer's Eve is one of the highlights of the Scandinavian calendar; pagan in origin but hijacked by the Church and renamed in honor of "Sankt Hans" (St. John). In Sweden they will be dancing around maypoles garlanded with flowers; in Finland and Norway they will have gathered around bonfires. Here in Denmark, in the garden of my friend's summerhouse north of Copenhagen, the beer and cocktails are flowing. At ten o'clock we gather around a fire to sing "Vi Elsker Vort Land" ("We Love Our Country") and other stirring, nationalistic hymns. An effigy of a witch, assembled from old gardening clothes and a broomstick, is burned, sending her-my friend's eight-year-old daughter informs me-off to the Hartz Mountains in Germany.

The Danes are masters of revels such as these. They take their partying very seriously, are enthusiastic drinkers, committed communal singers, and highly sociable when among friends. They give good "fest," as they call it. This one boasts two barmen and two large grills with a variety of slowly caramelizing pig parts, and, later, there will be the all-important nat mad, or midnight snacks-sausages, cheese, bacon, and bread rolls-served to soak up the alcohol and see us through to sunrise.

As is often the case, I find the searing anthropological insights begin to kick in around about my third gin and tonic. It occurs to me that this midsummer's party is the perfect place to commence my dissection of the Danish happiness phenomenon, my friend's get-together exemplifying as it does so many of the characteristics of Danish society that I find admirable, and that I believe contribute to their much-vaunted contentedness. As I stand here beside the bonfire's dying embers, I begin to tick some of them off.

One is the mood here in this lush green garden surrounded by high beech hedges, with the obligatory flagpole flying a large, red-and-white Dannebrog at its entrance. Though the drink has been flowing, the atmosphere is relaxed, there are no raised voices, no hints of alcohol-fueled fightiness.

Then there are the children haring about the place. Danish children are granted what, to American eyes, can seem an almost old-fashioned freedom to roam and to take risks, and it is natural that the youngsters present this evening are as much a part of the party as the adults. They are still running about as midnight approaches, yelling and screaming, hiding and seeking, buzzing and crashing on Coca-Cola and hot dogs.

Most of the people assembled here will have left work early; not sneaking out "to go to a meeting," or feigning illness, but straightforwardly informing their bosses that they will be attending a party an hour north along the coast, and that they will need to leave work early to prepare. Their bosses-if they haven't already left themselves for the same reason-will have been at ease with this. The Danes have a refreshingly laid-back approach to their work-life balance, which, as we will see, has had major consequences-both positive (the happiness) and potentially negative (sometimes you do really need to buckle down and do some work: during a global recession, for example). I have met few "live to work" types in this country; indeed many Danes-particularly those who work in the public sector-are frank and unapologetic about their ongoing efforts to put in the barest minimum hours required to support lives of acceptable comfort. The Danes work almost half the number of hours per week they did a century ago, and significantly fewer than the rest of Europe: 1,559 hours a year compared to the EU average of 1,749 hours and the US average of 2,087 (although the Greeks work 2,032 hours, so clearly, this is not a cast-iron measure of productivity). According to a 2011 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) study encompassing thirty countries, the Danes were second only to the Belgians in the laziness stakes-that's globally.

In practice this means that most people knock off at around four or five in the afternoon, few feel pressured to work at weekends, and you can forget about getting anything done after 1 p.m. on a Friday. Annual leave is often as much as six weeks, and during July, the entire country shuts down as the Danes migrate en masse, like mild-mannered wildebeest, to their summerhouses, caravan parks, or campsites located an hour or so away from where they live.

More than 754,000 Danes aged between fifteen and sixty-four-over 20 percent of the working population-do no work whatsoever and are supported by generous unemployment or disability benefits. The New York Timeshas called Denmark "The best place on earth to be laid off," with unemployment benefits of up to 90 percent of previous wages for up to two years (until recent reforms, it was eleven years). The Danes call their system flexicurity, a neologism blending the flexibility Danish companies enjoy to fire people with short notice and little compensation (compared with Sweden, where jobs can still be for life) with the security the labor market enjoys knowing that there will be ample support in times of unemployment.

More reasons for the Danes' happiness? We must also include this very summerhouse-a homely, single-story, L-shaped cabin, identical to thousands of others scattered along the coasts of these islands. These little wood-and-brick hideouts are where the Danes come to unwind in flip-flops and sun hats, to grill their hot dogs and drink their cheap, fizzy lager. And if they don't own a summerhouse themselves, most will know someone who does, or maybe have a permanent plot in a campsite, or a shed in a koloni have ("colony garden"-like an allotment but with the emphasis more on sitting with a can of cheap, fizzy lager and a hot dog than toiling among vegetable patches).

This summerhouse is furnished, like most, with bric-a-brac and IKEA perennials. One wall is lined with well-thumbed paperbacks, there's the obligatory cupboard packed with board games and jigsaw puzzles with missing pieces, and, of course, a fireplace primed with logs to warm bones chilled from the sea. The floors are bare wood for easy sweeping of sand and grass, and the whitewashed brick walls are hung with art works from the "School of Relatives"-family members' attempts at oils and watercolors, usually in a grisly faux naïf abstract style.

As I said, tonight the alcohol is flowing like the river Jordan. Denmark has a much more laissez-faire attitude to booze than the rest of the region; there is no state-owned alcohol monopoly here, as there is in the other four Nordic countries. In Carlsbergland alcohol is sold in every supermarket and corner shop. The Swedes, whose twinkling lights I can see just across the Øresund strait this evening, have long flocked to their southern neighbor to let their hair down and sample what is, from their perspective, the Danes' louche, fun-loving lifestyle. (Younger Danes, in turn, head for Berlin to get their jollies.)

At the end of the evening a group of us go, giggling, to the beach, disrobe, and tiptoe into the waters. It is something I have struggled to adjust to, but nudity is no biggie here and at least by now it is dark. The initial bracing chill as the water reaches thigh height almost sends me scurrying for my clothes, before I finally pluck up the courage to dive under the surface and, once fully submerged, am reminded once again how surprisingly warm the Danish sea in summer can be.

On evenings such as this it is easy to see why the Danes have come to feel so contented with their lot these past few decades. As long as they can avoid opening their credit card bills, life must feel pretty great to be a middle-aged, middle-class Dane. It is hard to imagine how it could be any better, in fact. But things have not always been so rosy in the state of Denmark. To reach this point of heightened bliss, the Danes have had to endure terrible trauma, humiliation, and loss. Until, that is, bacon came along and saved theirs.

Copyright © 2014 by Michael Booth