As someone who’s lived in Denmark as long as I have, I like to hear newcomers’ impressions of the country and its inhabitants. Thus I was most interested to read Sarita Rajiv’s column a couple of weeks ago. She, with her fresh eye, immediately sensed on arriving in Denmark that something was not as she had expected. And her description of the behaviour of Danes towards people they don’t know is spot on: you really do feel invisible. No, they don’t intend to be rude, but on the other hand they don’t intend to change. That’s the nature of boorishness.
Ed Clarke, travelling through Denmark by horse and cart in 1799, described the carter as a pleasant enough fellow, though tending towards the boorish. It seems that things haven’t changed much in the last 200 years! ‘Boor’ and ‘boorish’ are words that are not commonly used in the English language these days, but a boor is generally understood to be a rude or insensitive person. The word apparently stems from the Dutch word boer (farmer or peasant), ie an unsophisticated person, and this provides an interesting association with the traditionally rural Danish way of life. Add to that other boorish qualities, such as (social) clumsiness and clownishness, and a somewhat familiar picture emerges.
Clarke also remarked on how backward life seemed in Copenhagen at the time, describing it as a city where “every thing being found as it existed in [London] a hundred years before”. He concluded that the Danes were averse to introducing innovative ideas from abroad. In fact, this had already been noted by Mary Wollstonecraft in 1796. “The Danes, in general, seem extremely averse to innovation,” she wrote. “And if happiness only exists in opinion, they are the happiest people in the world; for I never saw any so well satisfied with their own situation.” Ring a bell?
But can that really be true today? Surely Denmark is a paragon of modern, open, progressive society. Well, yes, if you don’t scratch the surface or you succumb to the subtle propaganda. Take DSB, for example (yes, please do take DSB). Everybody, including the Danes, knows that it’s totally useless at running a railway. It costs the state a fortune to provide the country with a third-rate railway system that would not have been tolerated in most other countries a century ago. And it’s getting worse! What sort of public service company actually removes the (already sparse) amenities from stations by, among other things, reducing waiting rooms to 7-Elevens and locking the toilets? But DSB is a state institution, and the country would lose face if it were to admit that the company was a failure. And the fear of losing face is a symptom, in my book, that there really is something rotten in the state of Denmark. The Brits had no such compunction in doing away with British Rail when it was found to be too costly and inefficient.
And what’s this rejsekort system that DSB is plugging, but doesn’t work? If you know the London underground, you’ll know that it’s a copy of the Oyster card system that has successfully catered for millions of passengers every day for ten years now. But instead of openly announcing that it’s introducing an Oyster card-like system, DSB pretends it’s developing its own. That’s because it’s important for the national ego that things are seen to be invented, discovered or developed in Denmark. Another example is that of Vestas: wind power is perhaps one of the least efficient ways of generating ‘green’ energy, yet it’s promoted as the saviour of mankind because it’s Danish!
We know you’re suffering under the burden of the Jantelov, but come on Denmark, join the ranks of the open societies that you pretend to be part of. This boorish behaviour just won’t work in the long term. Pulling the wool over your own eyes and that of others has limited life expectancy. Maybe you’ll lose some of your ‘happiness’ (read: smugness and self-satisfaction) in the process, but just think how much there is to be gained in not having to pretend all the time. Open up to the world, admit you’re not perfect and see how much real happiness that brings.