Down, but not out

Defining happiness is difficult, but for those who’ve seen their share of hard knocks, it starts with a cold beer and good company

Everyone knows it – even Oprah. Danes are the happiest people on Earth, or so they say anyway.   This is the third and final article in The Copenhagen Post’s series looking at what is real and what is myth when it comes to happiness in Denmark. Links to the previous two articles in the series can be found below.  We’ll be running further articles about happiness and Denmark on an occasional basis.The black labradour barks fiercely for about three seconds before giving up and returning to the warm spot next to the propane heater.

“Don’t worry ‘bout Bella. She just has to let everybody know she’s the queen here,” says Michael as he invites The Copenhagen Post into Skuret (The Shack).

Made from a disused changing room the local football team discarded, the 50 or so people who hang out at Skuret have transformed the structure into a kind of clubhouse and low-cost watering hole.

Located in the Islands Brygge neighbourhood, the ramshackle hut clashes with the surrounding luxury apartment complexes, where monthly rents start at 14,000 kroner. And where just a few blocks away, ‘the world’s happiest people’ flock to the popular harbour park on warm summer days for a swim or to enjoy a BBQ on the lawn.

Skuret reveals a different reality on the chilly January day we visited Michael, and brothers Svend and Leif, to discuss what their life in ‘the happiest country in the world’ is like.

“The happiest people on Earth? That sounds like a bit of an overstatement, if you look around here,” says Leif, who takes a swig from his bottle of Maribo pilsner.

After a thoughtful pause and a long drag on his cigarette, he adds: “And when you think about it: how should I know what it’s like to live in Ecuador or Canada? There’s no basis for comparison.”

He explains he hasn’t been able to find work since his job at the cigarette factory in nearby Gladsaxe got shipped out of the country a few years back.

“You got a job for a 57-year-old?” he asks.

His brother Svend, who also hangs out at Skuret, used to work as a harbour hand, sailing out to incoming boats to check their cargo. But he has likewise found it hard to find work since the big container ports changed the shipping business.

Michael, who regularly opens Skuret around noon, was maimed when he was hit by a motorcycle as a teenager, making it impossible for him to hold a job involving manual labour.

Their stories weigh heavily on the atmosphere in the shack, but there is little sign of bitterness or resentment in their voices as they describe their lives.

The three men explain how Skuret has become a home away from home for anyone looking for a place to enjoy a beer and some camaraderie.

The rules are simple: no fighting. Anyone caught fighting is shown the red card that hangs on the wall and banned for three months.

“Otherwise we’d be breaking up fights all the time,” says Svend.  

A bottle of beer goes for six kroner, making it more affordable than the local pub, “and warmer than sitting on the steps over by the park”, explains Michael, a lifelong resident of ‘Bryggen’.

There's no place like home - even if it is just a shackThe three explain how Skuret came to be when a group of drinkers was displaced when the playground they congregated at was being renovated a few years back.

There was talk of seeking funding from the city, but the group realised they would be better off if they could take the shelter and make it their own.

“Otherwise the city would send someone to check up on us once a month. We don’t get any funding, and nobody makes any money on this. But it’s our own place.”

Skuret is neither well-lit nor clean – there is no electricity and the bric-a-brac on the shelves could use a dusting – but the shed’s small kitchen is tidy, and on Wednesdays, a meal is cooked up for 25 kroner.

“Michael’s brother Olfert makes the best frikadeller,” explains Leif.

In the summer, they bring out a grill and cook sausages.

Leif takes a look out of the frost-encrusted window: “Summer is always nice.”

The conversation returns to the subject of ‘the good life’ and what are some of its essential elements.

“For some people it’s enjoying a good meal, for others it’s getting plastered,” says Leif. “Other people are happy counting their money.”

“And good health is of course an important part of being happy,” adds Svend.

They don’t hesitate to praise Denmark’s social welfare system that ensures everybody has access to decent medical care.

“We could of course take steps to being more healthy,” Leif says, as he empties his bottle.

Despite their satisfaction, the men are well aware of the disapproving looks the parents from the nearby daycare centres send them as they walk by with their children, but Leif shrugs them off.

A 6 kroner a pop, the beers add up“They don’t really know anything about us, who we are or what we do.”

There don’t seem to be any real job prospects on the horizon for these men, but Leif argues that those who hang out at Skuret make a positive contribution to the neighbourhood by keeping an eye on the hardcore alcoholics among them who are really down and out.

“I think the city is happy we can give those people a place to drink and keep them off the street corner. Without us, the city would have to pay some fancy social worker to take care of them. We look after them and make sure they get home safe.”

During our visit, it becomes clear that while Skuret might not fit the shiny, happy image pitched by Denmark’s official media channels, the shelter provides a ragtag but important form of community.

As Svend puts it: “Happiness depends on what criteria you use. For me, it’s all about feeling good about yourself and the people around you.”