Englishman in Nyhavn: Where everybody knows your shame

It is a well-known fact that English people are good at three things: drinking, hooliganism, and ignoring the true effects of our colonial past.  

Historically-honed hooliganism

However, are we the best in the world at those things?

We’re pretty good at the latter point. You’ll note how, out of habit, I refer to it as our colonial ‘past’, despite how we are currently invading Ireland. (Please forward all comments to the Editor.) But given that America was willing to go to the lengths of electing Trump to ignore their past, I’d have to call it at least a tie. That’s one down.

In a previous article for this publication, I shared my revelatory scientific findings on how Danish people are actually better than the English at hooliganing. Two down. 

Pubescent pub pipe-dreams

So drinking. It’s all come down to you.

Surely you can’t beat an English pub? Pubs, when I was growing up as a child in the UK, were seen as these mythical centres of national pride, where people from lots of different backgrounds would collide and emerge after closing hour, arm-in-arm, singing offensive songs in a strangely wholesome way. 

Based purely on cultural references, I imagined pubs as being the place where I’d not only have my first pint, but meet the love of my life, smoke a pipe, get into a fist fight, and be recruited to MI5 after winning a card game against a shadowy stranger. All on the same night.

At the very least I expected them to be places where I might get drinks bought for me by kindly strangers who would share their life stories with me in a way that somehow wasn’t boring. 

So it was a harsh awakening to realise my experiences of English pubs tended to lean a little more towards avoiding the 20-something-year-old city wankers doing coke in the toilets of a Wetherspoons. 

What bodegas basically are

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise that I’ve had since moving here is that my naïve expectations of pubs, and what they could be, actually do exist. They’re basically what bodegas are.

Bodegas, for those new to the city, are tiny little wooden shacks that have the ability to make you forget your night and make your clothes smell of cigarettes for up to four weeks. They are staffed by friendly people who can usually be found lighting their cigarettes from the embers of the cigarette they just finished smoking. 

I would estimate – genuinely – that about 50 percent of the times I have been in a bodega, a stranger has bought a drink for me. And to confirm, this is not due to any kind of innate charisma. I have not once had a drink bought for me in any other context before and, furthermore, I have been told by several trusted sources that I come off as a bit of a dick.  

Where magic happens

But there is this vibe when you enter these tiny little places, where people are almost forced to be social with one another – probably due to each establishment only having room for about two and a half tables, so you often have to share. 

And look, it’s not all rosy either. I’ve had several deeply strange, uncomfortable conversations with regulars, including most recently when a demonic looking woman with cement mixers for vocal chords took me by the hands and informed me that ‘Hell’ was a real place and underneath one of the oceans – I can’t remember which. 

But then again, who wants to have conversations with boring people? Pubs and bodegas exist to create interesting social connections between weird people, be they friends or strangers. And there is something about the not-so-modern-day bodegas, some magical quality unknown to anyone, that makes people bond and talk and share and overshare and argue and fight and, oh, it’s booze, isn’t it …

Yeah, it’s booze.