Copenhagen: a European Paradise?

by tim anderson

I’ve been running my own blog, The Copenhagen Report, for the past two years now, but as this is my first article for Shortcut, I'll back up and give a short introduction to the city I now call home.

Copenhagen is where the rest of Europe often aspires to be and imagines itself to be – at least in social terms. But, if you ask me, nowhere else in Europe comes close.

The term I would use to describe life in Copenhagen is ‘balance’.

Copenhagen is a big city, but in terms of other European capital cities it certainly could be a bit bigger. However, it’s as big as it gets in Denmark, so that’s just how it’s got to be. Being here, one still is afforded a healthy dose of urban living - without an unhealthy dose of the dark side of that – namely pollution, traffic jams and a lack of green space, visible poverty and so forth. In Copenhagen, there are numerous large parks around the city, the air is clean, bicycles are everywhere and you have to do something particularly stupid to get someone in a car at you (other than an impatient taxi driver). Though you may hear a bell ringing behind you if you don't quickly cede way to faster moving bicycles.

As the work week in Denmark generally clocks in around 37 hours with about 5 weeks of vacation (plus a bunch of national holidays), plenty of time is left for family, friends and fun and getting the hell out of Denmark for a little extra sun (and swimming) or snow (and skiing) from time to time – and isn’t that how life should be? Balance, you see, is what it's all about.

Even at the lowest possible Danish salary (about 100 kroner an hour – or 13 Euro / 9 pounds and hour), life is pretty liveable – maybe not luxurious, but certainly luxurious relative to life at the lowest end of the salary bracket in much of the rest of Europe (try making 5 pounds an hour in London, it ain’t all that fun).

Copenhagen is a family friendly place – I challenge you to find more baby carriages in any other large city in Europe – even if there is a surprising lack of obviously child-friendly cafés and restaurants (a business opportunity, indeed), people manage because children in Denmark seem to know how to behave. This, I'm quite sure, is in large part thanks to the sophisticated network of day care centres where people put their kids, often by the time they have hit a year old. This chance for children even as young as a few months old to socialise with other children their age (and get away from their parents for a few hours each day) seems to stand them in pretty good stead as they grow older – they quickly learn how to behave. I’ve never seen a country where kids are better behaved in public from a very young age then in Denmark.

Significant change has been occurring over the last years around Copenhagen, even if it looks much the same on the surface. It was over 6 years ago that I first arrived, so I have had time to notice. If the buildings look much the same and the streets seem quiet most of the time, don’t let this fool you - what lies behind has been evolving at a much faster pace. This change includes the ever increasing diversity of cafés and restaurants serving cuisines inspired by all corners of the globe, more and more specialty shops selling quality imported foods (like beer and cheese), and a thriving arts scene (particularly involving film and music), and countless other improvement that make a real difference. For example, there are new swimming areas, like the relatively recently opened swimming area in the saltwater channel that cuts through Copenhagen. Unlike channels in pretty much any other major city you can name, the one in Copenhagen is actually clean enough to swim in.

Yes, negatives do remain, and frustratingly many of them could be so easily solved but just haven't been.

The attitude of the present government towards immigrants is outright embarrassing – and borders on institutionalised racism. And of course, once foreigners are let in, the government is so hung up on seeing them 'integrate' into Danish society that they end up a more alienated group then if they were just left alone and allowed to get on working (which is what most of them seem to want to do, anyway). Sadly, none of this immature behaviour and small-minded thinking from the Prime Minister downwards stopped the government from getting voted in for a second term. Please, please, please Danish voters – get rid of them next time. It is a poor needlessly poor reflection on you and there are other parties up for the job that can do much better. At least the government remains quietly pro-Europe, I'll give them that much (though would it hurt to fly a couple European Union flags - or even one - around the parliament buildings?).

Then there is the problem of Sundays in Copenhagen. Getting through Sunday remains all too often an unnecessarily torturous exercise, which for lack of better alternatives (and often crappy weather) involves sitting at home or walking around empty streets lined with closed shops and cafés. A ridiculous under usage of a day thanks to Denmark’s antiquated Sunday closing laws. These Sunday closing laws have no business in a thoroughly modern society as Denmark’s.

Copenhagen could remain a satisfyingly bustling place all weekend - with Sunday as the day when the shops would undoubtedly regularly ring up their second highest receipt tally of the week. If only these shops (and the rest of the oddly cowering population) had the will to put up a fight (it wouldn't take much) to get those laws changed so they could open. It seems many of these small shops are wilfully intent on speeding their own demise at the hands of the various larger corporate-owned shops and malls that are increasingly finding ways to open longer hours. The laws are slowly being loosened, at least, with many an increasing number of shops opening on an increasing number of Sundays throughout the year (and all of December).

But in the long term, all of these issues are problems that will get solved out of necessity, so I'm basically just frustrated, but certainly not overly concerned. Immigrants are increasingly needed to fill lower-end jobs and sooner rather than later more will have to be let in. Immigrants are already arriving in record numbers to fill the higher-end jobs - as the Danish media has been reporting recently. Shops in Copenhagen will have to meet the demands of a society that increasingly needs Sunday to shop. So they'll all be opening longer hours sooner or later.

So all of this, I believe, goes a long way to explaining the very one-side stance a non-Danish (Greek) friend of mine staked out during a recent conversation about just how wonderful life in Copenhagen was.

‘I love it here! Don’t try to destroy my paradise!’ he exclaimed each time anybody attempted to speak ill of daily life here.

I have to agree with him. But I know he's not really worried, it would take a lot more than a few words to wreck all that Copenhagen has to offer.

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