The International Writers Magazine - Hacktreks in Denmark
"Something is rotten in the state of Denmark."
Smith on an impossible word
people who havent read Hamlet beyond the first line are likely
to know this sentence. Thats my experience, at least. It sounds
like something Hamlet or his father the ghost ought to say, but it isnt
either of them. Marcellus, a minor character, a Danish officer, says
it to Horatio in the first act (I, v). They are on the parapet of Elsinor
Castle and Hamlet has just rushed off after the ghost. All the interesting
stuff is yet to comeinsanity, murder, betrayal, unrequited love,
suicide, regicide, and national defeat. Yet as far as Denmarks
reputation is concerned, literarily, the play is already over. Shakespeare
was referring to medieval Denmark, of course, but that is a distinction
that repeaters of one-liners can overlook, and they overlook it frequently.
If I had a dollar for every time someone quoted that sentence to me
after hearing that I had lived in Denmark, I could pay cash for my health
care today. It just shows what damage a Shakespearean one-liner can
But what do the Danes actually think of their own culture and country?
As for any sophisticated nation with a well educated citizenry, distinctive
regions, a dominating capital city, and a long history, you cannot hope
to answer that question with a single generalization. What you can do,
however, is to look for distinctive habits of speech and manner. In
this regard, the Danish attitude toward Hamlet is revealing.
It is a wry attitude, and who could blame them? They laugh at parts
of the play, just as the Czechs laugh at the reference to a ship touching
"upon the deserts of Bohemia" in The Winters Tale and
just as everyone is entertained by the clock in Julius Caesar. The Danish
laugh has an overtone of weary sufferance, though. They expect to hear
foreigners echo Shakespeare, and theyre resigned to make the best
of it. For example, one day I was with my landlady, Kaja, in a grocery
store. The cheese department had plates of samples on the counter. I
leaned over and sniffed one, then reeled back in visceral shock. Its
pungency had stabbed into my brain, straight and deep, evoking images
of garbage dumps, long dead cows, suppurations, and chloroform. I was
not yet accustomed to the great, wonderful, varied piquancy of Danish
cheeses. Kaja regarded me askance. "I suppose youre going
to say that something is rotten in the state of Denmark," she said.
Maybe I was, maybe I wasnt, but the important thing was how Kaja
thought about her country. She expected it to be the butt of an easy
joke. She was sensitive about the "rotten" rap, naturally,
but there was more to it than that. Like other Danes, about whom she
could be mordantly critical, she often called Denmark "this little
country of ours." Danes had something of a chip on their shoulders
about it. They expected outsiders (at least Americans, because I heard
that phrase so many times) to look upon Denmark as charming, somewhat
amusing, almost doll-like. They anticipated that their way of life would
be misunderstoodeven confused with that of Sweden or Norway or
lumped together with them as "Scandinavian."
the Danes did think about themselves provided the substance for
several exchanges with Kaja, the most memorable of which involved
a single common word. Eavesdropping on trains, at bus stops, in
cafés, even during her familys conversations, I heard
it used so often that I suspected it was important. It was the adjective
hyggelig. I looked it up.According to Berlitz its pronounced
"hew-ger-li," and you have to make your lips taut and
rounded for the first syllable, as if you were very, very chilly.
As a frequently used word, hyggelig possessed both a range of meaning
and connotations, which made it difficult to translate. When I asked
Kaja about it, she huffed in exasperation. "Oh, hyggelig, hyggelig,
hyggeligits hyggelig this, hyggelig that. Everythings
hyggelig to us Danes."
Danish instructor said something similar. "Its a matter of
mentality," he told me, "You cant really give it an
English equivalent because the English, or you Americans, dont
have the same mentality."
I tried anyway. As it turned out, the peculiar difficulty of pronouncing
this word (for me), the very tenseness of its articulation, belied the
meaning in a curious way. That meaning involved a lack of tenseness,
a determined relaxation. Dictionaries give "comfortable,"
"snug," "cozy," "homelike," "accommodating."
"Yes," Kaja said. "It means cozy. But thats only
part of it. We want things to be hyggelig whether they are or not. We
want it so much it has become nearly subconscious. So we call something
hyggelig with intention sometimes and sometimes without meaning much
at all, really."
So it means about the same thing as nice does in English, I proposed.
"Nice?" Kaja replied doubtfully. "Nice means agreeable.
Thats not the same."
"Sure it is," I insisted. "We use nice to mean agreeable
or pleasant or finely differentiated, as in a nice distinction.
But we also use it just to be agreeable to someone we dont want
to offend. Suppose a friend were to show me a drawing his kid made at
school and suppose hes proud of it even though its just
a typical kids drawing. Id say, Oh, thats nice!
And the friend would be satisfied."
Kaja scowled. "Then its a strange sort of satisfaction if
your friend enjoys meaningless praise. Hyggelig is not like that. It
doesnt mean empty-headed or insincere.
Youre missing the essence."
"And youre not being very hyggelig," I shot back. And
that was the end of that discussion.
Partly because of the difficulty of translation, I got more interested
in hyggelig, both in its own right as a word and what it stood for.
I started with its etymology. I was trained to read Old Norse, the distant
ancestor of Danish, as part of my graduate studies, and so I had a good
idea where to look. The literary records of Old Norse are extensive
and go back a thousand years. Moreover, Scandinavian scholars have long
loved the old language; there are scads of dictionaries and commentaries.
The materials for research were ready to hand.
Old Norse, it turned out, had three relevant words, hyggja (to believe,
intend, "have a mind to"), hugan (care, concern), and huggan
(comfort, consolation). The first was probably the oldest word and the
second two derived from it (denomination by i-umlaut, whispered the
spirit of my Old Norse teacher in my minds ear). It seemed to
me that here was the seed of the "cozy" mentality. The constellation
of meanings suggests that from early on the Norse devoted a fair amount
of their attention to comfort, as well they might in the rugged northern
climate. The sagas are full of the comforts of the mead hall, long house,
and central household fireplace, while the weather rages outside. Even
Egil Skala-Grímsson, one of the toughest hombres in all of literature,
liked to while away his evenings snug inside with a horn of ale at hand.
Hospitality underlay social behavior so deeply as to seem almost absurd
to us now. Under some circumstances, a chieftain or prominent landowner
was required by custom to entertain his enemy, and to do it in style.
Huggan gave me an idea. Sure enough, Websters verified it. Hug
descends from the Old Norse word, coming into English sometime late
in the first millennium. I took all this research to Kaja.
"So, instead of nice," I proposed, concerning hyggelig, "maybe
something like huggy is the right translation."
"Huggy?" she laughed. "There is no such word. You Americans
and all your huggingit has bent your minds. When you greet each
other, it looks as if youre wrestling."
But, I countered, hug is related to huggan, just as hyggelig surely
"You know, Roger," she replied. "We Danes are not modernized
Vikings." She was no longer amused.
So, strike hug from the set of meanings that hyggelig can signify. When
Danes hug, thats not hyggelig. Nevertheless, Danes are welcoming,
accommodating, and that is hyggelig. I quickly and happily acquired
plenty of evidence of this. People were friendly to me even when it
grew obvious they were skeptical of Americans. Danes loved long, chatty
parties, formal or informal. I was often invited to lunch or dinner,
even on slight acquaintance, and in the case of dinner it was expected
that I would stay until midnight. On one occasion we talked through
the night and into the pre-dawn, then walked to a nearby bakery and
knocked on the door until the baker opened up and sold us some rolls.
It was a tradition, quite hyggelig.
On a larger scale, Denmark earned renown (and a good deal of resentment)
in Europe for its openhanded welcome to political refugees, particularly
those from the Middle East. This of course was not hyggelig, strictly
speaking, but can be regarded as an extension of it and certainly part
of the national mentality. My academic advisor at the University of
Copenhagen helped the Red Cross introduce refugees into Danish society
and receive government support. Through him I learned how the system
worked. Although there was opposition to the influx, in general the
Danes and their government were generous, accommodating.
But there was opposition. This was also part of the national mentality,
perhaps an entailed antithesis, the reverse side of the same coin. It
was a conservative backlash powerful enough that the "refugee problem"
was becoming a hot political topic. Because of it, many refugees may
well have found Denmark not hyggelig at all. There were assaults on
themfew and scattered, but they happenedand one murder while
I was there. I witnessed two incidents, on commuter trains, when Middle
Easterners were shouted at and told they werent welcome. In both
cases, the shouting Danes were young men. Although the economy was by
no means in desperate straits in the mid-eighties, there was a recession,
and unemployment was high among the young or unskilled. Resentment focussed
on foreigners who were supported with Danes taxes and held jobs
that Danes might fill. That aside, some Danes just did not want people
of other races to come in large numbers and muddy the look and manner
of Danish culture. I saw, as graffiti, the slogan "Danmark for
danskere" surrounded by swastikas: Denmark for Danesa tightly
restricted hyggelig indeed.
Sinister, certainly, and sometimes absurdly so. A fellow Fulbrighter
in Copenhagen, Stephen Emanuel, experienced this angry chauvinism up
close and ugly. He was a most unlikely victim of anti-refugee sentiment.
Stephen was from Boston, a scholar of the philosopher Kirkegaard, mild
mannered and charming. He had married a Dane from a prominent Helsingør
family and spoke fluent Danish. But he was also slender and had dark
features and black hair. That was enough to make him suspect, apparently.
He was threatened with a beating more than once because he looked Iranian.
On one occasion, while walking toward the main train station in central
Copenhagen, he found himself followed by a small gang of young men.
They stared at him brazenly and pointed. They called Iranians filthy
names in English and made sure he overheard. They drew closer and closer
to him until he suspected they were working up courage to attack him.
So he turned on them and asked, in unmistakably American English, what
they thought they were up to. They knew Americans and American pronunciation
from television and movies, and, generally, conservative Danes liked
American culture. Their error was obvious as soon as Stephen spoke.
They were crestfallen, sullenly apologetic. They left quickly.
A single incident, but a telling one. There was hardly anything original
about it. Anti-immigrant and anti-guest worker sentiments were common
in Western Europe (and America) and fueled the growing power of right
wing political parties. But there was just a touch of the hyggelig in
how quickly the anger of the young men toward Stephen was extinguished
when they recognized their mistake. They reverted to the Danish proclivity
for keeping things comfortablethe sort of social default setting
that constitutes a cultural norm, a feature of mentality. (It should
be noted that the young men were not "nice" in that they made
no effort to assume a façade of friendliness before they left.)
Hyggelig was also not showy. The Danes were perfectly capable of vivid
displays of high spirits when they wanted, as they did when the national
soccer team did well, but displays of wealth and luxury, American style,
irked them. The clearest example in this regard during my Danish year
came thanks to the actor Sylvester Stallone. He had become a star because
of the Rambo series of military action adventures and the movies about
a boxer named Rocky. Rambo was most definitely not hyggelig, and I think
that Danes were bemused by Rockys underdog-becomes-champ formula.
But thats neither here nor there. During the filming of Rock IV,
Stallone and a Danish actress in it, Brigitte Nielsen, became an item.
They married. I think there was some pride in Denmark that a Nielsen
turned into a Hollywood celebrity, but when the couple visited Copenhagen,
they made a bad impression. Stallone arrived in a private jet, strolled
about in a long white fur coat, and behaved too lavishly cool for words;
Nielsen, who is bosomy, dressed to show her bosom in the most light,
while at the same time looking razor-sharp because of her close haircut
and stiletto heels. Definitely flashy, both of them. The press made
fun of them. The public reception, including Kajas, was unfriendly.
Hollywood doesnt fit in Denmark.
"This little country of ours"the impulse toward insularity
was part of the same mentality as hyggelig. Denmark was a cozy country,
a little bit out of the way of things (not just set apart from the German-French-English
centers of power but also off the main Soviet route of march into Europe,
should war come). And Danes liked it that way. They were cosmopolitan,
widely traveled, famed as manufacturers and artisans, polyglots, and
often leading members of international NGOs, but they resisted anything
that might make inroads on their insularity. The fierceness of their
reaction to a perceived threat could be comical to me, an outsider.
Take beer, for instance. Danes lived by their Carlsberg and Tuborg.
They tolerated some Swedish and German beers, and British stouts. But
as for American beer, why, it was an insult to them. The proprietor
of a liquor store, learning I was American, told me, "Ive
tried your American beers. Theyre like drinking piss." (When
I asked him how he knew that, he glowered and gave me a six pack of
German DAB for free, a gesture that still puzzles me.)
Early in 1986 Budweiser won the right to export this epitome of American
beers in large volume to Denmark. The public was outraged, including
Kaja. The daily newspapers actually ran front page, above-the-fold headlines
about it. Editorials thundered that thin, cheap, sour American beers
would spoil the market in Denmark. I sipped my Carlsberg Elephant Ale
and followed the commotion with great complacency.
But insularity does not fare well in the modern world, a fact Danes
were loath to accept. Again and again political leaders, keen for commerce,
asked the country to join the European Union (EU). Popular and political
resistance to the idea was for a long time firm and general. Finally,
in 1972, a popular Social Democrat prime minister, Jens Otto Krag, hammered
home the message. He wasnt so much interested in trade or security.
He simply recognized that Denmark had to join eventually, or be turned
into a stagnant pond in European affairs. It was inevitable. The EU
was too big and Denmark too small to ignore it. So Denmark was better
off joining sooner than later. He campaigned for membership long and
hard. The parliament held a national referendum, and so controversial
was the membership question that more than 90 percent of voters participated.
Krag succeededthe referendum was approved by a 63 percent majoritybut
he had to resign as prime minister the next day. His crusade had split
the Social Democrats into two hostile factions. His political career
was over. (A decade or so later Denmark was still troublesome about
the EU, rejecting the Maastricht Treaty in the initial referendum.)
It is a story of political daring and a Pyrrhic victory, the fate of
a man who fosters a future that strips him of power. And Denmark, in
becoming part of a larger economic and political entity, lost something
of "this little country of ours."
It grew wealthier, more connected, more easily accessible, more influential
internationallya lot of "mores"and there is nothing
rotten about any of that. But Denmark can no longer be hyggelig in the
old way. As for Hamlet, instead of Marcellus' famous one-liner, maybe
its opening two words are more to the point about the Denmark of the
EU: "Whos there?"
Roger Smith Jan
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