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The International Writers Magazine
- Hacktreks in Denmark

"Something is rotten in the state of Denmark."
Roger Smith on an impossible word

Even people who haven’t read Hamlet beyond the first line are likely to know this sentence. That’s my experience, at least. It sounds like something Hamlet or his father the ghost ought to say, but it isn’t 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 come—insanity, murder, betrayal, unrequited love, suicide, regicide, and national defeat. Yet as far as Denmark’s 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 do.

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 Winter’s 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 they’re 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 you’re going to say that something is rotten in the state of Denmark," she said.
Maybe I was, maybe I wasn’t, 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 misunderstood—even confused with that of Sweden or Norway or lumped together with them as "Scandinavian."

What 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 family’s 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 it’s 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, hyggelig—it’s hyggelig this, hyggelig that. Everything’s hyggelig to us Danes."

My Danish instructor said something similar. "It’s a matter of mentality," he told me, "You can’t really give it an English equivalent because the English, or you Americans, don’t 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 that’s 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. That’s 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 don’t want to offend. Suppose a friend were to show me a drawing his kid made at school and suppose he’s proud of it even though it’s just a typical kid’s drawing. I’d say, ‘Oh, that’s nice!’ And the friend would be satisfied."
Kaja scowled. "Then it’s a strange sort of satisfaction if your friend enjoys meaningless praise. Hyggelig is not like that. It doesn’t mean ‘empty-headed’ or ‘insincere.’ You’re missing the essence."
"And you’re 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 mind’s 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, Webster’s 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 hugging—it has bent your minds. When you greet each other, it looks as if you’re wrestling."
But, I countered, hug is related to huggan, just as hyggelig surely is.
"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, that’s 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 them—few and scattered, but they happened—and one murder while I was there. I witnessed two incidents, on commuter trains, when Middle Easterners were shouted at and told they weren’t 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 Danes—a 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 comfortable—the 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 Rocky’s underdog-becomes-champ formula. But that’s 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 Kaja’s, was unfriendly. Hollywood doesn’t 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, "I’ve tried your American beers. They’re 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 wasn’t 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 succeeded—the referendum was approved by a 63 percent majority—but 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 internationally—a 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: "Who’s there?"

© Roger Smith Jan 2004
Hacktreks World Journeys


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