The Land of the Midnight Sun

OK, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. Denmark is not the land of the midnight sun. That title belongs only to places above the Arctic Circle where the sun actually does not set at night.

BUT… Denmark is getting pretty close. This coming Saturday, the 21st, is the longest day of the year, Midsummer’s Day aka the summer solstice. And on that day, the sun will rise at 4:30am and set at 10:15pm, giving us a total of almost 18 hours of sunlight.

Which is pretty awesome if you think about it. But also maybe not so awesome? Because it wreaks havoc with my sleep schedule. At first I thought it was because it stays light so late, so it makes turning your brain off and actually falling asleep more difficult.

I mean, just look at what 10pm looks like in Aarhus!

10pm Sky in Aarhus

10pm Sky in Aarhus

 

It’s like it gets to 3pm, and it just never gets any darker than that. And even when the sun does finally set, the twilight lingers until well after 11pm. And it’s bright enough that I don’t need any lights if I have to get up to make my way to the bathroom.

But I’ve recently decided that the really hard part is the early morning sun. I keep waking up at 5:00 in the morning and thinking it’s well past 8:00, then finding it difficult to go back to sleep. It’s crazy bananas.

Luckily, I’ve dug out a sleeping mask we bought for long plane trips and have been wearing that to bed. Otherwise, I don’t think I’d be able to get any sleep at all as I’m a fairly light sleeper.

This is what I'm like to the sun in the morning.

I’m not the best morning person.

We’re trying to decide what we should do to mark the occasion of midsummer night. We may try to stay up all night and see the sun rise, but we’ll see if we actually do it in the end. I never was one for all nighters.

The Danes actually celebrate the occasion on June 23rd, what they call Sankthans (their version of the Catholic holiday St. John’s Day, celebrating the birth of St. John the Baptist). And they mark this holiday with huge bonfires over which effigies of witches are burned. I’m not even kidding. Actually, they burn them to send them off to Germany, where, clearly, all the evil witches belong.

We’ll definitely try to track down some of the bonfires and see how the Danes celebrate this holiday. If you’re in Aarhus for the occasion, you can check this calendar to find some bonfires near you.

Summer’s Almost Here!

Finally we’re seeing some sun in Denmark. We were in Copenhagen last week and had beautiful weather the whole time, which is a first. Usually it rains nonstop every time we’re there. Though it’s a little cooler and cloudier here in Aarhus, I can finally glimpse summer around the corner. So in honor of the coming summer, I thought I’d make a little list of what this turning of the seasons means for someone like me living in Denmark:

  1. Light! June 21st is the longest day of the year, and every day we get closer to that date we’re seeing longer and longer nights. We get almost 3 minutes more sunlight every day, to be exact. Tonight, the sun isn’t supposed to set until 9:47pm, and the twilight lingers until 10:30 or so. After a dark winter and gloomy spring, this extra light is very much appreciated.

    A picture of Marselisborg Lystbådehavn.

    A picture of Marselisborg Lystbådehavn at sunset. This was taken at about 9:40pm over the weekend.

  2. Parties in the park. The sun is so much appreciated that the minute work is over people flood the parks of Denmark to hang out in the sun. I’m in no way exaggerating. It looks like people waiting for the fireworks to start on the 4th of July. In Copenhagen we stayed near the King’s Garden by Rosenborg, and at 2pm people started trickling in. By 5pm, the park was PACKED. Of course, we were right there along with everyone, enjoying our pizza al fresco.Partying in the Park

    Mmm, pizza.

    Who puts salad on a pizza?! 

  3. Late night walks. Because of the light nights, we’ve started taking more walks after dinner, even as late as 9pm, while the sun is setting. It’s really fantastic.Sunset Walk
  4. Sunglasses. (Is this really the fourth item on the list that has to do with the increased sunlight? Why yes, yes it is. It really is that important.) I don’t know if this is just me, but I swear the sunlight here is stronger or brighter or something. I noticed this when we first arrived last summer, too. As a result, if I go outside for a few hours without my sunglasses, I’m guaranteed to get a headache. So now my sunglasses, which I never used to wear in the US, go on as soon as I leave the house. It has the added benefit of making me look really cool.

    Yep, super cool.

    Yep, super cool.

  5. Flowers. They enjoy the sun, too, and they are everywhere right about now and soooo pretty.IMG_1961
  6. Strawberries. The coming summer means that we’re starting to see more variety in the produce at the grocery store. I actually saw whole pineapples the other day! (And bought one immediately.) And bing cherries. Those are my favorite. I can’t wait until later in the season when they arrive really ripe. But the one most important fruit for a Danish summer is the Danish strawberry. They’re really big on strawberries around here, and I have to say that I don’t blame them. I bought this batch just the other day, and they are without a doubt some of the best strawberries I’ve ever eaten. Yum!The Delicious Berry
  7. Softis. It’s like someone took your everyday soft serve ice cream, stirred in a healthy portion of whipped cream, and served it to you on a cone. It’s the traditional Danish ice cream and a special summer treat. And it’s delicious.  But the Danes love ice cream of any kind, and the minute it is even a little warm and sunny outside you’ll see people lined up out the door to get some. The only kind of ice cream I’ve had trouble finding here is the harder kind that’s more typical in the US. We’ve pretty much had to buy some (veeeery expensive) Ben & Jerry’s cartons at the store if we’re craving that texture. But it’s not really necessary because the soft ice cream (resembling gilato) that is all over in Aarhus is really yummy.
    Nom nom nom. The strawberry swirl is our favorite flavor.

    Nom nom nom. The strawberry swirl is our favorite flavor.

     

So that, so far, is what late spring/early summer in Denmark means for us. Hopefully soon we’ll get to try some other Danish summer traditions like grilling outside and visiting the West coast for a dip in the ocean. But we’re pretty happy with what we’ve got so far.

A Little Statistic for You, or, Danish Independence

I feel like I’ve been running out of things to post over here in Denmark. Perhaps you’ve noticed by my lack of posts recently. I feel like I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve learned and experienced most of the big differences between my culture and Danish culture (and those differences aren’t really that big to begin with). And I guess I haven’t been able to make the jump to more personal topics yet. So, until I can figure out what I’m going to write about next, I thought I’d bring you the first in a few interesting statistical differences between Denmark and the US that I’ve run into lately.

Today’s statistic is about young people living with their parents. If you’re American, you’ve no doubt heard of the boomerang generation, those 20 somethings that are graduating college, having trouble finding a job, and moving back in with mom and dad. Maybe you’re part of that generation. I know I am. I lived with my parents for a few months after college while we figured out if Brian was going to get a job outside of St. Louis and just what exactly was going to happen next. We also moved back – at the ripe old age of 28 – right before moving overseas. We had to live somewhere after our house sold!

I ran across a story in metroxpress, the free daily newspaper here in Aarhus, that was talking about this phenomenon. I was quite intrigued that this trend may also be happening in Denmark. Until, that is, I looked at the table included with the article. I’ve reproduced it here, so you can get the full experience:

Young People Living with Their Parents

Yep. Denmark’s experiencing a huge wave of young people moving home… (May I also just mention that that is 1.8% of a population of 5.59 million.) So, yeah, the difference between Denmark and the US is HUGE.

I find this statistic so interesting because it points to big cultural differences between the countries listed in the table. Some of those with high percentages are going through serious economic trouble right now, but some of them are countries where it’s culturally acceptable and indeed normal to live with your parents well into adulthood.

In Denmark, the very low percentage points to two things. One, their economy has remained relatively stable throughout this recent global recession. However, it’s widely accepted that it’s difficult right now to find a job and that it’s something that may take a few months. So what else could account for this low percentage? I think it’s probably the importance of independence in Danish culture.

In Denmark, children often go to daycare as young as 6 months. A stay-at-home mom isn’t really a thing here, at least not past her one year of maternity leave. So from an early age, kids are learning independence from their parents. By the time they’re 10 (or maybe even younger), kids are getting themselves home from school, taking the bus all around town by themselves. And it is not unusual in Denmark for young people to move out on their own as young as 16, though probably a more common age is 17 or 18 when they are starting university. And we’ve been told that once one does move out one doesn’t expect much help from the parents. You’re basically on your own. (However, this is belied a little bit by the fact that many parents purchase city apartments for their children to live in while they attend university. Since they don’t have to pay tuition for the education, they buy the apartment instead.)

The US does have that whole “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” thing, but it also is lacking many of the social systems that Denmark has to help these kids after they graduate from college and can’t find a job, or to help you and your family if the main breadwinner looses their job, etc. In the US, many times people have no options but to move back home.

Ah statistics. So illuminating. So nerdy.

(By the way, is anyone else surprised by Germany’s relatively high stat of 17.3%? I wonder what’s going on there…)

The Danes and Fitness, or Exercising in Denmark

The Danes are super into fitness. Super super super. One of the dialogues in my Danish language workbook claims that Denmark is the runningest country in the world. As in, a higher percentage of people run in Denmark than in any other country. And you can tell. A few weeks ago, after the gloomiest January in 24 years, we finally had a weekend of sunlight. And this is what happened:

The Pack Run!

Everyone came out of their winter hidey holes to run. Apparently in packs.

Not that the Danes don’t run when it’s rainy, snowy, and dark because they definitely do. They run always, no matter what.

And if they’re not running, they’re biking to work (which isn’t considered actual exercise as you’re merely biking to get where you’re going) or playing some sort of group sport. Because group sports are also big here. The second question a Dane will ask you after what do you do for a job (Hvad laver du?) is what sports do you do (Hvad går du til?).

So, of course, I have had to hide my general laziness these last few months.

cupcake

And I have had to hide the fact that I hate running.

There, I’ve said it. I’ve finally admitted it. I HATE RUNNING! It’s boring and tiring and ugh… it kills my soul a little bit every time I try.

Now that being said, we have been desperate to find some form of physical activity to do lately since the Danes don’t seem to be very health conscious in terms of diet and all we’ve been eating is meat and potatoes and pastries and desserts and…. yummmm…. Really though, if you go to the grocery store it’s hard to find many of the “fat free” and “sugar free” options you see in the US. I, for one, am kind of excited about that, since most of those options are overly processed and full of gross fake sugar anyway. But it does indicate that the Danes don’t seem to worry too much about their diet. (As does the ritual Friday afternoon binge on gummy candy. A topic for another post.)

Why don’t they worry about their diet? Because they can! Because they bike to and from work, run every Saturday morning, and play handball twice a week.

The assumption that everyone does some sport is so huge that when Brian’s coworkers found out he wasn’t running they practically bullied him into signing up for a series of 5k runs over the next few months. As a result, last weekend Brian and I found ourselves in a Danish fitness center, signing up for new gym memberships. My time of laziness has come to and eng.

But I have to say, I’m so glad to be back in the gym. I had forgotten how much I love lifting weights. It gives you such a confidence boost. I’d been taking long walks and doing yoga – both of which I love for other reasons – but they’re just not the same as sweating it out in the gym.

So now I can say, with confidence, “Jeg går til fitness,” instead of lying about how I “go” to yoga when really I just follow along to a YouTube video in my house a couple times a week.

Rawr!!

Rawr!!

The Steamier Side of the Julefrokost Party

I’ve only been to one corporate julefrokost – you can read about it in my last post – and that one was lively and convivial and fun. But I have hear rumors of a different side to the julefrokost, a darker side. Some people have told me, half joking, half serious, that most of Denmark’s divorces – and there’s many of them in a country with an almost 50% divorce rate – happen around and after Christmas time because of what goes down at the corporate Christmas parties.

The article “Sex, Schnaps and Shakin’ Stevens: the Danish office party” by Helen Russell from the Telegraph – first brought to my attention by my friends over at Heather + Thomas – tells it all and is definitely worth a quick read. A snippet:

Four hours in and I’m ready for a lie down, but the party’s just getting started. Wine flows and my fellow diners’ inner Vikings seem to emerge. Faces are flushed and lips, blackened with red wine, move animatedly. Hotel room cards seem to be being passed around and hands rest on places they shouldn’t – the smalls of backs and bottoms of colleagues they’ll presumably have to face on Monday morning in the cold semi-light of day.

How to Survive the Danish Work Christmas Party

julefrokost

Last Friday I went to my first Danish work Christmas party, or julefrokost. It was quite an event and a lot of fun, but it’s a very Danish tradition that might take you a bit by surprise if you’re not expecting some of its particular elements.

The big Danish Christmas tradition is to open presents on the evening of the 24th and then to spend all of the 25th and 26th traveling to the houses of family and friends and partaking of this grand feast called the julefrokost, or Christmas lunch. The Danes adapt this all day eating extravaganza into parties for friends and work colleagues throughout the month of December. You may have heard that Danes are reserved and difficult to get to know. While this can be true if you’re the kind of person who likes to party at the last minute, if you’re willing to plan ahead you’ll find that the Danes are actually quite into socializing, just in very specific and sanctioned ways like in a club or in these very planned and themed parties through work.

So as a non-Dane in the land of hygge and snaps, how do you survive such a very Danish socializing tradition as the julefrokost?

  1. Dress appropriately. Sure, it may take place at work and immediately after your working day, but the julefrokost is a special event and fancy dress is required. Most people will have brought a change of clothes (and the women will have brought high heels and extra makeup). Also, if there is a theme (like Scary Christmas, the theme at the one I attended last Friday) people will dress according to theme, so you may want to join in on the fun. Or maybe consider wearing an “elf hat” (essentially a Santa hat) because many of your coworkers and even your boss will probably wear one.
  2. Follow the invitation to the letter. If it says to bring a present no more than 30 kroner, do so. It’s for a game. If it says to bring your own drinks, do so, or you won’t have anything to drink at the party. And above all, arrive on time! The Danes are very punctual and will be a bit miffed if you arrive 30 minutes late.
  3. Speaking of which, spouses aren’t invited. This is a bit unusual to many people from other cultures, so it’s important to note. They didn’t mention asking your spouse to come because spouses are not invited to the Danish work parties. The party is about colleagues socializing and bonding not about meeting each others’ families. Don’t take this personally, it’s just the way it’s done. There will be other social functions that your spouse can attend. (Plus, they probably assumed that your spouse has a julefrokost of their own to attend since everyone works in Denmark. Plus, someone has to stay home and watch the kids while you’re out till 2 a.m. See number 5 below for more details on that.)
  4. Sit where you’re told. Your place at a table will have been decided for you, either by a game (which is what happened to me) or by a seating chart. It’s very likely that you’ll be sitting next to strangers or colleagues from a different department. This is on purpose. It’s so you can socialize and get to know each other. Take advantage of the opportunity to meet someone knew, and say hi to your other friends later after dinner is over and the rules about getting up from the table are a little more relaxed.
  5. Settle in and be patient. The Danish julefrokost is a multi hour event. Many of them go until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning! I left mine at 11:30pm, and I was in the first wave of people leaving. Just sit back and enjoy the experience. The Danes are very into the experience of dinner and entertaining.
  6. Do not leave before it’s appropriate. Unless you have a really good excuse, I get the feeling that it’s rude to leave too early. Stay at least through dessert and all the games. Which means, you should be prepared to stay until at least midnight. That’s when all the guests with kids – and Americans who are not used to staying up so late! – tend to leave.
  7. Be prepared to eat. Seriously. A lot. Maybe go on a fast earlier in the day because you will need all of the room in your tummy. The traditional julefrokost is many courses. The first is always fish, usually in a form that allows you to make the traditional Danish open face sandwiches (smørrebrød), including shrimp salad, tuna mousse, curried herring, pickled herring, some other kind of herring, or smoked salmon. This is followed by some meat courses, usually including traditional Danish meatballs (frikadeller), sausage, duck or goose, and of course roast pork with cracklings (flæskesteg). The sides are typically caramelized small potatoes (brune kartofler), warm red cabbage salad (rødkål), pickled vegetables, and more potatoes. Dessert is usually the traditional rice pudding with cherry sauce (risalamande med kirsebærsovs). Yum!
  8. Be prepared to drink. Each course is served with aquavit, the Danish snaps, in addition to the free flowing wine and beer that are typical of a Danish party. The Danes love a good excuse to drink, and I have found that they are actually quite convivial social drinkers. So I would encourage you to partake of this part of the tradition as much as you’re comfortable with. First, it will help you to participate fully in the experience. Second, it sure does make those hours fly by.
  9. Warm up your singing voice before hand. You will be singing Christmas carols. Probably many of them. We sang 4 or 5 at my party, and it was a lot of fun. The Danes love singing songs together, and do so every chance they get. Don’t worry about not knowing the words, though. They always pass around the lyrics. And there’s usually at least 5 verses, so you’ll get the tune down by the end of the song.
  10. Pakkeleg will be the funnest game you have ever played, and you’ll want to use it in all your future parties. I loved this part of the party. Pakkeleg means “package game.” Every guest is asked to bring a cheap gift to the party. Then at some point, dice are passed around to each table. The guests all take turns rolling the dice, and whenever you roll a 6 you get to take a present from the pile. When all the presents are taken, the real fun begins. For the next 5 minutes, every time you roll a 6 you get to steal any present in the room. When the 5 minutes are up, the game is over and you win all the presents in your possession. Imagine playing this with 30 drunk and rowdy party guests. It’s pandemonium.

So that is what to expect at a Danish julefrokost, especially one held at your work. It’s typically Danish and quite an experience. But I’ve become quite fond of many of the Danish Christmas traditions, and this is one of the best.

Our First Snow

This past Thursday, a second “hurricane force storm” hit Denmark, shutting down traffic and generally disrupting lives. It was named Bodil, and it has its very own Wikipedia page.

While some say – and I would agree, probably because I come from the land of freakishly strong and bipolar weather, the midwest of the US – that the media is way over hyping these winter storms, there was some flooding and some damage caused by the truly strong wind gusts. And it seems that the storm resulted in 7 deaths in Northern Europe, 1 of which was in Denmark. And I will admit that the sound of the wind was pretty crazy to hear as we hid out in our apartment Thursday evening. I don’t think I’ve ever really heard wind that loud or strong before.

But the good part was that right at the end of the storm, Denmark got its very first snow:

It's snowing!

It’s snowing!

I am one of those people who really like snow. I love how peaceful it makes the world look and feel. So the next morning, I grabbed my camera and went out for a walk to document our first snowfall here in Denmark. It’s not that impressive as far as inches (um… centimeters… ahem), but it was still really pretty. (It’s already all gone, boo!)

I’m already hoping for more snow here in Denmark. But I just learned the other day – thanks to the International Community organization here in Aarhus – that there is a very specific rule for when you can declare it a white Christmas (or hvid jul) in Denmark: more than 90% of the country has to be covered in snow on the morning of the 24th (since that’s the day when the Danes open all their presents), and the snow must be at least 1/2 cm deep. Go figure!

So fingers crossed for a hvid jul!

Christmas has Come to Denmark!

This past weekend was the official beginning of Christmas in Aarhus. Santa (or as they call him here, Julemanden, literally “the Christmas man”) came down from his home in Greenland to visit Aarhus on Friday evening. He arrived on a boat in the harbor and lead a parade – in a snow white Cadillac no less – through the city to Stroget, the pedestrian street. There, he stopped to light the Christmas lights hanging above the shops.

Christmas Lights

He then continued along the parade route, ending up in the square in front of the city hall. There, the mayor and Santa lit the giant Christmas tree while all the children cheered and everyone around us sang Danish Christmas carols.

Santa in his cadillac, the tree all lit up, and the gazillions of people who came out to greet Santa.

Santa in his cadillac, the tree all lit up, and the gazillions of people who came out to greet Santa.

{Singing is really big here in Denmark. Danes have a song for every special occasion. We went to a Halloween dinner party once for Brian’s work, and everyone was handed lyrics for a Halloween themed song that we then all sang together later in the night. On Christmas Eve, the tradition is to light the candles on the tree and then join hands around it while singing Christmas carols. So it was no surprise to me that everyone burst into the same song after the tree was lit on Friday.}

So now that December has started, Christmas is in full swing in Denmark, and they go crazy for Christmas here. I think it has to do with all the dark. Christmas gives you a really really good excuse for extra hygge. So far, it’s one of my favorite things about Denmark. I am a Christmas nut, so it’s super exciting for me.

The Danes have some very specific Christmas traditions, many of which we are adopting to give some more holiday cheer to our first Christmas away from our families. Saturday night, we went to one of Brian’s coworker’s homes for a Danish Christmas dinner, and they taught us how to make some of the traditional Danish Christmas decorations. {Have I talked yet about how Danes seem to make everything by hand? Home repairs, dinner parties, holiday decorations. Whatever it is, the Danes like to do it themselves.}

The first big one is the advent wreath.  Traditionally, you make one yourself with pine boughs, pine cones, moss, anything Christmasy. Then you insert four candles, one for each of the advents, or the four Sundays before Christmas. We came home and quickly put a wreath together using a store bought wreath (shame on us!) and some candles we had in the house. Then we promptly lit it because yesterday was the first Sunday in December.

Our advent wreath with the first candle lit.

Our advent wreath with the first candle lit.

They also have these calendar candles that you light every night in December leading up to Christmas. We’ve had this one for a month, just waiting to be lit.

Our giant Christmas countdown candle. (Sorry the picture is awful.)

Our giant Christmas countdown candle. (Sorry the picture is awful.)

Another big traditional Danish Christmas decoration are these paper hearts that you weave together out of different colored paper. They’ve been making them forever. The oldest known heart is one made by Hans Christian Anderson, but the Danes are in agreement that people had been making them well before then. So we learned how to make those and have a couple up in our house now along with these really complicated origami paper stars that are apparently also somewhat traditional because you can buy materials and how to guides at many stores.

Danish paper hearts and stars.

Danish paper hearts and stars.

We’re planning on making lots more because we didn’t bring any ornaments with us to decorate our tree with!

Here are a couple of videos we took of Santa lighting the Christmas lights last Friday, in case you want to experience it first hand. It was pretty neat, especially since it felt like all of Aarhus turned out to see it happen.

And here’s a much better quality video of Santa in previous years. It’s in Danish, but it’s still pretty cool to watch since you get to see Santa in his boat and everything. It’s an advertisement to let everyone known when Santa was coming this year.

By the way, I haven’t been able to figure out why Julemanden carries around a big wood spoon. Can any of my Danish readers tell me? He definitely used it to help him light the tree. Is it like a magical staff?