We landed in Copenhagen very late into the evening. We were delayed after an already late flight and while driving into a dark and empty city, we had no idea what to expect. Our taxi driver had trouble finding our apartment and as we wandered down one empty street to the next, we encountered people approachable and eager to help us find our destination. With some guidance from random passers by, we eventually found where we would be staying and settled in for the night. We were eager to see what the city had to offer us during the day since even in the late hours of the evening, the people seemed open and friendly.
We woke up in the late morning and met our Airbnb host, he was incredibly kind and gracious. You could immediately sense that he wanted to help us enjoy our brief time in the city without any motives aside from generosity and empathy. With a few suggestions of city highlights we left the apartment excited for the day that would follow.
Denmark is a very small country with a population just under 6 million. It maintains its own cultural identity but has very close ties to its Nordic neighbors Sweden and Norway. It is known for its liberal social and economic policies, widely known as the welfare state concept of government. This philosophy is one in which the state plays a key role in the protection and promotion of the social and economic wellbeing of its citizens. In Denmark not only is healthcare fully paid for by the government, but world class education is also funded by the government from kindergarten all the way through to the university level. Living wages are enforced as well, and all gainfully employed Danes have enough money from their salary to live a comfortable life complete with plenty of state mandated holidays, maternity leave, and a robust social security system for retirees. This system can be described as a middle of the road between socialism and capitalism and the tax rate paid here is one of the highest in the world. Not to get too deeply involved with a commentary on political ideology, this system looked to serve the people of Denmark incredibly well. Throughout our trip, we saw little to no obvious poverty, the people seemed incredibly happy and enjoyed a work/life balance. We were in Copenhagen in the middle of the week and the cafes and bars were packed in the daytime and it seemed like half of the city was out strolling the town with family and loved ones. It was in stark contrast to the impression you would get in an average American city during the week – the population absorbed with their work or the daily travails of their lives, only looking to the weekend to provide temporary solace to the unrelenting daily grind.
Copenhagen is the capital and largest city in Denmark and has a population of just under 800,000 people and a general metropolitan area of 1.3 million. It is a city on the water. Waterways criss-cross the city and boats of all shapes and sizes glide through town. It is a pleasant shock to see people on the water in their boats right in the middle of town – an unnatural site for Arizonans. Originally founded as a Viking fishing village in the 10th century, Copenhagen rose to great prominence in the 17th century only to suffer a major fire that all but destroyed the city. The Copenhagen that we know today is an artful expression of 19th century architecture and the streets are lined with row after row of colorful low-rise apartments and shops.
I was immediately taken aback with how many bikes I saw on the road. On every street, people of all ages whizzed by, pedaling on in a never-ending array of style, color and vintage- outnumbering the cars on the road. This was a city of bikes. Every street had specific bicycle lanes and traffic lights – you had to keep a watchful eye where you were walking so as not to get hit by a cyclist going by. I was utterly jealous of the freedom this unceasing stream of bikers had in their daily lives. Always outside and enjoying the city, they kept their connection to their surroundings close at hand in a way that a car could never claim to. The people looked to be very fit and active while still not shy to have a drink or two at one of the many eateries along our walking path. To see an entire city built around the reality and culture of biking from place to place really showed me a lifestyle we could all hope for.
We spent our time walking the colorful streets, crossing the many bridges, and viewing the islands that make up the city as we struggled to make sense of this completely foreign and almost utopian society. I will mention though that it was incredibly expensive – probably the most expensive city I have ever been in my life, the high wages of the average worker is offset by high priced goods and services. Although the citizens of Denmark receive a fair wage and benefit from other cost offsetting social structures like free healthcare, education, and low cost housing – a visitor just doesn’t receive the same benefits to outweigh the costs. The food was incredibly good and the city had a charm we did not get nearly enough of. On the third day, we boarded a bus and set out for Aarhus.
Aarhus is Denmark’s second largest city at just under 350,000 in population. It sits at the geographical center of Denmark and is a much more laid back and quaint city than Copenhagen. We were greeted by our Airbnb host who again was deeply kind and generous with her time and advice for our days there. We visited the Aros art museum and had quite the experience walking through their interactive art installation. Sitting atop the museum at least seven stories high, was a multicolored glass paned circular hallway. One end was connected to the other in a continuous wheel and as you walked through in a never ending loop, every color of the rainbow transitioned before your eyes. One color giving way to the other, you immediately sensed how color affects perception and how important differing perspectives are in shaping one’s reality. Offering an amazing vantage point of the city, the art installation was unique and unforgettable.
Later on in our first full day in Aarhus we met up with our Airbnb host for a few drinks at a local tavern. We learned more about her life and we shared a few good laughs and stories. She was incredibly well traveled and had extensively traveled in the US. She was off that weekend to spend time in a country home with her boyfriend and some friends and gave us some more insight into the political and social system of the country. We later enjoyed a great dinner at a nearby French restaurant and reflected on how easy life would be in Aarhus. A manageable sized city full of friendly people, beautiful architecture, and good food, it was a city worth coming back to for further exploration. Unfortunately, we had a flight to catch to Oslo and our time in Aarhus was short but sweet.
Denmark left a lasting impression on Mandy and I. Possibly due to its population and small geographical area, it is a living example of how a social democracy can work to benefit its people. The Danes seem incredibly healthy and happy and the demeanor of the people and the society as a whole is one we can all strive for. In thinking about the country, I can’t help thinking about the residents of Copenhagen biking as their primary mode of transportation. I think it is a statement unto the society itself. A bike gets you where you need to go efficiently but without sacrificing the enjoyment of the ride and the connection to the world around you- the open air. You don’t rush to where you need to go like a car, but you also get where you need to be faster than walking. It requires some physical effort but isn’t overly demanding like running – a healthy body and mind is needed to ride a bike much like the average citizen has in Denmark. The balance needed to stay upright and moving forward on a bike is much like the balance we all need in our lives. A harmony between work and fun, health and hedonism, family and friends, personal achievement and community stewardship, Denmark has shown me the importance of balance in achieving satisfaction in life. // Jeff