Cats and Theories
a blog by coticheque
a blog by coticheque

Denmark: travel notes

I’ve spent the past 5 days in Denmark. Here’re some notes about Scandinavian style, smørrebrød, Greenlandic Inuits, as well as civilizational struggles and perils of social revolts (alright, there’re no posts in this blog that don’t dwell on these two topics).

Why Denmark looks so great

The two best-looking nations in the world are Denmark and Japan. The style of Danish citizens is spotless: wool coats, classy scarves, neutral color palettes. No wonder that brands like Arket, COS, and Acne Studios all originated from Scandinavia.

Let’s compare the style of Danes to the style of people in the Czech Republic (perhaps one of the worst-dressed nations in the world). Where a Czech woman would wear a puffer coat of a bright neon color (making her look like a Michelin mascot), a Danish woman would wear a classic wool coat and a classy cashmere scarf of navy, beige or grey shade. Where a Czech man would wear a sporty jacket from Decathlon (making him look like a fisherman), a Danish man would choose a wool pea coat with brown leather boots, or perhaps sneakers to make the outfit more wacky. What especially delights me is that barely anyone in Denmark wears blue jeans (just like in Japan), preferring classic black or grey trousers. While an average Czech woman would dye her hair in peroxide blonde, put it in a tight ponytail and paint her lips with a bright pink lipstick, a Danish woman would have a simple natural hairstyle and a minimal make-up. These small details make the entire nation look classy.

What’s striking is that nothing forces Czech people to deliberately choose horribly-looking clothes. The climate in both countries is comparable, so there’s no excuse for choosing puffer jackets over wool coats. Financial necessity is out of question too, as all types of clothes can be easily found in all sorts of mass-market stores. What determines the style then, if climate and financial considerations are held constant?

I think the explanation is linked to another interesting phenomenon common in Denmark. When I visited a few modern art galleries in Copenhagen, at least half of all visitors were old and retired people. A situation quite normal for Western Europe (old people in London like to spend weekends in Tate too), but quite incomprehensible for Eastern Europe, where modern art is generally mocked by the older generations. Why so? I think it’s the question of continuity of cultural traditions, the preservation of standards of good taste over generations. Denmark wasn’t affected by any social revolts of the 20th century. Just like Switzerland, it barely participated in the World War II. Communist revolutions didn’t reach Scandinavia. Denmark still has a monarchy, uninterrupted for centuries. The continuity of cultural elite is uninterrupted too (not to mix up with the economic elite – that has been gradually dissolving by means of the wealth redistribution policies). It’s not a surprise that the European countries with the best standards of living are constitutional monarchies on the coasts of the Northern Sea (UK, Netherlands and Denmark). Bicycles, red bricks, spotless manners.

As there were no social upheavals, cultural traditions were preserved throughout generations: whatever was considered a sign of refined taste in the 19th century (whether it’s appreciation of modern art, elegant taste in clothing, or good manners of behavior) continues to be respected up to this day. On the opposite, the countries that had their cultural traditions disrupted have it all upside down: whatever was considered civilized – the socialist revolutions declared shameful and elitist. Whatever was not understandable by masses was considered unworthy. As a result, the modern art is mocked, fashion style is democratized (jeans and sporty clothes are preferred over elegant coats), any standards in manners of public behavior are ditched (being rude and loud is considered natural and cool).

I see this cultural continuity as the ultimate argument in favor of economic and political reforms as opposed to revolutions. Scandinavian countries reached something very similar to a socialist utopia by the gradual market reforms within the capitalist system. What’s especially important, is that along the way they preserved the high cultural standards. As I have already written before, the unintended consequence of socialist revolutions turned out to be uprooting of not economic inequalities, but actually numerous decent things – such as a the cultural taste prevailing in the society.

Inuit people in Denmark: the hurdles of civilization

Denmark has approximately 20,000 Greenlandic Inuit people living in it. A tiny fraction of the population – less than 0,5%, however a big proportion of beggars you would see on the streets are Inuit. According to Wikipedia, Inuit people in Denmark are more prone to poverty, homelessness, unemployment and drug abuse, being 12 times more susceptible to alcoholism compared to Danish people. When I took a first ride in the Copenhagen metro, it was a Friday night, and the quietness of the train car was being disrupted by shouts of a group of three Inuit people clearly under the influence of either alcohol or drugs.

What’s the root of the problem? It’s clearly not an underprivileged status or systemic racism. Greenlandic people are entitled for a Danish citizenship and therefore have an equal access to the same privileges as Danes: such as healthcare, education and access to the labor market. The rare instances of racism towards Inuits are mostly coming from other ethnic minorities – such as Arab migrants in unwealthy neighbourhoods.

Despite the equal treatment, it’s unfortunately a way too common destiny of many indigenous people – who are simply unable to assimilate into a more technologically and economically developed society. For instance, the situation prevailing among native Americans in the US is equally dismal. I tend to think that the explanation must be the following. In the West, throughout centuries of civilizational progress, people learnt how to deal with all the newly acquired advantages of a developed world: by cultivating moderation, self-discipline, and impulse control. Civilization is like a garden of pleasure and earthly delight. We have learnt how to control our instincts, not to indulge into uncontrolled aggression and consumptions of substances – that are always tempting and easily available. How would a man not equipped with this inherited psychological discipline react to a sudden availability of all possible pleasures? The instant gratification is much more appealing to individuals who are used to hardships in life, therefore an easy access to alcohol or drugs becomes very attractive. On the opposite, throughout centuries, Western people got used to the idea that delayed gratification is often much more beneficial – delaying pleasure of alcohol and parties in favor of studying for a university degree proves to be a better choice in the long run.

How to make the situation more accommodating for people who are missing the essential traits that Western people cultivated for centuries? Clearly, there’s no way back in time for neither Greenlandic Inuits or Native Americans – the sad impact of colonization is irreversible, the plurality is conquered by an all-encompassing universalism, and the world needs to somehow cope with this loss. Do Western people then need to review the standards of their own civilization to make it more suitable to accommodate the needs of people with a fundamentally different background?

I’m not sure it’s possible. Every civilization is essentially based on a set of fundamental principles that are simply too crucial to its core, and therefore cannot be altered. For the Western world, it’s an emphasis on delayed gratification, discipline, rationality and hard work. If it’s difficult for a person to stick to a work schedule and maintain focus (even when it’s driven by a different perception of the world), the educational system or labor market, together with the capitalist system as a whole, won’t deem such an individual a productive member of society. In a very similar case, people with ADHD wouldn’t be welcomed by employers as ideal employees. Despite many American initiatives aimed at correcting similar social inequalities (often absurd – such as decolonizing math), such corrections aren’t possible without undermining the very foundations of the civilizational strength (such as the focus on logic or rationality). The situation is upsetting, but the attempt to correct it is likely to lead to an even more destructive outcome, which will simply be worse for everyone.

Unless Herbert Marcuse and Theodore Adorno were of course right, predicting that Western Enlightenment will eventually undermine itself by eroding its very foundations, but… that’s a different story.

Cars, curtains and the arbitrary nature of mundane things

A cultural shock that might easily puzzle tourists from Eastern Europe in Denmark is that Danish people drive cheap cars. It’s simply incomprehensible for someone from Russia or Czech Republic to see how a person who makes a lot of money and owns a fancy apartment in a central neighborhood, drives an old cheap Skoda. Yet, that’s how it is: I’ve been living in a hotel located in a residential neighborhood of Øresund – 10 minutes from the Copenhagen city center by metro, same distance from the water front. The district has a lot of new real estate development: mostly large modern 5-floor apartment buildings with large balconies, panoramic windows and roof terraces. The apartments in such houses cost from DKK 4–5,000,000. Yet, the local parking lots are exclusively occupied by cheap cars like Renault Logan, Skoda Fabia, Opel Corsa, or Hyundai i20. Why?

Danish people must be pretty confident of their economic status. Everyone who works well can afford a good apartment and a good lifestyle. A car is simply not an important part of one’s life, neither there’s a need to show off expensive items to establish and solidify one’s social status. Obviously, the same attitude extrapolates to other areas of life: Danish fashion brands rarely put a large logo on their clothes (as no one cares), Danish apartments are not decorated with golden chandeliers and abundant carpets, but are kept minimalistic. Which is a revolutionary idea for Eastern Europeans to comprehend: what if the status of a person doesn’t have to be determined by the expensive things that he owns?

In any case, it seems like many mundane presumptions taken for granted by our society become arbitrary upon a closer examination. We have already seen that Danish people don’t wear blue jeans and don’t care about expensive cars. Here’s another shocking cultural difference: Danes don’t hang curtains on the windows of their apartments. Everything happening inside their perfect houses (at least in the kitchen and dining areas) can be observed form the street. Here’s a family having a conversation over dinner. Here’s a man cooking something in a large spotless kitchen (you involuntarily assume that he must be frying a fancy steak, while in reality – it’s more likely to be a smørrebrød with shrimps on a generous layer of mayonnaise).

I believe this transparency indicates the Scandinavian preoccupation with importance of the home environment. Furniture and interior decoration stores are abundant on the streets of Copenhagen, all looking exceptionally stylish. Hygge is a national idea. IKEA came from Sweden and conquered the world. Such preoccupation makes sense – when it’s dark and cold outside for half a year, with horrible cold wind blowing through the streets and sun setting below the horizon at 3pm, the cosiness of interior must be contrasted against the harshness of exterior. All interiors are therefore made exceptionally well-lit, well-heated, and well-decorated – whether these are stores, cafes or even buses.

At the same time, the home life is not considered strictly private and isolated from the rest of the world, as it is in Eastern Europe. Curtains – how natural they seem to us. Just as natural as blue jeans and unnecessarily expensive cars. But does the real need for curtains match their widespread reach? Maybe this excessive privateness and distrust of the world constitute just another feature of the Soviet heritage – where no one could be trusted, especially the neighbors. My neighbors in Prague keep their curtains shut 24/7, even in daytime. On the contrary, Danes seem to be secure of their safety, trust, and seem to be proud to display their homes to the outside world – just like home-owners in American suburbs are proud to decorate their houses with abundant Christmas decorations (often trying to outdo their neighbors). The home life is transparent, welcoming – not to show off the fanciness of one’s interior, but maybe to encourage a stranger passing by the house in the evening, making his way through the cold wind and subzero temperature, that he too will soon reach the cosy well-heated environment of his own home.

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