The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World's Happiest Country by Helen Russell is my 10th. book for the European Reading challenge 2019 which is being hosted by Rose City Reader.
Helen Russell and her husband lead busy lives in London, both with high-powered jobs. Helen sometimes wonders if it's all worth it as their quality of life is not what it should be, everything being dominated by work. Then her husband is offered a job with Lego in Denmark, just for a year. He wants to go but she resists at first, she's really not adventurous, it's too big a change and she suspects it would entail a huge culture shock.
Eventually, Helen gives in and agrees to go but first she does some research and discovers that Denmark has been named the happiest country in the world. This sounds like something that needs investigating and she is more than up to the challenge. Freelance journalism calls as opposed to her previous full-on magazine job and she can use her new career to find out why the population of Denmark is so happy.
Arriving in Denmark in January is the first shock. Where are all the people? Why are the streets empty? The simple answer is, 'Hygge'. This is the Danish concept of being at home, warm and cosy, with family, in the depths of winter. And that's exactly where everyone is: indoors. They do however meet some of the neighbours when two men knock on the door at 8am to tell them they're doing the recycling wrong and proceed to take them outside in the freezing cold and demonstrate how it should be done...
Helen soon discovers all kinds of things about the happy Danes. They love beautiful design in their daily lives, minimalism etc. They like to obey the rules as they believe it makes people feel safe. They trust everyone, so babies are left outside shops, something you don't see in the UK any longer but was quite common when I was a child. They love hobbies and pastimes and joining groups for said hobbies is hugely popular in Denmark. Autopsies are apparently very popular too. Yes autopsies... on animals... and it's especially popular to take your children along to watch them. You can't fly foreign flags in Denmark, there is even a list of 'flag rules'.
Of course, Danish crime dramas such as The Bridge and The Killing have brought Denmark into our living rooms - although not mine as they're not my cup of tea - but strangely one the most popular crimes series in Denmark itself is, Midsomer Murders. Go figure...
Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed this intimate look at life in Denmark. Helen Russell writes informatively, candidly, but also very conversationally of the difficulties of assimilating herself and her husband into a country where they can't speak the language (although thankfully English is widely spoken) and don't immediately get the mindset. It takes effort and, all power to her elbow, she's willing to put plenty in.
One of the things that does come as a bit of a surprise to them is how rural the coastal town of Billund, in Jutland, where Lego has its headquarters, is. Copenhagen, the capital, is very cosmopolitan. Helen and her husband lived in London, also extremely cosmopolitan. They were very unprepared for such a rural culture shock and I think this made their adjustment much more difficult. I felt for them I must admit, especially her because of course her husband had his job to go to where he met new people and had automatic acquaintances: Helen as a freelancer working from home, did not and I think she felt the isolation quite badly.
I've read quite a lot of these books about people moving to foreign countries... more often than not it's Brits or Americans moving to France, Italy, Spain. Denmark's a bit unusual so for me it was especially interesting and is one of the best I've read. I feel like I now have a really strong sense of Denmark and its people, their culture, the landscape, the weather and so on. Highly recommend this if you like this kind of non-fiction as I do.