The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell – Book Review

danish.jpgAnother I-moved-to-another-country book, this one by a London woman who moved to Denmark after her husband got offered a job with Lego – and rather than exchanging one capital city for another, they move to the “real” Denmark, a tiny town of 6,100 in the rural Jutland (the European peninsula part of Denmark). Unlike many other books of the similar sort, which are rather rambling in nature and simply concern themselves with the author’s experiences in a foreign country, this one has an actual focus: uncovering the secrets of Danish happiness.

According to the statistics, the potential new home of Helen and her husband (nicknamed Lego Man) is officially the happiest country in the world, with most of the Danes Helen interviews in the course of the book ranking their happiness at 8, 9, or even 10 out of 10. To Helen, who is supposedly living her dream with a high-flying job as an editor on a glossy magazine but instead feels overworked and overstressed, this is an attractive mystery to explore.

What follows is a very entertaining and endlessly insightful account of Helen and Lego Man’s new life in Denmark. Helen’s position as a journalist allows her to interview the various specialists in the social, financial and cultural fields who help shed the light on the Danish education, interior design, childcare, working culture, food etc. And the number one reason for the Danish happiness? High levels of trust – trust in the system as well as trust in the random stranger on the street (according to the book, it’s common for the Danish parents to leave the prams unattended outside cafes or homes). Denmark’s inhabitants pay crazy high taxes, but what you get in return is free healthcare, free education (including university), a welfare system, subsidised childcare and unemployment insurance where you’re guaranteed 80 per cent of your wages for two years.

There’s an interesting observation made in passing about the correlation between the welfare state and Danish atheism – when you have faith in the state taking care of you, the need for God is lesser, it seems. The high sense of community also means that some things around your house is everybody’s business – if for instance you happen to sort the rubbish into the wrong bins, your neighbours will think nothing of telling you off about it.

Of course it’s not all smooth sailing and scrumptious Danish pastries all the way for Helen and her husband – the language barrier and social isolation are big issues, and for all its virtues Denmark is not quite the equality-for-all feminist utopia and faces the similar difficulties over immigration issues that other European countries do. There’s also the Danish winter, the bleak prospect of SAD, soul-crushing darkness and bitter cold (though, as a former denizen of Siberia, the author’s comment about -20 Celsius made me snort. -20? Try -40 lady!) Also, while the Danish order and stability are fine things, there’s a chapter where Helen and Lego Man go away on a holiday to the Mediterranean and she realises that she missed the chaos and dirt of a less organised society. Overall though, plenty of things about the Danish Way make perfect sense and everyone else could benefit greatly from living a bit more Danishly.

Unfortunately there’s not much I can do about creating a Danish-style welfare state here in Australia, but at the very least, I’ve resolved to try and burn more candles at home during winter for a touch of Danish hygge. Hygge by the way is one of those untranslatable words which can be described as, “the absence of anything annoying or emotionally overwhelming; taking pleasure from the presence of gentle, soothing things”, or “creating a warm atmosphere and enjoying the good things in life with good people”. Sounds good to me.

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