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Review: The Year of Living Danishly

Helen Russell, former Marie Claire editor, is not exactly jumping up and down with excitement when her husband is offered a job at Lego in rural Denmark. As a Londoner she is used to the busy and eventful city life and Denmark has never been on her list of places to live. Discovering that Denmark has been ranked the happiest country in the world 40 years in a row, suddenly she sees a chance to report on a very popular life style topic – happiness – and maybe even find more of it in her own life. So she ventures out on “the happiness project” for one year in Southern Jutland, Denmark, together with her husband and dog.

Of all times they arrive in the beginning of January while the country is dark from 4 pm-9 am and everyone stay inside because of the snow, cold and darkness. It is a year full of challenges and Helen is not immediately met by happiness. But she soon falls in love with Danish pastry (in the beginning she eats one a day, haha!) and makes a great effort to immerse herself in Danish society.

She discovers that Danes love rules and tradition. It seems like there is a rule for everything – from when you can fly your Danish flag to how to use real nature in Christmas decorations. Pretty much everything comes down to tradition in Denmark and somehow Danes appreciate the predictability and use it to feel secure. In fact Danes feel so safe that they are one of the most trusting people in the World, so much so that they will leave their prams (with babies) outside stores and cafes and they even trust their politicians and queen!

She also discovers that Denmark has a great work-life balance and that it is normal to return from work at 4 or 5 pm. This is so unusual for her and her husband that they do not know what to do with all their new found free time until they learn that organized hobbies and sports are a big part of living Danishly. So she tries out everything from choir, drawing and an interesting evening swimming event that I shall not reveal here…

But aside from living very safe and organized lives Danes also love to have a good time and is one of the countries in the world with the highest consumption of alcohol, cigarettes and candles! Danes love to party and have hygge/coziness inside during the dark winters. Even at her husband’s workplace, Lego, they get cake and pastries on Fridays and have a funny tradition of singing about the work events of the week! And then there is the 52 weeks of joint parental leave and nearly free daycare. Denmark is the place to have children and Danish living is slowly growing on Helen Russell. I will let you find out for yourself if she finds the Danish happiness she is looking for…

I loved this book! Partly because it took me back to my home country and showed me Denmark with a outsider’s eyes, pointing out things in Danish culture I never even thought about and partly because it is so well-written and funny. Maybe the Danes have hygge but the British sure have their humorous sarcasm. This is the Danish version of Frances Mayes’ book Under the Tuscan Sun. It is a personal journey about finding a home in a new country which is written so well that it reads like a novel. Meanwhile it is full of interesting facts about Denmark through Helen’s interviews with Danish experts on happiness and culture. I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in Danish culture, happiness and hygge and especially to foreigners moving to Denmark. Even Danes in Denmark would get a healthy but loving laugh at their own culture.

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