Helen Russell, The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World's Happiest Country (2015) — a Short Book Review

© 2015 Peter Free


21 August 2015



Smile-inducing and culturally useful


Helen Russell’s view of Denmark, The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secret's of the Worlds Happiest Country, is about as good an Anglo outsider’s guide to another nation’s culture as one could wish.


Russell, a journalist who has an eye for smile-inspiring detail, manages to thread even Danish tax procedures into this superbly written account of her first — literally pregnant — year living in Denmark’s rural Jutland region.



Who might like Danishly? — Those wishing to penetrate the mystique of the “Nordic State”


As an American — having PCSed to Germany for a three year assignment — I picked The Year of Living Danishly up with the intention of discovering whether I really wanted to spend the time and (non-euro) money to visit reportedly boring Denmark.


Author Russell, a self-admitted British pseudo-cynic, explains Denmark’s uniqueness relative to virtually every other nation in the world, including its more northern Scandinavian (and Finnish) peers.


Her conclusion appears to be that Denmark’s predictability — combined with its stout social, medical and occupational safety nets — allow the Danes to feel materially secure enough to self-actualize. There is for example, she suspects, no better place to raise a child.


Denmark is, Russell thinks, homogeneously small enough to make its tax and deliver governmental approach workable. She even uncovers some evidence that the Danish population’s surprisingly un-diverse genes — and therefore near familial closeness — may partially account for the nation’s contentment.



Writing samples


Russell weaves information about the actualities of living in Denmark into seamless narrative flows.


For example, regarding language class:



The teacher’s eyebrows shoot up like pointy hats and hover somewhere around her hairline. ‘Or maybe not...’ I mutter, as Lego Man [— Russell’s name for her husband, who works for Lego in Denmark —] gets busy on Google Translate. Kind Ukrainian is also leafing through her Danish dictionary and intervenes.


‘I think you have that wrong, look,’ she points, helpfully, to the appropriate entries in her dictionary and then reads aloud:


Killing” means “kitten”. “Kylling”, pronounced “kooling” means “chicken” and “kaelling”, pronounced “kelling” means ...’ she trails off.


‘Yes?’ I strain to read the tiny print over her shoulder but am beaten to it by the Polish man sitting next to her.


‘It means “bitch”!’ he reads out with relish as I feel my cheeks redden.


Excellent. Week one of language school and I’ve already called my teacher a bitch. I stay remarkably quiet for the remainder of the class but pick up some other surprising vocabulary, including the fact that ‘slut’ means ‘ends’ or ‘finished’. So my new washing machine hasn’t been abusing me all this time when it stopped and flashed the word ‘slut’ at me in bright red lights!


Language can tell you a lot about a country, and we learn that there is an extensive vocabulary to describe Denmark’s variable weather but no word for ‘please’. I’ve just about got over the hilarity of ‘fart control’ (‘speed limit’) and ‘slut spurt’ (‘closing down sale’), when we’re taught helpfully, that the Danish for nipple is ‘brystvorte’, which translates as ‘breast wart’ and that ‘gift’ means ‘married’, as well as ‘poison’.


‘Coincidence?’ remarks another of the Poles, who’s going through a tricky divorce. ‘I think not.’


© 2015 Helen Russell, The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World's Happiest Country (Icon Books Ltd, Kindle Edition, January 2015) (at pages 70-71, Kindle locations 1218-1234)


About one of Denmark’s evidently many traditions — here, a bonfire and burning effigy — she says this:



The Viking, overhearing, chips in: ‘Oh, it’s not Saint John [the Baptist] up there. It’s just the eve of his saint’s day.’


‘Right ... so, who’s he?’ I say, pointing at the unhappy felt-tipped face as it explodes into flames, sending a cheer around the crowd.


She,’ he corrects me, ‘is a witch.’


At this moment, the unfortunate creature’s synthetic red frills catch fire and black plumes of smoke start billowing out to sea. There’s a whooping and clapping and a few of our party capture the moment on camera phones.


‘You still burn witches?’ I ask in horror.


‘Just tonight,’ he tries to explain. ‘That’s what the bonfires are for. It’s tr—‘


‘—Don’t tell me, “it’s tradition”?’


‘How did you guess?’


‘Just a hunch.’


‘And the punching in the face bit,’ Lego Man asks, ‘was that part of the tradition too?’


‘No, that kid was just a brat,’ replies The Viking.


‘Right. And the Flamenco outfit?’


‘Just whatever someone could find, I suspect.’


A gust of wind fans the flames and soon the crudely fashioned ‘witch’ is just a blackened chicken-wire mesh on a stick. There’s some clapping and Brat Boy and his friends begin laughing uproariously.


Another song starts up and we’re encouraged to huddle around the dying fire to start baking our bread kebabs, but I’ve rather lost my appetite.


Friendly Neighbor, observing my consternation, attempts to console me.


‘We have to burn the witch to ward off evil spirits,’ she says, as though this is the most natural thing in the world.


‘Right ...’


‘Witches are very active around Midsummer Night’s Eve. So we burn a few to make the rest go to Germany—‘


What?’ This is getting weirder by the minute.


‘To Bloksbjerg, in the mountains, where all the witches get together.’


Why? Why would they go Germany?’ For cheap lager and cheese?


This is met by general shrugging before The Viking announces, audibly tipsy now: ‘I don’t know, it’s Germany. Bad stuff happens there!’


© 2015 Helen Russell, The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World's Happiest Country (Icon Books Ltd, Kindle Edition, January 2015) (at pages 135-137, Kindle locations 2047-2069)


Does the Kindle edition fall short? — A question about missing citations


Helen Russell refers to quite a few studies on happiness and uses them to construct her hypotheses about the sources of Danish wellbeing. Yet, the Kindle version of the book — and presumably the printed publication, as well — provide no citations to these. Which makes trying to track them down more arduous than it should be.



The Year of Living Danishly is highly recommended — to anyone interested in Denmark


Ignore the few negative reviews at Amazon dot com, which (in my opinion) miss the book title’s clearly stated description of the book’s purpose.


Author Russell accomplished her happiness-investigating goal with talented insight and engaging writing. Other than having omitted citations that should have been included, this book is (in my admiring assessment) a classic of its type.