OPINION: Why an afternoon at Starbucks shows the best of Danish multiculturalism

Is it really so bad to drink latte at Starbucks? The Local’s guest columnist Laura Maria Kjær argues that we are fortunate to live in a multicultural world – something we have done for longer than many think – and that life would be empty without it.

OPINION: Why an afternoon at Starbucks shows the best of Danish multiculturalism
Photo: marinv/Depositphotos

In an ordinary Starbucks in Copenhagen, as I sip my latte, I cannot help but notice the everyday display of multiculturalism.

The perfectly adequate coffee is not the reason why people come here. The American franchise, born in Seattle, gives the people of Copenhagen the possibility of partaking in American popular culture. The coffee culture, and especially the kind where you fetch your much-needed coffee on the go, in a terribly stylish paper cup, is relatively new to Denmark, having emerged gradually in the late 1990s. Starbucks itself didn’t make it onto Danish soil until 2007.

But, people love it and whatever coffee shop you enter, the view that greets you is mostly the same: crowds of people taking in the special feeling one finds in a coffee shop.

It’s cosy there. The mellow jazz, the scent of freshly grounded coffee, the tempting odour of croissants, and the snug soft arm chair in the corner that only a few are lucky or quick enough to sit in make the coffee shop a favourite location of many a Copenhagener.

Mostly, I love the coffee shop for the diversity one finds there. To be sure, people come because of the brand, because it allows them to retain a certain hip image, but also because, perhaps to a greater extent than they are aware of, it transports them to a multicultural space.

Starbucks at Copenhagen Airport. Photo: teamtime/Depositphotos

The guests sip their French or Italian born coffee variations made from coffee beans harvested in South America or Africa. They listen to lulling jazz tunes. A waitress calls out an order in Spanish, perhaps for a tourist.

The women next to me speak Serbian, and two friends across me speak in Danish; one has the pale skin and blond hair of a Scandinavian native and the other has the olive skin and brown hair of someone from a warmer climate. In the queue, there’s an Arab couple talking about what they should entertain their children with during the winter break. I know because they are speaking in Danish.

READ ALSO: OPINION: My humbling journey into a surprising Scandinavian life

The girl behind the counter is transgender, only discernible by her completely flat chest. Outside, a black man is enjoying his coffee in solitude and watching people pass by. A couple of Asian youngsters defy all stereotypes and look like something from the 1970s British punk scene, the guy teaches the girl to say “straw” in Danish: “sugerør” which directly translates into “sucking pipe”. They laugh and leave.

I watch these people going about their ordinary lives, and I notice how no one notices the multicultural display. No one passes a second glance at anyone, except perhaps at the woman who stares at them, smiles and then frantically types on her smartphone. No one stops in marvel or bewilderment at the sight of the black man, the Asian youngsters or any of the other people because this is simply another day in their lives.

No one requests Danish grown coffee (mind you, there’s no such thing), no one minds the people around them or the Spanish speaking waitress. No one demands that the jazz is replaced with Carl Nielsen. They don’t because it’s perfectly ordinary to encounter these people and these things out and about.

READ ALSO: Queen Margrethe: Denmark 'not a multicultural country'

It’s the world right here in a Starbucks in Copenhagen. And when they leave they meet the same elements in the street, in the supermarket, at their jobs, at the bars and restaurants and in their homes on TV or on Spotify.

I then begin to picture the view from where I sit without this display of multiculturalism.

First of all, I’d be sitting in the street, because there’d be no Starbucks or alternative coffee shop. I would sit there alone with the pale blond girl. I’d have no coffee to sip. And when I left, I’d have a very limited selection of people, bars, groceries and music and TV to enjoy. There’d be no one to laugh at the obscurity of the word “sucking pipe”. I wouldn’t know about 1970s British punk, I wouldn’t ever have tasted a croissant or heard the mellow tunes of jazz.

I think of this and feel relief and gratitude. I’m grateful for the globalised world, and for the splendour of culture it has brought me. Denmark is a small country, but it could be frighteningly smaller. Luckily, it’s not.

Laura Maria Kjær holds a Master’s degree in English literature from the University of Copenhagen, specialising in postcolonial fiction and multicultural literature. She has previously contributed to Kristeligt Dagblad and and can be contacted at [email protected]


For members


OPINION: If you can’t go home for Christmas, Denmark is a good place to be

After missing out on seeing his family for Christmas 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, The Local Denmark editor Michael Barrett got to try out Danish Christmas for the first time.

A Danish dining table on Christmas Eve.
A Danish dining table on Christmas Eve. File photo: Vibeke Toft/Ritzau Scanpix

We’d always planned to spend last Christmas in the UK. My daughter was born in March 2020, coinciding with the outset of the global coronavirus pandemic but, as worrying and uncertain as everything was at the time, we were sure it would have all settled down in nine months’ time. We started planning for her to spend her first Christmas with her grandparents, cousin and the rest of our extended family in England.

As we all know, this was far from how things turned out. The autumn and winter of last year saw spiralling Covid-19 cases across Europe and countries responding by introducing more and more restrictions, including on travel.

I’m not sure exactly when we conceded we’d have to cancel our plans to go to the UK for Christmas in 2020, but I do remember the look of resignation on my parents’ faces when I let them know. The writing had already been on the wall for a while by then.

Visiting my partner’s mother in December, I looked out of the window at the greying skies over Jutland, the dim lights of a distant Føtex store and the limp red and white pendants on flag poles as bare as the trees, and nothing felt familiar.

This was because, despite having lived in Denmark for almost a decade and a half, I’d never spent Christmas in the country. Every year I’d head home by the 22nd or 23rd, usually returning just before New Year to enjoy the rowdy firework displays in Aarhus or Copenhagen after a week of putting my feet up and savouring the familiarity and comfort of Christmas at home.

Denmark famously has its own Christmas traditions, comparable but certainly different to the British ones. I knew about them – I’ve exchanged information about national Christmas customs with many Danes over the years – but never witnessed them first-hand.

The big day came around quickly, not least because it all happens on the 24th, not the 25th.

Festivities did take a while to get going, though. Not until 4pm in fact, when ancient Disney Christmas special From All of Us to All of You, known in Danish as Disneys juleshow began on main TV broadcaster DR. Usually I’d have been watching an early-1980s David Bowie introducing The Snowman around now. A cup of warm gløgg (spiced red wine with raisins and almonds) was thrust into my hand, and I missed Bowie a little bit less.

After a couple more glasses of gløgg and wine, we sat down for Christmas dinner: roast duck, brown potatoes, boiled potatoes, gravy and red cabbage. It was of course already dark and a prolific number of candles were lit on the table and around the room, adding to the festive feeling of the star-topped tree, paper hearts and other decorations.

For dessert, we had risalamande, the popular cold rice sweet mixed with whipped cream, vanilla and chopped almonds and served with cherry sauce. By tradition, one whole almond is left in the dessert and whoever finds it wins a present, which is customarily a julegris, a chocolate pig with marzipan filling. This game is often fixed so that a child (or children) wins the prize, but the only child present was a nine-month-old and I ended up finding the almond in my bowl.

Then it was time to dance around the tree and exchange presents. Most of us had too much dessert, so it was a more sedate affair than I expected. After the little one was fast asleep we sat back on the sofas and had a couple more glasses of wine or maybe a few snacks.

It was all over before Santa traditionally lands his sleigh on rooftops and hops down British chimneys in the small hours of Christmas morning.

Danish families with young children often assign someone to dress up as Father Christmas and come round to deliver the presents to excited youngsters before dinner on Christmas Eve.

Maybe I’ll get the chance to audition for the role next year because our Danish-British family will be in Denmark every other Christmas for the foreseeable future – by choice, not restriction. I’m looking forward to it, because my first Danish Christmas gave me a better understanding of why this time of year is loved by so many Danes.

READ ALSO: My five favourite Danish childhood Christmas memories