As a clinical psychologist, I was aware of Denmark's tendency to nab the top spot in a variety of worldwide happiness surveys, so it was with great interest and enthusiasm that we arrived in Denmark recently, keen for a first-hand glimpse into the Danish way of life.
We are a family of four from Australia, attempting to create a “slow travel” experience that is a little hard to define. Grown up gap year, career break, family bonding – basically, we follow opportunities that allow financially and environmentally sustainable travel where we can briefly sink in to local life in a new destination. Some of our time is spent connecting with interesting people, hiking in forests, or learning about history, and some of our time is spent trying not to kill each other.
An opportunity came up through a friend to look after a house and garden in Copenhagen, so we recently spent ten days in Denmark – not long enough, but a taste of the world's happiest country that left us wanting more.
Our hurried web search led us to Tempelkrogen Familie Camping in Vipperød - we booked it and caught the train from Malmö to a place we knew absolutely nothing about. We arrived with six bags, two tired children and one sentence of Danish: Må jeg venligst klappe din hund? - the always essential “Can I please pat your dog?”.
Visiting the National Museum. Photo: Kathy Kelly
Our plans to treat ourselves to a cab from the train station to the campsite were quickly aborted when we realised it's not a cab kind of town, and Plan B didn't work out either when we waited at a bus stop for a bus that never came.
But next came a series of examples of breathtaking Danish hospitality – the young checkout attendant at the local supermarket spent ten minutes on his phone trying to figure out the bus system for us, then after an uncomfortable sprint towards the correct bus stop, the bus driver went out of his way to stop for us despite us being on the wrong side of the road and looking like a traveling circus. I will never forget the warm twinkle in his eye as he waved us off towards the campsite.
Then the campsite managers went above and beyond to help in a variety of ways, including trying to track down gluten free bread for one of our girls (while the rest of us chowed down on the freshly baked snegle every morning!).
We had a beautiful view of a lake, some horses, and we even saw a hedgehog of some sort. It was just the kind of break we needed. And we even got a lift back to the train station at the end.
Back in Copenhagen, we received kindness everywhere we turned. A Copenhagen local, a friend of a friend that we had never met, spent a precious day giving us a guided tour of the city while our kids had some wonderful play time together. They bought us delicious smørrebrød and tickets for a river cruise and we were bowled over by their generosity.
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Each day brought new moments of kindness and connection. Numerous times as we were trying to get our heads around using our rejsekort travel cards, strangers would come up to us and offer help.
The man next to me on the train translated all the announcements when our train broke down, then gave me helpful tourist information. While deer spotting in the Dyrehave park, we were staring blankly at our map and trying to balance a three person bike, when a local stopped her high speed bike journey to give us directions.
Cycling at Dyrehaven in Copenhagen. Photo: Kathy Kelly
Even an unscheduled toilet stop was memorable. We came upon the Copenhagen Opera House at just the right time, after a long and interesting walk through Christiania. Although an actual opera is outside our budget, we enjoyed the ambience of the foyer and the fact that no one questioned our use of the facilities or expected us to pay.
Even the countryside was kind to us in Denmark – just when we were a bit lost and tired and thirsty on a long bike journey through the forest, our seven-year-old spotted a raspberry bush with an abundance of juicy ripe berries.
While in Copenhagen, I read The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell, learned about the importance of trust in Danish society, and spoke to a number of locals about the magic of Denmark.
I tried to understand the hygge phenomenon beyond the definition of “cosy”, and thought about its relationship with three important predictors of psychological wellbeing: self-care, connection and mindfulness. I marvelled at the bike riding culture in Copenhagen and how wonderful it is for health and the environment. We spent hours in the amazing children's section of the Nationalmuseet. The playgrounds around the city were some of the best we've seen, and some of them are staffed! We had a quick dip in the North Sea, encouraged by nearby locals to brave the waters. And we tasted liquorice while experiencing the magic of Tivoli at night.
There is something unforgettable about Denmark and it calls to us to return for a longer stay. If nothing else, we'll continue trying live a bit Danishly: we'll eat our sandwiches without tops, ride our bikes more often, trust more, and attempt to pay forward some of the kindness we received in Denmark as we continue our adventure around the world.
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Kathy Kelly is a clinical psychologist and part-time blogger currently on a “grown-up gap year” with her husband and two daughters, who are both amazing adventurers and Olympic-standard whingers, depending on the day.