Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Review: The Year of Living Danishly, by Helen Russell

Denmark is a country I have a big crush on. Home of the Danish pastry, the Little Mermaid, stylish furniture, Crown Princess Mary and progressive political and social policies, it's a country that has a lot going for it. Not to mention that it's been classified as the world's happiest country. So it's unsurprising that I had to read this book when I found out about it.

The Year of Living Danishly follows the real-life story of Helen Russell, a Brit whose husband gets transferred to Denmark to work for none other than the biggest toy producer in the world, Lego.

While researching about Denmark prior to their move, Russell learns that Danish people are some of the happiest people in the world. So donning her journalist hat on, Russell sets herself the project of finding out how truthful this title is and, if it is true, how the Danes have accomplished this feat.

I won't give away all of Russell's findings because then you wouldn't need to read the book, which I'm sure Russell wouldn't be too pleased about. But I will share some of the things I learnt about Denmark that made me want to pack my bags and move there right now.

Things I learnt about Denmark:
  1. Inspiring surroundings and innovative design are very important; not only for looks but for people's happiness and wellbeing. This is something the Danish government recognised when the country was recovering from an economic slump in the 1920's. The government saw the potential of innovatively designed objects (such as household items like the egg chair) in improving people's morale, so agreed to fund and support designers in their work. 
  2. High taxes are ok if it means your country is looking after the health and wellbeing of its citizens. Education is free. Child care is highly subsidised. If someone wants to change jobs, the government will fund 80-90% of their wages for up to two years after quitting their jobs. Yes this means that people pay more taxes (high income earners can pay up to 50% of their wages in taxes), but it also means that people are more likely to be happy and feel fulfilled because they know their government will support them at critical points in life (e.g. if they want a career change).
  3. A healthy work/life balance is possible. In Denmark, there is no need to constantly work overtime because it's expected that you'll be productive while at work and will finish what's required in that time. And there's no need to brag about how much work you need to do/have done because Danes are not fans of bragging either. On a Friday most people will finish by 3pm. If parents (either male or female) need to take or collect their children from child care, they can get to work later and finish earlier if required. 
  4. Denmark would be a great country to raise a family in. Both new mothers and fathers are expected to take paid parental leave upon the birth of a newborn. A family allowance is paid to mothers with children below the age of 18 regardless of earnings. Every baby is guaranteed a place in day care from age 6 months to when they commence primary school. I'll mention again that child care is heavily subsidised. Most children will go to a state-funded public school, which, similarly to the school systems in other Scandinavian countries, are of a very high calibre.
  5. Danes love potatoes and pastry. Enough said.

I realise that Denmark is not the world's perfect country and that the actual reality of living there can be vastly different to one's ideals of what it's like to live there. Russell touches on these challenges she faces herself, particularly how difficult it is to adjust to a new way of life. Neither does Russell shy away from sharing some of Denmark's flaws. For example, there is a lot of pressure on new mother's to return to work, where not doing so has a very strong social stigma attached to it. And the Danes are heavy drinkers (though many countries would compete for that reputation). But still, these flaws can be somewhat excused when you consider how progressive Denmark is politically and socially. 

Russell summarises this well in the following quote:

'Yes, it's expensive here. But it's Denmark - it's worth it. I don't mind paying more for a coffee here because I know that it means the person serving me doesn't a) hate me or b) have a crappy life. Everyone is paid a decent wage, everyone is looked after, and everyone pays their taxes, just as I pay mine. And if we all have marginally less money to buy more stuff that we don't really need anyway as a result, well I'm starting to think it's a deal worth making.'

With all that being said, you may be surprised to hear that I wasn't necessarily a fan of Russell's style of writing throughout her book - at times and I found it a bit too self-indulgent for my liking. Don't get me wrong - I thoroughly enjoyed learning about Denmark and hence reading what was written. I just didn't always enjoy how it was written. But I'd say that just comes down to personal preference, rather than poor writing. So if you're curious about Denmark, this is still a great read to learn more about this great country. Nyde!

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