Denmark: “The happiest place on earth” [Archives:2008/1190/Reportage]

September 15 2008
Copenhagens waterside restaurants and cafs are alive with people.
Copenhagens waterside restaurants and cafs are alive with people.
Historic and modern architecture is one of the main features of  Copenhagen.
Historic and modern architecture is one of the main features of Copenhagen.
Vallekilde, 100 kilometers from Copenhagen, sits amid the beauty of nature.
Vallekilde, 100 kilometers from Copenhagen, sits amid the beauty of nature.
Khaled Al-Hilaly
Last month, I was in Denmark to participate in a 10-day journalism course entitled, Media Skills Development for Dialogue organized by Crossing Borders for young journalists and media/communication students from the Middle East, North Africa and Denmark.

I had read surveys maintaining that Denmark is the happiest place on earth, so while there, I looked for the reasons why Danes are happy. A high standard of living, free education, good public health services and a clean environment were part of the answer.

But something else also was important – Danes enjoy satisfaction in life because they have low expectations; thus, they seemingly get what they want easily and rarely feel disappointed.

As I gazed out the car window on my way from the airport, I discovered a quiet and beautiful city. Although tall, modern buildings are few in Copenhagen, modernity, technology and design still are features of the city.

Both historic and modern architecture, high-tech transportation, a safe society and their freedoms all captured me. For example, the blond-haired, blue-eyed women are true equals with men, working as teachers, waitresses, bus drivers, sales clerks, lawyers, etc.

Danes are friendly and most speak English and are willing to help.

At my hotel, I picked up a booklet on Copenhagen's events and activities for August. I was astonished at the number and variety of cultural and entertainment events in the city, including music, dance, opera, theater, sports, cinema, exhibits, sightseeing, etc.

I later took a walking tour of Stroget, Europe's longest pedestrian street passing through Copenhagen's old city. It's also the central shopping area in Copenhagen.

Because many Danes ride bicycles, there are paths and signs indicating cycling routes nearly everywhere. Bikes are good quality, fancy in design and may be rented at numerous places.

Most of my time was spent in Vallekilde, which is in the countryside of Odsherred in the northwestern part of Sjaelland (Zealand). Situated 100 kilometers from Copenhagen, or an hour and a half train ride, the town is 6 km. from the sea and sits amid the beauty of nature.

The closest town and railway station is Horve, which is less than 3 km. from Vallekilde Communications College, founded in 1865 and focusing primarily on communications. Open all day, every facility may be used 24 hours a day, including its computer room, TV room, lecture hall, theater and music studio. Students live, study, eat, party and relax on campus.

In Vallekilde, I enjoyed the landscape, the amazing nature and the quiet atmosphere. As one Danish friend pointed out, I was lucky to be in Denmark during the summer when the weather is good. Danes enjoy the summer by spending their days with friends, dining al fresco (outside) and simply having fun.

While in that beautiful country, I took more than a thousand photographs. A Palestinian friend asked me, “Why are you taking all of those photos? You can just save the images in your mind,” to which I replied, “I want to share what I've seen with others.”

However, my friend was quick to note, “But today we're going to visit a place where photography isn't allowed inside. We're going to Christiania.”

Christiania was founded in 1971 when a group of hippies took over an area of abandoned military barracks and developed their own set of rules, completely independent of the Danish government. With an area covering some 32 hectares of land, some 1,000 people live and work there.

There are paintings and sculptures everywhere in Christiania and there's always live music playing somewhere, which is why a visit there is worthwhile. Christiania is an important tourist attraction in Copenhagen, annually attracting between half a million and a million visitors to this “Free Town.” It's also a place where drugs still are sold; however, in 2004, the Danish government closed all shops selling drugs in the open.

My personal favorite experience of the trip was a canal tour of Copenhagen that I went on with my entire group around the harbor and the city's idyllic canals. Beginning from Nyhavn, we passed a number of architecturally interesting buildings, such as the Copenhagen Opera House and Den Sorte Diamant (The Black Diamond), home of the Royal Danish Library.

Along the way, we also passed the Little Mermaid, which is a statue of a little girl sitting on a rock on the beach.

Copenhagen's waterside restaurants and cafes are amazing. You won't want to leave there because it's alive with people eating and drinking outdoors in a relaxing environment amid historic buildings on both sides of the canal.

Whenever I was in a longer conversation with a Danish citizen, the Prophet Mohammed cartoon scandal inevitably came up. All of the Danes I met opposed the cartoons. As one Danish friend said, “The cartoons were a stupid mistake.”

My visit to Politiken newspaper, one of Denmark's largest, and DR, Danish Radio and Television, revealed the secret behind the professional creativity of such media establishments. There, journalists enjoy comprehensive facilities and a pleasant working environment within newsrooms and studios characterized by good lighting, quietness and teamwork. It made you feel like you were in a beehive. After visiting their media, I envied the Danes.

This training trip to Denmark was and still is a great experience for me because it gave me the opportunity to meet journalists and media workers from numerous countries, with whom we were able to exchange journalism experiences and gain new skills.