Her apartment was simple and elegant. It had all the best traits of Danish design combined with the tastes of a stylish young person. The furniture was vintage in style and of course there were candles. Carefully arranged postcards and prints hung on the wall. It was on the first floor of a medium sized apartment block that was about the same height as all apartment buildings are in this city. This was the home of a good friend of mine, a place that always felt cozy and inviting. She was a Danish intern at the government radio station and we were exchange students from all over the former British colonies (Australia and Canada mostly).
To get here I had two main options. The first was to take the metro. It was three zones from my house and required two punches on my yellow two-zone clipcard. I had to transfer downtown to the ever-confusing s-tog. The train went through an area of town that I was not terribly familiar with. It was a bit rougher and industrial, probably on the verge of gentrifying. Graffiti was clearly visible from the train tracks. There were hints of Copenhagen’s burgeoning growth as construction projects were undertaken along the tracks.
The second option was to ride my bike. This was more time consuming but preferable. I loved the feeling of riding a bike in that city. As I made my way out of our suburb of Orestad up to H.C. Andersen Boulevard through the city centre, across the canal into a cool area with expensive coffee shops and then into the quieter residential area. I also felt very hardcore after completing the hour-long journey to this side of town, especially in bad weather.
On this particular day we had taken the metro because despite having purchased a bike my roommate didn’t like to ride it. Like most student bikes ours were old, rusty, and in need of basic maintenance, but that’s what happens when you habitually leave your bike out in the rain. It was mid-December and snowy, which was also not ideal for bikes.
The apartment had been changed slightly for the occasion. There was a God Julbanner above the couch and some heart shaped ornaments hanging from a potted plant for lack of a Christmas tree. These were easy to make from construction paper and are synonymous with Danish Christmas the way snowflakes cut out of white construction paper are with Canadian Christmas. You take two different coloured types of construction paper and cut them into rectangles with one rounded side. You then cut the bottoms and weave them together to make a heart. We thought this would require glue but to our surprise they held so strongly together that we had trouble finishing them. Danish children are much more practised at this art.
These hearts could be found anywhere from my friend’s fern to the decorations at Baresso, the major coffee chain, to those hanging on Stroget, the major shopping street in Copenhagen, to the free postcards available all over town. In a nation that is officially Lutheran Christmas was celebrated unabashedly and visibly. It was refreshing and strange to be in a place where you could wish somebody a god jul without thinking about whether you would offend them. Here it was Christmas break not a PG-13 winter break.
For many of us this was our first Christmas away from home so our friend had invited us over to show us what a Danish Christmas feast is like—complete of course with a game of white elephant where everything had to be purchased from the local dollar store we were obsessed with.
The food was typical of the type that my Danish friend made for us. It was centered around pork. I suspect that there is good Danish food that isn’t pork based but I’ve had little reason thus far to eat it. She took a good tender cut of pork with a layer of fat on the top and roasted it until the top was nice and crispy but the center was still nice and moist. Then there were homemade buns that provided the foundation for the sandwich. We would then add homemade mayonnaise and mustard, and top it all off with beats. It was simple and delicious. She was asked to explain the process in Danish with miming directions for those of us (everybody) who has absorbed too little Danish to understand what she was saying. Even though it was Christmas it felt like a typical exchange family gathering. We cooked together quite often and were always amazed at what we could produce. When we were lucky somebody Danish would show us how to make a traditional dish.
We rarely ate out in Copenhagen because of the cost. It was a city filled with trendy and fabulous food, where you could easily spend a week’s grocery money or more on a single meal. There were more Michelin star restaurants here than anywhere else in the world and it was home to NOMA dubbed the world’s best restaurant. I did not have the luxury of dropping $700 on a meal there because reservations are nearly impossible to come by. One of my friends did manage to snag one and was served all manner of strange local cuisine including ants and a carrot that had been buried in the ground for a year. This food struck me as trendy and extravagant, and was only possible in a city where people have a lot of disposable income and an endless desire to keep up with whatever is cool.
The one time I decided to splurge on a Michelin star restaurant was for a friend’s birthday party at a fish restaurant in the meatpacking district (a place with trendy clubs and restaurants by night and well meat packing by day). Tragically a law student was stabbed at one in October marking the area with a slight mystique. The lighting was low and the servers were all attractive. At least we knew what we were paying for. We all dressed up in our nicest threads and went early for drinks. I ordered something fruity and it was pretty good. It was a world of difference from our usual Carlsberg, which we could buy in crates of 32 at the local supermarket making it cost less than fifty cents a bottle.
The menu included various types of fish that seemed to meet with approval by my friends. I don’t typically eat fish but decided to wave the rule for my friend’s birthday so I ordered fish and chips, as did a lot of people—it was also the cheapest item on the menu, which after what we spent on drinks was a strong influencing factor. It was good, but the portions were small. I couldn’t help but think that I could’ve gotten better fish and chips for five pounds in London, U.K. but then I wouldn’t have had cute Danish waiters.
That food had nothing on what we could make in the comfort of our own homes. The dark lighting may have been cool but it was never a place that I felt truly at home. The Danish word hygge perfectly describes the difference. Much like the German word schadenfreude it has no direct translation. It is often translated as cozy but this doesn’t fully encompass its range. It is the scent of candle wax, and chatting with good friends, over good food. It is feeling completely at ease. It is feeling as though there is nowhere else that you are meant to be. It is sweater weather. It is simple. It is comfort food. It is what no number of Michelin stars can compare to. It is a meal prepared with love by a good friend for a family assembled of exchange students celebrating Christmas somewhere on the other side of the world that feels exactly like home.