Twenty-something years ago I’d just arrived in Denmark and was taking the train somewhere with my girlfriend. She buys a few bottles of Carlsberg at 7-11 and off we go. I’m sitting in the train, feeling like a badass outlaw, thinking of ways to open this beer, when I see a shiny pair of shoes on the floor in front of me. It’s the ticket collector. In a flash the beer disappears under my jacket. The ticket collector reaches out to me and takes the bottle. I hear police sirens, the heavy clang of jail doors, the rustling of deportation papers. 

He takes out his bottle opener, flips the cap off and hands me my beer back: “Have a nice day”.

A few months ago my 9-year old (yes, I married that beer-buying girl and had babies with her) started at a new school. Sometimes we go to the supermarket next door to get some snacks. The supermarket is full of teenagers from the same school, stocking up on beer. Which is nothing unusual because in Denmark you can buy beer from the age of 16, but that didn’t stop my Facebook friends from having a meltdown when they heard about it.

This is the fundamental difference between my Facebook people and the Danes. Where I’m from there’s a certain fire & brimstone associated with alcohol. When my buddies in high school were drinking and having fun, I held back, studying the blade, in the grip of a mortal existential terror. Alcohol makes you fall down in the street and pee yourself. Turns you into a gibbering monkey. Children point and laugh. It corrupts your soul. You become a wife-beating monster. Order and basic decency go out the window. God weeps at the sight of you. There’s a stigma.

All of that is non-existent in Denmark. Alcohol is just a bit of fun, nothing more. My wife’s parents would laugh at her hangover in a convivial, yes-we-know-the-feeling way that I found refreshingly open. Maybe the Danish lack of judgemental religiosity has a lot to do with it (it totally does, I just need to back it up with science).

(Another thing I can’t back up with science is that the Danish language is based on centuries of unabashed alcohol consumption. It can’t just be a happy accident that your Danish pronunciation gets so much better the more you slur your words. But I digress).

Danes are characteristically reserved. Think Mr Darcy, but more 21st century and less passive-aggressive when annoyed. There is a strong awareness among Danes that alcohol is a gateway to their warmer, more welcoming selves, so when they start drinking they are really going to battle with their own icy exteriors. This duality is apparent when middle-eastern immigrants describe the Danes as “cold”, but Norwegians and Swedes describe them as boisterous party animals, probably secretly descended from fire-breathing, samba-dancing Brazilians.

As a foreigner you will likely feel the pressure to keep up with the drinking. You’ll be out of place if you don’t drink. Young Danes enter this brave new alcoholic world, and there is no moral force, no wagging finger to stop them (the same goes for smoking; no one cares if they see a teenager smoking on the street).

In fact, they probably feel that it’s their prerogative, as Danes, to drink. It’s an expectation. They’d be shunned if they didn’t, and that’s not much of an exaggeration. It’s a dilemma for many. Parents fear that their children will become outsiders, and would much rather sacrifice them on the altar of Bacchus than suffer such ignominy.

Sober youth cause for concern

Of course, this is alcohol we’re talking about, so realistically there are problems, with tens of thousands of youngsters having a problematic relationship with it. And yet Denmark is a country of straight lines, where people manage to not fall off their bicycles en masse because they’re too busy juicing it up, and society seems to be functioning fine. 

My younger self would be simultaneously aghast and impressed by this state of affairs. Alcohol might be neither heaven nor hell, or it might be both – but if it motivates a Dane to talk to a total stranger (me) while at the same time boosting my Danish pronunciation by 3000%, that’s what I call a win.

Skål (cheers) is not pronounced skoal (to rhyme with coal). Don’t believe those websites and travel books. It rhymes with stall

See more about Danish pronunciation here