The first in a new series of light-hearted columns about life as a foreigner living in the Danish capital.
Written for IceNews by Simon Cooper
Question: how would you spend a typical Sunday morning after a heavy night’s drinking? Sunk self-punishingly in your bed I should imagine, or at least digging into a warm breakfast – especially in February in Denmark. The Brits might brace themselves for a ‘hair of the dog’ (the famed morning-after, hangover-postponing drink). Some might obsessively cook or clean. Others might suspend in time sat in front of the TV.
Admittedly, during my two-year stay in Copenhagen, I have experienced many of the first sort of mornings, coming round in my bed with mushy eyelids and a cesspit of a throat as if Carlsberg scientists had performed a series of tests on me. Either that or, somehow, struggling to a café for a brunch platter: a remarkable Scandinavian show of strength in sleeplessness that I am almost always amazed by.
A week ago, however, I was invited along to a morning ‘swim’ – a thoroughly Nordic ritual which involves sliding your almost bare body into the cryogenic freeze of iced-over sea through a hole that looks like it’s been fashioned by Inuits for seal fishing. In and around the Copenhagen area there are in fact tens of clubs with dedicated members who practise this pastime (winter swimming, not seal fishing) throughout the year, some with the luxury of saunas and some – like my flatmate’s- without. Either way the Danes love it. ‘It’s good for the immune system,’ I had been repeatedly told by all sorts of people. Right, I would normally think – in the same way a molten lava face pack would be good for your complexion.
Still, 10 o’clock last Sunday came around (bedtime having been about four hours earlier), and three of us marched like proverbial lambs to the slaughter from our central apartment towards the windswept waterway of Islands Brygge, a tidy canal-side quarter whose former warehouses and factories have made way for a new breed of sleek, functional Scandinavian apartment blocks. And among these, and the carefree but curious young families and kids, we stripped down to our swimming stuff in the minus five winds and eased down a rusty ladder into the God-knows-what-temperature sub-zero bath.
Three seconds was about all I could take. Actually, I had to return a second time because we’d forgotten to take photographic evidence — although you, dear reader, don’t get to see said embarrassing photos. Sorry.
Between the two dips I was told to get my feet warm and pull some clothes on, but the Englishman (or child) in me decided it would be better to leap around barefoot on the cold ground shouting like a matador doing the YMCA.
My baptism of ice worked a dream though. An hour later and I felt better than before I’d gone out the previous night.
Looking back on it, the most eye-opening thing is the polar contrast between the Arctic canal water and the seemingly fragile physicality of some of the people who partake in winter swims. Now I’m painfully skinny (and with no hair: putting my head underwater would have been suicidal), but how robust these young Danes are astounds me. How could it have come about? I know they’re often left outside as children. Not like abandoned dogs you understand, but safely, lovingly in layers of clothes, to lie back and take in the fresh air and patter of rain on their designer pram covers. Imagine that in England: as a parent you’d have to take your pick from imprisonment, having your child taken from you by social services or being beaten to death by a community mob.
Read into that what you will, but one thing’s for certain: that much-used idiom ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes’ shows a beautiful contradiction (where were the clothes?) and in turn a feisty handling of the outdoors that are traits I’ve come to greatly admire about Denmark.
Even if next time I might choose the hangover.
Born in London in 1984, raised in the English countryside and a graduate of journalism, Simon Cooper moved to Copenhagen in October 2009 where he has worked as an English language teacher, technical writer and freelance journalist – as well as barman and (very) occasional removals driver. “Learning Danish has been proving fascinating but difficult, and I’ve developed a penchant for sausages and the saltiest liquorice I can get my hands on. Then there’s the beer,” Simon laughs. He writes about food, culture and travel and has had articles published in English language newspaper The Copenhagen Post, in-flight magazine Baltic Outlook and American magazine Nordic Reach, among others.
The second instalment of the Living in Copenhagen Diary will appear on IceNews next week