“So what takes you to Copenhagen?” said the well-dressed woman in the seat next to me on the plane.
I turned from the window, where I was watching the English coastline disappear far below, and met her gaze.
“Well,” I began, “it’s a bit of a long story.” Which was not strictly speaking true – it’s a very short story.
Before this year, I’d never been to Scandinavia at all. So the region remained a concept for me: blond-haired Viking types, winters that were long and dark, high-tax, high-spend welfare systems.
Plus, of course, Saga Norén and Martin Rhode in the unmissable Scandi crime series The Bridge.
In other words, clichés.
But then at the beginning of this year, I decided to move from concept to reality, as I hit Stockholm for a long weekend and discovered culture high and low.
And because I’d visited one Nordic capital, I wondered what the others were like. So in June, I went to Oslo for my birthday weekend. And when when I was casting around a few weeks back for somewhere to go pre-Christmas, I settled on Copenhagen.
Because it was there – and because I’d then score a hat trick in one year. Which in the end is what I told my neighbour on the plane, as I made a long story short.
Lesson 1: don’t always look for rationale behind buyer decisions. Sometimes, they’re made on a whim.
A few years ago, I was sitting in brasserie in Paris with a friend. On the table next door were a group of Swedes – or so I thought. Always one to rush in where angels fear to tread, I interrupted their lunch to ask them where in Sweden they were from.
Norway, they answered.
“But then I suppose we all sound the same to you,” said one of their number, a man with a handlebar moustache and brightly-coloured specs. “Which would be like me saying that the English and the Scottish are all the same. Or the Irish.”
So when I was in Copenhagen, I trod carefully when it came to language.
The Danish capital is separated from Sweden by the famous Øresund (or Öresund, if you’re on the Swedish side) Bridge, where Saga and Martin found the body in Season 1. And there’s lots of to-and-fro between the countries, as people work, shop and party on one side or the other.
And though the languages side by side look remarkably similar, Danes and Swedes are adamant they’re distinct and different.
If you’ve ever watched The Bridge, you’ll know that Danish has a sound all of its own. And though written Danish and Norwegian are more similar, spoken Norwegian sounds much more like Swedish (the famous pitch accent gives them both that sing-song quality).
The differences may be subtle to a foreigner, but to the Scandinavians, they’re absolutely crucial to their national identity and sense of self.
Lesson 2: it’s dangerous to generalise about your audience. Dig deeper, see the difference and tailor your message.
On the Saturday evening in Copenhagen, I joined some locals for dinner, courtesy of my Airbnb host.
One of the people round the table was an expat who’s lived in Denmark for the last four years. A seasoned international traveller, with degrees from the UK and US, he was witty, amusing and a mine of information on Denmark and the Danes.
At the beginning, he said, he had a problem with idea of a ‘progressive’ tax system, with a top rate of 60%.
Yes, you read right – 60%.
Most foreigners do, he said. Many come from low-tax regimes, and can’t get their head around giving more than half of the top tier of their salary over to the state. But the longer they say, the more they see the logic – as they reap the benefits.
A year of paid maternity leave, six months paternity leave. Excellent healthcare, an incredible transport system (the driverless metro in Copenhagen runs 24 x 7) and a comprehensive social security system. The more people interact with the system, the more sense it makes.
And the knock-on effect is that they get so used to the level of public services – and have contributed such a big chunk of their hard earned krone to them – that they stay longer, sometimes to their surprise.
Lesson 3: it takes time for people to accept change. But they do, and explaining change makes them ‘get it’ faster.
On the plane back to the UK, my neighbour asked me what my next destination was.
I can’t say I haven’t thought about it, and it would be nice to put a tick in that fourth box. But as I battle with the tail-end of a cold picked up in wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen, I shudder at the thought of visiting the Finnish capital in winter.
So maybe next summer.