Denmark: Not so happy now

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A few thoughts after being interviewed by RTE (Irish radio, which you can listen to here) about Denmark’s decision to confiscate jewellery and cash worth more than 10,000 Danish Kroner (£1,000) from refugees. Today the Migrant Bill passed through Danish Parliament, despite international opposition. It also means that asylum seekers have to wait three years before they can ask to be reunited with family members.

The Danish Prime Minister, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, has described it as the “most misunderstood bill in Denmark’s history.”  The argument goes that if unemployed Danes aren’t allowed assets before they seek benefits, why should anyone else. Interestingly, it wasn’t just those on the right who voted yes – even many centre-left Social Democrats agree this is a fair policy. And with 70% of Danes putting immigration as a top concern, there is widespread public support towards efforts to curb immigration.

Outsiders seem shocked that ‘welcoming, liberal’ Denmark can be so tough. But the reality is, they don’t care what others think. Danes say they need to protect their borders and their small country of 5.6 million people. But it’s a far cry from the ‘Happiest Country in the World’ name tag that Denmark has enjoyed for so many years.

Why Denmark’s health service needs treatment


A leaflet explaining the emergency phone line

At the beginning of the year, Greater Copenhagen brought in a new health rule.  It decided that patients needing emergency care shouldn’t just turn up at hospital.  Instead they should call a helpline number – 1813 – where trained staff would access the problem over the phone and decide whether or not the patient needed to go to accident and emergency.  If they felt the person did they would book him/her an appointment at either the local hospital or the one with the shortest waiting time.

The system hasn’t proved popular.  Danish news has been full of stories about people waiting in endless phone queues to speak to a health professional.  Others have described being turned away from hospital because they didn’t call the helpline first.  Then in March a woman suffering with chest pains called the hotline and was advised by the on-call doctor to take two painkillers and go back to bed.  An hour later she was dead.

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Information in English about the emergency phone line

On the fist day of my four-year-old son’s summer holiday, he managed to fall out of a tree house.  He was in severe pain and his arm looked very red and blotchy.  My husband called the 1813 number and a nurse called me back so that I could describe his symptoms.  By then Charlie was calmer and the nurse assured me I did not need to take him to hospital because his arm wasn’t broken.  How did she know when she hadn’t seen him?  She told me that because he could move his fingers it couldn’t be broken.  So we followed her advice and found ice from the freezer and gave him some calpol.

The next morning he seemed happier but was still in obvious pain.  A friend of mine who was a GP back in Ireland said she’d take a look at him.  She told me that she thought he had a fracture and that I needed to get him x-rayed.  Half an hour later and I was still waiting to speak to a nurse on the 1813 helpline to book an appointment.  When I finally did get through she told me she couldn’t guarantee he’d be x-rayed but I could go along to hospital and wait.

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Charlie following surgery

We were finally seen – almost 24 hours after the accident.  The doctor, who was both friendly and attentive, agreed to have him x-rayed and guess what, his arm had two fractures – one big, one small.  He was put in a plaster cast up to his shoulder by two more doctors who again couldn’t have been nicer.  But the cast was fairly soft and when my husband took Charlie back for a check-up six days later an x-ray showed the bone had set incorrectly.  Charlie needed a full operation under general anaesthetic to re-break the bone, insert two metal pins and then spend another five weeks in plaster.

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Charlie with his nurse after his first op

Thankfully the op went well and the staff at Hvidovre Hospital couldn’t have been more professional, friendly and caring towards Charlie – they even gave him a teddy bear.  This week he underwent his second op to have both the pins and plaster cast removed.  Again the staff were fabulous and so too were the facilities.

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Charlie after his second op with another great nurse

But that doesn’t change the fact that the Danish health care system got it wrong.  In the UK the health hotline has also been criticised.  But members of the public can still turn up at A and E at any time of the day or night to see a doctor – even if the wait can be long.


The metal pins inserted into Charlie’s arm

There’s no denying that once in the Danish hospital system it was impressive – clean, lots of attentive staff, state-of-the-art equipment.  Sadly, despite the enormous tax Danes pay, accessing those services isn’t easy.  I hope politicians and bureaucrats see sense and sort it out sooner rather than later.




Alex Forrest, reporting from Eurovision

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Apart from enjoying Bucks Fizz’s success a very, very long time ago, I can’t really say I’ve paid much attention to the Eurovision Song Contest.  That was until this year.  How, as a journalist, could I possibly ignore it when it’s being hosted right under my nose, here in Copenhagen?


Photo: Andres Putting/EBU

So having finally got my press pass (see my struggle here), I’ve been a frequent visitor to Eurovision Island.  It’s really nothing to look at – in fact B&W Hallerne at Refshaleøen is an enormous old shipyard built slap bang in the middle of nowhere.  Getting there and back is not easy (it took 3 hours on public transport on Friday afternoon and 1.5 hours in the early hours of this morning).  But once inside, it’s great.


I’ve covered a number of big political events over the years from the G20 in London through to the annual party conferences.  So I was expecting a similar kind of press pack.  Not a bit of it.  The majority of media representatives at Eurovision are pretty much obsessed.  They know everything there is to know about Eurovision over the 58 years it’s been going – they can recite every lyric to every song; they dress to either look like their country or the performer they’re supporting; and they actually cheer and dance as each artist takes to the stage.  (Can you imagine the press doing this at a party conference?!)

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Interviewing Ukraine’s Mariya Yaremchuk

So there I was, with my cameraman/editor, in an enormous press tent covering the first semi-finals for Al Jazeera English.  Our story was pretty serious – Russia and Ukraine battling it out, not just back home, but here on stage.  As it happened, both countries are now through to Saturday’s final, even if the Russian Tolmachevy twins were booed by the audience as their success was announced.

Photo: Sander Hesterman/EBU

Photo: Sander Hesterman/EBU

But imagine trying to edit the piece while the music roars and the press fans go crazy?  It wasn’t easy, but my editor was a true pro and we got it done.  And as a recent convert to Eurovision, I’d do it all again.  If only I had tickets to the Final!

(And if you’re interested, here’s the report I did for Al Jazeera, after both Russia and Ukraine qualified for the Finals.)



Copenhagen named ‘Smartest City’ in Europe

nyhavn2bikes on nyhavn

Copenhagen has yet again come top of another survey – this time for being Europe’s ‘smartest city’.

It’s been awarded the title, for the second year in a row, by ‘Fastcoexist’, a New York-based group that appears to be a melting pot for ideas – and concerned about climate change.

Denmark’s capital has won the title partly because of its green credentials.  As well as named ‘European Green Capital 2014’, it’s also working hard to hit its target of being carbon neutral by 2025.  (Perhaps that’s why our heating bill for just three months came in at more than £600 – ouch!)

Christiania bikes superhighway

I’ve already written about Copenhagen’s impressive cycling ‘super highways’ (see here), but the wide use of bikes also helped the city to the number one spot.

For those interested, Amsterdam came second and London seventh.  You can read more here.

Trying to learn 1,000 Danish words

Some words make me smile!

Some words make me smile!

I began Danish lessons this week – just as a new campaign was launched in the UK urging Britons to learn 1,000 words in a foreign language.  As my course is paid for by the Danish government, it seemed foolish not to try.  But the warnings are right – this is a fiendishly difficult language.

Reading it is hard enough, but speaking it… well it just bears no resemblance to the written page.  And that’s because the Danes seem to miss out so many letters.  Take the word selvfølgelig, meaning ‘of course’.  It’s pronounced ‘sef-u-li’.

I’m not the only one struggling here.  Watch this video by two foreigners trying to help non-Danes pronounce Copenhagen street names.  There’s also an amusing piece written by a BBC journalist who’s trying to master the language by osmosis.  Yes, she’s also struggling.

Many Danes have told me not to bother trying to learn their language – afterall most speak excellent English.  But it seems rude not to try.  And given that we’re expecting our three-year-old son Charlie to pick up Danish at his forest school, then surely I have to give it a go.  As for learning 1,000 Danish words – I think it’s going to take me some time.

Don’t Worry, Be Happy!

Nyhavn in the sun

I love it when I discover that, yet again, I live in the happiest country in the world. This latest conclusion comes from detailed research carried out by Columbia University’s Earth Institute.  On the one hand, I feel proud that we, as a family, have made the decision to move here to Denmark.  As followers of my blog will know, we’re doing all we can to embrace the Danish way of life, in the hope of discovering what the secret is to this nation’s apparent ‘happiness’.

And, even though a lot of the year is spent in darkness, there are many things to be happy about.  For example, there’s the work-life balance; the cheap childcare; good public transport and excellent cycle paths; free universities (you still get grants to study); and a very generous welfare state. Danes may pay for it in high taxes, but on the whole the system is well-liked.

But on the other hand, this happiness lark amuses me.  I mean it’s not like everyone around me is in some smiling utopia. People, just like in any other country, can look thoroughly miserable. Take us ex-pats.  We like to moan about the inadequate supermarket shopping; the poor customer service; our irritation that most shops and businesses shut at five on the dot (or at three on Saturdays); how expensive everything is; and that some Danes can seem standoffish, even unfriendly.

Dig below the surface, though, and you begin to understand why Denmark always does well in these happiness reports.  Danes just seem more content with life. They may have a high divorce rate, but they really value time with their families.  They appear to keep their emotions in check (too much so, some might argue). And above all, they don’t appear to get stressed with the trials of daily life.

Take rush hour traffic – in a car or on a bike. I haven’t yet seen one incident of road rage.  Danes don’t seem to react in the same way some other nationalities do. They mostly stick to the rules, but don’t lose their self-control if somebody else doesn’t. I saw two cyclists collide the other day, but rather then berate each other, they just shook hands, laughed, and rode on.

So while I’m here in Denmark, I intend to do all I can to discover the secret to this happiness. I’ll let you know when I do!