This post is in response to a reader request from my friend Paul W., asking about the drinking culture here in Denmark. I've added the qualifier "I" to the title because I've only been here a month, and may be able to post another entry on the subject in a few more months.
That said, I have noticed some differences already. Most of these were on a recent trip to Copenhagen for the Fulbright Program orientation. I'll start with the two glaring legal differences between Denmark and the United States. First, the drinking age here is a bit different: there isn't one! That's not to say that there are a bunch of drunk kids stumbling around, just that some families allow their younger members to have a little wine or beer with dinner. You do have to be 18 to be served in a bar or restaurant, though you can buy beer or wine in a store at 16. The second big legal difference is that you can drink in public, which I have now done a few times in both Germany and Denmark.
It was certainly uncomfortable to do at first. A few friends and I had picked up some beers and walked to a park to drink them. I kept looking over my shoulder, conditioned to think that I could be in deep trouble at any moment should a police officer pass by. Many Danes say that one of the trade-offs of having a government that provides so many benefits (healthcare, higher education, and retirement benefits for all) is that the government is also more involved in your life. Many Americans are quick to say that we enjoy more freedoms than any other country on Earth. On this issue, for better or for worse, the US authorities are the ones interfering in people's lives.
I'm not going to imply causation here, but I have observed some anecdotal correlation. The people here do tend to get out and about quite a bit, to enjoy and interact with their environment, and alcohol is commonly a part of this. When I explored Copenhagen, the weather was nice, and the public areas were so full of people that it would have been uncomfortable to fit any more in. Some of these were tourists, but many were obviously locals. Some were sitting on bulkheads along the canals with glasses and a bottle of wine, enjoying it as romantic couples or groups of friends. The canals were busy with boaters, most of whom were holding beers as they cruised. Talk is occasionally overheard of how strict the Swedes are with the blood alcohol levels of drivers.
One of the most interesting moments came on a boat tour of the canals, when we approached a large group of college aged people gathered on a bridge that we were to pass under, and on the bulkheads on either side of the canal. Drinks were out, and many were topless (including women, but that's for another post). They were chanting and singing, but my Danish wasn't good enough to make it out. As we came by, someone blew an air-horn and a large group jumped in from both sides of the canal, doing cannonballs and splashing us tourists. It was a blast!
Can you imagine that happening in Baltimore (my stomping grounds in the US), or for that matter in any other US city? Not just the public drinking and splashing of tourists, but people hanging out with their legs over the bulkheads, jumping in and swimming in the urban canals. Denmark has cared for its environment, and I would speculate that this care may be linked to the fact that people here interact more with their environment. As was the case in Germany, you can just grab a bottle of wine or a few beers and go to a park or a public square to enjoy the community, the beautiful architecture and other public art (which is abundant here), and the natural aspects of the environment itself. In the US, we often have to choose one of these options, and so often we choose to just go drink in a bar somewhere.