From Isolation to Obligation: individuality and community in Denmark and Spain.

Views from our neighbourhood in bright, bustling, not so communally minded, Barcelona.

The following is a piece I wrote in the pre-corona days - a mere couple of months (lifetime) ago. The days when I could take myself off to a cafe for the luxury of thinking / writing / figure my life out /me time. After procrastinating on it for weeks, I considered scrapping it entirely and starting again through a corona lens, but I think that warrants a part 2 of its own. For amongst the plethora of things Corona can be credited with exposing, is the undeniable relevance of the social contract and the myriad of ways in which these relationships, with state, society and family play out for better or worse in the face of such a crisis.

A little more than two years ago I moved with my family from Denmark to Spain. Having lived in Aarhus for five years we were desperate to shed a few layers, warm up and fill the void we felt in Scandinavia. We moved from one of Europe’s northernmost, richest and ‘happiest’ countries to one of the southernmost and the one with the longest life expectancy in Europe. From one of the coldest to the warmest, from one of the most equal to one of the least (Spain still beats the UK nonetheless), and from the best work life balance to, well, definitely not the best statistically, but one that certainly puts a little more life in life.

We had to confront a little existential fight to make the move. Denmark is quite a catch. The benefits and financial incentives on offer make leaving and the loss of the same tricky to justify, especially with children. You know that to leave is to sacrifice a level of security and an overall standard that will be hard to come by elsewhere. Yet you know simply for your sanity that you must.

We made the move knowing that the challenges we felt would not just disappear and we have certainly confronted new ones. In particular, we wildly underestimated the impact of the move on our daughter to whom, unlike us — and despite her few years, Denmark was ‘home.’ For us too, Danish particularities had made their way into our everyday lives, from the once loathed rugbrød to leaving our sleeping child outside in the pram. Many valued Danishisms had become normal and we knew we were going feel their absence.

The past two years has provided a fascinating peek into a distinctly different Spanish way. The differences, to state the obvious, are stark and often tormentingly polarising, placing the mother-ship UK like an unlikely neutral reference in the in between, with neither the best nor the worst of the extremes.

Of all the differences, those that stand out most significantly are the contrasts in the way people and society function, the relationships people hold with each other, with community and with the state. These relationships and nuances affect every part of everyday life: a constant reminder of how socially and culturally subjective the human experience is.

Trust and the social contract

The fundamental ingredient that makes everything work as well as it does in Denmark is ‘Trust.’

The state trusts the individual (the Danish individual, mind) to fulfill their side of the social contract — to willingly contribute their taxes, to follow the rules and take care of the generous public facilities available. To see through, without deviation, the motions of life — study, work, buy house, move to suburbia, die contently.

Individuals trust the state to spend their taxes fairly, because it does, and so ungrudgingly give on average 45% of their salary. In turn the state provides free education all the way through, heavily subsidised early years childcare, excellent free public facilities and generous welfare safety nets should you ever experience unemployment or sickness. You can trust that the state will take care and are perhaps as a result less dependent on family to do so.

Individuals also trust each other. They trust that the person sitting behind them on the bus will respect their property and therefore don’t have the need to guard their belongings. I frequently walked around with my phone sticking out of my bag front pocket, left my bags unattended whilst I ran after a toddler, left my laptop when I popped to the loo in the library. Trust boxes are the norm in Denmark, on country roads you can expect to pass farm gates selling produce for the passer-by to collect and leave payment at their discretion — which they will always do.

BBQs for public use in a park in Aarhus, Denmark: Trust, as an intrinsic part of the social contract, mean such facilities are freely available for all to use.

Yet where the relationship between state and individual appears uniquely intimate it is in the same breath protective and defensive. The individual so readily trusts the state and society that to question or criticise it is heavily frowned upon. We shared our gripes in hushed voices because as foreigners to do so would elicit a raised eyebrow — why, the undertone says, are we here benefiting from this trusting relationship if we are critical of it?

In a way, noting the careful balance of trust, the Danes anti everyone other than Dane (but more so the browner you are) stance kinda starts to make some sense. Trust, and therefore implicitly the mechanics of the state, works because of sameness: same ancestry and generational contributions to the state (which constitutes by birth right your right to your place), same thinking and the trust that everyone else is also playing their part, overall governed by the infamous Jante Law — sameness even within sameness. The downplaying of individual achievements, dressing the same so as not to stand out, not having some far-out idea or expectation, not really creating something vastly different. Encouraging intelligent thought and progress — but firmly within the bounds of the same.

We are the same, we contribute the same and we therefore deserve the same, can take a bit of a knock when someone looks and behaves a little differently. So sameness is encouraged, individuality not particularly rewarded, and foreigners frequently shunned. Whilst you and I remain, we have an obligation to be grateful. It’s deplorably understandable and yet the weight is oppressive, because you or I will never be the same and you will feel it every day of your Danish life. And all of your stifled differences and own opinions, and need just to consume, see, breath something else different if only for the pure joy of difference, will cling fiercely and depressingly to you — as a reminder that you cannot ever belong.

Even if you wanted to.

The Spanish (in which I’m going to go ahead and crudely include Catalans) on the other hand do not share such a relationship with the state nor to each other. Without delving too much into the politics, already the oneness / sameness that Danes depend upon to underpin their trusting relationship with the state, is inherently fractured in Spain. Significant parts of Spain want independence and clearly a great effort has been made to maintain the differences that divisive politics benefits from. And even, if we ignore regional politics, I know that my experiences in Barcelona (or any other location in Spain) is unlikely to be shared across the country. Aarhus, on the other hand is a safer predictor of experiences elsewhere in Denmark, sameness is such.

Spaniards contribute a little less Tax than their Danish counterparts, 24–45% income dependent, however it is still a significant proportion and from anecdotal observation, there is less evidence of the tax being spent well on public facilities. State corruption is widespread which fundamentally undermines trust and no doubt contributes to the comparably greater gaps in welfare. Individuals are reliant for longer on their families to support them financially, maternity leave is painfully substandard at 3 months, schools and libraries simply don’t enjoy the same resources.

On an individual level it is a little unfair to approach this solely from a Barcelona perspective, the notoriously dubbed pickpocketing capital of the world. Of course here you wouldn’t trust the person next to you on the metro platform. (And literally, as I write a young girl is searching frantically for her missing phone). But, perhaps telling of something more cultural than opportunistic, it also appears as though people here don’t even really trust their neighbours. There is form of individualism in Spain that the Danish communal trust affair overrides.

Take what could be shared communal spaces for example. In Barcelona, the interior of a square block of buildings and apartments is routinely carved up between each building. Moreover, what remains is the sole property of the ground floor dwelling. In Denmark, it is highly likely that this interior area will be shared amongst the entire block — a place for all kids on the block that overlook it to enjoy. And on the occasions it is divided, at least all apartments within the same building will enjoy access. Its upkeep –frequently a communal responsibility. This doesn’t imply that a whole lot of socialising will commence here, but the space itself is shared and cared for, for everyone’s personal gain.

The large rooftop terrace on the building where we live now in Barcelona could be utilised as an amazing communal space, especially in summer, and even more so in space starved Barcelona. Instead a dispute over its appropriate use has meant that access has been restricted to all residents. The underlying sentiment being that you can’t trust each other enough to take care of shared property. And for the most part, you can’t.

It is a direct result of the lack of (Danish) trust based social obligation that the streets and even the parks are littered with dog excrement. Many other things suffer without social obligation -it allows, for example, landlords to exploit the tourist driven market rents and charge inconceivable fortunes to Barcelona residents, in the absence of regulation.

But where trust, social obligation and a strong social contract is lacking, individuality, in its more positive and creative sense, and difference, prosper to a greater extent. Perhaps admittedly more indicative of a cosmopolitan city than Spain in general: consumer choices, clothing, opinions all display less uniformity. Social norms, as is the case anywhere, exists but outward expression and creativity enjoys greater freedom. It contributes to a feeling of possibility outside of the norm and of acceptance of difference. Ultimately, as an outsider, a greater chance of belonging.

The individual, the family and the community

It is apparently contrary then when you look a little closer at the expressions of individuality and community and find that whilst the Danes are, on the whole, a communally considerate bunch, they are also highly self-isolating and introverted. And whilst the Spaniards are rather more self interested when it comes to social obligations to strangers, the breadth of their social connections, from the family and beyond, reaches far more generously. This is evident in the ways people relate and communicate with each other directly and indirectly.

In Denmark, it would be considered rude to sit next to someone else on the bus when there are free seats further down. Small talk is not appreciated lest you put someone on the spot, forced to have a social interaction with someone they don’t know. For the same reason it is not OK to ask others to join social appointments with Danish friends and is the reason why many invitations will be declined. Danes don’t particularly like to socialise with people they don’t know and as a result seldom increase their pool of acquaintances.

In the early months of living in Denmark we took the train from Copenhagen to Aarhus. My husband, a big fan of quiet despite (or maybe because) of being Spanish, booked seats on the silent coach. I was devastated. Sitting for 3 hours in complete silence, with meh views to maintain your despair was an inconceivable torture. I realise this sounds a bit much, but it was a pivotal reckoning. If anything has brought us close to breaking point it was during these first months in Denmark, where when I felt like my sense of self was being brutally suffocated, he was enamoured. He was house hunting and I was plotting my escape.

There is a positive side to all of this, when your personal space, physical and otherwise is respected. Personal boundaries are an inherent part of existence in Denmark and when not taken to the extreme where they isolate you socially, are an essential ingredient in living autonomously: in which, I am learning particularly since having children, resentment-free freedom can be found.

And then there is Spain.

For every Danish word uttered sparingly and reluctantly, there are 50 unconstrained Spanish ones, sometimes on top of each other, sometimes repetitively, frequently loudly but always welcoming and inclusive. A small-talk starved soul will be quickly nourished in Spain.

The Spanish lack the Danish, and even English, social awkwardness. They just seem to know how to converse with people they know and people they don’t for sometimes inordinate lengths of time, at complete ease. They have the social self confidence that their northern counterparts lack. And their freedom in society is evident by the amount of time they spend within it. Where Spain holds the EU record for the most bars per inhabitant, you cannot find a single restaurant or cafe in many country villages in Denmark.

My husband and I have the theory that this social identity is reflected in the importance placed on interior design. The sophisticated and often expensive Scandinavian style resulting from a greater amount of time being spent indoors within an individual family unit, versus the Spanish non-style (sorry) because they spend theirs outside with others.

And on personal boundaries, where the Danes genuinely wonder why you think its your business to ask how they are, the Spanish are busy asking whether or not you breast or bottle feed your baby. Strangers are patting your pregnant stomach, sharing unsolicited advice and their own life stories.

This is one area I have found the most challenging on either end of the spectrum, in both Denmark and Spain. Such sharp boundaries leave you feeling socially disconnected in Denmark. A deep loneliness in the silence and absence of meaningful interactions. Yet on the other hand I have often felt that the Spanish way can also be too much (It’s too much for example to spend 4 hours on a sunny day sitting down to lunch), where social obligations stifle boundaries and where group plans and decisions override the preferences or needs of the individual.

And whilst one part of me loves the idea of kids being up late and partaking in every day life, and I have no doubt that this early social exposure contributes to their ease later on, at the same time I can’t help but feel that kids are dragged everywhere whether or not it makes sense for them. Regardless of how much sleep a child actually needs, dinner is happening at 10pm and they are expected to join. And whilst all restaurants in Spain are frequented by families and children, too few have facilities like high chairs and changing tables that actually consider their individual needs.

So there exists this paradoxical version of social inclusivity: you are welcome and included in the group but you can leave your individual needs and preferences at the door.

You are either alone with your individuality and autonomy (Denmark) or together without it (Spain).

The past two years have indeed confirmed many of the reasons we sought to leave but there have also been countless times we have found ourselves comparing “…well in Denmark…”

On paper, if it were a competition, Denmark would win every time. In many ways, and notably — if you are Danish, it is the fairest, most honest, most equal, most secure place to be.

I miss many Danish things: public resources, everything related to children (healthy eating, practical clothing, mainstream progressive education approaches), their attitude to work-life balance. I miss trusting other people not to steal my things.

But because life is not pragmatic, ultimately it boils down to what extent does the place you are in enable you to feel and realise your best self. Where nourishes your soul? Where do you feel the most alive? And because the weather is a major deal breaker for me, Spain wins. I need to feel alive, connected, inspired. I also need, seemingly shallow, sensory stimulation. I want to see the blue sky. I want to walk into a shop and feel like, Oh that’s different. That’s interesting. I want colour and noise and energy, and that exists here, in abundance. And I would rather any day the discomfort of asserting boundaries than the quietness of knocking on a closed door.

I find myself wondering what a place could look like that combined the best of both. Communally minded spaces filled with a Spanish love of life. Interdependent family and community relationships coupled with Danish autonomy. Beautiful nature in the sunshine that is at the same time clean and cared for.

And social responsibility not solely for the purpose of individual comfort and benefit, but for a more shared and socially connected experience.

Observing, writing, creating, raising humans.