Last week was the ‘potato vacation’ (kartoffel-ferien) at Aarhus University, where my wife and I have been ensconced since September. I must say that, compared to the Americans, the Danes work noticeably shorter hours. First, they have much longer vacations. In addition to the potato week in the Fall (so named because in the old days children were expected to help with the potato harvest), there is also a Spring week off.
Then, the Danes take a week off at Christmas and at Easter and, of course, a long vacation in summer. Over the years I learned not to expect any replies from my European colleagues to e-mails sent in July and August.
When they are not on vacation, the Danes don’t seem to work particularly long hours either. Our apartment is on campus, so I can easily track inflows and outflows. The parking lot fills up between 8 and 9 in the morning, just as in the US, but the exodus here begins earlier, right at 4 pm. After 5 pm the campus is completely deserted.
And the wildlife comes out. Really!
A campus hare (picture taken from our apartment balcony)
In the city, on the other hand, it is not uncommon to see young couples with one or two children in strollers enjoying the Fall weather on weekday afternoons (we’ve been lucky with uncommonly sunny weather over most of September and October). I wonder, does this relaxed way of life help to explain why Denmark enjoys one of the highest fertility rates in Europe?
I do not mean these observation to be negative in any sense (actually, it’s kind of refreshing to see people enjoying leisure and not working themselves to death). They are offered, rather, in the spirit of scientific inquiry. The question is, if the Danes, Norwegians, and other Nordics work so little, how come they enjoy such a high standard of life?
An indirect answer to this question was seemingly provided in one of the talks at the Oslo workshop a week ago. The speaker, talking about Norwegians in this instance, claimed that, while Norwegians are internally not very competitive, they compete fiercely on the international markets. And that competition ensures high labor productivity in Norway. Furthermore, high labor productivity somehow spills from economic sectors exposed to international competition into protected sectors, e.g. banking services (I did not get the mechanism of this, however).
Sounds very good, actually. I particularly liked the implied logic of multilevel selection: Norwegians cooperate together to better compete against non-Norwegians.
The speaker then compared Norwegian and American approaches to banking. Apparently, the Norwegians have done away with paper checks many years ago, because they are very inefficient (they have to be processed by hand). Instead they switched to electronic transactions.
Again, sounds very good. However, the reality is otherwise. At least, I can report on my experiences with the Danish banking, although it is not beyond the realm of possible that the Norwegian banking industry indeed works much better.
We’ve been here six weeks, and I only just now managed to pay the rent for our apartment. And it was quite a saga. First, soon after we arrived on September 1, I took the bill and went to the nearest Danske Bank branch to pay it. But the nice Dane there explained to me that they only deal with investments, they can’t deal with such mundane things as paying bills. That actually turned to be incorrect; people here speak English so well that when use words differently it can trip you up. After I went to two other banks, I finally found out that they simply do not deal with cash, or checks, or bills. There was only one place, central branch of Danske Bank (DB) in downtown Aarhus, that could help me. So I went there, and learned that they (1) couldn’t take my credit card, (2) they couldn’t take my debit card, (3) they couldn’t handle a transfer from a US bank, but (4) they would accept cash. However, (5) they could only accept cash amount of 7,000 kroner or less, and the bill was for more than that. In other words, the only way I could pay this bill was by getting a Danish bank account.
To be continued: Part II
Disclaimer: This blog should not be construed as a critique of the Danish people and Denmark. That would be quite ungrateful, because I am here as a result of an invitation by my Danish colleagues. Furthermore, my wife and I are greatly enjoying our sojourn here. It’s also a great opportunity to observe another society from the inside. These remarks should be taken in the spirit of scientific inquiry.