The happiest country in the world is Denmark, according to the UN World Happiness Report for 2013. This news comes as no surprise to US novelist, critic and short story writer Thomas E Kennedy, 69, who has been living in Copenhagen since 1976. Until retiring in 2004, on his 60th birthday, Kennedy combined his writing with a career working as head of the international department of the Danish Medical Association.
He first set foot in the Danish capital on a business trip from New York in September 1972. “Walking the narrow, winding streets, hearing my heels echo off the cobblestones glistening in the moonlight, I felt quite relaxed – unlike what I felt when I took a wrong turn the month before in Central Park at night,” Kennedy says.
“I thought, this is where I want to live. But it was more than the feeling of security – it was the light, the beautiful old buildings and most of all the manner of the people, who have a tendency to speak in ironic reversals. They say, ‘Lovely weather’, when it’s teeming with rain, and ‘That was not the worst meal I’ve ever eaten’, when the meal was delicious.”
This far north, the dark gloomy winter months are compensated for by the long summer days, which Copenhageners enjoy on nearby beaches or in the city’s many parks. “That’s when the light is hypnotic,” says Kennedy. “I remember when my first child was born, at 2.45am on a June morning, the birds were twittering and the nurse gave my wife and me a bottle of beer and allowed us to sit with the baby with his blue eyes open, gazing around in wonder.” The writer’s ex-wife was Danish; he has two grown-up children and a grandchild aged four.
“As time passed,” he says, “it impressed me how humanistic the country was: comprehensive healthcare, free education all the way through university, if you were in financial trouble you got a hand up.”
The standard working week in Denmark, a country with more than 95 per cent employment and a strong services sector, is 37 hours – which comes as a surprise for some North Americans. “But in turn the Danes work hard,” according to Kennedy, “accomplishing as much in an intense, shorter work week.”
His experience at the Danish Medical Association, writing press releases and speeches, “definitely acted as a stimulus for my fiction writing,” he says. “I also love to sit in a café and be inspired by eavesdropping on the conversations around me.” (He was living and working in Denmark for five years before he felt confident using the Danish language.)
Kennedy praises the way that Danes keep in mind a person’s intrinsic worth, tending not to base this too much on their function. But they can be relentless gossips too, he claims. “I kept secret the fact that I was a writer for the first few years of work for my Danish company,” he says. “I feared that they would think I was not giving the job my all. One evening, I was with one of my bosses … and I shared the joy of the fact that I had just had a short story published. I immediately regretted it and begged him not to tell anybody … By the next afternoon everyone in the company knew I was an author. But I found out that no one minded. In fact, they liked it.”
Winters in Copenhagen are invariably cold, damp and windy, and the locals retreat to the warmth of their homes – or to one of an estimated 1,500 værtshuse, the city’s traditional serving houses, similar to Amsterdam’s “brown cafés”.
Food served in these værtshuse – such as hash topped with fried eggs, washed down with local aquavit and beer – is a world away from the new Nordic cuisine that has put Copenhagen on the foodie map of Europe. A number of restaurants in the city offer locally sourced and foraged seasonal ingredients, including Noma, which won San Pellegrino’s World’s Best Restaurant award in 2010, 2011 and 2012.
But Kennedy prefers the værtshuse, for their food and for sense of history: “Det Hvide Lam [the White Lamb] opened in 1807 only for the Duke of Wellington, shelling Copenhagen from the harbour, to blow its roof off. The duke is dust in the grave, but the White Lamb is still serving its open sandwiches and sardines on rye bread, right across from the apartment where [philosopher] Søren Kierkegaard lived in the 1830s.”
Since his divorce in 1996, Kennedy’s home has been an apartment in the Østerbro district, northeast of the city centre, near a major redevelopment scheme. On the 200-hectare Nordhavn plot, an old area of docks, an ambitious urban regeneration plan will turn this patchwork of harbours and canals into homes for 40,000 residents.
Visitors often remark on the driverless trains, the pride of the city’s mass-transit system, and on buildings such as the glowing blue cube of the Copenhagen Concert Hall, designed by Jean Nouvel and opened in 2009.
Værtshuse aside, Copenhagen feels like a city on the move. “Right now, half the squares and streets seem to be dug up to build new metro stations, new sewer systems, new pavements and the rest,” Kennedy says. “They tear down things that shouldn’t be torn down, for example the wrought-iron pissoirs. Why fix something that’s not broken?”
Although Kennedy travels frequently to the US, he has no plans to live there again. “I once met John Updike at a writers’ conference, and he said, ‘Oh you’re that guy who moved to Denmark. Why would you do that?’ Out of the jumble of thoughts, I managed to say, ‘When my neighbour gets sick there I don’t have to worry whether he has health insurance. And there are not so many people in jail.’ Unconvinced, he said, ‘Well, that’s the beauty of the world. People move around in it’.”
● Copenhagen has a great restaurant and bar scene
● The city’s international airport is close to the centre
● A strong pro-bicycle culture
● The cool, damp climate
● Utility bills are fairly high
● It is expensive to run a car
What you can buy for …
£100,000: A one-bedroom flat needing renovation in the steadily gentrifying city district of Nørrebro
£1m: A four-bedroom detached house with a garden in Copenhagen’s northern suburbs