The last three weeks of September, I have been travelling in Denmark with my sister; visiting family and exploring this beautiful small country of our parents. Denmark is very small: it is about the size of Vancouver Island. It is surrounded by water so the climate is very similar to Vancouver: not too hot, not too cold, lots of rain in the winter, sometimes snow; but generally very mild.

The Danes are very happy people (according to international surveys: they are amongst the happiest people in the world).

After talking with many relatives, it’s easy to understand why. This is a very socialistic country. Everyone is taken care of from birth to grave. They have high incomes (relative to most Canadians), but they also have high taxes: 25% sales tax on everything; income taxes are high; taxes on vehicles are extremely high (240%!).

So most Danes are living in the “middle class”: good incomes, good lives.

The Danes seem to be more active then Canadians; everyone has a bicycle; many people in the larger towns and cities ride the bikes to work, or to the metro trains or buses. Most families have only one small car (remember the taxes on cars is 240%: a $20,000 car costs $68,000!). When we stayed in Copenhagen for a few days, the number of bicycles is unbelievable. And bike lanes are busier than the car lanes. And with the fuel prices at $2.40 per litre, there are many reasons to not use the car.

Daycare in Denmark is widely available to all families: cost is completely based on income and there are many women who have licensed day cares in their homes. My cousin is one of them. She is paid by the government based on the number and age of the kids in her home, she gets a good income and she gets five weeks of vacation every year. So many mothers work (they can get up to 18 months maternity leave).

My sister and I noticed how hedges are used where we would use fences in Canada. Then we find out it is a regulation in Denmark that you cannot have fences, only hedges. It makes for beautiful yards and towns. And so many more birds. Most family’s front and back yards are well taken care of: some grass and lots of flowers and bushes. With the mild climate, everything is easy to grow.

But Denmark is hurting economically: the high wages make it difficult to compete for manufacturing jobs with the rest of Europe (even Germany is less expensive for businesses). So there are many people out of work and young people have difficulty getting work. And the income you receive when you are not working (employment insurance and social assistance) is too good: not enough incentive to try hard to get a job, or they will not take low paying jobs.

Real estate is very depressed here. There are many homes for sale and many cannot afford to buy them (if they are out of work, or making less income). And foreigners cannot buy the homes: you need to live in Denmark at least two years before you can buy a home or a summer home. Danes want these restrictions to be softened so they can sell the homes.

And there are interesting rules around the summer houses (cottages). You cannot live in it year round as your home unless you have owned it at least eight years and you must be retired.

There is some immigration from southern Europe (Turkey) and middle-eastern countries (Lebanon and now Syria): these people often do the work the Danes don’t want to (more menial jobs like vegetable picking and home and office cleaning, etc). The government needs to bring in more immigrants since the Danes are like Canada: we are not having enough children to increase the population enough to continue to prosper.

There was one peculiar custom that made me cock my head. At the cemeteries, when a family member has died, the plot and headstone is paid for with a lump sum that is good for 20 years. If you do not continue to pay after 20 years, the headstone is removed (name shaved off to be reused); and the plot is now available for a new deceased person. I’m not sure I agree with this, but the Danes think this is not strange ‐ it is quite normal.

So why did my father leave Denmark to come to Canada in 1951? Because he was out of work and heard there were jobs in Canada. I wonder how my life would be if he and my mother had stayed in Denmark?

Anni Markmann is a tax professional working, living, and volunteering in our community. Contact Anni at 204-422-6631 or or 36 Dawson Road in Ste Anne.