Author Archives: Andrew Reckers

A Sort of Homecoming

Last week brought me the good fortune of seeing a couple cities in Eastern Europe as well as a few nights in the hidden gem of Malta. It really was quite a privilege and it’s wild to realize that I will likely never forget this trip. But despite the gray skies and bizarro language, it was lovely to sit on the comfy seats of the S train and know I was back in Denmark.

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The City of Viking Love, of bikes and liver paste. And there is much to celebrate here. Aside from a new 7/11 in the Norreport train station, Tivoli (amusement park) is now open, fountains are turning on all over the city, and the queen turns 75 next week. There are rumors of free pastries at the celebration.

The part of Denmark that currently has me captivated is the incarceration system. That word, though, incarceration, might even be taking it a step too far. The majority of Danish prisons are called “open” prisons, and the policies and facilities are just about as relaxed as the name suggests. When this was introduced to me, it came all too fast and caused a bit of a shock. I had never thought of myself as a defender of the American prison system (while admittedly not knowing much about it), and so was surprised to feel such strong negative feelings when the Danish open prison system was first described. So I’ll start with some simple differences.

1) Prisoners (in both open and closed prisons) can wear their own clothes.

This seems like a nice gesture, maybe indicative of something larger…

2) Prisoners have their own rooms with TVs, and share a kitchen where they can cook the food they brought from the on-site grocery store.

Wait a minute…where do they get money to buy their own food…?

3) Prisoners can hold jobs that pay near minimum wage (higher than US minimum wage) and even go to University. These occupations can take place on, or off, of the prison grounds. Sick pay is issued when a prisoner falls ill.

This is when the whole picture starts to become visible.

4) Prisoners are allowed to go home every other weekend, sometimes more frequently


5) Guards are not armed.


6) Some open prisons have a local bus stop running right through the prison grounds that carries normal citizens and can be used by prisoners to go into town when they are allowed.

Prisoners are actually allowed off the grounds all the time, for jobs, family, and purely for recreation. They interact with everyday citizens and participate in normal events. This all leads to the core difference between Danish and US prisons. Danish prisons seem to avoid anything resembling punishment. They strive for comfortable conditions, to empower the inmates, and give them opportunities for their post-prison lives. The US system is centered around punishment, the 3 S’s always seem to be the goal. Make punishment Swift, Severe, and Certain (a “c” snuck in there). They don’t even seem comparable. But these open prisons deal with rapists and murderers, the same as in American maximum security prisons. Closed prisons in Denmark are generally reserved for those who have abused their time at an open prison.

Open prisons are not quite a 24 hour Tivoli (see above)- they do have some rules. No internet access on the grounds is a big one. Also no alcohol on or off the grounds, and certainly no drugs. Gang members are also sent to closed prisons. And a Danish brochure for prisoners reminds them that, “It is a criminal offence to escape from the prison”. Rough. They’ll be glad to know that Danish prison terms are significantly shorter than US prison terms.

I’ll be keeping an eye out for axe murderers on the mean streets of Copenhagen but so far so good.

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A new number has been plastered over Copenhagen’s public transportation system, leading to a bizarre combination of shock and shoulder shrugs. No, it is not the numbers 7 and 11, though they are never far away. Seriously:

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It is actually a much larger number, especially when taking into account the reverse role that the comma and period play in European numbers.×540/33373496-454215.png.jpg

454,215 kroner, over 66,000 USD. That’s what a married couple with three children receive from the government every year without working. That would put you in the 60th percentile of American families for not doing a single thing but holding on to a Danish citizenship, although that is not entirely comparable because much of this 454,000 kroner is taxed at the same high rate that normal income in Denmark is taxed at. Other ads described how the same couple working two full time minimum wage jobs would make merely an additional 2,000 kroner per month, a yearly difference of 3,500 USD yearly for two people working full time or not at all.

In my small sample size, I’ve seen the three separate reactions. My host dad was mad, with the theme of “this is not like how it used to be” underlying his anger. Danes have been able to trust each other for so long, likely due in part to sharing such a common ancestry and being part of this small tribe. The idea that people might use and abuse welfare in such a way is nothing short of flabbergasting. There is a sense of betrayal. Stories of older generations turning down pensions and other such benefits because they simply didn’t need them still circulate regularly, with the melancholy understanding that for some reason it is no longer that way.

My host dad’s friend feels like these are clearly flawed policies, but are not tearing the country apart.

One of my teachers simply shrugged and thought, “Oh, that’s how much it is?” when she saw the ad. She doesn’t want people to actually live off of the benefits, but believes that the vast majority of Danes do not and will not. Like many other Danes, its hard for her to imagine where to possibly start in cutting back benefits.

The most surprising part of these reactions for me was that so little of the shock and emotion came from the amount of money. Rather, it came from the idea that it would dare be used to support a non-working family. It’s like I’m witnessing the birth of the welfare queen- it seems as though many had never fathomed one could exist before!

The political party that put out this ad is called “Venstre”, which literally translates to “Left”. This makes sense, because they are well left of center politically. But in Denmark, they sit far to the right of the most popular party, the party that has had political control for decades, the Social Democrats. The entire mainstream party system, in fact, happens on the left side of the political spectrum. This ad was clearly a challenge to the ruling Social Democrats, and a few days ago they responded with their own bus and train encompassing ad campaign:

“COME TO DENMARK AND YOU SHALL WORK” it proclaims boldly. Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the Prime Minister of Denmark, smiles just below these fateful words. Her opponents in Venstre have admitted to thinking this ad was an April Fool’s joke at first, and my host dad was quick to admonish the Social Democrats for bending to whatever needed to be said to win. The ad seems so ridiculous because the Social Democrats have created the current set of policies and now seem to be running away from them.

The issue is complicated. Immigration and racism are very much tied into it all. And at the end of the day, my host dad complains that in the last decade or so he can only get free healthcare in the EU, not the rest of Europe and Northern Africa. So, yes, some differences do still exist in the globalized world. We’ll wrap this one up with a funky modern sculpture.

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It’s happened- the first crossed out O to appear in a title. Likely won’t happen again because I have to copy/paste it from Wikipedia seeing as my keyboard is limited to the 26 English letters. Went to that winter wonderland last week and it did not disappoint.

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Not the warmest place I’ve been (certainly the coldest, in fact), but that didn’t matter quite as much when bundled up in a green polar jumpsuit that provided about 10 inches of full body padding. We came for the ice cores, we stayed for the amazing headfirst sliding down icy walls and snow-covered mountains.

This was for the DIS signature trip, the “long study tour”, meaning that myself and my 18 core course buddies landed in the thriving metropolis of Kangerlussuaq, Greenland on Monday morning and were trapped there until the sweet sound of the seatbelt sign turning off on Friday morning. The class is a case study of Greenland, taught by two ice core-ologists who were our personal guides on this educational playground tour.

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Those dogs and a few others pulled us around a frozen fjord for a few hours, our bodies thankful for the full-body seal suit that was lent to us. Dinners were a spectacle as well, as we were lucky enough to immerse ourselves in Greenlandic cuisine- all sorts of freshly caught fish, a couple types of whale, musk ox, and reindeer. In between, we saw the edge of the Greenland Ice Sheet (GRIS), the massive polar cap the covers about 90% of the 5-Texas sized island. One afternoon brought us to the top of the ice sheet, after following the longest road in Greenland (70 km). From there we were able to practice ice-core drilling and take some surface level samples to later test the age of the trapped air back in Copenhagen.

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And hey! Check out that machine! Seven crazy dudes have it locked away in their evil laboratory outside of Kangerlussuag. They are mostly occupied with tracking the Northern Lights (yea saw those too), but this machine was about all I could comprehend from the visit, although it entirely blows my mind. It clicks about once a second, but at a seemingly random pace. Each click is (allegedly) the sound of lightning striking the earth. Anywhere. On the whole planet. It has some radio signal that allows it to pick up a lightning strike nearly simultaneously from anywhere on the globe. Holy moly.

To the statue:

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