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Comment: Danes and Norwegians, bitter envy and brotherly love

The Danish - Norwegian relationship is a mass of contradictions

Although I’ve chosen to live in Denmark, I have a personal relationship with Norway. My grandmother’s family comes from Norway, and as my mother was growing up, her mother told her that our family was Norwegian royalty.

Never mind that there was no modern Norwegian royalty until 1905, when the country became independent, and our family came to the U.S. thirty years before that. My mother grew up being told she was a lost Norwegian princess. I think it was something that her grandparents, who were immigrants, did to make their kids feel special.

Fast forward sixty years, and my mother and her sister, who would of course also have been a Norwegian princess, got a chance to visit Norway for the first time. My mother, who has a good sense of humour, wore a crown on the plane. She and her sister got crowns at a costume store and wore them on the SAS flight to Norway. She said the stewardesses really loved it. When they got off the plane, they did the royal wave. And they went to the Royal Palace and had their picture taken out front, wearing their crowns.

So, bottom line, I’m not sure the Mellish family is welcome in Norway anymore.

Family and family envy

Danes and Norwegians were part of the same country for hundreds of years, and they’re still family. Written Danish and written Norwegian are very similar – so similar that I once tried to find a Danish-Norwegian dictionary and was told there was no such thing. The spoken language is a little more different, but Danes and Norwegians can still understand what the other is saying. But like any family, there’s envy involved. Envy.

For example, there’s envy of each other’s geographical pleasures. Norway has beautiful mountains, great for skiing. Denmark has windswept beaches, which the Norwegians seem to love. Lots of Norwegian summer holidays are spent in Denmark.

Denmark has Copenhagen – which, let’s face it, is a cooler town than Oslo. It just is. Sorry, Oslo.

But Norway has those beautiful, isolated towns on the fjords, with their brightly-colored wooden houses and their long summer nights. If you know any Danish doctors, you’ll know that they frequently take a week or two off and go work in one of those isolated Norwegian towns, where they make a lot of money.

And now we come again to the envy in the relationship. Norway has money. And it didn’t used to have money.

For hundreds of years, Denmark was sort of the big brother in the Danish-Norwegian relationship. Even the Norwegian royal family – the real one – is descended from a leftover Danish prince. His name was Carl, he was a second son, and they sent him to Norway where he took the name Haakon. It was the start of a long royal story followed mostly by the weekly Norwegian supermarket tabloids. Danes used to see Norwegians as nonthreatening, kind of cute. Colourful mountain people with a pleasing, musical dialect, sort of like the English see the Scots.

The little brother is now rich

But over the past thirty years, Norway has become rich, possibly the richest country in the world, because of North Sea Oil. Even though oil prices have been dropping recently, Norway did a good job of saving up revenues when prices were high. Denmark has to worry about how it will finance its welfare state in the future. Norway doesn’t.

There is a feeling among some Danes that that oil should have been Danish oil. During a meeting to divide up the waters between the two countries in 1963, the Danish negotiator, Per Haakerup, was photographed with a glass of whisky in his hand. The rumor was, he was drunk during the meeting and good-naturedly gave up the Ekofisk oilfield, which has since earned Norway billions of dollars.

For the rest of his life, he denied being drunk. His family has actually hired historians to dispel the rumor. And the truth is at that the time, no one even knew about the oil. They thought they were dividing fishing grounds.

But a lot of Danes still believe this story. They believe that some of Norway’s money should have been theirs.

Some Norwegians may believe it, too. There’s an urban legend that there’s a secret room in the Norwegian National Museum in Oslo that holds the empty bottle of Johnny Walker whisky. . . that made Norway rich.

This featured comment is an excerpt from Kay Xander Mellish’s new book: How to Live in Denmark: A humorous guide for foreigners and their Danish friends. You can buy a paperback copy at, or buy the eBook on Amazon or

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