Outgoing Defense Attaché to Denmark and Iceland Captain (N) Patrick Ratier and his wife Sandrine share their thoughts on all things Danish
Photographs: Céline Martin-Pedersen
Text: Conrad Egbert
Three years ago the Ratiers arrived in Denmark bag and baggage, with their two kids. This month their time here comes to an end. In this world exclusive the diplomat couple talk bread, blondes and everything in-between.
As I walked up the concrete steps of the French Defense Attaché’s residence in leafy Hellerup, it was the peace and tranquility of the area that was particularly deafening. The 100-year-old mansion, tucked away at the end of a quaint street, is nothing out of the ordinary and wouldn’t attract a second glance was it not for the two flags – one Danish and one French – fluttering in the wind on either side of the front terrace.
I rang the bell and waited. I was there to interview Captain (N) Patrick Ratier and his wife Sandrine on their three years spent in Denmark. Patrick, who is the outgoing French Defense Attaché to Denmark and Iceland, leaves Copenhagen later this month for Dunkerque, France. He’s been appointed Commandant de la Marine dans le Hauts de France, or simply, the Navy Chief of the Northeast French region that borders Belgium. It’s a strategically important position, one that he later tells me he’s looking forward to.
“Bonjour!” sings Madame Ratier in true French fashion as she swings open the door, her face free of make-up except for a bit of kohl that makes the brown in her eyes pop. She’s a portrait of elegance. Her dirty blonde hair cascades down her shoulders with an air of unhurried casualness, while her black georgette top and dazzling silver skirt add that touch of elusive French chic that most of us find so hard to replicate. “Please! Do come in,” she offers warmly.
The French aren’t particularly known for their love of foreign languages, least of all English, but the Ratiers have garnered a reputation within the diplomatic community for being easy communicators. Both Patrick and Sandrine speak the language perfectly and so English was chosen as the langue du jour.
Inside, Patrick joins us in the foyer. He looks straight out of Downton Abbey. He was wearing some kind of uniform that he explains is the most formal kind in the French naval forces. To the civilian eye it looked like a navy blue tuxedo crossed with a decorated military costume complete with white bow tie. He was dressed to impress and it worked marvelously.
As we began to discuss where to sit and talk, I looked around the tastefully decorated interiors and wondered why their home hadn’t yet been featured in any of the country’s design magazines. But then when one thinks about it in more detail, it’s understandable why the lux interiors of the Ratier home wouldn’t appeal to the Danish minimalist. There’s nothing subtle about the Ratiers. They’re as remarkable inside as their home is plain outside – ironically a very Danish way to be. Every room in the house told a different story. From priceless French antiques and intricate Persian rugs to French Rococo furniture and charming little knick-knacks picked up around the world, their home was a treasure trove of style and sophistication.
“The garden perhaps?” asked Sandrine politely, as I struggled to snap back into reality, still gawking at the many elaborate artifacts on our way down to their manicured garden at the back of the house.
The Ratiers moved to Denmark three years ago from Paris where Patrick was posted at the headquarters of the French Armed Forces. “It was a case of serendipity,” he says with a twinkle in his eye, “We wanted to go abroad; every three years we have the option to go to a variety of pre-selected countries and then three summers ago Denmark turned out to be the only option on the list, so we just went for it. It was like fate forced our hand and we ended up here.”
But Sandrine laughs and politely disagrees with her husband. She feels things weren’t all that straightforward and there was much to consider. “I didn’t even know where Denmark was on the world map,” she exaggerates. “Plus we’ve always chosen warm, sunny places to live in, so I was pretty skeptical. But then one evening we were at a friend’s house and their daughter had happened to live in Denmark and she said she loved it. So that was actually the pivotal moment for us. That’s when we decided we were going to do it.”
But apart from the weather, Sandrine admits there were other factors to consider, including French schools for their kids, an English-speaking country, if not a French-speaking one and of course not being too far away from homeland France.
A love story
Both Patrick and Sandrine come from distinguished lines of military families. Sandrine who hails from Brittany in the northwest of France comes from a family of Navy officers, while Patrick, who is originally from the Charente-Maritime department in Southwest France, is the son of a military officer. Theirs is a Cinderella story - well, almost.
They met in 1996 at a military ball where uniforms and ball-gowns were the order of the day. Sandrine was studying in Paris at the time, while Patrick was a young officer enlisted at the naval academy in Sandrine’s hometown of Brest in Brittany. She’d returned to Brest to visit family and with a group of friends ended up attended the big Ball. Long story short – Boy sees girl; Boy asks girl to dance. Boy and girl barely talk while dancing and then girl must leave before the clock strikes midnight.
Sandrine can’t stop giggling as she recounts the sequence of events. “It’s like yesterday! He was in uniform and so serious. It was a challenge for me to make him smile. But then when I had to go, he quickly turned super efficient and wrote down my name and address on a map and that was it. Remember there were no phones or emails back then so things like this were really touch and go. I didn’t think anything of it until I received a letter from him in the post a month later. And the rest, as they say, is history!”
History also counts two beautiful children, a son, Guillaume and a daughter, Capucine. “We’ve always been extremely careful with their education,” says Sandrine, “Both Patrick and I come from traditional families where education is everything and we wanted our kids to grow up with the same values.”
Capucine is now attending the famous Paris Institute of Political Studies in Paris, more commonly known as Science Po – an elite institution that is part of the Conférence des Grandes écoles. She’s looking to carve out a carrier for herself in French politics. Guillaume who has chosen to remain in Denmark is doing an International Bachelor in general engineering at the Technical University of Denmark, better known as DTU. He speaks Danish, loves Denmark and plans to remain here forever, or so he says.
"Patrick is with me, he’s my best friend, I don’t need anything or anyone but him" – Sandrine Ratier
With one of the kids now planning to plant roots in the country, one would imagine Denmark has been an amazing experience for the Ratiers. But what was their impression of Denmark when they first got here?
“Clean,” jokes Sandrine without a thought. “And very blonde!”
“Safe,” adds the Defense Attaché, quite aptly. “Society here is very disciplined and therefore very safe. This is such an important thing today. It affects the quality of life in more ways than we understand. The Danes are pragmatic, straightforward and also respectful. There is a lot of trust within society here, which is fantastic. Eight out of 10 people trust each other and feel safe here, while in France the same comparison is two out of 10. There is something they’re doing right. Also I find the Danish are more logical and direct. When someone is doing something silly, people tell you off and this is a good thing because it makes society work better; it makes you more aware of your surroundings and teaches you to respect public spaces.
But three years down the road, do they still feel as positive? The smirk on Sandrine’s face gives her away. “When we first got here we thought everything was going to be easy, but it’s not true, especially for diplomats. There are certain basic things we don’t have access to that everyone else does and that makes life pretty hard for us.” She cautions that she cannot go further into detail.
“Then there’s also the language barrier,” cuts in Patrick quickly. “Despite the Danes being able to speak English perfectly, when I need something done or fixed for example, I end up asking a Danish colleague to intervene in Danish because it works better. Everything works better in Danish.
But not everything is bad insists Sandrine. “There are some great lessons to be learned from this country. Only when you live here do you realise why the Danes are the happiest people in the world. It’s not because they’re richer or healthier than the rest of the world, no! It’s because they’re content. They’re not jealous of one another, they don’t want what their neighbour has, they live within their means and they’re happy doing it. There’s passion for life here and deep respect for the rule of law that you don’t see anywhere else and this is what makes Denmark such a great nation.”
A defense position comes with its challenges and most Defense Attachés have a lot to worry about including security, diplomacy and promoting cooperation with French defense. But Patrick goes out of his way to insist that Denmark is the perfect country to take up such a position, especially for a first-time Defense Attaché.
“Why? Because everything is so straightforward over here,” he says. “The Danes are positive and relaxed, so it’s easy to work in this kind of environment and the work-life balance is brilliant.”
He’s also quick to commend the state visit of President Emmanuel Macron, which he says was a real booster for French morale here and international relations. Even the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle made its first visit to Denmark under his watch – a rare event that he says is extremely historical for both France and Denmark. “Most people don’t realise what a big step it is, for us to send our aircraft carrier to another country,” explains Patrick. “Since I was also Defense Attaché to Iceland, I travelled there to support French ships visiting the area and to discuss challenges in the Arctic. I also did this in Greenland and the Faroe Islands.” But nowhere is perfect and there’s always room for improvement, even in utopian Denmark. So what would the Ratiers do differently if given the chance?
“Bake better bread,” cries Sandrine before cracking into a wicked smile, “They need to do bread better.” But then a proper French boulangerie is not easy to replicate wherever you are in the world. It’s an art form and particularly French.
“I must say though, they’re doing education right,” adds Sandrine, “Our son is very happy with his programme at DTU and we are thankful that Denmark has been able to offer him that. What they have done for European students is amazing.”
Banking is another problem that Sandrine says is not up to international standards. “As a diplomat, we can’t have mobile pay here and don’t even get me started about credit cards.”
Patrick on the other hand feels Denmark needs to pay more attention to the environment and include English on products in supermarkets. “Everyone knows English here, so why cut out a sizeable portion of your clientele by not including English on your products? Also the outdoor heating system here is pretty wasteful. I’ve noticed that even when restaurant terraces are empty, the heating remains on. And then there are those individually wrapped vegetables and fruit across supermarkets here. It’s funny because the Nordic have a reputation for being environmentally conscious, but only when you live here do you realise that’s not entirely true. But I know the situation is not perfect in France either.”
"Society here is very disciplined and therefore very safe" –Captain (N) Patrick Ratier
Au revoir Denmark
One would imagine uprooting your life of three years and moving away would bring hardship and sorrow, but the Ratiers don’t agree. “We just don’t think like that,” says Sandrine looking a little pensive. “Ç’est la vie! It’s just the kind of life we’ve chosen. Patrick is with me, he’s my best friend, I don’t need anything or anyone but him. Our kids are fine too – Capucine will be with us in France; our son is safe here, in a great country, so we have no worries.”
Patrick seconds Sandrine. “We know we have to stay in a place for a fixed amount of years and so we prepare ourselves accordingly. We move forward, that’s how we think. Plus we’ll definitely come back to Denmark to see our son, so we’re still quite connected to this country.”
But while Denmark is high up on their list of favourite places to have lived in – others include Tahiti and Paris – the Ratiers bizarrely award the top spot to Annapolis in Maryland, US.
“I think it’s because Annapolis is a very European city, but with all the American comforts,” explains Sandrine. “The city is very chic and has an old-world charm to it. It’s coastal, so you also have the sea, plus it was convenient for us because it’s not far from Washington DC. Also when we moved to Annapolis, we came directly from Tahiti where we missed those urban comforts we’re all used to. One can’t live in flip-flops and t-shirts forever,” she jokes.
But while you can take the Ratiers out of Denmark, you can’t take Denmark out of them. Sandrine swears by her shiny hygge socks and her seal furs, while Patrick insists he will never cross a zebra crossing when the light is red – a particularly Danish phenomenon – and that he will continue with his early morning dips in the cold sea. But what if there’s no sea? “Aha! It will be a cold shower then!” he laughs.