abstract: Copenhagen always had a special place in my imagination. It was the first city I saw in the Western world. My visit was brief; several hours between flights gave us an opportunity just to see Tivoli and the City Hall square. That was decades ago. Going there for the second time this summer, I found myself looking for more than what I remembered. My observations were framed by curiosity about several Danish phenomena. What accounts for the Danes’ reputation as the happiest people in the world? Why are they at the epicenter of the bunker mentality against immigration? What happens to a country when it is no longer an empire? What could a nation of five and a half million contribute to global civilization which is also shaped by others with vastly larger populations and resources? From what I have learned, Copenhagen deserves to rest on its laurels. Yet I find myself sketching it here in stark short strokes. This is peculiar. The picture is more critical than I had expected. I had a pleasant time in Copenhagen; it was friendly. I can only assume that my impressions have been colored by my reflections about those phenomena I mentioned. [Photos]
Design of the provincial
The lobby in the arrival terminal of the Copenhagen airport had hardwood floors. The smooth surface and the clean lines made you imagine “Danish Modern”. In the middle of the hall there were four small glass booths. In each, three smokers were puffing. They looked like caged oddities on display. We drove to the city on nearly empty roads. Beyond the shoulders of the road was green parkland, and beaches beckoned not far away. The rows of houses that soon appeared on the other side allowed in their midst occasional churches and office buildings. They were all low in height, not exceeding three stories. Closer to the center of town there were some people on the move, almost all on bicycles. “Thirty two percent of transportation in Copenhagen is by bikes,” my taxi driver said. It was flat here.
There was water everywhere. Denmark has 5000 miles of coastline, the guidebooks said. Canals connected the inland areas in Copenhagen. Amsterdam was the model and its builders had been imported for the job. “In rush hours, it is faster to go by boat,” advised my driver.
From my hotel on the edge of downtown, I strolled to the City Hall. Next to it, on the main street, there were green apples on the trees. A sculpture of Hans Christian Andersen showed him seated, holding a book of his fairy tales half open, and curiously looking up to the sky. Across the way, Tivoli looked the modest amusement park that it is. When I entered in the rain began. The splendor of its 19th century collections of plants and buildings was dampened.
The showcase Danish Design Center was closed. The stores on Stroget - a pioneer among streets that have become closed to vehicular traffic- were just ordinary. The concrete Milestone that commemorated the location of the old Eastern Gate of the city separated the extension of the same ordinary shops on a street where cars were allowed. Further out, the hoard of souvenir vendors engulfing the tourists made kitsch out of the “world-famous” Mermaid sculpture. It looked forlorn in the water.
For all its reputation as Scandinavia’s largest and most cosmopolitan capital, Copenhagen appeared strangely provincial at first glance. I was determined to take a second look.
“Attention! This is your wake-up call. We wish you a pleasant day,” the voice of the hotel phone said on Sunday morning. The sirens had awakened me earlier in the night. As our guide described the “excitement” there had been a stabbing in a nearby club, causing fire engines to arrive. He attributed the incident to the visit by the Swedish rugby team.
The Swedes have a reputation in Copenhagen for heavy drinking, a habit that goes back to when the cash-strapped Swedish industrialists “paid their workers partly in liquor.” A joke common in Copenhagen, our guide said, is “keep Denmark clean, take a Swede to the border!” The Swedish success in industrializing which began in the late 19th century left agricultural Denmark behind with a lingering envy. The Danes consider their physicist Niel Buhr a founding father of the atomic age, but complain bitterly about the potential fallout from Sweden’s nuclear power plant -the only one in Scandinavia- near their border. The antipathy is so strong that “marrying a Swede is like betraying your country,” a Danish woman told me from her own experience. When she moved to Sweden with her new husband and obtained Swedish citizenship, her friends “simply could not accept it.”
Denmark has had a long tangled relationship with Sweden. The two share much in language and culture. The Danes are descendants of a tribe that migrated from Sweden about 1500 years ago. Their monarchy traces its origin to Hardegon, a Viking warrior who conquered this land in the 9th century. In 1375, Margrethe I of Denmark forged a union with Sweden that lasted until 1523. Even today, the reigning monarchs of the two countries are cousins.
Denmark’s “Golden Age,” was during the reign of King Christian IV (1588-1648). He made Copenhagen into the capital of a Renaissance empire. His many monuments still dominate the city’s landscape. From the top of his last building, the Round Tower (Rundetaarn), I could see what a 17th century metropolis looked like. A skyline of modest-sized, square-shaped buildings of many colors was punctured by steeples, domes, globes, and turrets of imposing churches and palaces. Christian IV’s own castle (Rosenborg Slot) was to the north, the popular Marble Church was in the northwest, the seat of power (all three branches of government) Christiansborg Palace faced me in the south, and in the distance in the east I could see the Church of Our Savior.
At the entrance to the Round Tower was a gilded inscription, a rebus. In a combination of pictures and words it beseeched "God, guide the learning and justice in the crowned King Christian the Fourth's heart". The learning refers to the correct Christian creed. The Tower, however, was built to be a facility for learning, an observatory. It still functions as such.
I walked on its spiral ramp, which is 200 meters long. It was wide enough for horses. The visiting Russian Czar, Peter the Great, was among the last to ride it on horseback. The platform on the top is circled by a wrought-iron lattice containing the monogram with the letters “REP”””, an abbreviation for Christian IV’s motto: “Regna Firmat Pietas” (Piety strengthens the realms). The large hall, which I entered from the ramp, was used as Copenhagen’s library until 1861. It was frequented by the religious philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, and Hans Christian Andersen. The sign on an adjacent room invites you to see the preserved walls, which have soaked up the smoke of their pipes. The hall is now a museum. On this day there was an exhibit of contemporary paintings and sculptures, called “Africa/Now.” It showed the works of more than 30 young artists from 10 African nations.
Invitation is not for absorption
Copenhagen’s invitation to international cultures was also on display elsewhere. Several booths on the edge of the New King’s Square offered foods from Belgium, France, and the Middle East. I shared a table with a Ukrainian-Israeli woman; she had come for a week-long training workshop on Cognitive Linguistics. The lobby of the huge Danhostel Copenhagen City hostel was crowded with youth from the United States. At the New Harbor I talked to a Malaysian TV crew. They were filming a documentary about Copenhagen.
I took the ferry to see the white sculptures on a peripheral island, which were a memorial to the displaced victims of the 1990s wars in Yugoslavia. On that boat, a Danish man was holding hands with a young olive-skinned woman while talking with a Dane who seemed to be the mother of the two boys sitting in the row before him. They went back and forth from English to Danish.
The Danes have not absorbed many from other backgrounds. Ethnic Danes constitute more than 93% of the (5.5 million) population. Another 3% are from other Scandinavian and Nordic countries. The right of the center government of Denmark, which took power in 2001, has made the country’s immigration laws so strict that it has provoked protests by the Council of Europe and even the Danish Red Cross. The Danes became even more controversial after the newspaper Jylland-Posten published cartoons of Prophet Muhammad, offensive to Muslims, causing riots in distant lands. The building which houses the offices of the newspaper looked peaceful, however, as I passed it to see a different kind of free expression.
Children, Queen, and all that Jazz
Banners on lampposts publicized the annual summer festival of jazz in Copenhagen. The venues were numerous. I saw posters on the doors of basement cafes. A couple from Vermont gave me directions to a performance in a big hall by a combo from Brazil. I preferred the outdoors. At the New Harbor, a band played before an audience of mostly middle class, middle- aged people that sat on steps and grass. In the King’s Gardens (Rosenborg Have) I sat down with a bigger crowd. They were different and the music was special.
These were young families with small children. Strollers and bikes were parked next to blankets spread on the ground. A boy of four from a family sitting next to me came over. He invited me to play with his toy, which he now threw toward me. His smiling father called him back when a pizza they had ordered arrived. The music was by a group called Body Rhythm Factory. Three drummers played while rotating among the drums. The kids were enchanted. They lined up close to the platform to watch. Then a vocalist came on the stage and sang to the rapt audience. When the ensemble finished, a recorded tune by Dave Brubeck was piped in. Humming to myself, I went to talk to the band. The vocalist said that children were “special” in Danish culture and this was the reason why the royal family’s popularity had “increased so much by the recent birth of the Crown Prince’s son.”
The reigning Queen’s popularity is also due to her accessibility. Every third Thursday of the month, the Queen sits to receive “any citizen who wants to see her,” our guide said. This old tradition which was to permit petitioning the monarch is now used by the Danes to express their thanks to the Queen; an ombudsman receives the petitions. The Queen’s predecessor gained a unique distinction in Scandinavia by remaining in the country during the Nazi occupation. In those war years, he would regularly visit various quarters of the town, often without guards, our guide said. The monarch’s winter palace (Amalienborg Slot) is in the heart of Copenhagen. The royal family moved to this complex of four mansions originally built to house commoners, when their old palace burned in a fire. Later, another private citizen put in a park with a fountain near these buildings as he thought the simple surroundings could use some embellishment.
The benefactor, Arnold Maersk Moller who happens to be the richest man in the country, also provided the funding for a new opera house on an island facing the Palace. Critics have complained that he interfered too much in the architecture. The roof is especially controversial; some have called the building the world’s largest “toaster-oven.” Moller’s blunt response has been that “his money gave him the right to have a say,” our guide related. He went on to say that some Danes wonder if Moller does not demand the same influence in shaping public policy with the justification that his fortune provides the base for much of Denmark’s tax revenue.
The Danes pay taxes at higher rates than any other nation in Europe. In return, they receive comprehensive social services. They have the reputation of being the most contented people in the world. The discontent of some with the status quo, however, has produced Freetown Christiania. Dubbed the “New Society,” this enclave was established on September 26, 1971 by a group of 700 political activists (also called “idealists, hippies”) in abandoned military barracks on the Eastern edge of town. Not far from Freetown, we were shown buildings on anther harbor that the Danish Navy had vacated; they were now luxury residences.
I went ashore to see the Danish Royal Library. Its new extension is commonly called the Black Diamond because of its shiny granite facade. I rode the escalator through its open and inviting space. The Library houses the original manuscripts of Hans Christian Andersen. The Plaza fronting it is named after Soren Kierkegaard. Since he critically tackled both Hegelianism and the Church’s arcane theology, Kierkegaard’s writing was never easy to understand. Defiantly, he reasoned that, "the task must be made difficult, for only the difficult inspires the noble-hearted.” The Danish Library has more than 21 million books and other sources to help the inspired. [Photos]
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