Copenhagen- September 28, 2009
Like Stockholm, Copenhagen is a city I immediately felt comfortable in, one I could spend a lot of time in, if not live there. Everyone seems so cheerful after all the formerly Soviet countries we visited, riding around the tidy town on their bicycles. The Explorer docked right near the little Mermaid, which is a small and fairly unimpressive statue for such a large tourist attraction.
Copenhagen is perfect for wandering, though all streets seem to lead to a shopping district, the center street of which is full of the same kinds of chain stores you find anywhere in the world (with the exception of Ivan Grundahl, who is my favorite designer–even though I’m not much of a shopper, his stuff is more like art—and good thing I had a friend who could do math along to assure me that 3400 kroner was far too much to pay, even for the most gorgeous dress in the world). We had to get off on the little side streets to see some interesting Copenhagen design.
My friend Casey and I found a lovely botanical garden and made our way back to the little harbor where we had our fill of herring, enough to send him back to the States having satisfied his Scandanavian-rooted appetite. That evening the group from the first journey disembarked, along with Casey, and I felt quite alone. I was happy National Geographic photographers Sisse Brimberg and Cotton Coultson invited me to their house, only a ten-minute walk from the ship in the rain, for dinner. Sisse made all kinds of Danish treats—herring, rye bread—along with wonderful salads. Their apartment was full of gorgeous art and photographs; their own photographs are on their website, www.keenpress.com.
I was glad to have a second day in Copenhagen, where I saw the opera house and then wandered with a shipmate over to Christiana, a town within a town, which the locals call “Freetown.” You know you’re approaching when you see graffitied walls and smell the wafts of pot in the air. The town began in 1971, when locals knocked down a fence to a military area to acquire a playground for kids in the green space between the apartment blocks. Over time, people began to squat in the former military barracks. An alternative newspaper, “Hovedbladet,” or “Head Magazine,” published an article about Christiana with the headline, “Emigrate with bus number 8.” Squatters and anarchists came from all over the country. The police tried to remove the people a few times, but gave up. In 1972, Christiana came to an arrangement with the Ministry of Defence, which owns the area, about paying for electricity and water, and was approved as a “social experiment.” In 1973, the government did a turn-around, and Christiana was abolished. Struggles continued, squatters refused to move, and Christiana started a lot of communal baths, children’s houses, garbage sorting, recycling, communal shops, and workshops. Rock groups made a hugely successful record in support of Christiana.
Christiana became a haven for drug dealers, with its lawlessness, and members of the community tried to team up with the police to get hard drugs out of the area; instead, the hash traders were busted, too. In 1980, Christiana took matters into its own hands and declared that junk dealers had to dry out or move out; dealers were removed. In 1994, Copenhagen authorities once again tried to bust the hash dealers, but gave up after a series of hearings with locals. In 1997 Christiana introduced its own currency. In 2000, Bob Dylan came for two sold-out concerts. Now Christiana is Copenhagen’s second-largest tourist destination, with several restaurants, workshops, crafts stalls, and alternative health centers.
After all that history, I was expecting Christiana to be a tidy little hippy utopia, but in fact it was one of the grimmest places I’ve ever visited. The people who lived there seemed tough and unfriendly. The place was dirty, especially compared with clean Copenhagen—I saw piles of trash with rats. Everywhere it looked like the Rainbow Gathering had built itself some haphazard houses. There were pockets of beauty in the place, but overall it seemed ramshackle and hard. We went in to a little hut for some morning coffee, and watched the locals come in with their dogs. Everyone looked like an old hippy: The last remnants of hair piled on top of a guy’s head in a bun, scruffy dress, lined faces, dreadlocks. Hash was available at the bar and on Pusher Street, where people spread out blocks of hash in stalls (they didn’t take credit cards ☺).
Christiana wasn’t a happy place; the people seemed beaten down, not free.
I was happy to leave Christiana to meet Sisse on her bicycle for a traditional lunch of smorrebrod, traditional Danish open-face sandwiches; I picked one of herring in a sherry marinade and tried another pork one with crispy skin. A great restaurant: Slotskaelderen Hos Gitte Kik, Fortunstraede 4 (make a reservation: 33 12 61 25). Sisse took me windowshopping before she left on her bike and I reboarded the ship for the next voyage of the Explorer: the European Odyssey.
A couple of notes on Copenhagen authors:
–Hans Christian Andersen was born in 1805 near Copenhagen, and died in 1875. As a child he made puppet shows and could recite the works of Shakespeare. After his father died, he sang at the Royal Danish Theatre until his voice changed, when he was encouraged to write poetry. A patron paid his way to school. As a young writer, he met Dickens, his idol. Ten years later, he visited England, mainly to visit Dickens. He stayed there for 5 weeks, oblivious to hints to leave. Dickens’ daughter wrote of him, “He was a bony bore, and stayed on and on.” After he left, Dickens published David Copperfield, with the obsequious Uriah Heep, who is said to be modeled on Anderson. He had a lot of unfulfilled relationships until his most lasting, in his 50s, with a dancer named Harald Scharff.
Best known for his folk tales and fairy tales, he broke new ground in using the idioms and constructions of the spoken language in his books. He identifies a lot with the unfortunate and the outcast. The Princess and the Pea, the Little Mermaid, the Match Girl, the Ugly Duckling, the Red Shoes, and the Snow Queen are children’s classics. April 2, Andersen’s birthday, is celebrated as International Children’s Book Day.
–Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen). A wonderful storyteller, Karen Blixen was born in 1885 in Denmark to a privileged family and lived a remarkable life. Her grandfather, Adolph Wilhelm, was a soldier, and traveled through Italy for a while, joining up with his compatriot Hans Christian Andersen between Milan and Rome. In her biography of Dinesen, Judith Thurman writes how Andersen, not yet famous, was large-nosed, effusive, virginal and greedy to be loved. Dinesen, a little younger, was peremptory, dogmatic, self-centered, and good-looking. He got fed up with the sensitive artiste and went his own way. “How very much,” Andersen wrote in his journal, “I have learned from this young, determined person, who has so often hurt me in my affection for him. If only I had his character, even with its flaws. Adieu, D!”
Dinesen began publishing under a pseudonym—she had many—of Osceola, the name of a Seminole Indian leader, a nod to her father’s connection with the Chippewa Indians in Wisconsin, among whom he lived from 1872 to 1873 (Karen Blixen is the name on her tombstone). Close to her father, when he hanged himself with Karen was nine because he was diagnosed with syphilis and didn’t want to endure a feeble end, it was a big blow. She married her second cousin, Baron Blixen, and immigrated to Africa on the eve of World War I, where they had a coffee plantation and became big game hunters. She had a passionate affair with Denys Finch Hatton; after her divorce she continued to operate the plantation for 10 eyars until, the farm failing, she was forced to return to Denmark. She remains one of Europe’s great storytellers, and the author of the magnificent memoir, Out of Africa. More characteristic are her polished Romantic tales, which have a feeling of folk and fairy tales. Winter’s Tales is the most Danish of her books, filled with descriptions of rural Danish life and mythology, as well as the landscape—its stillness and light.
One of my favorites is Anecdotes of Destiny. Stories of “Tempests” and European fables. “Babette’s feast: mysterious Frenchwoman prepares a sumptuous feast for a gather if religious ascetics and introduces them to the true essence of grace. In “The Immortal Story,” a miserly sea-trader turns an oft-told sailor’s tale into reality for a young man and woman. In Ehrengard, the relationship between a noble Wagnerian beauty and a rakish artist.
Another is Peter Hoeg (Smilla’s Sense of Snow). This book (1992) set in Copenhagen by a Danish author, is a mystery that also delves deep into Danish society. Brought to Denmark from Greenland as a child, Smilla investigates the death of a neighbor’s child whom she befriended—which leads to decades-old conspiracies in Copenhagen and then a voyage on an icebreaker ship to a remote island off the Greenlandic coast, where the truth is discovered. Great for a sea voyage!
Hans Christian Anderson, The Complete Fairy Tales
Isak Dinesen: Anecdotes of Destiny and Ehrengard (includes the story “Babette’s Feast)
Isak Dinesen: The Life of Storyteller, by Judith Thurman (winner of the National Book Award).
Peter Hoeg: Smilla’s Sense of Snow