If Copenhagen were a person, that person would be generous, beautiful, elderly, but with a flair. A human being that has certain propensities for quarreling, filled with imagination and with appetite for the new and with respect for the old - somebody who takes good care of things and of people.
It appears that Ms. Nielsen was describing my Danish landlady when she said these words. At the age of 82, Eva was standing outside her Osterbro home, wearing a warm smile on that chilly morning. She was braving the cold wind to welcome me to Copenhagen on the Monday after Easter. One look at her and I felt at home. If you go from one of the most populous countries of the world to Scandinavia, you marvel about many things. To begin with, octogenarian landladies who wear red lipstick and ride bicycle, live alone, plant flowers, bake cakes and are perhaps fitter than you. The warmth, pride in Danish culture coupled with eccentricity runs in all streams of Danish life. It reflects in their majestic castles, their cuisine and also in their quirky designs. But at some level the life is much evolved. Luckily, I got to decipher this Danish puzzle in the best season of the year – spring.
Talking of weather, April was supposed to be warm and welcoming. Then why were there was this skin piercing cold wind which not only moved the gorgeous windmills in the sea but also quaked my bones covered with multiple layers of clothing. The trees on the road were bereft on any leaves and the green grass below was only half awake after the harsh winter. There were hardly any flowers in sight – even in the famous King’s Garden. To my Indian mind, this was no spring.
For me the first look of the city was of a deserted town. There were absolutely no signs of humans on street. First I blamed it on winds, then on extended Easter holidays. Finally on the third day, the realization dawned that perhaps there are not many people in the city. Well, this was true till the weekend came. As Helen Derbyl writes in her guide on Denmark that the population is scant unless the weather is very sunny or the Swedes very thirsty. So it was only on the first weekend that we saw people and cycles – people on cycles and people walking on the streets…mostly to the beer bars .
It’s a strange capital city- a place where pedestrian set the pace not the automobile traffic. It was rather common to find in Copenhagen mothers safely parking baby carriages (or the famous Christiania bikes with a cart to carry stuff/ babies in front) outside bakeries while outdoor cafés fill with cappuccino-sippers, and super fit lanky Danes pedal to work in lanes thick with bicycle traffic.
In my 11 minute walk to workplace in Mormovej every morning , it was a sheer delight to face the crisp morning air punctuated by golden sunshine in the pedestrian streets redolent of baked bread, baskets of organic strawberries and soap-scrubbed storefronts. If there's such a thing as a heartwarming city sight, this was it!
No wonder that when today’s glittering world metros with their high-rises and traffic troubles , seek enlightenment, they commonly look to Copenhagen. The Danish capital regularly tops world liveability lists. This is one of the globe's greenest, cleanest, most sustainable urban centres, a place where cycling is serious transport, where buses and the metro run frequently and around the clock, and where the harbor is squeaky clean enough for a bracing dip.
But Copenhagen has always been far more complex than Denmark’s “happy nation” reputation. It had other layers to show as well- in all shades of greys , much like the designer coats I admired people wearing there . The gorgeous old town with splendid historic buildings stands near areas that have only recently seen a renaissance after years of gang violence, prostitution and ethnic tensions. The in-famous Freetown Christiania was just a walk away from the city centre with its cannabis selling Pusher Street. In my tour of “alternative”-Copenhagen, I saw some of these areas and was amused to find the unique “solutions” devised by the policymakers to deal with these. To quote one, the state funded designer drug consumption rooms providing a safe haven for drug addicts to inject themselves in calm surroundings may sound weird to many of us. But as the experiment shows, it has proved to be an effective method of bringing down the drug menace and making the neighborhood safe for kids.
For me the more attractive were the places associated with city’s history of witch hunts, executions, mobsters and murderers. With such morbid details of history, it is funny that the city is also reputed to be the fairy tale city. When I set out to explore the Fairy tale side of the city, I went in search of Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Mermaid and almost accidentally discovered magic of Danish weather. In the Langelinie Park, the trees which were standing bare just the other day were almost bursting into pink Cherry Blossoms. With a cute little English Church in the backdrop, combined with the imposing Gefion fountain depicting the Norse goddess Gefjun, the cherry blossoms were on a bloom leaving no doubt that the spring had finally arrived. It, however took me another weekend to realize that there can be an even better place to admire cherry and almond blossoms – Bispebjerg Cemetery. The explosion of a pink and white flower sky was mesmerizing in sprawling space of Bispebjerg Cemetery.
While the little Mermaid surrounded by selfie clicking tourists did not impress me much- it opened my mind to the idea of discovering fairytales at oddest possible places. And then I found them – underwater bronze statues of the family of Agnete and Merman, twisted dragon tales on the old Stock Exchange (Borsen), the spiral stairs to (almost) heaven on the baroque Church of Our Saviour , snow leopards and wolves adorning the town hall building …and of course , Holger the Dane who sits asleep in the casemates of Kronborg Castle - until the day when Denmark is in real trouble and he will wake up and defend the mother country.
After a month of stay, I came to the conclusion that despite all jokes about their language and behavior, Danes definitely have their lives sorted like none of us. They do appreciate what really matters – clean air, green grass, blue waters of the sea….and perhaps a good drink to go with it. The live simple lives enjoying and not destroying nature. They peddle their cycles with great joy – without any pretensions and consciousness of wealth or class .
In the words of Xenophobe’s Guide to the Danes –
“For the Danes, culture is a way of shedding the modern world and retracing their roots. All Danes are inveterate nature lovers. They cultivate an almost masochistic feeling of insignificance coupled with awe at nature’s power and the forces of life. Danish literature is full of examples of characters trying to come to terms with man’s essential loneliness and unimportance.”
If you ask me that is the way to go.