05 May 2009

life, smørrebrød, and the pursuit of happiness in denmark

Some pictures and musings from my time in Denmark with my good Gates friend Talia. It was likely my last weekend jaunt to a new country, sad to say, as I reach the limits of Papa Gates' munificence.

Danish Patriotism. From my limited pre-trip reading about Denmark, I learned about the Danes' remarkable levels of patriotism, marked above all by gratuitous flag-waving. The Danes did not disappoint. As we exited customs and immigration at the Copenhagen airport, there was a throng of people awaiting their friends and relatives, about half of them with Denmark's red and white banner in hand. In one of Copenhagen's spacious city parks, we spotted a group of young adults lounging with an evenly spaced phalanx of Danish flags around their picnic blankets. City buses and street vendors, like the one pictured above, also show their national spirit. (By the way, just to the left of the bushes in the picture you can see Denmark's most undeservedly famous landmark, the Little Mermaid statue in Copenhagen harbor.)

I tried to figure out what accounts for the Danes' patriotic streak, and I wonder if it has something to do with the country's small size and its tendency to be thrashed around by the broader currents of European history. One of many fascinating episodes was an early and short-lived experiment with Enlightenment-style political liberties, led by King Christian VII's personal physician, who made himself de facto ruler as his boss descended into schizophrenia. During World War II, Denmark folded relatively quickly in the face of a Nazi invasion, but the resistence movement did manage to smuggle 90% of Danish Jews into Sweden. Today the country continues trying to find its voice among the much bigger players of the European Union.

Minor Obsessions. Talia's petty obsession for the weekend was sandwiches (more on those later); mine was spotting Sweden. Copenhagen is at the far eastern end of Denmark, separated from the Swedish city of Malmö by a narrow channel. We got a good long look at Malmö from the air during an aborted landing, a go-around and a successful landing, but I wanted to see it from the ground. This isn't as easy as that map might suggest, but I did spot Sweden from a train station and then from the clock tower of Copenhagen's city hall, pictured above. Sweden now joins Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, and Jordan among the ranks of countries I haven't actually visited, but have looked into while standing in another country.

Damn Hippies! During our meandering walking tour of Copenhagen, we happened on a ragtag protest proceeding through the streets. Most of the protestors were disaffected-looking young men, and they paraded behind a tractor rigged up with a stage and a sound system. It didn't take us long for us to figure out what they were after–legalization of marijuana–and where they were going–the same place we were headed, the bizarre social experiment known as Christiania.

In 1971, a previous generation of disaffected young adults broke into an abandoned army barracks in Copenhagen and declared it to be the "free state" of Christiania. Politically and culturally, the founders of Christiania were pretty similar to the hippie counterculture in the United States. Christiania continues to exist in a strange quasi-legal limbo: its residents pay no taxes and have created their own currency, but Christiania's streets are regularly patrolled by police, mostly to crack down on drugs. Mainstream Danish attitudes seem to vary from mild resentment to amused acceptance, but it's clear that despite calls to "normalize" Christiania, no government has yet found it to be in its political interest to forcibly dismantle it. Talia and I spent a little bit of time walking around and checking out Christiania's small shops and street art (taking pictures inside is forbidden).

My visceral reaction to Christiania was very negative, and its intensity surprised me. On paper, my politics probably look a lot like those of a Christianian: I'm all for decriminalizing pot (though I won't touch it myself), I'm for peace and environmental protection and all that hippie stuff. Resentment of authority is part of my makeup. However, I found the smug self-righteousness of Christiania to be too much. It made me reflect on what I would have been like if I'd grown up in the '60s. I suspect that I would have hated Nixon and the war, and idolized MLK and RFK, but there's no chance that I would have been a flower child. I also wonder if this is part of what turned me on to Obama- in some ways I see the same combination of liberal politics and conservative temperament in myself that I see in him.

So why are they so happy? I can't say that I discovered the secret to the Danes' remarkable levels of happiness, but I did collect some clues. The pastries can't hurt, and neither can smørrebrød, the popular open-faced sandwich composed of a slice of rye bread and all manner of delicious toppings. (Above, I prepare to chow down on three smørrebrød with curried herring, shrimp and eggs, and bacon with a liver-mushroom paste. The Danes may be known for being happy, but they're not particularly famous for being healthy; Lonely Planet goes so far as to say they "make the Scots look like Jane Fonda!")

On a more serious note, Talia and I both observed a quality of Danish life that is rare in cities of Copenhagen's size: trust. Even in Denmark's largest city, people regularly leave bikes unattended and unlocked. Most restaurants offer outdoor dining, but since it's still a little chilly at this time of year, they also provide all patrons with blankets, as you can see in the picture above. Running off with a blanket or two would be child's play, but there's no indication that anyone does. There is a downside to this kind of social cohesion–consider the Danes' reputation for xenophobia–but I was struck by the realization that, if I lived in Copenhagen, I don't think I would have a whole lot to worry about.

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