What I Think About When I Think About Copenhagen



I wrote this while visiting Copenhagen in 2012. It was meant to be a stream-of-thought take on travel writing. But unfortunately, it turns out that my own stream of thought makes for a completely untenable travel article. If there’s ever a future attempt, I’ll try to think more about the things I did and less about inane bullshit.

What I Think About When I Think About Copenhagen

It would be foolish to open a travel article with the sentence ‘Copenhagen seems like the kind of place that has never recorded a murder.’ Death is the problem. To invoke it risks smearing a page with gloom when all the travel reader wants is a little fun and discovery. It’s also far too subjective of an observation, making it a big fat hassle to elaborate on. Better to start off by reflecting on the importance of travel, move into comparisons as to how this place is different from that, and then cap it all off with a top ten list, or depending on how much space needs filling, maybe a top twenty.

Yet there is something surreal about Copenhagen, like it is governed by a different set of social principles than those blighting other cities around the world.  Or maybe it’s just because the city looks the part of a fairy tale kingdom, with its winding canals and narrow cobblestone lanes, all bordered by one endless three-storey building that alternates the color of its façade between yellow, blue, pink, and red. Whatever the case may be, it’s not just the work of man that’s behind it. Nature also pitches in towards the sentimental aesthetic. There are trees everywhere, with huge and shifting canopies that can manipulate residents year in and year out, nudging them towards happy green thoughts in springtime and mournful ones of ruddy decline come autumn.

This magical little number is the backdrop to an endless stream of bikers, all of whom are bundled up against the cold such that they look like fashionable elves. Bike lanes are just about everywhere in Copenhagen, and theft doesn’t seem to be much of a problem judging by the number of bikes lying around unlocked. Maybe this is where the thought of a city without murder came from. It’s the lazy presumption that all bikers are enlightened pacifists.

Well one thing’s for sure: children aren’t generally a menacing presence, unless of course they’re picking your pocket. And Copenhagen is not lacking for kids. It’s hard to square this so-called population crisis in Scandinavia with the youthful flash mobs that show up everywhere, from the expected Tivoli Gardens and Mcdonalds, all the way to the not-so-expected National Gallery of Denmark. They appear, get their scream on, and like that- they’re gone.

And this must be why there are ‘quiet compartments’ on every train in Copenhagen. They’re somewhere elderly people can go to escape the din of ubiquitous childhood. Since forced silence is new to me, I embrace the novelty by closing my eyes and trying to think profound thoughts; something, anything that might be considered worthy of this moving oasis of silence. But my mind doesn’t cooperate. It refuses to take me any further than the moral dissonance between Denmark’s two big-ticket historical exports: Hans Christian Andersen stories and Viking slaughter. It posits stupid questions like ‘what would a Viking do if he were to come across the little match girl?’ Well, he’d raise her as his own and give her all of the best things a life of pillage could provide. Duh.

I walk out of the station thinking about Vikings and once more I’m faced with an urban utopia: street art, smiling children, good-looking parents and boutique shops. There’s even extra time to absorb all of the charm on offer because subway stations don’t post maps of the local area, so the only way to get your bearings is to take a survey of nearby street names, pick a random direction, and cross your fingers. But like forced silence, forced wandering isn’t half bad because it gives you a chance to locate the nearest McDonalds, kebab shop, or hot dog stand. Better that than having to drop a wad of cash at one of Copenhagen’s restaurants. If not for the Copenhagen Card I bought at the airport, even galleries, museums, and public transit would all be prohibitively expensive. I’d have to resort to sullying one of the city’s perfect windows with two filthy palms, watching as the nice people and their copious offspring gorged themselves on food and beauty; a little match boy, all grown up and out of matches.

So that must be the reason for the pacifist vibes undulating about the streets of Copenhagen. No one falls into a life of crime because they’re too busy making money hand over fist. And when another lucrative day at work draws to an end, your average citizen will get home; leave their bike outside, unlocked; take off their toque and scarf; change into a dinner suit; flip on a top hat; light an expensive cigar; and throw their head back, hands on their well-fed belly, and have a nice big laugh at the expense of all of the travellers who are trying to see Copenhagen on a budget. I’m almost sure of it.

But wait a second. There’s another Danish export; how could I have forgotten? The third Danish export is the danish, that delicious pastry with gooey fruit gobs in the middle.  My forced wanderings become a desperate search. I need to find a bakery. I have a question that needs answering: how sweet is the taste of danish authenticity? But the realization comes too late and time is not on my side. I end up settling for the fourth Danish export, though it’s awful just to think of it, because there’s nothing sweet about a pickled herring.


For more pictures, check out: http://zacwrites.com/2012/10/22/copenhagen-2012/

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