It’s the physical beauty of the inhabitants. Why wasn’t I warned?
Copenhageners have legs as long as stilts. Their hair flows like rippling flags of cornsilk, their faces have such symmetry that you could use their cheekbones as a spirit level on your wall studs. These men and women don’t look like humans, they look like greyhounds with fabulous hair.
And so courteous to the puzzled foreigner, for which I am grateful.
I am visiting Denmark because Stephen Harper said in 1997 — this was during his time at the National Citizens Coalition — that “Canada is a northern European welfare state in the worst sense of the term, and very proud of it.” He clearly despised the place but, I suspect, more out of ideology than knowledge.
But lately people I respect — the urbanism journalist Taras Grescoe for one — have come away from this city saying they could happily spend the rest of their days in Copenhagen. They’re so sane in Denmark, so level-headed but not dull, not excessively nice, just very nice.
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The crowds of Copenhageners, flush with health, who bike around the city don’t stunt-dress the way Canadians do, with ill-considered Lycra garments and bits of canvas, with helmets more suited to a doped-up Tour de France than a ride to the office. We cycle like Americans, crouched over the handles with our skulls placed to hit the car first when the road rage happens. We cycle competitively.
In Copenhagen they wear special gorgeous tight trousers and leather ankle boots as they ride sensibly designed bicycles with the handles up high so that you can ride while looking elegant. I am just talking about the men here, the young ones looking like Blade Runner’sRutger Hauer in his teens, the older ones as if they’ve just left a board meeting of the Ruggedly Handsome Corporation.
The women are like the Eiger, like something distant and unscaleable. A friend’s good-looking son tells her that his brain went blank when he talked to Danish women. “It was difficult to carry on a conversation walking down the streets because the women were so beautiful.”
2. Hans Christian Andersen is Denmark’s Twain. I’m sorry, he bores me. In an attempt to experience the real Denmark, I went to one of his hangouts, which turned out to be a sinister little cellar with a distinct wartime vibe. You know, the kind of place where the man at the next table is saying “Vell zere iss no cure for psychosis” and your main course of “duck and dessert” has a side order of prunes and shredded beetroot followed instantly by apple crumble. When I became claustrophobic I asked if we could have a larger table. “But you see, that is the table Hans Christian Andersen sat at,” the waiter said, as if I were an idiot.
3. I don’t know how to ride a bike. I do, actually, but I won’t. It’s kind of a statement with me, after a rural upbringing. The only bike I yearn for is the Nihola cargo bike, in which you can fit two toddlers and a week’s groceries. It costs $ 4,000 — yes, it has special parking spaces — and I lacked the gall to ask if I could borrow one for a photo op.
Aside from that, Denmark is great. It’s rated as the happiest nation on Earth. This is visibly true. You can see it in their sublime faces.
Good idea: Be fabulous yet modest
Copenhagen is perfection. No, it’s not, insists Prof. Malene Freudendal-Pedersen of the University of Roskilde in Copenhagen. A woman of great intelligence and warmth, she studies “mobilities,” meaning the changing frameworks of people’s lives: movement of ideas, travel, information technology, transport.
She typifies Scandinavia in that she will not accept over-the-top national compliments, a habit I begin to find a bit maddening in interviews. “We don’t do everything perfectly! There are a lot of problems in Denmark,” she insists, the exact nature of which elude me even after explanation.
They don’t yet have a congestion charge for cars. Although there is a 180 per cent tax on car buyers so that suffices.
Also when Danes invite foreigners over, she says, they don’t invite their friends, so foreigners never become part of a larger social circle. When you mention this to Danes, they express surprise and invite you to meet all their friends. So not really a problem then.
What else? “There is this thing in Denmark,” Freudendal-Pedersen tells me. “It stems from an old novel (A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks by Aksel Sandemose, 1938) about how you should never think too much about yourself. You should never try to promote yourself as something special. It’s called Jante Law, which is like a law. People shouldn’t think they’re too good.”
We have this in Canada, I tell her, inherited it from the Scots. It has something to do with northern climes, with rocky landscapes. Maybe it’s because you know that if you have to rely on your neighbour to pull you headfirst out of a snowbank, you can’t risk pride.
“It’s a really funny thing,” she muses. “The Americans are not like this.”
What bothers her is avoiding the truth. “In Denmark we don’t talk about class and we don’t talk about gender. At all. But we are like every other country after the banking crisis in that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. It’s a Nordic thing, this idea that everyone is equal. In Denmark you can find research on poor people but you can find absolutely nothing on wealthy people at all.”
Danes grow up with the idea that men and women are absolutely equal. But women find out when they enter the workforce, she says, that it’s still a man’s world. Norway established quotas for women on corporate boards and it went smoothly. Denmark, along with the EU, has declined to do that.
“If we say we want quotas, it means we are saying we are not equal. It would be admitting that it doesn’t work.” The women’s movement has been displaced by debate over racism, much as has happened in Canada. Racism is the only inequality it is safe to discuss.
Good Idea: Tell stories on TV
My notions about Danish perfection have been informed by an extraordinary achievement by Danish television. DR, the Danish Broadcasting Corp., made a magnificent 2007 TV series, The Killing, starring Sophie Grabol as a clever cop named Sarah Lund. Set in Copenhagen, it was about a young woman’s murder, the investigation of which sends tentacles into all sectors of Danish life.
The Killing, first run nervously by the BBC, which didn’t think Brits could cope with subtitles, became a massive hit on the 1991 scale of Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect. The third season has just concluded. More than 120 countries have shown The Killing but the CBC has apparently declined it, presumably because we are truly too stupid to cope with subtitles.
But it’s the kind of series, like the CBC’s Intelligence, made in 2006, that Canada did well once, and small nations of 5 million people, like Denmark, can do because they have self-confidence. The U.S. did an American remake of The Killing in which Sarah Lund wore a hat. Like Tommy Lee Jones asking for sprinkles on his doughnut in The Fugitive to signify that he was “quirky,” a hat was no substitute for good writing. The series failed almost instantly.
Good idea: Develop a design sense
I spend much of my time studying the warmth that makes Copenhagen so attractive. The place has a good look. For instance, Freudendal-Pedersen meets me at a cafe in Christianshavn, a bright neighbourhood surrounded by canals that has an air of being slightly worn and greatly loved, like a child’s transitional object.
There are places that are glorious but not overpowering. A rare thing happens to me when I walk along the wide canal lined with five-storey gabled apartment buildings painted in russet and gold. (The professor has given me a tip on a boot shop.)
It’s a flood of well-being, the kind of thing you get when they give you Demerol as the doctor’s reward for agreeing to a local, rather than a more dangerous general anesthetic.
My head swims. What is it? Sea air, perhaps. The lack of ostentation. This is a less flashy version of the famous Nyhavn neighbourhood, the canals packed with sidewalk cafes that offer sheepskins for the colder customer.
Except for unused cathedrals and two hotels, there’s hardly anything over six or eight storeys in Copenhagen. In Toronto, I had grown obsessed with those terrible green-glass condo towers near the waterfront that look like a pack of LCBO gift bags, the lack of comfort as winter approached, and the ugliness of public art.
I stared a lot at a sculpture across the street from the Star building, a vaguely intestinal-looking rusty bolted metal thing that looks as if it had been abandoned en route to making something useful. Toronto is littered with sculpture like this.
But they’re working with lighter woods now. The Radisson Blu Royal hotel was designed by Arne Jacobsen, and the hotel channel — the one that usually tells you how to crawl out of the hotel if you’re on fire — offered the only lodging documentary I have ever enjoyed, explaining Jacobsen’s gentle vision. The hotel is rational. It is calming. Jacobsen’s Egg chair with its upholstered side wings is comfortable.
At the Danish Design Centre down the street, one of the winning ideas at the Index: Awards was a shallow white warming dish for premature babies, designed by Thea Ubbe Ebbesen. It features two soft bendable arms that reach over and cradle the infant. It’s a variation on the Egg Chair but for infants.
Helpful and winsome, that’s Danish design. Street sculptures have some kind of link to the human, giant silver eggs or people-sized statues, even The Little Mermaid statue, which is tiny. If it were The Massive Mermaid, the American tourists might like it more. They seem perplexed.
The detestable American sculptor Richard Serra does have one of his pointless slabs at a museum but it isn’t on the street where people could injure themselves on it if they were running for a tram. This is the kind of small courtesy you come to expect in this city.
Good idea: Devise humane architecture
When I go to Orestad, the suburb being built on a blasted heath outside the city on the way to the airport — yes, Toronto, there’s a train to the airport — I like the bright fresh ultra-post-modern architecture that Tom Wolfe once called “Calvinist sensory deprivation” and that I had expected to hate. I am astounded by the glass menageries, which are small blocks of flats with huge windows that throw their lives open to people passing on the train.
And the Bella Sky Hotel? Make two blue-and-white jigsaw-patterned towers. Bend hem backwards. Join with a bridge, just for fun. I wish the Toronto waterfront had that. It would block off the lake but in a good way.
You can see comfortable lives being lived out here. The Field shopping centre is, like all malls, quite horrible, which made me feel as if I were back in my own dear Eaton Centre. I was comforted to see normal-looking people there, badly dressed like me and schlepping around like Canadians. I felt less shamed by my hair, which humidity and an underpowered French hair dryer had made to resemble Albert Einstein’s.
Good idea: Get on your bike
Grescoe, the Canadian author of Straphanger, a wonderful new book on urban transit around the world, writes that he has been to more striking cities than this. Copenhagen “has the canals of Amsterdam, the squares of Florence and the Baroque architecture of Vienna.” He has been to more exciting cities — Copenhagen does not do glam — and balmier cities too. The place is cold by his standards. (I’m from Kapuskasing. I thought its October summery.)
But Grescoe loved the Metro, which is a shiny spacious land. Every major square in the city is being torn up for a new 15-station circle line to be finished in 2018. “Copenhagen is the only city I’ve been where people complain there is too much public transit,” Grescoe wrote.
Grescoe, who I think of as the Douglas Coupland of city life, groans about Toronto and Canada. He loves the stratospherically admired bicyclists of Denmark.
“I sometimes wonder if there was a giant red button and I could press that button and immobilize every car in the next 24 hours, I might do it,” Grescoe tells me on the phone. “The car was an inevitable invention, incredibly useful for load-carrying, but it’s had a horrible influence on cities.”
Copenhagen has changed that. You do not need a car in this city. As Grescoe writes in Straphanger, “more people commute by bicycle in greater Copenhagen, population 1.8 million, than cycle to work in the entire U.S., population 310 million.” The place is designed for bikes, which have their own lane, lower than the sidewalk, higher than the street.
At intersections, bikes are given a six-second head start over cars and wide blue lines direct bikes across. Pedestrians learn to stay clear of the bike lane. In Paris, I once watched a French cyclist deliberately run down a 90-year-old American tourist who was blocking the bike path as he got on a tour bus.
The Frenchman glanced back at the man on the ground. “F— you!” he shouted for good measure as he pedalled away. Extraordinary.
Cars move cautiously here, bikers are law-abiding and pedestrians are safe.
Good idea: Be cosy. Be fearless
My good feelings about the city hit their peak when I found a museum I had yearned for years to visit, the Hirschsprung Collection, just outside the huge and impeccably tended Ostre Anlaeg park.
Museums close at 4. I arrived at 3:40 and they waved me in for free. I wandered among the domestic paintings donated by the Hirschsprung family, by which I mean naturalistic paintings of people living ordinary lives. Many of them were painted at Skagen, a 19th-century artist’s colony at the northernmost tip of Denmark, where there is light, the kind of high, clear light artists find in St. Ives in Cornwall or Tenby in Wales.
There was my heart leaping again. The Danes, like the Dutch, have a genius for cleanliness and comfort. The paintings, mostly by P.S. Kroyer, radiate that rare thing, family happiness, of which we hear so little.
Something happened in Copenhagen that startled and moved me immensely. I was sitting at a window in the Wagamama restaurant just behind the frankly tatty Tivoli Gardens, eating pot noodles. Packs of tiny schoolchildren marched by in giggling pairs, just off the train at Central Station to visit grand museums. I waved to them.
Every pack of children waved back at me, thrilled. It wouldn’t occur to them not to. Danish children play unattended in the street here. Babies are left in their prams outside houses to sleep.
Children rarely wave back in other cities, and especially not in Toronto where tiny children walking at my local daycare look at me warily as I work in the garden. They have been trained to fear strangers, including women.
I feel a surge of admiration for the country that raises children without fear. What a good trusting place. I could happily live here.
1Cafeterias: The Danish cafeteria is made of glass and light wood, and serves delicious smorrebrod and actual fruits. It is not the plastic-wood and Sneez-gard dietary despair canteen of last resort we have here. It smells of yogurt, not old meat.
2Access to water: In Copenhagen you have access to the lake. It’s a law. All citizens are able to walk freely around the non-privatized waterfront, laden with parks. You can legally linger at private beaches. It’s no big deal.
3Illums Bolighus: This is a huge, noble sort of design department store just off the nicer end of the Stroget, a haven of cool stuff, a place where I bought a cow horn in the belief it was a narwhal tusk. An iron helmet and one more horn and I’m a Viking.
4Food gone wild: Danes are into food science. Trying to eat locally, I was served things like mackerel with pumpkin and hazelnuts, and pickled plum with beer porridge and burnt meringue, comestibles one does not think to eat but does not regret. And no, I couldn’t get into Noma, since you ask.
5Copenhagen Cycle Chic: Mikael Colville-Andersen, born in western Canada and resident in Copenhagen, has honoured Canada with his coolness. His web sites show beautiful bikes and riders and offer original ideas like exterior airbags on cars to protect cyclists, should you hit them. Go to Copenhagenize.com and Copenhagencycle.com.
Mallick continues her quest for great ideas from Europe, this time in Denmark. She finds intellectual creativity — especially in TV — profound care for the environment, great transit, widespread, life-enhancing use of bicycles and such casual personal beauty that the self-esteem of visitors is shaken. Call it A Nearly Perfect Country.