Once upon a time in Copenhagen

I knew not a soul in Copenhagen when I landed there one cold wintry night many years ago. It was snowing and I have dim memories of alighting from a Scandinavian airlines plane and taking the public transport to an area of the city called Frederiksberg. My destination was an inn with the advertising line ‘sleep cheap in luxury’. The wheels of my small suitcase left a double-lined track in the powdery white flurry on the canvas of the pavement for a couple of hundred yards before I reached the accommodation that lived up to its tagline by making an enormously efficacious use of space; my room was small but adequate, owing to an interior design where contours, objects and furnishings stacked up, folded down, slid across, and joined together.

It had been a long day and as I lay down to sleep, exhausted, cold and a little hungry, turning towards the wall on the narrow bed, I could hear the faint strains of the James Blunt song ‘Goodbye My Lover’ playing in some other room. It was the soundtrack to a certain wintry melancholy.
Copenhagen has beautiful canals, parks, palaces, and a medieval central quarter of the city where there is the big square with the townhall, the old cobblestone alleys, and the main shopping draw, a long pedestrianized street called Strøget.

In the land of Carlsberg – where Carlsburg is associated even with an art museum called Ny Carlsburg Glyptotek – I tasted no beer! Instead, preferring to have an espresso and a danish pastry at a lovely waterfront cafe across the Knippelsbro bridge that connects the city to the island area of Christianshavn. I paid with Danish Kroners, for the Euro as a currency failed the referendum in Denmark in the year 2000 (DKK is also the currency in Greenland and Faroe Islands).

At one end of Christianshavn is the freetown area of Christiania which is inhabited by artists of all stripes; it is an autonomous municipality (a kind of creative commune when looked at from the Copenhagen point of view) with a flag, currency, institutions, businesses and rules of its own. The progressive, creative, anti-authoritarian and alternate lifestyle in Christiania is reflected in the architecture, the social space, and the graffiti that is ubiquitous, and quite often, radical. In spite of the many ongoing controversies over drug use (and car use!) in Christiania, and its fraught relationship to conservatism in Copenhagen, this is a beautiful small-scale attempt at an alternative utopia, containing not just the colourful slogans ‘fuck the police’ and ‘make love, not war’, but also a structural rethinking of society as it might be. As one leaves this area to reach back into Copenhagen, a line on an archway pointedly proclaims, ‘you are now entering the EU’. While wandering in this micro-nation, I feasted on the sumptuous visuals upon the various walls. I spoke to two rather different kinds of graffiti artists, one a starving student who ‘did not mind’ discussing what he did openly, and the other, a circumspect and more urbane incognito who had information as well as experience, wrote in a clearer hand, otherwise studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Arts, and glanced over his shoulder as he doubted my identity (‘are you the police, I hope not’). He obviously had much more to lose.

Thanks to Hans Christian Anderson and his fairy tales, Danish fantasy is the staple of children’s imagination the world over. Like me, you probably grew up reading one of his stories – ‘The Little Mermaid’. Well, in Kastallet in Copenhagen, near the harbour, sits the famous statue of Den Lille Havfrue (and one must hear the melodious way the Danes pronounce it), the little mermaid sitting on a rock as she gazes out at the sea. It is a small but iconic metallic statue from a century ago; in a hundred or so years it has been seen by millions of people (and sometimes defaced, decapitated, and vandalised by some, only to be restored again). I walked for a long time and reached the statue late in the evening, there was no one around and I regarded this mermaid curiously, wondering about myths, metamorphoses and magic. Then, I looked at what she was looking at: the lights in the distance that glimmer indistinctly. One by one, I consumed their fire, before turning to the handful of stars above. More recently, the statue was moved for a few months to the Danish Pavilion in Shanghai for the 2010 World Expo, the first transcontinental move in a hundred years for this creature of longing. Even some of the water was shipped to China to create the atmosphere (apparently, transporting mere water over such a distance was not environmentally irresponsible – Denmark, with all its bicycle use, is fairly well known for sustainable practices – because many ships go back to China rather empty after bringing the exports to Europe, and on some journeys in 2010, they carried back Danish water).

Legend has it that Walt Disney was inspired to create Disneyland by the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, an entertainment park withmusic, theatre, pantomime, the world’s tallest ferris wheel and one of the world’s oldest rollercoasters. This amusement park was not open on the cold wintry evening that I passed it by; either I had missed the hours, or a renovation was ongoing (I forget which, and my diaries do not aid me in recalling). I stood at one of the side entrances under a streetlamp, alternately looking at the large green area marked in the festive letters t-i-v-o-l-i on the folded map and at the tall wall that stood between me and even one peek at the shadows of the wonders I presumed were within. (‘Who knows what it even looks like inside? It isn’t open and there’ll be no crowds and the rides won’t run, I know, I do know, but if only I could get one fleeting view of what lies beyond these walls and gates’, I thought to myself). And as if in answer to my wishes, a tall Dane with big eyes spoke to me as he was about to go inside the building from a staff entrance. I explained to him my predicament. Maybe he was tipsy, or maybe it was my lucky day for getting a wish, for he agreed to briefly let me in as he went inside for a quick errand. He had held a job there for a decade and it was a place of work, more than amusement, for him. I rushed along as he swiped his card, had a hurried glimpse of the park and one view from a building terrace, before I was ushered out again. I suppose to feel the gaiety of such a place, one does need light, warmth, people. I saw ghosted shadows, a frozen garden path, deserted cafe tables and paused rides; a surely unusual impression.

Strangers are often kind to the down-and-out wanderer. At the locker room of the Statens Museum for Kunst (Danish National Gallery), an evidently affluent old couple gave me their used ticket pin for the rather expensive special exhibition on Rembrandt, without my having asked for it. I was entering, they were about to leave, and in passing, with a smile they extended the ticket out to me as if it were a perfectly recyclable thing that one ought to pass on to the next person entering. I took it and enjoyed viewing the many portraits either done by, or attributed to, Rembrandt. The other paintings in the general gallery were a treat too (aside from Danish art, the European staples were there: Rubens, Breugel, Braque, Matisse, Picasso, Picabia, Munch, Gauguin et al), and there were the sobering vanitas paintings. But, my favourite thing was ‘Trompe L’oeil, Reverse of a framed painting’ by Cornelius N. Gijsbrechts. Dating from 1670, this trick of the eye painting is a painting of the reverse of a framed painting, raising the questions of perception, expectation, unravelling and foundations. And it does so many centuries before Derrida and deconstruction!

There were other museums and other art (Emil Nolde at the Strand with a focus on his travels through Siberia, Japan and China), and there were other encounters too. Across from Copenhagen is a bridge across the sea to the Swedish city of Malmo from where many workers commute to Copenhagen for work. One among them was the patient and humorous Adeline who serves chicken at the KFC in town square, she was excited that her husband was to go to London soon. Also coming from Sweden is the bin man who sees me take a picture of ‘Queer Jihad’ scrawled on a wall, and eagerly tries to communicate something that is somewhat garbled by our lack of common language.

And yet, while the free city guidebook proudly proclaimed ‘Coping with Copenhagen’, not all was well in the kingdom of Denmark. When I visited Copenhagen, the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy (stemming from a Danish newspaper that had depicted offensive cartoons of Prophet Mohammed and provoked an international reaction that escalated over the years from 2005 onwards) was well underway. There were protests scheduled on one of the days that I was there. My introduction to the medieval square in Copenhagen one sunny morning was as a site filled with hundreds of chanting protestors, banners and flags, and dozens of police vans in the entire central area with uniformed and armed officers patrolling everywhere. Most of the protestors were Danish Muslims or minority rights activists, but in another area inside a closed off railway station, there were hundreds of anarchists all dressed in black stamping their feet to the echoing of slogans and protesting wider injustice, standing in solidarity with the minorities. It was a rousing atmosphere, but a vitiated environment. During a particularly tense part of the evening, I witnessed police cars chasing young boys (probably Danish Muslim, not beyond their mid-teens) as they ran through streets lined with expensive boutiques; a scene that, for reasons best known to us, horrified the largely white upper middle class shoppers and me alike. They draped their big winter coats a bit tighter, and I reached for a pen. As an early night fell, one street was being erratically cordoned off. Police officers in riot gear were bustling about in the light snow under the neon lamps. As I passed one of the walkways that had been cleared, I saw a row of young boys and men (Danish Muslims, one might guess) who were being forced to sit with their heads lowered in a stress position all across the front of a shuttered shop. I tried to take a picture with my camera. A large threatening policeman boomed at me to keep walking and not take pictures. Yes, well. Of course, I got into an argument with him. Why not? Where did it say I couldn’t? Weren’t there the obviously touristy couples taking pictures of obviously touristy things around us all the time? And how come these people were being treated in this manner? We dialogued. Other people intervened. It was a scene of authority and rebellion. Everywhere. My camera battery was low, the light was bad, the picture wasn’t the real issue. The point was to not remain silent even if I was powerless and in passing. It ended somehow (there’s always a good cop not far from the bad cop!) with me loudly asking the rhetorical question: “And who do you think you are? God?” The resounding claps from people around me made me realise the strange resonance of my words in context of the controversy.

The snow continued to fall the day I left the city. It must have stealthily touched the surface of the waters lapping around the ornamental boat moored in the harbour opposite the Amalienbourg palace, it must have settled on the bosom of the little mermaid and on the iron fastenings of the bridge to Sweden, it must have gotten caught on to the big anchors in the sailors’ neighbourhood where everything reminded me of Knut Hamsun’s fiction, and it must have been moulded into many sculptures in Christiania. I left Copenhagen thinking of this snow; falling clean, white, cold on everything in colour.

Nitasha Kaul is a Kashmiri novelist, poet, academic, artist and economist who lives in London. Her debut novel Residue (Rupa/Rainlight, 2014) was earlier shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize. Aside from fiction and poetry, she comments in the media and has written in edited collections, journals and newspapers on the themes of identity, culture, economy, gender, social theory, technology, democracy, Bhutan and Kashmir. She has a joint doctorate in Economics and Philosophy, is the author of the book 'Imagining Economics Otherwise: encounters with identity/difference' (Routledge, 2007), and has previously taught Economics, Politics, and Creative Writing in the UK and in Bhutan. She has travelled to over 55 countries across 4 continents documenting the strangeness of the everyday and the otherness of the present. More at www.nitashakaul.com

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