Sunday, November 4, 2012

Diverse Denmark

When I was first introduced to Denmark, it was by my friend Denise who has lived here for over a month already. She told me about how many of the people living here are blonde and blue-eyed (as would be expected - we're in Scandinavia). And they're also a very nationalistic and tradition-rich people who rely on broader culture for their own familial celebrations and experiences.

This is a dumbing down of an extensive description of the Danes that was given to me by Denise (and of course it's lacking in insight to many other traits of the Danish people, both that she mentioned and that I've discovered in being here). But in a moment, I'll explain to you why it's relevant (and why I'm not simply insulting the Danish culture by calling all of its people homogenous).

 I completely omitted one of the really fascinating places I visited in Copenhagen yesterday. As we wandered to and fro through the city, seeing lots of sights and eating food and being general sightseers, we planned a walk through the independent state of Christiania. If you're not from Denmark or you haven't traveled here, perhaps you haven't heard of it.

In the 1970s, a group of squatters took over some military barracks and despite attempted police intervention to kick them out, their influence grew until they'd created a small community in Copenhagen called Christiania. The place is home to craft item selling, organic (and some vegetarian) cafés and restaurants. It is entirely self-sustained through the profits from these industries. And with a growth in public popularity - particularly that of tourists, it seems Christiania is alive and well and thriving.

But walking through this part of Copenhagen (or I guess it's not technically Copenhagen, but anyway) serves to remind you of the many cultural difference between people that color the place they live. Copenhagen as a city (and I'm assuming Denmark as a country, though I haven't traveled much through it) is very quaint and pretty quintessentially European. There are flat buildings that are painted in rosy fall colors like yellow and red. There are cobblestoned streets. There are flags for the country flying everywhere. There are cute families everywhere, pushing prams and being reliably beautiful together.

But in Christiania, near the city center however slightly too far off, there is a sense of counterculture (however misplaced) that makes the place worth a comparison to the more traditional aspects of London.

First and foremost, this is a place known for its drug trade. Signs upon entering Christiania require you to not take any more photos. While I'm sure people disobey here and there, I stashed my DSLR away before I could be tackled to the ground by a hippie. I managed to obtain a mental image very quickly and efficiently, just by walking around and taking in the atmosphere.

The place is covered in art and murals and (probably) decorative graffiti that turns the commune into an art gallery at the drop of a hat. There's no order or uniformity to this style. Even the stalls in the market portion of Christiania were in disarray to some extent. The control that exists in Denmark - a place where there is socialized medicine and a workable welfare system that makes living standards incredibly high and circumstances very promising - is lacking in the alternative-thinking Christiania.

It can be a hard concept to grasp, especially when, within a few moments, you can walk from Christiania back into the Copenhagen you know. It's almost mind-bending.

The mind-bending would not reach its end until this morning when I went with Denise to an alleged Christmas "market" in Bispebjerg that she'd found advertised online. It turned out, the market was just a single stall set up in a woman's backyard. She stood there with her items looking cheerful and ready to help any customers, while we - being surprised by this blatant false advertising - tried to hold back expressions of confusion.

In the end, I walked away with an adorable 5 kroner (just under $1) purchase of a Winnie the Pooh booklet written in Danish. And despite the disappointment in arriving for a Christmas market and finding a little yard sale, it was nice to interact with a real Dane and see yet another aspect of the culture.

You could say that all these people are alike. That the people selling jewelry and marijuana in stalls are somewhat akin to any other Danish person (even though they'll counteract that statement by saying they're not actually Danish), but a little jaunt into the various environs of the city proves otherwise. This city may have a very defined nationalistic culture and they may have quite the obsession with their own state flag, but it's also home to so many different types of people.

Just today we went to a little restaurant in town that had wonderful falafel sandwiches. The family running it were clearly of Middle Eastern descent, but they casually spoke Danish to each other. Two worlds colliding seamlessly.

So with those three examples - and possibly others that I'm omitting out of tiredness and because I've fallen asleep at least two times while writing this - I hope that I have made the world privy to a little slice of society here in a city (and country) that I barely know. At the very least, I hope to have done the place some justice. Because in my experience here, I've tried to embrace the incredible pride of the Danes, but also recognize that there are so many different people living within this small space. It's a dichotomous existence. And it's something I really appreciate.

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