“Wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen / Friendly old girl of a town
‘Neath her tavern light / On this merry night
Let us clink and drink one down
To wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen…”
Do my fellow old-timers remember Danny Kay singing this song? Later the lyrics call her a “salty old queen of the sea.”
And a queen she is. Situated directly across Øresund Strait from Malmö, Sweden, Copenhagen is ideally situated for shipping and sailing all over Europe and beyond, making her one of Scandinavia’s prime ports. The larger metropolitan area is home to over 2,000,000 residents, including thousands of foreign students and a multitude of immigrants. Many of the natives stand so tall this visitor feels like a pigmy among giants. (Of course, this is not exactly a unique experience for me!)
The city is passionate about the green movement, targeting a carbon-neutral environment by 2025. We admire this country’s increasing use of solar panels, windmills, and recycling. Another goal: up to a third of cars here will run on electricity or biofuel by 2025. Generously wide bicycle paths are everywhere—and woe betide the absentminded pedestrian who gets in the way. Public transportation is excellent, though our use of it has been tentative because of the language. Signs are in Danish, a rather daunting language. Not really a problem when walking, though, since everyone we’ve dealt with speaks English.
Denmark is officially Lutheran, but only a bare majority of Danes are adherents. As our guide explained, repeatedly grumbling that his tax dollars pay for the official religion, most people use churches only for baptisms, weddings, funerals, and special ceremonies. Not for worship. Not everybody sloughs off religion, though. Immigration has made Copenhagen a religiously diverse city. Islam is now the second largest faith represented here (about 10% of the population).
Our guide told us a touching story of the of Copenhagen’s successful collaboration with Malmö in saving the threatened Jewish minority. In World War II Nazis occupied Denmark, but Sweden was able to maintain its neutrality. Copenhagen secretly transported its Jewish population of over 7000 to safety in Malmö. This act of the Danish Resistance, helped by many other sympathetic countrymen, saved 99% of the Jews. After the war, they welcomed their old neighbors and friends back to the homes and businesses they had protected for them. It’s an inspiring example of humanity at our best.
We anticipated that our stay here would be costly. We were right. Copenhagen ranks as one of the world’s most expensive cities. It’s also rated one of the “most livable.” Its encouragement of bicycling and walking and discouragement of cars is one of the chief reasons, along with its good food, cultural activities, encouragement of community life and its many parks and public squares and gathering places.
You’ll recognize some famous Danish names like Hans Christian Anderson, whose tales of the “Ugly Duckling” and the “Little Mermaid” and many others still resonate with children and adults alike. Søren Kierkegaard, nineteenth century philosopher/theologian, was a huge influence on the twentieth-century existentialist movement.
Niels Bohr, Nobel Prize physicist so big in the world of quantum mechanics, was Danish, as was Tycho Brahe, the 16th century astronomer who insisted the moon orbits the earth and the planets the sun. (He was wrong about the sun orbiting the earth, though. That discovery came later.) Brahe’s artificial nose was also famous. He lost the real one in a sword fight. In his day people thought it was gold or silver but it was probably brass.
One of my favorite Danes is the late Victor Borge, famous for his madcap antics at the piano (which he played very well when he actually wanted to). Because we are in his country, we You Tubed some of his concerts for an evening’s entertainment in his honor. (You can push this “honoring” business too far. This is also Prince Hamlet’s country, but I resisted the not-very-strong temptation to read or view Shakespeare’s Hamlet. With Las Vegas fresh in mind, an evening of literary tragedy didn’t appeal.)
I must add my favorite Danish movie (and one of my all-time favorites), Babette’s Feast, directed by Gabriel Axel. I’ve used it in class to illustrate some aspects of the Eucharist (communion). If you haven’t viewed it, do so with this Christian rite of worship in mind. Another outstanding Danish movie director was Carl Theodore Dryer (1889-1968).
Vitus Bering (1680-1741) of Alaska’s Bering Straits was also Danish.
Some of our best experiences are serendipitous. After a long walking tour of Copenhagen, to which we added another half hour so we could see the Little Mermaid, we tried to take a taxi back to our apartment. Only we couldn’t find one. So we kept on walking in what we hoped was the right direction. It was nearly 3:00 and we hadn’t had lunch. We also couldn’t find a restaurant. Finally, with our strength ebbing dangerously, we spotted a little café (Café Paris, to be exact) across the street. It was really a take-away deli, with only a couple of small benches for those eating in, but the place was clean and the little chicken kebabs and the fresh vegetable salad were as good as you could find anywhere. Best of all, though, was getting acquainted with the young man who served us.
He’s Iranian. His family had to flee Iran in the 1970s when the Shah was deposed. His father moved the family to California when he was just a baby. In 2006 he migrated as an adult to Copenhagen. If we lived in this city I’d eat at his table at least once a week. Friendly, helpful, and a good cook! He can’t return to Iran since the revolution, because “my family’s name is on the list.” Those hateful lists!
One of our best outings was our visit the National Museum in the Prince’s Palace. The exhibition starts 14,000 years ago with Danish pre-history. Artifacts from the Ice Age and the Viking period, church carvings from the Middle Ages (triptyches, stand-alone saints and biblical figures), objects from ancient Greece and Egypt and Roman empires and even the Near East can be found here. Joy especially enjoyed the tableaux 0f village life: clothing, household utensils, other furnishings. I was fascinated by but didn’t particularly enjoy the instruments of torture and punishment and weapons employed through the ages. As we nearly despair over the cruelty and violence of our own era, a visit the past is instructive, isn’t it?
We took in an emotionally wrenching exhibition of “The Best Visual Journalism of the Year 2017.” We should have been prepared for it, since photo journalism almost always focuses on tragedy, heartache, war and loss. As one of the photographers said, “The most important side to any conflict is the third one: that of the ordinary people caught up in the violence.”
Just a couple of pictures Joy took will have to stand for the many; we can’t bear to publish the worst. This first one does not come out of global conflict but makes a statement about worldwide competitiveness.
Our last tour was of Christiania, an autonomous, anarchic enclave within Copenhagen’s city limits. In the 1970s a military installation. This was when the worldwide “flower children” movement was flourishing. The city’s hippies moved in, claimed squatters’ rights, and now several hundred run the little settlement (about 84 acres) almost entirely independent of the city government. Drugs that are illegal in Copenhagen are illegal here, too, but the city turns a blind eye (and an inoperative nose–the smell of hashish is strong). Christiania is now a top tourist attraction. So we had to investigate.
[Note: This is probably our last post for a couple of weeks. On Sunday we sail aboard Norwegian Getaway for a two-week repositioning cruise to Miami (if it’s still there). We’ll be out of touch by phone and email until we hit America’s mainland and then it’ll take us awhile to catch up. Thanks for your patience.]
JOY’S PICK OF THE PICS