Saturday, August 1, 2009

Being a Half-Danish Canadian in Copenhagen

With only a day and a half before the beginning of the national PROUT convention at a large farmhouse about 45 minutes outside of the city, we found ourselves with little time to explore Copenhagen. In moments such as these my tactic is simply to let others hash out the itinerary and just go along with the ride, remaining wide-eyed and alert for the subtler experiences often missed by typical tourist with their faces pressed against their fold out maps. My ambitions only had one easily granted condition: go everywhere by bike! After spending months suffocating in the bus and metro traffic of Caracas, where it is virtually suicide to attempt to ride a bike around at any time of day, Copenhagen was like a surreal bike-rider's fantasyland. Broad, well marked and divided bike lanes on nearly every main street, bike parkades, bike-friendly traffic and best of all, bike theft is basically unheard of! It was almost too easy and by the end of the day I wanted more freedom and challenge, daydreaming of being back in Vancouver, whizzing through the streets with less conformity, less regulations and social expectations to guide and restrict my path and speed through the city. More dangerous yes, but more like real life, more like an ongoing compromise between everybody sharing the road instead of having prissy young vixens clad in the new, more absurd "fashions" out of Europe (stuffing jeans into socks...really?) incesstantly ringing their little bells at me from behind, signaling me to pick up the pace when I slowed down for photos. My response: Jesus woman, learn how to move outside the lines a little, there's no one else around us. It might not have been Vancouver, but I eased into the flow and lapped it up. Our collectively decided upon destinations were as diverse as they were spread out throughout the core of the city: the little mermaid statue by the sea, the canals, and Christiana, an old hippy community where the rules and norms of the EU don't apply. The mermaid was obviously a bore. I sat there more interested in the throngs of tourists arriving by the busload to snap a quick shot, buy a trinket and get back on board for the next thralling destination. I took many pictures of people taking pictures...and yes, a picture of the mermaid. You gotta love it. It's the double standard that never really sinks in enough to radically change our behavior and desire to see what all the fuss is about. So I asked the local girl selling ice cream. She told me that the mermaid once had her beautiful head cut off and it went missing for a number of months. The investigation and metalurgery that ensued to bring her back to life comprise the genesis of her fame. It could have been a lie, she did look extremely bored. The canals were exactly what you have in your mind: a narrow waterway lined with old wooden sailboats, nice arching pedestrian bridges, row upon row of colorful 6 story houses with white-framed windows, street-level cafes and restaurants with their patios spilling out onto the carless, cobblestone streets. It was pretty.

The surprise and height of the day's adventure came with Christiana. Tucked away on the central outskirts of downtown Copenhagen, the carless hippy haven has escaped the tidal wave of modernization that swept through the rest of the area probably some decades ago. After asking around a few times we finally rounded a corner and spotted a narrow entrance into what we knew was unmistakably the corridor to another world. The outside wall of a large wooden building was graced with the most enchanting mural of fairies, mushrooms and other typical fantasyland characters. Immediately a part of me knew it was home and in my head I knew exactly where the day was leading. Entering Christiana was like stumbling into a bastion of soft social anarchy and escapism. Long past its heyday, the hippies of old were nowhere to be seen, replaced instead by wandering youth with screaming, overbearing styles and university students smoking hash with their morning coffees. It still had its own charm, yes, but the imaginings of what it once was were what captivated me more. What must have once been a bustling nursery and growing centre lay in the middle of the sprawling neighborhood, its compost bins nearly empty and in harsh neglect, wheel barrows with no wheels lay rusted in front of them. Passing under the large wooden ark at the main entrance entails two commitments. One, that you will not take photos inside Christiana. The astounding artwork found on nearly every square each of the wooden buildings inside are not to be exploited by outsiders. It isn't merely graffiti, it isn't merely captivating artwork on some walls, it really exudes history, with the paint, the light colored wooden panels have been permeated with a fingerprint of a unique microculture, telling stories that very few people were actually around to fully understand. They remain as cultural anchors, reminding us that the desire to carve a new path, to break free from social norms and oppresive systems is an innate force that dwells deep within us all. The second commitment is to open yourself up, live freely and unchained from the legal vices of the European Union that lurks beyond it's invisible borders. The aromas of the main street brought back memories of Morocco, where I first really fell in love with hash. It took about an hour or so until I gave in and slyly suggested to the others how much a little smoke would nicely complement an already wonderful day. Through a little path into a wooded area just off the main dirt road we found a nice clearing, complete with sitting logs, a firepit and a carved and painted wooden wide-screen tv with nothing on. As a group we got "lost" a countless number of times en route back to the house where we were staying. They would stop, ask directions, and fumble with the map in a fluster. I never felt lost once the entire time, I was just where I wanted to be and riding around on a bike in Copenhagen after a nice smoke was just about as close to heaven as I could have got at that moment in my life. Once the others were safely back home I got back on the bike and went out again until the sun went down.

I really loved Copenhagen. It was probably a bit of homesickness that made me feel the city was like a blend of Montreal and Vancouver, one of the European source cities for our Canadian glories. But dig a bit deeper and the most obvious initial observations quickly fade and morph into something new. I received an email from my mom around the day that I arrived in Copenhagen. Turns out my grandfather (her father) was born in the very same city. "Returning to your roots", she said. It would have been neat to find the house where he lived, to see if it was still there, or better, meet up with a distant relative, but it seems the connection to the motherland has already been forever severed. So it was through my solo encounters with the people and the city that helped fill in to some extent the nagging black holes where answers to the question: what is Canadian culture? have never been quick to leave my lips when probed in other parts of the world. Naive, yes, to think that I was even remotely on the verge of shedding some light on the question, however, I thought that I was starting to figure it out a little, that Copenhagen, everything about it, afforded me a deeper understanding of what drives the European Canadians in their pursuit of identity. Like looking into a cultural mirror I probed deeper: the design of the city told of what they cherish, clean air, quiet streets, orderly and easy flow of people, safety, and a relaxed pace to life; the quality of services spoke of high earnings, advanced economy and progressive social programs...all very much desired by "many" in Vancouver, not "as many" to make it even remotely comparable in scale or effort, but that could be changing. Where I was really thrown off was the predominant expressions of the collective human face of the citizens: somewhat passive, sulken and usually hidden behind a beer bottle or a cigarrette. Copenhagen has the highest per capita income in the world, but I'd be willing to bet that it hasn't translated into an equally impressive rate of general happiness. My experience at a coffee shop helps sum it up a little. The scene unfolded as follows:

I enter and order a coffee then bring it over to a table in the corner near the window. It was a quiet afternoon and there were few other people in the cafe. One was a woman around my age sitting at the table just across the narrow little floor space between us. I glanced over at her a few times, nothing threatening or intrusive. When we briefly made eye contact I simply asked "How's your book?". Thus ensued what was actually some very dull chitchat that resisted my efforts to inject it with a little slice of life. I got bored, she left shortly after. When the waitress came over to clear my table she offered some advice:

- "You know, you probably shouldn't talk to people like that?"
* "Like what?"
- "Like how you were talking."
* "How was I talking?"
- "I mean to just aren't suppose to talk to people that you don't know. I'm from Sweden. There it is worse. If you were to do that, people would think that you were a crazy person."
* "Hmm, alright. So how on earth do you meet new people?"
- "I don't know."

Yes, "I don't know"! Leave it to an outlying Scandinavian city to bring new appreciation for Caracas, an aggressive and crude city that took months to finally win my heart. For all its faults (and believe me, they aren't so hard to point out) the Caraquenos are at least living daily some very important qualities, like openness, friendliness and the unspoken understanding that sharing the same space is like sharing the same mind, I just wish this could be said to extend between those with political differences. A year in Latin America has certainly redefined my social needs and never will a society so reserved and conformist as Copenhagen ever be able to win over my heart...but then again, I swore to despise Caracas forever only 8 months ago and now I am truly dreading the day I will leave. Copenhagen, your true essence will remain a mystery to me yet. Thanks for being you and thanks for sharing!

No comments:

Post a Comment