Thursday, June 15, 2017

København Left

My last night in København epitomizes everything I have come to love about this city - a hygge, simple dinner in the basement kitchen of the hostel with Cam. Eggs from Ole’s garden, hot peppers, a glass of wine. Talking through the experience, the students, the marks, the next stops on each of our journeys. Then a 10pm daylight bike ride through Oestebro to Mikkeler, the craft beer shop where we get sours and sit amidst climbing roses and smiling people, watching the light climb the buildings and the wind whirl, then to La Fontaine, a jazz club we find by accident while looking for a spot for an Aquavit nightcap. The club is hopping with a local group playing a beautiful jazz version of Dylan’s “Don’t think twice.” We have two. The band plays one extra; the crowd is warm, relaxed, quick to connect. On our ride home, the streets emptying, the wind died down, the light still in the northwest, I watch the black bikes glide by on the cobbles, the Strøget with its metal angled insertions between the stones, so that when viewed from the side, the street seems to glitter with a trail of stars. The design shops — “we want things to be simple, beautiful, functional, warm” — and the swimmable canals lying  between the streets like deep blue crayons. 

Denmark may be what happens when you take religion out of the equation, leaving people free to create a socialist culture of pleasure and happiness with much less guilt, oppression or competition than is normally present in ‘civilization'. We stop in groups of 2 or 10 at streetlights on our bikes. I am inches away from the person next to me. There’s a calm accord. We are waiting for the light together. No one pushes ahead. I fumble on my bike as it turns yellow, then green, and a woman smiles at me. We sweep along the blue painted lanes. We perform “Copenhagen lefts”, where you cross and swing around to wait for the second light to change rather than cutting across traffic. The bikes are mostly upright and the women look like golden queens. The men all look like Christian, in some way or another. The eye colour. The broad face. The chin cleft. I am beside myself. I sit up straight and pile my hair on top of my head like many of the women. I ride over bridges constructed to mimic the Pont Neuf in France, so as to create places to gather on your way to somewhere. Little eddies that kink the straight line from A to B. Bridges that arc over the harbour and between buildings, bridges built just for bicycles. It’s like flying through the air. 

The Danes are the most contented people on earth, according to the World Happiness Index. “A person with one child gets about $3200 a month here, as a guaranteed income,” Kåre tells me, over wine at an informal bar in Nørbro. He laughs when I tell him I moved back in with my parents this winter to afford school. He can’t imagine anyone doing that here. “If you don’t get a job, you think, oh, well I will take a year to think about what I want to do, and then figure it out.” This isn’t laziness. It’s a belief that people are worth something even when they are not productive in a capitalist system. To contribute to one’s culture, one’s community, to a life, it is not necessary to always be earning. Education is free. Social housing is widespread. And the Danes saved over 90% of the Jews in their country before WWII; they put them on boats to Sweden, took them out of harm’s way. Kåre gets a salary from the government; he is a writer, contributing to the cultural capital of his country. He will get this salary for the rest of his life. Sensibility, sensibleness, but without the relentless efficiency I saw in so much of Germany. And a deadpan humour that sends an undercurrent of relaxed camaraderie through most interactions, and makes interacting with people not a means to an end, but a pleasure to be enjoyed in itself. It is a country with a long, wet, miserable winter. Their solution is to turn to one another, rather than turn against, or turn to solitude or self-recrimination. “It’s a little bit slippery, yes,” says a woman interviewed in a video on biking through Copenhagen’s winter, and then smiles and peddles off down the snowy streets.

Food, socialism, movement, drink. The first night was also lovely. I finally arrived, after two days delay caring for a student in a Hamburg Hospital (she’s fine) and Cam took me to Copenhagen Street Food, a warehouse district on Paper Island slated for redevelopment and currently being used as a pop-up food and drink venue and as office space for various creative industries. There were giant barrels with cordwood fires burning in front of the main food building. Lawn chairs stretched along the concrete wharf, with no barrier interrupting the view of the harbour and the modern and classical buildings that stretched along it. You could get duck fries, herring, bimbambip, Polish potatoes or sushi. There was organic cider and local beer. We sat in the lawn chairs until the evening’s storm arrived, and then careened on our bikes through the downpour, laughing, having not yet learned the Danes’ trick of ducking under a tree or into a bar for the ten minutes it took to pass. We saw them as we rode, in warm interiors, their drinks in hand, watching the weather from the doorway together.