25 October 2012

Ready, Set, Copenhagen!

We couldn't really understand the warbled voice over the loudspeaker, but context clues told us we'd better watch our heads.  The canal tour of Copenhagen was coming to an end and the final, oldest, lowest bridge cut things pretty close.  These boats were designed for just this moment, to fit through snugly like a coin into a slot.  The sides scratched and bumped a little, but we made it through to the other side.  Canal tour, check.  We had visitors in town this week and they came armed with a handy book filled with Top Tens for Copenhagen.  This wasn't a travel guide, it was a challenge, a game, an adventure that had us whizzing through the city collecting pieces for a figurative jigsaw puzzle called The Complete Copenhagen Experience.
"We're not doing what you guys are doing.  We're here to be tourists.  We have to see all the sights."  Parents have a knack for saying things like that, a declaration that hovers somewhere between judgement and praise.  A little befuddled, I began to think about the difference between what we're doing and decided that it's not all that different.  All tourism is essentially a scavenger hunt.  Maybe our personal top tens don't always include that statue, that tour or that attraction (Amalienborg Palace, Check.  Tivoli Gardens, Check).  Maybe ours are more often eat singed lamb head, try to fit in with the cool kids in such and such neighborhood, spelunk, but we have that list we try to check off nonetheless.  Visiting a foreign country can be a brief stint at trying another life on for size.  So, these Top Tens or To Dos are really just the bucket lists for those lives.  Who knows if you'll ever find yourself back in Copenhagen?
It's often difficult to know where to start in a city, what to focus on, how to crack the local code.  In Copenhagen, the place to start is undoubtedly the bike rental shop.  (Ride Bikes, Check).  We kept ours for three days, using them to get everywhere.  On the bicycles we were invisible, just a part of the two-wheeled traffic.  There was no walking slowly, clutching a map or hopping on and off a big red bus.  It gave our safari an instant sense of adventure and individuality.  It gave our experience of Copenhagen a true feeling of authenticity, just us and the locals signaling and ringing bells with the pedaling commuters.  Anonymity.  Well, until the last few hours of our final day when my father's brakes began to wear down and his arrival at a stop light was announced loudly to the entire city.  The sound can best be described as two donkeys on a rusted seesaw.
The canal tour gave us a new perspective on the city.  Places we'd pedaled through, Christianhavn, Nyhavn, looked different from our below-street-level viewpoint.  The buildings rose up around us, boats were parked (and in some cases double and triple parked) along the sides of the canals.  People were out doing post-season work on their vessels, a dog sat next to a deck barbecue.  Inching through narrow bridges and canals is a lot more romantic than squeezing through narrow streets in a bus and there was a great fly-on-the wall feeling about it. 
There were multi-course explorations of New Nordic cuisine (Check), there were cold Carlsberg brews and smørbrød (Check and Check), there were many coffees at many cafes.  This one, Bang & Jensen, was our go to spot in Vesterbro, where our rental apartment was located.  We were excited to bring our guests, to show them this cool place we'd discovered.  As it turns out, the cafe was one of the first to move into the neighborhood, at the helm of its transformation/gentrification from red-light to hip neighborhood.  "It's on the list!" we were informed to mixed emotions.  A small part of us felt like we'd fallen into some sort of trap, the pride in our 'find' stripped from us.  But, then there was a new feeling of pride in our instincts and that we'd led our little team to another victory (Bang & Jensen, Check!).  After 47 countries and 38 capital cities, maybe we've just gotten good at this. 
Restaurant Klubben made its way onto one of the Top Ten lists because of its 'large portions of traditional Danish food.'  Restaurants in tourist guides are always a double edged sword.  Yes, you have a recommendation to go by, but you also run the risk of eating in a room full of other people clutching said guide.  When we walked into Klubben, which was packed on a Thursday evening, my father and his wife, two native New Yorkers, pointed to the counter.  "Takeout.  You know it's a good local joint when there's takeout."  People streamed in past us to grab their orders.  "This is the real deal."  The checkered table cloths, loud groups and enormous platters of meat screamed 'family dinner.'  A tiny old woman whose wrinkled mouth suggested toothlessness served us our homecooked grub with aplumb and we rolled out full and happy.  Another sign of authenticity:  the place was empty by 9:30.  Danes eat early.  Restaurant Klubben, traditional Danish food, stewed pork heart (Check, Check and Check).
Next up, Freetown Christiania, the 40 year old self-governing section of Copenhagen, which is part squat, part utopia.  They have their own health care, currency, school system, post office, constitution.  It is a hippie commune, a haven for the homeless and a 'safe place' for addicts who can no longer function in society.  It is also a community of 850 that rejects capitalism and governs their property ownership and local business in ways that benefit everyone.  We saw only a sliver of the neighborhood, entering through the main gate and immediately being approached by an old man.
'Where it says no photos. Don't take photos.'  (We happen to always follow such rules).  'They will take your camera and smash it,' he repeated emphatically.  'Smash it.'  It ruffled our feathers.  The strong stench of hash, signs saying not to run because it 'causes panic,' and the blocks of resin for sale next to buds and pipes on Pusher Street turned us off from an afternoon family stroll further afield.  It was a shame, because we never really got to the idyllic heart of the place, to the kooky architectural creations, to the fish-filled lake and ecovillage center which inspired the broader sustainability plan for Copenhagen.  We checked Freetown off our list, but barely scratched the surface.  Just how these things go sometimes.
On the other end of the spectrum, but at the center of millions of visitors' plans in Copenhagen, is the little mermaid.  Her head is turned down in a plaintive, somber way, perhaps dreaming of her former fins, perhaps bashful at all the attention.  Like the mannekin pis in Brussels, the diminutive statue is a sort of mascot for a city that can't and shouldn't be quantified by big-ticket items.  In a lot of ways, the mermaid is a perfect Danish icon.  She was given to the city by the Carlsberg family in 1913 and is, of course, the creation of Hans Christian Anderson (arguably the country's most famous son).  The original statue has never been on display, the sculptor's family keeps it somewhere secret and sells authorized copies from their website.  Through her almost 200 year old life on the rock, the little mermaid has been decapitated, blown up, draped in a burqa, painted, sawed at, replaced in parts and altogether.  But maybe it's better not to tell the tourists that.  Then again, so long as its at the top of the lists, I doubt anyone will care.


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