Monday, September 27, 2010

Denmark, Part 1: To Jumbosnegl or Not To Jumbosnegl

I’d always wanted to see Denmark—the cuckoo clocks, the wooden shoes, the old-school windmills.  Unfortunately, I’d always been confusing Denmark with Holland.  Denmark has neither clocks nor clogs, and its windmills are turn of the millennium.  But Denmark does have, in increasing order of magnitude, Danes, Danishes, and Hans Christian Andersen museums.

Journeying with me through this land of fairy tales and socialism were Mariana and Bob, two-thirds of my Ireland cohorts.  (Alpana, the remaining third, couldn’t attend because she was working on argon film at the Boeing laboratories.  Boeing recently delayed its Dreamliner which suggests Alpana wasn't working hard enough.)  In a logical progression from last year, Mari and Bob are now engaged, whereas I have the good sense not to be marrying either of them.

Everything in Denmark runs like clockwork, except the cuckoo clocks which are in Holland.  Shops scheduled to open at ten open exactly as the hour is struck.  Trains arrive and depart on schedule, as one might expect.  Unexpected, though, is the serenity that prevails on board. In New York, when you’re riding Metro-North, it’s a good day if someone doesn’t vomit on you; on the subway, you’re happy if the someone who vomits on you isn’t a mariachi band.  But as we rode the train from the airport to Copenhagen, not only was everything spotless; everyone was silent.  We spoke in hushed whispers over our Lonely Planets, fearing that we might incur the Danes’ silent wrath.  As it so happened, we would incur said wrath for the duration of our trip, but I save that for the second installment.

Copenhagen itself is a (beautiful!) stereotype of a Scandinavian city.  Tall, antique buildings—contiguous and painted in pastels—line the canals that divide the boroughs.  All the furnishings are Ikea.  Every third store is H&M.  (For those who took the SAT before 2005, H&M : Copenhagen :: Starbucks : New York)  And, most importantly, pastries prevail.

Just as the Eskimo have 30 different words for snow, the Danes have countless words for Danishes.  (To Bob’s dismay, they don’t call them “us’s.”)  Options include jumbosnegls, tyrksnegls, askesnegls, lodrettesnegls, and kølesnegls.  Take any combination of letters, add -snegl, and you’ve got yourself a pastry.

Copenhagen has many charms.  The snazzy Kongelige library holds all Danish literary works of import (the building is larger than you'd think).  The hippie commune at Christiania has beautiful lakeside paths and psychedelic murals.  (In a fight against psychedelicity, Christiania’s signage suggests that visitors limit themselves to drugs that don’t require injecting.  The icon for this: a fist punching a syringe in half, which demonstrates a ferocity Denmark never quite mustered against Sweden.)  But the main reason people come to Copenhagen, aside from opening an H&M, is to see the Little Mermaid statue.

Denmark is obsessed with Hans Christian Andersen, and understandably so.  In the history of Denmark, there are but two famous Danes—Andersen and Søren Kierkegaard—and, of these, Andersen is marginally less depressing.  Accordingly, every town in Denmark has a shrine in Andersen’s honor whether he lived there or not.  For Copenhagen, this shrine is the Little Mermaid statue, depicting the heroine of the titular tale.  (The Andersen story is considerably darker than Disney’s amazing movie and subsequent Broadway flop.  For instance, upon being transformed into a human, Andersen's mermaid felt hours of excruciating pain.  Broadway audiences could empathize.)

The Little Mermaid statue is Copenhagen’s signature attraction, a la the Eiffel Tower in Paris or car bombs in Northern Ireland.  However, with a tourism board chaired by Carmen Sandiego, Denmark decided to send the statue to Shanghai.  Atop its now-empty pedestal, a screen broadcasts the statue sitting in its Chinese digs.  Denmark has not yet managed to mail Copenhagen to Shanghai, but I recommend visiting before they do.

Denmark consists of a bunch of islands large and small with names that range from cute (Falster) to weekday abbreviations (Mon) to outright lies (Greenland).  To navigate this archipelago, one needs wheels, or oars, so we visited our good friends at Budget, and with the keys in (Bob’s) hand, began our automotive tour of Denmark.  (Driving in Denmark was much calmer than in Ireland: the Danes drive on the right side of the road, the roads have lanes in the plural, Alpana was in Seattle.)

As we visited a slew of small towns and sampled the churches and waffles therein, we noticed some consistencies among the Danish.  Everyone is tall and blond—Mari, Bob, and I received stares wherever we went, as if to inquire, “Why do hobbits waddle among us, and who hath pooped on their hair?”  Everyone is in shape—the Danish get lots of exercise which they complement with a regimen of chain smoking.  Everyone is roughly the same socioeconomic status—in our two weeks in Denmark, we didn’t see a single homeless person.  Either Denmark’s social programs work, or they bake the homeless into paupersnegls.

The Danes, being non-litigious, are also more lackadaisical about safety than we coffee-spilling Americans.  At the Knuthenberg Safari Park in Lolland, you can drive your car into Tigerkoven or if you seek kovens less inclined to eat you, you can walk amongst llamas, camels, and bulls who merely spit, kick, and impale.  But even more awesome than impaling is the Smalland playground, whose name suggests it’s either for children or wee foreigners like us.  We spent the afternoon living out our American Gladiator fantasies (at least the ones that didn’t involve Laser), scaling rock walls, swinging from ropes, running across balance beams, and zooming down zip lines and vertiginous slides.  None of these had tanbark beneath, let alone safety nets, but a prominent sign announced (in English), “This playground meets the safety standards of the Danish government,” informing Americans that any broken limbs would have been broken according to Danish law.

Having nursed our wounds and recovered our cameras (which were snatched by the residents of Lemurkoven), we took once more to the road, looking always for the next pastry.

Continued >>

 In Lemurkoven, the distrust is mutual.

1 comment:

  1. Where is the second installment?? And why, oh why, did it take me so long to read this :)