If you do something in New York that the natives consider impolitic (e.g. walk slowly, take too long to order, compliment Times Square), you find out immediately because someone punches you. In Denmark, though, there is no violence, just quizzical stares with a subtext of abject horror—that is to say, dis-Dane. Nobody tells you what is or isn’t good etiquette, so every social interaction is tantamount to playing Minesweeper with Danish customs. Asking for directions in Ringkøbing? Boom, you hit a mine. Drinking hot chocolate in Ribe? Boom, another mine. Trying to borrow a plastic knife from a deli in Jelling (BOOM) or olive oil from a bed-and-breakfast-but-apparently-no-olive-oil in Århus (BOOM, BOOM, BOOM)? You might as well have just invaded Greenland.
While dis-Dane, like the Danish military, is passive, the Danes have found some more aggressive ways of keeping encroachers at bay. Exhibit A: the prices. There’s a sales tax of 40% built into everything, which leads to $5 cups of coffee and other fiscal atrocities. How many armies have been dissuaded from invading Denmark just because they couldn’t afford the $32 toll to cross the Stovebælt Bridge? Exhibit B: the strict environmental regulations. Denmark’s enemies had better power their tanks by windmill, or their presence will simply not be tolerated. As the country's green-friendly bathrooms dispense toilet paper by the single sheet and paper towels by the half-inch, invaders must also be dainty in their hygiene.
But that's today. Centuries ago, Danish defenses were reactionary and focused around one strategy: whenever anyone attacked, the Danes moved their capital. Accordingly, every hundred years or so the capital appeared in a different, impossible-to-predict location, not unlike Brigadoon.
One of the early capitals was Helsingør (or “Elsinore,” as countries with real armies call it), which is right across the Øresund strait from Sweden. As Sweden invaded Denmark on a weekly basis, the Danish king realized this was not an ideal location and fled to greener, less accessible pastures. Helsingør’s Kronborg Castle meanwhile gained fame as the setting of Hamlet and became a mecca for Shakespeare aficionados and those who would sell them merchandise. Nowadays, the Kronborg gift shoppe offers Beanie Baby bards, inflatable pink castles (for your wee Ophelia), and half-assed souvenir shirts (blank with an ironed-on “To Be Or Not To Be”). Outside the shoppe, the courtyard hosts productions of Hamlet in every style ranging from good to opera.
Less sacrilegious was a tour of the Kronborg dungeons led by Emma, our guide who hated children and was therefore amazing. Taking us into the bowels of the castle, she pointed out Ogier the Dane, a statue which, according to legend, will come alive in Denmark’s hour of need. For the record Viking, Nazi, and Swedish invasions didn't count as hours of need.
After the Danish king fled Helsingør, the capital moved to Ribe (pronounced “Ree-ba,” as in Ms. McEntire or the catchphrase of Speedy Gonzales). Founded in 869 AD, Ribe is Denmark’s oldest city and remains ferociously committed to being quaint. The streets are cobblestone, the buildings wooden-framed, the citizens suited in the styles of yestermillennium. The inn we stayed in, Weis Stue, was built in 1600 and hasn’t been updated since, making it my second most decrepit residence after Jonathan Edwards College.
The police, too, are quaint. With uniforms and artillery dating back to the 14th century, they’re more for the benefit of tourists than murder victims. These “night watchmen,” as they’re called, guarded the city from ne’er-do-wells a hundred years ago; today, they lead tours. Our guide/watchman carried an old-school weapon that looked like an avocado with knives sticking out of it. This device, he said, is called a “morning star” because it reminds people of Jesus. (In the 14th century, Jesus was often conflated with heavily armed guacamole.)
As the watchman led us through the streets of Ribe, he sang the traditional tolling-of-the-hour songs outside people’s houses, and these people would come down and bribe him to sing elsewhere. With the hour tolled and people extorted, he began pointing out the dangers that lie beneath Ribe’s façade of quaintness. For example, the Great Floods of 1638, 1825, 1904, 1909, and 1911 wreaked havoc on the Riberians and their more absorbent possessions. With all these floods, you’d think God was telling the townsfolk to go to church more frequently. God, however, sends mixed signals. During Christmas service in 1283, the Ribe Cathedral collapsed crushing the parishioners and ensuring that its living nativity wasn’t much of either. Fortunately, the cathedral has since been rebuilt, and Ribe’s leading cause of death is now morning star rather than shoddy construction.
While Helsingør is adjacent to Sweden, Ribe is directly on the German border, and if you know your German history or, in my case, your German stereotypes, you’ll understand why after frequent invasions by our favorite Teutons, the Danes decided to move their capital to Copenhagen. (In all fairness, Germany did much less damage to Denmark than did Sweden. I’m assuming that, amongst his many propaganda campaigns, Goebbels toyed with “Nazis: At Least We’re Not Swedish.”)
Perhaps because their city has not been recently attacked, the denizens of Copenhagen greeted Mari, Bob, and me with levels of friendliness I had hitherto associated with Mormons. Not only had all dis-Dane vanished, people went out of their way to help us. At the city’s graveyard—where we went to visit Søren Kierkegaard (that Bob might pay his tributes) and Hans Christian Andersen (that I might sing “Poor Unfortunate Souls”)—a friendly receptionist opened a special parking spot just for us. An equally friendly groundskeeper took time to expound upon the importance of relaxation (“You’re walking too quickly to enjoy the graves”) and to allay our perceived concerns about his country (“We’re not communist”). At Tivoli Gardens, where we went for our final Danish hurrah (hørråh?), the ticket taker waved us in without charging admission. Maybe in a country where everyone is six feet tall and blond, he mistook us for the entertainment?
Speaking of which, Tivoli Gardens was Walt Disney’s inspiration for Disneyland. Both theme parks combine rides, whimsy, and borderline racism to create a sense of magic. At Tivoli, this magic is buoyed by the prevalence of alcohol and cutouts of topless women. After trying some rides that were on par with Ireland’s X2 Flight Simulator and avoiding those that had paramedics waiting at the end, we decided to watch a show. In addition to resident productions of Mamma Mia! and Cabaret (“Nazis: At Least We’re Not ABBA”), Tivoli has bandstands throughout the park and a Peacock Theatre which specializes in commedia dell’arte.
Commedia dell’arte, a dramatic holdover from 16th-century Italy, is ideal for theatregoers who, like me, prefer their characters clearly defined (men want money; women want a husband), their conflicts heightened (a cross-dressing man strikes a child with a fish), and their denouements elegant (God comes down and fixes everything). I imagine this genre appeals to the Danes since God so rarely fixes things for them; rather, he smites them by way of Swedes.
And with a history of cities smitten and capitals relocated, who could begrudge Denmark the occasional display of dis-Dane? Or who could be unmoved when the Danes finally opened their hearts and graveyard parking spots to us? Certainly, not I. As I flew back home to New York and the American economy (now an oxymoron), my soul brimmed with melancholy instead of the usual xenophobia.
Denmark, if you ever need another place for your capital, I totally volunteer my apartment.
We're overcome by anticipation.