Sarah Bernhardt in Copenhagen?

An early morning terminal, a bleak sight as I walked not-so-quietly with my suitcase clank-clanking down the empty hallway. It was only moments ago that I waited for my luggage to appear on the baggage carousel, the last person standing with me sighed gleefully after his black suitcase with a blue ribbon suddenly appeared on the conveyor belt. I quickly whispered to myself, “what am I going to do?” Even the lost property office was closed.

It was only a few minutes later as I quietly screamed and cursed inside myself that my suitcase finally decided to show. Lazy bastards, surely the baggage handler could be sued for negligence given that I nearly had a heart attack.  So, there I was walking through the empty terminal, my head spinning from almost thirty hours of flying and transit before I saw Lærke waiting for me, another Danish student the department had organised to collect me. The sight of her ageing blue puffer jacket made the air feel hot. I had left Melbourne for Copenhagen when we had back-to-back scorchers causing bushfire chaos and then the uncomfortable, skin-drying temperatures on board made it momentarily confusing seeing her so rugged up and I was so exhausted that I missed the gloom of the grey morning that steamed the windows behind her, indicative of the freezing weather that awaited me outside.

‘I love this cold!’ I smiled as I rode my bike down Amagerbrogade back toward my apartment as snow lightly tickled my face. I had spent the evening with friends from my class at Københavns Universitet and for a silly moment as I stood waiting for the bicycle traffic lights to change green, I opened my mouth and let the snow drizzle in. I got back home just before 3am, nearly slipping on the ice as the bike wobbled when I lightly pressed the brakes and I was surprised to see the lights on at Eriks Bageri located at the corner of the apartment block I was living in. Do they start this early?

The beautiful smell of freshly baked bread and pastries would often dance its way into my bedroom and with sleepy, automaton movements I would casually float down the stairs and into the bakery for my breakfast, as though in some blissful reverie I would lightly peel away sweet wienerbrød or frøsnappere before washing it down with a warm cup of coffee. The thick, almost cake-like Rugbrød took some time for my palate understand as did adding mayonnaise to fries. Life in Copenhagen was bliss.

There is something very minimalist, very traditional in their approach to living and perhaps it is the Danish welfare system, where the government taxes an exorbitant amount (last I heard it was around 45%) that feeds into an interesting social dynamic. This model of governance includes a term coined ‘Creative Destruction‘ which is a liberal economic system that regularly innovates and necessarily indicative of a fluidity required with ongoing democratic and social changes. Free education and healthcare as well as support for its ageing citizens has embedded a nationalism that actually cares for other citizens rather than the survival of the fittest that can be brutal to those most vulnerable in our society. Indeed, the GDP growth rate may be slow, but it is sustainable. People are happy; quality over quantity.

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While a constitutional monarchy binds a type of imagined connection between the citizens and the state, the sheer size of the decentralised government vis-a-vis the highly autonomous local framework diminishes efficiency and in general I found myself being hand-balled from building to building just to finalise a small task because apparently no body knew what to do and almost always someone else probably knew better. It is a social contract and as such this small country tends to follow in masses and often remain within expected cultural parameters that can suffocate multiculturalism. This uniformity is dangerously close to a type of patriotism that does not see culture as a living, changing system but rather holds the idea that a national consciousness consists of a shared history and language that should be preserved. The heightened sense of exclusion – particularly against the Islamic minority – could really be felt when I was there and this only increased the intensity of radical groups who resorted to causes that enable the marginalised and isolated migrants to feel connected and important.

Nevertheless, hidden behind closed doors and the perpetually annoyed Danish expressions lies hygge where delicious Danish smørebrøds and drinks in warm Scandanavian atmospheres makes a person feel warm both inside and out. I even got the chance to see a young man covered in cinnamon because he was still a bachelor, something unacceptably humorous if aged over 25 and a bizarre tradition that left me laughing until my stomach hurt. As food is pretty expensive except for maybe the shwarma restaurants dotted across the city thanks to the Turkish migrants, most prefer to cook at home that only adds to this delightful and connected culture. Is it the weather?

Yep.

Come summer and suddenly the Danes awaken from torpor where beautiful women in colourful dresses and songs and dance across Copenhagen brighten the once cold, dark  and wet landscape. It is actually astonishing how sudden the change is. Tivoli gardens bursts into action, outdoor swimming, music festivals and festivals and more festivals, there is no better place to be. I even got the chance to listen to my favourite Bowie song Ashes to Ashes by an overweight transvestite singing in a tribute band. Only in Copenhagen. A quick mermaid visit or maybe Kierkegaard’s grave? Why not! The city is small enough to walk or bike around and one naturally feels connected to it as though it commands respect. Make sure you have the chance to experience a midsummer nights… nightmare when the country lights up bonfires and burns witches during Sankt Hans Aften.

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My favourites:

  1. Sarah Bernhardt happens to be both my favourite flower as well as an amazing Danish dessert. Named after a French actor, it is a macaron cookie as one would know, only filled with creamy chocolate and covered with more chocolate, it is a combination between high tea at an expensive hotel and that local patisserie with a lazy pastry chef. Kind of like me, untamed and wild and yet somewhat posh. Konditori La Glace I think epitomises that new and old feeling.
  2. I love breakfast. I love porridge. I really love porridge. And Scandanavia is the best place to have it, especially during the cold winter months. Unfortunately, I am dairy intolerant and so I never really thought that I could find a good breakfast place that would cater to this until I wondered into GROD and quickly found out why they were dubbed ‘the’ place for porridge. Just do it.
  3. It may seem pretentious, but there really is nothing like relaxing to the sounds of jazz in a live environment. No need to worry about silly, small talk conversations when you can sit or stand at La Fontaine as the sounds of new or classic jazz songs, maybe even giggle at a really bad poetry reading, whatever the case is it is a lovely escape.
  4. The late afternoon at Nyhavn despite it not having the best reputation, the glowing colours of burnt orange from the sunset bouncing off the colourful buildings as the sounds of the water from the canal slap lightly against the parked boats, it is just heavenly. I like Galionen for that kind of not-so-posh feeling you get with most restaurants.