Everywhere—all over Africa and South America … you see these suburbs springing up. They represent the optimum of what people want. There’s a certain sort of logic leading towards these immaculate suburbs. And they’re terrifying, because they are the death of the soul…. This is the prison this planet is being turned into.
– J.G. Ballard
“This is it mate,” Geoff, looking over my shoulder into the sun glancing off the water, sips from his 50 kroner draft of Carlsberg and motions all around, “this is the city of the future.”
He may not be as wrong as I am skeptical.
“Clean water, healthcare, education, literature, art, this is the center of the design world, man and,” here he leans in close, “will you look at all these birds around us.”
His hushed tones did nothing to allay the stares of the birds and waiters alike.
“Geoff, this isn’t Japan. They can understand English here. Perhaps better than we can.” I went to take a deep drink, noted the price-tag and thinking better, took a sip.
“Who cares! They’re all bloody mad until they turn 25. It’s all clubbing and shagging, pissing it up for days on end, then suddenly it’s time to get a family cycle. Everything’s guaranteed, so there’s no stress like, worrying about school, a job, the future. It’s all set, don’t you get it. Just take aim at one of these leggy blondes and squeeze a few off, you’ll be in the club. Man, the Danes are great!”
“Blondes are overrated. So is design. Art, on the other hand, and clean water, are not. Paying off loans on an art degree isn’t great either, but it’s wholly American. Can we really drink this?” I pointed through the wooden deck to the lake.
“From what I’ve read, yes. From what I’ve seen, well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves, it’s still early. We’ve yet to get through dinner at Anders’.”
“Ah yes, how did you put it?…the ‘gay mafia’. I should warn you, I only have one pair of pants.”
“Let’s hope you have trousers as well. But if they were good enough for those rough and ready Mongolian lasses, then they should be sufficient for the gay mafia.”
“And don’t you forget it. Looks like it may be similar to Japan after all. Check out all the roguish types drinking in public. Let’s go get a couple of walk-arounds and find somewhere to admire the local fauna.”
Circumnavigating the four rectangular lakes, we talked more about living in Japan—specifically why I had left—and his idea of the city of the future, if it were even possible, and if we were truly in it. Openly carrying green bottles of lager reminded us of running around Fukuoka at night like a pack of drug-addled hyenas, ignoring the thousands of wary Asian eyes and searching only for more liquor, more women, and the next good time. I told him that Tokyo was Fukuoka times ten and eventually, just as powerfully soul-sucking on the backend. Getting out of that treeless homage to greasy gray skyscrapers and desultory apartment buildings, despite its amazing public transportation and great independent restaurant and bar scene, was paramount to surviving my thirties.
“I’m getting old G. And what have I got to show for it? A few photographs. A few stories. Jesus…”
“All right grandpa? How about another crispy lager before you pass on then. We should pick up a bottle of vino for Anders’ as well, though they’ll have plenty. Aunt Jez warned me the gay mafia likes a good piss up.”
“God bless the gay mafia.”
The gay mafia consisted of Anders and Lars, both of whom were exceptional hosts. After pouring us a drink and showing us around their newly renovated flat, followed by several rounds of aperitifs, we dined on massive porterhouse steaks—bloody as hell—french fries, green beans and a few bottles of good French vin de pays. Their large apartment—a 19th century ode to the popular historicist movement of the time—austere to say the least, would have been within the original city walls. Anders told us of overcrowding, food shortages, sewage issues, all because King Christian’s unwillingness to open the ringed fortifications that then surrounded Copenhagen, quipping about still being scared of Nelson’s long-range canons. It was over several digestifs of grappa that we discussed Lars’ administrative travels to Greenland (as an sled-dogging accountant), the legalization of gay marriage in 1989, and life in Denmark versus life in Japan versus life in Britain versus life in the U.S. Everything seemed so adult, so mature, so comfortable. It was well after midnight when Anders clapped his hands, noted it was a “school night” and sent us to weave our way through the cobblestoned streets around the city center. We came upon a bodega spilling with women, found a couple of chairs and talked about collaborating on a magazine in the future.
Geoff sipped his draught of Carlsberg Elephant Ale. “Close your eyes, pick a place on the globe, we’ll go there, photograph it, write it up, drink it in. There’s our first issue.”
“Sounds good, G. Just give me time to find funding and…to hop a freighter. You know I don’t believe in the whole flying thing.”
“Just a fad, gramps, I know. Speaking of planes, I’m back to the old blimey tomorrow morning. Here’s to the future.”
“Indeed.” We drank deep, surrounded by the warmth of others.
From that point on, the gay mafia were the only Danes I would meet. Armand, Edouard, Niels, Gino, Alastair, Kelly, Nadya, French, Dutch, Scottish, Italian, Russian, an American even, all expatriates, would be my guides to the city. Though we wouldn’t go to overpriced Tivoli, the often vandalized Little Mermaid or Steenwinckel’s Round Tower, a bicycle tour of the best bodegas, local restaurants, cafes and bars the good side of affordable Copenhagen was more than worth its weight in crowns. It was in one of these places where we sat around a table covered with bottles of beer, coffee, water, cameras, film, magazines, and tried to parse out why the Danes are so happy.
“You have been here for only a few days and already met some actual Danes?”
“Served us dinner, Anders gave me his number as well, said if I needed anything…”
“Unbelievable. The Danish are usually so so so so…”
“Not cold, just private. One cannot invite a Danish out to have a drink, how do you say…spontanément?”
“Yes, they need weeks to plan anything.”
“It’s all part of hyggelig.”
“Hyggelig. It means…”
“If any Danes would actually speak to us now (but we wouldn’t interrupt them because that’s not hyggelig…), they would tell us it’s untranslatable. I was chatting at a university party with one of my students and asked her what it meant. She could only give me this example, ‘When I am sitting next to someone on the bus, next to the window, and he or she needs to get out of the bus, we would like you to move without saying anything.'”
“Seems very Japanese. The outward politeness and courtesy which is expected of everyone else, yet is also rarely applied to oneself.”
“Well, it’s a Danish only thing, I can tell you. The rest of us barbarians could never understand such complicated and difficult ideas as hyggelig…”
Laughing, we were beginning to get mildly drunk enough that we either didn’t care or didn’t notice people were staring.
“If this hyggelig is Danish only, why do you all continue to live here?”
“Strictly speaking, it’s not Danish only. It’s just that we are not Danish so we have no point of reference, just as they would have no idea what it means to be British, or French, or American.”
“Yes, taxes are high, but the pay is very good. There is good healthcare. The people here are obsessed with the healthy image. Biking and jogging everywhere. Business women sunbathing nude in the park at lunch. The air is clean, the water is clean. If you do not have a car, you can save money easily…”
“It is easy to speak bad about wherever you are, but we have food, beer, each other, life is good, no!”
“There is some joy in not belonging, in being an outsider. It gives you some kind of fire.”
“So how do they manage to get along with non-Danish? It’s almost ten percent of the entire population?”
The table, and maybe the entire cafe, seemed to collectively exhale.
“It is, as you say, like in Japan, a difficult thing. If they were white, like the German minority here, maybe there would be less problems. Like in Japan, when people see a different color face, white, brown, chartreuse, anything, the people take notice. Most do not care, but some…”
“With us, it is more difficult, because I am Caucasian, so they have to get close to me before they know I am not Danish, unless I smell…do I smell French?”
In unison, “Yes!”
“Ils sont les chaud lapins. Fucking like rabbits and keeping to themselves make the Danish nervous.”
“They do not want to take part in this culture, which, even if they did, they would not necessarily be invited to do so, but they get angry, call you racist when you say you do not want to join their culture, which generally means their religion.”
“Culture doesn’t exist. It’s the excuse we give to explain our misunderstanding and fear of others, of the unknown. But humans are humans. Shaw said, ‘The ordinary man is an anarchist. He wants to do as he likes. He may want his neighbor to be governed, but he himself doesn’t want to be governed.'”
“We are all selfish children, who don’t want to share, but are forced to. Everyone wants their ‘culture’ to be the best, the most important, to be adhered to when foreigners enter the country. The Japanese want you to take off your shoes when you enter their houses, the Americans want you to love freedom and hate taxes…
“…or they’ll bomb your country!”
“…the Danes want…”
“what we all basically want: good food, drink and the comfort of knowing it will all be there tomorrow. Me, I want a different beer. Enough of this bland pale lager.”
“Is Midsummer today, so there will be the lake on fire. It maybe rains, typical Danish summer, but we can practice Danish culture, buying beer, drinking outside, eating the sausage, finding healthy Danish women…”
“…They won’t talk to you…”
“Is o.k., I have some friends, Italianos, a birthday party of a young lady. You maybe come and bring your boun appetito, they just came back from Italia, so maybe they bring prosciutto di Parma, Lardo di Colonnata, Formaggio, Ravioli, all illegal exports, so shhhh.”
“Buon vino Italiano.”
“Le vin français serait mieux…”
“I’m homeless, so I’ll drink anything.”
“The homeless are so very non-discriminatory.”