The best places for me are those in which it is natural to be a stranger. These, more or less, are the words of Italo Calvino. And perhaps, torn between England and Italy, it is natural for me to be a stranger in Copenhagen. At least for a while.

In search of Paper Island

It’s Friday evening, Christianshavn, Copenhagen, and I am searching for Paper Island. Sometime in the last year I stopped trying to pronounce Danish place names and resorted to translating them into literal English; a practice I stole from Thomas Kennedy, the resident American-in-exile novelist, whom I overheard referring to Nørreport as “the North Gate.” I enjoy the perversity of this, and the stiltedness of the translations, though in this case it does mean I neglect one of my favourite Danish words, ø, ‘island’. The word itself looks like a crossed-out island, the negation of its meaning. It is also the shape of the foreign mouth that tries to reproduce the sound, failing. Paper Island is not the Scandinavian equivalent to Ryman’s; it is a real (and by real I mean artificial) island, with just enough space for a large warehouse, once home to paper storage for newspapers. The warehouse’s current function hardly matters here. The pleasure is in the phrase “searching for Paper Island”, which repeats in my self-satisfied head, and in viewing myself as a blue dot moving an inch or so to the right on the map as I periodically consult it. This whole area of town is reclaimed ground, a collection of rectangular islands that, I now realise, are not entirely interconnected. They are encompassed to the southeast by an outer island, a fortified crescent moon studded with bastions. All show, of course. Copenhagen has a terrible track record in defending itself over the last two centuries. Now the old warehouses are museums, government buildings and luxury apartments. The large area of barracks close by was reclaimed decades ago as “free town” Christiania, a semi-autonomous zone known for its twee houses and open sale of cannabis. On a map these details are irrelevant, or, at best, serve only to explain the strange shapes. There is pleasure in recognition, a slight tingle of belonging, but it is dwarfed by the pleasure of estrangement, the joy of interrupted patterns and forged semiotics.

The red flags

Walking to a bus stop, August evening in Nørrebro (glory to thee, my “North Bridge”). Flags among the trees, another party at the park. “Hey,” says someone, “isn’t that a Korean flag?” “No, the Korean flag is white with some blob in the middle of it, right?” Close enough. But no, this a North Korean flag. Followed by a Cuban one, Chinese, Vietnamese. As we get closer, we see people are barbecuing next to a number of stalls. The closest to us is for an association called Danish Solidarity to North Korea, or something to that effect. Everyone is well into their 60s, the mood that of a village fête. We wander around the stalls—all bearing similar names, all of them unmanned, with no indication as to their function—grinning stupidly. A couple of pictures, some odd looks from bystanders, and then back on our way to the stop.
There are several fête attendees on our bus, wearing beige shorts, socks and sandals, t-shirts with hammers and sickles. Less Marx than Marx & Spencers. The bus itself, due to a royal birthday or minor holiday, is topped by two Danish flags. And it is these red flags, with their white crosses, that disturb me. Not the flags of dictatorships and fascist theocracies, but good old social-democrat Danish flags. They are everywhere in this country. People stick them in their lawns, wave them when they meet friends and relatives at the airport, festoon them around the house and garden for birthdays. It is the oldest continuously used national flag. My dislike of the flag is in its continual and forced use, rather than any antipathy towards the nation itself. Propensity for flag-flying is tied in my mind to nations with identity problems, dictatorships, lack of self-esteem, over-confidence, or Switzerland. But Denmark has nothing it needs to prove, no crippling identity issues. Its virtues are evidenced more strongly in their calm and amused tolerance of old farts who think North Korea is the New Jerusalem than in the wanton display of an ancient flag. Down with twee: please, keep Copenhagen weird.

The north bridge road

There are evenings on which nothing interesting will happen, and nothing of much use can be done. Friends are busy and money is scarce. On these evenings and nights I bike up and down the north bridge road. Before I started biking again, the route was convenient because it begins at Nørrebro station, and ends 2 miles later at Nørreport station. It is the simplest walk imaginable, one straight road from A to B. I am evidently not blessed with an itinerant imagination. For all its literal straightforwardness, it traverses the part of town I am most attached to.

Nørrebro station itself is a wonderfully dishevelled construction from the 1930s, raised from the road and completely covered in graffiti. Its arched roof has provided shelter on many an early morning, catching the last—or indeed the first—train north amid the rare sounds of seagulls. Outside are a wealth of grocery stores and kebab joints that open and close at highly improbable hours, perennial roadworks and a mood, utterly alien to the rest of the city, of buzz and hustle. Walking southeast, towards the centre of town, I pass the chromatic incongruity of the red square of Superkilen, part public park, part art installation. The whole area is full of strange and colourful artefacts, fantastically tall swings and an unexplained open-air boxing ring, but it is the red star and the big sign proclaiming “Москвич“ that stand out to the passer-by.

The intersection with Jagtvej marks a dividing line through Nørrebro: from a place where people live, to one in which they do more or less everything else. It starts, of course, with Assistens cemetery, home to Niels Bohr, H. C. Andersen (Danes tend not to bother spelling out his first two names) and Søren Kierkegaard. The latter is not much more than a footnote on his family’s headstone, proof that no matter what your success in the great and terrible world, you’ll be the same old loser to Ma and Pa. Not that many people use this graveyard (and people here always like to remind you that Kierkegaard is the Danish word for church yard or cemetery) for its original purpose: in the summer this is prime picnic and sunbathing territory, a place to rub life into the faces of the dead.

These days, on a bike, I rarely bother to complete the route by crossing the bridge, Dronning Louises bro, preferring to duck north or south, to remain on what I conceive of as the ‘correct side of the lakes’. Queen Louise’s bridge passes between two of four artificial lakes that act as the gateways and barriers between the touristy centre and the more hip outskirts to the northeast. It is known among my friends as “Hipster Bridge,” the place where teenagers and twenty-somethings drape themselves in the summer sun, or where they huddle and puke under a winter moon.

Bunting in Copenhagen

When I start living in a place, I inevitably find it referenced, mentioned or hinted at in almost everything I watch, read or hear. The popularity of Scandi-noir has rather dulled this effect on me over recent years, but it comes flooding back when I find it mentioned in older texts. Struggling through Richard Burton’s lengthy biography of Basil Bunting on the seafront of Charlottenlund Fort, I came across a letter Bunting sent to a friend in 1921, quoted at length, and describing his brief stay in Copenhagen.

“On his bicycle the Dane is a beautiful creature,”[1] writes Bunting. Not much to quarrel with here, except his use of gendered pronouns. The cult of the bike is evidently an established one, and the first thing every newcomer learns. I can hardly call myself graceful on a bike, let alone beautiful, but I learned the basics: lighting cigarettes, juggling groceries, fixing lights, all without losing speed. The second part of Bunting’s sentence is not quite as flattering: “but off [the bicycle] he does not feel at home, and looks as awkward as an automaton.” Evidently time has been kind to the Danes, since the description rings false to anyone who has spent five minutes in Denmark. On the whole Danes display a level of self-confidence that can border on the annoying to a grumpy bastard like myself. They have the air of people who, worst comes to worst, will fare well. Though this can sometimes verge on the ridiculous, it is something to envy them rather than make fun of, casual evidence of the benefits of Scandinavian Socialism.

Bunting is on firmer ground when he discusses Danish eating and drinking habits, though his penchant for exaggeration is given free reign in describing the “twelve or thirteen meals a day” Danes purportedly consume. Lots of coffee, lots of beer. “All this is very expensive”, of course, but it’s hard to complain about the quality. Food is a constant complaint among expats and immigrants, the Danish diet being founded largely on bread, butter, potatoes and meat. Vegetables in supermarkets are priced by the piece, and foreign foods are hard to come by. It is as cheap and easy to joke about Danish food as it has been to deride British cooking, but if one’s conscience, wallet and arteries are healthy, there are few meals more satisfying than smørrebrød. It is for this that Bunting reserves the greatest praise in his letter: “[it is not] bread and butter, but butter, beautiful butter, with a little slice of Ruybread [rugbrød] hidden away behind it somewhere.” This is the base of the meal, but it is the toppings and trappings that make it great: salted beef, herring, pork crackling, breaded fish, red cabbage, horseradish, patè, aquavit and beer. There are few more pleasurable ways of being unhealthy than that.

“You can never leave Copenhagen”

The ominous phrase my friend Victor repeats whenever I talk about moving. And I do talk about leaving with what must be annoying frequency. I live on the edge of Copenhagen, like a swimmer who clings to the edge of a pool because he knows that it is almost closing time. My Copenhagen is a construct, a series of intersections with my own past and my own interests. I don’t live in Copenhagen, I live in books, films and radio. The city is the series of roads and images that get in the way of all that, shaping the mess. And it is only in writing that the mess replies.

Cover image by Ellie Jackson

[1]Richard Burton, A Strong Song Tows Us: The Life of Basil Bunting, (Infinite Ideas, 2013) p. 85