Copenhagen: home from home

Sand scupture in Copenhagen harbour

A question sometimes arises among Britain’s beleaguered Europhiles.  Should the sceptics get their way, and the UK drop out of the EU (and no doubt losing Scotland with it), where do we emigrate to escape this sclerotic mean-minded land?  There are some popular choices: Paris, perhaps, or the French Midi; Spain’s Costa del Sol or Portugal’s Algarve; and Italy’s Tuscany for the chattering set.  After a visit there last weekend I now know where I want to go: Copenhagen.

A first attraction is anonymity (mine, that is).  It’s a place where people of my complexion and (lack of) dress sense don’t stand out, and the range of body shapes will make all feel at ease.  Unlike France or Italy, and without seeking British ghettos in Spain.  Typically the locals would open a conversation with us in Danish, asssuming that we are one of them.  This is unsurprising, perhaps, since so many of us English are descended from Anglo-Saxon and Danish-Viking stock, both genetically indistinguishable from current Danes (and each other).  Everybody speaks English, many perfectly, and don’t seem to mind (unlike the French, for example) .  Of course, if I emigrated I would need to pick up Danish – but this does not look such a hard language to learn (though my wife is not so sure!).  At first it sounds alien (oddly more so than French or Italian) but you soon find tht we share  many words – and it is much less daunting than German.

There is an inevitable comparison with Stockholm, which we visited a couple of years ago.

Copenhagen’s old architecture: the Borse

There too we were often mistaken for natives, English is widely spoken, and the language is part of the same family (as is Norwegian).  Copenhagen lacks Stockholm’s dramatic highlights: the island of Gamla Stam with its old buildings and palace: the cliffs; the nearby archipeligo; or the Wasa museum.  But outside these highlights Stockholm soon fades into something a bit ordinary.  There is much more to Copenhagen.  Wonderful old buildings (mainly 19th century, since the city has repreatedly been burnt down – but in good taste) in a distinctive Danish style – it is more difficult to define an equivalent Swedish style.  There is a lot of newer building too, though, again as in Stockholm, this often fits less happily.  The canals and islands and the harbour give the place character, if not quite as dramatically as in Stockholm.

There are all manner shops, displaying goods of often equisite taste (favourite this trip the jewellers Georg Jensen).  And plenty of wonderful food, from the famous pastries and rye bread (we took home a loaf to prolong the experience) to many good restaurants.  All three of our restaurant meals were of excellent standard, though the menus can be a bit limited.  We knew about the pork and the seafood – but the excellence of the beef was a surprise.

There is plenty to do.  The number of museums and art galleries is quite overwhelming,

The Mermaid is a distraction for tourists

and we hardly touched the surface.  Mind you we weren’t that taken with the National Museum – which seemed badly designed by our standards.  Lots of exhibits without clear narrative structure – less would have been more.  The Mermaid is a bit of a silly tourist distraction – but it serves to get the tourists out of the town centre.

And though these should not been taken for granted here, as anywhere, liberal values were on display.  Cycling is very well provided for, with clearly demarcated cycle lanes.  If there isn’t space for both cars and bikes, it seems, the cars are pushed out and the street pedestrianised.  And the Danish attitude to cycling is different to ours.  We dress up to cycle, with helmets, high vis jackets, and lycra for show offs.  They just hop on a bike as they are, with a small number of helmets on show.  Many don’t even bother to lock their bikes up – and when they do they usually use simple locks on the wheels, rather than massive things chaining everything to everything.  Crime seems less of problem – though homelessness was not.  Public transport – we mainly used the buses – was excellent.

There are cultural differences, left by the 1,000 years in which our cultures have been apart and any residual Celtic traces in ours.  There is much less jaywalking (though the traffic lights are better organised, with less waiting around as each stream is given its exclusive turn) – though as here the cyclists push the boundaries harder.  It was a bit of shock to see middle aged couples sitting down to drink beer at cafes at 10 in the morning.  Their sense of humour is a bit strange.  In the National Museum there was a series of spoof commentaries in the prehistory section, which were mainly tiring and unfunny – though the exhibit of an ancient mermaid skeleton dug up from a bog was well done.

And Copenhagen’s transport connections are good with the wider world, closer to the rest of Europe than other Scandinavian capitals.  No doubt the place gets a bit cold, damp and dark in the winter (as our expectations have been managed by The Killing), but a temporary escape does not look too hard.   This is a place where I could live happily.

There was one slightly jarring note as we left.  Sitting down for lunch at the Seafood Bar in the departure lounge at the airport and looking round, we couldn’t see anything Danish at all.  All the signage and advertising was in English; all the brands were familiar international ones, including the only Starbucks we saw on our trip; the bar staff spoke English to each other and struggled with Danish speaking customers.  Apart from the fact that it was modern, clean and gleeming, we could have been in a British airport.  I couldn’t even find a Danish eatery to have a Danish sandwich, though we found one later, out of the way.  This was too much of a home from home.