A Copenhagen Story
Sunday, August 12, 2007.
It took just under two hours to fly here from London to the capital of Denmark. But no two airports or cities seem more different.
Heathrow, of course, is much bigger and perhaps because of that, is so much more impersonal. Britain's biggest airport is full of grey carpeting and scowling staff while you step off your plane onto parquet floor in Copenhagen, and it a much friendlier and intimate space.
So, instead of taking a taxi to my hotel I took the train to the city’s central station. Because night had fallen by the time I landed, I could see very little as I pulled up to the Copenhagen Strand. But I had to get something to eat and decided to do some late night foraging.
I walked to Amager Torv, a square I was told has restaurants that serve food late into the night. The streets were quite empty of walkers and cars but I felt no sense of threat or nervousness despite never having been here before. I felt no surprise, no sense of revelation as I walked. The streets just as I expected had cobblestones and the buildings were a mix of the sleekly modern and older styles that I felt that I had seen before in many other European cities.
In Europe, surprise seems to have been packaged into a restrained charm. In place: obedient to the whole. The more I see of the continent’s cities compared to those in my part of the world, East Africa and the Horn, I become more convinced that it is the westerner who is the more communal being than the African despite the present wisdom which holds the opposite view.
Here, there is a rigid social and historical skeleton - especially writ in the architecture - underneath individual individuality. The few people I met in their variety of funky styles seemed in a way to be unable to break out from the unmoving solidity of the buildings leaning over them. This town, like the others I have seen in Europe, seems to constantly remind its citizens that it, and not them, are what is enduring and worthy of that continuity.
The Kenyan capital city, Nairobi, in contrast, is a city of its people. Its physical manifestation pales in comparison. (This is half the problem if we are assessing the city’s many problems.) In a very real way in Nairobi people are the institutions, they are the buildings. That is what makes all the dirt and the poverty and the crime there co-exist with a sense of vitality that once you have tasted is very difficult to stay away from or to replicate anywhere else.
Anyway, back to Copenhagen.
I had an excellent steak at Pasta Basta just after two in the morning. Wonder what talented chef agrees to keep such late hours. The tables around me were filled. One notably with a group of young men who were painfully thin, had clearly drunk an enormous amount of beer if their loud shouts of laughter were any clue and who I imagined were musicians discussing their latest road trip.
Another table had two women; one who kept getting up to go out of the restaurant to take mobile phone calls. She would return and they would immediately plunge into bitter condemnations. They were speaking in English of some guy who clearly kept calling just as his rival was sending texts. Her companion, clearly giving her the much-needed support during some kind of break-up drama, kept nodding along seemingly agreeing with every rant that emerged from the other’s mouth.
It was such a universal scene. I imagined that on the other side of the phone was a guy also seating in a bar with a friend who was was also nodding along in agreement at whatever analysis his injured buddy made about the mobile calls. Love, is as wonderful and teary in Copenhagen as it is elsewhere. The few people I have seen so far in the city by the way are very physically attractive: fit and tanned and energetic.
Walking back to the hotel, I got lost and walked for over an hour before I finally found my way. At some point, at a distant, I saw a group of about ten youths (yuuuthhss or yuuts as Joe Pesci would say) milling about next to the canal. Behind me was a man pushing along his bike. It was the first time all evening that I felt nervous.
I suddenly wondered about all the stories I have read on neo-Nazi attacks on Africans. Although, I can remember hearing of none in this city; the closer I came to them, enough to see that they were observing me closely, the more nervous I got. Yet I felt unable to turn back the way I came and there were no side streets to turn into.
Besides, I told myself, they had me in their sights now and if it was indeed going to come to some late-night violence, my turning down a darkened road might have made the whole matter worse. My imagination, which is ever coming up with one unlikely scenario after another, by this time was serving up horrible images of what was to come. Bloody images of yuuts tearing cobblestones off the pavement and using them to bludgeon me unconscious before throwing me into the canal.
Or of me grabbing a brick from the side of the road and charging toward screaming in inarticulate rage and terror. I must confess that my eyes, as they seem to always do in situations where I suspect the slightest physical threat, searched frantically for a weapon. It is this fear of mine for violence which lends me to believe that the coward is possibly the most violent human being there can be. His fear of others allows him leeway to commit terrible crimes to assure his safety.
In any case, the kids were probably just as curious about me as I them. As I passed by slowly they ceased talking so that it felt that I was inspecting a kind of Danish teenage parade of soldiers armed with skateboards and pocket keychains.
MMK is a London-based academic and writer.
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