Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Modern Breakthrough

We were under a small tunnel to the school that Søren Kierkegaard attended when a woman told us that Kierkegaard left Copenhagen for a bit because he thought it an irredeemably mediocre city. He wasn’t alone; even the famous Scandinavian playwrights it claims to have adopted into its publishing capital agreed on the point of its banality. I became defensive. Having chosen to spend a significant portion of my college career here I wanted to hear its greatest artists and thinkers singing its praises. I never expected them to be among the city's most ardent detractors, among those itching to get out.

Despite myself, some thoughts started to come into place: the greatest achievements of Danishness we learn about in our classes are dated by at least 100 years; other cities claim top honors in fashion, food, art, literature; Copenhagen is dirty despite its luster; graffiti is common, but never striking or poignant; there are no stunning vistas, no natural wonders and a climb to the fifth floor of any building will grant you a view of the entire city, where in the absence of skyscrapers you learn to appreciate copper roofs and the handful or so spires that punctuate the otherwise quaint or industrial view.

And then it hit me: Copenhagen is small. The tunnel we were in was about 20 feet long. The walls were painted white, broken only by a simple glass door. On the other side of the tunnel was a small stone driveway-turned-courtyard surrounded by the offices for the country's most prestigious publishing company. The building took three floors before it stopped, content. The lamps that lit the area were round and dim yellow. In the book shop the clerks had stopped their work to stare at our group. I looked up into the windows of the office and people dressed in black were walking around. Some typed at computers. There are thousands of little nooks like this in the city. Even when I've entered a church here to be stunned, it's only in comparison to the rest of the places I go. The controversial new opera house is despised for its aspiring to something more than itself. It sits proudly across the canal from Amelienborg castle, a big globe with shimmering chandeliers, but you can't help but feel somehow estranged from the rest of the city: it's simply too big, therefore disowned. A big hollowed out church, then, is the closest we come to grandeur, but Sundays come and go and the pews remain mostly empty.

Are the Danes at home in their cribs and nests? Are they too busy lighting candles and renovating their samtalekøkker (conversation kitchens) for their weekly dinner gatherings to go out and build something big? Are they so secure in their serially monogamous relationships, their carefully planned networks of friends, that they don't want to meet me who is also small, who has also stopped going to church, who also lights candles and plans dinners, who also has never built anything big, who also does not want to meet them, but hates that I don't want to meet them and so wonders why no one is meeting anyone?

There is a new ad campaign everywhere on Copenhagen transportation. It's a bright green sign with big bubble letters saying KOM HJEM!. My friend Iva tells me that the campaign is intended to persuade people from Jutland, the peninsular part of Denmark, to leave Copenhagen and come home to their native region. In effect, they're imploring these prodigal people to fill up jobs, soothing them into coming back away from the anxiety of the city to the place 'where they belong.' It's a maternal nudge and a disturbing one. In my head, these people from Jutland walk around distinct from the native urbanites because they're lost.

If they're anything like me, they're mesmerized. This city that manages to be by turns continental and northern has something about it in the spring, I don't care how that sounds. My body doesn’t know how to react to the sudden sunlight and warmth. It stares wide-eyed in confusion at blue skies, mouth gaping at blooming purple weeds, ears in awe of birds chirping outside my window. I can’t even think to take pictures, I just want to deflate and lie on the dry sidewalk.

Copenhagen reacts naturally while the sun assembles outdoor tables under Tuborg umbrellas. Boots go on sale and sandals emerge, god-expensive. A man plants an upholstered upright piano across from the Post Office Museum on Købmagergade and begins playing a vague tune. The top half of an androgynous mannequin wearing a t-shirt and a hat, some Danes, me and my friends, are his audience.

In the botanical gardens yesterday with Elizabeth and her friend Christy I drank Easter-themed beer in cans with yellow chicks painted on them saying “kylle kylle”. We walked through the greenhouses and my camera fogged over. Today it is sunny again. Today, when the ducks paddle around the lake asking for bread, you give it to them.

My flatmate, Elizabeth, baked again this morning: more chocolate muffins and rosemary bread. When the items have cooled, she puts them in a transparent blue plastic bag, pushes the air out, and ties the ends together, to simulate their natural environment.

At the Royal Theatre to see a double bill of 'The Private Lesson' and 'La Sylphide' I am struck by two things. First, I am struck by the iconic pose of the Sylphide. Second, that I do not hate the miming. She is a fantastical creature. She is unattainable. Those who try for contact are doomed. And so her avatar is diminutive, her arms elegantly crossed over her chest, the forearms parallel, the hands floating on opposite ends like wings. Her torso is turned away from you, but her neck bends gracefully back, her face full of longing, her eyes sad. She is wearing a long bell skirt and she is always well lit. All the characters on stage who mime the plot look beautiful. There is lots of pointing at their hearts and nodding their heads yes or no.

So much has happened here between commutes, crises and whispers. I've taken to calling my parents everyday. I've gone on psychadelic voyages with Frank every Monday and Thursday in our literature class. I eat Thai Cock Kok take-out at Elizabeth's apartment while watching drunk Diddy scream "WINNEBAGO" on Making the Video, Britney Spears wearing a hat that says "CARPE ASSÜM", and Nick & Jay's I Love Ya video a billion times. I've learned an essential lesson from my time obsessing over 24: If you stop at an intersection and a suspicious-looking vehicle does something suspicious, the person you are looking for is probably in that vehicle. Once I fell asleep reading a packet for my media class and when I woke up it was torn apart with the pages sliding like tectonic plates under my body. I've laughed so hard at the internet. I've found hands to put my handshake in. I've made travel plans. I saw Aberfeldy and danced so hard. I turned 21. I thought about writing a year in review, but then seeing as my entire life is a year in review, I didn't risk redundancy. I took more blurry pictures.

I went to Christiania a few weeks ago. We walked through most of it, looking at the makeshift architecture. The walk was pretty standard as far as walks in Copenhagen go: it was quiet and thoughtful. Turning corners I'd hold my breath, preparing for it to be taken away, wondering what I'd see. It would always be just nice, a sigh-worthy view. One doesn't gasp here; one breathes. One is charmed, not seduced.

I've had my breath taken away once in my two months abroad. I was on a short study tour in Odense on the island of Fyn, the birthplace of H.C. Andersen. It was our first night of the trip and a bunch of us went to a bar after a filling buffet. I expanded my tummy by about three sizes when I managed to finish the final delicious plate of the meal: pancakes with ice cream. I was too busy digesting to think about drinking, so I sat at our table and looked out. One of the boys with us struck up a conversation with a man at the bar who turned out to be a scholar in racism. Two went to play pool. There were three of us left and we chatted. A strange man kept poking his head out from behind a wall for a separate area of the bar. After doing this a few times, he started to emerge in full body, bending his knees to the music like he had a dump in his diaper. He'd grin at us and then go back to his cove, emerging every few minutes or so to repeat the gesture. The last couple of times he brought his lighter with him, which he had switched to the torch setting. He'd light it and smile at the tall flame, looking at us, still smiling. We were a little creeped, but also a little giggly. My friend was feeling adventurous so she went over and talked to him. The only message she brought back with her was a question: "Why do Americans think I'm the enemy?"

That's not what took my breath away. A few hours later we were wandering through the dark, abandoned town, tired and chatty, headed for our hostel. My friends thought it would be funny to give each other flat tires. Then it became funny to trip one another. I walked along, exempt from these games, laughing at their shouting. All of a sudden I felt an arm move around my waist, grabbing me and pulling me back into someone warm and strong. He picked me up and waved me through the air, twisting my clothes and making me scream before placing me back on the ground. I don't know if that could have felt like it did if Copenhagen had an Eiffel Tower.

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