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All About Copenhagen (With Pictures)

Ernest Hemingway had Paris. I have Copenhagen. If I ever want to retreat somewhere to write, or ponder, or pursue enlightenment, I’ll come to Copenhagen. I’ve never been anywhere like it. I have yet to walk along a road that doesn’t have a bike lane on either side. Nor have I paid less than $3 for anything. The whole country works brilliantly, and charges you for the convenience. An amazing building in CopenhagenDanish prices make New York seem thrifty. But hey, I’ve got the cash, so why not splurge. Copenhagen is beautiful, stunning, and it’s the greenest, most well taken care of city that I’ve ever been to in my life.

And yet…

Copenhagen is where I’ll come one day to write a book, it’s not where I want to spend my twenties. It’s where I’d like to raise a kid, not celebrate my forthcoming, semi-midlife crisis. There’s not enough adrenaline here for me. When I’m in Copenhagen I don’t feel the intense energy that enlivens New York. Nor do I smell garbage or hear the honking of one million pissed off taxi drivers. So while it might not be perfect, there are definitely some big advantages of living in this coastal city. Here are a few of the things that I enjoy the most.

The Bike Lanes

A bike parking lot in CopenhagenThe Danes love to ride their bikes. 50% of people in Copenhagen commute to work by bicycle, and that figure includes members of the Danish parliament, and their sharply dressed secretaries. Internet statistics tell me that there are more bikes than people in Copenhagen, which makes sense when you see a picture like this one. Forget about parking lots for oversized Americans to park their oversized SUV’s. A small amount of sidewalk can hold a massive number of bicycles, which is a far more efficient use of space.

I’ve walked 10 or 15 km in the last two days, and I’ve failed to find a single road of any respectable size that doesn’t have a bike lane running along it. Bikers have their own designated lanes, separate from pedestrians and cars. It’s brilliant! Why sit in traffic when you can zoom past and get your daily exercise. Which leads us to…

The Incredibly Fit People

Come to downtown Copenhagen and find me three overweight people in less than five minutes. I’ll wager $10 you can’t do it. If we changed overweight to obese, I would wager $1,000 you can’t do it. Go to any American city and I wouldn’t wager a dime even if you only had 30 seconds.

The Danish are very fit people. I don’t know whether it’s the diet or all the bike riding, but it’s very rare to see someone who is genuinely out of shape. What a breathe of fresh air. Where I come from having a belly and a cabinet full of blood pressure medicine is the norm. I love seeing that other countries are different. Which reminds me of…

The Parks

A cool old building in CopenhagenCopenhagen doesn’t have parks, it has lush, well maintained gardens of glory. They’re beautiful, perfectly manicured, and I love them. When you get lost in a Copenhagen park it’s easy to forget that you’re downtown in a nation’s capital. Leaves soak up the noise, and rows of trimmed hedges promote a feeling of seclusion.

Today I sat in the SMK art museum, staring out of massive glass windows at a beautiful pond surrounded by trees. As Copenhagen grew up incredible care was taken to preserve the natural feel of the area, and that shows through to this day. Central Park in Manhattan is amazing, but it feels forced. A shock transition from steel and concrete to grass and dirt. The parks in Copenhagen blend in with the city and compliment the natural order.

The Upkeep

The Dane’s sacrifice about 40% of their salary to taxes, but they get a lot in return. The roads are in great condition, especially compared to the acne-pocked abominations we have the US. The trains are quiet and the WiFi works great. The bike lanes are paved smooth and in excellent repair. The parks are perfectly mowed, the gardens weeded, the bushes and trees, trimmed and pruned. There’s rarely an overflowing garbage bin, and trash on the streets is the exception not the rule. Everything obviously receives a lot of love and positive attention. New York is a lot cleaner today than it was 20 years ago, but it has a light-year step to even be in the same ballpark as Copenhagen.

The Open Culture

A communal apartment in CopenhagenWhen people rides scooters (Asia) or bikes (Denmark), it’s an open experience. You’re not hidden behind tons of metal and glass, encapsulated in a bubble of polyester and talk radio. You’re out there for the world to see, and you can see it right back. In Copenhagen I’ve noticed that it goes even further, as there are many outdoor cafes and even the smallest places usually have one or two tables with two or four chairs directly on the narrow sidewalk. In America nobody would sit there, they would feel to exposed to the eyes of strangers. Here, people take advantage of those seats all the time.

I think this open way of living is an overlooked aspect of what makes Danes so happy. Humans for hundreds of thousands of years lived in a social group where nobody could hide much from anyone else. Now, with the invention of fences and cars, it’s possible to block out your neighbor from existence. But just because you can, does that mean that you should?

The Conclusion

These are the reasons that one day I’d like to come to Copenhagen, answer no email for a month, and just write. It’s a beautiful city to exist in. However, while I’m focused on massive personal growth and pushing the envelope, I know that Copenhagen isn’t the best choice. Too tame and restrained. Wonderful for raising a child, but not a 24 year old aspiring success story. So I’ll leave Copenhagen tomorrow and I will miss it a lot more than I expected to. But I’ll know that this gem will always be waiting for me. Once I’ve gotten the crazy out of my system I’ll be ready to learn more about the culture, and find out exactly why the Danes are considered among the earth’s happiest people.

Visiting Friends in Denmark

I didn’t have a good picture of Denmark before arriving. I was surprised then that it looks like my mental idea of England. Semi-manicured lawns, houses from a fairy-tale illustration, roads that look funny for unknown reasons. Maybe they’re in too good of repair. Obviously Denmark is a country that receives lots of love. Most things appear to be in their place and law and order (or social norms) ensure an easy atmosphere. Which is why I thought it would be interesting to compare it to another country that I’ve actually spent more than 48 hours in.

You can get a ticket for walking on the wrong side of the road in Denmark. On the highway in Russia you can drive on the shoulder of the road at suspension-busting speeds. In Denmark the trains are so quiet you can hear two men talking in hushed voices across the aisle. In Russia you can hold the outer doors of the train open to get a breeze, or just for the hell of it. In Denmark most people speak English like they grew up in a part of Canada that I’ve never been too. In Russia you never doubt whom you’re talking to.

The comparisons go on, but the conclusion is the same. Neither country is for me. Life in Russia is too chaotic and dark, but Denmark is too tame and restrained. That being said, my friend Asger is in love with Denmark. He says that although he’s going to continue to travel, he’ll always be a Dane at heart. I spent two days with him at his home in Middelfart. An unfortunate name in English, but I’ve learned that in Danish “fart” means speed.

It’s a hell of a town. Sort of like where I grew up, if only everything was beautiful, expensive, and people drove small cars instead of pickups. The town cascades into a beautiful lake, and Asger’s dream is to live in one of the million-dollar-view homes that overlooks the water. That the cost of the home will almost match the value of the view doesn’t seem to faze him. “Denmark is a very expensive country, but our wages are very good”, I’ve been told. One dollar is 6.65 Kroner, which seems simple enough but when you’re in a store the math doesn’t come naturally.

One thing I have done the math on is $50 for a two hour train ride. It’s the nicest train I’ve ever been on in my life, but $25 an hour seems awfully high. When I went to Obirek in Ukraine, I paid $4 for a three hour train ride. The men who sat in between the train cars and bribed the ticket collector paid less than $1.

Making International Friends

Working on a train in DenmarkThe story of how I ended up in Asger’s living room in a small Danish town that I’d never heard of is a good one. Joanna had met him on the message board 4chan, although she’d never seen him in real life. She invited him to meet up with us in Bangkok and he agreed. After a few days in that polluted town we took a bus to Pai, rented motorcycles and had a blast. At our parting he offered an invitation to his place in Denmark. It took me six months but I made it. I’m thrilled to be here, regardless of how much the train ticket costs. It’s awesome to have friends in a country to help explain the culture and lifestyle.

So even though I’ve discovered that Denmark isn’t a country where I want to spend my life, it’s still a great experience. The more places that I go, the more confident I feel in decreeing which countries and cultures I like the best. I’ll end with that. Writing these words on a train, going through beautiful countryside, using WiFi that doesn’t cut out every five minutes. Although Denmark might not be right for me, it sure is a hell of a country.