Letters From Copenhagen

Photograph by Richard Gould

Smiling Happily in the Evening of Life

Drawn to Denmark to observe the U.N. meeting on climate change, our man in Copenhagen is somewhat waylaid, eating blazing fire and drinking liquified koala.

The rain is bile, and the taste of last night’s goodbye drinks lingers four hours past freshness. The departure lounge, as in all English airports, is a cattle shed, and I encounter the sour-faced wrath of one of the herders soon after arriving. A mustard-haired women deems my charging cellphone a security risk. When we both arrive at security HQ, her supervisor explains that he agrees, handing the phone back immediately without checking the threat, just acknowledging it. I am glad to be leaving.

In Copenhagen, a huge Christmas tree at the side of the suburban airfield welcomes me. It is already Christmas here; the time difference is not one hour, but 36 days. The temperature is a comfortable eight degrees. At baggage claim, everyone is happy.


I step into downtown Copenhagen for the first time from the train station and face Tivoli across the street. The huge 166-year-old amusement park has two towers rising from within, spreading good vibes to all of Copenhagen: One shoots people up and down, and another lifts people up and then spins them round and round. Entry to Tivoli is $25, up from 10 cents in 1957. It smells like glogg (mulled wine, $8) and pancakes (also $8). There are hundreds of Christmas trees and tens of thousands of lights.

Surrounding the train station on all sides are hundreds of bikes, with more parked underneath. In one of the world’s safest cities, few bikes are locked to anything. But they’re not entirely safe: Locals keep a tally of how many bikes the city “owes” them after having bikes stolen and consequently some don’t hesitate to take an unlocked bike.

This must be where bikes go when they die, a place where they are loved to death; 36 percent of citizens commute to work by bike. A sidewalk for bikes keeps cyclists safe. Few people walk. There is a sense of efficient progress and flow on the wide boulevards. Children cycle with their parents late into the night. Those too young to pedal sit in big boxes bolted to the front of locally produced tricycle bikes. Some are decked out like wagons, others are used as stalls on which Christmas wares are sold, still others are used to sell newspapers, adorned with the branding of Politiken, the Danish daily broadsheet. The children sit calmly on the reverse rickshaws, while their parents talk on phones, smoke cigarettes, and expertly weave through and overtake other cyclists.

Bikeless, I walk to the couch I’ll be sleeping on for my first few days in Copenhagen. My hosts are warm and welcoming. We sit on that three-sided couch, soon to be my bed. It hugs a coffee table holding five flickering candles.


Walking seems crazy in such a bike-friendly city, but being bikeless, I plan to walk and walk on my first day in Copenhagen and try to get into the flow of the city. The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, one of Copenhagen’s most famous sons, said “To walk is to think,” and he enjoyed long walks around the city, which has grown considerably since his days in the 19th century.

This late in the year, Danish daylight is less than eight hours long, but so far for my visit it has been warm, with record high temperatures. I dressed in too many layers, and my feet sweat as I tramp across bridges, over the canals that portion the city into islands and distinct districts. The city has grown beyond the man-made lakes that once sat beyond the city’s defenses. The facades of glass buildings reflect the cold water below.

This must be where bikes go when they die, a place where they are loved to death.

Soon into my first Copenhagen morning, two strangers stop their bikes in front of me and demand: “What are you doing?”

Am I walking on a cycle path? Should I have waited for the green man before crossing back there? The answer to both questions is yes, but another question comes before I answer: “Where are you going?” they ask impatiently.


My response is a question because, having taken turn after turn, I don’t know which way downtown is. The sun is no compass so I assume downtown is downhill. Another question: “Why?”

“Just to walk.”

We establish that I am not a local, but a tourist and that they are Basque students eager to know what locals do on Sundays. It is 10 a.m. and it becomes apparent that those who were drunk are slowly sobering up but maintain much of the joviality and energy of a night of drinking—some bars here stay open until 9 a.m., despite the high cost of booze. The merry twosome, blocking the bike lane, ask a Dane, slowing to weave around us, where he is going. He responds without stopping: “Brunch!”


Copenhagenites do few things on Sundays, especially in the winter. They recover from the previous night’s drinking, eat brunch, sit at home and watch movies, and read. As the cold sets in, they seek contentment, warmth, and familiarity. Usually provoked by food and candlight, this creates a peculiarly Danish coziness: This is the hygge, a concept close to Danes’ hearts. A phenomenon of overabundance, it’s about filling your stomach with good food, filling your home with good friends, making the place cozy, and reveling in the familiar. In England, we don’t have such coping strategies to help us manage the winter. We have cozy pubs and warming food, but mostly this is negated by incessant moaning about the weather.

One Danish girl I’m introduced to in a pub mis-hears me as we drink the cheapest drinks in town and I ask about the hygge (it’s pronounced more liked “HOH-guh”). She mishears “hygge” as “hytte,” which is a summer house. Hygge is explained as cozying up, as red wine; spending Christmas in the hytte wrapped in blankets is very hygglig.

Copenhagen may seem cold and sad when walking through the city—there is rain and a perpetual gray dusk when it is cloudy—but beautiful smiling people, furniture, and old buildings warm the place. Bikes keep the people healthy, but everyone smokes, so it balances out. The café book shop from where I work some days is warm. Glogg is cheap, and consumed all day long. I drink coffee too fast to drag it out over two hours, but no one bothers me after three hours. Half a dozen laptops one table further warm the place as Danes chatter in English about their studies.

For dinner, after a day spent walking the same sidewalks Kierkegaard must have pounded, my Danish hosts feed me a dish they call blazing fire, one mound of mashed potato and crispy bacon and another mound of grated carrot. Kierkegaard no doubt required similarly substantial sustenance in order to march around the city all day. I am warm, and the city tranquil. Blue and red police lights flash through the windows and into the room, but their sirens are silent.


For my first week in Copenhagen, I chose to stay with locals who can help me get to know the city, courtesy of CouchSurfing.org. For two nights, I stay with an expert crane-climber. She’s the person to talk to if you want to hang a banner from a high place, so she’ll be busy during the U.N. Climate Change Conference, scheduled to take place during my visit.

The day after I leave the crane-climbing expert, Greenpeace hangs a banner from the tallest church spire in town; 26 Greenpeace activists are arrested, presumably the same Greenpeace activists I had been drinking with until 5 a.m. earlier that week.

“What does that one taste like?” I ask a landlady, pointing to the shelf of spirits. She proceeds to share six shots of a dark, viscous liquor.

I stay with many Danes in many of Copenhagen’s boroughs. I learn that I spent four nights in the most dangerous borough in Copenhagen: Nørrebøro, fondly referred to as Nørrebrønx. I couldn’t have felt much safer: Between 3 a.m. and 8 a.m. people cycled past every few minutes—and I know, because I was locked out of the flat I was staying at, sitting on the doorstep, watching Copenhagen sleep. I learn that a hostel I plan to stay at for seven nights is located on the most dangerous street in Copenhagen. After much free Christmas ale—julebryg—the receptionist at the hostel explains that it was subjected to an armed robbery the previous week, but no one is concerned.

Perhaps the bikes just make everyone feel safer, make everyone feel more confident about the chance of a quick getaway. Having heard about more drive-bys done by the “immigrants” or the “rockers” (biker gang), and about a grenade attack on the squatted freetown of Christiana, it becomes clear that not everyone is embracing the warmth of winter. Police tolerated open drug selling in Christiana, the ex-military base now claimed as independent territory by residents, until 2007, when they busted the sellers. But that only caused crime to spread. Marijuana is again openly for sale in Christiana’s “Pusher Street,” enough of a cultural landmark to be found on official maps.


More walking: On one day, the sun shines, backlighting Copenhagen from the south. It’s blinding as I march into a midday sun after a night of drinking in one of the city’s cheapest bars. The city is gorgeous in the soft light of this sun, only a low-intensity bulb so late in the year. It musters an eight-hour wave, but doesn’t reach as high as the many church towers and spires, quickly slipping below the horizon for a 16-hour slumber.

Kierkegaard is right to advocate walking around the city; everyone flies past on bikes, missing spires, buildings, cobbled streets impassable to bikes. The philosopher had disdain for those who make clever plans for exciting experience. Similarly, local people have little to share with me when I ask what I should do while I’m in Copenhagen. They suggest just walking and finding cozy places.

There is no indication of the economic crisis on the Stroget, one of the world’s longest shopping streets. One shop sells “Happy things for happy people.” The melancholic Kierkegaard was similarly born into troubled times: “I was born in 1813, the year of bankruptcy, when so many other worthless notes were put into circulation. There is something of a greatness about me, but because of economic conditions, I don’t amount to much.”

In the summer, I’m told, the squares and cobbled courtyards are full of jazz, the canal paths lined with picnickers, enjoying barbecues and local beer. Happiness seems the default setting year-round. Kierkegaard is usually portrayed as the gloomy type, but I found his passionate search for meaning and his determination to find a way to really step into existence and emerge from this dreamlike condition to shine brightest from a quick flick through his work. In his diary he notes on one particularly good day: “This is not joy about one thing or another thing but it is the full-throated shout of the soul.”

But he was no patron saint of the hygge, often attacking Danish culture as too comfortable and unquestioning. He instead sought an idea by which to live and die. But leaving the warmth of home and stepping onto the cold streets may be exactly the physical feeling and sense that makes existence even more real: You feel it on goosebumped skin.

Hygge isn’t universally popular. Peter Andreas, who pens a blog titled Downsides of Denmark, explains: “The perverted philosophy of life that hygge has become offers a variety of paradoxes in Danish culture.” He writes in a recent entry that hygge is anti-change, anti-tolerance, and anti-difference. To further destroy the valued tradition, the contrarian quotes V.S. Naipul, who notes, “If you are interested in horrible places, I can recommend Denmark. No one starves. Everyone lives in small, pretty houses. But no one is rich, no one has a chance to a life in luxury, and everyone is depressed. Everyone lives in their small well-organized cells with their Danish furniture and their lovely lamps, without which they would go mad.” Andreas doesn’t leave it there, noting that Danes “are willing to put up with self-mutilation—even death—to defend this relic of the hygge cult.” It seems unnecessarily contrarian; hygge isn’t a philosophy of life, or a governmental policy, but coziness borne of inclusiveness, not an insular, individualist philosophy that need be linked to any idea of tolerance.


Thirty-five minutes north of Copenhagen is the modern art museum in Louisiana. Atop it in light bulbs is written “THE WORLD IS YOURS.” Olafur Eliasson displays a BMW encased in a chassis of ice, exhibited in a huge freezer, with a guard offering you a blanket before you step inside—it’s kept at a bracing minus-10 degrees Celsius. The gimmick would be that when the climate change conference begins, the freezer would gradually warm, but Eliasson doesn’t seem interested in making such a statement. He embraces the cold and hopes it changes the way we react to his stimulus. He wants to inspire an instinctive and automatic reaction from observers due to a primal fear of the cold. It does works to loosen the senses. The same is true in Copenhagen homes. Walking from the cold into a room full of candles, beers, and hot food makes the experience so much more enjoyable than a summer spent walking between sweaty houses, baking cars, and melting parking lots.

At the Copenhagen Koncerthaus on that same Sunday I see Swedish band Fever Ray blur the boundaries between cold and warmth. Droning electronica warms a few thousand people wrapped around stage, who, in other parts of the set, bask in a cold, harsh, winter landscape—like being blown by a Nordic wind into a river running molten candle wax. Coming toward the end of the show, a siren goes off, a voice tells us to evacuate the building, and we’re escorted outside, coatless, into the freezing air. When we retake our seats, the show heats up and dry ice fills the place. A masked shaman swings a notched staff as the show crescendos. It’s like a pre-hibernation ritual. Perhaps hygge is a Danish hibernation trick, gradually embalming themselves in alcohol and candle wax, wrapped in fleece, allowing smoke, pleasure, and food to fill the gaps chilled by cold weather.


The Danes don’t need to wait for it to get dark before they commence drinking. Setting aside the fact that most of the Danish clocks show the wrong time (or at least, they did in the houses I was staying in), sunset at this time of year is around 3:40 p.m. But they do use the sun’s rise (at around 8:20 a.m.) as a sign to finish drinking and go home, having had their wallets cleaned out and their clothes smoked all night.

Such expensive prices lead to necessary scheming. “What does that one taste like?” I ask a landlady, pointing to the shelf of spirits. She proceeds to share six shots of a dark, viscous liquor that is like soil, worm, and honey. She pours one for me, one for herself, one for the the barman, and three for my three friends. At the same place a few days later, without even saying a word, she pours eight more when she sees me arrive with friends; a local guy at the bar follows up by sharing five shots of Fisk from a hip flask. Fisk is cleansing, and I’m told the taste is menthol and eucalyptus oil. They are right! It tastes like a minty liquidized koala, with a fishy afterburn on my tongue and down my throat.

I begin to tally the genorosity of Danes: a free bike, dozens of free shots, free pints of beer, meals cooked, and couches offered up. But that doesn’t tell the full story. There is a deeper and more resillent warmth that it’s impossible not to keep to yourself. This is not a philosophy opposed to change, but a spiritual practice that provides a comfort when the weather turns.

“I don’t mind how cold it gets as long as it doesn’t rain,” I’m told by a wonderful Danish girl. She gives me a postcard: savner dig allerede (“miss you already”); I have been here for two weeks, and planned to only to stay two weeks more for the climate change conference that was the initial resaon for my trip. I check my plane tickets to see the cost of changing them, considering staying over Christmas and all through the winter.


In 1957, Robert Shapler wrote a “Letter From Copenhagen” for the New Yorker, exploring the country’s post-war character, industry, and welfare state. He notes that the country provides a level “hyper-security” for its citizens, and this persists 52 years on—everyone seems so secure and safe.

But some things have changed: In the “Paris of the North,” prices are now much higher than in the rest of Europe, so fewer people go out to eat. The Soviet jets and supposedly indefensible borders are no more—a brand-new bridge links Copenhagen to Sweden, and thanks to the Schengen Agreement, Denmark is part of a borderless zone of 25 European countries. The Lisbon Treaty has been signed and ratified by every E.U. state, giving Europe a president and a foreign minister and bringing its states even closer together. Denmark hasn’t quite embraced the E.U., but during the climate change conference it’ll find itself at the center of the world.

Introducing the U.N. Climate Change Summit, Danish Prime Minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen hopes for an “an unprecedented mobilization.” In his 1952 article, Shapler quoted a famous newspaper editor, whose words seem more relevant now than ever: “As Denmark smiles happily in the evening of life, nothing is done about the things that are of real importance.”


TMN Editor Mike Deri Smith is no gourmet, he just has an abnormally large stomach. He lives in London. More by Mike Deri Smith