Here's a tip of the chapeau to Lene Kaaberboel and Agnete Friis the co- authors of the amazing Boy in the Suitcase that is published today. Congratulations Lene and Agnete! We met on the SOHO bowling team at Bouchercon. Lene and Agnete hail from Denmark and this, the first of the Nina Borg novels now in English, pulls you and doesn't let gol
They graciously accepted MIE's offer to tell us about Denmark. Enjoy, Cara
There was a celebrity birthday in Copenhagen a few weeks ago. Some call the birthday girl a social experiment, some consider her a tired old junkie who should have been euthanized a long time ago, others are charmed and drawn by her wit, her style, her creativity, and her charm. Countless artists, musicians, actors, and writers have celebrated her. Visitors come from around the globe. To the police she has become a regular training partner, to the politicians, mostly a head-ache. And then there are those who simply call her home.
Christiania has just turned 40. It was in 1971, on September the 26th, that a group of unauthorized civilians broke through the fence of the abandoned military barracks and training grounds spread alongside Copenhagen’s century-old fortifications. Basically, they are still there. The area stretches for miles along both sides of the former city moat, surprisingly rural in places, with muddy gravel paths and lots of unkempt greenery, a village inside a city, and a law onto itself. When you leave Christiania, the sign above the gate says: “You are now entering the EU”. And they mean it. The Christianites call their neighborhood a “free town”, and it is often referred to simply as The Town. They do not consider themselves a regular and regularized part of Danish society; instead, they stubbornly claim the right to be different.
We decided to visit on a windy afternoon a few weeks after the big day. It is the week of the fall break, and there are plenty of tourists strolling through the gates – mostly younger people, but also quite a few families and middle-aged couples. Christiania has become one of the sights. There are cafes, restaurants and craft shops, open workshops like the Women’s Forge (while the smiths are still women, they now employ a few men for the rough work … ) and an art museum. If you want to buy a stylish purse made from old bicycle tires, this is the place …
At Spiseloppen, one of Christiania’s oldest restaurants, the food is good, plentiful, and reasonably priced, which means that the atmosphere is generally lively. It’s run by a coop, and they pay rent, VAT and taxes ”just like everybody else”, as they pointedly remark. NOMA it is not, and restaurant critics sometimes remark unfavorably on a somewhat accidental meeting of ingredients, but it’s a popular place.
However, there is no doubt that the Christiania locality most often in the news and most prominent in most people’s mind, is the alley and square which the Christianites have tried to rename the Green District, but which in the public mind retains its old name: Pusher Street.
The birthday was celebrated with concerts and exhibitions, cake and good food, speeches and songs – and probably quite a few joints. The fairly open cannabis trade attracts its own kind of tourists. The Christianites themselves cracked down on the hard stuff back in the late seventies and evicted both users and dealers, a no-tolerance policy they still maintain. But although the buying and selling of cannabis sativa is illegal in Denmark, the Christianites have not banned it, or applied their own measures of prevention.
There is a large sign stating the Christianite rules for the Green District, posted in English to make sure the fairly cosmopolitan crowd understands: “We have three rules in The Green District. Have fun, don’t take photographs, and don’t run.” The reason for the “don’t run” rule is that running creates panic and disturbance because dealers and customers alike will assume there is a raid in progress. We would have liked to take a picture of the sign for you, but …….
As we walk past the deceptively flea-market like booths the first time, a longish line of tray tables displays a variety of neatly labeled resinous lumps, (if you really want to see it, just google “Christiania” and “hash”) and it’s obvious from the smell that the wares are being liberally sampled. Stand still and breathe deeply for a while, and you could probably get a buzz from the atmosphere alone. When we return an hour later, after a stroll through the more rural parts, not a single dealer is in sight. They seem to have vanished completely, presumably in response to their own particular early warning system.
Would you raise a child here, in an area that holds the unofficial national record for Most Frequent Police Raids in an Urban Area? In a neighborhood where hot running water is a bit optional, and very little is up to code, unless you count the codes used by the tradesmen of the Green District, a.k.a. Pusher Street? Most people would probably answer that question with a horrified “No!” Yet The Town looks after its children – there are four different day care centers, a children’s theater, a small riding school, and a youth club. The children have a say in the running of things, just like everyone else. In many ways, being a child here is like growing up in a village. And if nothing else, it certainly teaches you that people come in a lot of varieties, and that a cell phone is not a requirement for happiness.
Christiania has a number of cottage industries, but the most successful has to be Christiania Bikes. They are everywhere – and not just around The Town. The Christiania Bike is the cyclist’s answer to the pickup truck. They can be used to transport just about everything – from children and daily shopping to IKEA furniture. They, or the various look-alikes from later competitors, have not only become part of the daily commuting traffic in Copenhagen’s busy bicycles lanes, they are also important icons if you want to signal cool green values like sustainability and an active life style. When the recently appointed ministers in the new government went to meet the Queen for the first time, several of them rode in on Christiania-type Bikes. And the guy in the first picture on the website below is the Danish crown prince, Frederik, taking his son, young prince Christian, to kindergarten.
Architecture around here is haphazard and anarchistic. Today, Christiania is owned by a foundation to which all of the inhabitants contribute exactly the same amount every month, whether they inhabit 8 square meters of self-constructed shack with outdoor shower and outhouse, or one of the spacious, newly renovated apartments in the old military headquarters. Once you’ve been approved and issued a citizen’s license (a camel-and-keyhole proposition, as tight as everything else is loose), freedom is just about the only rule. Want to live in a treehouse, a teepee, or a viking cottage? Christiania has seen it all. This, more than almost anything else, is what provokes and intrigues suburbian tourists. Somehow, they can’t help wondering what the place could look like if only someone did it up a little bit. And yes, some Christianites are doing that, too. Insulation, double glazing, and a few tasteful Danish Modern classics. But they do it quietly, because out here, that’s the sort of behaviour that will have the neighbours frowning. Old hippies never die, they just redecorate.
We passed the remains of a memorial on our way out. A ragged collection of soggy flowers, a few cards. Someone who lived and died here, with the ashes presumably now scattered under the calm, green surface below the banks. Living here is a life choice. This is not just a neighbourhood, but most definitely a way of life – and death.
We take our leave of the birthday girl. She’s looking little worn, to be sure. A little scarred. Illusions not quite intact. Happy birthday, all the same – we, at least, are glad to see that she is still here.
Agnete and Lene - Tuesday from Denmark