Closing Time In Copenhagen (Part 3) - To Feel Or Not To Feel

by Tim Anderson (

I promised a more rambling style in these articles (Closing Time in Copenhagen - Part 1, Part 2) and what follows is certainly that…

Is there any greater display of feelings than during
an opera at the (Maersk sponsored) opera house?

In an email the other day, a good friend of mine suggested that perhaps she was too much of a sap to allow herself to be too reflective (and hence overly sentimental) during times of change – such as moving cities. But I guess she gave herself away in saying this - obviously she feels something during such times.

On the other hand, my girlfriend's brother-in-law who produces films, began a project making deep-sea oil platforms safety videos for the Oil and Gas Division of Maersk (Denmark’s largest company) a few months ago. He recently relayed the story of one of the first meetings he had with Maersk, where he first introduced a few ideas for the contents of the safety videos. He suggested beginning the videos with a few short clips of Maersk employees (those that had spent time out at sea on Maersk's platforms) discussing how they felt about working an environment as atypical as an oil platform. The Maersk manager with whom he was meeting pointedly corrected a fatal flaw in the idea by noting (without humour) that, 'at Maersk, we do not feel'. (I realise it is difficult to imagine somebody actually saying this, but seriously, I'm not making this up!) So ‘feelings’ were left out of the safety videos.

Anyway, here we have the two solitudes – to feel or not to feel.

The summer here in Copenhagen has been cloudy and rainy and not all that warm most days for the past 3 weeks (and counting) – which has been a feature of each and every summer I have experienced here in Denmark in the past five years. It’s annoying. July was never meant to be a ‘trousers and jacket’ sort of month.

Perhaps this weather is contributing to my present feelings.

Still, capturing the essence of why something new is so enticing is hard enough in the moment. It’s even more challenging after five years when some of the initial fascination remains, though there is much that doesn’t hold the same captivating sway that it once did. Nonetheless, Copenhagen can be an exciting place to be. Allow me to digress a bit from the subject of life in Copenhagen, just for a bit more.

I recently read one of the weekly columns of Nigel Slater (the popular English food writer) in The Observer ("Catholic Tastes") (who I incidentally once worked for back when I lived in London - I cleaned his flat for several months) in which he tried to capture the essence of what was so special, so enthralling, about visiting a small but authentic Italian food shop. The most remarkable thing about the column was not simply his ability to transfer such feeling into lively description. Rather, I think it was the decision to focus on something so ordinary, then steadfastly refuse to acknowledge it as such.

He succeeded by allowing feeling, his feelings, to bubble to the surface in the process as he held this ordinary thing - a little Italian food shop - high in the air as if it were placed on a large pedestal, thereby better allowing everyone to behold what it really was. Suddenly, it seemed not so ordinary after all.

A nice reminder that we are surrounded by the remarkable. It passes by us, and us by it, constantly. However, it is only made remarkable when we recognise it as such. Otherwise it remains ordinary and wholly unremarkable. When we insist upon viewing things in such a mundane manner, it is unlikely we will register any notable reaction whenever they quietly pass by our eyes – or under our noses in the case of Nigel’s Italian food shop. And if that happens, it is a real shame. Not that it requires over-dramatisation either.

So this is a little preamble.

After a time here, it is easy to come to believe that Copenhagen is a rather mundane sort of place, in many respects (albeit one filled with a seemingly endless supply of beautiful women). New shops, restaurants and cafes open, close and change names at a surprisingly slow pace for a major city of this size, the streets all over the city are shamefully quiet on Sundays, and even the downtown core tends to become eerily quiet once the shops close each evening.

Coming from two plus years living in London, a place where the pace of life is frantic most of the time, I certainly know what it is to deeply love and despise a place all at once. I never felt more at home that I did while I was living there, and I haven’t since. Yet after two years and a bit of being there, I ran, ran, ran - knowing another couple of months could leave me foaming at the mouth. Anybody who has lived in London for a time knows what I’m talking about.

Copenhagen is not a place that is likely to draw such passionate, raw or contrasting emotions. And it could certainly not be described as a frantic place. I doubt it ever has. Perhaps it is better described as a part-time lover who you get excited about seeing, enjoy spending time with, yet know all the while that you could never marry.

Or maybe I’ve got it backwards.

Perhaps the part-time lover is really London, a place that in provoking such raw emotion may eventually eat you alive if you don’t walk away in good time. Perhaps the less frantic Copenhagen pace is bound to prove the more compelling one, if you're in for the long run.

So about Copenhagen…

Take Nyhavn, the beautiful canal in downtown Copenhagen, running just off of the main channel.

If you look at it in the wrong light, it just seems like a horribly tourist-cramped place, and for good reason. It is, but it is not only this. Both tourists and locals alike congregate there on sunny days, year round. It is a place that one is typically drawn to as a newcomer to the city quite simply because it is an enormously compelling spot. Colourful, gracefully aging, unsymetric buildings from centuries past line either side of the canal - buildings that could never be described using contemporary terms like ‘clean lines’ - while old wooden boats gently bob in its still waters. Focus on the wrong thing, and you’ll only notice the tourist boats shuffling hundreds of tourists in and out of the canals every hour.

The thing is, the canal is a marvellous place to be on a sunny day, or a sunny evening after work. It lies in such a way as to get the maximum benefit from the setting sun each day – one suspects this may have even been the plan, way back when. The Hong Kong Bar near the top of the strip is the sole remnant of the areas colourful past, when seaman came by day but mostly by night for what they couldn’t get while at sea.

It is difficult to replicate the feeling brought about sitting with a beer on the side of the canal on the wooden beams that line the canal on a hot, sunny day. The locals buy cold beers for cheap at a kiosk nearby or simply bring their own (Danes don't generally put much of a premium on drinking cold beer, so I have adapted myself to this habit out of necessity as best I can). Asian immigrants hover like friendly vultures, waiting to collect the empty bottles and cans for the 1 kr return deposit from them, occassionally offering a free service of opening an unopened beer or even scooping up a bit of garbage in the process. On a sunny day, I suspect they do quite well financially.

Tourists prefer to drink and eat at tables of the restaurants that lay opposite, in the sun when it is available, sheltered by umbrellas when it is not, and warmed by those mushroom heat lamps and wrapped in blankets provided by the cafes when it is cold.

In fact, it's not only the tourists willing to brave the cold. Sitting outside wrapped in blankets is a very Scandinavian thing to do.

I remember one time many years ago, back when I was working at a café in London in Covent Garden, it was a particularly miserable cold and rainy day, far moreso than most days at that time of year. The head waiter nonetheless demanded that we set the outside tables. We could turn the heat lamps on and people might want to sit there, or so he insisted. He was a professional sort of guy, not prone to overt display of soft feelings at the workplace but he did at least have a sense of humour. When I asked him who he thought would like to sit out there he replied with dead-pan seriousness, "Oh, plenty of people - Danes, Swedes, Finns…". I laughed. (When the wine glasses began blowing off the tables that blustery day, he at last relented).

Apropos, this comment of his was not far off from the truth. Cafes in Copenhagen have long adapted to the Danish desire for fresh air, even if it is bone-chillingly fresh, by offering all the blankets to customers that one needs to stay moderately warm. And people, terraces full of people, do use them.

When the weather is as it is here, however you might feel about it, you just have to adapt.

Yes, up next, Part 4...

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