by Tim Anderson (firstname.lastname@example.org)
This is the second installment of a series of articles about life in Copenhagen, knowing that August is my last month living here for some time. The first one is Closing Time In Copenhagen (Part 1).
I look out the window of my apartment, down to the quiet cobblestone street below, feeling that where I am is a place distinctly Europe – old Europe, stereotypical Europe. In fact, where I live is not that old by such standards – the apartments around here are generally in the area of 100 years old, though there are certainly some that are much older. In certain respects, the ones on my street in Christianshavn even seem quite modern.
A friend of mine living right in the dead centre of town, no more than a 15 to 20 minute walk from my place (see how far that will take you in London) lives in a building nearly 200 years old that is built on 500 year old foundations. It looks it. Every now and then he asks me what I think the chances are that a building like that could suddenly become unstable – essentially crumble without much warning to a state beyond repair. He loves the place, but nonetheless has some genuine concern for the security of his investment - since he bought the apartment. I personally don’t think it is too likely to happen, but then again it’s not my bank loan on the line, so I'm probably not seeing it as he is. Why should I be worried?
There has been for sale signs in the windows of two apartments just across the street from ours for some time now – several months. Looking out at them just now, I see a sold sign has been pasted over one of them, though the other still remains. It’s about time. It has surprised me how long these two have been listed for sale since the housing market around here (all over Copenhagen) has been moving at more than a brisk pace. Rather, prices have been exploding over the past two years, and at a far greater rate than the official statistics suggest.
Various friends of mine, ones that had the good sense to buy an apartment at some point over the last years, have made more money during this time by selling their apartments or re-mortgaging them to take advantage of their increase in market value (and lower interest rates) then they have in salary. This is something endlessly frustrating for those not quite in a position to buy during this time (myself) or who (foolishly?) opted to rent and are now left pondering why they made this choice.
In fact, the housing market has been behaving in this manner for several years now, and shows few signs of stopping. The number of apartments available for sale in Copenhagen is at an all time low, as are interest rates (which at least makes loans more affordable than ever at the moment) which has consequently been driving prices up, up, up. Trying to find a decent place in central Copenhagen (that matches ones reasonable desires) on a first-or-second job after graduation type of salary is proving increasingly challenging.
Still, I know that this price appreciation simply cannot be sustained for that much longer – which does not at all mean that prices will suddenly drop. Of course they could – a few signs of greed are starting to show, always an ominous sign.
Just the other day, a story came out about a real estate agent who had been selling numerous contracts over the last months for reservations on apartments (over 100) in a new building development being finished shortly. She also happened to be one of the investors in the development. Because prices have shot up so dramatically since the reservations were first taken, the development board (of which she is a member) opted to (legally) cancel every one of them. In this way they could re-price the apartment units at a higher level – more money.
Such behaviour clearly strains the bonds of trust between client and customers, no question. On this scale where so many people are affected, it also suggests a brazen confidence, if not a possibly deluded overconfidence, in a market capable of producing an endless stream of customers willing to overlook such questionable tactics and accept whatever terms are on offer just for the chance to buy. Similar behaviour has lead to the demise of many a business in the past, even ones seemingly infallible, and it tends to reach it’s zenith just before an economic collapse of one sort or the other. Let’s see what happens.
The housing situation in Copenhagen is complex, to say the least, and not one that is easy for a foreigner to get a handle on.
On the more understandable side of things are the literally countless tens of thousands of generic two room apartments everywhere in the city. Somehow over the years, the layout of these apartments has come to be a sort of defacto-standard for what could be termed, ‘the two-room Copenhagen apartment’.
When one sees an advertisement with the words, ‘two room apartment’ accompanied by a measurement of around 50 to 60 sq metres, one can make a pretty solid guess at what the apartment looks like - a fair sized room at the front, a second smaller room for a bedroom looking out into the back garden, and beside this a small kitchen and tiny bathroom (with a shower practically hanging over the toilet and certainly no bathtub!).
All that remains is to ascertain the apartments precise location, how big are the windows are/how bright the apartment is, and if it needs painting.
Most apartments have accesss to a large shared garden out back for the up to 200 or more apartments overlooking it. This garden may be more or less sunny and usable, depending upon it's state of repair, and the amount of space between the buildings.
In the case of our most recent apartment, the back garden was just beautifully refurbished thanks to a government fund which is earmarked for such projects that footed the entire bill. Again, the wonders of living in a socialist country. At one end the buildings were quite close together, while at the other (our end) there was quite some space - which meant it was not as easy to watch what the neighbours were up to, something I always enjoy doing.
The monthly student (non-repayable) grants paid by the Danish government to all students in Denmark for up to six years of studies are perfect for renting one of these (or buying them as an andels apartment, which I will talk about shortly) with a friend, girlfriend or boyfriend – which is a very attractive proposition for a couple in love. Oftentimes, this is exactly what happens.
Moving into such a two-bedroom place is hardly a lifetime commitment, since they are certainly not big enough for very long once kids enter into the picture. Equally, it makes the process of splitting up and moving on, if it should ever come to that (and as statistics go, the odds are that it will) just as easy – they are highly sellable (or rentable). So there is a steady turnover of these places.
On the other side of things, is the peculiar form of ownership known in Danish as ‘andels’ apartments. There really isn’t an English equivalent (or translation) for this, so I will describe what they are instead. There are literally tens of thousands of these apartments all over Copenhagen (and the rest of Denmark).
These could loosely be described as collectively owned apartment blocks, each managed by an organisation that control the purchase and sales of the rights to live in the apartments within their block(s), and that decides the amount of the monthly rental-type fee that will be paid as well.
The thing is, the prices of the shares (ie. right to live) that one of these andels apartments gets bought and sold for by no means corresponds with their market value if they were being bought and sold on the private market. It is the board of each andels, consisting of residents living there, that dictate the prices for each. So the prices do move over time, just much more slowly than the market. As a rule, they are ludicrously cheaper to live in (by Copenhagen standards) often costing half as much as the monthly outlay for an equivalent privately owned apartment. If you’re lucky enough to get your hands on one. This is the other issue.
Without connections (typically close family, friends or work colleagues) or good foresight from your parents (more on this shortly), the waiting lists for these places range from 3 to 15 years. It’s a bit like playing a lottery that comes with a guarantee that you will win big eventually, at some indefinite point in your life, if you are willing (and able) to wait.
In many instances Danish parents put the children on an ‘inactive’ waiting list for one or more andels organisations when they are small, which means that when they are 18 and ready to move away from home, they will have the right to be put on the ‘active’ waiting list, which will typically be anywhere from 2 to 5 years long in itself. Eventually, they will begin to be offered the chance to purchase the rights to live in various andels apartments. One can only hope their parents have thought of doing this.
If all of this seems like it would be extremely bizarre for an outsider coming to live in the country to understand, it absolutely is.
The problem with this system as it stands is that it greatly distorts an already overheating housing market (pushing privately owned apartment prices up higher than they should be), while only offering benefits that can at best be described as unevenly dispersed. Because a board decides the purchase and sales prices of andels apartments, there is no free market operating here. And there are so many, many, many of them in Copenhagen, so it is an issue.
Rather, it could be suggested that this is an example of radical socialism at it’s most random. Regardless, it is a system that is unique, distinctly Danish, and has a significant influence on life in Copenhagen. No question about it. I don't expect that the housing market is something that I will miss very much when I leave.
But housing is hardly the only thing worth discussing, so read on. Coming shortly, Part 3.
by Tim Anderson (email@example.com)
by Tim Anderson (firstname.lastname@example.org)
August is my last month living in Copenhagen, after five extremely interesting and certainly not predictable years here. With that in mind, and inspired by various other blogs which I enjoy reading, (particularly City of Sound,a fascinating blog inspired by life in London) I'm going to change the tone a bit in my last few blog entries to a more rambling one. I want to try to capture a bit of what exactly Copenhagen is all about - that which is notable and oftentimes unique about the place.
Hopefully in using what is for me a more experimental approach and writing style, I will manage to reveal something that I previously was not able to and better paint the scenes I wish to portray. Since it is a type of writing I most enjoy reading myself, I may as well try. It is also a way of drawing a bit of a line which separates the various issues I have touched upon up to now, from the things I want to say in these last entries. I do hope I manage to succeed.
My time in Copenhagen, my introduction to Denmark and all that is valued here is soon coming to a close. This departure may be definitive – once and for all - it may not. I plan to be back in a year, but all the same it is by no means certain that I will return. If I should return, or when I do, I will no longer be viewing this place through the same eyes – rather I will be comparing what I am seeing to the images of a Denmark I remember, but that may never have been. The comparison is bound to be somewhat romanticised.
The introduction I have had to this place has been rather thorough, I would judge. It has been just short of five years since I arrived here, and it will be five years and two days from this arrival when I leave. I never expected to be here this long, but it's not like any other existing plans of mine were disrupted by staying. Five years seems a good round number and therefore a good one to part on, in my mind.
To begin to understand what it is to be part of daily life in Denmark, one must first realise just how exclusive a little club the Nordic countries are. These are amongst the richest in the world, taken on a per capita basis (and also the coldest and cloudiest). They are countries that have taught themselves how to succeed (speaking now of countries as if they were people). This is not some poor karaoke attempt of larger economies such as the U.S., the U.K. or Germany. The Nordic countries have created a model that is all their own - it is not an adopted one.
Many foreigners coming to Denmark to live for a time quickly become somewhat critical, at least of how daily life is structured, and how willingly people (Danes) accept this way of being. It seems so organised, so coldly efficient, and though the people are generally well-behaved, the streets seem empty and a things generally bit dull as a result. However, such a view is far to simplistic to represent the reality of the place. There is a rich past that has lead to this way of being, this unequivocally modern system. The state of things as they now exist is hardly an involuntary occurrence.
Denmark is a small, fairly uniform (and quite northern) country in comparison to many other western countries after all. If one expects a more extreme sort of diversity and less uniformity, one should not choose to live in a place with the characteristics of Denmark. France, England, Canada or the U.S. spring to mind as better choices.
Southern Europeans, for example, don't only complain about the weather being a little to cold (as most foreigners living in Denmark do). At a much deeper level they tend to feel frozen out of the Danish way of being, after a short while here. Danes are friendly, and genuine in their friendly gestures, but they have little interest in humouring or for that matter sympathising much at all with those coming to live here who refuse to adopt to their way of being - which is not to say they are not willing to meet somewhere closer to the middle. This is not a critisism, as Danes hardly the only nationality who are this way, and there are good reasons for their actions.
On the other hand when Danes travel, particularly for extended periods of time (which they do in huge numbers), it is often as if some alter ego seizes their personality and takes it over while they are out of the country. Consequently, many an unsuspecting foreigner has been lured back to Denmark by a beautiful (dyed-) blonde mane, a set of luscious curves, and an irrepressibly free-spirited personality - all of which can be overwhelmingly enchanting being so at odds with what they encounter typically in their daily lives, wherever they are from.
The thing is, Danes can afford to be carefree and a bit reckless when they wish to be. This is one of the luxuries that the system they have created for themselves permits, which is incidently something that is rather unique. Few countries offer a level of support to their citizens comparable to that which is offered in Denmark. Danes are generally aware of this, and they are also aware that they pay for dearly for this privledge with one of the highest tax rates in the world (68% at the highest level!).
So, many a foreigner that has fallen in love with one of these travelling Danes, once pulled back to Copenhagen, is suddenly shocked to discover how Danes behave at home . It can come as a surprise to many that the same factors that permit such freeness also enable one to more comfortably apply oneself in countless less carefree directions as well - education, jobs, kids, family and so on - knowing that change is not only possible (because one will never wind up with no income), but will be widely accepted to boot. This way of being is something that can be said to be distinctly Danish, or perhaps more appropriately, distinctly Scandinavian (but I've only lived in Denmark). Perhaps this is one of the reasons the divorce rate is so high in Denmark (50% and climbing), a figure which does not include the countless couples who live together for a time, and then split up. Of course there are countless relationships that succeed!
Even more shocking for foreigners, can be to experience just how abruptly and definitively Danes can move one when they decide to. (For the record, I came to Denmark alone and for the purpose of studying, which I did for the first three years I was here, so I speak from the position of observer in saying all of this, not from some bitter personal experience.)
In Denmark, there is no stigma whatsoever with moving in with a boyfriend or girlfriend, then moving out after a time, and then moving in with another, and so on. Even though most western countries are moving in this direction, Danes were already there 20 or 30 years ago. Oftentimes, a foreigner in Denmark who has suddenly been cast aside once the relationship hits a rough patch, have little from their own cultural background they use to relate to and understand just what has happened and how it can be like this. Not that anyone expects (much less plans!) from the outset that a given relationship they are in will eventually end.
There are not many places where people allow themselves this level of uninhibited personal freedom. Of course, there are other ways that Danes appear to inhibit themselves, it's just that sex and relationships are not among them, to generalise of course.
But life in Copenhagen is like that, because getting on with things is a pretty simple process, all things considered. One only has to take their salary (which is always an amount one can live comfortably on), or their SU money (provided by the Danish government to all students for up to six years of studies), or their unemployment money (which is generally just below the typical salary of whatever their previous job was), along with any supplemental money offered by the government if they have children, and get on with life.
I’m not at all suggesting that Danes are cold or calculating in any of this. Just that Danes rarely find themselves in such dire straights - whether from relationship troubles, trouble finding a decent job or even an unexpected pregnancy and various other unanticipated situations - as to feel the need threaten to throw themselves from the nearest bridge (much less actually do it) when things get a little rocky and uncertain from time to time. The result is a relative calmness and stability, not only behind closed doors, but also in the office and on the streets. It is just not always apparent, at first glance, why things are like this.
So this is my introduction, there is much more I have to say on many divergent areas of life in Denmark. Next up, Part Two.
My apologies in advance for this one, I am trying too avoid bothering with too many purely political issues on this blog, as I think there are a lot more meaningful and productive ways to spend ones time and (mental) energy. But sometimes certain things just need to be said for the sake of one's own sanity!
As soon as the news came out that several explosions had rocked London, one could sense a palpable level rising tension in Copenhagen. For example, the day after the London attacks, a reported bomb threat (which proved to be false) shut down the Copenhagen metro as the bomb squad moved in to remove a suspicious looking package. Thankfully, there was no bomb. Since then, the police have been a frequent presense all over the metro, highly visible above and below ground at the various stations.
(Okay, this is not a great picture, but that is a police van to the right of the Christianshavn metro entrance in Copenhagen, with two police officers standing by).
It's not really surprising a lot of Danish voters are finding themselves a little anxious. After all, Denmark is a part of the Bush's coalition of the willing, and what's more, enough Danes recently thought it was a good idea to re-elect Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the guy who made the decision to put Danish troops there in the first place.
Although Rasmussen is a guy who steadfastly refuses to offer any constructive critisism of certain American military activities in the middle-east region or regarding American military conduct during the open-ended and undefinable 'war on terror' such as Guantanamo Bay, he is not a guy afraid to participate in a good, pandering suck-up or related photo op when the opportunity strikes.
Where's Waldo...I mean Anders? Oh, there he is!
Unfortunately, with bombs exploding in London, many Danes are increasingly wondering if Copenhagen might not become a terrorist target, sooner or later, given the Danish presense in Iraq.
Actually, why is Denmark in Iraq anyway? Though the decision to support the Iraqi war was one seemingly incoherent with values of socialist Denmark, some have quietly whispered about how it did coincide with the interests of Denmark's biggest company, Mærsk, a company that has profited greatly from the war - much more so than any other Danish company (see my previous article Courting controversy, Danish army style). Unfortunately, the mainstream Danish media doesn't really like to discuss this issue, and many Danes are in flat out denial that there might be such a connection.
Fortunately, it is not really necessary to rely on the mainstream media to figure out the links. See, Mærsk is not only a pretty big company, they also tend to make their activities fairly obvious. For example, when they do business somewhere, they often use little ships like these:
If one wonders whether Mærsk is making profits in Iraq, a quick internet turns up various press releases and so forth regarding Mærsk contracts in Iraq (many signed before the decision to send Danish troops to Iraq was made). In summary: it is very easy to see where the company is operating (look for the ships), and why there are there (look for the press releases). Thus, even when the Danish mainstream media prefers to avoid connecting the various issues together, it is very easy to figure out these things anyway.
So let me spell it out: Maersk is worth a lot of money to Denmark, in terms of taxes, employment and in terms of the an overall influence on society and politics. This is a huge elephant of a company in a very small petting zoo of a country. Too many uncomfortable questions were bound to be asked of Maersk doing business with the U.S. army and in Iraq if the Danish government didn't throw it's support behind the Americans.
Now, a little suggestion for those who think the bombing in London was bad (and it most certainly was), and who also may be thinking about how devasting inexplicable bombings in general can be: what about those innocent civilians residing in Baghdad, who were subject to night after night of bomb attacks and destruction during the war along with countless civilian casualities ('collerateral damage') as a result (not to mention roving military patrols ever since)? It makes a one-time incident such as that in London - as horrendous, physically destructive and psychologically tormententing as it has surely been - pale in comparison.
Hmmm, what to do, what to do?
Well, imagine you are a Danish voter. Are the decisions made by the current government the best ones?
There are many ways to fight terror, unfortunately, dropping (more) bombs in hopes of eliminating it tends to rather increase it instead, since it makes a lot of those who are already angry even angrier, and worse, it tends to make a lot of (innocent) people who were not angry at all before suddenly very angry as well, since now their lives are also being affected.
So what is there a better way to react to these London terror attacks, and the perpetual threat of more to come elsewhere?
Personally, I found perhaps the most thoughtful and reasoned reaction in a column published in the UK newspaper, The Guardian, written by (Ed. note: now deceased) Robin Cook (who you may recall resigned from Tony Blair's cabinet in the lead-up to the Iraq war, owing to his disagreement with Blair's Iraq strategy of unconditional support for Bush's war). Cook has since become a loud critic of Blair's approach as a labour backbencher.
To link to the article: The struggle against terrorism cannot be won by military means
I have taken the liberty of reprinting it, in part, below:
"The struggle against terrorism cannot be won by military means. The G8 must seize the opportunity to address the wider issues at the root of such atrocities.
The danger now is that the west's current response to the terrorist threat compounds that original error. So long as the struggle against terrorism is conceived as a war that can be won by military means, it is doomed to fail. The more the west emphasises confrontation, the more it silences moderate voices in the Muslim world who want to speak up for cooperation. Success will only come from isolating the terrorists and denying them support, funds and recruits, which means focusing more on our common ground with the Muslim world than on what divides us.
The G8 summit is not the best-designed forum in which to launch such a dialogue with Muslim countries, as none of them is included in the core membership. Nor do any of them make up the outer circle of select emerging economies, such as China, Brazil and India, which are also invited to Gleneagles. We are not going to address the sense of marginalisation among Muslim countries if we do not make more of an effort to be inclusive of them in the architecture of global governance.
But the G8 does have the opportunity in its communique today to give a forceful response to the latest terrorist attack. That should include a statement of their joint resolve to hunt down those who bear responsibility for yesterday's crimes. But it must seize the opportunity to address the wider issues at the root of terrorism.
In particular, it would be perverse if the focus of the G8 on making poverty history was now obscured by yesterday's bombings. The breeding grounds of terrorism are to be found in the poverty of back streets, where fundamentalism offers a false, easy sense of pride and identity to young men who feel denied of any hope or any economic opportunity for themselves. A war on world poverty may well do more for the security of the west than a war on terror.
And in the privacy of their extensive suites, yesterday's atrocities should prompt heart-searching among some of those present. President Bush is given to justifying the invasion of Iraq on the grounds that by fighting terrorism abroad, it protects the west from having to fight terrorists at home. Whatever else can be said in defence of the war in Iraq today, it cannot be claimed that it has protected us from terrorism on our soil."
by Tim Anderson (email@example.com)
As irrelevant an issue as it may seem, I simply can’t resist offering my opinion regarding a classic discussion, the SAS Hotel in central Copenhagen designed by the legendary (and deceased) designer/architect Arne Jacobsen, source of much debate in Copenhagen over the years.
In Denmark, Arne Jacobsen is about as mainstream cult as one can possibly be. Even if his penchant for wearing bow ties created an aura of stiffness surrounding the man himself during his lifetime, most of his building and furniture designs pushed the boundaries of the time. There is no question that his influence lives on today in Denmark, particularly in Copenhagen - perhaps to a much greater extent than it should, some have suggested (after all, the man did most of his great work back in the 50’s and 60’s!).
Jacobsen never feared being provocative; just consider the classic SAS Hotel in downtown Copenhagen that was entirely designed by the great man – the building itself and all of the interior furnishings. Though only one room (room 606, pictured) exists today with the original furnishings as selected and designed by Jacobsen intact, the image Jacobsen aspired to create lives on.
Debate about its exterior has never really ended, with opinion consistently split between those regarding it as brilliant (and very much ahead of it's time), and those less impressed who generally regard it as being dull (or worse). As history teeters towards myth (certainly the case in Denmark regarding anything involving Arne Jacobsen) and reality consequently becomes clouded, debate becomes more challenging.
However the SAS Hotel may have once seemed, and whatever the dissenting voices even today may whisper or shout, a quick glance at this industrial looking, army-green coloured box tells all you need to know – it is pretty ugly!
About the only thing remarkable about it's exterior at this point is the fact that it was designed by Jacobsen. Unfortunately this knowledge does nothing to improve the building's present-day appearance, though it may change one's perception of it, somewhat.
Discussion regarding this 60's building does matter, if only because so little has changed since that time. Though the building is unlikely to disappear anytime soon, new highrises continue to be built in Copenhagen, some with quite striking architecture, others less so.
Copenhagen, in spite of being the capital of Denmark and a fairly internationally oriented city, is not a place where the highrise building has ever really been embraced (ie. buildings higher than 10 stories). It's towering older brother, the skyscraper, even less so (ie. New York, Chicago or Toronto style).
In touring around Copenhagen (I would suggest a bicycle for the job) most buildings are no more than five to seven stories high, and very few more than ten stories - though there are a number around. Of those that exist, one may not be inclined to go as far as calling them ugly, however many would agree they are certainly not 'beautiful' in any most senses of the word. Perhaps uninspired would be a better term.
The very recently completed headquarters of Codan, a Danish insurance company.
In took a while to figure out what to do with this one, though it has recently been converted into a youth hostel.
Suffering from a little too much Arne Jacobsen influence?
On the other hand, recent residential highrise buildings such as some old warehouse conversions at Islands Brygge, overlooking the channel, (pictured below) show a degree of flair, creativity and inspiration clearly absent in most of the existing commercial highrises. In any event, the debate will continue, and hopefully more inspired building such as these will continue to appear.