I just cannot wrap my head around why Giuseppe would want to leave a city as beautiful and as cultured as Florence to live in Copenhagen. Giuseppe Liverino — “call me G” — visited a few years ago and was so charmed that he stayed on, now speaking fluent Danish and working with Wonderful Copenhagen to market the city to the rest of the world. “Why Copenhagen?” I ask.
“It’s young, it’s vibrant, there is something happening here all the time,” he says. And then he sums it up simply. “Florence is a city of the past. Copenhagen is a city of the future.”
Indeed, everything about the city is about looking ahead. At the design museum, there are ample examples of the clean, minimalistic and graceful lines that Denmark adopted decades before the rest of the world found them fashionable. But nowhere does this minimalism translate to coldness, for year after year, Denmark ranks among the happiest countries in the world.
Danes have also made kids all over the world happy with the gift of Lego. I read somewhere that the word itself comes from leg godt, which is Danish for “play well.” And from what I can see, the Danes not only work well, but also definitely play well. I suppose the English-speaking non-Danes among us could think of it as ‘let go,’ an equally successful recipe for happiness.
A chilled city
In the middle of the week, in the middle of the day, the good folks of Copenhagen are out sunbathing at every available spot: in the parks, by the harbour, near public swimming pools and above all, in the Nyhavn area (meaning, new harbour). And almost every one of them has a bottle of beer in hand, or is just getting up to fetch another one; after all, this is the home of Carlsberg. If that is not “play,” then I don’t know what is.
And watching them, I have a deep sense of envy, an unshakable feeling that Copenhagen is where I want to live. Of course, only in the balmy summer months (flying back home south like birds in winter), when I can sunbathe too in the plentiful green open spaces of the city, or sip a classy wine at one of the alfresco cafés lining Nyhavn.
In the few days that I am in Copenhagen, I impress myself by managing to tick quite a few things off my “must-do” list. First, the canal tour starting from Nyhavn, the stretch throbbing with life, its colourful façades against the backdrop of boat sails; indelible images that every visitor to Copenhagen takes back with him. With the wind on my cheeks, the sun still high up in the sky late, late in the evening, I take a circuit of the canals zigzagging through the core of the city. It is the best way to get a quick orientation, especially to the way the old and the new exist together in harmony here.
Just as we turn off Nyhavn, the quaint buildings from the 17th and 18th century give way to the sleek, contemporary architecture that Copenhagen is now famous for. We float past the Royal Danish Playhouse, all straight angles and glass, and the Opera House, somewhat softer in its lines but dramatic nonetheless. After passing under several bridges — some dangerously low and narrow — we see the National Library, fittingly called the Black Diamond; with its glittering glass façade, it is another ode to modern Danish architecture.
Then there is one local icon I am keen on seeing: how can I leave Copenhagen without a peek at the statue of The Little Mermaid? When we do go within peering distance of her, it is a bit of an anti-climax. She turns out to be inconspicuous, hidden amidst the crowd of photographers jostling for a selfie. And that is how another icon bites the dust.
If this evening I sit on a boat and get ferried across the city’s canals, another morning, I get to try my hands at rowing. And not just any old boat in any ordinary place; we are to set sail on the Roskilde Fjord near the Viking Ship Museum at Roskilde just outside Copenhagen.
This is where I pause for thought. Given the Copenhageners I have seen these past few days, I find it difficult, near-impossible to imagine that this calm, friendly, optimistic lot are descended from Vikings. To be fair, my knowledge of Vikings so far comes from early and repeated readings of Asterix comics, where they are depicted as cruel warriors who do not know the meaning of fear.
It comes as a bit of a shock to learn that those comics were telling the truth. The Vikings were intrepid, but ruthless, navigators and explorers who went all the way to North America on boats that seem made more for cruising on the backwaters of Kerala than taking on the fierce high seas. The museum has a revealing display of the skeletons of five such “ships” and exhibitions on life in the Viking era.
Land of the Vikings
All I can say is that I am glad these gentle folk have now traded their Viking skullcaps for cycling helmets and sailing skills for pedalling prowess.
Then on to the fjord to try our hands at rowing, which is a lot tougher than I expect. The sails are to be hoisted only on our way back, when the winds are propitious, and so on our way into the waters, it is each man – or woman – to the oars. Muscles I did not know existed now make their presence felt. Apart from just the labour of rowing, we all manage to hit each other with the long oars, just managing to avoid throwing someone overboard. It is quite a relief when the sails are finally hoisted and we are able to sit back and enjoy the experience of sailing.
These modern day Vikings have found very many ways to make their lives easier and happier. Their city is one of the greenest in Europe and one of the most bicycle-friendly; over 50% of locals use bikes as a regular means of transport. They have a fondness for fine dining, with 15 Michelin-starred restaurants in Copenhagen, peaking in Noma, ranked one of the best restaurants in the world. My personal favourite concept though is that they have taken gender equality to such an extent that they have abolished gender-specific pronouns from their language.
Over the course of my few days here, I keep quizzing Giuseppe about his plans. “Of course, I will live here. Copenhagen is my city now,” he says vehemently. There is something about Copenhagen that inspires such loyalty. For lack of any other word, I will call it coolness and leave it at that.