Meet the Danes, who run a user-friendly capital

Copenhagen: The people are so friendly and open that you might find yourself skipping some historic places.

Destination: Denmark

June 04, 2000|By Erik Lacitis, | Erik Lacitis,,SEATTLE TIMES

It's just another typical afternoon in Copenhagen. But, after a few days in the capital of Denmark, it finally strikes me. I haven't noticed a single anger-management problem.

Motorists stop for pedestrians and bicyclists, especially bicyclists. (Just about everyone here rides a bike in a country that is so flat it has not one puny mountain.) Pedestrians wait dutifully for a green light before crossing, even if there are no cars in sight. The woman selling train tickets actually smiles.

I'm pondering all this at Cafe Bjorg's, a little corner cafe in the central part of this city of 1.5 million.

Once again, I've skipped touring a historic building; instead, I'm waiting for Henrik Vesterberg, a local journalist who writes about city life for a Danish daily newspaper, Politiken.

And, of course, I'm sipping the national drink -- Carlsberg lager. They like beer in this small Northern European country buffeted by the North Sea on one side and the Baltic Sea on the other. The average beer consumption is a little more than 31 gallons a year a person.

You may see a guy being propped up by his buddies outside a pub at 3 a.m., but you don't see mean drunks, the ones for whom the booze is the outlet for pent-up corporate anger.

Why get mean in a country where the norm is a 37-hour work week and five weeks' paid vacation? When Vesterberg arrives, he sits down and lights up a cigarette. Smoking is tolerated in Denmark -- everywhere.

It's true that you'll see Grandma Jensen lighting up a big cigar. She also walks five flights of stairs every day to her apartment and walks to the grocer.

The Danes tolerate smoking, just as they tolerate sex shops. Alongside a souvenir shop selling "Mother's Day" ceramics is a shop promising videos with "maximum perversum." The locals stroll by, hardly paying attention.

"We've been described as a very user-friendly town," says Vesterberg. "Our whole attitude is that we have to get along." They certainly get along at Cafe Bjorg's, the dozen tables full of people in animated conversation.

The Danes seem to figure that they might as well take the time to linger. They talk about relationships, politics, complain about the 50 percent minimum income tax (which helps to provide all Danes with universal medical care), and how a new car that costs $25,000 in the United States is so taxed here it can cost more than $50,000. In the States, we used to call it "social conversation," but who has time for it anymore?

The landlady

Because of jet lag, I'm up at odd hours, fully awake at 2 or 3 in the morning. At that time, many people are strolling in the Copenhagen area of Stroget, a string of streets closed to cars but full of shops and eateries. It claims to be the world's longest pedestrian mall. Women alone, on a dimly lighted street, pedal their bicycles home or walk to the bus stop with no sign of apprehension because of the darkness and the late hour.

Another day, I spend an hour talking with my landlady at the private apartment in which I stayed for a few days. There are two reasons for staying in such rooms: They cost about $45 a day -- most hotel rooms are double or triple that -- and, you get to know a real Dane.

Margrethe Kaae Christensen, 65, is a retired home-economics teacher whose third-floor walk-up apartment is 50 yards from the Amalienborg Palace, home of Denmark's royal family.

Margrethe tells me about seeing the queen strolling out to go shopping, a couple of security types discreetly behind, but basically by herself. She tells about seeing the royal family's kids stop by for take-out at the Middle Eastern cafe on the ground level of her apartment building.

Divorced, Margrethe moved 25 years ago to the 100-year-old building, which makes it one of the newer structures in the city. Danes seem more civilized about divorce than we Americans. She sees her ex-husband every week, and they take vacations together, sharing the joys of their grandchildren.

"It's a wonderful setup," Margrethe says.

She's given me a key so I can come and go as I please.

"Most Americans are so amazed that Danes let people into their homes," she says. "But I trust them, and they trust me." Margrethe also takes me on an interesting outing.

"I'm a winter swimmer," she explains. And for one afternoon, I join her. In a large co-ed sauna, wrapped in a towel, we cook ourselves properly red and sweaty. Then we walk naked onto a dock and down a few steps into the frigid sea. It is a plunge I'll never forget.

Dinner with Danes

I continue to avoid museums in favor of meeting Copenhagen's people. I've been putting 10 or 15 miles a day on my rented bicycle, zooming around in the dedicated bike lanes found even on major thoroughfares and bridges. Biking eases the guilt of eating in Denmark, where the food is plentiful, tasty and rich.

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