October 28, 2010

Crushed Birds and Bricks of Hash

My wife and I touched down in Copenhagen.  We got in late, went to bed without dinner, and awoke starving.  We traveled in relative anomimity.  Not even my parents knew that I was leaving.  Maybe it had something to do with the latitude or the curvature of the earth up in Denmark, but the sky was a brilliant blue.  The other shades somehow seemed obsolete. 

We followed a band of Chinese tourists to City Hall Square.  Electric beer and fast food signs glowed in the distance.  One of the guys wanted to show off for the camera.  He charged toward a flock pigeons, which were eating bread crumbs fed to them by an elderly man.  Hoping to cause a great scatter, the Chinese boy stomped toward the unsuspecting birds with his shiny black shoes.  They didn't understand the rules of his game.  Many birds were stomped unmercifully.  

My wife and I were on a pilgrimage to fine breakfast.  Our search brought us to a nightclub-ish café called Tight.  We walked inside and ordered what we loved:  A bowl of chive-infused scrambled eggs, bacon, and a wide, shallow cup of coffee.  A couple of guys were hunched over a laptop at the table next to us.  One of the men was holding a credit card as if it were something very fragile.  

 “She’s an American,” the guy said to the waiter, “works for some consulting firm in Chicago.”   

They discussed the possibility of her still being in the city, and what should be done with the card.  The man handed the credit card and laptop back to the waiter.  The men then paid their tab and left.  I talked to the waiter, a Frenchman.  Actually, I found out that he was one of the owners when my wife went to the restroom.   “The other two owners are in Nepal.  They’re at base camp now, preparing to climb Everest.”           
I myself had never been to Nepal, or even France for that matter.  Nevertheless, I liked the vibe in this city.  The streets had a wide-open feel similar to Vienna; however, the colorful Rococo apartments reminded me of Amsterdam.  Perhaps too, it the bikers, and their cold, serious faces whizzing by us on the sidewalk.  This hodgepodge of references ended when we reached the Free City of Christiania.  

As Faulkner had mentioned, “all of a sudden, you cross over.”  The gate was an ode to tribal chic:  Two hand-carved totem poles with a curved wooden plank running across the top.  Gold lettering spelled out the word “Christiania.”  

Shortly upon entering this gate, we realized that it promised a meticulousness the commune itself failed to contain.  My initial reaction was like a child in some forsaken candy store. 

Christiania was a military zone originally, its large empty buildings a haven for homeless squatters.  These people couldn't afford homes.  

 Back in 71’, inhabitants of the surrounding neighborhood broke down the fence surrounding Christiania, which opened the floodgates, as they say.  That’s how it started, but then…it became a movement.  Not exactly a takeover, but given the lack of affordable housing at the time, utilizing this military ghost town must have seemed like a pretty good idea. 

We veered to the right, walking alongside a tall brick graffiti warehouse lined with sick and dismembered bikes.  There were parts of a playground somewhere in the trees and bushes to our left. Nobody was out there.  This little freak village was still waking up.  The smell of coffee was in the air.  Leashed and unleashed dogs frolicked.  Having grown up in an area with both coastal and military influences, something about the utility buildings and layout made everything feel familiar.  

You can find Christiania on all Copenhagen tourist maps.  In fact, we could hear the garble of commerce through the trees in the distance.  But something about this place didn't strike me as touristy at all.  In my experience, tourist dollars tend to change a place -- cheapen it, oddly enough -- while prices skyrocket.  Usually, I imagine old rich white men getting their rocks off counting stacks of money. 

But I didn’t get that here.   Not in Christiania.

No, it seemed as if the artists and others who lived within this commune preserved the past.  Within these walls, we were in fact not in the EU, the European Union.  We passed an old keelboat sitting like a tombstone at the edge of a yard.  It was just part of the landscape – in a sense, part of the people.  

 Your typical municipality is selective in what they keep, or as is usually the case, in what they throw away.  As my wife and I walked arm-in-arm, I had a sneaking suspicion:  If the city of Copenhagen had their way, they’d bull-doze this whole goddam place.  It was all so quirky.


We arrived to Pusher Street, where we had heard the sounds of commerce earlier.  This was where it all went down.  There were rows of ramshackle huts, some draped with camouflage.  These huts sold marijuana, marijuana cigarettes in protective vials, and hash. 

Compared to the coffee shops in Amsterdam, the vibe that I got was this:  “Sketchy, man.”  My expectations, however, were irrelevant.  It was a mellow scene, a place where like minded people could sit and enjoy themselves without fear of judgment.  Many people wore house slippers.  Many enjoyed the sun. 

A sign at the top of the street read “No Photo!”  All of the signs in Christiania were hand painted.  We obeyed this sign, although stealing a photo would have been easy enough. 

In 2004, the police jazzed themselves up with an idea:  They were going to HALT the cannabis trade!  Their brilliant plan was to destroy Pusher Street's marijuana huts.  Their plan worked in the sense that there were no more marijuana huts on Pusher StreetMarijuana, of course, was still as common in people’s homes as espresso.

One such hut is preserved forever in the National Museum of Denmark.  The curators recreated the display best they could.  They replaced bricks of hash with old terracotta tiles.  They must have known that the job fell short.  To remove all doubt, someone came along and stapled a sign to the hut:

“Of course, these are NOT real drugs.” 

As obvious and disappointing as this was, I found a bit of interesting information.  The official currency in Christiania is the Løn.  There is the “Fed” (fat, 1 gram) and the “Klump” (lump).  Both are coins.  Their names/values allude to quantities of hashish.  

Locals are paid in Løns, which, in all sincerity, might explain the dismal clean-up effort within the walls of Christiania. 

We walked past Pusher Street to the Stadsgraven, a lovely unmolested recreational area.  Looking out over the water, it was hard to believe that we were in a major city just moments ago.  I wondered if this was what they were fighting for -- a place to swim in the short Denmark summer.  Perhaps, but like my friend Faulkner said, “There’s something else, something more.”  

Artistry, in many ways, is shaped by battles, both internal and external.  One doesn’t need to pick up a paintbrush to prove that he or she is an artist.  It’s how we live.  With the right instincts, simply being in a place where individuals – truly free individuals – can live together in a way that reflects them is an art unto itself.    

No comments: