Sunday, March 14, 2010

Afternoon with a Danish Friend

The view from Jens' fifth-floor bathroom.

Saturday, October 3, Copenhagen, Denmark.

Our rooms aren't ready at the First Hotel Skt. Petri so we leave the bags, pick up a rosemary plant gift at a shop to augment the chocolates from the Malmo factory and catch a cab out to Hellerup, a quiet residential neighborhood north of downtown Copenhagen. Flagpoles outside suburban Danish homes fly the incredibly long and thin triangular Danish banner-flag.

Jens Ulrich hails us from six flights up. His all white attic condo used to be drying rooms for the laundry that was washed in the basement. Now it's all cool modern design and snuggly thick rug comfort. Rain batters his skylight windows and drips down in hypnotic patterns as we sit and drink wine and tea around lit candles while the girls snuggle up to Dad. Nora falls deeply asleep; Mia whispers, "Can we go? I want to go," in between dozing.

The grown-ups talk the Danish character ("content with a limited world view" is Jens' verdict), how the differences between the Scandinavian countries matter less than the difference between an international outlook and a provincial view. We talk the psychological affects of good design, and how luxurious a simple space that has been designed with warmth and intelligence can feel. I recall the word "hygge," pronounced a bit like "hoo-klee" with a slight gargle in the throat, a term that I learned years ago from Sally. "Homey" or "cozy" are the closest, but still inadequate translations. It's more a national philosophy of warmth, than simply a feeling. We talk the limits of Danish freedom and the difficult-to-stabilize balance between welfare and wealth.

Jens has his own management consulting company so he feels sorely what he sees as the onerous government restrictions on growth and investments. On the way home in the rain Jens takes us by his new company building, a beautiful remodeled car repair shop surrounded by a gray gravel parking lot and stands of bamboo.

We're talking law enforcement and soccer hooligans on the drive back to the hotel when I get the strongest rush of deja vu - either I dreamed of attending a match or saw a film --no, now I remember, I was an essay from The New Kings of Non-Fiction. The writing was so vivid, I must have imagined the whole scene of drunken fights on the streets, especially the darkness, in my head. Jens was talking about Danish policemen using dialogue with suspects - mediation to get them to wake up to reason - but I could remember so well the feeling I'd internalized from reading Bill Buford's "Among the Thugs" - that the cops had seen nothing but my aftermath and I can disappear into the crowd without repercussions. It was a creepy place to be. "I must have been a soccer lout in another life," I told Randy, as our gracious friend drives us through this most civilized city, in this most civilized of countries.

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