vintage travels – greetings from copenhagen

June 21, 2009 at 2:01 am (travel)

Greetings from Copenhagen!!!

The first eagerly expected piece of information contained in Kate’s Exciting Adventures Volume 5 is that there is no such thing as Royal Copenhagen Icecream in Copenhagen. Sorry to disappoint you all.

I’m living in a college of about a thousand students, in five massive eight storey buildings: nos 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6. Why? I don’t know. It’s called Gro/njordskollegium, ‘green fields college’, and the view is so delightful, it’s just such a pity I’m on the ground floor. The Metro tracks stretch overhead to form one side of a huge courtyard, around the rest of which is ranged a random series of other big, grey buildings. In the centre is an enormous puddle of a building site, with a wire fence and lots of concrete, but no signs of life. The buildings are grey, the Metro is grey. The fence is grey, the ground is grey, the water and the unending expanse of clouds are also grey. It feels like the set of some post-nuclear-holocaust movie. From the Metro station, forty steps up, you can also see some yellow cranes and blue shipping containers over to the side, and our buildings have a panel of colour next to each big square window. From the other side of the platform the view is miles of scrub stretching out to some smoke stacks with permanent trains of smoke fixed from the top. But then, even gratings in the pavements steam in this weather. Maybe something will turn green in the spring.

So yes, it’s very cold at times, and there’s been a little bit of snow, but now that I’ve waterproofed my boots so that my feet don’t get wet, it’s perfectly manageable, as long as I don’t have to stay out in the wind for long periods of time. Hats and scarves and boots and coats and layers are just a fact of life. I’ve worked my way down to only one pair of socks in my boots, and learnt to wear a sleeveless top, under a long sleeved thermal top, under whatever else I’m wearing. The latter was by hard experience, as the first time I went out at night I wore my warmest clothes, with my nightdress underneath for extra protection. Waiting for the metro I was very glad for all this fabric, but after five minutes in the little restaurant with a hundred other international students, I had to go into the bathroom and take off my dress, to eat dinner in my crumpled old nighty, with the sleeves rolled up as high as they’ll go! (not exactly presentable dinner wear, still it looks sufficiently similar to my other long, red dresses for its identity not to be obvious)

I’ve been getting out a fair bit, which has been fun although I’m very glad to be curled up in bed, writing tonight. One sunday night I went for my first foray into Christiania, the hippy town that’s been established for thirty years in an old army barracks, one stop closer to the city than I live. It was an interesting evening in many ways. I was following an email from one of the macquarie students who has already been here a semester, but whom I have never met, so I wasn’t too sure about going in to the Operaen, but took a look around, as best I could in the dark. It’s a funny collection of buildings and other makeshift accommodations, all painted up, with a focus to Pusher Street. There were plenty of people wandering around, and a fair number making themselves comfortable next to big metal drums with holes punched in the sides and fires lit inside, supervising permanent looking little benches where, true to propaganda, they were selling pot in various forms. They were doing a good trade and it was all out there in the open. Apart from that there were various sculptures and other ‘things,’ such as a canoe being used as a planter, funny shaped walls with fancy brickwork, and quite a range of interesting variations on the bicycle. It was too cold so I went in; I’ll have to return in the daytime to get a better idea of the place.

At the top of a rickety, narrow flight of stairs was quite a good hall, though it seemed to be made of wooden palings and you could occasionally see out through the gaps. It was filled with people crowded around little tables, listening to some vigorous brazilian and cuban music. There were kids running around, and the occasional dog. The smell of pot was heavy in the air and very few people were up and dancing as they should have been to such music. Unfortunately it was almost over, though we were treated to an encore in the form of one of the kids, maybe ten years old, who just got up on the stage and proceeded to play a fantastic drum solo, standing on the wrong side of the drums, with his back to us. When he was done he just walked away amid enthusiastic applause.

By that time, probably the whole contingent of Macquarie people had turned up, complete with various other australians and friends, and we wandered down Pusher street to the Nemo cafe. Stranger than the cafe, where there were huge fishtanks full of huge fish everywhere, even forming a creepy ceiling to the toilet cubicles – was sitting in the middle of Copenhagen, with a bunch of aussies. As I have never met any of them above a few times, I can’t judge whether they’re really like this, or just putting it on for the occasion, but they’re mostly boys, and with a few exceptions, walking talking stereotypes of the ocker aussie male. I’ve known sufficient assorted westies and surfies and country blokes and all, but this bunch are just remarkable, all the more since half of them come from pymble and turramurra and are studying law!

They were discussing skipping classes to go to Turkey for Anzac day, and how ‘awesome’ it will be to sleep out on the beach with half of australia and go to the dawn service. They were constantly sending and receiving text messages from people here and at home, and talking about their conquests, though buying someone a beer and exchanging a few words seemed to show enough potential to rate in that category. Someone had been accepted to a swedish website for ‘beautiful people’ and sat there silently, looking exceedingly self satisfied, while his neighbour explained for him how he had been exchanging messages with someone who looked ‘hot’ (from a headless photo on the same site) but she just must have lost his number since she hadn’t turned up yet, or sent another message.

Someone was referred to as ‘the one who looks like a girl, not that I’m saying anything against him,’ The same person managed to work in the phrase ‘…must be gay’ three times in five minutes, and when I commented to my neighbour that he was a trifle preoccupied, I was reassured that he was very straight and not at all homophobic. Well that’s okay then. It was the kind of jovial atmosphere where if I expressed my cringing in words, any particular objection would be dismissable, because surely noone meant to hurt anyone, and surely all present company understood that everything was innocent fun. I just sat there and listened, and occasionally made very brief, ever so slightly sarcastic remarks when necessary. The few women seemed perfectly nice, but as usual in such circumstances, there was some barrier and I couldn’t talk to them. there were a number of conversations going on simultaneously, but at no point were they between women. Males would talk to anyone, but females only to males. There was a very rigid structure through all the conversations, and nobody seemed to notice. I could contribute to a conversation by addressing any of the male conversants, but the slightest comment made directly to the woman next to me was against the rules and dealt with as quickly as possible, without her focus ever wavering from the previous site of the conversation. So I watched the talk, and many beers and cigarettes being consumed, like a documentary on the mating rituals of feral animals, taking over a new environment, oblivious to observation.

The cringe is not restricted to associating with other australians – in fact, their company can actually be refreshing considering the attention I get from the rest of the world. The first person I met in my kitchen started talking about crocodiles as soon as they found out where I was from. He said there’s this guy on tv all the time, steve someone, with crocodiles. I walked over to the tv, changed channels, and sure enough there he was, crocodile and all. We seem to have some sort of cable tv, including an animals channel. They do cover other animal stories, but they never stay away from australia for too long.

One day I got on the wrong train and ended up at a suburban shopping centre. It was depressingly familiar, but in the middle of a walkway there was one of those temporary stalls, selling ‘Australian leisure wear’: oilskin hats, coats, trousers and chaps! Back on the train there were ads for ‘Reef ‘n’ Beef’, australian cuisine, saying things like ‘Sorry sir, the crocodile ate the tiger prawns, can I recommend the buffalo?’ and ‘please select your crocodile from the tank’. Everyone has been to either Sydney or Melbourne or wants to. I’m quite glad I can answer ‘sydney’ not something like ‘coonabarabran’ when everyone asks me where I live, but I think I’m going to throttle the next person who tries to tell me that we all come from prisoners. Many danes seem to be convinced, because there are lots of Turkish people in the not so nice areas of the city, that they have the highest percentage of immigrants (8%!) and greatest ethnic mix anywhere, and that australia is an english monoculture with some aboriginals – and kangaroos. And koalas, and digeridoos, and Steve Irwin. I’m tiring of launching into comprehensive political discussions about immigration, multiculturalism and assimilation with people who can’t get over the fact that there are significant asian populations in the country.

Still, in everyday life, I’m the ‘migrant’, rather than the celebrity. Talking to Danish people is okay, I’ve come across very few people who don’t speak english, and if I can’t communicate well with someone they apologise profusely, because my good english is obviously more valuable than their knowledge of two or three or seventeen languages. If a stranger starts speaking to me in danish, I only need to indicate that I speak english and they will immediately translate themselves. I’m embarrassed that it’s so easy, that even in someone else’s country I’m the one in the right.

When it comes to written danish, however, I’m learning a bit about the more serious embarrassment of illiteracy. Signs are in Danish, and sometimes they’re important, though I’m never quite sure whether they’re important enough to ask about. I’m quite dependent on strangers in my day to day life, which is a very uncomfortable situation. I had to sign a contract for my room, and I don’t know what it says because when I asked nicely the only reply I got was that it was perfectly standard. I was then given a whole sheaf of papers, which I didn’t dare ask about since she already looked annoyed. I came back later to find out how to use my voicemail, having found opportunities to casually ask three people in my kitchen, none of whom really knew. I was obviously bothering her in her calm administrative life, but she eventually deigned to tell me that I ring this number here, and type in that code there. I thanked her profusely and went home to try. I was ecstatic to find I was able to follow those instructions, only to be met with a recorded message, which I can only conjecture was giving me numbers to press for different things. Weeks later I haven’t managed to find someone who cares enough to tell me what I do from there. People don’t seem to realise how difficult it is to interact appropriately with your world without writing; I can’t read the signs on my own kitchen door, but I met the same situation when I asked. They were perfectly pleasant and happy to answer, but instead of getting up and showing me what each one was, they stayed where they were and told me about one of them, until the conversation lead elsewhere. It could be that the other notices are irrelevant and out of date, but I don’t know that – I don’t even know which one it is that was explained!

The supermarket is also interesting without language. Prices are okay, I’m learning to divide numbers by 4.2 (I don’t even know if that’s still the exchange rate); but special offers are a worry. What’s more, if I can’t tell what something is by the packaging, then the label is very unlikely to help. I bought a cardboard box with pictures of apricots on it; it didn’t rattle and it didn’t move. I hoped it was dried apricots, but when I got it home I found it contained a big sachet of what I later found out was apricot porridge, something very similar to jam! Every activity, small or large, involves language, and I’d hate to think what it would be like to be in this state permanently. Even worse, to arrive in Australia without speaking English, and to have to deal with a more physical barrier than embarrassment, in order to get an explanation. I’d think australians would not be nearly as accommodating, but either way they would certainly not be as able to help.

I am doing my bit and trying to learn as much of the language as I can in the four months I have here. I have now attended two danish classes, which have demystified a few things, but not a lot since they insist on teaching us how to say Hvor komme du fra? Jeg kommer fra Australien. Jeg er australier. Aaargh! Who cares where I’m from? I’m not there now. Why do I want to talk about it all the time – and besides, who is going to ask me where I’m from in Danish? They’ll ask in English unless they actually think I’m Danish – and then why would they ask? I need to know Excuse me, did you drop your scarf? But maybe I’ve just been reading too much education theory.

I always knew it was going to be bad, but we’re also working from an exercise book with scribbly cartoon drawings all through it, like you’d use to teach an eight year old, to add insult to injury. Still, I’m slowly getting used to the pronunciation, which is very good. The vowels are all confusing and there are so many silent letters that spoken and written forms can look like completely different languages, but the most important element to even being able to repeat what someone says, was to find out how to say the ‘D’. You try to say ‘th’ from ‘the’, with your tongue down behind your lower teeth, until it sounds very much like an ‘L’. It sounds strange and feels stranger, but it’s something that I would not have learnt if I didn’t do the class, so I’m satisfied that I am actually benefiting from this infuriating exercise.

I’m sure you will all find it highly amusing, but the other night I was a bartender. With a bunch of the same aussie boys, no less. It was at the International Cafe, the regular night for international students at Studenterhuset, which seems to be the closest thing there is to a student union here. There were six of us, for the first shift from seven to eleven, and when we were given our five minute training, I wasn’t the only one who wondered how we’d ever get through the night. There were bottled beers and draught beers and normal beers and luxury beers and imported beers, not to mention wine, spirits, soft drinks and luxury soft drinks. They were all at different prices, and broken up into regular price, member price and house price too, plus free coupons, and we were also signing up members in the middle of it all. To top it off, the price lists and cash register were all in Danish, and of course none of us knew the currency.

Before we ran out of glassware I had a row of pints of froth lined up along the bar, but after a while I was filling the big squishy plastic glasses up to the top without stopping the tap, while also opening bottles with the other hand and somehow managing to give change back to the right person! One person either forgot his change or gave me a hundred kroner tip, and I think someone tried to buy me a beer, except I only realised when he finally left with it, looking annoyed. The other volunteers weren’t too pleased about how little free beer they had time to drink, but I managed to get through at least six bottles of good orange juice, which kept me alive and even seems to have killed the cold I’d had for a couple of weeks – a good outcome for a night in a smoky bar! On that count though, it was the best place to be: the whole country is sickeningly full of smoke, even my kitchen, and therefore my own room somewhat, since all my clothes smell of it. At least Studenterhuset seems to air the place out or something. Maybe there just wasn’t room for smoke particles with all those people. The place was packed like circular quay at new year. When I ventured out to pick up the empty bottles that it’s illegal to have lying around for fear of a fight, I several times fell over people’s feet and various other things, but was supported upright by the crush. Behind the bar was definitely the best place to be. I saw many people who I would never have seen if I was stuck in the crowd getting agoraphobic while pretending to talk to someone whom I couldn’t hear, and no one hassled me about not drinking!

In other news, on sunday morning I looked at my hair and decided the ends needed trimming. So I got out the cheap scissors I had bought the other week, and cut a good five cm off the bottom. I didn’t like it very much, so I cut it a bit shorter. I didn’t like that either, so I ended up with it down to my chin and a little higher at the back, the shape you’d get if you tied it up at the back and cut it off, though that’s not how I did it. It’s been fun; I like the look and a million people have told me that they do too, it moves, which I’m not used to, and it isn’t cold because either way I have to wear a scarf outdoors. It’s troublesome though, which is mostly why I never did it before. It gets in my face and I have to fuss with it before I go out, because there’s a very fine line between being presentable and not, and I have no experience with that kind of thing, because all I’d ever had to do was put a brush through it and it would behave reasonably. It won’t just curl and be done with it, as I’d been told it would when it’s not so heavy. Instead it sits there and points in different directions.

So on friday, when I found it had already grown half a centimetre after years of doing nothing, I figured that whatever I do will grow out soon, and got the scissors out again. I didn’t have too good an idea of what I was aiming at, so I didn’t achieve it, and ended up with it about 2cm long all over. I like it, but it looks a little odd with many of my clothes. It’s also giving me a headache with sensory overload; the hairs are millions of little feelers, constantly reporting data about the wind, the insides of hats, pillows. Even worse is when there’s nothing for them to feel, and they’re just standing there, reaching out, expecting. It’s quite difficult to relax, but I’ll surely get used to it before it grows out a bit and does something else strange. At least my secret fear wasn’t realised, that I someday cut all my hair off to find I have a funny shaped head and everybody laughs at me for a couple of years. It’s good to know, even if the price is all my towels and clothes and even shoes being full of millions of tiny, itchy little bits of hair. I await the reactions in class on tuesday.

I finally have contact details!

c/o Gro/njordskollegiet

Gro/njordsvej, vaerelse 1123

2300 Ko/benhavn S

(“o/” means the line should go through the o, and ae is joined in one letter.)

phone: 32876022

code for Denmark: 45

I hope to get a mobile soon, but it’s not organised yet. Sorry to anyone who sent me text messages any time since I flew out, I can’t check them and apparently they die after a month.

It’s wonderful that so many people are writing back to me, I don’t feel nearly so far from home. I hope to also hear from the rest of you soon – even if you don’t think anything exciting has happened! There are plenty of quiet times (or not so quiet, in a multi storey college) when I’m very grateful to have such good friends, even if you’re so far away. And a number of you told me you’d be talking to people who don’t have email for me, too.

There’s so much to write here, and I don’t feel I’ve told you much despite so many words, but I think I’ll send this installment off, with the addition of an account of the Pergamon museum in Berlin. I didn’t write it at the time, feeling unqualified to do so, but I was asked for a description, and I think a few more of you might be interested, too. So here it is.

the first thing, which takes up a significant section of the museum, is the actual Pergamon temple. They are in the process of recreating it, so one side was missing and there was a lot of scaffolding in the way, but what they have is being arranged, as it was but inside out. Instead of it being an exterior, you stand in a huge hall and look up an enormous set of steps towards the back wall, and the reliefs and statues which came from the side walls are actually turned around to face inwards towards the steps. I climbed the steps, which took an effort – there was a sign saying to take care, the museum accepts no responsibility, presumably for a heart attack or falling down – but looking down on people s heads below was amazing, even when faced with a white wall and scaffolding in front.

At the top are immense columns with decorative tops. There are more columns, and even larger ones, in the next couple of rooms. You can crack your neck looking up to the top of a doorway and imagining it new, and there are also large chunks of the tops and what they held up, (you ll have to tell me what all these bits are called, I have no language to describe them effectively) positioned at human height, so you can actually get close to the elaborate carvings.

There were also a number of statues of lesser gods and goddesses, (they don t have the important ones from the other side of the temple) which were life size or just larger, but most of them were badly damaged, and some were just a shapeless blob supporting two or three fragments of definition. The relief down one side was in better condition, two or three metres tall and running the length of the wall, with more gods and goddesses running around. I hate to think how they got their hands on all this, or what happened to the rest. Apparrently much of the damage is quite old.

The next rooms contained more greek statues of gods and goddesses and various nobility, busts of philosophers and generals, and even some normal people, mostly attendants to mark tombs. Almost everything was in stone, but there were some other materials too. The rooms were laid out in as strange fashion, so I was never quite sure if I was following the chronological progression, but much of it was very realistic, though idealised, while a few were stylised, and in colour. There were a few wonderful, strong women, and I must have walked around one of them at least eight times as I tried to follow how she was wrapped in her toga or what ever it was. all the folds and crinkles were so detailed that I could nearly do it, but something didn t quite follow. There were also some roman reproductions of the greek philosophers, which were a popular garden ornament. Some are still under discussion, over whether they are actually greek or roman. Either way, their appearance was apparrently not based so much on what the person originally looked like, as some kind of codification of what school they belonged to.

The next exhibition was from Babylon, the processionway and throne room from Ischtar-Tors. The throne room was overwhelming, there were walls everywhere and grand arches. I don t know how much of it they have, or whether the shape and size are correct; certainly the walls of the processionsway have been set up 8m apart, rather than the original 24. Still, everything was covered in blue enamel tiles, with yellow animals standing out in slight relief out of the actual tiles so they are cut up like a jigsaw. The accuracy of the arrangement of the animals is uncertain, but the way it is set up, the large walls either side of the arch in the throneroom each have two columns of six rows of animals, and the rows alternate between unicorns and these fantastic creatures with a thin dog s body, snake scales, tail, tongue, head and neck, leunig curl on the top of the head, unicorn horn, horse s mane, lion s front legs and eagle s back legs.Both are in the same formal profile, facing the arch, with legs arranged for walking, so all four are seen. Down the processionway, there were life size lions of the same construction and pose, perfectly spaced and following eachother down each wall, away from the throne, which I found surprising. The friezes were set on unfinished walls, the battlements at the top were too low, the street too narrow and much too short, and certainly not on the top of a hill with more battlements zigzagging down to the base as the model showed, but it was breathtaking even so.

The Assyrian exhibition was next, there were many small articles but what I remember best is a pair of big stone lions with eagle wings facing into a doorway. They were about 1=m tall and from the side they were standing in the same pose as the babylonian animals, with four legs on display, but from the front they were standing neatly with their two massive front paws together, so they actually ended up with five legs. They looked quite tame, friendly and cuddly. The final exhibition was Islamic art, with a dizzying array of different things, all ornately decorated. There was a beautiful device for working with astronomy and astrology, with a series of fine metal discs inscribed with all sorts of things, and with holes to see through to other discs. Some amazing metal filigree, a few examples of calligraphy, a display of traditional carpet making and the start of the German carpet making industry. There was some stone carving, very busy but nothing like the finish of the rest of the museum. There was a whole room of detailled red wood veneer, the walls, the ceiling, the floor, the doors, I hope noone was supposed to live there, it would surely drive you mad. There were also some niches – I don t know what they actually were, they probably displayed things, but they looked like miniature interior corners of very fancy gothic churches or Escher drawings, with insane ceilings, some constructed and some carved out of wood, and meticulously painted up.

Kate

21/2/04

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