One of my uncles on my mother’s side used to be a Francophile. I say ‘used to’ because to be honest, I’m not sure he still is. Not sure if the love affair has lasted the years. But during my early adolescence, back when my mind was just starting to become impressionable, back when he was still married to my aunt and still a carnivore, this guy loved him some France. His brain seemed soaked in béarnaise.
“Paris is the most civilized place in the world!”
This from uncle as he sat at our kitchen table one morning over a plate dotted with smoked salmon, some sort of savory mousse, a pâté or two, a selection of olives, some young vegetable pickled, a handful of soft cheeses and a scattering of every type of cracker from the Carr line. A snapshot of Sunday morning in my salad days. My dad and my uncle would each raid some epicurean market and create these smorgasbord platters, with each taste guaranteed to make your taste buds tango.
On these mornings, after the first bottle of bubbly, my uncle only used exclamation points, which he then punctuated further with that laugh of his that seemed as much pure joy as my young mind had seen in that kitchen. All conjured from food and drink. All this from Paris. It seemed a wonder.
Turns out though, uncle was wrong. Paris is terrific, sure. But the most civilized place in the world?
That would be Copenhagen. It’s like all the good from France without the other stuff.
From the moment I landed, I was delighted and captivated at every turn. People. Food. Architecture. Beer. Intelligence. Joie de vivre! Absolutely mind-blowing. I was not prepared for this. I mean sure, you hear about Denmark and Copenhagen. You hear of that Happiness Index, and you read all those ‘Best Cities in the World’ or ‘Best Expat Destinations’ lists, but if you are anything like me, you read those with an arched eyebrow and a heaping dose of umbrage. Yes, umbrage. I’m pretty happy where I am, thank you very much. What’s wrong with here? Surely it can’t be that great there.
Copenhagen is the type of place you visit for a long weekend and by the third day you are checking housing and job listings. I could sell the house and car—certainly won’t need the car, it being such a bike place—could probably cash out of that Roth IRA and make it work even with the penalties, right?
It is the wonder.
As mentioned previously, I wasn’t prepared for this. It’s worth repeating, but not just because I was skeptical of Copenhagen’s hype. When I landed, I was fairly certain nothing could lift my spirits even a fraction of a degree. Particularly because literally five hours before arriving in this land of fair-haired excellence, the girl I love kicked me to the curb. Dumped. What a perfect word. Five hours before, I had pledged to move, but not to Denmark. Needless to say, upon landing, I couldn’t have cared less about exploring some new country and city. At that moment, there was nowhere in the world I wanted to be.
Yet there I was, and what a grand distraction Copenhagen proved to be. But enough of the preamble. Why why why?
First, the city is immaculate. I think anything dirty in Denmark is drummed over the head and tossed out of the country. I saw no graffiti, no trash, nothing even remotely ugly in all my wanderings. Also, with all the bike usage, it seems quieter and cozier than Paris. Very approachable.
Second, the city is beautiful. Whether walking or wheeling on asphalt or the intricately patterned stone pavers, any trip downtown is guaranteed to be half architectural tour. Danish architecture has been known recently for its modern swirly lines and focused use of sustainable products. But before then, say for the last, oh, 500 years, it has borrowed from all the other traditions. Renaissance on one block, Baroque in another, and Rococo just off over there. And somehow, whether jumbled up together or in separate districts, it seems to work. It all looks so darn cute. Additionally, the amount of parks (both urban and green) are innumerable. The place is lousy with them.
One example of this is in the building formerly known as St. Nicholas Church. Originally built in the 13th c. it was typical of the times: heavy, blocky and brick. But after a fire destroyed the church in 1795, it was rebuilt, and in the early 1900s re-re-built. Now it has a fancy spire that some call New-Baroque and from the tour offers maybe the best view of downtown you can get. Additionally—and this is definitely an upgrade—you can have food and beer on the grounds, as it has been converted into a Contemporary Art Gallery with attached restaurant and beer garden. This to me seems kinda typical of Copenhagen writ large. Changing adapting, staying cool, staying delicious.
Third, the people are beautiful. Even feeling hollowed out with loss—or maybe because of it—the ridiculous prettiness of the the Danes is hard to miss. They all seem tall and chiseled, bronzed from wind or sun or both, and chic, with scarves or long sleeves draping everywhere and shoes bought specifically for that day’s outfit. At one point, walking through one of the main shopping streets, Strøget, I felt as if I had somehow trespassed into some surreal fashion shoot, suddenly amidst a cluster of models in mini-skirts, tight and high on their impossible legs. They loomed and seemed to stare down at me until I quickly ran for cover down a quaint alleyway.
Fourth, food. Lamentably, I was not hungry in Copenhagen. The break up had gone and made me lose my appetite. The upside was I saved a fortune. Copenhagen is ridic expensive. A decent lunch for one costs around $20-$30 dollars without a drink. More for dinner and more with drinks. So with all my skipped meals, I definitely saved some money. However, in doing so, I felt robbed of what is definitely a foodie haven. Whether you get a Smørrebørd, an open-faced sandwich where they put something heavenly on a piece of heavy dark rye bread and drizzle it with some foam or essence; or go to Papirøen, the street food mecca; or spend a month’s salary on a meal at one of the best restaurants in the world, Noma, or one of Chef Rene Redzepi’s disciples’ places, you can eat well here.
As for me I didn’t really partake. On my last day I did however have two grilled ‘toasts’ at a place called Fætter and Fætter that not only cut through my sadness for a moment, but made me want to move to the neighborhood. These were crudely dubbed ’The Fucking Toast’ and the ‘Cheesus Christ’, but the flavors were anything but. The first boasted dijon, watercress, ham and Danish white cheese, the second featured gruyere, emmentaler and danish white slathered in a rocket pesto. That and a beer? Wow.
What a neat segue to the fifth point of civilization for Copenhagen, something of which I did partake quite a lot: alcohol. This was expensive and didn’t help anything in the least, but here again, I couldn’t help but notice that the Danes do it well. They have tons of breweries and microbreweries and cool bars in which to imbibe. And the people seemed to imbibe quite a lot. On one of my first walks through the city I took a detour through one of the seeming thousands of parks and green places and on a rolling slope that led past bronze statues to a lake, I saw a group of Danes come together around a picnic table. The were, to-a-man, impeccably dressed, in artful layers, with coats thrown open, one hip or another jauntily thrust out, their designer bicycles strewn about haphazardly. As I passed, one man with a great ginger mustache—I kid you not—lifted his head back in a full-tilt laughter that only ended when he decided he was thirsty and he should take another sip at his champagne. This caught my eye and looking further I noticed that the cluster, not more than five or six, had between them a box of twelve bottles of Veuve Clicquot. It was Monday, 4PM. Scenes like this, albeit on different economic tiers, played out all around the park and city.
Which brings to my last point, but also full circle, back to something those people with their lists have already told us: everywhere I went, people looked pretty damned happy. Perhaps I noticed this more palpably because their joy seemed such a stark contrast to my own mood, but damn. This here is civilization.
As it turns out, there is a Danish word for all the things I had been noticing over my three days. A term for all of this cozy good cheer and enjoyment, be it on the streets, in the cafes, or bars, in Tivoli Gardens, or out at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art north of the city. The word is ‘hygge’ and is pronounced kind of like ‘hooga’ only you swallow the ‘ga’ a little at the end. It is the Danish counterpart to France’s joie de vivre. Everywhere I went in Copenhagen and beyond, it seemed equal parts unattainable and awesome.
Travel here. Get you some hygge.