Who was I to argue with a man’s determination to grin? This guide in Denmark was neither fatalistic nor stoic. He described the big lakes in the centre of Copenhagen not as “a mirror to the city’s secrets, like the bodies that lay beneath,” like a Danish protagonist in my head would have, but as “a wonderful spot to hang out with friends.” Giuseppe’s excitement buoyed his feet several inches above the ground. He had left his hometown in Italy to fall in love with Copenhagen, and he had fallen hard. “It’s a happy city,” he said several times, glowing from within. “The happiest in the world, you know?” His words were not a prism to the brutality of society and the complexity of humans, as Stieg Larsson or Hakan Nesser had led me to expect. He was, and wanted to be, simply the avatar of Copenhagen joy.
If told something or somebody was the happiest ever, most people I know would want to challenge it. There must be a dark underbelly, they would insist, a grief behind the sunny disposition. Perhaps I need less crabby friends, but I understand the impulse. It is a rejection of labels, a knowledge that a range of emotions is what makes life worth living.
But tourism works in the opposite way: it needs labels to lure and sell, it needs to smile while opening the door. Smiling back, but wise to the ploy, I walked around Copenhagen trying to square the happiest-city label with the other notion I nursed due to the region’s inspiring many outrageously dark noir mystery novels. Until I went to Denmark, I held in my mind cold images of serial killers, troubled alcoholic detectives and witnesses found buried in the snow. But I like to be liked, so I didn’t challenge any resident about a crime wave, especially not the meringue that was Giuseppe.
Still, for three days, I continued to anticipate an unkempt Detective Wallander arriving in my hotel to solve a double murder, or a more Danish Smilla Jasperson entering with her sense of snow. It is their mood that I adamantly channelled,
despite the sun and the suspicious warmth of every single person in the city.
From a walker’s perspective, Copenhagen is a labyrinth. The roads are wide and straight, with vehicles never straying away from the lanes, driving unthinkingly towards their houses in the suburbs. Pedestrians turn into side alleys, dart into malls, emerge from their rear doors, and disappear behind buildings. In summer, the footpaths are full, and the tourist that stops mid-walk to stare must face the wrath of the resident who must sidestep. “Excuse me,” one of them said—that politeness, it didn’t fool me for a moment.b The bonny child in his arms flailed her fists, oozing menace.
The man suddenly stopped and turned towards the road, one foot jutting out in readiness. The child screeched. Scores of people walked past, few noticing them. The man’s eyes absently scanned the spinning tyres of the cars. He coughed, and leaned forward.
The shout came sharp and high, piercing through the warm air. The cyclist’s eyes were narrowed under his cap, his mouth still open in the “Oy!” that had escaped it. As he zipped past, the father smiled. “Thank you,” he mimed, and stepped back from the curb. Many of the other cyclists said, “oy” too, using their voices instead of bells to warn any pedestrians that might get hurt. When the light changed, the man with the child crossed towards his parked cycle, placed the baby in a bright yellow seat on the handlebar, and pedalled away.
It is clear Copenhagen has surrendered to its cyclists who have convinced the city authorities that a two-wheel ecological contraption is the solution to 21st-century urban challenges. The Danish capital has over 1,000 km of cycle track, and is still obsessed with new traffic design ideas to get more people to choose bikes over cars. On most arteries leading into the city centre, a ‘green wave’ coordinates the traffic lights to allow a continuous flow of traffic that lets cyclists flow into the city in the morning peak hour without putting a foot down. Digital countdown timers 100m ahead of an intersection show if you should speed up or slow down to maintain your flow. At the intersections, there are footrests and railings for the cyclists to wait for the light and contemplate world domination. Indeed, car traffic has fallen by 60 percent. When I was in the city, the papers were analysing upcoming bicycle superhighways. At 2am that night, I saw a biker wait for the red light even with no vehicle in sight. Only 1 percent of Copenhagen’s cyclists break laws, I read somewhere, because ‘good design improves behaviour’.
Copenhagen is proof that cars do not a city make. Urban in every sense of the word, it is cosmopolitan, crowded, but most of all, monstrously ambitious. It seeks to represent not only Denmark, or even Scandinavia, but the idea of city life itself. To do this authentically, enjoyably, it does the hardest balancing act of all: of past and future, preservation and redefinition. The cycles are only one of these.
Green stretches, monuments and royal areas turning into recreational and performance spaces, and the large city lakes confused me. The book shops, hotels, even offices were seeped in the warm conviviality of hygge (pronounced ‘hooga’), which nearly everyone told me was hard to translate, but also immediately cooed while saying it was Danish for ‘cosiness’. Too soon, I began to see, to my utter disappointment, that the Danish brooding landscape and the depressed Dane is indeed creative fiction.
So let’s get this out of the way: the claim of the Danes being the happiest comes from the UN’s 2013 report, in which Denmark scored 7.6/10. I reckon my questioning this repeatedly in 2014 left at least some of them a tad unhappier. For their sake, I took a picture near, yes, The Happy Wall, a 100-foot-long interactive pixel structure with bright coloured panels at a large cobblestone square near Nyhavn docks. It is a monument to the Danes’ happiness, but also an artistic way to cover up Metro construction.
The Happy Wall spoiled my sour mood somewhat, but I tried to retain a healthy cynicism when I biked around the hidden quarters and narrow alleyways of medieval Copenhagen. Starting at the Town Hall square, circling by the old stock exchange, near the Royal Danish ballet, past the unfinished Marble Church, through the Amalienborg Palace, we cycled along the harbour. Here, the granite inspiration for the little mermaid—a massive tourist attraction—was underwhelming in size, but the perfection of her placement on the mossy rock by the sea, her mildly doleful expression left me moved. The sculpture is one of the many gifts of businessman and brewer Carl Jacobson—of Carlsberg beer fame—to Copenhagen.
The canal at Nyhavn, or New Harbour, is lined with bright gabled houses now containing cafés and restaurants. From here, tourists take sightseeing trips on ferries along the canal and nearby harbour. On Købmagergade is the Round Tower, a 36- metre-high structure built as an observatory in 1642, and whose platform gives the panoramic views of the city only rivalled, locals say, by the view from the tower at Copenhagen zoo.
I conserved my happiness through it all, but gave in finally at Tivoli Gardens, an amusement park within the city. First, a slow ride through fairytale writer Hans Christian Anderson’s stories burrowed my insides to excavate nostalgia for a wildly imaginative childhood lit by Thumbelina, The Emperor’s New Clothes and The Ugly Duckling. Then, as I screamed through the oldest wooden ride to the modern stomach-churning roller coaster, I was rattled enough to eject my gloom entirely. This might be the point at which it rained, and the metro services stopped because of a few puddles, but everyone was laughing and walked home, fingers and elbows entwined.
I suspect, in the clarity of distance, that through all the sight-seeing and adrenalin, the Danes might have messed with my meals, reducing me to a state of dizzy happiness. After all, this is another legend of the region: the New Nordic cuisine, teasing one’s palate and mind to a point of madness with its ballet of the old and new.
Noma usually comes up at this point. Travellers have been known to book a table at this restaurant a year in advance and make the trip to Copenhagen expressly to savour what the oddball geniuses René Redzepi and Klaus Meyer serve up. The restaurant has been named World’s Best three times, and although I didn’t get a table, I ate through its influence throughout Denmark.
Denmark has imbibed global habits, products and tastes— yoga, cotton, the idea of heat from chillies—and adopted them as its own over generations. It is in such a world that it tries to find its culinary roots through New Nordic cuisine—a contemporary food discourse based only on produce grown and ways of cooking native to the Nordic region. While going deep to find what is truly local, it is also going far to diverge from tradition that doesn’t fit anymore.
Food traditions are rooted in geography, weather and cooking techniques—for acidity, cooks in Denmark only used beet vinegar, never the tropical lemon; fish were preserved for the year by smoking them; vegetables were pickled or canned. But as Henrik Thierlein of Wonderful Copenhagen says, the way the Danish eat and what it means to them has changed over time. “Typically, Danish food was rich in fat, full of protein and heavily overcooked. It is tradition, but it is also heart disease! People today, especially in the cities, are far too health-conscious to eat this on a daily basis.” Today, the classic Danish light lunch is the smørrebrød, buttered rye bread with various brilliant toppings—smoked salmon, cod, cheese, beef carpaccio, pickled herrings, boiled eggs and spreads.
At the core of New Nordic cuisine is health, natural produce and a sense of playfulness. Noma once famously put live ants in beef tartare or shrimp for the acidity of their bodily formic acid. At Pony, pork neck or smoked beer sausage are served with a sense of humour. Amass with chef Matt Orlando has a Nordic take on global cuisine. The Restaurant Bror has a menu inspired entirely by the wild: seasonal vegetables and edible flowers. Kähler at Tivoli indulges in nitrogen and food foam and serves artful food in asymmetrically perfect ceramic, which is also for sale.
Every Dane’s face shone with pride when he or she described New Nordic cuisine, describing its newness and roots, teaching me to sip the aquavit at intervals, telling me which region the beer came from, and how the global elderflower fit into their cultural landscape. They were not simply meals; this creative gastronomy was a slice of regional identity, affecting how they lived, exercised, shopped, and thought about themselves. This scale of happiness, I will readily digest.