Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Most Bohring Country in the World

I had just time, I say, and that was all, to prove the truth of an observation made by a long sojourner in [Denmark]; — namely, ‘That nature was neither very lavish, nor was she very stingy in her gifts of genius and capacity to its inhabitants; — but, like a discreet parent, was moderately kind to them all; observing such an equal tenor in the distribution of her favours, as to bring them, in those points, pretty near to a level with each other; so that you will meet with few instances in that kingdom of refined parts; but a great deal of good plain household understanding amongst all ranks of people, of which everyone has a share’; which is, I think, very right.

—Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

He is sullen as I hand it to him. He takes it, flips through, examines, moves on, and stops. He stares closely. Then even more closely. Then under a scanner. Now he frowns deeply. Scanner insufficient, he pulls it back out and stares at it even more closely. And finally he fixes me with a grimace: “This is not good! I cannot read the stamp!” I laugh slightly. “I see! Well, that's what there is.” This does not please. “It is not a laughing matter!”, he says sternly. “I will need to check on it.”

And with that, the immigration officer walks off with my passport and my supposedly suspicious visa. To be fair it is a bit suspicious, and we have the Portuguese to thank for preparing a visa that looks like it was cooked up by a third-rate counterfeiter. But he's ignored everything else to fixate on the one (only?) thing that is entirely normal about the visa: the embossed stamp on the edge. A long five or so minutes pass (as I try not to look “suspicious”, whatever that may mean, for their hidden cameras undoubtedly trained on me) before he returns and grudgingly lets me through.

But he's not done having the last word. After complaining about the embossing (which later proves to be entirely identical in quality to that on all my other visas), he wants to grind in his thoroughness, competence, and general unhappiness at the state of my passport. So he flourishes my latest UK visa and says, “And they got this also wrong!” I've examined (and used) that visa several times, so it seems hard to believe the British Majesty's service and I could both have missed something. But the Danish Majesty's service is pointing right at the offending item: the end-date on the visa. “It should be [20]06 and instead it says [20]16!”, he bellows, as he jabs accusatorily at the offending bit of paper.

If I weren't horribly jet-lagged, I would have pointed out that this would mean my visa was valid for -1 days. As it was I asked exactly what was offensive about it. “That means it is a visa for ten years!”, he declares, as if the rest is self-evident. With polite dignity I respond, “And that is because I have a ten-year visa to the UK”. His look changes from superior to startled, and his eyes reflect absolute incomprehension.

Welcome to Denmark, I think. And I remember why it feels like the UK will outrun the Continent.

Indulge me a little, here, as I propose a theory. The superficial differences are so stark, and so many, and so overwhelming, that the initial reaction would rightly be mocking laughter. Nevertheless, I'd like to suggest that Denmark is the Nordic Portugal: a formerly glorious colonialist, so greatly reduced in power and circumstance as to build an entire introspective national identity out of that decline; a homogenous region with a minority language, sitting on the fringes of and apprehensive of the European experiment of socio-politico-economic union.

I was here on invitation to give a talk at an increasingly successful IT industry conference called JAOO, held annually in Århus (Aarhus). When I started to page through whom I knew at Danish universities, though, I realized it would be foolish to not spend some time visiting the hordes (Danvy, Møller and Ernst at Århus; Henglein, Lawall, Schürmann at various schools in Copenhagen; and that's only half the list, just those I know well personally). And I was curious to see how this Adam Smith-ian would perceive Denmark itself.

My first impression is a shock. I'd expected a northern Switzerland: clean to a fault. Instead I confront certainly the messiest train station I have seen in Europe. This, it appears, it not an isolated incident. Both in Copenhagen and in Århus, both in the mornings and the evenings, train stations are flooded with litter (usually of the wrapping-paper variety). Never mind recycling bins (of which there aren't any, anywhere in public—though this is perhaps forgiveable on the grounds that people routine misuse them anyway); trash seems to be a real problem.

Outside the stations, though, the cities evoke a certain quiet charm. My hotel rooms were in both cases clean (though not overly cozy), and evoked a Nordic sensibility (in both senses of the word)—though much more so in the renovated part of the Scandic in Århus than the dowdy Hotel Danmark in Copenhagen.

You can't visit Denmark without a Hamlet reference. While Copenhagen held too much interest (and the pouring rain was too much of a disincentive) to visit Helsingør (Elsinore), I was delighted by the very first street name I saw in Århus: Rosenkrantzgade. Oddly, while Rosenkrantz is common enough, there are no Guildenstern's to be found in plain sight.

JAOO 2007

My primary reason for being in Denmark was to speak at the JAOO conference. This is an industrial conference that this year was attended by about 1200 people, and I spoke about Flapjax in a track about novel ideas of practical import. I was a bit concerned about speaking in one of five or six parallel tracks and at the same time as some high-profile speakers, but the talk was superbly attended (I had guessed somewhere between 150 and 200; the next day at the University I met the student volunteer for my talk, who told me there were 178 people). Audiences here are quiet and, given that they're commercial developers paying top kroner to attend, not as demanding as I'd have expected (I don't think it was just me—other speakers shared the same feeling), but I did make some very good contacts. (The only strange encounter was with Jim Coplien, who happened to sit with Erlang's Joe Armstrong and me at a dinner for speakers and proceeded to pick a surreal argument that clearly represented some long-standing itch he suffers from—I was happy to let Joe argue with him while I had a very good conversation with ActiveState's Shane Caraveo instead.)

Overall, then, I had a good experience at JAOO. The organiers, especially Katrine Hofmann Gasser, are top-notch. The tech support was the best I've ever seen: one person was dedicated to avoiding the common problem that projectors cut off part of the screen. On the other hand it's a dreadful place for a vegetarian, no matter how much you warn them about it in advance. At the speaker's dinner, the only veggie item was shredded beets and some zucchini (i.e., sides for the real stuff). When I asked the staff, one young man kindly walked me around the various platters of mains and pointed to a bit of tomato stuffed between some kind of animal meat and to a bit of pumpkin laid out to decorate large cubes of some sort of fish: i.e., to the garnishes. It's safe to say he didn't get it, and the effect was rather insulting.

One very nice feature of JAOO—one that I would love to see other conferences mimic in some form—is that they organize a run. It's one Danish mile, which sounds innocent enough until you realize that's about seven-and-a-half kilometers. I was very much looking forward to it but unfortunately came down with a cold, and wanted to meet two old friends for dinner to boot (the run is organized at a strange hour). Its highlight—which alone is enough to make you want to do it—is that you go through the ARoS art museum. On the one hand I was thrilled by the idea of getting to run through a museum without being pursued by the law; on the other hand I wondered how good a collection they have if they allow a large group of uncoordinated hackers come bounding through the premises.


I visited three museums in Denmark, going to each with low expectations and having all three vastly exceed even my undiscounted expectations.

Museums in Denmark were having their problems. The famous golden horns that represent the Danish national identity (they're a bit of a fake, but don't say that too loudly) had just been stolen. At first the police suggested a great mastermind at work (down to ominous reports involving black Volvos—in America it's black helicopters, in Denmark it appears to be black Swedish cars), but it proved to be an absolute amateur job. This suggests that the (nearly comical) problems the Norwegians have had keeping The Scream secure are by no means an isolated Scandinavian phenomenon where museums securing national icons is concerned.

But I digress. The Nationalmuseet has an excellent section on Danish life and the rest of it is worth a visit, too, including some remarkable historical artifacts, from some choice swords and beds to drinking horns—though the numismatic collection bizarrely illustrates coins from Haroun al Raschid with a copy of an Iznogood comic book. (It's not worth the explanation.) The Kunsthallen Nikolaj is a terrific exhibition space, and the current exhibit (Tent Show) was a worthy piece of contemporary art, the highlight being a video named The city is my play ground [sic] by citygallery and Anthony Schrag. And then there's the Moesgård (Moesgaard).

Moesgård Museum

The Moesgård museum is about 10km south of Århus. Its main selling point is—squeamish beware—the perfectly preserved body of a Stone Age man, so well preserved that you could tell what he'd had for lunch the day he died (my Rough Guide breathlessly gushed). This seems like a weak premise for building a museum around, and other one-artifact museums have sometimes been a disappointment. Not this one. A recent, major renovation and extension complements a collection of generic dioramas to explain the power of peat bogs as preservatives. (Did you know the Vikings used water drawn from the bogs for their voyages because it would not spoil?—that alone should have enabled them to sail the world!) Aside from the slightly cheesy spooky music in the bog area (and a reference to mythical bog creatures), the display is stellar.

Even better is to come: the material on the Moesgård man himself. The body (which is itself not that much to look at) is in a sunken viewing room; above this is a series of displays and panels including the obligatory touch-screen panel. My policy on touch-screens is to give them about fifteen seconds to see whether they will hold my attention—and they never do. Here, however, I stayed to read the entire panel's content, some of it twice. So if you're in the area, and you're looking for an alternative to what science museums seem to have become—turn-the-crank-and-watch-the-ball-roll diversions for kids, or overly graphical, information-free displays to let adults indulge in a simulacrum of learning—come check out what these folks have accomplished.

In fact, you should visit even if you couldn't care less for the science and the thought of seeing the body turns you off (which, by the way, is not a good reason to stay away as you can entirely avoid seeing it—I'm guessing this was one of the goals of the museum redesign, one accomplished with splendid subtlety). Between the museum and the water 1.5km away is a set of walking paths that lead down to a beach. The paths are maintained by the museum and don't seem to need payment, though the museum ticket cleverly doubles up as a path map on its back. There are two main marked paths; both have some reconstructed Viking-era buildings, while one of the paths winds through a reconstruction of forests from several eras. The map on the ticket is a bit imaginative, but just stick to the white stones and you'll be fine. Some of the white stones have red dots, evoking the ticket's rendition of the path, and others don't; but because white stones are not native to these parts, all the ones you see are signs of the Agency of Man.

One warning: one of the paths walks through a meadow that is populated by a group of rams. City Boy here tried to approach a little Viking ruin they were populating when the lead ram began to walk in his direction, staring intently and making aggressive noises. No doubt being Danish rams these are most polite and genteel creatures, but I nevertheless decided on a course of prudence. Just to test the creature, a few times I paused before resuming to walk in its general direction; but each time the very alert ram returned to its threatening posture, leaving me in little doubt about its intent.

The conference and the Moesgård Museum apart, Århus was a bit of a...not a let-down so much as a surprise. As the second city of Denmark (or so I was told), the largest thing in the area, and home to a vibrant university, I expected more of life and culture. The main “culture”, however, seemed to be shopping (which a former local explained was because that's where people in the vicinity could go for their consumer needs). The old town was pleasant but perhaps a bit less dramatic than many other European towns. They have an active effort to spruce up their river and its banks, and it's bearing fruit. Overall, perhaps Providence isn't a bad point of comparison: I'd score my own 'hood a bit higher, but of course I'm biased. What I couldn't understand was why one town needs three different Bang & Olufsen stores within five city blocks....


Copenhagen is a city of dreamy spires and a football team named FCK. I've had a soft spot for Copenhagen since I bought a recording of Stan Getz Live in Copenhagen, and indeed jazz has long been in the air here. Even better, given my preferences, I happened to have ended up in Copenhagen at the same time as both their Blues Festival and their Film Festival! It was hard to concentrate on work amidst all those offerings, though my excellent hosts at DIKU—the computer science department at Copenhagen University (now you can work out the initials for yourself)—made it easy to stay honest. (At both universities, however, I discovered that colloquium slots are merely 45 minutes long, including questions. Visitors beware!)

Copenhagen feels a bit like a synthetic city, which may be because it has so many neighborhoods that maintain their distinct identities even today, many just a touch old-fashioned (how often do you see pissoirs in active service?—and once I saw a police car dash out into the middle of a cobbled plaza, so the (male) driver could run into such a facility while the (female) shotgun got out to chat with some locals). There is—yet again—the dominating presence of shopping, while the ever-expanding royals have peppered the place with castles and churches of varying quality (though some of the church spires are wonderfully eccentric, a sign either that under the Nordic and Lutheran rectitude lies a wild spirit, or that too much inbreeding produced some rather quirky royals).

Denmark, Generally

Denmark is one of the best places to watch English-language television. They have a lot of it, there are (decent) movies seemingly every night, and most of the shows seem to be unhampered by advertising. And that's not all: one night I got to watch the full-length, uncut version of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Virtually everything is subtitled instead of being dubbed though most strangely, unless I am very mistaken, the one show that was dubbed was Monk. (Some of the subtitles can be startling. I happened to catch a scene of Ace Ventura; where Jim Carrey said “Monopoly man”, the subtitle read “Matador-guy”.)

The Danes seem to have no pets. In a week, in the two largest cities of Denmark, I spotted only a single person walking a pet. I do not believe I saw a single cat the whole time. What cultural factors would inspire this I can't tell. (It certainly wasn't a matter of weather, because the last week of September was not especially vicious, at least by the standards of the area.)

Cycling is a big deal in Denmark. Indeed, it was listed as the top “attraction” by my Rough Guide (which may say more about the country than about the activity). But this, of course, is cycling of the stolid, intensely practical variety: in my whole time I didn't see a single road bike, though mountain bikes are plentiful. The Danish respect for bicycle lanes is refreshing and also somewhat scary (I wonder how many cyclists are subject to right-hooks). Then again, about a dozen times in Copenhagen I saw a bicycle being carried by a trunk-mounted bike rack of a taxi. Is this standard equipment for Danes?

Of course, the Danes may not have much of a choice regarding transportation. The country imposes a staggering tax on cars (180% or 200%, depending on whom I asked), which means (a) there are relatively few new cars on the roads, and (b) there are virtually no fancy ones: the contrast to German roads couldn't be more stark. Refreshingly, none of the locals I asked (and I asked many) about the causes for this gave me much guff about environmentalism; they simply referred to matters of balance of trade, and one put it very bluntly: “How many Danish car-makers can you name?” Setting aside the advisability of such tariffs, at least the citizens didn't seem to be deluded about them. (But the Danes clearly love their thrills anyway. One broadsheet headline I came across: “Danskere vilde med private helikoptere 1800 kr i brug i timen”.) Danish exceptionalism extends into other areas: not only their separate currency (a damn nuisance, frankly) but also to something called the Dancard, a credit card that is the only credit card accepted by some vendors (another nuisance).

One thing I never quite adjusted to was the shockingly high price of everything. I mean literally everything, even those things you'd expect to be moderate in a socialist paradise, like public transport. Even relative to travel elsewhere in Continental Europe in this era of a very weak dollar, I eventually felt numbed by the prices. One way to keep costs low (this is a figure of speech, you understand) is to avail of the food buffets. In the US, buffets suggest quantity over quality, especially a buffet at times served outside weekend lunches (e.g., an all-you-can-eat dinner service). In contrast, these are not only ubiquitous in Denmark, they're found at fairly good restaurants. Just by a way of example, at an Indian restaurant in Århus (“local Jutlandese specialities”, my host saucily suggested, before taking me to dine there), the dinner buffet ran to about USD 22, whereas a single main dish was around USD 31 (and we're not talking a particularly fancy restaurant here).

Smoking attitudes are still a little...traditional. I'm informed that only recently did Denmark pass no-smoking laws in restaurants. I was amused by my room at the Hotel Danmark, which had a strong anti-smoking statement at the reception, offset slightly by the ashtray and matchbook placed in every room. Perhaps I'd misunderstood them and they were for burning malformed visas.

Every guide to Denmark will tell you that the locals are perfectly proficient in English, and indeed the vast majority are. What is strange, though, is I saw less bilingual (or multilingual) signage here than I have anywhere else in Europe. I most certainly didn't see a single sign in, say, Japanese or Korean: I don't remember seeing one even on Strøget, the nation's premier shopping street.

I'll close with a little vignette. We were walking across the University of Copenhagen campus back to the department after lunch. I saw a few of these plump and delightfully colored birds that seemed to be ubiquitous, so I turned to my hosts and asked what it was. Amir Ben-Amram, a charming Israeli who spends half his time at the University, calmly replied: “That is a magpie. It is a crow as designed by the Danish.”


Vegetarian food isn't easy to come by in Århus. Under Engle is now closed, and I was never able to get into Gyngen to eat. Yellow Deli next to the train station makes a rather delicious sandwich in addition to having several more options.

Copenhagen has several vegetarian options, though I found both Flow and Govinda's closed down and gutted for sale or other changes. Den Grønne Kælder (Den Gronne Kaelder), RizRaz, and Morgenstedet are all excellent. Morgenstedet, in particular, is a bit of an institution: a communal restaurant deep in the heart of Christiania, offering by far some of the most affordable food in Copenhagen (and some of the tastiest, too). The Vietnam resturant, just across the street from the Nordhavn station, has good vegetarian options too.

For a peculiar (and controversial) look at the Danes, check out Danes are Like That! by G. Prakash Reddy, an Indian anthropologist who spent part of 1989 immersed in a Danish village. It's certainly possible (even for one as unfamiliar with anthropological methods as me) to argue with his technique and conclusions, but it is at least slightly amusing to behold the frustration of the Danes at being put under a microscope in just the way a Western anthropologist examines a Primitive tribe.

Adjacent headlines in the Copenhagen Post:
‘Disturbed’ Attacker at Large; and,
Loose Screw to Blame.

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