Published: July 11th 2007July 11th 2007
Is globalization a family of Pakistani origin running a Mexican burrito stand in Copenhagen?
Although Denmark might strike some people as more homogenous than, say, the US, Copenhagen has more diversity in its population than one might expect. Many of the so-called "New" Danes are of Middle Eastern or South Asian descent, their families having immigrated to Denmark from the 1960s onwards. As in other parts of Europe (and the US for that matter), these immigrants have integrated to various degrees in Danish society. I have seen a significant number of young New Danes who seem fully apart of contemporary Danish life; I have also observed others, particularly of older generations, who seem more focused on their specific immigrant community. I have only been here a short while, so I won't venture to offer any specific analysis of how immigrants in Denmark manage. But I am sure there have been -- and will continue to be -- major difficulties (witness the debacle over the cartoon image of Muhammad published in a Danish newspaper in 2006). Discussing the issue with a Danish friend of mine (see below), I gained a bit of better understanding of the complexity
of the issue in Denmark, from the good intentions but often bloated welfare system for refugess and asylum seekers to the recentment of the expense of such programs in Denmark to the difficulties some immigrants have adjusting to the more liberal ways of the Danes (even I was a little shocked to see, on the front page of a morning newspaper, a large photograph of fully naked men running at the Roskilde festival -- such would never appear in an American paper). Still, I am hopeful that in Denmark, or at least in Copenhagen, there will be a move towards a relatively peaceful embrace of diversity.
In part these thoughts were inspired by a stroll I took in the neighborhood of Vesterbro. Once literally the "wrong side of the tracks" (the area to the immediate west of the central train station), with poor immigrant housing and a red light district, it is now quickly gentrifying. However, like similar area back home in DC (e.g. the 14th and U Street corridors), you see both the old and the new side by side. Chic cafes, upscale restaurants, and designer shops intermingle with working class housing complexes and sex shops. There are
also stretches of Turkish or Arab focused businesses. Vesterbro provides a fascinating window into the changes happening within Danish society today.
Other than contemplating Danish social issues as I face my departure today, I can't quite get over how utterly civilized Copenhagen is. For a city of approximately 1.5 million people, I've seen nothing that could be called a traffic jam. Many people ride bikes (in designated bike lanes with designated bike traffic signals), sometimes leaving them unlocked when parked (no real fear of theft). Fathers push strollers to and fro, with or without their wives (or husbands) around. Most everyone waits at cross walks for the signals to change, even if there's not a car in sight (THAT would never happen in DC). People smile and say hello. The pace is simply the most relaxed of any major urban center I have visited.
Copenhagen is also a city alive with culture. Although I don't think I've mentioned it yet, I have been here in the midst of a major jazz festival. Some of the performances require tickets (which in general I couldn't afford), but many are free, scattered all over the city -- often
in unexpected spots. You might run across a swing band in the park, or a bluesy jazz group on a random corner in the Latin Quarter. I heard big band music wafting out of the strangely tacky Tivoli amusement park (one of the oldest such parks in Europe, and right in the center of the city). Middle Eastern jazz fusion echoed across the canal, drawing me from the guesthouse last night. Jazz has been the soundtrack of much of my stay.
I am not sure what I expected of Denmark before landing last week, but my experiences here have blown me away. Copenhagen now ranks as one of my all time favorite cities, and I leave with the most positive impressions of Danish culture. This was an excellent start to my Viking voyages. I sincerely hope I will be able to return in the not so distant future to experience the warm embrace of hygge.
One more thing before I go. Yesterday I met up with an old friend from college, Marianne. Like many of us who lived in the international living center on campus, she is a true global nomad -- a Dane who grew all over
the world with her diplomatic family. Currently, she is living in South Africa, but planning on a move to Brazil. I was lucky enough to cross paths with her in Copenhagen while she was visiting her family. I also got to meet her lovely little boy, Felix, who looks very much like his father (another international living center person, originally from Suriname). I enjoyed getting a Danish perspective on Denmark from a Dane who is not of here.
So off I go today. I take the overnight ferry to Oslo this afternoon. I am not sure what kind of internet access I may have for the rest of the trip -- I have had a computer available to me at the guesthouse here, allowing me to write fairly frequently. I will try, at the least, to write once or twice from each major destination. As a remainder, this is my basic itinerary: Denmark, Norway, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, and Greenland.
There are more photos below