Returning to Europe, I worried that Denmark would pale after my recent Croatian experience. My first day here dispelled that concern. While Denmark has its castles and cute towns, the real experience here is the Danish modern spirit and how it copes with today’s challenges.
Wandering into an empty, sleek train car, each seat was marked “kan reserveres.” I figured that meant “not reserved,” and sat down. Then I was bumped by a friendly guy with a reservation. He said, “The sign means ‘could be’ reserved…we don’t promise too much.” Noticing several young men with shaved heads and the finest headphones listening to MP3 players on their train commute to work, I thought Denmark seemed so minimal and efficient…and so together.
Every time I politely ask, “Do you speak English” (still thinking it’s bad style to assume Europeans will speak my language), I feel silly. “Of course” is the standard answer. Thriving Copenhagen has a thin veil of tourism. Behind that, locals really do eat open-face sandwiches. Even though the country’s eateries must be smoke-free by next August, people smoke with attitude in traditional cafés. (By law, smaller places can be exempt — so many local pubs are cutting down their “usable floor space” by adding pool tables and big furniture in order to get around the law and keep the smokers.)
I find having a bike parked in the garden of my hotel is a great way to fit in and literally “go local.” Copenhagen has as many bike lanes as car lanes, and I can literally get anywhere in town faster on my two wheels than by taxi.
Today’s big-city Denmark — which is far from blonde — has me thinking about immigration. I’m a grandchild of immigrants. Three of my grandparents sailed away from the old country speaking only Norwegian. My family assimilated.
With modern communication allowing “diasporas,” where communities of foreigners settle in more comfortable places with no interest in assimilating, “melting pots” have become cafeteria plates with separate bins. I know Algerians who’ve been three generations in the Netherlands and are still enthusiastically Algerian, raising their children with barely a hint of Dutch culture. I am three generations in the USA. While I have kept my grandparents’ religion and eat fish balls and goat cheese, I can barely say hello in Norwegian. While proud of my heritage, I am American.
At Copenhagen’s City Museum, I met a Pakistani Dane. He talked earnestly of the exhibit like it was his city…as if his ancestors pioneered the place. Thinking of assimilation, I got emotional. Surprised at being choked up, I was struck by the beauty of a Pakistani Dane.
Am I wrong to wish that a Muslim living in Denmark would become a Dane? Am I wrong to wish the USA would speak English rather than Norwegian or Spanish? Am I wrong to lament districts of London that have a disdain for being British? Immigrants energize a land — and they do it best when their vision is a healthy melting pot. Melt, immigrants…treasure your heritage while embracing your adopted homelands.