Christiania: Danish Hippie Haven

In 1970, a peaceful invasion took place in Copenhagen. A  small group of anarchists broke through a fence and took over the grounds of a former military barracks.


The area had defensive ramparts dating from the 1600s, when Denmark fought endless battles with Sweden. After about 1950, the military more or less abandoned the site. Hippies moved in and set up shop, making up the rules as they went along. They eventually gained legal use of the land and became one of the top tourist attractions of Copenhagen, right up there with Tivoli Gardens.


Today, about 900 people live in Christiania. Over the years, they’ve worked out ways to police themselves and cooperate with local authorities to provide some services. But it’s still all about freedom, just as in 1971.

I ventured inside early on a sunny but chilly spring morning. What would I find?


I had read that photos were generally ok, but to ask permission before taking any photos of people–especially those selling marijuana, which is illegal but freely sold when police are not around. Maybe it was too early, or maybe I was oblivious, but I didn’t see anything remotely like a drug deal. Residents themselves outlawed “hard drugs” some years ago, and they enforce the rules strictly.


Much of the artwork was a throwback to the psychedelic 60s and 70s.


Other murals looked more contemporary. I liked it all.


I liked the sculptures too.


I didn’t bring a skateboard! Too bad.

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Hippies were the first great recyclers. They figured out how to survive and thrive on the leftovers of materislusm. Christiania has a huge warehouse stocked with recycled toilets, sinks, bathtubs, stoves and refrigerators, and all kinds of building materials.


The community depends on tourist traffic. Restaurants look friendly and appealing, but there are probably no Michelin stars.


Venturing out of the main tourist area, I found charming handcrafted homes, bright with flowers.


Nobody is allowed to actually own a home or property in this enclave. If a resident leaves, the community decides whether to invite someone else to move in. I’ve read that about 180 of the original residents remain.


After I left, I learned that tourists had been assaulted for taking pictures of residents. I figured this dog, supervising the warehouse, wouldn’t mind.


There are plenty of grungy sights within Christiania, but my impression was of a tranquil haven of social freedom. Yes, I’d go back!

Travel offers so many doors to open! Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe, the British Isles, and Scandinavia.

My Scandinavian Fathers

Actually my Scandinavian father and father-in-law are no longer with us, and I only knew grandfathers back one generation. But they were all descendants of families from Sweden, Norway and Finland who made the perilous journey to America in the 19th century. (The one exception was my British grandfather, who made a perilous journey of his own). The sculpture above is from Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland’s fantastic outdoor collection in Oslo, where the city gave him an entire huge park and studio for his lifetime. It’s a carefree image of fatherhood.

My forefathers did not have carefree lives in the Old Country. I never heard any of my relatives speak longingly of returning, although my grandmother used to croon Finnish lullabies to us in the rocking chair. My people were no doubt poor potato farmers trying to scrounge a living from rocky little plots of land. They were very happy to arrive on American shores and begin new lives in the rich soil of Minnesota. I was not particularly motivated to visit Scandinavian or Nordic regions–I guess I vaguely thought of these lands as poor backwaters, maybe lacking paved roads and indoor plumbing.

Over the past few months, I finally got around to visiting, over four different trips: first Sweden, then Denmark, then Finland, then Norway.  Now they’re my new favorite destinations.

Looking at Scandinavian art, I was struck by images of children parting from parents they would never see again.

This painting, by Adolph Tidemand, is “The Youngest Son’s Farewell.” It was painted in 1867, when the great wave of migration was well under way. It’s in the Kode Gallery in Bergen, Norway.

In the National Gallery of Norway in Oslo, there’s a similar poignant scene painted by Harriet Backer in 1878, “The Farewell.”

What’s going on here? It’s either a scene of emigration, or possibly of going off to war.  One of the reasons for leaving the Old Country was to escape compulsory military service. A servant hauls the young man’s duffel bag.

Whatever the reason, the parents are devastated to part with their son. There was no email, no Skyping, no jet planes for quick visits home.  Leaving very often meant leaving forever.

Life in Scandinavia was full of peril as well as poverty. In this 1858 painting by Carl Bloch, a Danish family looks anxiously out to sea was a storm approaches.  Will Father return, or will they all be left to fend for themselves? “Fisherman’s Families Await Their Return in an Approaching Storm” is in the Hirschsprung Gallery in Copenhagen.

In Vaxjo, Sweden, I stopped by the House of Emigrants, full of fascinating displays about the great wave of migration that brought my people to America starting around the 1850s and continuing well into the 20th century.

 

The museum contains a replica of the writing hut of the Swedish author Vilhelm Moberg, who meticulously documented the immigrant experience is the four historic novels “The Emigrants.”

Moberg spent a lot of time in the very Minnesota counties where my ancestors put down roots, just north of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

I had already watched the fine Max Van Sydow/Liv Ullman movies “The Emigrants” and “The New Land.”

While still traveling, I downloaded the four novels and devoured them.  Suddenly, I wanted to know all about my Scandinavian fathers.  Travel constantly opens up new doors!

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe, the British Isles, and now the Nordic and Scandinavian countries!

May 4, Liberation Day in Denmark


Yesterday I came upon a celebration in the park across from my hotel in Odense. A military band was playing tunes from the World War II era, accompanied by a chorus of civilians.


 The gentleman in the coat and tails, pictured above, kept a path open through the crowd.


Why? To keep a path clear for people like this elderly hero of the Danish Resistance.

When the Nazis overran Denmark in April of 1940, they just wanted the tiny country for strategic reasons. Danes were allowed to govern themselves for a couple of years. The people gritted their teeth and cooperated to some extent in order to survive. But underground, the resistance grew quietly. The Nazis tightened their grip and demanded that all the Jews be deported. Right under the noses of the Nazis, the Danes got together with their hated historic enemy Sweden. (They still don’t care much for Sweden). But Sweden was neutral, and so hundreds of boats spirited all the Jews across the water to Sweden, a few at a time. Virtually none were lost. Then the Danes turned their attention to matters like blowing up bridges and helping the Americans, the Canadians, and the British.


Liberation came at 8:30 pm on May 4, 1945. At 8:30 last night, May 4, church bells rang all over town and everybody from the park filed into the nearby cathedral for a service of thanksgiving.


Danish soldiers carried the flags of Denmark, the U.K., Canada, and the United States. Later, I thanked the soldier carrying the US flag. He and his friends thanked me for being Americans. I cried. This really was a moving ceremony.


When I left on this trip, I registered as always with the US State Department. They sent me two different travel warnings, advising me to avoid crowds and and any kind of public gathering. I am so glad I didn’t avoid the May 4 celebration in Odense, Denmark.


I stood around outside the church before the service and talked with Danes, who mostly speak perfect English. I thought about going into the church for the service, but it was all in Danish and looked like standing room only.


So I just walked back into the park and contemplated the war memorial.


In spite of what’s going on in my country right this minute, I’m still proud to be an American. I trust that after some dark days, we’ll be able once more to stand with those less fortunate than ourselves, and welcome people into our country. Our young people, like young people everywhere, are our hope for the future.

USA Tax Day 2017

Nobody much likes to pay taxes. In the London National Gallery I came upon these two fellows, “The Tax Gatherers.” The painting is from the workshop of Marinus van Reymerswale, most likely from the 1540s. The caption explains that it was probably painted as a satire on covetousness. (Do you think? It looks to me like a 16th century version of a biting episode of our “Saturday Night Live”).

In the 1500s, government authorities imposed taxes on items such as wine, beer and fish. The serious-looking gentleman on the left is apparently writing out a tax list. Once the tax rate was set, private individuals were entrusted with actually collecting the money from taxpayers. An unscrupulous tax-gatherer could obviously take advantage of this system. The man on the right, with his grasping fingers and face contorted by greed, looks more than ready to grab more than his fair share of whatever he collects. 
We all hope our hard-earned tax money is used well, but we suspect it is not. As Americans get their tax returns ready to stamp and mail (this year actually on April 18 instead of the traditional April 15), some people might have headaches. I came across a possible remedy in the National Museum of Finland in Helsinki.


It’s a wood carving of the head of John the Baptist on a platter, from the Pertteli Church, circa 1500. The caption helpfully explains that parishioners cured their headaches by holding it above their heads while praying. Worth a try, I would think!

Monkey Business with Tulips

I just flew over the fabled tulip fields of Holland.  Sadly, I only had a short layover in Amsterdam airport. But I fondly remember a tulip-season trip to Holland three years ago. Tulips were everywhere, in all their glory.

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Museums have traditional arrangements of tulips, like this one which only a very wealthy family would have enjoyed in the past. Each precious bloom has its own place in a towering Delft vase, a luxurious work of art in itself.

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During that trip, I hopped a train for a short ride from Amsterdam to the nearby town of Haarlem, especially to visit the Frans Hals Museum.  Frans Hals was a contemporary of Rembrandt; they competed for the same clientele of wealthy Dutch citizens during the Golden Age of Dutch painting, in the 1600s.  His namesake museum has many Hals paintings, plus work by other artists of his time.

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But my favorite piece in the Hals museum was the little oil painting of monkeys going bananas over tulips. It featured monkeys going crazy over tulips, and it was based on an all-too-true historical event. (In the Dutch Golden Age, they didn’t have Twitter or “Saturday Night Live”).

"A Satire of Tulip Mania" by Brueghel the Younger, Public Domain

“A Satire of Tulip Mania” by Brueghel the Younger, Public Domain

“A Satire of Tulip Mania,” by Breughel the Younger, was painted in 1640, just after the debacle of the tulip boom and bust cycle.  This was the seventeenth-century equivalent of the dot-com boom and bust, or the subprime mortgage boom and bust. It was probably the first modern instance of rampant speculation in a commodity, followed by a crash. At the height of the frenzy, a single tulip bulb sold for ten times the annual income of a skilled craftsman.

Brueghel dressed his gullible monkeys in contemporary clothes and showed them facing debtor’s court and even urinating on discarded tulips, turned from priceless to worthless overnight. Then as now, greed leads straight into monkey business.

Today the tulip trade is much more stable.  The museum had spectacular arrangements of tulips and other spring flowers in every room.

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I’m plotting a return trip to Holland–one where I can get out of the airport and into the tulips.

Easter Time in Helsinki


Helsinki in early April is chilly and blustery.  All the children are bundled up in one-piece snow suits. I was wishing I had one! Finland is not a place for religious pageantry and parades as in Southern Europe.


The Lutheran Helsinki Cathedral is impressive in its grand spaces, but very austere. Aside from Martin Luther gazing skyward, there’s not much to look at. And (at least on an admittedly quick stop) I didn’t see a children’s corner with little chairs, or posters about bake sales, or ladies dusting things, or a single clergy person.


The National Museum of Finland was a much more church-like experience. This pulpit is from the church in Parainen, Finland, dated 1650. At the time, Finland was a frontier to the west of Sweden–and very handy as a buffer between Sweden and Russia. Newly built churches were required to have pulpits. Lutheranism was the state religion of Sweden, and everybody was expected to sit still for it or else.


This pulpit is from the Kalvia Church, around 1726.  I like the cloudy heavens painted on its ceiling just above the preacher’s head.


Wait, there are hourglasses? Four of them? How long is this sermon going to be, anyway? Better not ask.


My favorite item was an altarpiece depicting the Last Supper. It’s from the Ylane Church, dated around 1675.


The faces are friendly and everyone is having a nice time together. There seem to be only 11 apostles. Apparently Judas has already left the building.


Jesus (with spiky sun-ray halo) seems to be holding a child in his lap. So the story is maybe doing double duty here: “Let the little children come unto me.”

The museum also had wonderful religious wood carvings dating back as far as the 1200s. I liked St. Martin on his horse, about to share his warm cloak with a beggar. He was carved and assembled from several pieces of wood around 1320.


I gazed for awhile at the Archangel Gabriel, carved and gilded around 1500.


Then I was back on the friendly but chilly streets of Helsinki, wishing I had a striped snowsuit and a red polka-dotted hat with flower ears.