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Spin the Globe: Susan Orlean in Copenhagen

AFAR chose a destination at random—by literally spinning a globe—and sent writer Susan Orlean on a spontaneous journey to Denmark.

While I was in Denmark, I was hoping to meet the Reindeer Man, a university student I’d read about who worships reindeer with such passion that he has taught himself to study, eat, and sleep wearing a set of antlers.

Unfortunately, the Reindeer Man was not responding to my emails. I was exasperated, but once I strolled down a pretty Copenhagen street and had a pastry, my disappointment faded. It is hard to stay angry in Copenhagen. Even bicycles in Denmark are designed to soften any blow. I rented a bike the day I arrived so I could join the crowds of Copenhageners tooling around town. Unlike the usual American bike with its bony seat and thin, hard tires, a typical street bike in Denmark has a big, fat seat and big, fat tires. The roads have rough spots, but my plump bike bounced over the potholes and ruts, landed with a little poof, then rolled on, and I barely felt a thing. In fact, if you were dropped by parachute into a foreign country without any warning, you would enjoy the softest of landings in Denmark. It is a nation of pink-cheeked people wearing modest but stylish clothing, who are bright and polite and accommodating and even willing—as I soon learned—to ferry a near stranger around in their child’s bicycle seat, so the near stranger could see the less traveled parts of town.

Denmark is supposedly the most contented nation on earth, and it is certainly one of the most prosperous ones, but I was set on finding its sharp edges. After taking my bike for a cruise through downtown Copenhagen, I rode to Christiania, a neighborhood claimed in 1971 by squatters as a zone where cars were not tolerated but marijuana was. It was a beautiful, cool day, the pale yellow buildings outlined against the sharp blue sky, the red Danish flags snapping in the breeze as I rode by. Most of Copenhagen is right angles, a grid of streets, a geometry of neutral colors, but Christiania is all curves, a snarl of walkways and walls that curl like dragon’s tails, splashed with bright brassy paint.

I left my bike at the side of the road and meandered down the footpaths to an open-air café filled with beer drinkers and pot smokers. I found a spot on a rusted bench near a young man with a clumpy beard who was sitting at a card table selling pot. I asked him how business was. “Good,” he said, grinning. “It’s always good.” A group of three girls lined up at his table, fingering the joints and whispering to each other while they made their selections. The salesman recorded each transaction in a black Filofax, and after they paid and left, he tidied his display signs for SUPERMIX and BEST HASH with the eager fastidiousness of a librarian. Even in snaggly, ragtag Christiania, the cheery efficiency of Denmark seems to have its place.

Friends of friends of mine live in Copenhagen, and they offered to meet me the following day, determined to further satisfy my urge to find the less usual side of the city. “How will we get around?” I asked Thomas, a Web developer, who had proposed the tour. He assured me that “arrangements” would be made, and by that I assumed he meant a car. Instead, when I met up with Thomas and his friend Nadja, an art director, they were both in business clothes but on bicycles. I, in the meantime, was on foot. Thomas, who has a sly smile and rumpled, mad-scientist hair, motioned to the children’s bike trailer hitched to his front wheel. “Your chariot,” he said, pointing. I sized it up, wondering whether I’d even fit, and if I did, whether I would be a laughingstock. “Oh, no!” Nadja said. “People here are used to … everything.” With a little help from Thomas, I settled into the trailer and we set off. It was the end of the workday, and hundreds of commuters were pedaling by. I got a look or two, but not a single double take.

Our first stop was Nørrebro, a neighborhood north of the central city, part gentrified, part ethnic mishmash, part old-school radical outpost. Thomas slowed in the middle of Hørsholmsgade Street, to point out the spot where demonstrators protesting housing and employment conditions had held forth for months at a time in the ’70s, burning a mountain of furniture and wood scraps and blocking traffic. A few blocks beyond, we stopped in a small café outfitted with beat-up tables, tipsy lamps, and a variety of framed photos, including shots of the Nørrebro protesters’ burning pile, the jubilant crowds at the crumbling Berlin Wall, and, in close-up, graffiti reading, “I always feel like shoplifting.” Nadja noticed me examining the pictures. “A rogues’ gallery,” she said. “We might not look like it, but we Danes do appreciate a little anarchy.”

In fact, I would soon realize that as mild and well-mannered as the Danes seemed to me, they are viewed as a little crazy, a little libertine, by the rest of Scandinavia. The day after my bike tour with Thomas and Nadja, I took the train from Copenhagen across the Øresund Link bridge to Malmö, Sweden. Malmö intrigued me: It has the Turning Torso, the tallest building in Scandinavia; it has the empty shell of Kockums, at one time among the largest shipyards in the world. The man seated next to me on the train—a silver-haired Swedish steel broker, elegant and genteel—asked me how I had liked Denmark. When I said I found it a little conservative he widened his eyes and laughed. “Poor Denmark,” he said. “It’s really very loose. Very …” His voice trailed off and he shook his head.

When we arrived in Malmö, I hired a car to take a tour of the city. My driver was a garrulous Turk who had immigrated to Sweden 20 years earlier. He proudly showed me the workings of the bridge, which has transformed travel from Malmö to Copenhagen: Instead of a rough and unreliable ferry ride, today it’s a quick train trip. I asked him if he traveled to Copenhagen often, since it was now so easy. “No, never,” he said. “You see, the only reason people go to Denmark is, really, to see girls lift up their shirts and that sort of thing.” He glanced in his rearview mirror at me and added, “That’s not for me.”

At this point in my trip, I had given up all hope of meeting the Reindeer Man and decided instead to visit the domain of another eccentric, Swedish artist Lars Vilks, who established what he calls “the micro-nation of Ladonia” in 1996. Ladonia consists of four of Vilks’s driftwood sculptures and the ground where they stand in the Kullaberg Nature Reserve, about an hour and a half northwest of Malmö. The towering sculptures violate local building codes, but Vilks refuses to tear them down; instead, he has declared the sculptures and the single square kilometer around them a sovereign nation. Ladonia has no ordinary citizens, but it does have a king and queen, the Royal Ladonian Army, and 67 zip codes. It’s all presented with such lack of irony that a few years ago 4,000 Pakistanis, believing they’d discovered an attractive new homeland, applied for Ladonian visas and immigrant status.

To get to Ladonia, I had been told by another Danish friend to follow yellow arrows painted on the trees. I did see a few at the entrance to the preserve, where I parked my rental car, but after a while they appeared less and less frequently. The Kullaberg woods are woolly with evergreens and damp underfoot. After two hours, my feet were aching, I couldn’t find any more yellow arrows, and a black wind had boiled up, pushing a wedge of angry clouds in my direction. I couldn’t remember which way I had come, but I turned and pounded up the nearest hill as fast as I could, the prospect of a night alone in a rainstorm in an imaginary nation on the coast of Sweden much more vivid and undesirable than my letdown at not quite finding Ladonia. I was rain-soaked by the time I found my car and happy to return to sane, secure Malmö for a hot meal. The notion of the soft landing had finally won me over. When I told my Danish friend that I’d never quite made it to Ladonia, he laughed and said, “That’s OK. I think it’s mostly a state of mind.”