Archive for the ‘ Scandinavia ’ Category





Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2008. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.

abstract: More than one city in Europe fancies itself being Venice of the North. About two decades ago, I was in Belgium’s Bruges, a famous contender. It was charming, but in the fog of November, not exactly Venice. Stockholm, under the magical Northern light of the sun in the summer of 2008, gave pleasure comparable to Venice. Perhaps even more, because the waters that surround the 14 islands which make up Stockholm were immaculately clean. There was also music in the air, and magnificent architecture to tell an intriguing history. You took ferries for public transportation. The rest of the time, you floated in the languor of the place.


The Approach from the Country

We drove toward Stockholm through Varmland. This wooded vacation region in the south of Sweden has long been a favorite of the country’s classical music composers. As our guide played a CD of their music, I read on the jacket what they aimed to evoke: “melancholy, magical summer nights with their unique flavour of Nordic music.” The melancholy was due to the acute knowledge that the summer season would be short and followed by the dark and cold winter. These composers are not well-known outside of Sweden, our guide said as she told us their names: Tor Aublin, Albert Lofgrens, Per Grundstrom. I noted that there was a common strain of marching band music in the sample of their works. The guide said, “Yes, we have had a lot of wars!”

Sweden’s last war was the 1814 military enforcement of its union with Norway. Less than a hundred years later the two countries signed an agreement to dissolve the union in Karlstad, the town we were now entering. To sustain a credible policy of neutrality, Sweden has since continued to produce military goods and weapons, and to require compulsory military training of all its men. It has used its forces, however, only to help in international peacekeeping efforts. The Swedish diplomat, Count Folke Bernadotte, was the United Nation’s first mediator in the Arab-Israeli conflict. He lost his life in 1948 while performing that duty. I was reminded of that as we exited from the bus to have lunch in Karlstad: across the parking lot we saw a huge military surplus store, curiously with an old Israeli MIG in front of it.

“The Swedes, unlike their neighbors the Danes and Norwegians, take their lunch seriously; they are not content with a sandwich,” our guide said as she led us into a restaurant to have the traditional dish: kottbullar (Swedish meatballs), served with mashed potatoes and lingonberry sauce. The restaurant was at the edge of the Vänern, Sweden’s largest lake. On the terrace guests were enjoying the sun. Karlstad claims to be the sunniest town in the country. This is not just for its sunshine. A local waitress also takes credit. She is known in Sweden as “Sola i Karlstad” (Sun in Karlstad) for her sunny disposition. A statue of her stands in the proud town as an acknowledgment of her contributions. Affixed at the door that opened to the terrace of the restaurant I noticed a bar with several colored yardsticks . I asked our waitress what it was. She said “this is here so that when we have a robber, we would know how tall he is.” Karlstad’s concerns are modest; strict gun control measures have effectively restricted criminals’ lethal weapons to knives.

Swedes in the World

Swedish meatballs are among the best selling products of IKEA, our guide said, as we drove by the largest IKEA store in the world, some 25 Kilometers west of Stockholm. IKEA is, of course, famous for its other products, mostly easy to assemble low-cost furniture. As our guide expounded on the lure, IKEA’s founder, Ingi Karafa, began his career at the age of 8 by selling farmers individual matches from a box which he bought from stores. At 16 he began transporting furniture to those farmers. This led to purchasing a furniture warehouse. Soon he asked the carpenters not to assemble the furniture so as to make transporting them easier. Instead, he asked that assembling them be made so simple that the buyers could do it themselves. Karafa has been mindful of aesthetics. IKEA’s designers have virtually trademarked “Spartan” and “clean-lines” for Swedish furniture the world over. Karafa has become the richest man in Sweden. He still works, however, and he is famously frugal. Our guide said.  “He uses public transportation. He has dedicated all his fortune to philanthropy.”

The name of another exceptionally wealthy Swede who left his fortune for good causes is far more well-known abroad. As our guide told his story, Alfred Nobel, who accidentally invented dynamite, was still living in Paris when a French newspaper prematurely announced that “the merchant of death has died.” This so shocked Nobel -who in fact had made more money out of his investment in the oil fields of Batum, Azerbaijan- that he decided to give his estate as an endowment for prizes in “practical fields of human endeavor.” Not trusting lawyers, Nobel wrote his own Will which not surprisingly contained ambiguities. While it is clear enough about the four areas of physical sciences, chemistry, medicine and peace, the Will’s intentions about one more prize, literature, “has been controversial.”

The Peace Prize is given in Oslo because Nobel thought that Norway (still in a Union with Sweden) was more peace-loving. The others are granted on the same day, December 10, at a dinner ceremony in the Blue Room of Stockholm’s Town Hall. I noticed that the color of the Blue Room was in fact not blue; the architect had changed his mind. The lectern for speeches by the laureates was there, covered by a cloth. Smaller in size but more worldly in appearance was the Gold Room of the Town Hall where dancing takes place on the evening that the Prizes are granted. This room is decorated with Byzantine style mosaics and murals depicting the Statue of Liberty, elephants from the East, and other symbols from distant lands.

Stockholm’s nod to the rest of the world was on display also on its streets. Going north on the main shopping street Drottninggatan, I noted that many of the shopkeepers were not blonde. There was a Middle Eastern Kebob café. Several souvenir stores were run by Indians. In one of them, an Indian man circled around anxiously watching out for shoplifters. On the window of several shops there was a picture of a person with cards spread in front of him on the ground. The caption was a warning: “Gambling is Illegal!” Presently, I saw such a con-man with a small crowd of recently arrived tourists from the East. They still had their luggage with them. Soon, the man was gone and one of the women tourists was screaming that he had cheated her.

At the end of the block young women and men with punk hairdos were idly lounging on the steps of a large concave open space . Near a restaurant, a woman in a red dress and high heels was sitting on a chair as she sang Fado. She had to stop when a young man playing an accordion and singing French songs strolled by. Going south, I saw a grey haired man playing an accordion, accompanied by a woman singer. I asked where they were from. “White Russians,” the woman said.

Sweden has increasingly grown out of its homogenous past. More than 20% of its population is now foreign-born or have at least one non-Swedish parent. Internationalization has touched the very symbols of Sweden. Painted wooden horses from Dalarna have long been a favorite souvenir from Sweden. They enjoy a measure of authenticity as originally they were hand carved and hand painted by the hungry children of farmers who offered them in exchange for food. In Stockholm’s main tourist office they had run out of the small size which I wanted. “We are sold out. We have put the order in but the workers have been on vacation and we will not get them for another 2 weeks,” I was told. Many stores carried replicas of the horses at a cheaper price. I was advised, however, that they were made in China.

The Shaping of a City

Stockholm began as a trading post in Birka, a town the Vikings established on an island in Lake Malaren. In the 13th century the German merchants of the Hanseatic League expanded it at its present site of the Old Town (Gama Stan). The Danes challenged the League and seized control of the place, but their tax policies caused the peasants and miners to revolt, our guide said. Christian II of Denmark invaded and crowned himself the king of Sweden in 1520. In the process he executed about one hundred prominent local citizens whom he had invited as his guests. The Stockholm blood bath took place at Stortorget Square in the Old Town, which is still considered the heart of the city. In a konditori (bakery café) on one corner of the Square, we sat for a sandwich (smorgas), contemplating Stortorget’s colorful history. Gustav Vasa, a noble man escaped from Christian’s clutch, and fled on skis with some followers. They soon came back and expelled the Danes with the help of peasants and miners. Gustav established the Swedish state and crowned himself as King Gustav I in 1523.

I could see the Palace of Sweden’s Kings (Kungliga Slottet) just beyond the Square. With 608 rooms it is the largest royal palace in the world. The incumbent, however, is not Gustav’s descendant. The power of that dynasty was later curtailed by the parliament and its last king was assassinated by the nobility in 1792. The Parliament Building was just one block away, as was the Knights’ House where the Swedish noble families used to meet.

The German influence was prominent in the elegant 17th and 18th century buildings that lined Stortorget. The German Church was nearby. The building dominating the square, however, was the Stock Exchange. Commercial transactions take place on the ground floor. The Swedish Royal Academy that selects the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature meets on the second floor, completing this remarkably compact arrangement of the nerve centers of Stockholm.

There was, however, more than enough space for tourists here. The Old Town is a favorite not only of the cruise ship travelers but such luminaries as former U.S.  President Bill Clinton, whose picture was on display at the window of a small shop with his arms around the owners’ shoulders.

In fact, the Swedes themselves were to be found more on the other islands of Stockholm. The King only accommodates his guests in Kungliga Slottet; his own residence is elsewhere, in Drottningholm Palace. From the late 19th century, the richest families of Stockholm began to build mansions in Strandvagen Street on the East Island. For the common folks, the favorite place to gather is a garden (Kungstradgarden) on the North Island which is affectionately dubbed Stockholm’s living room.

On the other corner of this same island we saw the more physically active residents jogging. “Many of these are members of the ‘fresh and sweaty’ clubs which are promoted as the best way to make people fit,” our guide said. On this warm day, there were also some swimmers in Lake Malaren.. At one time, this lake was so polluted and marshy that the word Malaria is said to have come from it, we were told. Now it looked pristine. We saw sunbathers on the cliff of another island, Langholmen, pretty with its leafy willow trees and coves.

I took the ferry to the old royal hunting grounds (Djurgarden) which houses both the Vasa Museum and the Grona Lund Funfair , a venue for open-air concerts. The ferry attendant was in a good mood. He declined to take my payment for the fair. “This is a fine sunny day,” he beamed as the explanation. The Vasa was the largest ship ever built in Sweden, meant to show the power of King Gustav Vasa in the Baltic. Unfortunately it sank about 30 minutes after it was launched in 1620, on a day, reportedly, as fine as today which made all citizens of Stockholm come and celebrate the occasion. The Vasa was discovered and retrieved 333 years later and showcased again in the museum. This has redeemed its original purpose in a sense, since the Vasa is now one of the most popular tourist attractions in Stockholm.

I followed the sound to the concert grounds in Djurgarden. The sole vendor selling lamb hotdogs with garlic sauce and lukewarm Gold Bohemian beer from the Czech Republic was doing a brisk business. I sat with the crowd on the grassy slope of a gentle mound with our backs to the stage as the front slope had already been taken full. Two women near me were eating chips from a bag that was labeled “Exotic Junk.” Another woman was absorbed in a book she was reading.  The music sounded familiarly melancholic. I walked over and saw a vocalist and a guitar player enjoy the rapt attention of those who could see them.

This was a free concert. The followers of ABBA might have preferred the livelier annual Stockholm Jazz Festival. There was a long line for tickets at 500 Kroners ($80) at one venue on the island of Skeppsholm. I headed for a more established venue, Mosebacke Etablissement. As the posters indicated “Robyn” had played there in June; and the head liners for August were a group called the “True Dollar Plus Moon Suck.”

Of Elements and Legends

Mosebacke is located on Sodermalm which is Stockholm’s largest island, but which retains the ambiance of a small town. The ferry that I took to Sodermalm plowed through blue waters which sparkled under the sun, presenting the best view yet of the city’s waterfront buildings. When clouds suddenly appeared, the scenery changed dramatically; the clouds became my focus. They were various hues of grey . They moved swiftly but did not fill the sky. They shaded some coasts, leaving others exposed. This was the closest I came to seeing Stockholm’s Northern light that has delighted generations of painters.

Disembarking at the Slussen dock in the Old Town which was congested with lunch hour local pedestrians, I pushed my way to the old elevator Katarinahissen. It took me to the Heights of Sodermalm. Here at the Mosebacketorg Square two art students were making drawings of the sculptures. Walking through the restaurant on the corner, I went to the Mosebacke terrace where I saw ships that were sailing toward Helsinki and an old yacht which was now used as a hostel anchored on the shore below facing me . The restaurant was serving dagens ratt, a fixed price lunch. I took mine from the cook at the counter and joined the guests on the terrace.

The clouds from the south now grew dark. It started to drizzle. Some of us braved the light rain as the umbrellas protected us. The increasingly darkened terrace was now a romantic tableau, more like Paris in the fall. I would have stayed longer if it were not for the fact that I was now soaked by the downpour. On the way inside I saw the cook grinning at the changed vista. I nodded to him. “Stockholm’s summer,” he shook his head.

Inside, the walls of Mosebacke Etablissement were covered with pictures of contemporary actors who had performed in many plays here. Ingmar Bergman’s turf was across the lake in the National Theater . The posters there showed a chuckling face performing the leading role in the current production of Hamlet -true to the form of Bergman himself the tragedy was presented more as a psychological conundrum. Greta Garbo, however, was a child of Sodermalm. A small square is named after her, hidden just a few blocks away. In between was the Hacklefjall district, with neat 19th century houses and lampposts and a beautiful yellow 17th century Katarina church with its baroque dome. A local resident was eager to tell me that this area was both the last Station of Cross of the religious processions in the Middle Ages, and where centuries later it was thought that witches met. Alleged witches were tried around this church in the 1670s and imprisoned in what is now the Museum of the City of Stockholm down below on the island.

A more recent Stockholm legend was that of Desire, the sister of Josephine, Napoleon’s wife. As our guide said, she was the great man’s first love but ended up marrying instead Napoleon’s general, Jean Baptiste Bernadotte. The General was asked by the Swedes in 1814 to take over the throne when their dying king left no heir. He accepted and it is his dynasty that has reigned since. Bernadotte changed his name to Karl Johan, but he never learned Swedish. The language of his court was French. Desire did not even like to live in Sweden, considering it far too provincial compared to Paris, our guide explained. “When she was finally persuaded to come to her husband’s adopted realm, she developed a life style that consisted of sleeping all day and riding around in Stockholm’s snowy streets at night, lit at her order by thousands of candles.”

We could not match that. We had heard, however, of Stockholm’s Ice Bars which replicated the scenes found at the Ice Hotels of northern Sweden, greatly popular with a population that apparently could not live too long without ice and snow. We waited a long time to get into the Ice Bar which was in the lobby of a hotel. Only a group of about 20 were allowed in at a time for a period of half an hour. We were given “Sami ski suits” to wear, which were heavy parkas with fur lining and hoods and gloves. The walls of the small bar room were made of ice, as were the tables and the drinking glasses. Absolut Vodka mixed with a variety of juices was served at some $30 a glass. The lingonberry juice was our choice. I asked what was the most popular with the Swedish customers. The bartender said Vodka with tropical pineapple juice.


­­­­­­­­­This article entitled Northern Light: Stockholm’s Summer was published on the Website of on January 19, 2009, with related pictures.

Circling Norway’s Fjords


Circling Norway’s Fjords 


                        Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2008 All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.             


abstract:  I came to Norway with certain predilections. They were mostly based on reading about the country and personal encounters with a few Norwegians. Two were especially memorable. A budding journalist attended a summer school with me in college and a veteran diplomat shared a l with me last panel year to discuss international relations. In the fifty years that separated these two meetings, as the saying goes, “Ekofisk changed Norway.” The discovery of oil in that offshore field in 1969 has transformed Norway from a small, poor, and almost inconsequential country to a very rich state that often plays an active, generous role in global peace projects. The image of Norwegian as a people has undergone a commensurate transformation. Once known as frugal farmers and fishermen, Norwegians are now considered masters of energy production and environment. Norway has also become a renowned destination for paying homage to the aesthetics of nature. I decided to go when I saw a photographic exhibit of its magnificent fjords. I hoped this would also be a journey of discovery, helping to anchor my predilections. Some embellished stories I could not verify but I have incorporated them in this account as they are folklore.


On water’s edge


            “It is not any cheaper in Denmark,” the chic Norwegian woman told me. We were standing on the deck of the ship that was pushing away from the harbor in Copenhagen toward Oslo. Below us the Jacuzzi was already jammed with young women and men. She had come with three of her children for a weekend in Copenhagen. The recent riches of Norway, due to its abundant oil and gas, were proverbial this summer in Scandinavia. Perhaps she was defensive. Presently, we talked about another aspect of her society. “I recently had a stomach problem and I am very satisfied at the way the public health care system took care of me.” To that extent, Norway’s wealth was spent equitably. Then she asked me about Barak Obama.

            The horizon seemed unlimited. I considered the meaning of the word Scandinavia: islands on the perilous edge of the world. Behind us were windmills in the water lining the fading shores of Denmark. Connected to the continent, Denmark with its rich agriculture had long dominated its two neighbors Sweden and Norway. I was now sharing this part of the deck with a family from Denmark. It was the grandmother’s 75th birthday and they had all come to celebrate on this ship because her granddaughter “was in service” here as a waiter. I asked the grandmother what she wanted for her birthday. “Nothing. I have had everything I have wanted in life,” she smiled as her son  interpreted. He looked equally content. I asked him what he thought of Norway. “They should fix their roads,” was all he said.

            This was not a luxury liner. We had to pay for our own coffee and the entertainment consisted of a band trying to play country music. A man who was eating ice cream at a table next to me turned to say “I was in Florida and the country music was different.” He introduced himself as the Swedish driver of one of the tourist buses which were loaded on the ship.  I told him about the Danish man’s comment about the roads in Norway. “He was right, “ the Swede laughed. “Those roads are very narrow in the mountains. The Norwegians could afford to widen them. They are very wealthy.” He continued: “If their wealth were distributed everyone would get one million dollars. The very rich are very rich, but the middle class is OK too, and nobody is poor.”

     The next morning we woke up to a splendid view as we approached the Oslo fjord. This augured well for my ten day loop around the belly of Norway.


            We had been told about the strict enforcement of limits on the amount of liquor one could import to Norway. It had been a long time since I last thought “duty free” meant value. As we disembarked someone commented on the absence of customs officials. “They are around,” a “schoolmarmish” woman in her sixties responded. She turned out to be the guide who would show us the sites of Oslo. Many were right at the waterfront. There was the opera house that “some don’t like that much,” the monument to the Resistance in World War Two, and two poignantly empty chairs on a lawn “for our Jewish people who left in the war.”

            The guide pointed out, with a trace of prideful frugality, the tracks that carried Oslo’s trams: “we did not remove them as they did in Stockholm and Copenhagen. Now that the cost of energy is so high, they are sorry; it is very expensive to rebuild them.”

            For our first stop, she took us to the Viking Ship Museum. We were told that Scandinavia’s greatest impact on world history was made by the Vikings… The three ships in the museum had been taken out of the sea to be used on land as burial vassals for the wealthy. Kept in blue clay, they had been preserved since the 9th century. The Vikings supplied the coffins with belongings, including live servants, which they believed the deceased might need. These artifacts are valuable in teaching us about the Vikings. “However, our knowledge about the Vikings still rests largely on Muslim sources,” the guide said.

            From Sweden, beginning in 864 A.D., the Vikings sailed the rivers of Russia to the Caspian sea region where they came into contact with the Muslim people of Khazar. From there they proceeded to Gorgan in Persia and other points in the southern littoral of the Caspian. These Vikings came to be known as Rus since they arrived from the river Volga which the Persians called Rus – according to some scholars. Their expeditions ended by 1040 A.D. The name Rus, now generally applied to the Slavs of Russia, is still used in Scandinavia to refer to the Swedish Vikings.

            We have a detailed description of the Rus by the 10th century Arab diplomat, Ahmad ibn Fadlan, who met them in Volga Bulgaria:

I have never seen more perfect physical specimens, tall as date palms, blond and ruddy; they wear neither tunics nor caftans, but the men wear a garment which covers one side of the body and leaves a hand free. Each man has an axe, a sword, and a knife, and keeps each by him at all times. The swords are broad and grooved, of Frankish sort. Each woman wears on either breast a box of iron, silver, copper, or gold; the value of the box indicates the wealth of the husband. Each box has a ring from which hangs a knife. The women wear neck-rings of gold and silver. Their most prized ornaments are green glass beads. They string them as necklaces for their women.

His contemporary, the Persian explorer Ibn Rustah, added the following about the Rus:

They carry clean clothes and the men adorn themselves with bracelets and gold. They treat their slaves well and also they carry exquisite clothes, because they put great effort in trade….. They have a most friendly attitude towards foreigners and strangers who seek refuge.

            Our guide said: “while the Swedish Vikings were more interested in trade, the Norwegian Vikings, literally ‘men from the bay,’ were adventurers.” Their era effectively began with the sacking of the Lindisfarne monastery in England in 793 AD and ended with their defeat by the Scots in 1263. In the meantime they left their mark in France (Normandy which means Nordic men is named after them) and “there is proof that they landed in America –Newfoundland– some 500 years before Columbus.”

            The Norwegians continued their conquest of the seas even after the Vikings. The Fram Museum which we saw next housed that famous ship that was the first to go both to the South Pole and North Pole. Nets and lines discovered in rock-carvings indicate a tradition of fishing in Norway that dates back to the earliest people who arrived nearly 10,000 years ago. They were the ancestors of the present day Samis whose beliefs focused on the circle of life.

            It was this ancient concept, I found, that also unified the remarkable collection of some 192 contemporary sculptures in Oslo’s Viegland Park. Carved on stone by Gustov Viegland (1869-1843), they showed nearly every type of human emotion on models of all ages. They were all in nude to project universality.

            Oslo which has a population of 500,000, gives the impression of being a small town because almost all of its major buildings are around its main street, Karl Johangate.  There is a wide green area in the middle of this boulevard. I sat on a bench at its edge. The edifice of the law school was facing me; the national theater was behind me. On my right at one end of the boulevard was the parliament building and on my left, perched on a hill, was the king’s palace.

            All the big hotels were here too. The largest crowd I saw in Oslo was gathered around the entrance to the Grand Hotel, waiting for the American singer Bruce Springsteen to come out. Cameras were held up and kids were hoisted on shoulders. Two members of “Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band” with black T- shirts showing his face were sitting outdoors at the hotel’s venerable café, which once had been a favorite of the playwright Henrik Ibsen and the painter Edvard Munch. A few block away vendors were selling those T-shirts, spread on the ground. Next day at breakfast I saw a man wearing one of them. He had gone to the concert.  “40,000 people were in the old Stadium,” he said.

            I asked our hotel concierge if there was a local paper in English. “Due to supply and demand it is sporadic,” he said, “not enough English language speaking locals.” The cosmopolitan diversity of the eastern sections of Oslo occasionally showed on Johangate Street: a Middle Eastern man strolled with a group of women. Muslims are the largest religious minority in Norway, estimated to number 150,000. A side street led to the Noble Peace Center building, facing the 13th century fortifications which had been built against the threats from Sweden, then at war with Norway. Inside the Center the pictures of all the winners of the Peace Prize were on display. Alfred Noble directed that the Peace Prize be given in Norway which he believed was more peace-loving than Sweden, where the other Noble prizes are awarded.

            The Peace Prize is presented on December 10 in the lobby of the nearby Oslo City Hall, identified by the inscription “Hotel de Ville” at its entrance. On its front steps three boys were skate-boarding and on its side there was a display of panels about the Amazon rain forest. Under the picture of two naked children was a rhetorical plea for protection: “what will happen to them and their culture?”


            “The Norwegians love the outdoors,” our guide said. For them being on vacation means being in close contact with nature.  Many have little cottages in the country. By one account there are some 300,000 of these “Hittes”. Families go there for walks to pick berries and mushrooms. There is an ancient unwritten law of common access to all lands. One may camp, fish, or hunt on public and private properties. This right is limited only by common sense; one may not get too close to another’s backyard or trample on his cultivated land. Foreigners are equally entitled to such enjoyment.

            It is not difficult to understand Norway’s love affair with nature. The beauty of its countryside is diverse and captivating. It is mostly the work of glaciers. When a glacier reaches a certain thickness, its weight makes the ice at the bottom soften and melt. The water pushes a pile of sand, gravel, and rocks into a ridge, creating a lake in front of the glacier. Going West from Oslo, the green rolling hills we saw were dotted with lakes. There are over 65,000 lakes in Norway.

            Equally ubiquitous were the waterfalls.  They danced down almost vertically into the lush valleys and deep canyons. Several of the world’s highest waterfalls are in Norway. They are called the “white gold,” because they are the source of hydroelectric power that “keeps the lights bright” in Norway. No other nation uses as much electricity per capita as the Norwegians; they are the world’s sixth largest producer of hydro-power.

            Close to the waterfalls, the white “mountain cotton” flowers we saw on the sides of the road were reminders of traditional Norwegian life. “From the cotton of these plants the locals made shirts which the bride wore on her wedding day and thereafter on every Sunday and special occasion,” our guide said. “The bridal sheet proof,” she added, had been very much the custom. “Also, after their wedding the women were expected not to show their hair.” She paused and then continued “these are customs similar to what some of our new immigrants practice.”

            Just then we stepped out of the bus to see a souvenir shop run by the Samis. Most of the 4.6 million Norwegian are decedents of northern and central European tribes who arrived around 8,000 years ago. The 40,000 Samis are different. They came earlier from Siberia on the east, are related to the Innuit of Alaska, and speak a language similar to Finno-Hungarian.  Formerly called Lapps, the Samis are treated as the indigenous people of the far north. As such they enjoy special privileges. The Sami language is one of the two official languages of the Norway –along with Norwegian which is of the same family as Danish and Swedish, all derived from German. The Samis have their own flag with the circular symbol of sun and moon from their naturalistic tradition, in contrast to the cross of the Norwegian flag which reflects Christianity.

            An older Sami woman was sitting outside the shop in colorful clothes. “Those colors are not indigenous,” our guide said. “The Samis saw them on the French, in the Middle Ages, and borrowed them simply because they liked them.”  There are still some Samis in the north who lead a nomadic life, herding domesticated reindeer. This occupation was what brought them to Norway in the first place. Reindeer in the wild, however, now only roam further south, in the plateau of Hardangervidda, which we were approaching presently. Reindeer are adaptable to life in this mountainous area because they can withstand the extreme cold and wind of the winter by reserving fat during the summer. We did not see any reindeer. Instead, I noticed the presence of another hardy animal who could survive in harsh environments. High on the mountains where snow was still on the ground a man was selling “real goat cheese” -a favorite food of the Norwegians.

            We had now passed the “great divide” and the rivers were running west toward the Ocean. Here was the land of jagged mountains and the deep U-shaped valleys of the fjords carved by the glaciers. “When the melting ice of the glacier is not stopped by the ridge, it continues to the sea, forming a fjord,” our guide tried to put it simply. In further explaining the differences with a lake, she said “a fjord is at the sea level, in it are sea fish, on its banks are sea type vegetation, and it has saline water.”

            As we descended toward the Hardanger Fjord plants changed from lichen to bushes and then to birch trees. Because of the cold and the winds that tear and break the trees, nearly sixty percent of Norway is above tree level. On the edges of its Western fjords, however, there is an abundance of alder, elm, ash, hazel and oak. Hardanger Fjord is special as it is famous for its fruit trees. I saw cherry trees on the side of road with fruit almost ripe, and orchards with apples still green.

            In the little village of Ulvik I sat and looked at the fjord, and appreciated the ravings by the likes of National Geographic Magazine. A forested green mountain surrounded the crystal blue of the water as a most brilliant sun shone, causing reflections in the fjord of the orchards and red barns on the slopes. It was past ten that July evening. I strolled toward the old pub to meet the villagers. There was a family on the sidewalk, the man crouching down to teach his children a game with marbles and a chalk circle drawn on the ground.

To Bergen with Grieg

            As we drove from Ulvik to Bergen soon after dawn, our guide said that we had a companion of sort from the past. Edvard Grieg (1843-1907), Norway’s greatest classical composer frequently traveled on this same road and drew inspiration for much of his music from its magnificent landscape. His “Spring” and his piano concerto recall rushing waters and foaming waterfalls. Our guide now played Grieg’s Peer Gynt Sonatas from a CD with a jacket cover showing morning at the fjord. The first movement was “Morning Mood.”

            Grieg’s music is called “an essential element of Norwegian national identity.” Grieg developed the musical part of Norway’s Romanticism on the foundations of its folk music tradition which he traveled around the country to collect. That music had been brought to Norway by its sailors. It was largely “the commoners’ version of the dance music of Europe’s royal courts and nobles,” our guide said, mentioning the Polka. Two of Peer Gynt’s movements -Anitra’s Dance and Arabian Dance- further illustrated the point. “This music then went to America,” our guide said, “and folk dances became square dances in the U.S., and they came back to Norway and influenced our local dances.”

            In Bergen, there is a statue of the diminutive Grieg in a downtown park where young people were lounging in the sunshine. Equal in importance is another local musician: Ole Bull (1810-1880), a virtuoso violinist who was mainly self-taught. The statute of Bull playing his favorite fiddle stood not far from Grieg’s, showing in contrast his athletic built. The Hardanger fiddle is Norway’s special contribution, but its music also uses accordion, flute, and mouth harp. “In the Sami music they only play the drums,” our guide said.

            In the square that is named after Bull, Bergen’s “meeting place” is located. It is around the Blue Stone, an artistic reworking of a rock from Brazil.  Not that Bergen lacks rocks. The city’s old name was “the green meadow among mountains.” Its biggest yearly community event is the 34 kilometer hike covering seven mountains. “This year 6,000 participated,” our guide said. She also pointed to the cobblestone paving of the streets in central Bergen. “These have lasted four hundred years” the guide said as she dismissed those critics “who complained of the discomfort of driving on them.”

            The guide’s attitude seemed appropriate for this Viking seaport that was founded more than a thousand years ago and was Norway’s capital in the 12th and 13th century. Bergen’s “old-world atmosphere” contrasts with Oslo’s modern. Defying its second city status, Bergen appears self-contented. On the day I was there, however, its reputation for “grandeur” was belied by a widely advertised sale in the downtown stores that was to go on until one hour past midnight.

            Much of Bergen’s current fame is due to the “little wooden white houses with black roofs close to each other with very small gardens which are unique in Norway,” as our guide described them. Branded as a World Heritage district by UNESCO, they are from the days when Bergen was a part of the Hanseatic League. Those German merchants dominated trade in northern Europe during the late Middle Ages. We saw the stone foundations of some of their buildings which were constructed with timber and projected the austere conditions of their seamen inhabitants. Those were “hard working single men under six year contracts,” our guide said.

            I walked by a colorful row of the refurbished Hanseatic buildings that now house restaurants and shops on the eastern edge of Bergen’s inner harbor. On the other side of this long rectangular harbor was the outdoor fish market, priding itself as the largest in northern Europe. A vendor counted the variety of catch that came here: monkfish, green and blue mackerel, pink salmon, redfish, wolfish, halibut, crabs, lobster, and fish roe products.  I bought an open face salmon sandwich and sat at a table near the counter. Around me were a dozen fish stalls, and some others selling produce, flowers, and souvenirs.

            With a large University population, Bergen has its share of “International foods”. In evidence, around the harbor, were a McDonald’s as well as Chinese, Thai, Indian, and Lebanese restaurants. Our guide, however, directed us to a nearby local institution where the Hagelin sisters served traditional dishes such as white fish dumplings. “Our fish soup is better than the French bouillabaisse,” some brag in Bergen.

            I joined a crowd of local residents and tourists in the funicular that climbed to the top of the 320 meter Mt. Floyen. In a panoramic view, Bergen surprised me by how spread out it was around its several harbors in the Sogne Fjord.  Our guide later drove us to a more tranquil lookout on the other side of the town with a vista that included the countryside. A passerby told us that this was “the favorite lookout of the King.” Disregarding the majesty of the spectacle before us, our guide was now saying: “The rats that came in a ship to Bergen’s harbor in 1349 brought the bubonic plague, called Black Death, that eventually killed the old royal family and up to two thirds of all other Norwegians.”

Vos’s fame

            Bergen’s Hanseatic wharf used to be called the “German” wharf, but that name was dropped after World War II. Another change occasioned in Norway by that war was the temporary reinstatement of capital punishment so that Vidkun Quisling who had collaborated as Minister-President with Nazi Germany could be executed. “Independent of politics, a number of Norwegian girls married the invading German soldiers simply because they fell in love with them,” our guide said. After the war, Norwegians were hostile toward these women. “Their hair was cut. Their children were sent to Sweden. Now they are suing Norway for that treatment.”

            Norway attempted to stay neutral but was attacked and occupied by Germany in 1940. “An active Resistance movement was made possible in Norway by the fact that it was mountainous and there were few roads,” the guide continued as we approached Vos. “This town was bombed by the Nazis in retaliation for the Resistance.” The drab buildings which we now saw were the housing projects constructed in haste after the war.

            A sign on an ordinary general store, “Rockne,” indicated that it belonged to the family of Knute Rockne, the famous American football coach. Playing the role of the Gipper in a movie about Rockne gave President Ronald Reagan his lifetime nickname of “The Gipper.”  “Not many in Norway are aware of this,” our guide said. She invited us to drink Vos’s tap water, its current claim to fame: “This is bottled and sold in the U.S. as exclusive water.”

History as objet d’arts

            It was another world leader who put the village of Balestrand in history books. Kaiser Wilhelm II loved to spend his summers here. In August 1914 when the war broke out, the Norwegian government gave him an ultimatum to leave before six that evening. The Kaiser stayed until the last minute, sipping tea in Kvikne’s Hotel. In the grand lobby of that 19th Century timber hotel , I flipped over the cushion of the Kaiser’s chair and saw his name inscribed on the back; it was dated 1911. Not far away was another chair which had been favored by Norway’s most famous landscape painter, J. C. Dahl (1788-1857) as he sat contemplating the unsurpassed pallet of this place where green orchards filled in the slopes between the snow-capped mountains and the azure of Sogne Fjord.

            The line between history and art fades in Balestrand. “When Norway’s King recently came for a visit, he asked that Bjorg, a local artist, give him a tour of the historic buildings of the village, ignoring the loud protestation of the local historical society,” Bjorg’s friend told us. Naturally, our group asked for Bjorg’s tour. She showed up in full local costume, holding some old pictures. She took us on a walk. “Here are the steps that the Kaiser climbed when he disembarked from his ship,” Bjorg pointed to several concrete slabs connecting the Fjord to the embankment. A few yards further we stopped at a tree trunk near the Kvikne’s. “When they cut this tree, I came and counted the circles and concluded that Ole Kvikne, the founder of the hotel, planted it himself,” Bjorg said.

            History was a series of object d’arts. In succession Bjorg took us to the Viking mound where the Kaiser had erected a statute honoring King Bele of the Norwegian sagas; an English Stave church -which had been built “because most of the earlier tourists were from England;”  an old shack that “used to be a storage house,” [19] a kiosk that once had been “an ice cream parlor;” a house with add-ons which “was expanded repeatedly as the owners’ fourteen children were born;” and the new hilltop mansion of the current owner of the Kvikne’s Hotel. Ole Kvikne was the second son of a farmer nearby. The first son inherited the farm and the third, Knut, went to the United States.  Knut later came back and was given a position in the management of the hotel by his brother, but no share in ownership. “The hotel has stayed with Ole’s children for five generations now,” Bjorg said. “I love to tell the history of this town’s buildings.”

            This was not all of Bjorg’s talents. She interspersed her tour with four folk songs about Norway in her soothing voice, introducing each with a short English translation. The common theme, as she summed up, was that “a Norwegian is a person who lives through the dark and cold of November with the hope that spring will come eventually and lilacs will bloom in May.”  She added, “Norwegian are proud of their country; and they are a proud people, and stubborn.”

            Bjorg’s gallery displayed her romantic watercolors. I asked her what attracted her to Balestrand. She said, “the mountain, glacier, and the mild and cold climates.” She had come to Balestrand to teach. She sang at her church and “on special occasions.” The day before she had sung at the “funeral of a special friend -he was autistic, but the nicest person- at that church,” she pointed to a building in the village across the water on the other bank. There, the Norwegian flags were at half mast. “This is what they do; all villagers fly their flags at half mast when one of them dies.”

            Our guide said on tombstones in Norway “you often see the inscription takk for alt which means thank you for everything.” She continued: “The Norwegians say thanks a lot. After dinner, the guest does not say, ‘the food was delicious;’ he says ‘thank you for the food.’“ In the guide’s view, this related to the harsh conditions that poor farmers once faced: “food was scarce.” On the other hand, “there is what might appear rude behavior in some cultures,” she said: “the Norwegians shove their way through in line waiting for the bus; they want you to get out of their way.” She thought that this might be due to “their upbringing under the Social Democratic regime of the recent past.”          

            In duly orderly single file we now climbed the narrow stairway to the attic of Bjorg’s gallery to see an “installation” by her English partner. This was the interior version of Bjorg’s exterior tour: a collection of curio items gathered to tell quirky stories about Balestrand’s history. The artist showed us a picture of the Kvikne relative who had built this building, with two women standing next to him. “He died soon afterward, one of the women a few years later, and the other lasted till 100.” There was a big wheel-lift that had been used “to bring the supplies up when this place was a general store.” Next there was a picture of Hitler on a boat visiting the town. “He did not land but said ‘this will be mine’.” There was a 1966 TV which “still” worked. The most recent relic was a Rubik’s Cube from the 1980s.

Huldra of the Flam Train

            The Norwegian sagas that produced the legend of Balestrand’s Bele -the Fylke King (independent chief) of the Sogn district- also gave rise to tales about the Huldras and Trolls. While Trolls who are male lived in the seemingly unreachable mountains, the female Huldras lived in the mysteriously dense forests. “A Huldra is a stunningly beautiful woman but she has a cow’s tail,” our guide said. We saw her perform from the distance when the Flam train -the steepest in Europe, climbing 866 meters in 20.2 kilometers- stopped at a roaring waterfall which gushed through the trees. The Huldra danced to the sound of the water amplified by clashing music. “This Huldra is trying to seduce a Christian man,” our guide said. “The problem is that although she is very young looking, in fact she is several centuries old, and if she drops her cow-tail to be like humans she would look her age and lose her appeal to the man.”

            The Huldras and Trolls are from cult practices of worshiping forefathers in sacred groves and on grave mounds which lasted in Norway until the 11th Century. To diminish the hold of that tradition, the new religion, Christianity, degraded not only the Huldras but also the Trolls who have came to be depicted as stupid, ugly, and always losing when they threaten humans. Especially effective against this threat are said to be Christian symbols: Church bells, a cross, and words like Jesus and Christ.

The Originals

            In the hamlet of Skei, we “raised our bowls in honor of Odin,” as we said “skol!” In Norwegian mythology Odin was the Lord of all gods and humans, and the Vikings toasted him as they drank mead out of their vanquished enemy’s skull. Skei is the site of a big roadside shop, famous for a demonstration of weaving by the local farmers. They were not there today. The owner also told me that “frankly” the pewter figurine of the Viking I had chosen was not made in Norway. I liked it, nonetheless, because of a disheveled, inebriated look on his face pondering the emptied bowl in his hand.

            “These sweaters are all made in Norway, however,” the shop-owner assured me. The variety of their designs was astounding. “Each design represents a different village,” she explained. “As you see, they are very heavy. This was for a purpose: the sailors who wore them wanted to sink quickly if their ship was wrecked on the sea. And the specific design of their sweaters would ensure that their bodies, once discovered, would be sent to their home village for burial.”

            If the seamen who sailed Norway’s waters were farmers, it was evident that the farmers also ruled the land as we climbed toward the Briksdalsbreen glaciers. Their cooperative, the Oldeen Dallen Skyss Association controlled access to the glacier by providing transportation. “They used horses before but in an accident one horse went off the cliff and took the others, hurting many tourists. The road was closed,” our guide said. “But soon the farmers came up with a solution. Why not use a smaller version of their farming tractors? Norwegian farmers are very enterprising,” she concluded.

            I sat next to the driver in the John Deer tractor that pulled several open cabins as we crisscrossed the mountains. “Isn’t it beautiful?” I said more as an exclamation about the scenery surrounding us. “I don’t know, I live here,” was the driver’s matter of fact response. I asked him if he owned the tractor. He nodded, saying that he was a shareholder in the cooperative. The tractors operated from May to September. The rest of the time he was a farmer, “raising goats.” I asked if he took any vacation. “Yes, in October.” He had gone to the Canary Islands once but to Cyprus three times. “Because the kids like it,” he explained. In front of us, a chunk of ice fell with a thump from under the glacier which was turquoise as the density of its mass only allowed the blue to escape.

UNESCO’s Fjord

            The farmers are also credited for taking “the initiative” to build the road that “zips up 4000 feet” from the Geiranger Fjord in hairpin curves.  This is “a marvel of engineering which received a prize at the international event where the Eiffel Tower was similarly honored,” we were told by the manager of the Union Hotel in the hamlet of Geiranger.  He was showing us the hotel’s own proud possession: a collection of old cars, Studebaker, Buick, Opel and Cadillac, some dating back to the 1920s, which once ferried tourists on that road. The first foreign visitors arrived in 1869. The Danish king ruled this area then and “he agreed not to tax the farmers in return for their maintaining the road.”

            The international appeal of the Geiranger Fjord has been such that UNESCO has called it a World Heritage site.  We took the ferry and at a point where the Fjord splits from Sunnylvsfjorden to continue its narrow path between towering twisting walls for another ten miles, we saw the first of several old abandoned farms that clung to the cliffs. They seemed impossible to reach, let alone to cultivate. “The farmers used this inaccessibility to their advantage” our guide said. “They would pull up the ladder to prevent the tax collector from reaching them.” The tourist industry has since given the more dramatic of the waterfalls that once supplied these farms such accessible names as the Seven Sisters, the Suitor, and the Bridal Veil.

Cold Mountain Athletes

            Long before winning the Noble Prize for Peace, Fridtjof Nansen made himself an iconic figure in Norway by skiing 500 kilometers to Oslo from Bergen in 1884 to compete in a ski jumping competition. The many tunnels which have since been dug in the “long mountains” that Nansen had to traverse not only made our trip much easier by bus, but have also won Norway a special place in the road building industry.  There were 40 tunnels in the 100 kilometers between Bergen and Voss alone. Norway’s longest tunnel stretches for 24.5 kilometers. Norway “custom designs the tunnel and exports this technology,” we were informed.

            For exact numbers our guide often consulted a little book, published by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign affairs, entitled Minifacts. The “mini” in that misnomer inadvertently projected a broader concept of true national modesty. With all their vast means, the Norwegians were conspicuous in their restrained consumption. The roads were virtually empty of cars, save for tourist buses.  There are only 2 million private cars in the country. Norway does not produce them and it imposes an import tax twice their cost of purchase. I found that Norwegian gasoline was sold at a lower price across the border in Swedish stations. Norway is conscious of the damage that its exported oil and gas cause to the environment in the rest of the world, while its own immediate space is kept clean. It is almost unique in its earnest support for such global climate control measures as the Kyoto Convention.

            The Norwegians are proud of the special efforts they took to make the1994 Olympics in Lillehammer an example of environmental responsibly. Most of the structures were constructed to be mobile and reusable. None existed for us to see, as they had already been moved elsewhere for repeated use. Norway’s continued enthusiasm for ski jumping was in evidence as we witnessed teams practicing on the Olympics slopes which were grassy in this summer season.  Mjosa, Norway’s largest lake that had been used as a frozen parking lot during the games looked pristine in the distance.

            The same could not be said about Storgata, Lillehammer’s main street which the Olympics had made world-famous. It now was two blocks full of tourists buying trinkets as souvenirs. “The people of Lillehammer all had hoped to get rich by opening new shops during the Olympics, but the government put a cap on the prices they could charge as it wanted to encourage visitors,” our guide said. “Nevertheless, everyone was excited and we cheered the athletes from all nations except, of course, the Swedes, our perennial rivals,” the guide continued. “When the Olympics were over, there was a let down. The city hired psychologists to help treat the citizens.” 

            Oslo’s venerable Holmenkollen ski jump projected happier memories. Here was the sculpture of a contented veteran, the late King Olaf on skis with one of his five dogs, all named Troll.


­­­­­­­­­This article entitled Oil Can be a Blessing:  Circling Norway’s Magnificent Fjords was published on the Website of on November 24, 2008, with related pictures.

Sunday in Copenhagen



Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2008. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.


abstract: Copenhagen always had a special place in my imagination.  It was the first city I saw in the Western world.  My visit was brief; several hours between flights gave us an opportunity just to see Tivoli and the City Hall square. That was decades ago.  Going there for the second time this summer, I found myself looking for more than what I remembered.  My observations were framed by curiosity about several Danish phenomena.  What accounts for the Danes’ reputation as the happiest people in the world?  Why are they at the epicenter of the bunker mentality against immigration?  What happens to a country when it is no longer an empire?  What could a  nation of five and a half  million contribute to global civilization which is also shaped by others with vastly larger populations and resources?  From what I have learned, Copenhagen deserves to rest on its laurels.  Yet I find myself sketching it here in stark short strokes.  This is peculiar.  The picture is more critical than I had expected.  I had a pleasant time in Copenhagen; it was friendly.  I can only assume that my impressions have been colored by my reflections about those phenomena I mentioned. 


Design of the provincial

The lobby in the arrival terminal of the Copenhagen airport had hardwood floors. The smooth surface and the clean lines made you imagine “Danish Modern”.  In the middle of the hall there were four small glass booths.  In each, three smokers were puffing.  They looked like caged oddities on display.  We drove to the city on nearly empty roads.  Beyond the shoulders of the road  was green parkland , and beaches beckoned not far away.  The rows of houses that soon appeared on the other side allowed in their midst occasional churches and office buildings.  They were all low in height, not exceeding three stories.  Closer to the center of town there were some people on the move, almost all on bicycles .  “Thirty two percent of transportation in Copenhagen is by bikes,” my taxi driver said.  It was flat here.

There was water everywhere.  Denmark has 5000 miles of coastline, the guidebooks said.  Canals connected the inland areas in Copenhagen.  Amsterdam was the model and its builders had been imported for the job.  “In rush hours, it is faster to go by boat,” advised my driver.

From my hotel on the edge of downtown, I strolled to the City Hall.  Next to it, on the main street, there were green apples on the trees.  A sculpture of Hans Christian Andersen showed him seated,  holding a book of his fairy tales half open, and curiously looking up to the sky.  Across the way, Tivoli looked the modest amusement park that it is.  When I entered in the rain began.  The splendor of its 19th century collections of plants and buildings was dampened.

The showcase Danish Design Center was closed.  The stores on Stroget – a pioneer among streets that have become closed to vehicular traffic- were just ordinary.  The concrete Milestone  that commemorated the location of the old Eastern Gate of the city separated the extension of the same ordinary shops on a street where cars were allowed.  Further out, the hoard of souvenir vendors engulfing the tourists made kitsch out of the “world-famous” Mermaid sculpture.  It looked forlorn in the water.

For all its reputation as Scandinavia’s largest and most cosmopolitan capital, Copenhagen appeared strangely provincial at first glance.  I was determined to take a second look.

Christian’s metropolis

“Attention!  This is your wake-up call.  We wish you a pleasant day,” the voice of the hotel phone said on Sunday morning.  The sirens had awakened me earlier in the night. As our guide described the “excitement” there had been a stabbing in a nearby club, causing fire engines to arrive.  He attributed the incident to the visit by the Swedish rugby team.

The Swedes have a reputation in Copenhagen for heavy drinking, a habit that goes back to when the cash-strapped Swedish industrialists “paid their workers partly in liquor.”  A joke common in Copenhagen, our guide said, is “keep Denmark clean, take a Swede to the border!”  The Swedish success in industrializing which began in the late 19th century left agricultural Denmark behind with a lingering envy.  The Danes consider their physicist Niel Buhr a founding father of the atomic age, but complain bitterly about the potential fallout from Sweden’s nuclear power plant -the only one in Scandinavia- near their border.  The antipathy is so strong that “marrying a Swede is like betraying your country,” a Danish woman told me from her own experience.  When she moved to Sweden with her new husband and obtained Swedish citizenship, her friends “simply could not accept it.”

Denmark has had a long tangled relationship with Sweden.  The two share much in language and culture.  The Danes are descendants of a tribe that migrated from Sweden about 1500 years ago.  Their monarchy traces its origin to Hardegon, a Viking warrior who conquered this land in the 9th century.  In 1375, Margrethe I of Denmark forged a union with Sweden that lasted until 1523.  Even today, the reigning monarchs of the two countries are cousins.

Denmark’s “Golden Age,” was during the reign of King Christian IV (1588-1648).  He made Copenhagen into the capital of a Renaissance empire.  His many monuments still dominate the city’s landscape.  From the top of his last building, the Round Tower (Rundetaarn), I could see what a 17th century metropolis looked like.  A skyline of modest-sized, square-shaped buildings of many colors was punctured by steeples, domes, globes, and turrets of imposing churches and palaces .  Christian IV’s own castle (Rosenborg Slot) was to the north, the popular Marble Church was in the northwest, the seat of power (all three branches of government) Christiansborg Palace faced me in the south, and in the distance in the east I could see the Church of Our Savior.  

At the entrance to the Round Tower was a gilded inscription, a rebus.  In a combination of pictures and words it beseeched “God, guide the learning and justice in the crowned King Christian the Fourth’s heart” . The learning refers to the correct Christian creed.  The Tower, however, was built to be a facility for learning, an observatory.  It still functions as such.

I walked on its spiral ramp, which is 200 meters long.  It was wide enough for horses.  The visiting Russian Czar, Peter the Great, was among the last to ride it on horseback.  The platform on the top is circled by a wrought-iron lattice containing the monogram with the letters “REP”””, an abbreviation for Christian IV’s motto: “Regna Firmat Pietas” (Piety strengthens the realms).  The large hall, which I entered from the ramp, was used as Copenhagen’s library until 1861.  It was frequented by the religious philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, and Hans Christian Andersen.  The sign on an adjacent room invites you to see the preserved walls, which have soaked up the smoke of their pipes.  The hall is now a museum.  On this day there was an exhibit of contemporary paintings and sculptures, called “Africa/Now.”  It showed the works of more than 30 young artists from 10 African nations .

Invitation is not for absorption

Copenhagen’s invitation to international cultures was also on display elsewhere.  Several booths on the edge of the New King’s Square offered foods from Belgium, France, and the Middle East.  I shared a table with a Ukrainian-Israeli woman; she had come for a week-long training workshop on Cognitive Linguistics.  The lobby of the huge Danhostel Copenhagen City hostel was crowded with youth from the United States. At the New Harbor I talked to a Malaysian TV crew .  They were filming a documentary about Copenhagen.

I took the ferry to see the white sculptures on a peripheral island, which were a memorial to the displaced victims of the 1990s wars in Yugoslavia. On that boat, a Danish man was holding hands with a young olive-skinned woman while talking with a Dane who seemed to be the mother of the two boys sitting in the row before him.  They went back and forth from English to Danish.

The Danes have not absorbed many from other backgrounds.  Ethnic Danes constitute more than 93% of the (5.5 million) population. Another 3% are from other Scandinavian and Nordic countries.  The right of the center government of Denmark, which took power in 2001, has made the country’s immigration laws so strict that it has provoked protests by the Council of Europe and even the Danish Red Cross.  The Danes became even more controversial after the newspaper Jylland-Posten published cartoons of Prophet Muhammad, offensive to Muslims, causing riots in distant lands.  The building which houses the offices of the newspaper looked peaceful, however, as I passed it to see a different kind of free expression.

Children, Queen, and all that Jazz

Banners on lampposts publicized the annual summer festival of jazz in Copenhagen.  The venues were numerous.  I saw posters on the doors of basement cafes .  A couple from Vermont gave me directions to a performance in a big hall by a combo from Brazil.  I preferred the outdoors.  At the New Harbor, a band played before an audience of mostly middle class, middle- aged people that sat on steps and grass.  In the King’s Gardens (Rosenborg Have) I sat down with a bigger crowd.  They were different and the music was special.

These were young families with small children.  Strollers and bikes were parked next to blankets spread on the ground .  A boy of four from a family sitting next to me came over.  He invited me to play with his toy, which he now threw toward me.  His smiling father called him back when a pizza they had ordered arrived .  The music was by a group called Body Rhythm Factory.  Three drummers played while rotating among the drums.  The kids were enchanted.  They lined up close to the platform to watch.  Then a vocalist came on the stage and sang to the rapt audience.  When the ensemble finished, a recorded tune by Dave Brubeck was piped in.  Humming to myself, I went to talk to the band.  The vocalist said that children were “special” in Danish culture and this was the reason why the royal family’s popularity had “increased so much by the recent birth of the Crown Prince’s son.” 

The reigning Queen’s popularity is also due to her accessibility.  Every third Thursday of the month, the Queen sits to receive “any citizen who wants to see her,” our guide said.  This old tradition which was to permit petitioning the monarch is now used by the Danes to express their thanks to the Queen; an ombudsman receives the petitions.  The Queen’s predecessor gained a unique distinction in Scandinavia by remaining in the country during the Nazi occupation.  In those war years, he would regularly visit various quarters of the town, often without guards, our guide said.  The monarch’s winter palace (Amalienborg Slot) is in the heart of Copenhagen.  The royal family moved to this complex of four mansions originally built to house commoners, when their old palace burned in a fire.  Later, another private citizen put in a park with a fountain near these buildings as he thought the simple surroundings could use some embellishment.

The benefactor, Arnold Maersk Moller who happens to be the richest man in the country, also provided the funding for a new opera house on an island facing the Palace.  Critics have complained that he interfered too much in the architecture.  The roof is especially controversial; some have called the building the world’s largest “toaster-oven .”  Moller’s blunt response has been that “his money gave him the right to have a say,” our guide related.  He went on to say that some Danes wonder if Moller does not demand the same influence in shaping public policy with the justification that his fortune provides the base for much of Denmark’s tax revenue.

The Danes pay taxes at higher rates than any other nation in Europe. In return, they receive comprehensive social services.  They have the reputation of being the most contented people in the world.  The discontent of some with the status quo, however, has produced Freetown Christiania.  Dubbed the “New Society,” this enclave was established on September 26, 1971 by a group of 700 political activists (also called “idealists, hippies”) in abandoned military barracks on the Eastern edge of town.  Not far from Freetown, we were shown buildings on anther harbor that the Danish Navy had vacated; they were now luxury residences.

I went ashore to see the Danish Royal Library.  Its new extension is commonly called the Black Diamond because of its shiny granite facade. I rode the escalator through its open and inviting space .  The Library houses the original manuscripts of Hans Christian Andersen.  The Plaza fronting it is named after Soren Kierkegaard.  Since he critically tackled both Hegelianism and the Church’s arcane theology, Kierkegaard’s writing was never easy to understand.  Defiantly, he reasoned that, “the task must be made difficult, for only the difficult inspires the noble-hearted.” The Danish Library has more than 21 million books and other sources to help the inspired.


This article entitled Sunday in Copenhagen was published on the Website of in January 2009, with related pictures.