Copenhagen

Life is not life without a polar bear on the piano, another on the guitar and a third on the violin. That is unless you find yourself in Copenhagen on a frigid November weekend staring at three benign polar bears playing music (because it is the food of life, dear knucklehead) to drown out the chattering of your teeth. It was 2015, I was going to turn 35, and my husband had decided that it had to be in a nation that declares itself the happiest in the world.

There we were in a smart city, where the people are smart enough to reduce their carbon footprints by cycling everywhere, the bars and cafes straight out of the pages of slick magazines, where not a speck of rubbish dots the streets… heck, even the streetlights are smart – yet in that smartest of all smart cities, the shower of our hotel room was not quite so sharp. I had expected something akin to the technologically advanced loos of Southeast Asia, but no this idjit here, it sprayed water all over the bathroom. We changed rooms thrice in the matter of a morning which meant that we cadged up a whole lot of bonus points. You can never have enough points if you rely on them as much as we do.

After we had found our point of reference in the city, the Magasin mall at Kongens Nytorv, we walked around the city doing almost nothing touristy. That would include not visiting the 19th century amusement park, Tivoli, or entering the palaces and castles. Not eating bugs at Noma for a fortune. I would like to point out here that The Little Mermaid is poof, bloody underwhelming. Instead we walked and walked, taking it all in. The turquoise towers and spires, girls on skateboards swishing by, bikes just about everywhere and then those trendy bike carts, hip cafes and brewpubs in working class districts such as Nørrebro, the business district of Ørestad with architectural marvels like the Black Diamond Library…During the course of these rambles about town, I loved looking up because oh those vintage street lamps, dangling from wires above the streets like pretty earrings.

In Nyhavn, the 17th century waterfront, where Hans Christian Andersen lived during the 1800s and where old townhouses in peppy colours line the canal, people queued up for boat rides. We queued up for piping hot churros and chocolate at Rajissimo, a chain of cafés in Copenhagen which serves homemade ice-cream, coffees, waffles, basically all kinds of fried dough, and tells you ‘to be good to yourself’. Who am I to bypass such wisdom on an icy evening?

After, we sat outside by the canal at one of the old bars, wrapped ourselves in blankets kept outside on the chairs and sipped on chilled draft beer. When we moved inside to try out more varieties of local beers, three giggly girls who manned the bar shared stories with us of the curiously oriental décor of the bar. In Nyhavn, on the evening of my birthday, we also almost entered a strip bar mistaking it to be a Chinese restaurant.

The one touristy thing to do in Copenhagen which is quite unmissable is the Carlsberg Beer Factory. Its brewery dates back to the year 1847 when the founder J C Jacobsen, a Danish industrialist and philanthropist, started brewing beer using new scientific methods in the Carlsberg laboratory.

The story of the Jacobsens is worth exploring and you will also find yourself quaffing free pints of icy beer apart from gaping at the brewery’s astonishing collection of beer bottles, apparently the world’s largest, numbering about 16,600 different kinds. The numbers might have gone up. They are vintage beer bottles, hundreds of years old. I spotted Thomas Hardy’s Ale, said to be produced only once a year and first made in 1968 to commemorate Hardy who spoke of a strong Dorchester beer that would be “the most beautiful colour an artist could possibly desire, as bright as an autumn sunset.”

Now Carlsberg’s ambassadors are tall and muscular. Jutland horses who are part of the staff. Louise and Laura, Jern and Oda Brit…they have names labelled outside their stables with their lineage — their far (father) and mor (mother) listed out too — for they have stellar genes. They could easily play the role of warhorses for which they were originally bred but they have made the switch to tamely carry beer around the city in old carts during special occasions.

A dream birthday trip that included a helluva spat when I stomped off to see The Little Mermaid by myself. Now I wonder what we fought about but I remember taking the train by myself to the Langelinie Promenade and caught her photo thus on a dull rainy evening when the bent of my mind did not allow me to be partial to an insipid little mermaid waiting for her prince to show up.

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Copenhagen airport
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Sights from a Danish bus window

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The castles and palaces of Copenhagen 
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The hotel room that is worthy of a mention because it earned us points and an upgrade

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Nyhavn
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‘It’s bloody cold. Can we just go inside?’
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In a Nyhavn bar

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A birthday night dinner

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Carlsberg Brewery

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J.C.’s son Carl Jacobsen
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Carl Jacobsen at work in his lab
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Carl Jacobsen and his crew at the brewery
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The Carlsberg gardens reveal the Jacobsens’ enthusiasm for art
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French sculptor François Jouffroy’s ‘The First Secret’ (1839)
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The brewery’s collection of beer bottles

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Deserted train stations in the Ørestad district
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In the Ørestad
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A blurred bit of The Black Diamond in Ørestad
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Magasin du Nord on the grand old square of Kongens Nytorv
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The Little Mermaid
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Three musicians 

 

First Snow of the Season

I am smitten by snow. There is no earthly reason why I should not. I do not care about the slushy aftermath of it, really, I do not give two hoots. Because right now it is glorious. I am wrapped up in my fur throw watching it snow prettily, a few extremely buttery garlic knots and pizza slices in my stomach. It has been snowing since morning and my world is quite so white and wonderful.

Earlier on, I put on my boots and warm jacket and rushed out to the waterfront. The park had turned pristine white, only footprints showing through the snow (someone was out running too), brown autumnal leaves now caked with snow, the dark brown of the barks adding some contrast to the startling white outside. I was hoping to meet Alex again. He is the best looking boy I have met in some time. Now Alex is a golden retriever before your eyebrows touch your scalps there. He is quite the blonde, with well-groomed hair standing in little tufts and bits about his face, and he has a weakness for jumping on unsuspecting humans to share some of his drool-some happiness. Alas, I did not spot Alex today. I had met him by the waters yesterday so I made my way back there hoping to catch him playing in the snow. Instead I saw, shivering with delight through a curtain of snow that the waters had turned a shade of steely teal, globules of snow dissolving into the ripples and sheathing the boulders. The bridge and the cranes at the port — they had vanished behind a wall of dense white fog.

Then Adi and I walked to the store a couple of miles away, not a good idea – which we realised in a while – but besides fingers turning immensely numb inside the gloves because I was taking photos more than walking, I did spot a squirrel duo up in the branches of a tree with blobs of snow around on them. One chomping on a nut and the other had spotted just one, so it was chuffed. A little tableau of survival playing out right there in front of our eyes, though blurred by snow.

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Christiania in Whispers

Two years ago for my birthday, Adi booked us on a flight to ultra hip and modernist Copenhagen. The emphasis in the Scandinavian city — where everything is cutting edge, where nothing is stick-in-the-mud or capable of inducing ennui — is on going green. Cycling is the national mantra, hotels and restaurants are overwhelmingly environment friendly, organic food and beer is de rigueur. There hygge is embraced by bringing the outside into the inside — inexpensive, cosy elements which transform the interiors with an intimate and warm touch at once. It is just fitting that there should be a green quarter in this city. Truly green.

Christiania. Utter it and you are usually faced with ecstatic reactions. A cousin sister-in-law of mine calls it the land of ‘sweet air’. Her friend had gifted her a piece of land in Freetown Christiania. Another chap, one of our building residents and a Sheldon lookalike, went into raptures. ‘Isn’t it just wonderful?’ he asked us with a gleam in his eyes as we chugged on bottles of beer on our terrace a few months ago. My reaction was a piteous ‘erm’.

On that shivery November day in 2015, beneath a sky that was a dome of soulless grey, we took the metro to the Freetown of Christiania. After we had passed a few whimsical statues, cyclists clad in coats and beanies, and a church with a serpentine spire wrought in gold it seemed, we entered the bohemian quarter. A sign announced, ‘Now you are leaving the EU’.

Beyond the gates stand a district which was once a military base. Abandoned in the ’70s, it was taken over by hippies and declared as an autonomous neighbourhood, where lay the beginnings of a self-governed and self-sustained society. The Danish government of the day granted it the status of a ‘social experiment’ and therefore exempt from taxes. The buildings inside are shabby but inhabited. As proof, you spot pairs of mud-coated tiny and big wellies propped up outside the worn-out doors.

Only bikes ply within the neighbourhood. It is a car-free zone, you see. Badass graffitis pop up on the walls of old barracks, a cafe or two shows up, pop-up markets sell hippie paraphernalia, and then there’s the stretch of Pusher Street where cannabis is rife in the air. From behind wooden kiosks smothered in camouflage nettings, a guy in dreadlocks whispered, ‘Brother, you smoke?’ I whispered to Adi, awed by the public nature of it, ‘Does he mean hash, baby?’ And the fellow whispered again, ‘Yes, he does’. A game of Chinese Whispers.

I had grand plans. That I would document it all on my phone. Capture Christiania in stills. But the signage at the start of Pusher Street declared ‘no photos’ because ‘buying and selling hash is still illegal’ (right), and my beloved, who lives by the rulebook, confiscated my phone right away. I sulked and stomped, wheedling in phases to extract my phone, but he would not budge. ‘Rather me than some druggie,’ he said. Organic vegetable stores, decrepit but colourful house fronts, yoga studios, a boutique or two, bikes, a lake, a tiny temple with a miniature goddess, muddy tracks… in my field of vision it unravelled rather like a post apocalyptic scene. Soon the heavens burst above our heads. We ran through the mud-caked paths in Christiania soaked to our skin, feeling grimy and the urge for a hot shower to slough off the veneer of slovenliness. Later we sat in a bakery on Dronningensgade and comforted our soggy selves with flaky bites of stuffed pastry and pizza.

I am not its biggest fan but the notion of Christiania is unconventional. Anything that bucks conventions is a winner in my books – the fact that there can be an alternate way of living and a place where no one owns private land is intriguing. Like my cousin sis-in-law, you too can own a share of this hippy haven. But it does not make you a stakeholder in the property or allow you voting rights. It is symbolic — a donation to the cause of the people of Christiania who are buying the 85-acre land from the government in parts. Also, there is the strange dichotomy of it – within the paradigm of a strictly law-abiding city, it is incomprehensible that Bohemia might prevail, but exist it does and with an avant-garde flair.

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Vignettes

Central Park looked like a big beautiful canvas as I strolled through it to the American Museum of Natural History in the Upper West Side. Dried leaves glowed in vivid tones of gold and russet. Old men read books on benches which tell stories through those small plaques. You might take a seat on one but oh do leave some space for the couple’s dog who loved hanging out there too. They are all long gone… what remains is the warmth of the thought that you share the bench with souls that might have dissolved in ether, but they too savoured the solitude, as much as you do now. Beneath those flaming bowers, bright-eyed squirrels scurried up and down wire fences, a man stooped to gather a bunch of leaves in his arms, to throw them in the air, let them rain upon him in a shower of gold as his partner waited to capture it on her camera with a bashful grin, an old man rowed his boat serenely by.

Then I found my way to the pink granite largesse of the Natural History Museum where the suggested amount for entry is $23 – but you can shell out what you want to enter it. I wanted to pay a buck and see what their reaction might be (just to be perverse) but then I rose above that notion. Those mighty quotes of Ted Roosevelt staring back at you — exalted thoughts and words, they make sure that any pettiness is put to shame. Right after, I lost my mind — to the beauty of animals carefully preserved by an American taxidermist towards the late part of the 19th century, reproductions of dinosaurs from fossils, the Mayan gods, paraphernalia from the Silk Route, hunting apparatus of the Amazon Indians, strange shrunken heads that looked like tiny balls with hair flowing from the heads, sewed up lips and head because the South American people such as the Shuar counteract violent death and the need of the soul for revenge by keeping the spirit trapped inside the heads.

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The ultra tall Barosaurus defends its young from the Allosaurus up front. An encounter that might have taken place in the western part of the US about 140 million years ago.
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An alarmed African elephant

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Early copy of the Koran retrieved from somewhere in Africa.
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Golden wares of Samarkand where caravan roads converged, bringing in exotic goods from China, India, Armenia, Persia and the Near East.
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A Mayan god
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Colossal Olmec stone head from Southern Verz Cruz and Tabasco in Mexico

Twilight

The sunset’s fiery kiss to the Hudson today on the second day of December stopped me short in my tracks. These spectacularly beautiful days are altogether unmissable. I want to trap them in my fists, shut ’em tight and hold time in my hands. How does one let go of these evenings of flaming oranges and lavenders, rose gold and smoky blues?

The Christmas lights are up. It seems that Bayonne with its worn-out air can also go ballistic with decorations. Less is clearly not more here.

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End of the AGA Saga

On Sunday afternoons, Mrs Thurlow used to read the newspapers she would collect carefully over the week. It was her way of living other lives. She of the ‘flat heavy feet pounding painfully along under mud-stained skirts, her face and body ugly with lumpy angles of bone’, so much so that she is likened to a ‘beast of burden’ by the writer H.E. Bates in his short story ‘The Ox’. Like Mrs Thurlow, we live other lives and our collective imagination, I would think, goes into a tizzy when we read our instalment of news. Mine is at the end of every day, when I am tucked into the duvet, comfortable and ready to dive into these other worlds. I do not wait till Sunday because the world moves fast. I would be left far behind. Plus there is the habit of reading 20 newspapers ingrained into me by one of my bosses who used to stomp into the newspaper office early in the afternoon and quiz us about the news we had not covered in our paper (because it prided itself on being the best in the city of Delhi) and importantly Why we had missed it. With a fluttering heart, because it was my first job, I would sit and scan each and every news item like my life depended upon it. Now, I like to read only those pieces that make me sit up. The rest are merely headlines to be skimmed.

You must be thinking, ‘What, no more waffling about the autumnal colours of Bayonne?’ I would clobber myself if I bang on about it in one more post. As I was reading the news last night, you know drivel about how Meghan Markle who has just scored a prince may not be so all out there as she seems, I spotted a news item about a historic foundry shutting its doors on Thursday — a couple of days later in fact. The newspaper photos looked familiar. I peered into my phone in the dark of the night and realised, why we had been there earlier this year. I remembered the derelict foundry, careworn and in a shambles. Places that look like they have been left to their own devices tend to excite the imagination, don’t they? To add to which, it had been a rather dramatic walk.

On a brooding English morning in March, we were in the town of Ironbridge in Shropshire, the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. As you can imagine, everything in England is antiquated. So is the bridge here from which the town derives its name. Across the muddy River Severn and a deep gorge spans the world’s first iron bridge which was opened to the public in 1781. Naturally it has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You might possibly like to ink it in if you find yourself romping around the county of Shropshire.

Traditional dark pubs with low-hanging wooden beams, winding roads into the bleak countryside, sepia-tinted churches and hotels, towns and villages built under the aegis of ironworks and coal. A hearty pub lunch after a fight over my insistence upon a walk in the woods, one of the few ideas I had culled from the woman at the old tollhouse in Ironbridge. Smouldering skies and husband. Utter nonchalance on my part. Every walk has to after all begin with a fight. Traditions are not to be scoffed at, after all.

That’s how we sauntered into the village of Coalbrookdale, the home of the British AGA cast iron cooker which is synonymous with country living in the UK. The cast iron for the cookers were so long manufactured in the foundry at Coalbrookdale. Now, it shall be shut forever. The end of an era and of 300 years of ironwork in the village. Actually if I confess, I had already imagined it to be an abandoned factory. Why else would there be cracked and boarded-up windows, gaping holes in the exterior…? A clutch of farmhouses with plots of garden behind them, and a brooding church looming high above the village, line up across the foundry.

Once, it would have been dark and grimy, a place enveloped by the sulfurous fumes of coal released from the ironworks. People in the hamlet of Coalbrookdale would have had great difficulty breathing in its sooty air, I would imagine. And yet there lay the beginnings of a dynasty of ironmasters, the Darby family who owned the foundry. But today it rests quiet and green, a hamlet marked by industrial cottages and elegant country homes where the Quaker Darbys lived. I did find an approximation of how it would have looked – through the painting of a Franco-British painter called Philip James de Loutherbourg. This portly artist toured England and Wales during the Industrial Revolution to capture the misery of the times in his paintings.

Back in the present, we passed by some old women in their wellies caked with mud — this made me look at my polka-dotted trainers in alarm. The unsuitability of my footwear was driven further home when it started pouring and I fell into a smelly bog — Adi laughing helplessly the entire way because the walk had been my idea and he found deep comfort in the retribution that fate holds in its fists. And it was not once that I tumbled into the bog. Yes, it happened again, much to the delight of my husband.

The day somehow (don’t ask me how) brightened, and the skies turned beautifully blue, but the smell, oh that ghastly smell, how it clung to me. That smell came back to me yesterday night, ripe and robust, along with the memories of our rambles around Coalbrookdale.

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The 1801 Loutherbourg painting, Coalbrookdale by Night.

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