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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