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Denmark: This land of fairy tales
BENT LORENTZEN, a Danish-born cultural anthropologist now living in America, met and rode with Rick and Cindy Simonsen, from Seattle, for much of their tour through Denmark. To American eyes, Denmark is a fairy-tale land.
At five-foot-ten, there is not a hint in Rick Simonsen's robust physique or whimsical mannerisms to indicate that this international hiring manager for Boeing is disabled and should stand six-foot-six. A childhood polio victim, he rides with one leg in a brace.
I accompanied Rick and Cindy, his wife of twenty years, for most of their trip, taking photographs and interpreting. I was fascinated by the cultural contrasts they discovered, and their reactions to them. As a native Dane, I was proud that my country could give such pleasure. And as a cyclist, I was impressed by their achievement.
Just south of Copenhagen lie the wetlands of the Amager island wilderness, where we found quiet roads, and cyclepaths, and a dozen elderly riders.
“We bike through here every weekend,” said a man who could have been anywhere between 50 and 80.
“The people here are so healthy,” whispered Cindy.
“Tell her I'm eighty-six,” said the man as he winked and pedalling off.
At the next town a woman rattled on in Danish about the new bridge from Sjæland (Sealand) to the island of Fyn, and the city of Odense, which had opened the previous day. “Just missed being the longest bridge of its kind in the world, only a few meters shorter than the one in Japan… Ten to twenty thousand cars a day… Built with Danish ingenuity… What a marvel. The Queen was there to open it... She's so accessible, our Queen… even lets people come to her in the castle if they have problems… We all love her, and hope she rules until she's a hundred!”
Several kilometres later we were sitting within the ruins of a moat-ringed fort: utterly tidy, unsupervised, and populated by curious sheep. Rick shook his head as he looked out across the waters of the Øresund to Sweden, “This is just too much like a fairy tale. It's just too perfect. I mean, is the whole country like this?
The idyll was shattered when we came across the frighteningly busy feeder roads for the bridge which the lady had been talking about. Sofie Nielsen of the Danish Cycling Federation was later to tell me more about this new international highway. It pained her, she said, to see Denmark being pressured by the rest of Europe into this sort of assault on the Danes' calm culture and lifestyle, where one third of all traffic is by bicycle: “We've begun to notice an increase in bicycle-and-car accidents in villages and small roads near some of these highways. Statistics seem to show that a motorist who has been on a highway for a while and then exits onto a rural road has become desensitised to cyclists.”
Later in the day, back in Copenhagen, we cycled through Christiania, a Bohemian quarter populated by people looking for an alternative lifestyle, who overran this one-time naval station in 1972. Rick noticed a pair of children being carried by their parents in a 'Christiania trike': “I was walking once in India through much squalor and poverty, then came this rusting, creaking bicycle pulling a trailer filled with children wearing sparkling school uniforms. I remember how the smiles on their faces seemed to dissolve the human suffering around them. Strange how I see those same simple smiles here in Copenhagen, on the faces of healthy blonde kids being pulled by bike to school in the most affluent city in the world.”
Next morning, the wind made thirty kilometres feel like a hundred. Exhausted, we stopped at the hostel in Fakse. Like many of Denmark's not-for-profit institutions, this hostel also serves as a school for the community's mentally challenged. We were following the ‘Marguerit Route' along the Faxe Coast, a region distinguished for white cliffs and beaches as impressive as England's Cliffs of Dover. This route, a web of safe, gentle roadways, is clearly marked by a simple, colourful sign in the form of Denmark's national flower, the daisy (‘marguerit' in Danish).
A few kilometres further, a bizarre sound surprised us. Peering through a line of dense roadside trees we saw a large electric windmill looming up in a field of soy beans, against the backdrop of the Baltic coast. We approached silently, in awe of the windmill‘s monstrous size and haunting hum. Demark is a world-leader in wind turbines.
Further on, at a small supermarket, the Americans were puzzled. “What are these things?” asked Rick. “I think I know what 'hund' is. It's a dog, right. And 'parkering'? That's parking. But these stalls with hooks? As I explained, it was a typical Danish dog parking facility, with wooden stalls to separate the dogs while their owners shopped.
We stayed a few nights later on at Stubbekøbing Youth Hostel on Falster, where guests of all ages shared the facilities with a bunch of Danish high-school kids. “I'm getting more and more amazed with Danish kids”, said Rick, “especially as we get further away from Copenhagen. These kids seem to be able to stay active on their own without supervision but still behave well, without all this generational stuff we Americans are so used to seeing with teens.”
Rick and Cindy had an appointment to keep: they were to visit the Danish-American celebration ‘RebildFest'. Denmark's ties with the US go back a long way. By 1912, when the total population of Denmark was around 3 million, 300,000 had already emigrated to the US, drawn by the promise of the new land.
In 1912 the Danish-American developer, Max Henius, donated the land at Rebild to the State, as a ‘friendship park'. Ever since, the 4th of July has seen 20,000 or more come to these hills for speeches and ceremonies from Danish royals and US dignitaries. Historically, since Danish law is very protest-friendly, the festival has also been a gathering spot for Scandinavian dissent at American foreign policy – especially at the time of the Vietnam war. This year, though, there was to be no disruption.
We cycled into Rebild from Skagen (northern Jutland) on a cool, drizzly July 3rd, on paved cycling paths through an emerald forest covering steep hills – some of the tallest in Denmark, at over 200 meters. We settled in, and by late evening the camp site was buzzing with American English.
Rick and Cindy's Rebildfest was to be typically Danish. No bigwigs came, and it rained. The Queen sent someone from the Royal House to read her letter, and a representative from the US embassy in Copenhagen delivered a few words. Everyone stood to sing the Danish and US national anthems, and a Danish photojournalist, interviewing Rick and Cindy about their cycling adventure, made them headline news for a day.
It had been a genuine voyage of discovery. Thanks to the proximity which cycling allows, two open-minded travellers from the big country had ventured into the heart of Denmark, discovering a confident, intelligent and independent people whose culture and lifestyle were to leave a lasting imprint on the Americans' souls.