Christiania: Free but flawed?

When telling people I was planning to visit Copenhagen this holiday, Christiania was a universal recommendation. According to its website, Christiania is “a self-governing society where each individual is free to themselves under the authority of the community. This society shall be financially self-supporting, and the common aim must always be to show that the mental and physical contamination can averted”. According to a Danish politician, Christiania is “a dwelling for people who wish to live in a different manner”. According to many Danes, Christiania is “a hippie squat”

The mural that marks the entrance to Christiania

The mural that marks the entrance to Christiania

In basic terms, Christiania is a “freetown”, an autonomous neighbourhood in the middle of Copenhagen that has existed as a commune since 1971, and whose residents (roughly 700 adults and 250 kids) struck a deal with the Danish government in 2011 to purchase the land off of them for a more official independence. Up-to-date information about this deal and the situation in general is pretty hard to find online, but since this loose agreement the community has been raising funds via selling off “shares” in Christiania for anything between 100 and 10, 000 krona (£10-£1000). Although officially subject to Danish jurisdiction, the area is famous for a rather more lax approach to law-keeping, particularly when it comes to the drugs trade – the aptly-titled titled “Pusher Street” that Christiania is famous for has been portrayed as both a tourist draw and guilty of scaring visitors away. Since the “junk blockade” of 1979 residents have maintained that hard drugs no longer circulate, but this is fairly easily disproven even if such sales are rather more low-key than the brazen high street trade of the softer stuff. Hash is dealt openly despite frequent police raids, with dealers dressing themselves and their stalls up in camouflage and many wearing balaclavas and sunglasses – according to the website this is because Pusher Street chooses to strike against the government’s misguided marijuana policy and emphasis camouflage netting over all the stalls to make hash less visible”. Christiania has its own “state” gallery, many outdoor art installations, and several cafes and food stalls. Signs above its exits proclaim that “you are now entering the European Union”.

Christiana’s island from the other side of the water

We visited Christiania with a Canadian we’d met at our hostel. She passed on what she’d heard from all the Danes she’d encountered: Christiania is where Copenhagen residents go when they’re fifteen and want to try something illicit, a glorified squat full of hobos and hippies and drug addicts. It took us a while to find, as it’s situated on an island in the middle of the city accessible only by bridges; at first we thought the whole island was the commune, and were shocked at how clean and family-friendly and totally normal the streets looked, nothing different from the rest of the city. The sight of a giant psychedelic mural by a narrow door through which wafted a certain familiar smell informed us that the commune makes up only a corner of the island, and is completely walled off from neighbouring suburbia.

My first impressions of the place were that it has a similar vibe to Tacheles, the late and great artist squat in a similarly central position in Berlin. Graffiti coats every surface, dark doorways and passages lead to who knows where, weird refuse sculptures are dotted left right and centre. As we walked in deeper signs told us that we were now entering the “green light district”, where photography was banned along with running and sudden movements. Pusher Street is the central market square of Christiania, a cluster of camouflaged stalls run by men in dark clothes and often hidden behind the netting that hangs over their wares. We decided to make a purchase (when in Rome), and the experience definitely felt very illegal and pretty intimidating – and was the most expensive transaction I made in my entire time in Denmark. Which is saying something. After wandering round the remaining few streets (it really is just a collection of a couple of squares and alleys) we wended our way out through the exits and back into Denmark proper. We were underwhelmed, and unimpressed, by both the goods and the town.

I think there’s something fairly depressing about Christiania, and its not because all of the buildings look abandoned and most of the graffiti can’t really be classified as art. To me it felt seedy. It felt like some of the rougher areas of Amsterdam, aided by the preponderance of stalls selling tacky t-shirts and marijuana paraphernalia, and people with eyes like pies cramming overpriced hotdogs into their faces. There’s certainly a feeling of existence outside the law, but not in an “our town, our rules” kind of way… it’s more of the vibe of illegality. I’m all for decriminalisation, but that isn’t what Christiania is – its residents are painfully aware, as they have to be, of the officially forbidden nature of their merchandise, and they conduct their sales as such. For a town set up to celebrate independence and variety outside of the system, it seemed to me there was precious little variety of enterprise. We did come across Danish people who commented on the positives of the freetown, people raising their children all together and growing their own food, the stuff of idealistic 60s communes. Maybe all of that happens and it’s just not on show to non-residential visitors – but it would be a far cry from the Christiania that we saw.

Coincidences in Denmark

It’s funny how the more you travel the smaller the world seems to get. Last week I spent a few days in Copenhagen, a windy and expensive city that I loved and where I discovered numerous weird international connections. The first was an incredibly obvious link that just did not click in my brain until after my return to the UK; during my Springboard course at the beginning of the holidays (a really great programme for women in the workplace) I met Lise, a fabulous Copenhagen-or-thereabouts native who gave my travel buddy and I a much-needed insider tour on our last day in the city. She’s a fresher English Literature student at Worcester College, and told us all about the Danish university system that not only offers its students free tuition, but actually pays them £600 a month to study at all! – truly a superior nation. Understandably she has always dealt with raised eyebrows from parents and peers alike over her decision to study in England (who can blame them, Denmark is The One). BUT she did relate an anecdote about her ever-sceptical father returning from an international medical conference freshly convinced that Oxford might in fact be an alright place to go, having heard about its general reputation from people there. The day after my return from the continent I had supper with my mum who bemoaned a missed opportunity in the form of a Danish psychologist she had met at an international medical conference, whose daughter I could have made contact with in Copenhagen. Apparently she had set her heart on Oxford and had just started her first year at Worcester, what a shame we didn’t manage to connect.

But my favourite link was not as ridiculously coincidental as the above, but did form part of a generally hilarious evening. On our last night in Copenhagen we were invited to join a party in our hostel by a group of Dutch musicologists on a study trip from Amsterdam. Their dorm room was packed with three bunk levels of Europeans exercising their voices and limbs to 80s hits, there were glow in the dark stars on the ceiling and whisky all over the floor, and someone was harassing every new entrant with one of those head massagers that looks like a medieval torture instrument; a night already in full swing. Jaegermeister and rum and other horrendous alcohols were thrust upon us and I struck up a conversation with an excellent girl with a shock of blue hair and a Cage The Elephant band tee, who told me all about the time that her boyfriend had got her tickets to see the band and had secretly messaged the drummer before to get them to play their song and afterwards they had got so trashed with the roadies that she had spent all her money on that t-shirt and been broke but ecstatic the rest of the weekend. I responded in musical kind and told her that I’d been an Amsterdam the week before and seen a bloody FANTASTIC production of Lucia di Lammermoor, at which she squealed jealously and demanded how I got tickets. I told her my uncle was in the Dutch National Opera at which she squealed that HER uncle was in the Dutch National Opera, and had MY uncle performed in last year’s run of Gotterdamerung, to which I replied that he HAD indeedand then we squealed some Wagner at each other until she terribly formally asked us if we would like to smoke some marijuana with her and her friends.

I ❤ Europe.


Vikings in London

I spent this term studying a paper called “The Viking Age: War and Peace c.750-1100”, a module covering Scandinavian raiders and settlers and their activities at home and abroad. It has conveniently coincided with Copenhagen’s celebrated Viking World exhibition hitting my own home town. Professor Lesley Abrams, much celebrated in viking circles and coincidentally my tutor (Oxford education whaddup) was invited to the opening a fortnight ago, bringing its existence to our class’s attention; she did not sing its praises. Neither did many other reviewers. Undeterred my mum and I spent a sunny Friday afternoon eating and wandering in central London, before charging into the British Museum and ploughing mercilessly through the foreign hoards (a la vikings) towards the declamatory banners of rusty-sword-overlaid-with-swirling-ocean (original). We got two steps into the first room and then turned around and left. The place was absolutely rammed. It was unbearable. I was aware that the popularity of the exhibition had meant tickets were sold in timed slots, but this was something else entirely – a queue that snaked around the entire exhibit creating a human conveyor belt of fleeting glimpses of glass-cased objects and universal impatience and despair. Seeing our despondency a security guard took us aside and recommended we return either first thing in the morning or last admission in the evening to have any chance of enjoyment, so we headed to the members lounge to drown our sorrows in tea and free wifi, and returned at 10am the next day to a slightly less horrifying scene.


Although this is fairly horrifying

I will admit to finding over-crowding in museums and galleries horrendous and experience-ruining, so I didn’t even attempt to examine every object or read every sign. There were some specific artefacts that I really did want to see, and I zoned in on them right away – it was an absolute treat standing in front of the Lewis chessmen, relics of that time when the Western Isles belonged to Norway and not Scotland (ha), and seeing my personal favourite of a tiny 2x2cm silver sculpture of Odin and his seeing eye ravens Hugin and Munin. I enjoyed the re-construction of a viking longship, complete with real-life ship bits slotted into the metal frame, and I appreciated the garish replica of Harald Bluetooth’s Jelling Stone – his monument to his own success as a uniter of Denmark and champion of Christianity. But I couldn’t help but feel that I enjoyed all of this so much exactly because I understood these objects’ significance within the viking “life” or “legend” as a whole; not to sound like the condescending history student that I am, but I feel that the joy of the artefact lies within what it can tell you and how it can be interpreted. There was a dearth of explanatory information, and it was not limited to unsatisfactory descriptions of objects. Perhaps it’s just unrealistic expectations of curators to cram into three rooms what I have learnt in 8 weeks of a history degree, but if you’re going to title an exhibit “Vikings: life and legend” then I feel you’re implying you will do some explaining of life versus legend – or just some explaining in general.

Odin and his menagerie

Odin and his menagerie

I am being unfair and I know it. I totally learnt some new things and there were some really great curatorial touches –  the snippets of skaldic verse printed on the walls, and eery recordings of Norse being spoken over the lapping of waves and creaking of oars (obviously). But I think that some of the more thrilling and “legendary” aspects of viking times were unnecessarily skipped over. The example I would choose is that of the Ridgeway Hill skeletons, displayed in an awkward corner. This was a mass viking grave found in Dorset in 2009, containing 54 dismembered skeletons of Scandinavian males (mostly) aged 16-25. They showed no evidence of being involved in a battle, but had certainly suffered a violent death – they had all been tossed naked into the pit, almost certainly executed, possibly as captives, at a time of conflict between native Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavian settlers. This is exactly the sort of mysterious and gory tale that makes popular history. Who were they? How did they die? Who killed them and decapitated them and buried them so dishonourably? Was there an audience? What happened to the missing heads? In the exhibit the only thing written about this intriguing discovery was that it “proved the vikings didn’t always win”… a rather vague statement that I thought really wasted a real-life historical conundrum. But then again, I almost certainly ended up doing history for my morbid temperament alone, so perhaps these are not the questions that plague your average museum-goer.


DON’T FORGET ME I BEG – Adele/Harald Bluetooth

And while I’m complaining about everything and anything I must say that much as I hate exhibitions being overly child orientated, the British Museum does love to encourage enormous numbers of primary school parties and under-12s and almost none of the exhibition was child-friendly or interactive. Far be it from me to encourage the presence of any children in any public space ever, but this lack of engaging things to plonk your 4-year-old in front of while you read up on the intricacies of longship construction led to several tantrums and over-active small people underfoot. I can’t imagine that its Scandinavian incarnation was so lacking.

So to sum up: I’m glad that I went, I will almost certainly go again, but I do feel like more could have been done with this exhibit. For your average British Museum goer who has had to pay £15 for this claustrophobic experience and whose knowledge of the vikings is limited to drooling over Chris Hemsworth in the latest Avengers instalment, I’m not sure it really does the trick.