Thursday, 2 July 2009

Loved up in Scandinavia

Not the typical honeymoon destination, granted. But Scandinavia (well, Denmark and Sweden) proved to be an excellent place to recharge the batteries and experience of bit of what my husband and I now refer to as 'infrastructure' tourism.

Our aim clearly wasn't to fly, flop and fry in the sunshine. That was soon proved right as we arrived in Copenhagen (by ferry and train) to be greeted with the highest levels of rainfall that the city had seen in over 50 years. It rained and didn't stop for a long, long time. So what started as denial-wear (cue new summer wardrobe) ended in waterproofs from head to toe, dawn until dusk. But still, what we do best as Brits is grin and bare the weather in all its extremities, or sheer persistence in this case. And so, our flashpacking tour of Nordic infrastructure wasn't impeded, it was just a bit damp.

The first point that I'll make is an obvious one, but cycling in Denmark makes a huge difference to the way its cities work. Cycling is the default transport mode. I knew I'd love it. But seeing it all in action really makes you think, 'well why don't we do this in the UK'? It will take commitment from the government and long-term thinking. Something that politicians here can't quite grasp as elections take precedence over good ideas. The infrastructure for cycling needs us to admit: 'We need to stop driving around cities and prioritise bicycles'. Can you imagine? Cycling utopia really grips you when you visit Copenhagen and other cities in Denmark (Aarhus was another one). It really is the perfect back-drop to this year's COP15.

It is worth mentioning at this point that my husband is an ethnographer. Often confused with espionage, ethnography as a research method is excellent at pointing things out by immersing one's self in or around the 'other'. Or becoming the ‘other’ in some cases. As travellers in Denmark and Sweden, we can report back on what we see and find but as far as becoming the ‘other’, our claims are weak. But all the same, we made some observations which can be refuted as ‘merely’ a set of assumptions based on what we perceive as the differences between living in a place where you know the social practices that shape everyday life and a fantasy place where you do not know from experience the social practices. In other words, the classic ‘grass is greener’ scenarios. But we’ll make some assumptions all the same, and expect some challenges in return.

People get on pretty well. We saw very few instances of public aggression – both passive and overt. We felt that personal space was respected even when we were close by to strangers. Yet their presence wasn’t felt. Our meal at Noma Restaurant was a classic example of this. Although being at one of the top restaurants on the planet, the atmosphere there was relaxed and fellow diners were close by. But at no point did they intrude on the enjoyment of the best meal I’ve ever tasted (oh my god, the Smoked Quails Eggs were unbelievable!).

Smaller divide between rich and poor. It’s either that or the Danes are good at hiding their wealth or their poverty. Despite high taxes, their quality of life is pretty good. And cycling is a great leveller too as people ride modest bicycles (unlike fast/expensive cars that we seem to worship in the UK and judge people by).

Children play and take risks. And they’re not fat and stressed. We sat by a beach near to an art gallery outside of Copenhagen and watched as groups of school children came down to explore. Some of them had a real sense of purpose as they scoured the beach for odds and sods. They climbed over rocks and perched on the edge of the pier under the watchful but not controlling eye of their (young and active) teachers. There was no fear of reprisal from either the teachers or the pupils who happily explored the beach.

Work and life in balance? OK, so we visited at the beginning of the summer season when days are long (almost endless) and the people are gearing up for holidays. If we imagine the Scandinavians in darkness for the rest of the year, however, perhaps their productivity levels are sky high, and when May hits, they down tools for time out. But we don’t really know. But what we did notice was that people finished work before four and were spending time with family and friends. Mosebacke Bar in Stockholm at 4pm on a Tuesday afternoon was absolutely packed with demand for tables in the sun at a premium. Or take Aarhus, for example, where people wondered along the beach at all times of the day and evening to enjoy the sculpture exhibition with their families.

Affordable and reliable public transport. Say no more really. Except there wasn’t much point upgrading to First Class in Sweden as standard was more than ok. And everything ran to the second. Gawd damn it.

Design we die for. Ask Mark at Danish Homestore in Nottingham. He’ll tell you about our unhealthy obsession of all things Danish, including lights, chairs, tables, tea towels (yes! they even make the most amazing tea towels we discovered in a Copenhagen department store). Husband Andy will explain our obsession in a curator-style way: “The Scandinavians embrace modernism (efficiency) without loosing craft skills – modern designs for living with a human/natural warmth (natural patterns of trees, leaves etc on many design products).” There you have it. Go Danish Design. It rocks.

Low crime, yet – few cameras?! This must really flummox the British urban planners: ‘Er, we believe more cameras equals a safer society.’ Well, b*****ks to that because it just ain’t true. More cameras equals distrust and distrust equals lack of respect which equals crime against property and other people.

I guess the list could go on. But for fear of ranting and criticising the UK’s short-comings too much, I thought I should let hubbie sum up:

“From my perspective it is an interesting thought experiment to consider how different the social experience is in a country with a small population that is governed conservatively, taxed highly (compared to UK/US), values education, craft skills (traditions), play and has a strong work ethic that is balanced against encouraging non-work and time on, not time off for consumer experiences. And which also appears, at least as a phantasmagoria, to be more equal/open whilst also being capable of collective decision making.”

An ecoescape story wouldn’t be complete without some helpful info on how to ecoescape in Sweden and Denmark. Here are just a few things we did on our flashpacking tour.

Louisiana Modern Art Gallery, outside of Copenhagen
Go and visit the exhibition on Green Architecture, running until 4 October 2009.

Noma Restaurant, Copenhagen
Michelin-starred and out of this world. I’m still dreaming about Smoked Quails' Eggs. The chefs forage for some of the ingredients like beach herbs. Incredible, incredible food. But book at least 3 months in advance.

Kolarbyn, Sweden
Stay in a Swedish forest in a hut. No electricity or running water. Instead a beautiful lake, natural spring, open fires, sauna and heaps of fresh air. Go wild. We had the ‘honeymoon’ suite which is a cute cabin with enormous double bed. Our 'package' included a hamper of homemade dinner and wine.

Take the train
It really is a pleasure in Denmark and Sweden. Quiet, clean, and spacious carriages. Reasonable prices, friendly staff. And you can book online for Swedish fares here: That’s how we got very cheap first-class travel between Copenhagen and Stockholm. Oh how we miss the dignified ease of it all.

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