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Extra Danish bacon

A beginner's guide to the Danish general election

storm

Right now, if there's one thing the Danes love more than flea markets (and boy they sure do love 'em in Copenhagen) it's putting up posters of candidates in the upcoming general election.

According to the local English language newspaper, the election was called after a long period of procrastination on the part of the current Prime Minister, probably due in no small measure to the fact everyone's convinced he's going to get voted out of office come the big day. To judge from the sheer volume of posters affixed to every other lamp post, wall and window, the announcement came as a massive release for politically-active Danes (and with average turnouts for elections in the order of 80-90% there's an awful lot of them). In what shall probably rank as the most superficial analysis of contemporary Danish politics ever written, here's a few things I noticed about the posters.

(1) They pretty much all look like enlarged passport photos

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I took this to be a product of official rules governing the publicity candidates can put out, so as to create a level playing field without the main parties being able to bombard the electorate with sophisticated VOTE FOR US propaganda. That notion went out of the window when I saw this guy's poster, a real attempt to stick it to The Man and his financial institutions that have slowed growth to a virtual standstill (sound familiar?). With such dynamic graphic design, I hope his factories good, banks bad approach takes him all the way to the top.

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(2) This guy's name looks too much like Willy Scandal for him ever to make a go of it in British politics

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I think I read that he's a leader of one of the main parties and is in with a shout for a top job in the probable new coalition government. Good for him.

(3) This old timer really couldn't give a fuck

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(He was actually advertising something in a shop window, heaven knows what - elderly antagonism perhaps?)

Posted by RobertJSBriggs 03:32 Archived in Denmark Tagged politics Comments (0)

Copenhagen

Bicycles and beer, but never together

semi-overcast 18 °C

So I've bid my tearful farewells to loved ones (I'm not afraid to admit to getting emotional) and left the country. I'm on my way at last! And what better place to start than Copenhagen, a city whose seemingly universally Anglophone inhabitants are amply well equipped to deal with my failure to learn so much as a single word of the vernacular (unless Lurpak counts? What about Lego?).

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I must stress that I was in Copenhagen for two-and-a-bit days, so those craving detailed anthropological observations will have to obtain them from elsewhere. However, from what I could tell, the Danes are not merely extremely conversant in the English language, but they would appear to be versed in the dark art of irony as well. How else to explain hair salons named Oops, Headache, and Hairdresser On Fire, or a running shop called The Athlete's Foot? It may also go some way towards accounting for the stone-skimming competition taking place on a canal I happened upon in Christianshavn (I should perhaps add the "stones" were white plastic discs that made even the most useless competitors able to get into double figures for the number of bounces). There must have been a 500-strong crowd watching proceedings. Maybe some of these people are responsible for tying neckties around certain local statues. If so, they have uncommonly good taste in ties.

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Discounting the little statue of the mermaid in the harbour (which I chose to avoid, not wanting a repeat of the Manneken Pis episode) and the Carlsberg brewery (which turned 200 during my visit without me knowing), Copenhagen is most famous for the astonishingly high percentage of its pretty, multilingual populace who ride bicycles everywhere they need to go in the city. Demographics may have been the reason for Katie Melua choosing to sing about there being lots of bicycles in Beijing (and I'll find out in a month whether or not the titular fact has some basis in fact), but there are bikes everywhere you look in this city, to the point of them becoming a teensy bit of a nuisance. What is more, the whole fixie fad that's so big in some parts barely registers here. Folks just ride their sturdy, practical bikes, and more often than not look great doing so (I'm told someone in the city runs a blog called Hot Girls on Bikes - maybe someone can confirm this?).

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The other main institution among Copenhageners (and it should be borne in mind that I'm visiting on a weekend) is walking - but never cycling - around town with a little can or bottle of one of the local brews in hand. Sure, the morning after reveals plenty of broken bottles, takeaway wrappers and pools of vom freckling the streets (enough to make an Englishman feel right at home), but the absence of Public Drinking Exclusion Zones and more remarkably the police - I saw one copper the whole time I was in Denmark, and that was at the airport - hasn't exactly caused the hellmouth to open. Maybe less is more, or maybe the Danes are just cooler.

All in all I've had a pretty sedate start to proceedings as I'm still negotiating the tail end of my Belgian food poisoning. My mum reinforced a last minute chat about what's sensible to eat and food hygiene with an email covering the same ground only in greater detail, sent before I'd left Gatwick. My first night was thus a riot: no beers, early to bed, even booked my plane ticket home (from Japan in a few weeks from now). Been trying to "get on it" a bit more since, a mission somewhat compromised by my turning up to the one-day food festival on a street near my hostel 20 minutes after it had finished. If only they'd laid on food at the stone skimming. Not that I can complain too much, having had a massive late lunch that day at a cafe whose tables were covered in Danish map cloths. Unsurprisingly it was called Atlas.

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To get my bearings as well as save a bit of cash on public transport fares, I mostly got from A to B on foot. Sore legs and nascent blisters aside, it paid dividends as on the way I got to see a lot of the main sights of Copenhagen. I even managed to find the street in which my dad painted an amazing watercolour decades ago (at least I think it was him who painted it - I should have checked before I left). Truth be told, the source of my discomfort can be traced largely to my ascent and descent of the tower and spire of Our Saviour's Church, a famous viewpoint that can only be reached by climbing a spiral staircase wrapped around the outside of the copper spire (the Danes love copper cladding on their buildings btw). It tapers to a point, from which you have to extricate yourself, turn round and then squeeze past the middle-aged couple who followed you up. The views are stupendous, unlike the reminder that I still have mild vertigo. I swear it made my thighs hurt on the way down.

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The next day I was back in the area paying my tourist dues and visiting the famous "alternative" neighbourhood of Christiania. Established in the early 70s in a sprawling disused army barracks, it's best known today for its Green Light District, where soft drugs are openly sold by fat men at unappealing-looking stalls (except on the couple of occasions a week when the police descend on the place in tokenistic raids to reinforce that ultimately drugs are still illegal hereabouts). The word seedy has fallen out of use among my generation, but it's perhaps the best word I can think of to describe it. Which is a shame, since it overshadows the rest of Christiania and what it stands for. Maybe it's not the model for how we'll live in the future, but there's certainly more to it than weed and bad graffiti.

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I could bore you with details of my visit to the National Museum, but I'll say only this; it's brilliant, all things considered probably the best museum I've been to, and is well worth a squizz if ever you're in town. I will, on the other hand, bore you with details of my trip up the coast to the world-famous Louisiana Museum of Modern Art (no, I hadn't heard of it either). Getting of the train, the location at first seems more than a little suburban, but taking the free cycle taxi (which made me feel guilty for not being able to help with the pedalling) brings you to the front gates of what was once a fairly grand house. Up the road is the sea, and I will admit to having a little moment sat on the beach when memories of childhood holidays came flooding back, until I had a word with myself and made my way back to the museum. It was fantastic. The key was in its simplicity, a series of gallery spaces in pavillions dotted about the grounds of the old mansion and linked by glass walkways, partly enclosing a sculpture park. There were three exhibitions, the main one being on future trends in architecture (super interesting, although I was flagging by the end as it was so long), but pick of the bunch had to be a Hockney show, Me Draw on iPad. It was pretty much what it says on the tin, a collection of pictures he'd created over the past couple of years using the Brushes app. The accomplishment of the images (what are they? Pictures? Paintings?) was astonishing enough, but what had me hooked was the fact that several of the works were on playback, thus allowing you to see a Hockney take shape before your eyes. Revelatory.

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Right, that's pretty much it, unless you want to hear about my cheeseburger meal in a restaurant named Sunset Boulevard. Didn't think so. Next up; the truth about my time in Malmö and Göteborg.

Rx

* This blog post was brought to you by a keyboard featuring the letters Ö, Å and Ä

Posted by RobertJSBriggs 00:14 Archived in Denmark Comments (1)

Brussels

I had to start it somewhere, so I started there

all seasons in one day

So this is my not-especially hyped travel blog I've been promising not-especially large numbers of people I would do. Credit where credit's due, I was inspired to set up this blog by my friends Kat and Ian's ace one - http://katian.travellerspoint.com - documenting their passage back from Australia to Manchester after a year living Down Under. Hopefully in time I can work out how to use this properly and make it look and sound as good as theirs. While we all wait for that to happen I will plug on; as anyone who knows me will testify my record of replying to texts, emails etc. is patchy at best, so at least this way if there's words it can only be a good thing, and if there's not then I've let everyone down collectively (which I will then attempt to blame on heavy-handed internet censorship).

Right now I'm not on my travels. I've more or less overcome a bout of food poisoning that has taken the best part of two weeks to shake (I'll spare you the details). I got this food poisoning in Belgium.

My original intention had been to depart on 18th August for three weeks of Interrailing before entering Russia and boarding the Trans-Siberian Railway. However, a combination of my fabled ability to not sort things out sufficiently far in advance and my equally-fabled conscientiousness when it comes to my work (ha ha) meant that the date grew increasingly unlikely, and so it proved. Well, kind of, since I'd bought a one-way Eurostar ticket to Brussels donkeys back thinking it could be amended if things didn't go according to plan, only to find out about four days before that it wasn't anything of the sort. Now while most people would take this on the chin and write it off as a salutary lesson in pulling your finger out and getting stuff done, being my father's son I resolved that the best course of action was instead to plan a last minute, two-day trip to the city in order to get my travelling eye in and see the Atomium, which as far as I was concerned at the time was the only thing worth seeing in Brussels.

A few days ago my friend Alex, in a reply to a text I had sent him earlier, chided me for making my messages so long, so I'm pretty certain he's going to crucify me when he sees this essay. Anyway, enough waffle, more about Brussels (there's a joke to be made about waffles, but my stomach still isn't sanctioning any food-based humour so I'll have to leave that an open goal for others). Here's a few things I noticed about the Belgian capital:

(1) They have two sorts of tram. This is confusing enough for the first-time visitor, but especially so when there's the mother of all festival-destroying thunderstorms going on outside, the instructions on how to get to your hostel have clearly been Babelfished, and the Brussels public transport map hasn't been designed for the likes of me. Cue having to jump off the tram five minutes later and run for cover, then pick my way through central Brussels all the while rueing my decision to print of a map where neither the tram routes or street names were legible. I didn't come by a decent map until almost a day later. Compounded by my refusal to buy a guidebook (who's going to buy it off Amazon Marketplace once I'm done with it?), this compromised my trip somewhat.

(2) The beer's all that and more. You even warm to the one all the locals drink that tastes like its a beer-wine mix by the end of the bottle. Mussels and chips is a harder sell. I think I trebled my lifetime's consumption of shellfish in one meal. And boy do they love their lobsters. As for waffles, they say you should eat them like the locals do with a dusting of sugar and nothing else, but given their not exactly a pinnacle of cuisine I went for the OTT tourist version coated in cream and sauce, and feel pretty vindicated by that decision.

Moules et frites

Moules et frites

Lobsters

Lobsters

(3) The Grand Place is surprisingly hard to find given its name and its billing as the largest Gothic square in Europe or some such (admittedly my ongoing lack of a map may have had a hand in my difficulties here). Truth be told, it's a teensy bit of a letdown (see also: Manneken Pis). Sure, it tears strips of the likes of Piccadilly Gardens - not least in terms of the amount of gilding - but it's not all that grand in scale and the buildings are much of a Gothic muchness. Felt a tad like a Harry Potter set. All this coming from a medievalist.

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(4) The Atomium, by contrast, was hands down the best thing about my trip there. These days top-end architecture may be dominated by "iconic" buildings, but the Belgians more or less had the whole thing wrapped up back in '58 when they put the finishing touches to a giant shiny model of an iron atom. It's not for us to ask why someone thought this was the best use of the country's money - they were most definitely in the right. The Atomium looks amazing from the outside (I think they re-clad it a few years ago, or else gave it a thorough polishing), not quite as exciting on the inside, although this may be because I fell into the trap of taking the escalators rather than queuing for the lift (the fastest in the world in its day) and thus only making it halfway up to a pod with no windows to look out of. Which, aside from familiarising yourself with the sub-atomic structure of iron, is the main reason why most people visit the Atomium.

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(5) Decent-enough views over the city centre (which I'm told any local will happily concede is not among the most beautiful in the world) can be obtained from a terrace outside the Palais de Justice, once the largest building in the world. Having been to Ceausescu's monster parliament building in Bucharest not so long ago I'm on a bit of a roll when it comes to gigantic edifices. Strangely, it doesn't look all that huge from the street, and it's not until you walk around the vast, pigeon shit-covered entrance portico that you realise what a vast structure it is. The impression of scale is reinforced by taking the lift down to the neighbourhood below (past the best accordionist I'd heard busking in a long time), a proper slice of old-time Brussels that is dwarfed by the legal leviathan on the hill. This area also happened to have the largest number of murals featuring the cartoon characters (none of which I recognised) that are one of Brussels' motifs.

Seat of justice

Seat of justice

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(6) Speaking of cartoon-ish civic motifs, the Manneken Pis is rubbish and should be avoided so as to give yourself 15 minutes to do something more interesting and edifying elsewhere. In effect, it's a bronze doll pissing into a trough. Tastefully done, but there's no escaping its, er, piss awfulness. Or for that matter the crowds who block the streets to gawp at it while ignoring the city's dozens of other fountains, each with their own probably just as interesting story to tell. That said, the rows and rows of Manneken Pis souvenir corkscrews (which could more accurately be described as cockscrews) in the adjacent tourist tat shops are quite something to behold. Kinda wish I'd taken a photo, although these two largely make up for it.

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This is great for so many reasons

This is great for so many reasons

(7) Having reached the conclusion that Brussels is actually a thoroughly awesome place that merits a longer and more organised visit, I thought I'd save myself some money by booking a coach home. Sure, the Eurostar was hassle-free, but I've just spent the best part of a year commuting to and from work by coach, what could possibly go wrong? Only having a wonky-toothed driver whose traffic jam-dodging detours through the Belgian countryside made us first fall behind schedule to the extent that we missed our Channel crossing and then wait 45 minutes in a petrol station on the outskirts of Dunkerque as he'd been timed out by his tacograph. I think it took a total of ten hours to get back to London, but I was in no mood to factor in the time change just in case it added a further miserable hour. It was on this hot coach that I ingested the dodgy ham that has provided me with what unfortunately may prove to be my abiding memory of an otherwise great couple of days in Belgium.

- - -

So in little over a day from now I'll be on my way. The Mongolian and Chinese embassies turned around my visa applications as quick as their Russian counterparts, and I have pretty much every ticket and form paid for and printed. Today is about getting the inevitable last minute, why-didn't-I-think-about-that-before items, and packing. That, and hanging out with our Soph.

Posted by RobertJSBriggs 02:51 Archived in Belgium Tagged steps first Comments (1)

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