Saturday, November 22, 2008


Hoisting crossed digits, my wife made the sign of the T. After an agony of hanging chads in 2000, followed by eight bellicose years of W and what seemed this fall like an endless number of recycled speeches, ads, editorials, debates, wrangles, cheap shots, and dirty tricks, she called for a time out. We'd already lost two elections and the inspirational Hilary had gone down in flames. Would the same fate confront the inspirational Barack? It was too awful to contemplate. We decided to leave the country for a couple of weeks of R&R and return refreshed to vote on November 4th. But where to go to escape American politics? "Denmark!" we shouted in unison. A country loaded with hearty monosyllabic ex-Vikings and obsessed (refreshingly) with herring and H.C. Andersen. Besides, we'd never been there. It was worth a try.

Early the next morning and thoroughly exhausted, we landed in a chill welcoming drizzle dragging our tails (i.e. suitcases) behind us. The sign over the exit said "Kobenhavn." Turning to one of the tallest, blondest, best-looking cops I'd ever seen, I smiled ingratiatingly, asked where to get a taxi. She showed me the exit. "Tak," I thanked her. She ran her tongue over the inside of her mouth as if searching for a word, a cavity. Grabbing my arm, my wife yanked me out the door.

There were a half dozen taxis queued up outside, five of them taken. The sixth was ours. The driver--an Oxonian, from his accent--tossed our suitcases into the boot of his Mercedes and we were off. He drove like the wind. Talked non-stop. The first thing he asked was, "Where are you going?" The second was, "Do you think he'll win?" We told him we hoped so. And then came his third question, which sounded in my ears like an ominous Puccini chord foreshadowing doom, "Do you think he'll survive?
"Of course he'll survive," I shot back. "Didn't you see Clint Eastwood in Line of Fire?" He hadn't, but he liked Eastwood. Later, when he pulled up in front of our hotel and I paid him with a couple of Danish bills that featured Isak Dinesen's picture (which bore only the vaguest resemblance to Meryl Streep in Out of Africa), he gave me my change and said, ""You'll like this place."
Shaking my hand, he admitted that he too hoped Obama would win.

The lobby of our hotel, a large one, was almost deserted at that early hour of the morning. There didn't even seem to be a front desk. That was because it was designed by the legendary Danish architect-designer Arne Jacobsen, the lobby sprinkled with his "Egg" and "Swan" chairs and his Scandinavian Airlines desks that resembled lily pads. Popping out from behind her pad, an even larger and more attractive looking young woman than the Air Terminal cop came hurrying over to us and suggested we pull up an Egg and sit down.

Her name was Wylde. ("Like the English writer," she said, but pronounced it "Vil-da.") She was Norwegian. And Wylde couldn't have been nicer. The room she found for us on the 15th floor, which wasn't supposed to be ready for occupancy until the afternoon but apparently was, provided a superb view of the city. Across the street, the Main Train Station and the Tivoli--a combination amusement park, music hall, and elaborate nineteenth-century pleasure garden owned by Carlsberg, the Danish beer company. And just down the block the bustling Radhuspladsen (the Town Hall Square). Though all of Denmark has a population smaller than New York City, about one million of it seemed to pass daily in review on the wide boulevard below our windows traveling on foot, in cars, or peddling their bicycles arm in arm.

During our first few days at the hotel, no one mentioned McCain or Obama, let alone their running mates or Joe the Plumber, which was restful. The Danish newspapers, however, were full of them, and that was only the ones in English. Not to mention the London Times, the Guardian, and the International Herald Tribune. I tried not to glance at the lobby newsstand on our way out.... We were busy tracking down the latest wrinkles in Danish design. At least that's what we thought when we entered the Dansk Design Centre on H.C. Andersen Blvd., the five-storey building conceived as a "window to the world" of Danish design by the architect-designer Henning Larsen. His most recent building the spectacular new Operaen, which was completed three years ago at a cost of more than 500 million, is one of the most expensive opera houses anywhere.

Larsen's Design Centre with its smoked-glass exterior opened in 2000. My initial impression of the uncomfortable way it sat in its cramped urban setting was not promising. But what really disappointed me was how little there was of Danish design on exhibit. Not that there wasn't much to see of interest. On the Main floor, the principal show was a traveling Finnish exhibition, singular for its wit. How can you knock a large pair of red felt slippers with another smaller pair placed on its instep and pointing in the opposite direction, arranged adorably for father and daughter locomotion? Not to mention the grim rack of "Parkas for Lonely People," somber black jackets with broad Velcro straps. The accompanying video revealed the jackets in action. A solitary glum-looking figure dressed in black is approached by an identically garbed fellow who accidentally becomes Velcroed to the first. Then another, and another, and.... Before long the improbable scene is a writhing mass of arms and legs that resembles a throbbing complex hydrocarbon compound undergoing conversion. And I haven't even mentioned yet the waterfall sink, the bookcase-garden room separator, or the tiny indoor grill for urban living-room picnics (at about 12 inches in width ideally suited for baby lamb chops the size of lollipops).

Upstairs was the Nordic Food Show, downstairs in a remote narrow hallway (adjacent to the rest rooms) the "Icons of 20th-century Design." Among the icons the Centre selected as worthy of inclusion were Olivetti and Selectric typewriters, the Barbie doll, the Apple computer, the Eames and Rietveld chairs, Windows 95, and the Danish designed Lego. Before leaving, we dropped in on the Centre's cafe for a snack. The menu was heavy on sorrebrod (open-faced sandwiches) with fish, chicken, cheese, etc. The cafe manager, a gregarious Tunisian young man eager to promote his gourmet cuisine influenced by Claus Meyer--popular Danish TV chef and food enthusiast--lauded his excellent and socially responsible "Fair Trade Coffee." We thought his enthusiasm justified. He confided that as foodies go, the Danes had been slow in catching up but the local restaurant Noma had recently received its second star from the French Michelin Guide. Food-wise, he said, coming from a Francophone country gave him a certain advantage. We wished him well.

Our time in Denmark went by with a mind-boggling swiftness. Though I like the work of Gauguin and Caillebotte, the museum show of the latter's work at Ordrupgaard was minor and disappointing, as was that of the Gauguin paintings from the stormy period of his nine-year marriage to the Danish Mette Sofie Gad at the Glyptotek. The couple did, however, have five healthy children together. Gauguin spent only one winter in Denmark with his wife and in-laws, which was apparently enough for him. Following their breakup, he left for the tropical Marquesas Islands, where he was to paint many of his major works. Today there are apparently more than fifty descendants of the artist living in Denmark. Unfortunately, he failed to leave behind an equal number of first-rate paintings.

In retrospect, there were two especially memorable evenings of our stay.The first was a Royal Danish Opera performance of Handel's Partenope presented at the old opera house on the square called Kongens Nytorv. Our taxi driver, a large grizzled man with glasses who resembled a retired sea captain, held his steering wheel as if it were the helm of a fishing trawler. He asked if we'd seen the new Opera House, in fact offered to shut off his meter and show it to us if we had the time. It was clearly an act of civic pride. How could we say no? On the way over, he told us about Maersk Mckinney Moeller, the Danish shipping tycoon and one of the wealthiest men in the country (second only to Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen of Lego fame) who had put up the money for the new Operaen. "Over there," he said. From the edge of the canal, he pointed across the harbor to Henning Larsen's nine-storey high building, a blazing birthday cake enhanced by its dramatic site and brilliant reflection on the water. It was definitely worth a detour.
And what of its predecessor? Despite its creaking floors, and cranky seats, the old Opera House could still put on a great show, and the night we were there--the last of its current run of a modern-dress version of Partenope--it most certainly did. Its original instrument orchestra, Concerto Copenhagen, led by Lars Ulrik Mortensen was outstanding. As for the two counter-tenors, Andreas Scholl as Arsace, and Christopher Dumaux as Arminde, they complemented one another elegantly both in their drollery and pathos. I've seen Partenope before but never has the character of Ormonte seemed so effective in ordering the action, a tribute no doubt to its director Francisco Negrin as well as Palle Knudsen who played the role. This Ormonte, with his commanding baritone, proved an ideal majordomo. It was as a conjurer, however, that I felt he added a wonderful dark note to Ormonte that enriched Handel's comedy enormously. Whether magically moving walls, or sending them crashing to the ground, or sliding down a rope from a mezzanine box to the orchestra below as effortlessly as Errol Flynn, he was a riveting theatrical presence in an exciting musical production. The appropriately appreciative audience brought the conductor and cast back repeatedly with thunderous applause, hating to see the night end.

Our farewell dinner party with Danish friends was equally special. Our host gave us detailed written instructions for finding his house which was in Charlottenlund--a costal suburb north of Copenhagen in the area known as the "Danish Riviera." He said, "Take a taxi." His directions--in Danish--were for the driver. We decided to take a train, have a lttle adventure. But the adventure came when we took a taxi from the train station and gave the driver our directions. Punching in the address on his GPS, he said confidently, "No problem." He knew exactly where he was going, but it soon became obvious that he was facing a challenge beyond his mettle. He grew sullen, almost desperate as the road narrowed, became increasingly dark. Stopping the car repeatedly, he got out to look for a house number, a light on the other side of a fence, a lurking jogger who knew the neighborhood. We tried futilely to keep up his spirits. We had failed to notice his gloomy Hamlet-like Elsinorean streak before. Things seemed to take a turn for the better when we came to a dead-end that turned out to be a cul-de-sac with five children in riding gear sitting in the shadows in front of a riding stable watching us. Doubtless waiting to be picked up by parents. No, they couldn't talk to strangers. It was only later over dinner that we learned the street our host lived on was divided in two by a barricade to thwart kidnappers. His neighbor on the far side of the wall was the super-rich Maersk Moeller.

The guests all spoke fluent English, the conversation was lively, the champagne excellent, and the dinner delicious. It was a very good evening. It wasn't long before I discovered that another guest--one of Denmark's leading lawyers, according to our host--also had a connection with UCLA. He'd been a post-graduate student in the UCLA Law School in the 1980s when I was teaching in the English Department. His field at the time was Energy. He was amazed at the amount of specialized relevant material the Law Library contained in his subject. And excited by some of the new data-based electronic technology that was available to him there. And truly astonished at the accessibility of his professors. He imagined that Barack Obama probably felt somewhat similar when he first arrived at Harvard Law. He wanted to know everything I knew about Barak, and above all if I thought he had a chance to be president.
"Gladly!" I said. "But first," picking up the bottle of wine in front of us on the table, "how about another glass or two for the road?"

After a long day that had begun at 5 A.M. and included a bumpy nine-hour return flight to the U.S., the two of us were exhausted. With any luck, I told myself, we'll find our suitcases and zip through Customs without any hassles. As for the suitcases, they turned out to be no problem. They had more ribbons and flags than a used-car lot. Next I told my wife, "If they ask you, make clear that the only foreign edibles we brought back were the two packages of salmiak licorice in my shoulder bag for our neurologist friend with strange tastes." (I remembered him telling me that Danes don't call it the Devil's munchies for nothing.) "I'm afraid when Customs spots the granular white stuff on top, they'll think the ammonium chloride is cocaine. And once they start to go through our suitcases it can take forever."
"Right," she said, "and no political chitchat. Remember who's still the President. The wrong answer and we could end up in Guantanamo."
Of all the Inspectors lined up to handle the frazzled returning Americans, one distant saturnine chap I noticed had clearly singled us out for attention. In fact, he began to beckon to us. I told the Customs official directing our line that we'd wait for the next available agent.
"Over there." She pointed to her pal crooking his finger in our direction.
Reluctantly, I handed over our two passports. He snatched them up like the jaws of death.
"So," he said, "you've been to Denmark. Have a good time?"
"Very," said my wife.
"Good, good."
It was all quite innocent. He seemed genuinely pleased. Maybe I had misjudged the fellow. He wanted to know if we had come home November 3rd in order to be able to vote tomorrow.
I said, "We can't wait."
He chuckled. "Had enough, eh?"
There was something that hinted at entrapment in the way he said it. Perhaps I'd been too enthusiastic. Was this a time to wear my vote on my sleeve? The awful paranoiac changes during the past eight years had taken their toll on me.
"You don't have to answer that," my wife broke in.
He laughed. "You're both voting for Obama, aren't you?"
"Let me tell you something," I said unequivocally, " one way or the other it's time for a change."
Apparently he thought so too. "Welcome home!" he congratulated us, and stamping our passports waved us through.

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