Sunday, May 20, 2007

Those Quirky Danes!

I’ve been in seven different countries in the past six weeks, so you’ll have to forgive my tardy updating. I’ll begin my musings with the first, and dirtiest, stop on the tour: Germany’s neighbor to the north, Denmark.

Germans head to Denmark in the summer to rent seaside cottages and enjoy the lovely beaches. They drive up, trunk full of provisions (Denmark is comparably expensive), and go out only to the beach. Many of them never explore the country or its people further.

Too cold for the beach over the Easter holiday, my mother and I had little to do but wander . . . and wonder about those Danes. We discovered, for example, that the Danes have an odd sense of humor. First, we tried to enter the art museum, but were greeted at all entrances by this sign:

There was no way into the museum without walking where this sign was telling us we shouldn’t. There was no construction or any reason that we couldn’t walk on the paths, just these conspicuously placed warnings. Rulebreakers we, we headed past them and inside. At the ticket counter, we asked where we were supposed to have entered, as everywhere we had been was posted with large DO NOT ENTER signs. They explained that the text below the universally recognized symbol (only in Danish, naturally) read something like, “Don’t enter here unless you’ve paid your taxes.” It was part of a campaign around Copenhagen to make Danes aware of where their tax money is spent and, therefore, how important it is to pay one’s taxes. We aren’t Danish residents, but even in our short stay we paid more than enough VAT (value-added tax, in Denmark an additional 20% on all purchases) to enter cultural institutions with a good conscience.

On our way from the museum to the city center, we passed by this statue, one of many (including the famous statue of Hans Christian Anderson) we saw “decorated” in a similar fashion.

Finally, on our way home from the outdoor architecture museum, we passed this large garbage container, which is not a Danish joke per se, but which we thought was funny nevertheless.

Maybe it’s funnier if you know that Danes don’t actually throw any of their garbage in bins, preferring, at least in central Copenhagen, to litter instead. We were both surprised at how dirty the city was. On the plus side, it was always free to use the toilets!

And surprisingly, this was often a pleasure, as bathroom fixtures seems to be one area to which Danes pay serious attention. They are proud of their Danish design, though I don’t know enough about it to comment whether or not these taps are, in some way, Danish . . .

I’ve traveled enough to know that toilet paper, hot water, and ample soap and towels are optional public restroom items, even in many developed countries. Not only did Denmark not charge for their generally high-quality restrooms, these unique and interesting fixtures made for memorable handwashing experiences.

Neither my mother nor I had been to Denmark before, so we wanted to see Copenhagen. It’s a relatively inexpensive trip from Hamburg; the five-hour, very comfortable IC train ride (ferry inclusive — that’s right, the train gets on a ferry) can be booked for €22.50 one-way. That said, any savings in travel costs is quickly eaten up by the high prices for mediocre restaurant food and just about everything else. To get your VAT’s worth, be sure to plan your trip over a Wednesday, when most museums in Copenhagen are free! Also, the national museums are always free — this includes the outdoor architecture museum, a collection of old houses and settlements from earlier times and from all regions of Denmark, including the Faroe Islands. For Easter, they offered some historical activities for children. Transportation buffs may also enjoy the driverless underground system, which whisks you through the tubes with a roller-coaster view. One final tip: though this is not clearly stated anywhere, the 10-strip card, which is the “cheapest” way to get around Copenhagen, can also be shared between two people by punching the appropriate number of strips (2 each for city travel, 3 total for city-airport or vice versa).

Next stop: The Netherlands.


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