A President's Reflections

Dispatch from Copenhagen

Posted on November 23, 2013

If there is paradise for bike lovers, it must be Copenhagen.

This city, with ground pancake flat, has built an amazing infrastructure for bicyclists. Every major street has a bike lane….in both directions.  Intersections have traffic lights for cars and for bikes.  Everyone defers to the bikes.  Cars, trucks, buses, and even pedistrians.  One taxi driver explained that in any car-bike accident, the fault automatically assigns to the car.  Even if the bike drives into the car.

Violate the bike lane and risk having a stream of bikers slam their fists on your hood and fenders.  When it snows, bikes lanes get cleared first.  Bike parking is everywhere, whether racks or slots in the pavement.  At the really busy spots, such as major train stations, there are two level bike racks.  So 55% of Copenhagen commutes by bike.  Young and old, off to school or grocery shopping, back and forth to work.  It’s amazing.

We rented bikes and rode all over the city today.  It’s the perfect way to travel as a visitor: faster than walking and allowing you to see more, but slow enough to see the sites and pull over whenever something looks interesting.  And it’s good exercise too.  Funny how quickly I adopted that menacing look one gives hapless walkers who mindlessly wander into the bike lane.  Through the busiest part of the city, sidewalks packed with Saturday shoppers and traffic packed in, we glided effortlessly with the river of bicyclists speeding through the city’s gorgeous streets.

We are here because I was asked to give a talk on innovation at the Scandinavian Executive Publishing Meeting and the sponsors kindly flew me over.  The talk, on Thursday, was at the Tycho Brahe Planetarium.  It was a little surreal, surrounded by model space gear and an astronaut floating overhead.

My talk was well received, though I have to say that it was a little sobering to be in a setting that had so many symbols of America’s scientific prowess and ambitions, model Space Shuttles and moon landings, knowing that we can’t make a government web site work and periodically shut down our government, teetering on debt default.  In a conversation over dinner with some of my Danish hosts, who love America, we touched upon a theme I’ve heard from Europeans more than once lately: the sense that America was once smart and dreamed big dreams and we seem neither anymore to the world.

They all readily ackowledge that still have top notch universities and innovative companies, but they recall a time when everyone wanted to go to America because we seemed to be reinventing society, could talk about a War on Poverty, putting a man on the moon, and opened our arms to dreamers and idealists.  We might have been clumsy and even bellicose in foreign policy and a little arrogant in our American exceptionalism, but there was a sense of idealism that seems largely absent to Europeans reading their newspapers and seeing our struggles, political paralysis, small hearted stance on immigration, financial fits and starts, income inequality, and shift towards fundamentalism in right wing politics and religion.

As one said, “Our Conservatives are still left of your Democrats.”  So it was with some delight that we travelled back to 1971.  Well, in a manner of speaking, when we biked to Christiania, the self-proclaimed independent squatter community that inhabits an old Danish military site. 

Locals tell us it is less wild than it once was, though soft drugs are still permitted and in the Green Zone cameras are not permitted as the pot trade continues and no one wants undercover cops taking photos of buyers, sellers and smokers.  Christiania has its own cafes and restraurants and even souvenir shops amidst the ramshackle buildings and houses (designed in their proudly architect-less architectural style), many decorated with graffiti and murals.

Christiania has had its bouts of trouble and even violence, and there is an ugly underside to drug use that peeked through from time to time.  Nothing pretty about destitute looking old guys downing nips of vodka and smoking joints at 10AM, but there is still something so refreshing about a place that essentially says “f**k you” to a world of corporate order and materialism and conservatism.  Very New Hampshire in some ways, now that I think of it.

We returned to the European Union


and had lunch in the lovely winter garden at the Carlsburg Glyptotek, the amazing art musuem created by Carlsberg brewing magnate, Carl Jacobsen.  We ended up there after I struck up a conversation with a fellow biker at a stop light.  Turns out he is the research curator on colors in ancient statuary (now that’s a niche job!) at both the Glyptotek and the National Museum, both housing world class collections of antiquities.  He led us to the museum and suggested the lovely cafe under the dome, a winter garden of palm trees and other tropical plants.

What a lovely respite from the gray skies and chilly temps outside.  By the way, as we saw in Austria one New Years, these are a hardy people.  They ride bikes all winter (and it gets cold here), eat and drink outside, and even do all the amusement park rides at the famous Tivoli Gardens.

Back to the Glyptotek (I just like saying Glyptotek — it means sculpture garden, btw), it houses one of the finest collections of French Impressionism anywhere.  It’s a modest size museum, so there was  one of that “museum overload” one gets at blockbuster laces like the Louvre or British Museum, the one where your eyes glaze over and you start walking by outrageous works of art with barely a glance.  The museum started with Jacobsen’s sculpture collection and it is pretty amazing.  This haunting piece, standing in isolation at the top of the stairs in the new wing, was a favorite:

Fully shrouded, it was hard not to touch the marble to reassure ourselves it was actually stone.  We came upon a choir practicing for a performance later tonight and just listened for a while, an unexpected treat.

Fed, watered, and mentally nurtured, we ventured back onto our bikes and just rode for a while, enjoying this prosperous and beautiful city.  We rode down to the port, past the famous statue of the Little Mermaid, through the crowded shopping areas.  We came upon a crowded Xmas market (these outdoor markets pop up all over Northern Europe during the holidays) and stopped to stroll by the food stalls, buy warm mulled wine, and chat with the food vendors.  We learned about the local beef and the Norwegian source of the salmon (I’ve eaten more salmon in two days than I have the last six months).  The Danes are ranked as the Happiest People in the World year after year and they certainly seem to live up to the hype.  People have been friendly and welcoming and quick to care for us.

They certainly a good looking lot.  Seriously, every fourth person could be on the cover of a magazine.  The kids are ridiculously blonde and blue-eyed, ruddy cheeked in the cold.  As research shows, height correlates with standard of living and these tall people are showing the effects of excellent and free health care (hear that, Ted Cruz?), free education through university, daycare support, and more.  By the way, not to be a bummer, but Americans are getting shorter (hear that, Ted Cruz?).

More to come later, but off to sample Danish cuisine.  Copenhagen has become one of the hottest food cultures in the world, home to NOMA, voted Best Restraurant in the World (you know, all of this Danish success might get tiresome….), and ground zero for a northern food to table movement.  All that biking — we’ve worked up an appetite.




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