Why didn't anyone tell us about Christiania?
The Danes have massively underplayed their descriptions of Christiania, the small semi-illegal bohemian community along the sea. Maybe it simply defies description, like a true trickster, and takes a different form to each new pair of eyes. We had heard that it was “lots of funny interesting houses” but also a "place where people are free, and the pot dealers don’t like you taking pictures.” Neither did it much justice.
What we discovered was a free-range version of Haight Ashbury that since the 1970’s has been a thriving encampment of utopians, beatniks, dropouts, and part-time hippies. "How we would know it when we saw it?” we wondered as we walked in it’s direction, and lo, there suddenly appeared a large gateway between murals of rainbows, fairies, and dragons happily proclaiming “you are now leaving the European Union.” Inside it was a sweaty mess of ramshackle hovels and aging brick military barracks at varying levels of construction or de-construction. Power tools could be heard. Spades and tracks lay everywhere in permafrost mud.
The standing art pieces that littered the first courtyard were both transcendent and bleak, alternating between bright geometric graffiti and dark metal skeletons. We were jerked to a halt before a tall iron woman. What caught my eye was the crown, so very like that of the statue of liberty but instead of spikes, a tiara of pointed nuclear missiles. The face was evil and stoic, and while the bony right hand dragged rustic chains, the left held a two sided scepter. The lower part was clearly a hammer and sickle and the upper was a holy cross lined in torture spikes. Woah. Christiania definitely had our attention.
The first few inhabitants we meandered into laughed loudly amongst themselves, throwing back their dreadlocks and flashing a bejeweled assortment of facial piercings. Greasy dogs chased each other and a man strummed a guitar and collected coins from the influx of tourists, many of them families, who looked like they were cheerfully on their way into disneyland.
The center square, if you can call it that, is what you would find if you packed up the commercialized Haight street of today and reassembled on a Saturday in a wintery scrapyard. Vendors hawked all sorts of Bob paraphernalia (both Marley and Dylan), hackey-sacks, NWA t-shirts, and smoke-pipes. All of it looked pristine and fresh with tags off some third-world factory floor.
Further still were small ad-hoc booths lining an alley, all draped in military camouflage netting with spray paint signage. One booth displayed the Mona Lisa dressed as Ronald McDonald and read: culture shock. Others bore stenciled graham crackers fighting over a joint. Within each booth hunched an individual shrouded behind a ski mask and cautiously purveying an assortment of green herbs. A large crowd browsed noisily, many of them chortling and retreating to a semi-formal beer garden among a sprawl of benches. “Welcome to the green light district!” a large sign happily read.
We took just a moment to glance back. We weren’t but a few hundred yards from where we had come and where the bright Danish police patrolled the streets. They never ventured in here. “Enjoy. Smoke. No photos,” another sign cautioned as we continued in.
At this point we absolutely had to know more and ducked down towards the water and into a very nice house with a "jewelry store” sign. We learned from a proud woman in her forties that there are about 800 residents and that the crux of their success is direct democracy. Although dived by interest groups, they gather monthly to vote on community matters. “Some of it works, some of it doesn’t,” she admitted frankly. “We’re trying to clean up the river today” she shared. I asked if everyone was participating and she laughed.
Christiania stretches for nearly a mile up both sides of the shore, and many well-beaten paths guide tourists only so far through it. It seemed an energizing hangout for teens and we eavesdropped on a vagabond in leather gloves with a guitar on his back and pointy-eared dog on his side who exclaimed to two visitors dressed in their North Face gear, “Absolutely. Ever since, I’ve never been happier."
On our way out, a large gateway constructed of two tiki poles twenty feet high read, “you are now re-entering the EU!” and just like that, we were back on the cobblestones steps watching bikes and taxis whizz by with great purpose in the cold.
It’s my great regret that we captured no photos from this encounter. They’re highly discouraged and we felt that it was something we could respect. The gallery below are drawn courtesy from their website plus my sketch of the statue, Christiania.org.
Much more to come!