In 2004, I was bidden to Denmark to celebrate the 199th birthday of Hans Christian Andersen, the eminent literary socialite and world-renowned author of 156 children’s stories. The Ugly Duckling. The Little Mermaid. The Emperor’s New Clothes. The Princess and the Pea. Thumbelina. His mother was a washerwoman who drank too much; his father, a dirt poor cobbler with a droopy moustache. Hans grew up to be a lanky, gangly sort of fellow with size 14 feet and an enormous honker that must have made him the butt of many a joke in his childhood slum.
In 1818, he arrived at the Court Theatre in Copenhagen and enrolled as a ballet dancer. Alas, no amount of cobbling by his father could reduce the size of his ungainly feet. His dancing career was a flop. But Hans was not to be derailed and, grasping a quill, he wrote to the leading families of Denmark, the King included, seeking sponsorship for a series of short stories.
Within a few years, Hans’s tenacity paid off. Children across Scandinavia were falling fast asleep to the sound of his magical, often tragical, words; dreams peppered with graceful swans, matchstick girls and cuddly but doomed mermaids. Today, he is one of the world’s most widely translated authors and has arguably become Denmark’s biggest export this side of bacon, cookies and Lego.
Over three days, I visited Hans Christian Andersen’s birthplace, childhood home, second home, third home, fourth home … I could go on. I was meant to go on. I was meant to get all the way to Assistens Cemetery where he was laid to rest in 1875. But, great man that he undoubtedly was, it was time to disembark the HCA fairy train and go see the real Denmark.
So I hooked up with an old friend, a Danish postman called Ole, who took me on a Saturday night’s prowl around Copenhagen. It’s a fantastic city, a sailor city, peaceful, child-friendly, flower-friendly, lager-friendly. 1.7 million souls amble around its neo-classical boulevards and fairytale palaces, handsome cobblestone squares filled with tring-a-ling bicyclists and gigantic statues of men such as Bishop Absalon, who founded the city in 1167, and Soren Kierkegard, the “father of existentialism“. (I searched in vain for a statue of Helena Christiansen but it must still be under construction).
I spent a few jovial hours at the 17th century Nyhavn Canal, a pretty multi-coloured legoland of gabled taverns. Yes, you pay for your beers. Perhaps €6 a pint but that’s still pittance for the luckless Swedes who come stampeding west for “cheap beer” every weekend. Actually, it’s perversely enchanting to find a city more expensive than Dublin. It’s also very good beer. And if beer isn’t your thing, then a shot of Vodka mixed with Fishermen’s Friends is sure to put horns on your head.
The hippest part of town is currently Vesterboro and its open late. The general rule is bodegas for rowdy get-togethers, voersthus for intimate chit-chat. And, well, there’s always the late night karaoke bars but bear in mind that Denmark’s solitary musical success to date is Aqua, the group who brought you Barbie Girl.
That said, the Danes can actually speak English very well. The women sound deliciously like 1960s Bond girls. They don’t always get it right. Ole the Postman wished to know did I live on the outskirts of Dublin or “the inner skirts”.
The Danes are charming, open-minded, amusing, savvy and extremely laid back. They can also be desperate goody goodys when it comes to things like not crossing the road until the red man goes green. In April, the government cracked down on the famous “Free City” of Christiana, an iconic residential centre for free-spirited hippy tokers since 1971, citing a rise in heroin dealership as the problem.
Whatever the fate for marijuana smokers in Denmark, tobacco smokers need have no fear. The Danes are diehard smokers. In Copenhagen Airport, they have small areas where non-smokers can stand. Even the Queen smokes. On my last day, I returned to the HCA trail to attend a ceremony at which Her Majesty was present. When the show was over, I raced out to the lobby to spark up, only to find the Queen already three-quarters the way down a Turkish cigarette. The Queen strolled peaceably amongst her subjects, stubbed out her last smoke and turned to give us a farewell wave. And I swear, her eyes locked upon mine for a moment and her right lid clicked open and shut, clickety click. “Blimey!” murmured an English girl beside me. “A Royal wink! You’re in luck, love!”
I was in such good humour after this that I happily took my seat for what was to be the last phase of my HCA tour. A jolly man in top-hat and tails introduced himself as the Great Dane, snapped his fingers and in waddled twenty toddlers clad in traditional peasant garb. The fingers snapped again and everyone burst into song. I sat rooted. I remembered hearing these songs a long, long time ago.
A private “Eureka!” engulfed me. Fairy tales aren’t for cynics; they’re for children! So when it came to a rousing chorus of “The Ugly Duckling” , I had two options. One was to shiver a wistful lump from my throat. The other was to start smacking my palms together and sing-a-long. So, altogether now:
“There once was an ugly duckling,
With feathers stubby and brown,
And the other birds said in so many words,
“Get Out (dum dum), Get out (dum dum),
Get out of town!”
Turtle was a guest of the Danish Tourist Board (www.dt.dk).
NB: The Danish use Kroner, not Euro.