Aarhus

     After spending a rough day in Copenhagen, with my hotel located on what I came to realize was the street for black hookers, I caught a train in the morning to the second biggest city of Denmark, Aarhus, in the northern peninsula of Jutland. I hoped to find the country I had known.
     I set up camp at a bed and breakfast in the old section of Aarhus called the Latin District, which has gone through a renaissance and now hosts a number of excellent restaurants and relaxed cafes.
     One restaurant called Latin and the other LeCoq both specialize in seafood and serve mussels like I can never get outside of France — small, succulent, cooked a-point, and brimming over the bowl.
     This was more like it. LeCoq is also the school bar for the architecture school in Aarhus, the city with the largest student population in Denmark, and on the night I showed up there, the older students were hosting the girls and guys who had just arrived for their first year.
     For the Danes, like the French, conversation is an art form, with humor and liveliness. But, more so than the French, the Danes also enjoy conversation as a way to discuss serious ideas. And, unlike Americans, where politics tend to be a dangerous topic — I compare it to talking about religion, a matter of faith more than reason — the Danes love discussing politics.
     But they will almost always concede a point or simply move on to a related topic if conversation becomes too heated or if, say, an American takes a strong position critical of, say, Scientology. They want above all to keep the conversation going.
     So, in the student tavern, conversation was lively, jumping from a discussion of the Danish anti-immigrant party to a rock concert in Skanderborg that I had attended to questions about Obama. I ended up having a great night walking from bar to bar with a large group of newfound friends, on into the wee hours of the morning.
     Here was the Denmark I loved.
     I had a couple more days to kill before the wedding, so I took a train from Aarhus up to the far northern tip of Jutland, called Skagen, where two oceans, the North Sea and the Kattegat, rush together and where the currents are fierce and fatal. The light so far north is famous for its cool clarity, and a school of Danish painters had been based here in the early part of the century.
     Skagen’s principal museum now houses much of their work.
     But in going through the museum, a blonde, Danish, female guard seemed to walk out of her way to look me in the eye, as if to say, “I see you.” I couldn’t figure out what she was doing. But then she began to warn the women tourists around me to hang tightly onto their purses.
     I remained mystified and did not realize, until I sat down with a beer and thought about it, that she took me for a pickpocket.
     Thus, you might say, my Danish reception proceeded from the black hookers of Copenhagen who wanted to give me a warm reception to the white guards of the far north who thought I was a criminal.
     I had run into it already a number of times, where, if I did not make it clear very quickly that I was an American, I would be treated harshly by those who mistook me for an immigrant from the Middle East.
     The owner of the hotel where I stayed in Skagen, Hotel Petit, is a northern Italian man named Flavio, who has a complexion much like mine. He is a sharp and articulate guy and runs a clean, efficient hotel with an excellent breakfast.
     He told me that, married to a Danish woman, he had watched as Denmark changed from an open and welcoming society to one that is much more closed and hostile to foreigners. He had felt the coldness come in.
     “Sometimes, they think I’m a Muslim,” he said.
     I returned to Aarhus to attend a wedding, the purpose of my trip to Denmark. A short ceremony at City Hall conducted by a city councilman clad in black robes was followed by a party in a “commun” house, which is typical Danish set-up.
     The houses are fixed-price shacks with small garden plots, set up by the township or “commun” and meant to give factory workers some fresh air and sunshine after months in dark apartments, dark streets and closed-in factories.
     The price of the little garden houses — around $30,000 — is regulated by the commun so you cannot speculate, and any improvements you make do not alter the plot’s value.
     The sheds thus function as little get-aways, just a step above camping while the residents cultivate leeks, onions, green beans, shallots, tomatoes and apple and pear trees, and cook their meals mostly outside.
     The wedding party was all that I hoped for, with beer and wine all night, good food and conversation and dancing. The tent was decorated, as on all festive occasions in Denmark, with small Danish flags, a white cross on a bright, red background.
     But, in a sign of the times, one of the guests told me she no longer associates the flags with celebration, she now associates them with the right-wing, anti-immigrant Dansk Folkeparti, junior partner in the current Danish government.
     I was left at the end of my trip with an incident that reduced the many impressions into one.
     On the way to the train station with my rucksack and my laptop, I stopped at my favorite café, the Ministeriet, or Ministry. I put my bags down outside and a pretty, young, blonde Danish waitress passed by, telling me I had to order inside. I joked that I wanted to follow the rules.
     She gave me a hard look and said in a dead-serious tone, “You had better.” She was not joking, she took me for Muslim.
     I moved my stuff inside. As I ordered in American-accented English, I saw her face go through a transformation – it was like some kind of facial 180-degree turn, reminded me of a Road Runner cartoon – and it was plain she was realizing something. “Where are you from?” she suddenly asked.
      “Los Angeles,” I said. And from then on, she was warm, engaging and sweet.
     The Ministry has dark red-orange walls, obscure landscapes on the wall, old furniture, a wall for posters and free newspapers, and a pair of big windows looking out onto a square with few people and a line of small, straggly trees. I savored the final beer in Aarhus.
     “Have a good trip,” said the waitress, as I shouldered my bags and headed for the train station and the long road home.

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