Copenhagen is getting a lot of attention lately, first as the place where the International Olympic Committee met to award the 2016 Summer Olympics to party-happy Rio de Janeiro, and then as the site of an international meeting on climate change in two months time.
I spent a day in Copenhagen this summer on the way to a wedding. And I thought the city had changed a lot.
When I first came here nearly two decades ago, it was an extraordinarily open and safe city, populated largely by Danes who by and large enjoyed work and beer and conversation. They lived in a kind of social country club, protected by free education, free healthcare, free daycare, high pay, high taxes and high employment.
The city center was populated with clubs and cafes in centuries-old buildings along cobblestone streets, where young people arrived by train or bus on weekend nights, and pooled together for a taxi home in the wee hours. But the Danes don't go down there anymore.
It is only for the tourists and the immigrants, for which I was unfortunately confused.
My first night after getting off the plane, I stayed in a hotel near the main train station which is where almost all the hotels are congregated. It was a seriously modest room for almost $300 a night.
After wandering around my old haunts and finding nothing but tourists and tourist restaurants, I returned late to my hotel only to find that it is apparently located on black hooker street. So as I come to the corner of the main street Vesterbrogade and the side street Colbjornsensgade, I see girls on the corner who are the most beautiful mulattas.
Around the girls, at a small distance, are groups of lanky, black men, a few of them on cell phones. Having spent part of my youth in West Africa, I am sure they are from West Africa.
One of the girls on the main corner is lovely and sweet and very forward. I tell her in French how beautiful she is and then move on down the side street towards my hotel, called the Comfort Europa.
As I walk along the street, Colbjornsensgade, women have taken up positions about a third of a block apart. But there appears to be clear progression or pecking order. The further I walk away from the big street of Vesterbrogade, the older and less attractive and more aggressive the women become. By the time I get to my hotel, I am practically running.
The one exception to the uni-color nature of the women on the street was a spot about half way down the side street where a young, Middle-Eastern woman was plying the same trade. She too was under the protection of a group of young men, one of whom was on a cell phone. But in her case, the men were Middle-Eastern.
As I found out later, my dark hair in a nation of mostly blonde, fair-skinned people caused the Danes to take me initially for a Middle-Easterner and therefore for a Muslim. That reaction came with a clear harshness and sometimes a request to leave, until I made it clear I was an American.
I have Danish friends who are thoughtful and reasonable. But they argue that the welcome mat their nation put out for the asylum seekers from the Middle East and from Africa had resulted in a range of problems.
They include battles for control of prostitution and drug rackets, as I saw on Colbjornsensgade, but also a conflict with the mores of Danish society. Those conflicts crystallized into riots in the Middle East in reaction to a set of cartoons in a Danish newspaper. Within their nation, the Danes see the Muslim immigrants forming enclaves that often do not accept the Danes' egalitarian view of men and women.
The reaction among Danes has been strong enough to result in the rise of anti-immigrant party, the Dansk Folkeparti, which has been a crucial pillar of support in the country's ruling center-right coalition.
Simply through my appearance, I had unwittingly stepped into a political and cultural war.
Which had not been my intention in traveling to a wedding in happy Denmark. After a short time in Copenhagen, I boarded a train for Arhus, the second biggest town in Denmark far to the north in the region of Jutland. I would find out if the Denmark I had known still existed up there.
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