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Hi/Lo: Denmark's Christiania and Valdemars Slot

The people who adore Denmark tend to like it for the same reasons that other people find it unexciting.

No nation on earth is more sensible, reasonable, healthy, tidy, virtuous, nice. The Danes were the first to prohibit slave trading, the first to make school compulsory and free, early pioneers in social welfare. And where else in the 21st century do you find freshly baked breads and good wine for sale at highway service stations?

Yet part of the appeal of foreign travel is to glimpse and taste the exotic immoderation at the centers of other cultures—extravagant, operatic church interiors in Rome; Shanghai's suddenly metastasizing Blade Runner skyline; Tokyo's vast indoor fish market at dawn; pharaonic tombs; bullfights; czar's rooms made of amber; hovels; strangeness; extremes.

Denmark's signature location, on the other hand, is Tivoli—a nice, pleasantly democratic, carefully managed pleasure garden for families; neither huge nor tiny; not fancy or state-of-the-art but not a weird historical artifact either; a place where the entertainment sensibility runs a wholly familiar gamut from lower-middle (Whac-A-Mole) to middle-middle (a Dane doing perfect Frank Sinatra covers) to upper-middle (the Alvin Ailey dance troupe).

In France, strolling the boulevards and ogling the grand buildings of Baron Haussmann's Paris, a literary person thinks of the transgressive, troublemaking freaks who once walked the same streets: Rimbaud, Huysmans, Céline, Genet. In Denmark, wandering Copenhagen's quiet, charming, small-scale, tasteful downtown, one thinks of Hans Christian Andersen—and then maybe of Karen Blixen, whose stories (under the pen name Isak Dinesen) her unappreciative countrymen tended to find too aristocratic, too exotic, too fantastic, too romantic.

So, 113 years after my great-grandparents emigrated from Denmark to Nebraska, I visited the ancestral homeland for the first time with a somewhat perverse agenda: I wanted to organize a trip around the country's touristic outliers, the vividly high and the vividly low.

My most astute local tutor turned out to be Allan Ottsen, a Copenhagen banker and archetypal Dane—generous, civilized, fair-minded, good-looking—whom I met on my second day in the country.

"There really are no extremes in Denmark," Ottsen said as he drove me, my wife, and our teenage daughters to dinner at his home, 45 minutes north of Copenhagen. For instance, even under the current right-leaning government, the tax Ottsen paid on the Audi sedan in which we were riding was $100,000, almost twice the cost of the car. He smiled at our astonishment, but he didn't seem rueful or bitter. The intention of a nearly 200 percent tax on such luxuries, he said, is not so much Socialistic in a strict economic sense, but cultural—to discourage conspicuous displays of personal wealth. Even the fringe political parties in Denmark, he said, are rather moderate, and the Danish press is mild and anti-sensational. It is a capitalist country, certainly, but has not yet succumbed to American-style hypercapitalism—most of the big chain stores and supermarkets closed at five on Saturday and all day Sunday.

"It's the Jantelov," Ottsen said, pronouncing the J as we would a Y, "our Danish don't-excel tradition."

I made a note. Jantelov, or Jante's Law, I learned later, is the life imitating art imitating life invention of another Danish-born fiction writer. Aksel Sandemose's satirical 1933 novel En flyktning krysser sitt spor (A Refugee Crosses His Tracks) nailed the essential spirit of a country prone to extremism only in its deep insistence on restraint, understatement, and homogeneity. His fictional Danish town of Jante required that no citizen consider himself special—not smarter, better, wiser, more interesting, knowledgeable, or important than anyone else.

Ottsen was driving us the long, scenic route up the coast to exurban Fredensborg, by way of what locals call the Gold Coast. But these sea-view neighborhoods of the wealthiest Danes look distinctly upper-middle-class rather than rich—absolutely modest by the standards of Greenwich, Connecticut; or Malibu. If there are houses there larger than 10,000 square feet, I didn't see them. Ottsen paid $160,000 for his car, wears a conservative suit and tie, and runs a bank, and his house and large yard abut the grounds of Queen Margrethe's summer palace—yet he baked us bread and cooked us dinner using eggs from chickens that he and his wife, Else Marie, raise and herbs and vegetables they grow. No airs, no ostentation: Jantelov.

Growing up in Nebraska, I realized, I had lived under the same law without knowing its name. The Scandinavian immigrants who populated the eastern Great Plains transplanted their social progressivism to a few districts (as in Minnesota), but everywhere, from Grand Rapids to Fargo to Omaha and beyond, their native suspicion of individual idiosyncrasy and specialness was baked into the Midwestern personality. It's why I left Nebraska as soon as I could, why I live in the wildly anti-Jantelovian city of New York, and why I love the interestingly extreme. But it's also why I was a halfhearted hippie as a teenager, have been disinclined to live very large as an adult, and why my politics, when all is said and done, seldom diverge too far from the sensible center.

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