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Hi/Lo: Denmark's Christiania and Valdemars Slot

On top of one large house I notice several pairs of well-used heavy leather shoes. Nina explains the inhabitants "are a German group who travel for three years and one day at a time. When they are in residence here they put their shoes on the roof as a sign." Another house, also built in the past few decades, is octagonal, with a conical roof and half-timbered walls. On the far bank of the Stadsgraven ("Three years after we stole this side," Nina says cheerfully, "we stole the other side") a house has been constructed around a huge tree. And a two-story house with a steeply pitched roof is built up in a tree.

No, it's not another planet, but rather a fairy-tale recasting of life on this one—I keep thinking of the Shire in Middle-earth, home of the hobbits. It can't be a coincidence that The Hobbit became a text of the youthquake as soon as its first mass-market edition appeared in 1965—benign, furry, happily unambitious creatures living in half-earthen houses, eating well, smoking pipes, and twigging to magic in an idyllic green community. And the Danes in particular embraced Tolkien's vision: in the Danish edition of The Lord of the Rings, the illustrations were by Queen Margrethe. In Christiania, they live the dream.

In a settlement founded by the (no longer) young, youth must still be served. Each age group among Christiania's children has its own clubhouse. One of the largest recent pieces of civic infrastructure is a big indoor skateboarding pit. Loppen (Flea), a 400-seat club, is one of Copenhagen's main rock venues.

In general, though, while Christiania is more bohemian than bourgeois, it also seems as pleasantly middle-aged as it does young. Sharing Loppen's 19th-century warehouse is Spiseloppen, an excellent bobo restaurant that serves, for instance, reindeer over roasted organic mushrooms with berry and aniseed sauce. Den Grå Hal (the Gray Hall) is not only the site of a recurring drag-queen beauty pageant called Frøken Verden (Miss World), but also of the annual Julemarkedet (Christmas market) and festival.

Visitors are welcome at all of the stores and artisanal workshops. The bicycle place, which has a chic new Modernist steel-and-glass façade, manufactures and even exports a Whole Earth–y trike-cum-pram-cum-wheelbarrow. Another shop makes and sells North African–style tables and Swedish ovens. And Grøntsagen, a gorgeous fruit and vegetable store, is a SoHo-meets-the-Hamptons Platonic ideal of such a shop. We oohed and ahhed over the lettuces and melons and oranges for half an hour—and at the shaft of perfect sunlight illuminating a crate of red and green peppers. As we passed the Sunshine Bakery, we stopped just to smell the aromas wafting out. The Månefiskeren (Moonfisher) café has a pretty, airy interior and huge arched windows, and at Morgenstedet (Morning Place), all the entrées are vegetarian and cost about $8. Everything is homemade, including the good, spicy vegetable stew and scrumptious spice cake covered in huge, multicolored frosting flowers.

Cannabis leaves and buds figure prominently in wall murals. Some waist-high marijuana plants growing outdoors are accompanied by a label claiming they are "industrial hemp." People seem to hack and cough a good deal. And one of the central thoroughfares is called Pusher Street. Christiania tore down and ceremoniously burned Pusher Street's dozen hashish and marijuana stands three years ago as a dramatic way of appeasing the government. (One of the stands was spared and installed—so Danish—in the National Museum.) As a result, the old no-photography-on-Pusher-Street rule still obtains—I saw a European tourist snapping pictures for only a few seconds before a man wearing a Chicago Bulls hat backward confiscated the exposed film. This being reasonable Denmark, he paid her for it.

Despite the end of the drug bazaar, however, and despite the fact that most Copenhageners seem inclined to let Christiania remain as it is, the government is pressing ahead with a plan to strip the community of its off-the-books singularity—to "normalize" it. In 2004, the parliament passed a law to begin treating Christianites this year not as members of a collective but as individuals who would be required to buy, or pay rent for, their homes and businesses at market rates. The place is to be de-communized and privatized, and several hundred new dwellings are to be built by private developers. Negotiations between Christiania and the Palace and Properties Agency are ongoing, but radical change—that is, radically in the direction of regularity—seems inevitable.

To a friendly outsider, this Danish government seems to have a misplaced obsession with making an example of Christiania's untidy utopian lawlessness. Dudes, it's been 35 years; let go; let it be. Christianites are now like a lost tribe of indigenous people whose unusual homes and folkways should be allowed to survive in their original state if only as a matter of anthropological interest. BEVAR CHRISTIANIA (Protect Christiania) and FORSVAR CHRISTIANIA (Defend Christiania), as the signs and stickers and graffiti say, amount to the literally conservative position. Besides, even business-minded technocrats ought to understand that the unsullied brand is well established and thriving: all over Copenhagen are Christiania T-shirts and umbrellas and bikes, and an average of 2,000 shoppers and tourists a day visit the place.

Another, virtually secret community of hippie squatters from 1971 lies across the Stadtgraven canal to the south. Ballonparken is a hushed, open, weirdly undeveloped bucolic bubble in the city—no murals, no signs, no cafés, hardly any tourists, and none of Christiania's self-dramatizing symbol-of-the-beleaguered-counterculture ostentation. Walking back through Christianshavn proper, if one takes the correct zigs and zags one comes to yet another, nearly secret village, which, because it lies below street grade, is unknown to most residents of Copenhagen, let alone visitors. Vennelyst—whimsical, intimate, insular, and perfectly odd—might be a colony in Tolkien's world, a 300-cottage development (population 1,000) in the Shire somewhere between Hobbiton and Tuckborough. Its name means "Friends' Place." It is, Danes tell me, an apotheosis of the national hygge sensibility. Summer (that includes late spring and early fall) is the only time this seasonal community is open to visitors, and I challenge anyone to wander its gravel paths and fail to smile and gasp.


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