For those who are not into reading the entire travel journal, here is a short summary upfront: if you are into blue skies, lush greens, brisk winds, if you are a sailing afficionado, an ardent history geek, an automation nerd or a design lover, then check out Hamburg, Lübeck and Copenhagen, three major North European urban centers, one in the past, two in the present, which are worth not only a trip, but moving there for good. If you hail from a smog ridden Chinese megalopolis, spring is probably the best time to go there, because the entire region is abloom with magnolia trees and daffodils, and unreal blue skies serve as a post card back drop. [Our photo journal is here.]
The roughly 1000km round trip started off in Copenhagen and went west to Esbjerg and Ribe, then South to Romoe and Sylt with our German destination Hamburg. From there we drove North to Lübeck and back to Copenhagen. The tour can be done in one week, it is nevertheless advised to plan two weeks for a more relaxed travel experience.
I recall three major headlines throughout that mid-April week. The G-7 summit is held in Lübeck. German-Polish author-giant Günther Grass dies in Lübeck. A 17 year old Afghan immigrant is stabbed by his fellow-nation school mate in Hamburg. It seems that we travel at the beat of time as our conversations with locals will show.
On the 5th day of our Teutonic crusade across Northern Europe, where everything seems to be about seafaring people, we arrive in Lübeck, formely nick-named „Queen of the Hanseatic League”, just the day after the G-7 summit finishes. The 1464 Holsten Gate, a national icon, greets us with the Latin inscription Concordia Domi Foris Pax [Eintracht zu Hause Frieden im Ausland | harmony at home peace abroad].
The inscription is not only a fittingly motto for the G-7 summit in the light of the Ukrainian crisis and the Islamic State disruptions, it also reminds me of the neo-Confucian CCP propaganda about social harmony | 社会大同. All of this is subject to wide interpretation, but it strikes me how the Hanseatic cities managed to thrive as a trade union of individualistic, ancient Greek-like polis-entities, whereas China always tried to centralize its power and therefore turned into a monolithic hegemon, whose bigness often lead to stagnation and eventually even decline. I simplify my opinion on this subject by quoting Leopold Kohr and his disciple Fritz Schumacher: small is beautiful.
Radio and TV reported intensively on the G-7 summit and I was reminded in yet another way of last year’s traveling. In 2014 the wedding of Peter and Ana drove us to Valencia and then to the marvels of Andalusia, including Cordoba and Sevilla, the epicenter of Spanish trade with and exploitation of South America. We flew from Shanghai to Madrid and arrived on the day of Felipe’s coronation. The city was in a state of alert with lots of police in the streets, similar to Lübeck during the last few days. Where ever we go, local residents still chat about the event and the massive police force involved. Media reports that the G-7 leaders discussed the European crisis in Greece and the global crisis with the Islamic State amongst other things.
This year’s wedding of Morten and Helena in Esbjerg, a relatively young industrial city in West Jutland, made us choose Copenhagen as airport destination. A wedding serves as a great excuse for a journey and as an intimate entry point into the visited society. We are the only foreign guests at Morten’s wedding in Ribe’s cathedral and the reception at Helene’s work place, the Esbjerg grammar school. Both buildings provide some insight to Denmark’s history and the state of things. The cathedral is the most prominent building in the 7200 inhabitant small city of Ribe, which was Denmark’s and thus all of Scandinavia’s capital before the royal family moved it in 1580 to Copenhagen. It’s cobble stone streets and up to 1300 year old houses make it a must see. The school, which gives space to more than 1000 students, is a display of pragmatic modern architecture. Denmark is a rich country and one of the world’s highest taxation is seemingly well used to provide excellent free education in excellent infrastructure.
The flat landscape of Denmark surrounds us everywhere. I remember my Kunming flat-mate and industrial designer Matthew spent two years in Denmark. Not a surprising choice. Even the small industrial town of Esbjerg does not disappoint Denmark’s reputation of being a modernist design epicenter. We have our first coffee in Portlands, a sleek mixture of up-scale IKEA furniture and tasteful Scandinavian simplicity. I marvel where Scandinavians have their aesthetic sense from and why it is so much found in applied design? And why are all products no matter if small or large of such a lasting high quality? There is always a connection with nature to be found. I reckon that in the case of the Scandinavian countries lasting quality must be related to an extreme exposure to the elements: strong winds, stormy waters. Nothing of poor quality can last in this region. And it must be the play of sunlight, rich and long in summer, short and waning in winter that gives the Scandinavians their outstanding sense for contrasts, colors and shapes.
I guess strong winds are then also the reason why Denmark is modern Don Quixote’s dreamland with ubiquitous wind power mills. But wind turbines branded Vattenfall make me rather think of Asian growth, because of its out-of-nowhere-rivals like Goldwind. Danish cutting edge innovation is the source of quite a few “Doing Business in China” textbook chapters. Famous for their waste incarceration technology and biomass power plants, the Danes have served China not only once as technology provider to be applied on the large scale. It’s nevertheless not high-end technology that comes to my mind when driving across Denmark. Its hairdressers, sports equipment sellers and gyms; these three kinds of shops roughly make up half of all visible entrepreneurship. Danes are sporty people, that’s well known, therefore gyms and sports equipment stores make perfectly sense, but the amount of hairdressers reminds me again rather of China, and I wonder how these coiffeurs survive considering high Danish wages. My wife simply explains that there is a need for many hairdressers, because the Danes have lots of hair. Probably another research area for Fujian hairstyler-sociologist Ben Ross or for part 2 of Don’t Mess with the Zohan.
Europe’s 5000 Year History
We continue our journey from Esbjerg and Ribe southwards and take a detour to the Danish island Romoe, where we park our car on a ferry to the famous German island Sylt. Sylt, indeed is a very distinct – although not different from Romoe - place, that nobody would associate with Germany in the first place; but Germany after all is a large and diverse country; and to my shame I only know the South. Large dunes, brisk wind, red bricked – reed roofed Hobbit like houses and the “Alice in Wonderland” café Kupferkanne nestled into the Sylt beach landscape will remain in my memory. But because of the Denghoog, I will also tell my Chinese friends that Europe too has more than 5000 year of history. The Denghoog is the best-preserved megalith stone-age tomb on Sylt and dates back 5200 years. Similar to Stonehenge it remains a mystery how people managed to transport these up to 20 ton heavy rocks from glacial areas further North to its present location. European historians and Brussels politicians are advised to use these early traces of an advanced civilization to create a European historical myth, which every child can tell by heart if confronted with the Chinese history fairy tale.
Upon arrival in Hamburg it feels as if we have reached the epicenter of present North Germany, if not even the North European civilization. Hamburg is not only one of the largest harbors on the planet; it is also a supra-regional cultural and a national media center. Compared to Vienna, where I spent a good part of my adult life, Hamburg albeit of similar size appears to be much wealthier and modern. It seems when the Prussians beat the Habsburgs 1866 at Königsgrätz 160 years of en route decline had started. We take our airbnb lodging in St. Pauli close to Reeperbahn and manage to get last minute tickets for Calexico in the Beetles venue Hamburger Freiheit.
In Lübeck we visit not only a national icon, the Holsten Gate, but also the Town Hall, where we get a great guided tour through the building. Lübeck was the capital of the Hansa Teutonica, a powerful trading association of Northern European cities from the 13th tot he 17th century. The town hall, we are told, was also the high court of the Lübian Law, a legal system which was in force to settle commercial disputes. The 13th century building was the model for many other town halls in the Hanseatic region and conceales many interesting details like a Justicia depicted without a blind fold or a court room door with two wings, one smaller and one larger. The Justicia without blind fold indicates Lübian arrogance, because it means that Lübian merchants could speak justice without a blind fold. The two doors of the court room where used to show the defendants the way out of the building. Spoken guilty one had to take the smaller wing, spoken free of guilt one could walk out with his head up using the larger wing.
I find it most interesting that the written language of that time and region was a mixture of German, Latin, Danish, Dutch, etc; an almagam of all the ethnicities who were involved in the Hanseatic League. A proof for how much nations are constructions of the 18th century, and why the power of these cities was at least as counterproductive to the formation of a unified Germany as the French foreign policy.
All in all, Lübeck was the big surprise of this trip. An architechtural and historical marvel which can be seen in the bird’s eye perspective from a platform on top of 13th century St. Mary church, which similar to the town hall was the model for many other Baltic churches. Lübeck is also famous for its Marzipan and a visit to famous bakeries like Niederegger is definitely a must do. But we have only half a day for this lovely city and then have to move on back to Denmark. On the way to Copenhagen we stop on the island of Fehmarn, where we watch sturdy Germans kitesurfing amidst freezing Baltic winds and decide instead to have a coffee & cake break in the snug Hof Café Albertsdorf.
Back in Denmark we are lucky to get a last minute accommodation in the bohemian district of Frederiksberg. Our host is Brazilian and tells us that a wealthy Danish businessman constructed the 19th century building according to a London blue print. Our almost royal lodging fits the environment, which we discover the next morning starting with the Frederiksberg Gardens, a superbly tended park with lots of fowl and blooming plants. Again, it is the intensity of light, which strikes me. I almost feel drugged and my eyes are irritated by the bright colors, which I am not anymore used to.
In the world class National Museet we learn that Denmark was settled by the Cro-Magnon man at the end of the last ice-age some 14500 years ago. We are also confronted with yet another national trauma of being left with a territorial torso (I refer here to my native Austria and Turkey). Denmark once overlord of all that is now known as Scandinavia and Northern continental Europe; Copenhagen, the Rome of the North being hegemon to the lands bordering the Baltic sea, lost Sweden in 1523 and Norway in 1814 to independence, and Southern Jutland to Germany in 1864. In terms of landmasses gigantic Greenland forms an integral part of Danish territory, but the rather uninhabitable island might only during a protracted global warming proof a valuable possession. With all these territories lost, the Danes had to find a new source of national pride and therefore the Viking Myth was created. Iconic Viking characters like the Thunder God Thor still accompany us in today’s Hollywood world and Viking stereotypes are as familiar to the popular consciousness as Italian Mafia connotations.
The National Museet also hosts a permanent ethnological exhibition called “peoples of the earth” which shows e.g. great pieces of Inuit clothing. It would have taken another half day to really go through everything displayed - maybe another time. We moved on to colorful Nyhavn for lunch and then spent the afternoon in the Dansk Design Museet, where beautifully crafted furniture from the last three centuries is exhibited as well as a selection of world famous Scandinavian children appliances like Stokke chairs or Baby Bjoern carriers are explained. We conclude the day with a dinner in trendy food market - restaurant Karmaman back in Frederiksberg, where an astounding double ark rainbow greets us. The next morning, we head North to Louisiana, a superbly landscaped museum-park, and then return our rental car at Kastrup airport.
Denmark and Industrialization If you ask me about one distinctive feature of Denmark that we kept running into, I would probably answer: automation and digitalization. Looking at societies in terms of industrial automation has since 2010 somehow become my fancied perspective, because I live in the country where the largest change of society since the industrial revolution takes place, and much of this change is related to how man engages in the labor market. Since 2013 China is the world’s largest industrial robot market by volume installed and sold. This simple indicator makes it an interesting place to study the impact of industrial automation on man. But Denmark is a not less interesting place, because it seems to be an automation forerunner; and we had a few startling consumer experiences by traveling there only four days. The day we pick up our rental car, we make a first coffee stop at a highway gas station. No coffee is being sold there by people but by four sleekly Pininfarina designed machines with a larger than A4 touch display. When we visit Soren Kierkegaard’s, Nils Bohr’s and Hans Christian Andersen’s gravestones, we are introduced to the vita of recently deceased celebrities by a QRcode next to their RIP spot; that marks the first time that I use my smart phone on a cemetery. Danish supermarkets and pharmacies don’t have normal price tags anymore, no, we are surprised to see digital, solar powered price tags everywhere. And the world’s most biking friendly capital Copenhagen offers E-bikes with large GPS screens that invite to choose from different cycling routes across the city.
Why are some to wealthy and others not?
The grand Smithsonian question turned out to be at the center of this journey. At least in retrospective it seems to be a pressing question to be asked: Why are the Danes so wealthy, why are others not? Four reasons come to my mind.
First of all, there is the moderate or rather cold climate, which forces people to move and thus lead a comparably productive life. Danes are so sporty and active people that I had to think of this Bangladesh diplomat who is quoted by David S. Landes in his book The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. People living in tropical climate could never lead such active lifestyles. The climate simply does not allow.
Second, there comes equality. Societies, which have started early to provide a minimum standard of livelihood to its citizens, seem to fair better. Two modern proponents of wealth distribution are Thomas Piketty and Nick Hanauer, and both make clear that a wide spread wealth participation is beneficial to a society’s development in the long run.
Thirdly the flat Danish topography allowed an early agrarian industrialization, and since Denmark is one of the most democratic nations on earth, it has to be assumed with Barrington Moore that the landed gentry embraced commercial agriculture and a bourgeois revolution granted at an early stage wide participation in increased wealth.
Forth and last, the direct small scale governance as proposed by Leopold Kohr, which is still part of Danish political culture. Denmark is with its 5 million inhabitants similar to Singapore in population size and thus is more like a modern form of Greek-polis-state. The government cannot be too detached from the needs of its populace because it is as a matter of fact close, both in distance and in terms of governance levels; Quite on the contrary to Brussels and Beijing bureaucrats.
They must have done something right, the Danes. But then again, I recall my Copenhagen friend Jannick. He says that he knows that Copenhagen is a beautiful city and Denmark a rich country, but somehow he feels bored living there. Everything is on track. No surprises around the corner. No spontaneity left in people’s life. Better off poor in Bhutan then rich in Denmark?