Rihla (The Journey) – was the short title of a 14th Century (1355 CE) book written in Fez by the Islamic legal scholar Ibn Jazayy al-Kalbi of Granada who recorded and then transcribed the dictated travelogue of the Tangerian, Ibn Battuta. The book’s full title was A Gift to Those who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling and somehow the title of Ibn Jazayy's book captures the ethos of many of the city and country journeys I have been lucky to take in past years.
This Rihla is about Copenhagen.
This Rihla is about Copenhagen.
I, like many others, when watching what up to then had been a perfectly stage-managed inauguration process felt for Barrack Obama when the Chief Justice of the United States fumbled the formulaic sequence of the Presidential Oath. Obama hesitated, like a child in a school play who has practiced and practiced for the moment but who has to rely on the prompt of another character to begin to utter his own words. Obama, characteristically serene, maintained his poise. I suspect if there had been anything to hand but the Lincoln Bible it would have been flying in Robert’s direction. Afterwards I was reminded of another time and place when a mismatch of words resonated in my brain. The plane was on its final approach to Copenhagen airport.
I am a doughnut, I remembered thinking, feeling the sudden change in cabin pressure suck a hole in my eardrums. Swallowing hard I had looked up from my newspaper, and stared out the window to watch as the plane dropped out of a puffball sky, and banked southeast over Oresund. Returning to the paper, I had wanted to finish the obituary of Robert Lochnar, John F. Kennedy’s favourite translator of all things German, and his voice coach for the famous line inserted into the Berlin speech in 1963 at the height – or depth – of the cold war. Kennedy’s pronunciation did not leave his coach down whereas the syntax did. The inclusion of the article ein in Ich bin ein Berliner meant that Kennedy had in effect said “I am a doughnut”. Berliner was the local common word for that particular type of pastry.
I remember smiling the stupid smile of secret associative thoughts and got ready for the landing. When you exit a plane in Copenhagen for once in your life you know exactly where you are. Each landing slot has its longitude and latitude displayed in degrees, minutes and seconds.
I am a publisher, I reminded myself as I got into a taxi and headed for Chester’s Bogcafe on Strandgade in the Christianhavn section of the city. More specifically I was the publisher of another Kennedy, Thomas E. Kennedy, and at that time was in Copenhagen to launch the second of his planned quartet of novels set against and upon the backdrop of life in that city. Recently I was delighted to hear that Bloomsbury are to re-publish the Quartet over the next four years, simultaneously in the States and the UK. This will deservedly bring Tom’s fantastic writing to a far greater audience than our small company would ever have been able to achieve.
It was Culture Night in the city, an annual fest of artistic endeavour, an urban pallet upon which all that is possible in Art – and some that is not – is available for the citizens to dip into. The streets were alive with adults and children testing their senses and no more so than in Chester’s. Tom’s reading time overlapped slightly with an earlier launch of the Danish version of the latest Harry Potter, a strange serendipity now that Potter’s publishers Bloomsbury are about to publish Tom. Late arriving children were filing by to pluck their books from the grasp of a witch, and wondering for just a moment whether Tom, was meant to be one of the characters. This played quiddich with his concentration, yet he gave a brilliant reading and soon the bookshop’s supply of Bluett – and the extra copies I had brought – were soon sold out. Suffused by this success – and liberal amounts of wine – Tom, his then partner Alice, and I decided to hop in a taxi and make for Femmeren, a cosy pub at No 5 Classensgade close to both where Tom and Alice lived and where I was staying. It is 11.30 p.m. by the time we get there.
For the uninitiated the first of Tom’s quartet of novels was Kerrigan’s Copenhagen – A Love Story. And it is a love story, in and for a city, of an ex-patriot writer battered by the vicissitudes of life who begins an odyssey of renewal – revitalization – along a pavement mosaic of Copenhagen’s poetry, jazz, architecture and pride. It is an evocation of 49 of the countless watering holes and eateries of Copenhagen, that Kerrigan visits in pursuit of salvation, beer, vodka and food; a spiritual pub-crawl as it were, and Femmeren (the fiver) is featured in Chapter 25. It is a small bar with old wood shadows; a single right angled counter; a tab system established on entry, kept for the capacity of your stay, and settled on extraction. There was jazz playing in the crevices, cigarette, cigar and pipe smoke mingling their scents and dancing tangos in the air and an old piano waiting in the corner for a player’s hands, patiently.
Before going in, hunger struck and I thought pizza, but Domino’s across the road was already closed, so I settled for triangle slices of Toblerone chocolate bought in the late-nite shop next door. Entering I sat at the angle of Femmeren’s counter, munching, and Tom stood about three feet away. We ordered: vodka for Tom and Alice, Tuborg beer for me. Another couple from the reading were already there and Alice joined them. The ambience was warm, and liquid and warm, wrapping a welcome around us like you never wanted to leave.
Suddenly into this warmth a blond haired, fine featured, square-jawed, very tired looking woman entered the bar and proceeded to occupy the space between Tom and I. He soon appeared puzzled, looked at me and indicated with his eyes. The woman was apparently rubbing his leg, and very shortly afterwards Alice, up the wrong way. He extracted himself, and sat down with Alice. The blond then turned her attention to me, teaching me to play dice in cups – for slices of Toblerone – and into her’s followed double-shot after double-shot of Fisherman’s Friend, a liquor of vodka and aniseed. I kept pace with the drinking, just, with single Fishermen and Tuborg and fooling myself into thinking that I was enjoying the intellectual confrontation. However it soon dawned that she is a Valkyrie – from the Norse valkyrja, ‘she who chooses warriors destined to die in battle’ – a weapon of mass destruction and at that moment I was a likely martyr.
I excused myself to head for the toilet and returned to find that the Valkyrie had thankfully switched the main focus of her attention to two younger men at the far end of the bar. They invited me to join them. Copenhageners are incredibly polite and because I spoke no Danish, they switched effortlessly to English even amongst themselves. One of the younger men had the Homeric looks of a battle-scarred Greek helot; his black curls falling over a face set off centre by an assaulted nose. I asked where was he from, thinking Mediterranean.
‘I am of Danish-Jewish extraction,’ he explained, ‘nothing further south than that.’ Reading my mind.
‘I am half-Jewish myself,’ the Valkyrie then declared, downing yet another double shot, as if stomping on trolls.
The helot bristled. ‘You are either Jewish or not, no half measures,’ he said, moving to a table away from her.
I was watching this exchange when my line of vision blurred.
‘Copenhagen is a city of exiles,’ a woman with glasses said, moving in between the Valkyrie and me, engaging me with her smile. ‘I am Finnish,’ she said taking the last piece of Toblerone and rubbing up against my leg. Leg rubbing appeared to be standard practice in the Femmeren. Taking the chocolate was a bad move. The Finn had not played dice, but now diced with a social death for it. The Valkyrie had a new target, and moving around to my right quickly established, that based on the age of their respective children Ms Finland was way older than she herself was. All this in English and in accentless stiletto politeness! Ms Finland, shrugged and moved back into the shadows behind me.
This was Femmeren, this was Copenhagen, I reminded myself, and I am a doughnut.
Tom and Alice took their leave, it is 2.30 a.m. and where I was staying was only two streets away. I fully intended to walk there once I’d finished one last Tuborg, I told them. They had just left when a friend of the Valkyrie comes through the door. He is with another man, a journalist and we got talking. Three beers later he suggested yet another bar in town, and all four of us headed there. It was a hang-out for young architects and engineers and as a building had obviously never used the services of either. More beers later, and in the crush I am standing close to a couple with Asian features. Of Korean extraction it transpired, he in publishing, she a lawyer.
The Valkyrie went for it again, lighting a fuse! ‘I like your smile,’ she said to the man in English. ‘It is always there.’
‘I do not care for comments about our smile. Westerners have changed it from a thing of beauty, into one of grotesque disfigurement, of mocking stereotype and ridicule,’ he replied in perfect English – to a fellow, albeit destructive Dane – and moved away.
‘My glass is half-empty. Time for a refill,’ the Valkyrie said to me, suddenly grabbing at my left nipple through my thin damp shirt. I can still feel the pain of this.
Half Jewish, half-Korean, half-cut, half-rubbed, I am a doughnut, I thought and made for the toilet and exit. It is 4.30 a.m.
It was blowing a gale up Nyhavn and as I opened the door of a taxi it blew from my hand to crash against a dustbin. I apologized and sat in, gave him an address. The driver smiled and shrugged. The taxi took off. I ask him his name. He is Hasan, a middle-aged professorial looking Iraqi and he says, ‘Bad wind.’
‘al-rûh,’ I replied, dredging up the Arabic and Persian word for wind.
He slowed the car. ‘Man’s spirit,’ he said, waiting.
I had used the article and al-rûh in early Arabic poetry and on six or seven occasions in the Qur’an refers to the breath, or spirit that suffuses man – nafs is the soul or receptacle of that spirit. My own spirits are sky high and we debate, in English, the duty of mankind to God and God’s duty to mankind, and how in Iraq this seems incompatible. Too soon the journey ended.
‘You are here,’ Hasan announced.
I did not at that moment feel I was anywhere but stepped out and paid him anyway. ‘Thank you,’ I said and watched as he drove off. But I was there and as I stood at the door of the apartment block where I was staying I grumbled. I was shipwrecked and not a Fisherman’s Friend in sight. Ahead of me were twelve flights of stairs, and as I laboured upwards, I counted the steps and the number of drinks I thought I’d had. The steps crashed over me like South Atlantic waves. I battled through to my room, sat on the bed, and the spirit-level finally cracked. The room began to spin round and round me, faster and faster. I was looking into the eye of a doughnut, with nausea for a compass.
I too am a doughnut, I thought and the lights went out in Copenhagen, where exile is everyone’s existence.