The Atlantic Report on the World Today: Denmark

WHEN air travel was still confined to the rich and reckless, the authorities of Copenhagen foresaw a time when it would become a commonplace. They had no mind to let their city be superseded as the gateway to Northern Europe, and reserved a tract on a handy island for the eventual construction of an airport. Geography gave them the island, but it was Danish finesse, which consists of a fine balance of imagination and horse sense, that kept the island available for runways and hangars.

The present Copenhagen airport is a traveler’s dream come true. It can be reached by a twenty minute drive through a neat suburb and a tract of farmland. Its buildings are clean, new in appearance, elegant as well as functional. Its restaurant serves excellent food. It handles an average of one flight every ten minutes, and the loud-speaker provides a glamorous international atmosphere by calling off planes in Danish, English, French, and Spanish.

The Danes are not satisfied with this paragon of airports, and oil on the far side of the field are busily erecting new and much larger buildings, against the day when expansion will be necessary. It seems, in fact, that the Danes are seldom satisfied with anything for long, because of a national instinct to improve what already exists and to forestall even possible future difficulty.

It is this attitude which leads them to rather comical concern about the Copenhagen traffic problem. From the point of view of the urban Yankee, there is little in Copenhagen to call traffic, and certainly no problem in disposing of it. The Danes claim that in a few years congestion will be unbearable. The authorities plan to prevent congestion by cutting thoroughfares through the old town, a project which has aroused opposition from those who prefer seventeenth-century architecture to twentieth-century bicycles. There is also some talk of the expense involved.

Pigs for Sterling

Denmark’s only indigenous assets — besides Danes — are farmland and fish. All raw materials for the country’s varied industries must be imported, and some of these materials are to be had only in the dollar area. Before the war, Denmark bought from the U.S. with the pounds paid by the British for Danish butter and bacon. The late occupation put an end to this trade, and also necessitated the production of what the Danes call short fat pigs, as distinguished from the long thin pigs preferred by the British. Denmark has now reverted to the long thin standard in pigs, and the pounds are once more rolling in, but they are no longer good for transatlantic trade.

Denmark has not yet hit upon any product which can be exported to the U.S. on a scale large enough to bridge the dollar gap. Danish silver and porcelain are luxury products in their own country, and U.S. tariffs would move their fine, inexpensive pottery and furniture into the same class here.

Because butter is a large item in Denmark’s export trade, it is still rationed within the country. The housewife struggles with a limited supply of fats and sugar, with a stove which generally consists of three gas rings disposed on a table, with a tiny oven tucked at backbreaking level beneath the table, and with meal prices which recently brought on a highly organized buyers’ strike.

Citrus fruits are either unavailable or ruinously expensive. Bananas are imported in such small quantities that they must be reserved for invalids whose diet requires them, Canned pineapple has become a legend, a beautiful dream from a remote past. Rice, of which the Danes appear to be inordinately fond, turns up only on hotel menus, and the tourist who declines a second helping of this delicacy will get a look of incredulous reproach from the waiter.

In spite of food problems, low wages, and high taxes (for which, it is only fair to say, the citizen gets a high return in the way of pensions, medical care, and miscellaneous public services), the Danes seem a cheerful lot. People going about their business on the streets of Copenhagen have time to laugh and gossip. On Sundays in late April, the whole population troops out to pick anemones in the beech woods around the city, and goes home again leaving no litter of bottles and papers behind.

Gateway to Nothern Europe

Copenhagen has a reputation as a gay town, and a long-standing attraction for British, Swedes, and Germans on holiday. At present the Germans are not welcome, and the Danes would be happy to replace these ex-eustomers with dollar-spending Americans. To some extent, this has already been done, but since Americans persist in the delusion that the Danish winter extends from October 1 to June 1, a shortage of summer hotel space has developed.

With advance reservations, Copenhagen is a fine place to stay. The city has five or six first-class hotels, a number of middle-class ones, and an array of lodgings available to those willing to hunt for them or bright enough to ask the assistance of the Danish National Tourist Association. The Danes have just opened a new hotel even more elegant than the old ones. This is a real achievement, for a first-class Danish hotel is a place of infinite charm, where one can play at being a millionaire for about S4 a day.

Besides more hotels, the Danes long for more restaurants. There just aren’t enough restaurants to go around in Copenhagen, because on holiday nights all the tourists and all the citizens go out for dinner, while on other nights all the tourists and half the citizens do the same thing.

Restaurants are generally lively and crowded. On Saturday evenings it is a real problem to get into one. The small drinking and dancing places in the old town simply lock their doors once the tables are filled, and late customers must look numerous and prosperous if they are to be wedged inside. The managements of these bistros are particularly firm in excluding soldiers and sailors, whose uniforms establish them as mere beer drinkers.

Actually drinking beer is no crime in even the best restaurants. Wivex, which serves desserts flanked by ice carvings with built-in lighting if the occasion demands them, also serves a sort of blueplate special which, with beer, costs under a dollar and entitles the customer to a whole evening of dancing.

The big restaurants of Copenhagen are enormous, by American standards, but the Danes achieve an atmosphere of easy gaiety and intimate friendliness even in a ten-acre room. Lorry, which the Danes themselves admit is big, includes among its projects a huge dining room with floor show and dancing, a small dining room where two elderly men sing folk songs to a strange species of guitar, and a theater where Summer and Smoke, in Danish, recently packed the house.

A determined gourmet with a posse of bloodhounds could find poor food in Copenhagen, but the traveler who sticks to the places of reasonable reputation will eat very well and far too much. Rationing does not visibly affect restaurant menus. From coffee and Danish pastry (which the Danes call Vienna bread) to a five-course meal, the food is excellent. By American standards, it is also fantastically cheap. It is not strictly true, as the Danes claim, that only a hog could eat more than $4 worth of food in even their most expensive places, but it is a fact that $3 will cover a very fine dinner with drinks. A thorough rummage in the wine list can, however, send the check considerably higher.

How the Danes dance

Copenhagen floor shows are strictly international, with a heavy emphasis on pantomime and trained animal acts. There is also a noticeable tendency to imitate Spike Jones, but the American observer may be left wondering whether the act was the sincerest form of flattery or a blazing insult.

Dance music is entirely American in style and content, ranging from “Tea for Two” right up to “Riders in the Sky.”The Danish weakness for the American West has produced, among other oddities, a hole-in-the-wall establishment called Gold Digger. This joint, in the old town and practically overshadowed by a fine antique church, is deplored by sophisticated Danes, but is none the less worth looking at.

The lobby of Gold Digger (no nonsense about translating the name into Danish) is lighted by a pierced tin lantern and papered with the covers of old cowboy magazines and horseopera posters. Tom Mix is not in evidence, but Ken Maynard and Buck Jones cavort across the walls on improbably spirited ponies. The titles on these posters are all in Danish, which somehow improves their literarv quality. “Med Doden i Sadlen" is certainly more impressive than “With Death in the Saddle,” while “Dϕd Over Dalen” has a fine, adventurous grimness totally lacking in “Death Over the Valley.

The inside of Gold Digger is walled with highly polished logs, on which are disposed fake cowhides, Indian totem poles, a five-gallon hat, and a triangular banner labeled Winnetka. The clientele is mostly young and fairly shabby, but dancing is energetic on a small floor, and the noise is tremendous, including fair imitations of Hollywood Wild West yelpings.

No curfew

One of the engaging features of Danish night life is the lack of closing hours. The Danes argue that thirst causes drinking. If no one gets thirsty, no one will drink too much. In order that no one shall be thirsty, some sort of bar is always open, although no one place can remain open for twenty-four hours. Few Danes take advantage of the opportunity to pub-crawl straight around the clock, for drunks are a very rare sight in Copenhagen.

The Danes worry openly about the dollar shortage, export items, and the possibility that foreigners will confuse their highly organized social-democratic government with totalitarianism; but if they worry about the cold war going on in their back yard, they do not show it.

The newspapers (it seems no Danish town is too small to support at least a weekly) report international news in detail, and Acheson appears on Danish front pages rather more frequently than any Dane, including His Majesty King Frederik IX. Danes discuss world affairs freely and acidly, but with no sign of hysteria. The implication is that, having survived the German occupation, they can cope with anything else that may turn up.