The idea I had of Scandinavia was fairly fleshed out before I got there. When I was a kid, my favourite toy was Brio, a Swedish-made wooden train set. Reading the “Made in Sweden” stickers planted a seed of curiosity about Northern Europe. I asked anyone I knew who had been a thousand questions; I once irritated a Norwegian exchange student on the bus all the way to university, asking questions, blurting out trivia, checking if it was all true, searching in her eyes for a look of Scandinavian-ness. Did it exist? What did Björk mean when she sang: “I tried to organise freedom / How Scandinavian of me!”? Was Bill Bryson just picky when he wrote about the food being disappointing in Norway and Sweden in Neither Here Nor There? What about Lars Von Trier? What was all that Danish-Swede hatred about in The Kingdom? Weren’t they all the same? And the languages, how different were they? No really, tell me, what do ö and ø and å and æ and ð sound like? Were the names for IKEA furniture actually in Danish – not Swedish?And, why do they all speak English so well? Is life there as perfect as it sounds (besides the high tax)? Or does everyone really commit suicide?
Before arriving in Copenhagen I’d seen pictures of the cycling culture; I’d read that the city council bent willingly to the whims of bicycle commuters. In Adelaide I ride my bike everywhere, and I mean that quite literally, because I don’t often have the choice to ride in a bike lane. When Dan and I got off the train from Copenhagen airport, we couldn’t believe the herds of cyclists whooshing by: men, women, the elderly, children, all pedalling along, with that safe, carefree look that car drivers have everywhere else. The tables have turned in Copenhagen: now motorists are the constantly vigilant: always checking to see if they’re in the way of the two-wheel pack.
And that was the first thing I loved about Scandinavia: it’s full of good ideas. The metro system is efficient, runs often, and works on a merit system; users buy their tickets, and then that’s it: platforms are open, and there are no barriers. We noted this system in a cafe: you bought your drink at one counter, then went to another, where you ordered the barista to make what you’d purchased – and they’ll trust that you must have obeyed the system and paid beforehand. There was a lot of trust going on in Copenhagen. Bikes were left all over the place, with a back-wheel lock component the only thing keeping them immobile, or with no lock at all. When Dan and I hired bikes for a day, the man at the shop said that there wasn’t much of a problem with theft in Copenhagen. It reminded me of something I wrote about in my Masters degree about the Inca people: they didn’t put locks on doors because locks meant they acknowledged the thieves amongst them.
Riding around Copenhagen I felt safe, and relished not having to wear a helmet, though I understand how important they can be. Apparently helmets are a big part of why not more people ride in Australia. I didn’t realise people were that self-conscious about commute-fashion, but apparently they are. Dan and I rode bare-headed all over the city, which was beautiful, if not a bit staid. We particularly liked the Nørrebro district, which was apparently the “Brooklyn” area of the city – which as our friend Steph pointed out, meant that a bunch of ‘coloured’ kids rode around on bikes and people went there to eat kebabs. Steph was very helpful as she’d lived in Copenhagen on exchange several years before and had listed all the places she liked to hang out in. We followed the list as much as we could, and we could understand why one would pine for the city. It functioned. People got on with things. And it really was very pretty.
During our stay, however, I started becoming a little frustrated. I think the turning point was on the train to Malmö, across the bridge to Sweden. Dan and I sat down and continued our conversation from the platform, when the girl sitting in front of us turned around tersely and shushed us. She pointed to a sign inside the carriage that had audible objects with a red slash through them: the silent carriage. In Japan, they politely ask that you use your mobile phone “gently” and switch it to silent or off, but they didn’t demand complete silence. It was a very odd experience. The expansive, bucking punk in me wanted to scream instantly, but instead I stared out of the window at the wind farms along the Swedish coast as we approached our second Scandinavian country.
In Sweden, Dan’s friends Jani and Daniel took us for a drive to Ystad on the southern coast (pronounced like “why’s that?” which filled in at least 10 minutes of joke time). We braved the chilly Baltic winds, gawking at the surfers brave enough to lie on the icy waters, going in and out of the sea like seal children at play. We walked up to a Viking stone ship, which is just an ellipse of dolmens. And like in Scotland, I was more in awe of the surfers than the history in front of me. It’s a bit of a shame, really, but that’s how it goes. I suppose an affinity with ancient artefacts happens when you have prior knowledge of the time, for reference points. For example, I enjoyed Egypt a lot, and I’m sure I would wet myself in Greece and Crete, being a Classical mythology geek. In Sweden, I could only think of “Thor”, “Odin”, “Loki” and “Valhalla”, and “longships” and drinking out of human skulls – but that could be based on a bastardised Hollywood version of the time for all I know.
After Ystad, we had a little tour of Malmö, which was quite similar to Copenhagen, except signs were in Swedish, and we saw the architectural wonder of the Twisting Torso building, another great idea. And while not a Scandinavian designer (he was Spanish), it took the Swedes to commission such a building (the tallest in Scandinavia). I’m fascinated by contemporary architecture, and later, in Berlin, I would walk inside one of my favourite designs: but more on that later.
By the end of me and Dan’s week in Copenhagen, I was ready to leave. I couldn’t pinpoint why I felt restless, when initially I was smitten. I think it had something to do with the reserve of the place, probably quite similar to Adelaide. People were polite, but I could sense a cliqueyness underneath. There was a familiar sense of people just quietly dealing with their own lives, and not so interested in any newcomers. Maybe it’s different in Summer? Maybe it’s different all over Europe in Summer? Maybe I just don’t deal well with the cold. By the end of the week, it had turned grey – Winter was on its way.
We took the train to Berlin. To Dan and my absolute delight, the train boarded a ferry and we got off inside it, ascended some stairs to the decks, and watched the murky grey sea meet the murky grey horizon, whilst eating chips with mayonnaise. We changed trains in Hamburg and arrived in Berlin in the late afternoon.
After some hostile German interactivity with the tourist information man (of all jobs), we were sent to the wrong bus which went far out from our hostel, so we ended up catching a taxi there, only to find the hostel had a sports bar and proudly advertised itself as a place to “party”. Our faces fell as we saw it was full with loud Aussies. It was funny how we justified putting up with it, and how it could lead to meeting new people, but in the end we kept to ourselves and went to bed early, after intensive sightseeing-filled days.
They were happy days, mostly in part to the weather which had completely cleared up – blue skies reigned supreme. But also because Berlin has a dynamism to it that is instantly likeable. All of my friends who’ve been have loved it, and it’s easy to see why: there are a dozen or more spaces like Format, and many more galleries, cool and cosy bars and cafes, and a multicultural feel that reminded me more of Melbourne than London.
Berlin is a delightful jumble of different styles and periods of architecture: from the old, to the contemporary, to the Soviet and Nazi: you could walk a few blocks and feel like you were in a completely different city. My favourite piece of architecture was the dome on top of the Reichstag, the German parliament. Dan and I waited over an hour to get inside, but it was worth it. You take a lift to the dome and then walk in concentric circles up and then back down it, like being picked up and then dropped by a tornado in slow motion. In the middle is a view down on to parliament: a reminder that the real power of the country is from above – from you, the ‘people’.
When Dan left, I changed hostels, and shared a room with a Brazilian brewer and a Norwegian design student. Quizzing the design student further, she told us she was in Berlin for a Service Design conference. It was the first time I’d come across the term ‘service design’: rather than product design, it’s the design of – wait for it – services. This is something I’ve noticed a lot of Australians criticise when they travel. We like to point out the different ways of doing things in each country, maybe because our way of doing things is the only culture we’ve got. Sometimes it’s reverse-parochial, and upon return an Aussie’s eyes will light up and s/he will tell you, windswept and interestingly, how much better somewhere else does something quite mundane. An Aussie needs to remind others that we are not the best, whilst all the time deeply believing we are.
I was very interested in what the Norwegian had to say about service design, and it wasn’t surprising that it was a Scandinavian, Larans Løvlie, who developed it. The idea that you can redesign systems, constantly tweaking them so that the service receiver and service provider feel better, less confused, and therefore make the product/service succeed, is what I suppose Björk meant about organising freedom.
For the last few days of my stay in Berlin I moved into an apartment with my friend Brooke, an artist from Adelaide, who, in her work, likes to play with a viewer’s reaction to her work. Like service design, this quiet manipulation fascinates me, and caused me to reflect on how much I enjoy it with writing too. And how I constantly have daydreams about how to improve the public transport service in Adelaide: how I’d rip up tracks and place down new ones, like my toys from childhood. I’ve come to realise this mental state of constant improvement is a part of me. Maybe it feeds this restlessness I have when I try to commit to my hometown, which in turn feeds my desire to travel. Maybe I think too much?
All I know is that I prefer to be in a place like Berlin, full of life, rather than a place that’s just full of ideas.