When I came to live in Copenhagen in 1980, it was a shock for a city girl like myself. I suddenly had to adjust to life in a tiny, well-ordered city where the shops closed at 2pm on Saturdays. Where the citizens waited patiently for the green light to cross a road even when there were no cars in sight. Where there were no parking meters and no parking fines. I never locked my car door. Lego was provided for children in banks and the pieces were never stolen. The pretty Danish girls wore no make-up and the boys looked grateful. You could smoke everywhere and everyone did. Families ate their meal together at 6.30 and watched ‘Matador’ on the only TV channel. Every Saturday evening there was a two-hour variety show called ‘Smil du er På’ transmitted on this one channel live to six million homes. I know because I performed on it with my Danish comedy partner, Preben Kristensen. It was nerve-wracking to deliver our comedy sketches knowing that there was an audience of millions watching us and no retakes were possible. More significantly, our material could not contain any swearing or controversial material of any kind.
I had previously believed that cities were where people lived in different and even subversive ways. But Copenhagen was full of people who wanted to live the same way. They all wore the same very casual clothes, they bought the same furniture, and they even had the same lamp hanging over their dining room tables – the same lamp that was also hanging all over Kastrup Airport. I could not imagine choosing a lamp for my house that could be found at JFK or Heathrow.
Today, of course, things are very different. Copenhagen now rivals other big cities for art, fashion, design, films, architecture. And even that lamp can be found in trendy homes in New York, Paris and Rome. Copenhagen is a city that is on people’s lists of places they most want to visit. And thanks to the bridge over Storebælt, the rest of the country is now connected to the bright lights and buzz of the capital. Or is it?
My trips to other Danish towns have been, over the years, infrequent to say the least. These trips used to mean ferry crossings, and if you missed the last boat home: overnighting in a hotel where the bar was always closed and the rickety double bed would turn out to be two narrow beds pushed together, resulting in a night spent falling into the gap. In the old days, being forced to stay overnight in Funen felt like a fate worse than death. And now here I am in 2014 staying in a small town that can be glimpsed from the intercity train between Odense and Aarhus, about a dozen miles from the towns of Middelfart and Vejle.
I am in a musical at Fredericia Teater, and when our rehearsals finish at 5pm, I walk back through the empty streets to the flat that has been provided for me. It is opposite a bleak cemetery and a stone’s throw from the main town square that features a gravestone maker, a pizza restaurant and a Føtex supermarket. On my first day, I asked a taxi driver if he could recommend a good restaurant. He said “No”. However he did tell me that in the 17th century the king considered making Fredericia the capital of Denmark because of its central location. The town is still called the hub of Denmark. The definition of the word hub is ‘centre of activity’.
By 6pm the town is deserted. Through the steamed-up windows one can glimpse families eating at their dining room tables under the famous lamp watching reruns of ‘Matador’. Føtex is open late, so I drop in to buy a coffee. A line of similarly-dressed customers buy scratch cards and cigarettes. A sign says “Coffee to Go”. I ask the girl for a caffe latte to take away. She looks up from her nails and replies: “You can get coffee from the machine over there.” I go to the machine, but there is no caffe latte. I return to the counter and ask: “Where can I get a caffe latte?”
Without looking up, she says: “Vejle”.