Litter picking (and parking) in Denmark

The thing is, there isn’t any - litter, that is. Well, nothing much to speak of, not enough to half fill a black bin bag after two or three weeks’ serious visual monitoring. Not enough to get grumpy, openly reactionary, judgmental and dismissive of all humanity - and a bit boring, if I’m honest - about. There’s hardly anything to pick up, wherever you go, whatever time of day or night you might be doing your (well, my) habitual/obsessive head-down, swivel-round inspection of every corner of a foreign land that I call home while I’m on holiday. The red hot favourite drops and spots include lorry litter on roadside verges, especially next to bins in laybys, stuff that’s been left under benches, discarded along pathways, strewn across parks, or wedged inside hedgerows (yes, actually in the thicket of it) and nested around tree trunks and stumps. Denmark scores very low on all counts. That’s maybe because I’m using British Standard Imperial (BSI) Measures of General Shittyness (MoGS). The MoGS we have adopted don’t appear to apply to other northern European countries. I reckon Margaret Thatcher, or one of her worthy successors, secretly negotiated a die-in-a-ditch deal that meant we Brits didn’t have to comply with yet another pesky interfering EU dictat, particularly the one requiring public authorities and, indeed, the public in general, to keep things clean and tidy. For some reason, many of the vassal states that make up the so-called European Union have spent public money on really useful public services that maintain a pleasing, uncluttered vista in public spaces: lots of litter bins, for example, placed close to where people are actually likely to drop the remains of their bags, fags and shags, wraps, bottles, cans and cartons; and lots of people employed on actual real money wages to sweep and clean and pick up and generally keep an eye on things.

The first thing that struck me about Denmark wasn’t the lack of litter, funnily enough. It was the lack of hurry. As soon as we crossed the border into southern Jutland from Schlesvig-Holstein, everything seemed to calm down. Up to that point, for most of our drive through the nightmare tangle of motorways that criss-cross northern Germany, I’d felt immensely hassled by the cars and trucks behind us. I’d tried to stick close(’ish) to speed limits so as not to irritate what felt like an entire nation hell bent on chasing me up my backside and whipping out to overtake at the last minute. As for trying to overtake anything ourselves - anything that had the bare-faced nerve to be travelling a bit slower than us – well this was extremely testing. No one gives you time or room to pull out. You check your rear view mirrors. There’s loads of empty road behind to ease out smoothly into the overtaking lane until … until …. until you see the dot that was something miles back suddenly on your tail; as large as life and twice as mean. All this produces a debilitating (though concealed) attack of nerves; there is no hiding place, there is only the race to get the fuck off this country’s roads (all of them, not just the autobahns), to find some peace.

Which is where Denmark comes in. Quite suddenly, like I said, everything is somehow quieter, more measured, paced and spaced. Most roads have maximum speeds of 80 kph. Most drivers seem to obey these limits. And most will give you room on the road to travel peacefully without the frenetic hassle you’ve just left over the border. The effect is almost transcendental. Now I can see the country around me. Now I notice the weather. Now it doesn’t matter how long it might take from wherever we are to wherever the next planned stop-over might be. You are just allowed to be.

Of course there are exceptions to this existential reprieve. One of these is being rudely reminded of the requirement to have your headlights dipped on low beam at all times, day and night. We were alerted to this just once, when an approaching car started flashing and gesticulating angrily at us shortly after we crossed into Denmark, instantly dissipating the groovy calm that had settled over my soul (see above). Checking for obvious faults, something hanging loose from an open window maybe, bits falling off the van, perhaps an upcoming speed check or accident, we eventually somehow worked out that we needed to have our lights on, like everyone else. This was the only incident of road-rage Danish style we came across. Other foreign drivers were just as likely to forget to put their lights on - all, it seemed, without being crossly reminded of their civic duty by Mr Grumpy-especially-with-foreigners, resentful resident of Jutland.

The sense of permission to be allowed to get on with stuff did permeate almost all of the encounters we had with new places and people that followed, but only, we discovered for as long as you stayed away from the more densely populated places, like Copenhagen. There aren’t many of these to speak of in Jutland or on the other islands we crossed as we headed slowly east to Zeeland. But the larger towns and cities do have some very strict rules, especially about parking. Parking is a bit of a thing in Denmark, really the only serious rule-busting boundary we found should not be crossed in that country. Most supermarket car parks in big towns have signs announcing how long you’re allowed to park for free while shopping, typically up to three hours. Great, that’s good to know, and it’s very like the rules we have at home. Except what they don’t explain until it’s almost too late is that you’re supposed to display the time you arrived on your windscreen for the wandering warden to check. Our first and closest shave with the parking police came in Faaborg, on Fyn island. I was waiting in the van, parked for free, while Rach nipped into a large store to get a few things, when a man in a uniform approached the van, stared at me through the windscreen and then took a photograph. I hopped out to ask him what he thought he was doing when he explained (in near perfect English) that I needed a clock. A clock? What for? I should have purchased a clock, he said, or a dial of some sort to stick on the windscreen showing the time we arrived. That way, he would be able to check to see we weren’t over the time limit. No clock, eh? Well you should have bought one.  Every supermarket sells them. But I didn’t know, I couldn’t know, how could I? Sorry, but all the supermarket car park signs (in Danish) make it perfectly clear (in Danish). But I can’t read Danish. Sorry, those are the rules, so that will be an automatic fine to pay on the spot. How much? Eight hundred kroner (equivalent to about 60 of our precious British pounds). HOW MUCH?

I’m feeling well oppressed by this totally fascistic bit of European control freakery, clear evidence of the sort of Stalinist, state sponsored exploitation of innocent people like me, just because I’m a foreigner who’s been needlessly singled out as an example to others over the whole parking clock question, which undoubtedly originates in Brussels by the way. Anyway (after whining a bit and saying I’m ever so sorry, no really sorry, please) the uniform relented (backed down, unable to resist the force of my mercilessly forensic repost) and let me go and buy a clock, just this once. These clocks, it turns out, after a frantic search through the techno-aisles of the supermarket, come in all sorts of overpriced electronic shapes and sizes. All you actually need is a plastic disc or card with a 24 hour dial printed on it and a little arm to swing round showing your arrival time. What you’re offered are complicated computer-based gizmos ranging in price from 99 kroner to 300 or so. Not until I’d fiddled and faddled about with the cheaper one, failing to get it to display anything at all that would show an actual fucking time, did we (well, Rach) ask someone in another car park who told us that we could get a simple plastic jobby from any garage forecourt for about a pound that would do the business just as well. So I took the impossibly complicated computer chipped version back to another branch of the retail chain I bought it in originally and mumbled something about it not working. The counter staff simply took the item, looked at the receipt and refunded my money. I felt hugely relieved, first because they didn’t actually open the box to reveal my ham-fisted attempt at repackaging something I’d wrenched from its perfectly moulded wrapping and then fart-arsed around with for a couple of days. Not just that. I was also disproportionately relieved to get my money back (all of about 12 quid); something that had furrowed my fevered brow ever since I’d given up trying the make the bleeding thing work.

The other aspect of this sorry story that I look back on and puzzle over is why, when I talk in English to people who I’m not sure will understand, I adopt a faintly foreign accent and pace of delivery that bear no relationship whatsoever to any version of the mother tongue I’ve ever heard spoken, anywhere. Do I imagine that this somehow connects us all to a meta-form of Google translate, universally comprehendible? Christ knows.

Another thing about parking in Denmark which, mercifully, we didn’t get told off about, is which way you face when parking on the street. It seems that coming to rest pointing the wrong way is against the law. So, you must park kerbside in the direction in which you have been travelling, so that’s on the right-hand side. Not like in good old Blighty, where squatting in any old space in any old direction you can squeeze into is a matter of national pride, including up over the kerb and onto the pavement. Quite right too.

So, having claimed that Denmark is a haven, a cradle of civilised being, it has to be admitted that a few temperature topping disruptions to one’s essential karma are possible after all; which brings us to Copenhagen. Who’d be daft enough to try driving into the nation’s capital city to look for somewhere to park a blooming great van anywhere near where they want to do some good old tourist gawping? Not us, matey. Oh no, we’ve got our bikes on the back so are perfectly smugly placed to join the thousands of locals who cycle into the very heart of cool each day. So we left the van at a marina about two miles outside the city centre and hopped on our bikes. As everyone knows, the Danes (along with most other nationalities in this part of Europe) have invested in a ubiquitous network of very well-maintained cycle lanes. There’s scarcely a square metre of public highway in northern Europe that doesn’t offer a safe and exclusive track for pushbikes running alongside. This means that cycling is not just popular in Denmark, as elsewhere, it’s beyond normal, it’s what old and young, large and small, firm, fat and fit people do to get about every day. It’s simply taken for granted. And this applies especially to the big cities. So there’s really only one way of getting into Copenhagen central. But don’t be fooled by that sense of calm inclusion and tolerance that might have started to embed itself in your brain by now. No, be warned; Danish commuters on two wheels are vicious, especially on their way to or from work. No other word for it; except maybe unhelpful, unyielding, unforgiving.

The typical tourist way of seeing new places on foot is to wander sightlessly about, straying into the path of other pedestrians, stopping stock still in the flow to stare carelessly at a map or distant landmark, and occasionally strolling down the middle of the road. I’m really not sure why this is.  Do we somehow assume that the streets in new places are made uniquely to ease our passage, irrespective of how many common sense rules of the road we ignore and would certainly obey without thinking if we were on home turf? Now transfer that dopy demeanor to a bicycle lane at rush hour in the middle of a great European city. Yes, you can picture it now. Hundreds of busy, purposeful Danes, speeding along (in the right direction, in the correct lane of the cycle track), knowing where they’re going, suddenly having to swerve, brake, skid by and narrowly avoid crashing into a least one great dope from England who’s stopped mid-stream; whose bike is angled slightly athwart the path; who’s peering down at a map, then back on the saddle without looking to see what’s behind or ahead or anywhere else really. So then an angry Dane, or two, or more, rings a warning bell, then shouts something that I’m guessing translates roughly as ‘Get the fuck out of my way you idiot’. This happens enough times in quite short order to make you realise you’re behaving like a prize prat on holiday. Stop somewhere safe. Take a careful look at how everyone moves, on bikes and on foot, in cars, at traffic lights; who gives way to whom, especially at junctions. Cars cutting up cyclists at intersections create what appear to be quite frequent rage rousers, much more serious than anything that a knob head on a foreign bike can provoke, surely. I don’t know how many people are knocked down and injured in such incidents. But my guess is that more witless foreign cyclists fall victim to bike-on-bike abuse in tourist towns than home-grown cyclists ever get mown down by careless drivers.

So, despite not having much litter to pick in Denmark, there are tips about how to be in public spaces there that really are worth picking up. Especially if you want the balm of calm to sooth your soul in that truly lovely country.

November 2019