July 21, 2011

The Mindful City.

Photo: Andrea Balt

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of visiting the most mindful city I have yet seen. Ladies and gents, meet Copenhagen through my organic glasses.

So I’ve always had a thing for Thor (the legend, not Chris Hemsworth), but Thor doesn’t go well with the “Sweatlands.”  That’s how I refer to the loud, obnoxious, Spanish-speaking societies, in which I’ve lived for a big part of my life, and which I sometimes forget to love.

For me Thor was “everything up north:” the quieter, stiller, more reserved Scandinavian realms, where the people have a mind of their own and the governments seem to care about the well-being of their citizens. Setting aside each country’s personal network of history, location and politics, let me just focus on the mindful side of the coin, symbolized by a few images that will always stay with me, even if Copenhagen were to be swallowed up suddenly by the ice-cold Baltic Sea.

Here are some things that caught my eye:

  • The surprisingly fresh downtown air

    “Is this as nasty as it gets?” I asked my guides. I mean, I’m not usually able to breathe in cities. This load of oxygen is not only due to the fact that the entire country is an island — as flat as it gets — but also to a significantly lower amount of air pollution than is present in cities infested by cars. Can you imagine living in a city where you can actually meditate in traffic? If such a thing even existed there! I’m sure there is no Danish equivalent for “traffic jam.” “You mean a bicycle jam?” they’d answer, if you asked.

    • Photo: jmg944

  • The empty(er) streets
  • Note: “empty,” to a city dweller, meansa lack of screaming multitudes of post-modernist, money-obsessed individuals talking on their cell phones and mad at God for not existing’. “Are you sure this is the main avenue? Is there a plague?” I kept on inquiring. The nicest thing I learned you can do while walking through a crowd is elbow-kicking (or even nicer, stealing people’s wallets, so they don’t spend too much). It’s like saying “I love you” in Spanish — unless, of course, you mean it. Copenhagen’s stillness tamed the stress beast in me.
  • A bike oasis
  • Good Sustainable Lord — did I enjoy anything more than having a bicycle under me? And not just that, but also being surrounded by thousands of others that, without spitting smoke or burning up the world’s life reserve, almost took over the city in what is yet to be defined by 2046th history books as one of our century’s early attempts for salvation.

So far my daily experience with my miniature Madrid bicycle has often included being yelled at by old Spanish folk who think that just ‘cause I’m riding a bike, I’m also blind and, of course, disabled (why, it’s almost like a wheelchair, right?) or perhaps mentally ill (otherwise I’d walk or take the subway or, even smarter, drive a car!).  And, given these deficiencies, I will most likely run them over, thus ending their unhappy lives. But no mad old ladies in Copenhagen, unless they were themselves up on their bikes. No, in Copenhagen I was one in a million; no one even noticed me. Oh my God, thought the fish, is this water?

But wait, there’s more!

Photo: Andrea Balt

  • There are exclusive bike lanes with strict traffic rules, where, if you do not take care to signal correctly, you’re likely to get run over… by a bike!
  • There are strange, back-from-the-future little vehicles running on pedals or pulled by bicycles.
  • Bikers signal with their arms in that funny bikers’ sign language. (Over here we just yell, “Heeeeey Cars, I think I’m gonna turn riiiiiight! Oh, mierda, I meant left!”).
  • Copenhagen bikers and drivers actually stop at red lights and don’t insult each other — at least not out loud.

Bikers united. Bikers anonymous. Bikers taken seriously. Bikes co-existing with other forms of transportation. Bikes making love to each other. Bikes up. Bikes down. Bikes everywhere. Yes!

Photo: Andrea Balt

This is the rational side of a bike orgasm. Exhilarated, I almost wanted to point at the cars and make some healthy fun of them. You stupid, stupid cars. Look at those two narrow lanes you’ve got there, you stinking little cars; I’d never want to be inside of you.

Since I am being so irreverent, may I quote the Copenhagen Bible once again? This is from the Book of Revelation:

“And Copenhagen will wipe every tear from the biker’s eyes. No car will ever again interfere with your affairs; there will be no more mourning over gas money, no more crying over the lack of bike lanes, no more pain over car smoke, for the old ways of destroying the planet are slowly passing away… So come to me all ye bikers and take my yoke for it is lighter and easier than a car.”

It is also lighter on your wallet, as it turns out.

Owning a car in Denmark is very expensive, due to the high registration tax of 180 percent. We’re talking 30.000 Euros as a standard price! This means that if you’re young and broke, you can’t even dream of affording one; it is way above you, unless you know who your daddy is. But even in those cases, due to their society’s egalitarian mentality, rich people tend to keep quiet about being rich.

This was also news to me. In most western countries, the impoverished, post-crisis middle class is, if anything, embarrassed about their new ghost status as “officially-okay-but-with-an-empty-fridge-and-please-don’t-tell.” And the rich — still rich, ‘cause, let’s be honest, even with the crisis they’ve only lost like… two million — keep on wearing that impenetrable shield around them, saying: “do not touch; I’m still full of it.” They think they mean money and, therefore, worth. But I think I smell something else — especially after the Danish reality check.

  • Clothes
  • For fashion lovers, dressing in Copenhagen is like learning to be a bird once again, after the cage. Unlike in most western societies (even the poorest ones), you don’t have to wear expensive clothes to be someone. In fact, ‘someone’ in Danish means ‘as hipster-looking as you can possibly get for free.’ Creativity is a good substitute for money. And if you’re not the creative type, you can always dip yourself in honey, take a walk through your grandma’s closet and just wear whatever sticks. The streets are already a daily fashion parade.
  • Food
  • Quite a lot of vegan and raw food choices, even in a city that feasts on cow and cow liquids. That I did not enjoy so much (Østeoporosis, darling?). And I can’t recall just how many times I saw the word “organic” on labels, even in the most commonplace of supermarkets. Though it is still not the norm, nor cheaper than the chemicalized products, organic produce is close in price and availability to non-organic. Omnipresent, evil Monsanto does not heart Denmark.
  • City art
  • For the first few days I felt like I was on a movie set. I can still see the half-timbered buildings against a dramatically clouded sky, rising on both sides of a lake that is thought to be a river. I was amazed by how well the old has been preserved and how revered it is, even among the youngest. Though they live closer to the Ikea headquarters than we do, they still choose to sit on uneven XIXth century-looking chairs at the dinner table.
  • And, just for scenery’s sake, let me not forget: the crows.
  • “Those creepy, big birds hanging around — what are they?” I asked my friend. “Oh I wouldn’t worry about them. They’re just waiting for you to die so they can feed on your corpse. Here it’s the other way around: animals eat people,” she said with a laugh.

No, I have not seen it all.

And, yes, there are many heavens on earth. And it’s true that what looks like heaven to me might be someone else’s hell. I was not in Copenhagen long enough to look into all the black holes. Life is complex and beautiful because of — not in spite of — its different vantage points.

What I particularly love about Copenhagen though is more than the mere fact of its existence. Simply knowing that there is such a city on earth would be a useless joy, unless I were to move there tomorrow morning (at the latest).

What makes Copenhagen special is what it stands for: that gentle whisper in your overwhelmed ear that a different world — or, better yet, a different concept of the world and of ourselves — is not only possible, but attainable, in this lifetime.

Now I understand why Copenhagen was chosen as home to the 2009 Climate Change Conference. What better city to inspire the good kind of change — even in spite of politicians?


As obvious as it seems now, most people — including the person I used to be — would never piece together city life and mindfulness. An eco city? Are you kidding me? It was hard enough just to type that; it’s an oxymoron.

Photo: Andrea Balt

Yes, we “weirdos” recycle; we ride bikes; we eat mostly organic; we try to reduce animal suffering and all the earthly devastation that comes with it; we fill our terrace or window ledge with plants; we pick up our rescued dog’s poo.  We do what we can, and we try to be the change we want to see. But still, we are a minority.

Most city-dwelling eco-freaks, though diligent and persistent, are still just a few humans in a vampire world. Alhough the mindful revolution is growing by the day, a mindful city — where mindfulness is second nature; where the government encourages responsible living, rather than hinders it; where equality is taught in schools; where the new and old co-exist in beautiful contrast; where biking is the rule and not the exception — is still a rarity.

I used to be uncomfortable about my multiple personalities. First, I’ve got the lover of art and the antiques, who appreciates variety in fashion, music and food choices and hides in museums, libraries, old buildings with history displayed at every corner. The oh-so-damned romantic who doesn’t want to give up all the cultural pleasures that could only be satisfied in overpopulated, polluted, big cities, saturated in both the most creative and also the most destructive practices.

I’ve also got the flower-power hippie who doesn’t smoke the grass but juices it, who needs to be barefoot, eat with her hands, live in a tree-house, grow her own food, adopt all the animals on death-row, and most importantly, never be afraid of spiders.

What I used to do in order to make them both happy was to switch between the two, spending a few years among grasshoppers, followed by a year or two in a cultural hot spot.

But what if I didn’t have to choose?

I once heard a prayer from a recovering alcoholic and it went like this:

Lord, help me to NOT accept the things that I seemingly cannot change, but to keep on trying even when change comes slowly (yes, compared to the internet, everything is slow, even you, Lord).

I may have adapted it a little bit. Seriously, Lord, while we talk and walk our way into that change, could I embrace this dichotomy on all the other life-threatening levels?

Photo: AJC1

While they (we) clear the bike lanes here of unwanted car debris, can I live in my own inner Copenhagen, filled with real sunflowers and also real Van Goghs? Can I have both: my Kierkegaard library and my goat climbing up the shelves? Can I ride a bike most days and drive a car only on occasion or just for long distance trips? And while I’m at it, smile at the mean old ladies (or run them over)? Can I love shoes and yet take some time to walk barefooted every day? Can I have an urban garden on top of a 150 year-old building? Can I be a bohemian entrepreneur? An outdoor bookworm? A vegan who gets plenty of protein?

Can I be both human and divine? Can I love this many-headed self without asking it to sever most of them and be reduced to one sad and lonely dragon? Can my yin and my yang finally date each other? Can I live forever knowing that I will die tomorrow?

Can I keep on hurting the planet, but just not so much or so often or so badly? Most people can’t grasp the idea of not hurting anything or anyone; they’ve done so their entire lives. So maybe the words they need to hear are “reduce” and “reuse.” (Just don’t you dare recycle me — I’m no paper!)

Can I save what is good and sustainable about our old ways of life and yet make room for the new that will enhance that good and make it edible once again?

If you’re wondering, my computer is sitting on a 19th century kitchen table, and I’m wearing my grandmother’s 60’s dress and sipping green juice (made with a 21st century juicer). A one-eyed cat purrs on my lap, and if I dare to move, she will look up and bark.

So, in the book of life, can I keep on riding my mental bike and stop only at those traffic lights that will not put an end to thousands of years of desire?

Copenhagen says yes.

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