Last night my friends and I performed a thorough test of our fundamental freedom in Danish society. We were also drunk and quite naked in front of the Danish Parliament.
Let’s be clear from the get-go. My friends and I had been consuming wine in the centre of Copenhagen and having a splendid time. This can also be interpreted as: we were rather inebriated. Earlier in the day, an interview with me was published in a cool, weekly Danish newsletter called Morgenposten wherein I was asked some questions about “Me and my City”. One of the questions was, “What should Copenhagen export to the whole world?”
My answer was this:
Something so simple and fundamental but also diffuse as: freedom. The freedom to hop naked in the harbour or the sea. To ride your bike home a little bit too drunk. To say yes and no. To enjoy the darkest humour in the world without limits like “too soon” or “too much”. To be exactly who you are. To travel out in the world and return home with that “fuck, it is SO nice to be back in Copenhagen” feeling — every single time. To enjoy mutual respect and trust. Freedoms that the Nordic Model and a healthy work-life balance give to us. It still a work in progress, but I feel at any given moment more free in Copenhagen than anywhere else in the world.
We usually end such sultry summer evenings with skinny-dipping in the harbour and last night was no exception. We had been passionately discussing freedom and also how in Denmark it is fully legal to be naked on any public beach and — within reason — in public in general. In the changing rooms of swimming pools you are obliged to walk naked to the shower to wash before putting on your swimsuit. People who move here or who visit are often taken aback at our casual approach to nudity. I write about it in this article about life in Denmark called Lap Dansk. (Here’s Part 1, by the way.)
This is also a country where censorship is virtually non-existent. Denmark is one of the most secular countries in the world so there is no old-fashioned moralising from out-of-date monotheistic religions to deal with. Live and let live truly means something here.
We were heading for the harbour to bathe until we started talking about doing something different. Mixing it up a bit. The first idea was lying naked on the grass in the Royal Library Gardens and drinking some more wine. That morphed into another idea: standing naked in front of the statue of our great philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, in those gardens. I knew that Kierkegaard had a habit of sitting naked in his apartment and “speaking foreign languages” when he was feeling melancholy. (I know a bit about this…) We decided that we’d strip down and all speak one of our foreign languages to the man — saying whatever we wanted to the legend. A man whose work, in many ways, led to the modern society we enjoy today.
The Royal Library Gardens are adjacent to the Danish Parliament and we thought that they might be closed at night — probably for security reasons, since Denmark is considered to be high on the list of terror targets. In the event that they were, we agreed we would cycle to Assistens Graveyard and do the same at his grave. This graveyard doubles as a public park, so topless sunbathing and friends picnicking have been common there for many years. In the context of Danish culture, it wasn’t a weird thing to do.
True enough, the Gardens were closed. The area in front of the main entrance of the Parliament was largely deserted — only a few people were walking or cycling past, as it is a through route between neighbourhoods although closed to cars. We were planning to head to the cemetery when one of us suggested we test the limits of our freedom right there on the spot. In front of the seat of Danish democracy.
In a flash, we were out of our clothes — except our shoes, because one of my friends had a theory that you feel more naked when you keep your shoes on. A bottle of wine was opened and passed around. Photos were taken. Our spirits were high.
People cycled past and rang their bike bells in approval (it’s a Copenhagen thing). Some called out, “you’re so crazy!” or “that looks like fun!” in friendly tones. People stopped to talk to us, usually starting with “why are you doing this?!” with wide, incredulous smiles. The answer was simple: because we can. Some assumed it was a protest of some sort. It was, however, simply a pro-test of our freedom.
Maybe you’re reading this and thinking, “this is just fucking weird”. Maybe you’re from a culture where such actions are regarded in a vastly different light. That’s all fine. Nobody is expecting you to do it. We didn’t expect anyone passing by to join in. We asked them, but we respected their decision not to just as they respected our decision to do it.
We probably spent half an hour cavorting jovially on the steps of our Parliament. We were fully expecting the police to show up and maybe ask us to put on our clothes — which is all they would have done — but no popo. One of the passersby was going to take a photo of us on the steps. As we were getting into position, a Parliament guard came through the main door. The first and only authority figure to appear. In a dry as you like Copenhagen accent, he said this:
“You might want to get off the steps. The alarm keeps going off inside because you’re too close to the building. It looks like a lot of fun! But just so you know, there are cameras all over the place.”
With a wave, he went back inside. Um, that was it. It was amazing. We were about to wrap it up anyway so it was a fine, gentle nudge. Before we got dressed, I read aloud from my interview answer above. To hammer out what living free in Copenhagen truly means and to underline the importance of our exercise on those steps.
I realised at that moment that the Parliament guard, in his response to our craziness, was representing Denmark and Danish society. Think about it:
First the pragmatic: “You might want to get off the steps. The alarm keeps going off inside because you’re too close to the building”. Just some friendly, professional advice. He was just doing his job and didn’t need the hassle of listening to the alarm. Our inherent mutual respect in Denmark meant that we understood that instantly. We certainly didn’t want him to have a crappy shift.
Then the personal: “It looks like fun!” A citizen recognizing other citizens’ behaviour, whether he would do such things himself or not.
And finally, the friendly warning: “But just so you know there are cameras all over the place.” He assumed we would be aware of that, with the Parliament being one of the highest security locations in the nation, but giving some inebriated people a reminder is never a bad idea.
We were well aware that every nook and cranny of the area was probably covered by state-of-the-art surveillance equipment. We joked about it, accepted that fact and made our choices anyway. We were in Denmark — so all would be fine. One of my friends made an interesting point. The guard could have called in the alarm — that’s his job. But by watching his screens and making a judgement call, he was — in effect — our advocate. The middleman between us and the flock of heavily-armed police and security forces who would descend upon the location if he pushed the button. And nobody wanted or needed that. It would be a waste of everyone’s time and a lot of taxpayer funds.
We got dressed and rode our bikes away, my friends waving as they turned down streets and headed home, one after one. We were drunk, absolutely, but we possessed a clarity about our actions and our desire to put our freedom to the test. We were elated as we pedalled home through the glorious Nordic night. We felt free.
And to our fellow citizens at the Police and the Danish Secret Service — we hope you had a good laugh and enjoyed the show on your screens. They are trained and paid to protect our freedom but we, the citizens, should always be ready and willing — and always within reason — to test it.