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The International Writers Magazine
: Hacktreks in Denmark

Eva Bell.

'This homeless encampment called Christiana is a city within a city...'

I was almost at the end of my tour of Copenhagen.  The last stop on my itinerary was “The Church of Our Saviour,” at Christianshavn.  It was a monument to the Danish Monarchy, and was therefore called the King’s Church.   This church is special because of the spire and the external staircase which twists around the spire four times to the top. And at the apex is a gilded globe flying a flag bearing the image of Christ.
As I descended this “Ladder to Heaven,” someone thrust a pamphlet into my hand. It said that this church was now the People’s Church – a church for all people, rich, poor, joyful or sorrowing. It was the parish for the Free City of Christiana!
“And pray, where is this Free City of Christiana?” I asked.
“Don’t waste your time. It’s not worth visiting,” an old man said, “Just a paradise for losers.”

But my curiosity had been piqued.  I had to see for myself.  It had not been mentioned as one of Copenhagen’s tourist attractions.  I criss-crossed several roads till I came upon a wall covered with multicolored graffiti.  I walked around to the main gate.  No one stopped me.  In fact there were many tourists gaping in awe at the tumble-down structures, and mingling with the residents.  A board issued a clear warning,
“No photography allowed.”  I knew there were many watchful eyes waiting to pounce on anyone who violated the code of conduct.  I thrust my camera deep into my back pack.

This homeless encampment called Christiana is a city within a city, peopled by the impoverished and the weird; a mini United Nations where black, brown and white live together in an incredible Utopia of their own creation – a junk yard made habitable, and decked up in psychedelic colors and exclusive graffiti, which at once attracts and repels.

In 1970, a group of hippies appropriated some empty godowns close to the Copenhagen harbor, and refused to be evicted by the legitimate owners.  As the land belonged to the Government, politicians entered the fray.  While conservatives advocated eviction, the left was in favor of making them stay.  By 1973, the State was willing to tolerate it as a “social experiment,” for three years. In 1975, when the police came to clear the colony, they were met with a powerful protest from a 10,000 strong mob.  A similar futile attempt was made in 1978, until better sense prevailed, and the Government realized the wisdom of containing such an anti-society group within a limited area, rather than have them spread over the city.  And so in 1986, the Government decided to recognize this colony as a part of the city, under a contract that no one could possess lethal weapons, no hard drugs would be sold, and no alcoholic brawls would be tolerated.

Today, 34 years down the line, Christiana this Paradise for Losers has become a Free City with a population a thousand people.  Many of them are third generation residents.  Only some receive social security.  Others find odd jobs to do in the city, or are self employed.  Artists, musicians, tinkers and tailors, drug addicts and wastrels, they live in harmony.  Housing is cheap, as shelters are built from waste material.  Broken down trucks, tin sheds, tattered canvas, cardboard and paper are all put to good use.  Each family builds its own shelter, which cannot be sold.  The streets have no names and the houses no numbers. The residents are known by nicknames.  They have their own restaurants, a theatre for plays and concerts, a circus, a kindergarten, a playground, poultry runs, and a cycle shop, where cycles are made from scrap, with boxes attached for transporting material.  These utility cycles are in great demand in Copenhagen, and proudly display the name ‘Christiana’ on the sides.

There is no representative committee, and all residents attend meetings which tend to be long drawn out and chaotic.  Even so, there is some mechanism by which discipline is enforced.  While the sale of hashish is legalized in the area, cocaine and LSD are prohibited.  Addicts who cause problems are sent away to detoxification centers.  Each family pays 100 kroners a month into a common kitty, for water, electricity, and garbage disposal. With so much hashish available, one sees bleary-eyed residents in different stages of nirvana.  Yet everything is peaceful, and visitors can walk around without fear of being molested.  Photography however, is strictly prohibited.

As I walked through the lanes of kiosks selling hashish, I struck up a conversation with a young owner of a kiosk, who spoke fluent English. My ignorance about the stuff amused him, and he set about educating me on the different varieties available.  The stuff from Morocco was the best, and the Indian one most inferior. I could buy a gram for anything between 40 kroners to 120 kroners, depending on the quality, and use it in a variety of ways – sniffing, smoking, with butter on toast, or added  to a curry.  The turn over for the month from this colony was approximately a quarter of a million kroners.  Customers came from all parts of Denmark.

I was so engrossed in his lecture, that I didn’t see the girl beside me until she spoke.
Gosh!  I almost jumped out of my skin.  I could recognize that voice in a million years!  Our eyes locked for less than a minute. Then she was off like a frightened rabbit.  It was Amy the girl who had come to Sweden on an International Student Exchange program and had never returned.  She was dressed in a tattered robe that cried out to be laundered.  Her hair was like Medusa’s locks, plaited into fine strands and brown with dirt.  I followed her, but she was too quick for me, and disappeared into a tin shed, behind a sagging plastic curtain.  I was just wondering if I should go in after her, when a burly African emerged and stood against the door, arms akimbo.  The mean look in his eyes said, “Get lost or else……”
I was no champion of lost maidens.  If she had opted out of the rat race and sought solace in this chaotic colony, why should I disturb her anonymity?  In this Free City of Christiana, it was ’one for all and all for one.’ 
I had no business to be here.  I vamoosed.
© Eva Bell Ocotber 12th 2004

In Denmark, it is a tourist attraction with 750,000 visitors a year from all over Europe. Tha main attractions, drugs and music. Christiana is a self-governing commune in Copenhagen and is the last bastion of hippie culture.

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