Waste management is always the trump card of the opponents of anarchy. “Oh, yeah?” says the smug square, “You want to get rid of the government and all the laws? Then, who’s going to take out the garbage?” The anarchist garbage collectors, that’s who.
In Freetown Christiania, the self-governing anarchist town in Copenhagen, Denmark where I spent seventeen days in the summer of 2010, garbage collection is a festive affair. Like the rest of the town, the dumpsters and garbage trucks are covered in colorful murals. But the brightly painted equipment belies the serious mission of the garbage collection collective, one that, like many aspects of life in Christiania, is stated in a manifesto and evolved at weekly meetings.
My first act as a visiting journalist in Christiania is to arrange for a ride on a garbage truck. Having secured this meeting, I return to my quarters, a one-room dwelling in a neighborhood called Dandelion, to try to adjust to the nine-hour time change I’ve incurred coming from California to be a writer-in-residence in Christiania’s newly founded residency program. The program is one devoted Christianian citizen’s attempt to raise international awareness about the town, while ensuring that someone documents it, in case it soon disappears.
Christiania is always about to disappear, but no one in Christiania seems genuinely worried about this. Over the course of its over forty-year history, Christiania has been continuously on the brink of closure and dissolution, and yet it remains, to this day, an enclave of self-government with a quasi-legal drug trade and a Teflon-like resistance to any real normalization.
My residency is literally that — I get to live in a guesthouse with a small kitchen, questionable plumbing, a whimsical sleeping loft, and a sundeck where strangers come and hang their laundry.
By the end of my stay in Christiania, I will learn that the only difference between myself and all the other people in Christiania who are living rent-free in dwellings with whimsical details, questionable plumbing, and little privacy is that I have applied online to do so.
I check the residency program’s web site for my own bio. “Emily is interested in how an autonomous zone in a European city differs from the ones in Northern California,” it reads.
Now this, I think, is an investigation I can conduct, having spent the rest of the summer crashing on a series of off-the-grid farms devoted to a certain Californian cash crop. Confidence renewed, I try to get some sleep before the garbage-truck ride-along, though in the lawless town, pickup times are flexible, and I don’t have to be at the garage until the reasonable hour of eight.
Christiania by the numbers, as I came to understand it via a combination of immersion, oral history, and Wikipedia:
Residents: 900; Acres: 84; Cars: 0; All-female blacksmith shops: 1; Oldest building built: 1665; Founded: 1971; Heroin use outlawed: 1979; Recognized by Danish government: 1989; Briefly shut down: 2011; Normalized: 2012; 44 years of existence celebrated: 2015; First two-star Michelin restaurant scheduled to open: 2018
Christiania began when a bunch of hippies squatted in what had been a military installation since the seventeenth century, strategically located across a strait from Sweden. The town is still surrounded by some of the only surviving ramparts from the era. Other very old military buildings currently inhabited by Christianians include barracks, warehouses, gunpowder storehouses, bastions, and towers.
A number of people told me that they didn’t eat anything that grew in Christiania, because they felt the soil was contaminated from centuries of munitions manufacturing. The town occupies a crescent-shaped swath of land alongside a gentle arc of canal, giving the whole place a feeling that is both old- and other-world.
By the twentieth century, the area was empty, and only sporadically guarded, and one day in 1971, some locals hopped the fence. Some say they did this to build a playground for their children, others say it was a protest against the Danish government. A few weeks later, an alternative newspaperman named Jacob Ludvigsen wrote an article headlined, “Civilians conquer the forbidden city of the military,” then co-authored a mission statement declaring that, “The objective of Christiania is to create a self-governing society whereby each and every individual holds themselves responsible over the well-being of the entire community.”
From there, Christiania grew into a place defined by a mix of free love and defiant resistance. The titular chorus of the town anthem, adopted in 1976, proclaims, “You Cannot Kill Us.” (This might be a hair dramatic; no one is trying to kill the Christianians, only take their land and turn their homes into condos.) The flag of Christiania, three yellow dots on a red field, is rumored to have been made by accident, when early Christianians had only two colors of paint. It is emblazoned on everything from beer to lighters to stickers that say “Bevar Christiania,” (“Save Christiania”) which are for sale, among much other schwag, including a coffee table book, in a gift shop by the entrance.
Hard drugs proliferated until they were successfully outlawed in 1979, and while the open sale of marijuana and hash on the town’s main drag, called Pusher Street, was briefly suspended in 2004, in 2010, the soft drug trade was alive and well, and by all accounts, remains to this day. Christianians are most often described as anarchists, but to me, they also look like punks, hippies, theater geeks, artists, hipsters, hobos, buskers, and general weirdos, with a larger-than-average percentage of mimes and puppeteers.
The brief depiction on Christiania on the Showtime series Weeds was highly accurate. Christiania has a booming tourist industry, and millions of annual visitors are walked slowly through its streets, to see the cargo bikes (a Christianian invention that has met worldwide success), the famous Pusher Street, where the hash is sold, the vegetarian restaurants, coffeeshops, and bars, the general store, the co-ed bathhouse, and the further reaches of its canals and fields.
Every resident of and visitor to Christiania has an origin story (mine was the discovery of this appropriately rule-free application page) but the origin story of Emmerik Warburg, the man who ran the residency program, is an exemplary genesis myth:
“In ’74 I was a member of a group that played experimental folk music. Furekåbben. I played the flute. And then there was a cello and three guitars and a lot of percussion. And one female singer just singing “oooooh” and the guitarist playing his own poems, like Bob Dylan with experimental music behind. And all improvised, so we never knew how long the numbers were.
“We never played electric. We had no leaders. We didn’t want any. We didn’t want to be stars. We just wanted to be a part of the people we were playing with.
“Some of us came here and thought it was a great place to stay.
So I came and said, ‘Can I be here, too?’
And they said, ‘We are only two in this room, let’s be three!’”
That story, or some version of it, was one nearly every Christianian told.
As much as people were willing to share stories of the past, they were patently uninterested in discussing the future, or the concept of normalization. When I tried my hard-hitting journalistic questions, “What will become of Christiania? Is the attempt at normalization a sign of neoliberal or neoconservative takeovers of the radical left? Is gentrification the co-optation of counterculture to be consumed by the rich as entertainment?” people invariably shrugged, often while rolling a joint.
“Christiania will never die,” they would say, whether they had lived there for three days or thirty years. When I pressed residents to describe how they would defend Christiania, their answers ranged from demonstrations to riots to simply ignoring the police. Whether they were Christianian elders who’d been living in their repurposed former military stable for decades, or squatters packed three to a shed, or just high school kids enjoying a joint down by the water before they walked through the gate that said “Entering the European Union” and then biked home to their normal houses via Copenhagen’s world-class system of dedicated pedestrian, bike, and car paths, all citizens were equally certain that Christiania would survive, and yet equally unconcerned, and equally vague, about exactly how it would.
In 2012, Christiania was “normalized,” which meant that its inhabitants were forced by the government to buy — and worse, own — the town they had lived in, for free, for over forty years. While the price of 76 million kroner (about $13 million USD) was a fraction of what the land is now actually worth, 13 million dollars is a lot of money when your entire lifestyle is based on not having any. But money was raised, deals were struck, payments were made, and rents increased. Christiania did not die, and soon after, by all accounts, it was back to its own version of normal. The first event of the New Year of 2016 was a 1980s-themed roller skating party, the online calendars of the local bars and performance spaces are up-to-date and full, the award-winning bike shop is taking international orders, and the very residency program I attended is still accepting applications, with a recent resident expressing an interest in “sensory architecture.”
The most recent news out of Christiania is that the putative “best restaurant in the world,” Copenhagen’s Michelin-starred Noma, will relocate to “the city’s trendy Christiania district” as an urban farm. (According to Noma’s website, the opening, originally slated for this year, will be postponed until early 2018, due to the discovery of “an ancient stone wall buried in the ground.”) The chef, René Redzepi, plans to truck in all of his own soil. The Christianian dirt will finally be clean.
The normalization didn’t change Christiania, but this reporter has a different hunch. It’s not the government that has the true power to kill the counterculture. It’s the use of the word “trendy,” coupled with the presence, hype and patronage of very expensive restaurants that spells the real death knell.
The food I ate in Christiania was decidedly un-haute. It was what my Brooklyn anarchist punk friends affectionately refer to as “vegan slop.” Lentils, curries, stir-fries, homogenous vegetables, inscrutable grains. As a bourgeois bohemian with a culturally congruent, if financially inconvenient, taste for fine dining, after a few days of vegan slop, I would have loved to have been able to spend some of my European funny money on some overpriced organics on the edge of Christiania.
When I show up at the machine shop and garbage-truck garage at the appointed hour for the ride-along, Niels looks sheepish.
“I didn’t tell anyone else that you were coming today,” he says. “Our regular truck is in the shop, and we’ve got this truck we don’t normally have. My colleague is a bit worried about it. He doesn’t want us to look stupid.”
The worried colleague’s name is Thomas. He is English.
“We might have a bit of stress this morning,” Thomas says nervously.
“Well, I’ll tell you what,” I say. “I won’t ride in the truck. I’ll just walk alongside the truck and if at any time you start to feel stressed out, you can tell me, and I’ll just leave you to it.”
Thomas looks relieved. He and Niels climb into their backup garbage truck and begin their rounds.
The truck seems to be working okay. As Niels and Thomas develop trust in their machine, they relax. I come a little closer, and we chat about Danish, American, and Christianian politics while they work. Niels and Thomas display the usual European disbelief at the insanity of the American political system. I try to explain the Electoral College.
Thomas shyly reveals that it is his birthday. After we finish the route, we all go to the store and I buy Thomas a Christiania Beer. Christiania sells its own beer, with the Christianian flag on it. It is cheapest at the general store, about $3.
The garbage collectors and I sit on benches in the sun, drinking the cold beer. Though, technically, I haven’t done anything but observe, drink espresso, and pontificate (which is, let’s face it, all I ever do), I feel the satisfaction of a good morning’s work.
What happens next? I ask Thomas and Niels. Do they drive the truck to a landfill somewhere? Does Christiania have its own incinerator?
They take the garbage outside the walls, they tell me, and leave it at a Copenhagen waste transfer station. But that only happens once a week, so today’s work is done.
The rest of the day will therefore be devoted to Thomas’s birthday party, to be held in the upstairs room at the machine shop where the garbage trucks are garaged and maintained.
The other guests at Thomas’s birthday party include Bibi, the head mechanic at the machine shop, his temperamental Pomeranian lapdog, Modesty, a cheerful and handsome Frenchman named Eric, and a feverish, red-haired fellow who wears the unmistakable scowl of a devoted Marxist.
We sit around a table in the cozy upstairs loft, under the eaves. Someone produces and slices a pie, and we sing Thomas “Happy Birthday.” Then we spend the afternoon getting drunk, stoned, and opinionated.
The red-haired guy kicks things off by pouring forth a story about an island between Denmark and Sweden that was occupied by the Russians during World War II. Once he finishes, he folds his arms, sits back in his chair, and never speaks again.
Eric, the Frenchman, tells me about the smugglers who make their living carrying contraband across the Franco-Spanish border, in the Pyrenees. They are descendants of resistance fighters from World War II, he says. They have an annual race that attracts distance runners from all over the world, some of whom aren’t even smugglers themselves. They come just to run the ancient mountain routes.
Throughout the afternoon, Eric periodically produces from the sleeve of his jacket a large stalk of marijuana wrapped in newspaper. Marijuana is essentially legal in Christiania, and a vast majority of people I meet there smoke it, more often in the form of hash, openly and often. He breaks off a bit and rolls up a spliff, then deftly wraps the stalk back up in the newspaper, and tucks the parcel back up his sleeve.
Eric and I talk about tourism, then education. His English isn’t that great, but neither is my French, so we switch back and forth.
“Les écoles,” Eric shrugs, “They fomate the person the way they want to fomate them.”
Is “fomate” a word? I wonder. I don’t think so, but I like it. It’s like an amalgam of “formation” and “foment,” and it does seem to describe what I have always believed the schools were trying to do to me. The schools tried to fomate me, but I refused to be fomated. Not getting fomated, I suddenly realize, has been my life’s work.
But what’s the alternative?, worry the same people who are always so negative about the garbage, who lack the imagination to picture two guys diligently emptying colorful dumpsters into a colorful garbage truck, then knocking off at noon to drink beer and smoke spliffs and discuss Marxism in a cozy attic. This was the alternative — or at least one of them.
It helps a lot that Christiania is an anarchist town located in the middle of one of Europe’s richest social welfare states. If you’re going to fomate an alternative reality, it’s nice — some might say essential — to surround it with a healthy, wealthy infrastructure. All dumpsters, stenciled or mural-ed, must be emptied into larger dumpsters. A self-governing town stays healthier when a socialized health care system provides an on-site doctor to its clinic each week, as the Danish government does to Christiania.
When Bibi starts talking, I learn there is an anarchist gypsy cave community somewhere in Spain. I hear a lot about this cave community while I am in Christiania, but no one can — or will — tell me exactly what it is called, or where it is located. “It’s like Christiania,” people say, “but in caves, in Spain.”
Bibi is British, like Thomas, but while Thomas’s accent is Northern, Bibi’s is Cockney. About the gypsy caves in Spain, Bibi says this: “The people there, they’d share everything with you, but you had to wait to be offered, y’see. My friend I was with, he made the mistake of asking the bloke next to us if he could buy some hash, and after that, the joint, the chillum, the bong — they all went ‘round and we was never offered. Because he didn’t wait to be offered, y’see?”
I hope Bibi might reveal more about the social mores of the cave community in Spain, but Modesty starts yapping, and he takes her outside. When he comes back with a fresh spliff (you can buy them pre-rolled, from the street vendors), I am too cowed by his story about the importance of being offered to ask him the location of the gypsy cave community in Spain where he learned this very lesson.
“The more you get to planning, the more stress you have, and the more meetings you miss.”
Thomas apologizes for my being the only woman at the party. I assure him that I feel perfectly comfortable in the all-male environment, and this leads to a brief discussion of the unresolved gender issues in the machine shop.
I wouldn’t be the only woman at the party if Mary Ann, the machine shop secretary, were present, but she had taken a leave of absence. Perhaps, I wonder, most of the mechanically-minded women have gravitated to Christiania’s all-female blacksmithing shop, leaving a dearth of qualified women for other positions in the local industries?
Thomas looks pained as explains Mary Ann’s absence. “We tried our very best to address the gender issues among our colleagues,” he says. “We went on a team-building week to Finland. And it did help. But Mary Ann still needed a bit of a break.
“She doesn’t quite want the role she’s taken on, but at the same time, she’s also had it thrust on her, you understand? She’s taken it on, but it’s also been put upon her without her choice. So she just needs a bit of a break.”
Are there any other garbage men and women in all the world, I wonder, who are trying so valiantly to address the issues of gender roles and identity as those of Christiania? Is there any other sanitation crew anywhere that has spent a week in Finland doing team-building exercises in an attempt to address their gender equity issues?
“I’m sure you guys are doing everything you can,” I tell Thomas. “You know, with race and gender and power, it’s taken centuries, if not millennia, to get to where we are, so even if we give it our all, it’s going to take some time to untangle. It’s a process,” I conclude. “It really is a process.”
“I suppose,” says Thomas, sadly. “Can you stay a bit longer, Emily?” he asks, brightening. “If you can, I’ll open another big bottle.”
“I certainly can!” I reply. “I didn’t really make any plans today, other than going out with you guys on your garbage collection route.”
“Well,” says Thomas, “the more you get to planning, the more stress you have, and the more meetings you miss.”
While I’m in Christiania, the town is awash with “Rainbow people” trickling down from a recent Rainbow Gathering in Finland. The Rainbow Gathering, I learn, is a global network of annual hippie events. Christiania is an eddy for all kinds of traveling flotsam and jetsam, and while the Rainbow Family flows through, it subtly alters the vibe a little away from the DIY anarchist punk/hippie, toward the OM-chanting hobo/hippie, a subtle, but visible, distinction.
The Rainbow Family gather in forests for a week to a month at a time. They share food and eschew money, hold hands and pray, and perform a number of activities in circles. Their slogan is, “Welcome Home.”
The Rainbow people I meet in Christiania are very nice, but there is something cult-y about them. If their slogan didn’t have the word “Home,” if it just said, “Welcome,” I would be less weirded out.
The Rainbow people really try to put the “home” in “Welcome Home.” Even though they don’t even live in Christiania, they function as my de facto tour guides for a day. The Rainbow Family that attempts to adopt me consists of two Israeli guys, and two women, one American, one Italian. They all wear the disheveled gypsy outfits of longtime travelers — patched-up pants, well-worn boots, entanglements of beads, feathers, shells, silver, and human hair, which has become less a body part and more of an accessory, and outer garments that aren’t exactly shirts, tunics, cloaks, ponchos, scarves, or blankets, but all and none of these at once.
It is the Rainbow people who show me Christiania’s communal bathhouse and sauna, where together, we sweat and shower, co-ed and naked. Then the Rainbow people take me to an abandoned shack in a wooded area where they’ve been squatting, build a fire, and cook us a dinner of smoked salmon, scrambled eggs, brie, cheddar cheese, bread, crepes, and potatoes, all of which they have retrieved from dumpsters.
One of the guys pushes me around in a cargo bike for a while, and then the other one plays me the song, “Stand By Me,” on his ukulele.
“Thanks for that!” I applaud. “I love that song.”
“I knew you would,” says the Rainbow person, in the exact tone of voice that creeps me out about the Rainbow people. It’s that extra level of meaning they impose on everything. Playing someone a song is a nice thing to do. But when you make a show of the gift, you make a chore of the gratitude.
Thai massage comes up a lot with the Rainbow people. Everyone talks about a workshop on Thai massage. I can never tell if they are all referring to the same workshop on Thai massage, or several different workshops on Thai massage.
After dinner, someone takes out some paper and markers. “We can have a workshop!” one of them says, eagerly. I politely excuse myself, claiming lingering jet lag, but the real reason is that I cannot explain my irrational fear of workshops across our multiple language barriers.
The rest of the time I am in Christiania, the Rainbow people seem mildly insulted to frankly bereft that I haven’t joined their tribe. “Welcome Home,” may be less of an invitation, more of a command.
“Emily!” they call out to me, whenever I pass by. “We’re doing a workshop!” I explain that I’m doing a writing residency, and I need to hang out with all different people in Christiania, to get a sense of the whole place.
As they fade into the background of my experience, the glimpses I catch of them get more and more fantastic. One day, as I ride by on a bike, I see them in a copse of trees in the forest, huddled over a fire, in the rain, improbably cooking what looks like shakshuka, the Israeli egg dish. Another day, they are fortifying their shack, out of scrap materials and what appears to be a pile of leaves. Where others see garbage, they see dinner. Where others see decay, they see construction. The Rainbow Gathering may only come once a year, but the Rainbow people are always gathering.
My favorite place in Christiania turns out to be the communal bath house the Rainbow People show me. “Welcome Home,” the bathhouse could say, without weirding me out at all.
Many people in Christiania don’t have their own showers or bathtubs, so the bathhouse is not just a luxury, but a necessity. It has a sauna, four shower stalls, and a weird old gymnasium contraption with bars and springs and straps, and rocks on the bottom for drainage. You can stand naked on these rocks and stretch by hanging onto and from various bars and straps on the contraption. Groaning is very much allowed, if not encouraged. It feels very historical, and very European.
California, my new home, is also a naked place, and I am a naked person, so I fit in. The baths are a way that autonomous zones in Europe are very much like the ones in California, I note, remembering my stated research purpose.
When I lived in New York, I had a Dutch friend who would lilt, in her fabulous accent, “Do you go in the sauna naked with your family?” No, I would explain, in my family and most others I knew, inter-gender nudity wrapped up sometime before puberty, and this is pretty normal for Americans.
“Americans are so uptight about sex,” she would murmur, cool and European. (We had this conversation several times.) “They are so afraid of sex and they are so afraid of the body that don’t understand that nudity is not sex.”
And I would feel ashamed, not of my nakedness, but of my clothed-ness.
But here, an American in Europe, a Californian in Denmark, I strut around the communal bathhouse. Maybe I’m not ready for the Thai massage workshop or the drum circle, but I am happy to participate in public nudity with the whole community.
“Life is so good here because people are so much more honest when they are naked.”
In the sauna, I chat with a salubrious gray-bearded man who sits in full lotus position on the highest, hottest sauna bench. He must have amazing circulation, I hypothesize. I am certain I would pass out if I even tried to climb up to the top level of the sauna.
“I do so many healthy things,” says the bearded man, “that I don’t even know which one is working. Only if something is wrong do I question.”
“That’s definitely the way to go,” I agree, seeing spots hovering near his healthy grin.
I’m getting that faint, skin-aflame feeling that sends me to the cold shower. I stand with my hand on the doorknob, but the old man isn’t finished dispensing wisdom from on high.
“The secret to life is to not be afraid to live, not to be afraid of life. If you are afraid of life you can try so many things, and nothing will help. If you are not afraid, then you can live. But of course, you already know this. I can see that you are not afraid to live.”
Oh, I hope so, I think, in the ever hell-hot furnace of my mind. I do not want to be afraid of life. I do not want to miss out on living. My eyeballs are singeing.
“Do you know why this sauna is different from all the saunas in the world?” he asks.
“Because it is our sauna, all of ours, here in Christiania, where we all naked, together. And life is so good here because people are so much more honest when they are naked.”
I decide to be honest, since I am already naked. “It was very nice talking to you, but I really need to go in the cold shower now!”
Walking around Christiania, my overarching emotion is not hope for the revolution, but intense real estate envy.
I find myself on progressively smaller stone paths winding through the little houses that make up my neighborhood. It’s called Mælkebøtten, which is Danish for Dandelion.
It’s dark out and prime time for my favorite activity, which is Peeping Tom-ing. (Peeping Thomasina-ing?) Each house is unique, but they share common oddities. Many are round, or have sloping attic ceilings, or are obviously very old in that way only things in the Old World can be old — or all three. Everywhere I look there are exposed beams, warm lights, crammed bookshelves, repurposed windows, glass domes. Almost every house here is my dream house — old, weird, charmingly crooked, innovatively decorated.
I turn off my headlamp and skulk around the paths, peering from the bushes. Inside my many dream homes, the forefront of the revolution are surfing the internet on their MacBooks, much as I have been doing in my colder and less homey guest house. Thus far, Christiania to me seems less like a commune or a free zone than just an incredibly pleasant place to live. It is a lot like Berkeley in that way, a place that had its revolutionary heyday long ago, and is now as much about real estate as it is about revolution.
Other neighborhoods have are some larger buildings. Big, old military warehouses have been turned into apartments. Some of them are actual fortresses, with big courtyards inside with grassy gardens and stacks of chopped wood. On the ground floors are shops, art studios, cafes. The apartments have high ceilings, nice paintings, wood-burning stoves. Out by the canals houses are built in the woods, or right on the water, with big windows and little docks.
I don’t know if I’ve ever lusted after so many different types of living spaces all in such a small area. I want to live in the little house tucked into the woods! No, the one right on the water! No, the big loft in the old barracks! No, the round one with the tree growing in through the window!
In the midst of this real estate envy I realize that all most people really want is the freedom to make their own little world, to make their own castle. I realize that I’m having real estate envy precisely because each of these homes is, in its own way, a testament to that very freedom — to build something just as you like it.
Outside Christiania, the buildings are tall, cold, Scandinavian, impersonal. The world outside begins to feel sad and unsafe, part of a dystopian future.
Back in Christiania, I am free to indulge my fantasies of a sweet little house all my own full of (almost locally-bought!) Swedish furniture. Walking around peeping in the windows of a Danish neighborhood named Dandelion, I realize that what I’m looking at is the actualization of what I was told was The American Dream.
My first visit to the infamous Pusher Street is actually a failed attempt to find a Thai restaurant I have looked up on the internet.
Located right by the main entrance to Christiania, Pusher Street at first glance appears to be an open-air market of the ilk you would find at a music festival, or adjacent to the produce at a farmer’s market. A semicircle of stalls offer the goods usually sold in proximity to marijuana use — those woven hooded sweaters aptly named drug rugs, blown glass smoking paraphernalia, knitted pouches in the shape of mushrooms in which to keep the glass objects. A falafel truck in the center of the drug-rug semicircle completes the look.
And there they are, as promised, the hash dealers at their stalls and tables, forming a neat line. The hash on the tables is labeled, mostly in Danish, but I recognize the words “Lebanese Blonde.”
I expected the open-air hash market to be somehow quainter, but it’s actually quite menacing. The guys staffing the booths have shaved heads or buzz cuts, and are wearing those tracksuits that villainous drug dealers wear in Guy Ritchie movies. I’ve only known my pot dealers to be affable, friends or friends of friends, or stoic bike messengers. These are not your friendly neighborhood pot dealers. These are real drug dealers.
The drug dealers have little fires going in garbage cans and are blasting techno music. When they move through the market, they move in mini-gangs. There’s a guy who walks in front, two more guys who walk slightly behind him, and often a threatening dog with a spiked collar somewhere in the entourage.
I imagine a hardboiled freelance journalist would dig into this situation and find out something complex and shocking about where the drugs come from and the money ends up, but I am too scared to approach any of these track-suited guys in the night as a customer, let alone a journalist.
I do not find the Thai restaurant. I get hopelessly lost, circle the hash market three times, and conclude my first visit to Pusher Street eating falafel from the cart between the drug dealers and the drug rugs.
Another day, I do something bad on Pusher Street. Something forbudt, as the Danes would say.
That’s how I learn that you don’t run on Pusher Street. There are signs everywhere with pictures of cameras and the international “NO” symbol, but the “no running” rule is not spoken.
I’m hanging out with my friend Nils, who works at the health food restaurant (not to be confused with Niels, who works in the garbage collection collective), when he asks if I want to smoke a joint. I offer to go get us two Christiania beers at the general store while he rolls it.
“Race ya!” I say to Nils, who is already absorbed, building the joint.
It’s a beautiful sunny day and I’m suddenly so happy not to be in America. Maybe I will stay here, maybe I can just live four to a bedroom in one of these old barns or stables, with all these strange old left-behind things, the crates and the curios and the human floatsam, too. I can wear clothes from the free box and eat food from the dumpster and bathe in the bathhouse and not be so damn — boojie.
There are tourists everywhere, moving at that plodding tourist speed, and I start playing a 3-D video game, darting between them. I’ve always loved to race through a crowd, and this is almost as good as Grand Central Station at rush hour. I imagine I am racing toward a future, a better life, a life of beers and joints on crumbling porches, of “owning it” by not owning anything, walking the talk and dropping out while joining up, becoming a part of something —
“HALT!” multiple voices cry out.
The voices come from behind me, in front of me, on either side of the road. I stop and look in every direction. There is a track-suited buzz-cut guy in front, behind, to the left, to the right. The first one to meet my eye is smirking and waving his index finger in the metronome of scolding.
“No-no-noooo,” he chides. “You never run on Pusher Street.”
I look into the other faces, the faces of the youngest drug dealers. I realize that all this time, I’ve thought of them all as one person, but they are all different people. Different, very vigilant people.
Another, slower youngling pusher approaches, panting.
“Miss, why were you running?” he pants.
“I was just…going to get a Christiania beer.” I say.
“You don’t run on Pusher Street,” he says.
“You never run on Pusher Street,” says another.
“You don’t run on Pusher Street,” I repeat. This is the first and only rule or law I have heard spoken aloud in Christiania, besides, NO HEROIN.
“What took you so long?” Nils says when I come back with the Christiania beers. The joint is almost half-gone when he hands it to me, but there’s still plenty left. All of the joints in Christiana are Marley-sized.
“I made a mistake,” I tell him, inhaling gratefully. “I ran on Pusher Street.”
“Oh, man,” Nils laughs, popping the tops on our beers with his lighter. “Everybody knows you don’t run on Pusher Street.”
It all becomes more of a blur. I spend a night at the bar drinking with a band, and they tell me they are paid better in Christiania than almost anywhere else on their European tour. I spend another night at the jazz club, where they are throwing a birthday party for the club’s eighty-year-old bouncer, a woman with a shiny pageboy and cartoon-red lips and a parrot that sits on her shoulder. The rough-looking man I’ve seen both selling hash on Pusher Street and shaving in the sauna, right next to the stove, turns out to do spot-on renditions of American standards. If you close your eyes, he sounds just like Sinatra.
I take the official tour, and the guide keeps pointing at this one building and saying, “the natural people live there.” I assume she means either the vegans or the full-time (not just bathhouse) nudists, until I ask which it is and she explains that by “natural people,” she means the indigenous people of Greenland, which is a Danish territory, where the indigenous people have a high rate of alcoholism. Christiania runs a residential treatment center for alcoholic indigenous Greenlanders.
I spend a whole afternoon smoking a joint on a trampoline with two Polish teenagers, another one with a Spanish gypsy named Enara who shows me the cold attic garret she inhabits in the home of a puppeteer, where there is just a bed, a candle, and a guitar with a broken string. Entering the room is like walking into a Picasso painting.
It is frequently suggested to me that I attend some kind of weekly meeting that constitutes the totality of Christiania’s political life. People offer to translate for me, so I can watch the process of consensus in action. But the diligent avoidance of meetings (and workshops) of all kinds is the basis of my own peculiar brand of anarchy. I might be a bad reporter and a worse anarchist, but I continually elude the Meeting. The best I can manage is to go by the room where the Meeting happens one night on my way from the sauna to the bar, where through a window, I see folding chairs pushed up to a horseshoe of folding tables, someone gesticulating, and someone else shaking her head.
Instead, I hang out with a guy named Cornelius while he comes down from acid. Two guys named Cosmo and Rasmus I meet at a roaring bonfire by the canal tell me sternly, “Don’t have kids. Live your life.”
A German former mime named Kurt lives in a little room next to the store. He draws pictures with colored pencils, gives them away to passers-by, and tells everyone to “Enjoy your life!”
Either everyone in Christiania really is telling me some version of, “Be free! Be yourself! Do your thing!” or this is all I hear, or all I remember.
Biking around the morning of my last day, a fellow cyclist appears out of the mist rising off the canal. I confide in him that though I’ve been in Christiania for seventeen days and I’ve promised to write an essay about it, I’ve been so stoned the whole time that I’m not sure I’ve done any decent reporting.
“Just make it all up,” the guy says, pedaling back into the mist. “Make it all up!”
That’s what this whole town is about, I realize. It’s about making it all up. It sounds like a fantasy land. Free rent! Naked bathhouse! Open-air weed market!
“You’re making that up,” someone might say, to which I would counter, You can’t make this stuff up, and yet, at the same time, if you don’t, who will?
On the eve of my flight home, I go back to the sauna one last time, where I meet Tash, who is about my age, and also American.
Tash was arrested at some anti-globalization protests two years prior, and has been on trial, at the international court in the Hague, for one count of terrorism and four counts of “organizing violence.” She has been acquitted this very day. I ask her how long was she facing in prison if she had been found guilty.
“Oh, I don’t know,” she yawns. “Years.”
The sauna is shutting down for the night and everyone is taking their final showers. Tash exits the shower and stretches her arms above her head luxuriantly in a gesture of triumph and freedom. She lets her arms drop and her hands slap her thighs.
“Well,” she sighs, “I feel almost back to normal now.”
After her encounter with the international court, Tash has come to Christiania to normalize herself. Christiania doesn’t need normalization. Christiania, for the weirdest among us, is normalizing.
To conclude my journalistic responsibilities, I dry off, then write down in my notebook, “The main way autonomous communities in Europe are different from those in Northern California is that in Europe they smoke joints made of hash with lots of tobacco, and in Northern California, they just smoke weed.”
BIO: Emily Meg Weinstein’s work has appeared in Salon, McSweeney’s, Longreads, The Rumpus, Electric Literature, The Hairpin, The Billfold, Adventure Journal, The Morning News, The Huffington Post, Climbing and Rock and Ice magazines, and other publications and anthologies. Her essay, “Mating Habits of the Asterisk,” was mentioned as a Notable Essay of 2014 in The Best American Essays 2015.
She lives, writes, teaches, and climbs in Northern California, where she divides her time between a houseboat in the San Francisco Bay and her second home, the Free Ford Freestar. Follow her @emilymweinstein, read and learn more at emilymegweinstein.com.