Getting pleasantly bitten: a personal intro to the CoBrA art movement

I lived in Copenhagen for nearly three years before moving to New York. And yet, when my good friend, painter John Blee, asked if I could locate a Cobra painting, I was, initially, at a loss. I thought of snakes. Then I Googled, and was ashamed of my art history mishap.

Though often colorful, full of movement, and capable of provoking all sorts of unexpected emotions, CoBrA is no snake. A fusion of Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam, it’s a mid-1900s avant-garde art movement. There’s a CoBrA museum outside of Amsterdam (I’ve sadly never ventured outside Amsterdam for museums, which I now see was clearly a mistake). If you can’t hop on a train right now, at least click through the museum site.

John had seen Mogens Balle’s work and had fallen in love. I was on my way to spend a summer in Copenhagen and would be on a mission to find the prints he craved. He was amazed to discover that the works could be purchased for a mere 200 Euros a piece. And they are phenomenal. Colorful, playful, full of movement and life.

The Balles took me on an unexpected wild goose chase. I hadn’t imagined that to find a couple of prints, I’d have to drive to a Northern Danish village so small, the GPS didn’t know any of its street names. I passed gorgeous pastures and rolling hills on the way there. Then I nearly accidentally drove through it. I circled back (thrice), hopelessly poking at the GPS, until a guy hopped out of nowhere and asked me who I was looking for. I started saying the art dealer’s name and he started walking me up a tiny street before I’d gotten to the last name.

The dealer lived in a large country-style house, surrounded by greenery and other similar houses. I felt I’d been transported back in time and half expected to see a scene straight out of Girl with a Pearl Earring. I was invited into a charming garden for tea and biscuits the dealer had baked himself. His wife came out to join us. And for an hour, we sat in the sun and chatted about painting and travel and how a successful dealer from Copenhagen had chosen to live in this remote little corner of Scandinavia.

As he wrote himself later, “We live in a generous world that to our garden in a remote corner of northern Jutland brings a nice Russian/American woman for a cup of coffee and a nice chat because a 3rd person – an American artist – has seen an exhibition in a dutch museum. Had it been a side plot in a movie one might have found it slightly artificial.”

In his home, I found Chagall prints side-by-side with finger paintings done by his grandchild. It was so beautifully unpretentious, perhaps in a way that can only happen in the humility-loving, family-focused Denmark. There was something surreal and idyllic about the place. As I drove away, I looked in the rear-view mirror, feeling that I was leaving a place that could have been created by Murakami, half expecting the town to dissipate into thin air. I wish I’d taken photos to share here, but at the time I felt I couldn’t disturb the serenity.

When I wonder to myself why I can’t let go of the idea of working in the arts, in some capacity, it’s adventures and encounters like these that are my answer. I returned from the trip full of a new type of energy that only arts people seem to be able to generate. I’d learned about the fascinating life of a man who became an art dealer before he even turned 20. I discovered a new movement and saw dozens of works I wanted to take home with me (like those of Zao Wou Ki – prints that quite literally imprint themselves in your memory after just one viewing – see for yourself here – and below.)

And to deliver the prints to their new owner, I met John at the MoMA for a museum trip that was unlike any I’d ever taken before.

Note to self: always see art with an artist you greatly admire – preferably one with an impossibly good memory for anecdotes about the creators of the work you’re seeing. When the people around you stop to listen, you know you’re with the right person.


The boat has landed in Copenhagen again.

Take that, Happiest Country.

After a little over a year away (a year spent joyously exploring Manhattan with baby in tow), we’ve come back to spend the summer in Copenhagen. And things seem quite different this time around. First of all, we’ve upgraded from southwest CPH (Sluseholmen), where only birds came to visit, to just east of the lakes. And this means the city is suddenly at our feet, almost like in New York! Haha. Not really – Gothersgade doesn’t quite have the edge Broadway does, but the lack of sirens, crazy homeless Alleluja man, and the jazz player who blows the same five tunes into his sax every evening at 7 pm – well, it’s all kind of refreshing, in a dull sort of way.

But the biggest transformation is among the Danes. They have changed dramatically in the past year. And it’s all because of our baby. Equipped with Oliver, I am suddenly seeing a side so much softer, I don’t know how to respond. People smile at me (us) on the street. They hold doors. They stand aside. And, most astoundingly: they start conversations with me. Everyone’s been doing it, and I – having prepared to not smile excessively at strangers and certainly not to strike up random conversations, which according to some Denmark Happiness experts scares the Danes – I’m the one that’s caught off guard and confused.

I was, to be honest, a bit scared to come back after a year back in the US. But I think I’m starting to see why everyone told me it would be different with kids. And so far, I kinda like it.

As for the orange poster I spotted in Norreport on one of my endless stroller-pushing outings: it still made me laugh. I can still relate. Contemplating going back with 50dkk to buy that thing.

You’ll hear no more “nature-schmature” from me

In all my 28 years, I never thought organically. Not in the kitchen, not in the bathroom. I never saw the point of paying more for organic food unless there was nothing else around, and thought Clinique and Estee Lauder were great because of their free gifts. My life was so simple.

But then I got pregnant. And the moment that happened, I went into mad hormonal research mode. I found Skin Deep, a site that shows the risks of various ingredients – and then, much to my amazement, discovered that my bathroom was filled with garbage!

My cosmetologist had been going on and on about awful parabens for months – but it never crossed my mind to look into it as I honestly just figured it was part of the usual cosmetologist “buy my line” marketing ploy. But alas, it appears that parabens have estrogenic effects (my interpretation: what you put on your face messes with your hormones, freaky) that could have something to do with cancer. I put that info together with the constant newsfeed about increasing cancer rates, and figured I might as well go natural.

And “natural” is key here. Not “organic.” Because as far as I can tell, organic products can still have loads of crap in them (as is 92% organic ingredients, 8% hell). Anyway, whatever the label, the trick is to learn about the biggest culprits and make sure they’re not on the label.

Come to think of it, one of my reasons for avoiding the natural cosmetics isle at Whole Foods is I was wholeheartedly convinced that stuff didn’t work. But then I bought some Zoya nailpolish on Amazon (awesome stuff, stays on and comes in a dizzying range of colors). And after over two years of inexplicable face horrors exacerbated by the pregnancy hormones, I found a German line called Lavera Faces that has been doing no less than wonders for my destroyed skin in just a matter of days. “It’s not the product,” my cosmetologist friend asserted, “it’s just your hormones changing.” So I went back to Clinique for 3 days – and with it right back to what my Dad affectionately called my “Pepperoni Pizza Face” back in the chicken pox days.

So I’m convinced. No parabens. No salicylic acid. And a whole bunch of stuff that they say you shouldn’t use when pregnant that I’m quite sure you shouldn’t use when you’re not pregnant.

Note of warning: the ladies at Macy’s and Nordstrom’s cosmetics counters won’t tell you a darn thing about ingredients. Before I knew what was good for me, I let one of their smiling faces convince me to get this wildly expensive brown Estee Lauder glass bottle with a pipette that’s supposed to restore your skin to baby butt quality (“and is used by burn victims!”) I  came home and discoverd that just about every ingredient was in the danger zone. With the $70 or so I got back, I could buy about 3 months’ worth of my Lavera calendula stuff.

Just don’t ask me for before/after photos just yet. While my skin might be improving, my expanding “baby fat” face is not the stuff of web posts.

Forget everything I said: Sluseholmen cancels out all Danish efficiency

Danish efficiency is bollocks. I’m over it. Admiration has been replaced by frustration and wonder.

For almost a year, we’ve been living in the brand spankin’ new Sluseholmen neighborhood in Copenhagen SV.

It’s perfect in theory:

  • Beautiful new building blocks surrounded by man-made canals, a la Amsterdam
  • Stunning views over the water
  • A street for shops (notice I say for, not with)
  • Instant access to water in the summer – and heaven if you are a boat or kayak person
  • 10 minute drive into central Copenhagen, and way closer to things that the Fields neighborhood

But in practice, it’s making me crazy:

  • The digging is neverending. The lot of land in front of us appears to be used as a dirt transferring area. They bring dirt by the truckload, shift it around, and then take it away. This has been going on for months.
  • The roads are wide enough for 2 cars to pass by each other, but that would be too easy. They’ve put up poles that barely fit one car, so there’s always a traffic jam. In a drunk and mad rage, someone knocked a few of them down, and they are sadly rolling around the street. Hilarious.
  • The bridges are just a bit too narrow for 2 cars to pass. Again: traffic jams.
  • IRMA finally arrived. Woo hoo. That and a tanning salon (which I’m told is a front for a drug dealing operation) is all we’ve got. A cafe seems nowhere in sight.
  • There is nowhere to go except in circles. There was a little bit of land allowing us to easily cross our canal to get to the bridge over to Amager Faelled. The other day, they dug up that patch to let the water flow. Now we have to walk for about 10 minutes to make a trip that used to take 30 seconds. Ridiculous.
  • All doors in our block weigh a ton (read: smack you in the arse on the way out) and require two hands to open: one for the handle and one for the lock, which is so close to the wall that you take off abit of skin every time you turn it. Awesome when it’s raining (it’s always raining) and you have to put all your nice leather bags on the ground and then try to lift your bags and make it through the door before is smacks you in the face.
  • I still find men on my balcony. Yes, they come unannounced and hover outside the third-floor window. One minute you’re gazing out the window, and the next you are gazing into the eyes of a mud-covered stranger with a missing tooth or two. And they do absolutely nothing! Poke a few things, and then descend again. Always when you are half dressed and looking like crap.
  • Every building has elevators that go down to the garage. Every building except ours, that is. So while our neighbors stay toasty, we have to take 2 elevators with a wet, rainy yard in between.

And those are my main complaints. The workers have stopped coming in (without knocking) to fix things while I’m in the shower. So that’s positive. Still, though, you’ve gotta be one happy person to enjoy all this.

People keep telling me it’ll be great in 10 years.


Totally flattered by a drunk (or: woman’s need for occasional male appreciation)

It’s funny what gets you back into blogging after a pathetically wrong lapse.

Today, as I descended to the S-train platform at Nørreport, I noticed a homeless guy in an amusingly bizarre position. Smack in the middle of all the action and inches from the edge of the platform, he’d laid himself down, crossed his feet at the ankles, and gone to sleep. Out of his pocket stuck a bag of opened candy, and pieces had dropped out, creating a colorful display around his drab body. I shifted my newly-bought tulips into my other hand and started my new book. Minutes later, he was up, encouraged by a good samaritan to get himself out of the way.

First, he picked the candy off the floor and ate it. And then he decided that he’d be the first man in Copenhagen to pay me a compliment. He stumbled over to me and slurred (in Danish) “Hi, beautiful. Have a great day, beautiful.”

And then he was off. And I felt surprisingly pleased.

My Russian friends’ first reaction to Copenhagen was that it made them feel ugly. Not because the women are gorgeous, but because the men never look at them. Forget compliments! What is so much a part of Southern European and Eastern European cultures seems seriously taboo here.

Except for the drunk and homeless. Today, in my eyes, they rose above the other men with the ability to make a woman feel like she stands out and has what it takes to turn a head. Even if it’s a drunk head that was just resting on platform pavement, it’s better than nothing.

How the world sees Denmark

Another entertaining tidbit on Denmark from my favorite e-newsletter on fashion, culture, and other sweet necessities: DailyCandy. Check out Denmark’s the Spot.


Time for a poll

True or false: “Denmark is a place where stoic locals wear sensible shoes and snack on herring sandwiches.”

Forget the 7-inch heels that push the pedals. Forget the sushi craze and the anything-but-stoic debauchery on Kongens Nytorv on Saturday night. Apparently, the statement is TRUE – and one of the reasons behind Denmark being the HAPPIEST PLACE ON EARTH.

But seriously: Denmark’s been up there for a while. I even wrote a paper about it for my Social Phych class two years ago. My conclusion was that it was about activity – and not just any activity: activity towards a desired goal.

That may still be the case, but according to the article, Danes also feel really protected (the taxes stink, but they’re there to strengthen that social safety net). And maybe protection is the key. After living here for over a year, I’d say it’s a part of this country’s charm. At work, at least, I feel like the system is looking out for my best interests. Loads of vacation, normal hours, respect for my personal life. All things I sorely missed back in the US. Customer service was way better, but maybe the Danes just haven’t prioritized it because they realize it doesn’t make people happier to have clerks smile at them incessantly and do whatever it takes to make them buy more stuff.

Looking out for our best interests also includes priorizing efficiency. (I’ve been tracking some of its manifestations – check out the category on the left). And it includes letting people feel in control of their lives, by trusting them to use their own judgement to, say, not step off a cliff or lean out the window of a skyscraper. In the US, there’s be signs and locks. Here, there’s just the philosophy that you should be smart enough to make the right decision. I’m sure that makes people feel happier, too.

But you can make up your own mind. Check out the story and the videos here.

p.s. The US is #23 on the list.