Let me tell you a true story about eating lunch in Denmark.
It’s mid-October. A bright, sunny day. A deep blue canvass of sky with puff-ball clouds; copper-yellow trees so bright and metallic you’d think they were spray painted.
I’m wrapped up against the autumn chill and freewheeling along Randersvej. For someone who thought he’d lost an essential limb when he sold the car back in September I’ve become a born-again cyclist - evangelical in my belief that our salvation lies with pedal-driven machines. The bicycle I’m driving (the one that looks like an underfed donkey), rusty though it is, responds to the call to duty and gallops along the boulevards like a thoroughbred. Even when some fat lug in a Toyota makes a dash out of Thomas Funch Gade to get to the orthopaedic hospital and cuts me up, I calmly pedal in reverse, glide to the left and still have enough self-control to bring my fist down on his rear bonnet. Yes, you can do things like that over here. Pedestrians are top of the ecospherical heap, with cyclists a close second, and, way, way down in bronze medal position, that twentieth century icon, the motor car. Sometimes I have to rub my eyes in disbelief. I saw a woman standing on the corner of Carl Nielsen Vej casually walk out in front of an oncoming car and the car GAVE WAY TO HER! In England a driver would accelerate at the very least: pedestrians have been fined in a county court for less. But in Denmark drivers keep one foot over the brake pedal. And if they try moving up the podium in search of gold BAM! You bring your fist down on their bonnet, just to remind them who’s boss.
Back to the journey.
Now I’m in third, racing along Norrebrogade, mouth open, brows raised to stretch the skin. I go past the university, past the ugly art museum, past the snooker hall where the expats hang out. I turn right into Norre Alle. Now we’re in the city centre proper. I do another left past the SexBio (slow down a little here), a right at Ole Jensen’s Pizza Parlour, and park up in Molle Gade.
I’ll tell you why.
During the mid-eighties I had a friend whose silent chat-up line consisted of pulling out his wallet and unravelling a string of credit cards. This single act was enough to procure a great number of sexual liaisons. ‘Try it’ he said to me once. ‘It makes a guy seem impressive.’
Was I ever impressed ? Not in the slightest. A man’s worth is to be found in the size of his library card. And yes, you’ve guessed - I’m a connoisseur of libraries. At the time of writing my collection stands at eighteen. All the big English libraries, of course - The Bodlean, Birmingham, the wedding cake at Manchester - but also a lot of smaller, regional libraries, recalling fond memories of reading hours past. I’m a self-confessed libraryholic. When I die I hope to be in the British Museum’s round room reading the original manuscript copy of Beckett’s ‘Ping.’ Some of the best sex of my life has been connected with libraries. A student girlfriend who moonlighted as a librarian once presented to me her appetite for sexual activity among books. I couldn’t believe it! Books made her come! In her cramped varsity lodgings this girl, known forever in my affections as The Worm, would surround herself with the classics of English Lit., whereupon she’d lie spread-eagled between Chaucer and well-thumbed copies of Tank Girl mouthing her favourite lines from Keats ("‘Stol’n to this paradise, and so entranced/Trembling in her soft and chilly nest… "Oh yes, take me, big boy! Take me!’) while I played Porphyro to her Madeline and casually buried my glinting sword into her burning rose bush. Then she’d roll over onto her stomach and ask me to raise her backside. ‘But Worm’ I’d implore, ‘what books should I use?’ - knowing that each volume in her collection was endowed with an even greater commemorative currency than any of my own - whereupon The Worm would point to her three-volume bound set of Icelandic Sagas and I would further service my good fortune.
(Was there, I now wonder, some symbolic association about the books she chose for me to raise her backside ? Did they represent some kind of Order of Sexual Worth ? I was well aware that The Worm entertained many other avid readers in her lodgings. On the Eng. Lit. scale of appreciation Icelandic Sagas, I suspect, come relatively low on most students’ lists. And this coded message about my performance (if it was so) continued throughout our affair — never once did I raise myself above the Icelandic Saga.)
But I digress.
Mo//er Gade is the home of the city library. At first I was disappointed. Very disappointed. Like the analogy of the wallet, a city’s library leaves an indelible imprint — shapes my perception of the city as a whole. Forget the clubs and bars and architecture — if the library stinks, the city stinks. Full stop. But this library grows on you. It’s a subterranean experience — you’re forever going ned (down). Just when I thought I’d never want to visit the place again I found myself back inside, sniffing around. Also, the week I first made the library’s acquaintance there was a lot of building work going on. This, I’m sure, contributed greatly to my initial, negative impression. Building work means dust. And dust means impermanence. To a writer any thought of impermanence is disturbing. Permanence is the sole reason why writers write.
So, I’m in the city library, ostensibly to do some research for my novel. But I’m having an off-day. I look at this, I look at that, without any real verve. I wander in the avisen room and flick through the International Guardian. I start browsing — which for me is deadly — and, more to the point, I start thinking — all kinds of things, about the role of the author, about the novel as medium, gradually edging towards one central idea: that maybe my story doesn’t come up to scratch. From then on it’s ned all the way.
I begin to question my prose style, the images that crop up in my writing, the subject matter, my quasi-intellectual anti-intellectual stance and so forth. In short, I’m a bit concerned about my position in the overall scheme of things. The ‘who am I?’ ‘What am I doing here ?’ rap follows on close behind. I start mumbling (aloud): ‘Everything’s been written. There’s nothing left to say. People don’t get shocked anymore. What’s the point of carrying on?’ I go up to the woman sitting at the information desk and ask her point blank: ‘Would you want to read a novel about an English novelist who turns into a fish?’
Fair enough. As any writer knows, these honest-to-god questions rear themselves from time-to-time. You toss them around, give them an airing, perhaps even an hour or so’s serious thought, then get back to the writing and say flick to everybody else. But with me, once I get into this aporific frame of mind, I find it difficult to escape. The thoughts begin to take over — they invade the narrative. Instead of writing: "Billy walked into the room and shot Gary’s balls off’ I’ll write: "Billy walked into the room and, suddenly depressed, asked himself: ‘Why am I about to cause grievous bodily harm to Gary’s genitalia ?"‘ Perhaps, after a moment or two’s meditation on the subject, he’ll go ahead and shoot Gary’s balls off anyway, but he’s had to think about it for a while. And, as my agent keeps telling me, people don’t like to have to think too much these days. Or - worse - have to read about other people thinking.
Once I get to the English fiction shelf I’m in serious trouble with my day-plan and decide I may as well forget the research altogether. I read a page or two by the younger Amis, a bit of Roth and J.G Ballard, search among the shelves, see what signals I can pick up about Danish reading habits (by the way, why are the Danes so obsessed with Fay Weldon ? The woman occupies more shelf space than Graham Greene and Dickens put together ? Is she some kind of national hero or what ?) By twelve thirty I call time and decide to go for some lunch. But, if you’re an Englishman living in Denmark, eating lunch is fraught with its own peculiar problems.
For most of the English population lunch is synonymous with the pub. Between twelve o’clock and three o’clock the nation stops drinking tea and drinks beer instead. The thinking goes something like this: the more beer you drink the less conscious you are of the afternoon’s work ahead. This is good because working in England is badly paid and you don’t want to be reminded that you’re getting short-changed for your labour. Also, beer is made with pure water, unlike household tap water which is full of copper nitrates. So, even though beer makes you fat and destroys lots of brain cells it’s better for you in the long run.
Another reason why we - the English - drink beer in large quantities is because it kills the taste of English food. We English eat a lot of fish and chips at lunch time which, at a rough guess, is the equivalent of eating half a pound of melted lard. Beer washes the grease around your system so that it’s not just your arteries that seize up. it’s your whole body.
Now you can understand my dilemma: I’m sitting in a small cafe, my body crying out for a plate of grease, and what am I offered ? Rugbrød (pronounced Ruh-Bruh/.)
When God in His wisdom first created rugbrod His mind must have been on constructing roads. My Danish girlfriend tells me it’s bread but I’m afraid I don’t believe her. It’s sliced, brown concrete, packed into polythene bags and mistakenly delivered to supermarkets marked ‘Bread’ when really it should be delivered to the country’s building suppliers. The first time I ate rugbrød I cracked a tooth. It took me three days to digest haifa slice. The consistency of rugbrød is such that it makes eating snails seem positively mainstream (Ok, Ok, I know - all this racist foodism. But I can’t help it! I JUST CAN’T HELP IT!) I can’t even pronounce rugbrøl properly - the construction of an Englishman’s thorax makes it impossible to close the throat and let out air from the mouth at the same time. Not only do the Danes eat rugbrøl, they place on top pieces of sausage, fish, cheese - even chocolate! - each with its own special accompaniment of pickles cucumber, pickled marrow, mayonnaise or a slimy yellow substance called remolade. If you diversify its as if you’ve broken some mystical food law stretching back to prehistory. I once made the mistake of putting meat and cheese on a piece of rugbrod and then placing another piece of rugbrød on top. In England we call this a sandwich. In Denmark they call it food heresy. The Danish open sandwich simply isn’t consistent with English thinking on the subject. And after tasting rugbrød I can understand why. Two pieces of rugbrod at the same time ? I don’t think so.
Another thought: Is rugbrød the reason why the Danes seem so unflustered ? So centred ? So calm when they cross the road ? Is it because rugbrød is acting as a form of ballast, keeping them firmly weighed to the ground ? Is this the true meaning of the Law of Jante ? (the law that implies Danes never aspire to rise above the average) i.e., because they’re too filled with rugbrød ? Yes, I think, as I sit contemplating what to eat. Quite possibly I’ve found the answer to these and other equally elusive questions.
‘All this food’ I say to the counter assistant, ‘egg, sliced salami, meat paste, fish fillets - would it be possible to have any without the rugbrød?’
The assistant looks at me as though I’ve just arrived back from a lifetime on Plutovej and shoots me down with a caustic ‘Nej.’ She begins to reel off all the things I can have on top of a piece of rugbrod and I suddenly feel as though I’ve walked into the Monty Python spam sketch, dubbed into Danish. ‘Rugbrød and chips, rugbrød and egg, rugbrød and beans, rugbrød and rugbrød...' by which time I’ve walked out, bought two bottles of Carlsberg, and sat down outside the cathedral in order to drink my rugbrød-free lunch.