The Fate of Christiania

Rick Steves: On conformity and creative spirits in Denmark and beyond

12.14.09 | 11:59 AM ET

Photo by Brooklyn via Flickr (Creative Commons)

On the bustling streets of downtown Copenhagen, I paused to watch a parade of ragtag soldiers-against-conformity dressed in black and waving “Save Christiania” banners—lobbying to preserve the alternative-lifestyles enclave of Christiania. They walked sadly behind a WWII-vintage truck blasting Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in The Wall.” (I had never really listened to the words before. But the anthem of self-imposed isolation and revolt against conformity seemed to perfectly fit the determination of the Christianians to stand up against thought control and stifled individuality.) On their banner, a slogan—painted onto an old bed sheet—read: Lev livet kunstnerisk! Kun døde fisk flyder med strømmen (“Live life artistically! Only dead fish follow the current”). Those marching flew the Christiania flag—three yellow dots on an orange background. They say the dots are from the o’s in “Love Love Love.”

While I wouldn’t choose to live in Christiania, I would feel a loss if it were shut down. There’s something unfortunately brutal about a world that makes the little Christianias—independent bookstores, family farms, nomadic communities, and so on—fight giants (such as developers, big chains, agribusiness, and centralized governments, respectively) to the death. Those economic and governmental behemoths always seem to win. And when they do, we may become safer and wealthier and even more comfortable ... but it all comes at a cost.

The need for a Christiania is not limited to Danes. After that trip, from the comfort of my suburban Seattle living room, I stumbled upon live TV coverage of the finale of Burning Man. Watching it, I heard the cry of an American fringe community that—much like the tribe at Christiania—wanted to be free in an increasingly interconnected world that demands conformity.

Traveling in Denmark, considering well-ordered Danish “social-ism” and reflecting on the free-spirited ideals and struggles of Christiania, gives me insight into parts of my own society that refuse to be just another brick in the wall. Hopefully when the pressures of conformity require selling a bit of our soul, travel experiences like this help us understand the potential loss before it’s regrettably gone.

Denmark is a riddle that I love puzzling over. On the one hand, their dedication to their social contract is the bedrock of their insistent happiness. On the other, in their longstanding acceptance of Christiania, the Danes seem to be unusually tolerant of free spirits. I imagine that the dramatic tension between these extremes is part of what keeps Danish life interesting ... both for the Danes, and for we visitors. As all societies vie to win the “most contented” surveys, traveling reminds us that contentment is based not on surrendering to conformity, but in finding that balance between working well together and letting creative spirits run free.

Rick Steves

Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. He is the author of Travel as a Political Act.

1 Comment for The Fate of Christiania

leesean 12.23.09 | 6:47 PM ET

Bevar Christiania! (Preserve Christiania!)
I have many fond memories of hanging out in Christiania the summer I studied abroad in Scandinavia.  I see it as a symbol of freedom and a model for an alternative way of living that should be protected.

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