Worth dying for?

I’m going through a pretty exhausting period in my life right now; what could be termed as the relentless pursuit of a passion – not passion itself, but a passion. One will do just fine, thank you. In this search to find my rather elusive mission in life, I’ve found myself facing the same question over and over again – is there anything in my life worth dying for? Forget the people aspect and rule out cases of clinical depression – I’m talking ‘things’ here… things, objects, actions, deeds, thoughts, words…

It’s not that everyone I meet asks the question – I just seem to come across random accounts of people who felt so strongly about something they had said, done, thought, that they went and killed themselves. Take a recent trip to Copenhagen. I happened across the Vor Frelsers Kirke (Church of Our Saviour) and was particularly taken with the corkscrew spire. I thought no more of it until someone mentioned that it had been immortalised by Jules Verne in his novel A journey to the Centre of the Earth  where, in an effort to cure his acrophobia (fear of heights) Axel’s uncle makes him climb the winding spire for five consecutive days.

The spire is 90 metres tall and the external staircase turns four times around it, anticlockwise. Quite an impressive sight. You can climb 400 steps to get to the top, the last 150 of which are outside, if you were so inclined. Certainly not a trip for anyone with acrophobia. Depending on your point of view, the tower, added some 50 years after the original church was built  along the design of the rather solemn architect, Lambert van Haven, either adds or detracts from the body of the CHurch itself. The new, self-taught architect, Lauritz de Thurah, added the spire under the auspices of Frederik V.

Now, urban legend (at least the one I heard) says that de Thurah was so upset that he designed the staircase anticlockwise instead of clockwise, he threw himself from the top of the tower. Imagine being that attached to your work, identifying so much with what people think of what you do is more important to you than life itself – amazing. When I checked it out though, it all came to nothing as he didn’t die until seven years after the spire was built and it wasn’t from falling from a great height. So much for that passion!

But, on reading more about this church, I discovered that inside this beautiful tower hides a carillon – and yes, being musically illerate, I had to look that one up. It’s a musical instrument consisting of at least 23 bells that are played serially to create a melody or together to make  chord. You play it by striking the batons (keys) on a keyboard with your fists (musical boxing?) and by pressing the keys of a pedalboard with your feet.  The keys then activate levers and wires that connect to metal clappers that strike the bells, allowing  you –   the carillonneur – to vary the intensity of the note according to the force you apply. Now that’s passion! and could be a passion for someone… but not me.

Anyway, if you happen to be in the vicinity on Saturdays at 4pm, you can hear what it sounds like for yourself. In the meantime, let the search resume…

Hippies, hash, and havens

It’s hard to imagine that there are still places in the world where normative societal rules don’t apply and where people simply get on with the business of living. To find one smack centre in the middle of a city like Copenhagen is a little gobsmacking. Christianshaven, or Fristaden Christiania, was founded 40 years ago by a group of hippies choosing to live an alternative lifestyle. Its 22 hectares are on the site of an old barracks just down the road from the  famous Vor Frelsers Kirke (Church of our Saviour). Almost 1000 people live here and are fighting to keep their homes and their independence. It’s Europe’s most famous squat and, given its prime location in the centre of the city, it’s no surprise that property developers have been itching to get their hands on the property for years.

While you can buy cannabis and hash on the rather aptly named Pusher street, the community enforces strict bans on guns, hard drugs, and insignias on leather jackets – biker clubs not welcome apparently! [Guide books warn the not-so-savvy tourists to avoid taking photos on this street!] The ‘city limits’ are quite clearly marked so there’s no excuse for not knowing you’ve stumbled into some place special.

Time wasn’t on my side so I didn’t venture very far into the town. At first glance I was reminded of Ljubljana and Metelkova City. Lots of bright graffiti and decorative houses, some of which are shacks and sheds while others – eco-houses – have been designed by architects.  An extraordinary accumulation of recycled bric-a-brac litters the sides of paths, not unlike some African townships. Althought the residents are determined to show that an alternate lifestyle is possible and can peacefully co-exist with mainstream living, the Danish government seems equally determined to subsume it. Denmark’ Supreme Court has confirmed state ownership and control of the land, and says that the same rules must apply there as elsewhere.

People talk in terms of ‘normalising’ Christiana and you have to wonder why… why can’t we just live and let live? I didn’t feel unsafe and didn’t get the sense that it was a place crying out for change. A little like Haight-asbury in San Francisco in the 1960s, perhaps. Long-term residents are now facing the prospect of legal tenanacy, new neighbours, and new rules. The writing is on the wall and it probably won’t be long before this icon of alternative culture is sanitised beyond recognition.Such a shame – in the short time I was there, I was transported to Ljubljana, South Africa, and California… and that was just me. If people were to look at the likes of Christianshaven as living galleries, where hopes and memories fuse and our bland, ordinary, everyday existence is given a lift, perhaps we might learn to be a little more tolerant.