Category Archives: Denmark

The Time My Landlord Ratted Me Out to the Cops

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Originally posted on The Billfold

The door buzzer rings at 7 a.m. on a Wednesday.

“Politi!” the intercom shouts in Danish.

“What?” I say.

“Police!” English this time. The buzzer rings two more times.

I have been renting a room from Inge for four months now. She is in her mid-60s, tall and blond and slender, the glowing grandmother in a Nivea commercial. The only thing that shows her age is her voice, a Beverly D’Angelo baritone that hides consonants behind long vowels. “Be here tomorrow at seven,” she said yesterday. Be hee tomohh at seh-hen. “We need to go over some house things.”

“What is this about?” I ask the intercom. Inge’s not even here, her door is open and her bed is made. She must have slept at her boyfriend’s last night.

“Police!” it says again. “You have to let us in.”

I buzz them in and crack the door.

As I listen to two pairs of footsteps coming up the stairs, I make a mental list of crimes I have committed recently. I bought a bike from a flea market. I downloaded a torrent of Ratatouille. I regularly throw away wine bottles I should recycle. I know Denmark is socialist and everything, but do they really send cops to your house for stuff like this?

We only live on the second floor but they’re panting from the climb, and I can smell that they’ve been outside smoking cigarettes while they waited. They have matching denim jackets and beer bellies, both in their mid-40s, both massive, but one is slightly rounder than the other and has a fake tan. They look like they just came from the stands of a soccer game.

I’m wondering if they’re even cops until they show me their badges. They push past me and  invite me into my kitchen.

“Have a seat,” the one with the fake tan says in Danish.

“Can we do this in English, guys?” I say in English. I’ve only lived in Copenhagen for a year, my Danish vocabulary is somewhere between kindergarten and George of the Jungle.

“Your Danish is fine,” he says in Danish. “You know why we’re here, don’t you.”

“I lost my wallet last week, did someone find it?” I say, struggling to get the words out in Danish.

“You stole credit cards and ordered a bunch of shit online,” fake tan says. “We know it was you.”

“Wait, what?”

This is the point where, later, my coworkers at the human rights NGO where I’m working tell me I should have stopped the conversation. “Why didn’t you ask for a lawyer?” “You had the right to an official translator!” “Did you get their badge numbers?”

But there, at the kitchen table, this accusation is so outlandish, so obviously some sort of misunderstanding, that I forget all about my rights and my shitty Danish and why these cops are even here. I just want to convince them that it wasn’t me and for them to go away.

“… Nuh-uh.” I say.

“Yes you did,” fake tan says. “We traced the crime back to this apartment.”

“We need to confiscate your computer,” the paler one says. It’s clear they’re already convinced I’m guilty. Being here is just a technicality. “Where is it?”

I lead the cops to my room.

“Two computers,” fake tan says like David Caruso. Gotcha. Paleface takes out a notepad just to write that down.

“I bought a new laptop in January,” I say. “I just haven’t gotten rid of the old one yet.”

“You sure about that?” fake tan says, as if I have just told him I can walk through walls.

“What exactly do you think I did?” I ask.

“You’ve been stealing credit cards, ordering movie tickets online and then returning them to the theaters for cash,” he says.

Huh?

“The transaction was done from the wireless network in this apartment.”

“But our wireless network is unsecured,” I say. Inge asked me to put a password on the Wi-Fi ages ago, but I couldn’t read the Danish on the configuration well enough to set it up.

“And you’re the only one who has the password,” paleface says. He might as well have put on shades. Case closed.

“Wait, no, there’s no password,” I say. “Anyone could use it. All of our neighbors, anyone at the café downstairs.” I sit down and open up my laptop. “See, there’s our network. No little padlock icon next to it.”

“No. The internet doesn’t work that way,” fake tan says. “You need a password.”

Their certitude is not cracking. Either this is a tactic, the Danish version of good cop bad cop, or they genuinely don’t know that open Wi-Fi networks exist. I don’t know which possibility is worse.

Our network is unsecured,” I say, trying to italicize as I speak. “Do you guys really not know what an open wireless network is?”

“What were you doing the night of November 15th?” Fake tan says, changing the subject. Paleface makes a kind of “booya!” face. We’ll ask the questions, punk.

“That was four months ago,” I say. “I have no idea.”

“If you can’t prove what you were doing that night, we’re arresting you right now.”

This is where I remember about my rights and stuff.

“No you’re not,” I say. “I am not stealing credit cards online. I have a steady job, a decent salary, savings in the bank. It makes no sense I would go through some amateur-hour scam just to make, what, an extra few days’ pay? I don’t have to prove I didn’t do this. You have to prove I did.”

Except that my Danish was hella shitty, so what came out was more like, “No, you never. I no steal. I have job, lot money. I no prove, you prove.”

The cops looked confused.

“Your whereabouts on November 15 please,” fake tan says.

I sit down to check my e-mails, scrolling through November to find a concert ticket, a dinner invite, something indicating where I was on some random weeknight last year. I’m still hoping I can just make this go away.

The cops are standing behind me, watching my screen.

“Wait,” fake tan says. “You said you bought that computer in January?”

“Yeah.”

So how are you checking your e-mails from last November?” Bam, the jig is up. Paleface starts writing furiously in his notepad.

Oh my god it’s not a tactic.

“Are you kidding?” I say. I try to express the situation, but my Danish isn’t cooperating. “Mail no lives on computer. Lives on Internet.”

“We’re taking these,” he says. “And your router. Now: Where’s Inge’s computer?”

 

Inge.

That’s why they’re here.

I can imagine the conversation: The cops contact her, tell her there’s suspicious activity on her internet. “That’s strange,” she tells them. “The only person with the password is this random 25-year-old immigrant…”

No wonder the cops think it’s an open and shut case. They must have asked her to serve me up to them. That’s why she asked me to be home this morning, why she’s not here now.

“We have Inge’s permission to confiscate her computer.”  Paleface says.

I take the cops into Inge’s room.

“That’s her computer,” I say. She has an old iMac, it’s a lump of pastel blue on her desk.

“Where’s the computer?” fake tan says.

“Right there, on the desk,” I say.

He crouches like he’s about to crawl under the desk. “No, the computer.”

You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.

“That’s the computer.”

“That’s the screen.”He was using the voice for when you explain appliances to a four-year-old. Mr. Refrigerator makes things cooooooold. Mr. Oven makes them waaaaaarm.

“I’m looking for the compuuuuuter,” he says. “Where the daaaaaata goes. Do you understand?”

“I know what a computer is.” I say. I used mine to hack credit cards, remember?  “The computer is inside the monitor.”

“They put it inside the monitor?” he says. This was February of 2008.

“Yes, it’s all one unit,” I say.

“New technology, huh?” he says. Paleface is nodding, impressed.

I blow the dust off the keyboard and hand it to him. “Do you mind if I get your badge numbers?”

 

They come back two weeks later.

Inge has been sleeping at her boyfriend’s most nights. On the rare occasions when she’s home, we make small talk like nothing happened. The weather, the laundry, how’s work.

Seven a.m., the intercom buzzes again,  this time Inge’s home. The two cops are at the door, holding our computers. I’m confident I’m not going to jail (“If you do, the European Court of Human Rights is going to hear about this!” is a constant refrain at work), but I’m worried they’ll find Ratatouille, as well as some, um, other stuff I would rather not defend my possession of in open court.

“So you know I wasn’t stealing credit cards?” I say in the doorway as paleface hands me my two laptops.

“The case is still open,” fake tan says, putting Inge’s iMac down on our welcome mat. “You’re still a suspect.”

“You know it wasn’t Mike,” Inge says in Danish. “You told me that earlier on the phone. It’s my fault for not having a password on the Wi-Fi.”

“We’ll let you know when we close the case,” fake tan says.

Me and Inge never talk about how she gave me up to the cops. I’m not even all that pissed off about it. She genuinely thought I was the only person with the password. I probably would have given me up too.

As I help her carry the iMac back into her room, I tell her the cops had never seen one before.

“Oh great,” she says, “they should be solving this case any minute now.” We never hear from them again.

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Filed under Denmark, Funny, Personal

Letting Stress Win: A Commencement Speech

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Originally posted at The Billfold 

The best advice and the worst advice I’ve ever gotten were three words long.

The best advice was ‘avoid the treadmill’. It was 2003. I was coming to the end of a master’s degree in a subject (political philosophy) and a city (London) I was ready to leave. I was 22 years old.

Rebecca was the advisor at the community college student newspaper where I worked between and after classes three years earlier, and we had—pre-Facebook!—stayed in touch through undergrad and now grad school.  She was visiting London and invited me to dinner.

I had two months left until I completed my master’s and my visa expired. I had no idea what I was going to do, or even what I wanted to. There was the prudent thing, moving back to the States, getting a job, starting a career, buying a house, leasing a Camry, nothing wrong with that.

There was also, however, something I had come across two weeks earlier while drinking wine and Googling Nordic underwear models: Universities in Scandinavia are free.

I told Rebecca all this (minus the Googling), and that I had found a program in Aarhus, Denmark—a master’s degree that as soon as I said it out loud I realized sounded even vaguer and more destitution-promoting than the master’s I already had.

‘European studies!’ I said.

Rebecca asked if I had ever been to Denmark, and what was my logic for considering this an option. I admitted I had none, it just sounded cool and I wanted to try it.

‘So I have to decide,’ I said. ‘Prudent, or Denmark.’

‘Mike,’ she said. ‘This is an easy one: Avoid the treadmill.’

I knew what she meant, but I asked her to elaborate anyway.

‘You have a whole life of working ahead of you. Going home is easy. Getting a job is easy. Going to, whatever country this is, Denmark, making an impulsive decision and living with it for two whole years, that’s hard. This is what your twenties are for. As you get older, the hard stuff only gets harder.’

‘And the easy stuff gets easier?’ I said.

‘No,’ she said. ‘That gets harder too.’

The way stress works is, when you’re presented with a threat, your body produces adrenaline, a kind of internal crystal meth, that gives you the energy to escape or fight or defend yourself or pull an all-nighter or whatever you need to do to neutralize the threat. While the adrenaline is pumping, other functions—sleep, appetite, afternoon horniness—shut down while your body gives you enough energy to deal with the crisis at hand.

This makes sense, right? If you’re living in an environment where every once in awhile you need to run away from a lion, chase a gazelle, defend your village from the next tribe over, you need a system that takes precedence over everything else. You can’t be stalking a mammoth and suddenly be overcome with the urge to pee.

The problem, of course, is that stress isn’t something that only gets activated by extreme, once-a-month stressors. It’s something you activate yourself, something that reacts not to the objective threat level but to what you perceive as a threat.

These days, we don’t get hunted by lions all that often, but we do get hunted by bosses, partners, deadlines, bills, kids, early closing hours, late public transport, insomnia, status, proliferating Netflix queues. Since our bodies can’t differentiate between a lion and an overdue car payment, adrenaline becomes a kind of routine. We coast on it 9-to-5, deadline to deadline, and squeeze the tube even more over the weekend to get us through the neighborhood barbecue, the water park outing with the kids, the difficult conversation with the wife.

Like everything else that’s good for you once a month, adrenaline when you use it every day is a kind of poison. They do autopsies on people who were constantly stressed out and their pituitary gland is the size of a turkey baster. Constantly suppressing your immune system, ignoring your appetite, boosting your heart rate, these things are like fast-forwarding the aging process. People who are constantly stressed out are more likely to get cancer and strokes. Stressed out kids end up shorter as adults. When you turn off everything but your emergency generator, the normal stuff rusts and brittles.

Robert Sapolsky, the guy who I’m basically stealing all these insights from, studies stress in baboons in the wild. He says he can tell the difference between short-lifespan baboons and long-lifespan baboons by one thing: How do they act when they see a lion 200 feet away?

Short-lifespan baboons, the ones that that use adrenaline the way we use drip coffee, see the lion in the distance and immediately activate their stress response. A lion! Shit! What am I going to do?!

The un-stressed baboons—the ones eating fresh berries and complaining about the morals of the next generation of baboons into their twilight years—they see the same lion and go ‘meh, he’s 200 feet away. He’s yawning, grooming, he doesn’t seem all that interested in me’ and they stay calm. No adrenaline, no panic. They keep an eye on the lion—they’re baboons, they’re not stupid—but they don’t get all adrenaliney until there’s a genuine threat.

We all know that refrigerator-magnet phrase, ‘Give me the serenity to accept the things I can’t change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference,’ or however it goes. For me, it’s never been the courage that’s hard, it’s the serenity.

In 2004, I applied to the master’s program in Denmark. I filled out the application, photocopied my old diplomas, wrote my admissions essay, mailed them off. Two months later, a letter came saying I was accepted. And then I started freaking out.

I don’t speak Danish. I don’t know anyone in the whole country. Where am I going to live? What am I going to do for living expenses? All of a sudden, the treadmill started looking pretty good.

It was five months since my conversation with Rebecca, and three months since my U.K. visa expired and I had moved back home to Seattle. I was working (OK, temping) at Microsoft as a copy editor, and living with my parents.

Steve was my boss at Microsoft. Former journalist, weekend kickball player, suburban dad, never missed a day of work or a misspelled word or a subordinate’s birthday. Totally a long-lifespan baboon.

And he gave me the worst advice I’ve ever gotten: ‘Trust your gut.’

He said it after I went into his office and told him everything I just told you: I was accepted to this program in Denmark and I had no criteria by which to judge whether this was a good idea.

‘You don’t need criteria for these sorts of decisions,’ he said. ‘It’s all about doing what feels right.’

It may not have been obvious to Steve, but I am firmly the first baboon. I see a lion—an unpaid bill, an unread e-mail, an uncalled acquaintance—not even 200 feet away, a mile away, on the horizon, barely visible to the naked eye, and my adrenaline spikes. The year I was living in London, I couldn’t get to sleep one night because I suddenly remembered I had forgotten to book a flight home for Christmas. It was May.

Like every American, I heard this stock advice—’Trust your gut’, ‘Be true to yourself’, ‘follow your instincts’—all the time growing up, variations on the same Hollywood catechism, the pledge of allegiance to individuality we get installed on first bootup.

And the thing is, this advice isn’t necessarily bullshit. There are probably people out there whose instincts are all kindness and extroversion, whispering directives of generosity and serenity into their ear. Some people, I imagine, search their innermost desires and find the charm of a CEO, the selflessness of a Mormon.

I search mine and find the pessimism of an amputee, the selfishness of a viking. I am constantly at war with my instincts, trying to project-manage away the anxiety, the me-firstism, the adrenaline they send me. Trusting my gut, really doing what I felt, would mean curling up into a ball until all my obligations—jobs, friends, family, personal hygiene—gave up and disappeared.

For Steve, trusting his gut would have meant doing the right thing. For me, it would have meant doing nothing at all.

After my meeting with Steve, I came home and I made a list: Stuff to Sort Out Before You Move To Denmark. Spend one hour every morning before work studying Danish. Post concerns on university message boards. Find potential friends in Aarhus on social media (OK, gay personals sites), talk to them on IM. Find out what ‘European studies’ means.

It was work, but it worked. Six months later, I moved to Demark and started my program. Two years later, I graduated and got a job in Copenhagen. Four years after that, I moved to Berlin. Two years after that, I’m still here.

And yes, I’m still anxious. I still have to remind myself that my gut is cruel and manipulative, and should not be trusted with any decisions that affect us both. But just as amazingly, I still feel like I’m avoiding the treadmill. I work at an NGO that sends me to weird conferences and exotic countries. Back home, I rent, I bike, and don’t own anything I need to insure.

Moving to Denmark is the best thing I ever did. Not because I loved everything about it, or because it made me a less anxious person, or because I assimilated into it like a mermaid to a fairy tale. I didn’t.

It’s the best thing I ever did because for me, it was more awesome than staying in my hometown, moving commas around for a living, commuting in that Camry.

And that’s it, that’s my own three-word advice: Do awesome stuff.

Maybe it’s not moving to Europe, maybe it’s learning to play the piano, speaking Esperanto, writing a novel, becoming a professional wrestler, who cares. Find things you will someday want to brag about, things that would impress you if someone else did them, and do them.

If you’re like me, the furrowed-brow baboon worrying about his pension in his early 20s, find out what your awesome is and make a plan for doing it. Rules, lists, indicators, push notifications, whatever helps you pull rank on the lies your gut tells you.

If you’re not like me, if you’re the baboon polishing an apple and smoking a cigarette while the lion in the distance walks steadily you-ward, ignore me. I have no idea how your brain works. Just stop telling the rest of us to listen to ours.

Maybe I’m supposed to say that it’s really about being able to tell how far away the lion is, shrinking your pituitary gland through meditation or Pilates or multivitamins or whatever. But nothing I’ve done has made me any less anxious, no achievement has led me to that serenity I read on the bumper stickers. With stress inevitable, anxiety unavoidable and awesomeness finite, all I can do is work on tapping the one I might be running out of.

And if I’m in the middle of doing so and someone tells me to be myself, trust my gut, follow my heart, I have a built-in answer: ‘I can do better than that.’

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Filed under America, Berlin, Denmark, Essays, Personal

Why I Could Never Move (Back) to Denmark

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The problem with visiting Denmark in May is that it makes you think you regret leaving.

I moved to Berlin almost exactly two years ago. Last week, I visited Copenhagen for four days, the longest I’ve been there at a stretch since 2011. The buildings were adorable, the sun was slanty, the locals were height-weight proportionate, I started to have moments like ‘why did I ever leave this magical place?’

Then reality kicked in and I realized why I left and I would never move back.

The Drinking

On Friday night, on my way home from dinner, 9 pm, 10 tops, I biked past three different groups of people carrying someone too drunk to walk. Sure, it was Friday, and fine, if I lived in a country whose most famous export was Aqua I’d probably be drinking too, but get it together, Denmark.

One of the reasons I quit drinking three years ago was how normal it is here, how essential for basic social life to function, how acceptable Danes find slurred Fridays and slept-through Saturdays. All week no one spoke to me, not even to hold a door open or say pardon me. After 10 pm, with grandpa-breath and teetering, they won’t shut up.

Which brings me to…

The Social Culture

One of the things I was looking forward to about my little trip was visiting all my old haunts, places I used to drink coffee or smoke shisha or—OK, those are basically the only things I ever did when I lived here. But anyway, I visited my old cafes and everything looked exactly the same, right down to the baristas, but there was never a flicker of recognition, never an acknowledgement that I came to these places regularly for years.

Then I remembered that at the coffee place closest to my house, the one I went to probably twice a week for two years, no one ever once remembered me, never once remembered my order, asked me if I lived nearby. I would sometimes try to start it off, all ‘how’s business?’ after I ordered my same old Americano. We would chat for a few minutes, then next time I came in it was Memento, no recognition, no ‘Americano, right?’ After awhile I stopped bothering. Six years into this country, I realized that resignation, that learned misanthropy, is called ‘being Danish’.

The Racism

Ahhh, Denmark, the Mississippi of Europe. While living here I was constantly confronted by casual ugliness (‘you’re visiting Turkey? But it’s full of Turks!’), bone-headed public policy (If you want to marry a Dane and get a visa to live here, you have to speak Danish and your spouse has to pay a $10,000 bond), and Mad Men-era political discourse (one of the political parties ran an ad this year that published the names of all the foreigners who had been granted Danish citizenship with the tagline ‘One person on this list is a danger to Denmark’s security’).

Just in the four days I was visiting, two friends told me about ethnically motivated beatings that had taken place in their neighborhoods and two other friends told me they were moving to the suburbs because the local schools didn’t have enough white kids left. Another friend got mugged recently, and the first question everyone asked when he told them was ‘were they black?’

This shit is exhausting. Sometimes living here is like following your Republican friends on Facebook.

The Expats

There’s nothing more depressing than living somewhere no one wants to be. Expats in Denmark are so miserable that the government launched a state-funded website specifically to create diversions (singles nights, English book clubs, flat landscape appreciation societies) to make living here more bearable.

But expat unhappiness in Copenhagen is so dense, not even light can escape. Get three expats together and it’ll be about six minutes before it descends into variations on the gripes I’ve just named (and I didn’t even get to the weather!). Get two together and they’ll you their secret plans to move back home, maybe start over again somewhere as rosy as Denmark once seemed. Get one alone and he’ll tell you he’s desperate to leave, but the jobs are too good, the romantic partners too perfect.

Yeah yeah, I’m being too harsh. Every country has problems, Denmark’s are just different from the ones I grew up used to. Overall, Denmark is quiet, introverted and socialist, my three favorite things. Also, if I ever want to spend a weekend being drunk, mean and discriminatory, at least now I know where to go.

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Filed under Denmark, Personal

Gay Men Are Filthy Skanks. Why Don’t Right-Wingers Care?

I barely know any gay people in monogamous relationships.

There’s Matt, whose boyfriend lets him screw anyone he wants as long as it’s a) in a sauna and b) not in Copenhagen, where they share a one-bedroom apartment.

There’s Hank and Kevin, one of the couples married in California in 2008 whose marriage is now in legal Mordor. They both fool around with guys they meet on the internet, and tell each other everything.
‘We have sex with other people more than we have sex with each other,’ Hank says.

There’s Michael, who hasn’t slept with his husband Harry in eight years, though they both have sex with other people. Harry prefers saunas, Michael prostitutes.

There’s Doug, who meets guys on the internet while his boyfriend is at work.
‘Does he know about this?’ I ask.
‘He must,’ Doug says.

There’s Malcolm, who has been in a monogamous relationship for eight months and is preparing the ‘let’s open it up’ talk before his next trip to Berlin.

There’s Christian and Philippe, who scout Berlin nightclubs for thirds.
‘We’re totally monogamous,’ they tell me, ‘as long as you don’t count threesomes.’

These are just anecdotes, I tell myself, not indicative of anything beyond the fact that my circle of acquaintances is basically a three-ring skank circus.

It would be easier if there were any decent numbers available on this.

New research at San Francisco State University reveals just how common open relationships are among gay men and lesbians in the Bay Area. The Gay Couples Study has followed 556 male couples for three years — about 50 percent of those surveyed have sex outside their relationships, with the knowledge and approval of their partners.

It’s a tiny sample, from one promiscu-city, on America’s gayest coast.

I find it genuinely interesting that, of all the arguments against gay marriage, ‘they’re all filthy skanks’ is one that rarely gets aired. Gay marriage, the Republican in my head goes, gives state support to couples that are fucking each other silly, and therefore sillifies the entire institution.

The obvious counterargument to this is that heterosexual marriages aren’t any more faithful than gay ones. Straight people are fucking one another on reception desks and pool decks and business trips, they’re just not telling their spouses about it. The only thing gays are doing more of, goes the left-winger, is disclosing.

I’d like that to be true, (I guess?), but I can’t ignore the fundamental fact that cheating on your spouse and not getting caught is really hard. If my wife doesn’t want me screwing anyone else, cheating requires meeting in sketchy motels, deleting text messages, using a separate credit card, etc. Plus the social and financial consequences of getting caught. Obviously it’s not enough of a disincentive to prevent every married man from cheating, but it’s enough for some.

If my husband doesn’t care if I sleep around, however, there’s no clumsy logistics, no stifling guilt, no horrifying confrontation. It’s such a non-disincentive for nonmonogamy it’s practically a reward.

So I guess what I’m saying is that gay people must be more infidelitous than straights. Our social norms are newer, less biblical, more awesome. We made them ourselves!

This view is oversimplified, borderline homophobic, not backed up by robust research and completely ignores lesbian relationships. In other words, it’s perfect. So why hasn’t the right wing used this as a talking point? Has seriously no one told them?

Tom is one of my only friends who’s not in an open relationship. He lives in Seattle, and he’s been cheating on his boyfriend, who lives in Chicago, for two years. He’s trying to talk his boyfriend into opening the relationship.
‘The minute I convince him to sleep with someone else,’ Tom tells me over gchat, ‘he loses the moral high ground, and I don’t feel guilty anymore.’
‘haha you’re a monster,’ I type.
‘Not if I can pull this off,’ Tom replies.

Fifty percent of the time, gay marriage is a synonym for open marriage. I don’t know what this means for us as individuals, a country, a culture. I’m just glad no one seems to have noticed.

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Filed under America, Berlin, Denmark, Gay, Personal

How to Become a Gay Prostitute in Denmark

Originally posted at The Billfold

Henrik was in debt.

Not crushing or ruinous or inescapable debt, the kind that makes you ignore letters in your mailbox and private incomings on your mobile. Just irritating debt. In June he had taken a five-week trip to New York, where he had spent money like a 33-year-old gay man who hadn’t bought new clothes in two years—which he was. He left his home in Copenhagen with one suitcase and came back with two.

‘I needed an auxiliary,’ he told his friends, ‘just for the shoes.’

A month before the trip, he had remodelled his kitchen. This decision was about as prudent as a suitcase full of shoes, but whatever. At least he could finally cook properly.

Six weeks after returning from New York, he took a look at his spreadsheets. He has one for his band rehearsals, one for his freelance piano-playing gigs, one for his internet hook-ups, one for his photo collection. Those are just the ones he’s told me about.

He fills each spreadsheet not only with quantitative whats and wheres, but expository whys and hows. That’s how he can tell you not only the time and location of a wedding he played in 2004, but that he played ‘The Greatest Love of All’, got paid 1,500 kroner ($260) and cycled home in the rain.

On the night when he first began his transition from IT administrator to freelance prostitute, Henrik opened the Excel file called ‘personal economy’. He had taken out a loan of 50,000 kroner ($8,500) to pay for the kitchen remodel, and had overdrafted his credit cards in New York. He was paying them off, but not fast enough. He was still 40,000 kroner ($7,000) in debt.

Ordinarily this wouldn’t have been a big deal. Henrik had lived through self-imposed lean times before, scheduling extra wedding gigs, quitting alcohol, spending weekends in sweatpants and Blockbuster. But this time he couldn’t inch his way back into solvency. He was going to be a father in six months.

He and his ex-wife had been trying to have a baby for two years. The divorce had been literally as amicable as humanly possible, and they still slept over at each other’s apartments once or twice a month. They had divorced when they were both 25 and now, eight years later, she was a partnered lesbian and he was a single gay man.

‘What, did you guys just look at each other one day, say “let’s have a baby” and high-five?’ I asked him when he told me they were pregnant.

‘Basically,’ he said.

Henrik didn’t want to be in debt when the baby was born. ‘The way I figured it, I had six months to get into the black,’ he says.

Prostitution only occurred to him after he pursued other options. Bartending, nightclub work, baristing, these are not only poorly paid, but require regular shifts, which his day job wouldn’t accommodate. He looked into freelance work—translations, proofreading, various musical transcription stuff I don’t really understand—but those come from contacts and networking, something he didn’t have time for.

‘I needed work that was part-time, well paid, required little preparation and no professional skills,’ he says. ‘What else is there?’

Over the next six months, Henrik earned more than $4,000 having sex with men for money. He reported all of this to the tax authorities, and even deducted expenses for things like his SIM card and classified ads. In total he had 32 clients, some of whom now, between daycare pickups and vaccine appointments, he still meets, fucks and charges.

Because Henrik is Henrik, he entered every transaction into an Excel spreadsheet. Even before that, when he first started to seriously consider prostitution, he sat down and wrote a to-do list. The following is what he wrote, and what he did.

 

1. Call Tax Authorities

The first thing on Henrik’s list was to make sure he wasn’t breaking the law.

Denmark has a complicated relationship with taxes. According to the OECD, it is the world’s 4th most taxed country. The top tax rate, which applies to whatever you earn above 389,900 kroner ($70,000), is 56.1 percent. The word for taxes (‘skat’) is also the word for ‘honey,’ as in ‘honey, I’m a socialist.’

In Denmark, you can call up the tax authorities, tell them your problem and they’ll give you on-the-spot advice to help you solve it. The concept of paying a private company to do your taxes is as foreign to Danes as students getting a salary to attend college is to Americans.

So in keeping with his nationality, Henrik called up Skat and told them he was going to be earning a ‘B-income’ giving piano lessons, and what did he need to do, paperwork-wise, to make sure he was following the law?

No problem, Skat told him, just keep track of all your income and your expenditures. At the end of the year, let us know both numbers, we’ll calculate your tax and send you a bill.

‘That’s it?’ I said when he told me this. ‘They told you to track everything? It’s like telling a dog it’s legally obligated to chase a tennis ball.’

‘I know right!’ Henrik said.

Henrik needn’t have been coy on the phone. Prostitution is legal in Denmark. You just have to report your income, stay under 50,000 kroner ($8,500) per year and only sell your own body (selling other people’s is technically pimping, and prohibited). As far as the authorities are concerned, you might as well be having a bake sale.

2. Get New Bank Account and Mobile Phone

‘I need to stress how not that major of a transition this was for me,’ Henrik says. ‘The only real difference between prostitution and what I was already doing was the logistics.’

Henrik’s only slightly exaggerating. Even before he was a prostitute, he had been conducting semi-anonymous hookups for years. He had profiles on all the major, and some of the minor, promiscu-net apps and websites. Grindr, Gaydar, GayRomeo, Adam4Adam, ManHunt: Henrik had a bouquet of identities and marketing pitches tailored to each one.

‘I took a long time having sex—I was 26 or 27,’ Henrik says. ‘But since then I went straight into a sort of belated teenage thing, making up for all the sex I’d missed.’

Somewhere around 30, Henrik realized that one of the most efficient ways to hook up a few times a month was to deliberately seek out business travellers who were only in Copenhagen for a night or two.

‘One, it’s an untapped market,’ he says. ‘All the Danes are pecking each others’ eyes out over the same, like, 200 eligible gay men. Two, travellers are uncomplicated. The sex is honest. You both know it’s not leading to anything. And you get to have hotel breakfast the next day.’

I met Henrik in 2008, when he was doing these hotel-room one night stands once or twice a month, and I was always amazed at how he talked about them like miniature friendships rather than anonymous transactions. He never dove right into bed with these guys. He insisted on chitchat before the sex and cuddles—‘which is what these guys really want anyway’—afterward, marvelling at the things they told him.

‘It actually made me feel really good,’ he says about them now. ‘I liked that bubble of instant intimacy with these guys. It felt unique every time. Anyway, I had a good time and I like to think they did too.’

These encounters were basically an invoice away from prostitution anyway, and were the primary reason Henrik knew not only that he could be a prostitute, but that he’d be good at it.

Still, he wanted to make sure his new hobby wouldn’t bleed into his old. He opened a new bank account and got a new mobile number he would only give to potential clients.

He also didn’t want his clients to know his real name. This is easy when you’re visiting hotel rooms, but in Denmark, apartment buildings list the name of every resident on the door. Visitors don’t buzz your apartment number, they buzz your full name, in black and white.

‘This was going to be an issue,’ Henrik says. ‘I came up with this system where I put a piece of red tape over my name on the door.  I told them I had just moved in, and hadn’t put the nameplate up yet. My apartment’s so messy, no one ever questioned it.’

He then, obviously, began a new spreadsheet.

 

3. Place Advertisement

You’re not officially a gay prostitute until you let the rest of the world know. In Denmark, the primary gay dating website, boyfriend.dk, doesn’t allow escort ads. GayRomeo, the most popular site in the rest of Europe, allows escorts, but it’s barely used in Denmark.

Henrik used to volunteer for an AIDS charity, and he remembered a master’s dissertation about gay prostitution in Denmark that had made the NGO rounds a few years previous. He pulled it out of the hard-drive equivalent of his sock drawer and read it cover to cover. Buried in the methodology was the name of the website where the researcher had gathered her contacts: Homospot.dk.

‘It’s just the absolute shittiest website on the planet,’ he says. ‘But for some reason, that’s the only place where you can feasibly sell gay sex in Copenhagen.’

Even by the standards of gay hookup websites, Homospot.dk is pretty dire. There are no private profiles or direct communication between users. All of the interaction is simply spit out into a common chatroom. If Match.com is a 747 and Grindr is an F-16, Homospot.dk is strapping feathers to your arms and flapping.

‘The worst thing about this whole experiment wasn’t the lonely old men, or the people who didn’t answer their buzzer after I biked to their place in the rain,’ Henrik says. ‘It’s that goddamn chatroom. It only shows 25 lines of text and then it disappears forever. You have to sit there and watch it like it’s a pet.’

Henrik had a friend take some pictures of him in various stages of undress and engorgement (‘Always with a big, empty room behind me. Nobody wants to commission a prostitute who looks like he needs to be doing this’), and chose a username that gave a fair representation of who he was: SellingCopenhagen33.

‘I wasn’t going to pretend I was some 18-year-old gymnast, or hung like the Empire State Building,’ he says. ‘I wanted to lower tricks’ expectations of me before we met, not raise them.’

4. Decide a Price

By scanning the profiles of both buyers and sellers on Homospot, Henrik found that there were essentially two tiers of gay prostitutes: Young and expensive (up to 5000 kroner, or $850, per hookup), and old and cheap (around 600 kroner, or $105, per hookup). For buyers, it’s like being given the option of a Honda Civic, a Bentley, or nothing.

By the standards of gay Danish prostitutes, Henrik was firmly a Honda. He’s good-looking, but more like a cool math teacher than a stalking sex god. He stays in shape (‘swimmer’s build’ is how a few of his customers would later describe him), but more like a floppy, flustered Hugh Grant than a dense, strutting Tom Hardy.

‘The first time I started talking price with guys online, I was amazed at how much haggling goes on,’ he says. ‘Everyone wants to fucking haggle, it’s infuriating. Some dudes were asking if they could get, like, a 10-blowjob clipcard.’

Henrik decided to charge his first client 700 kroner ($120). They exchanged pictures in the chatroom, then negotiated price and activities by mobile. An hour and 20 minutes later, a 49-year-old man from Malmo, Sweden, arrived at Henrik’s apartment. Then they had sex, then he gave Henrik a fresh-from-the-ATM stack of 100 kroner notes and then he left.

‘It was really mundane,’ Henrik says. ‘It was sex with an old guy. It only felt different afterwards. I think I tried to kiss him, and he said, “I don’t think that’s so hot after sex.” He just wanted to get the hell out.’

So how is sex different when the two people having it aren’t lovers, partners, friends or even strangers, but customer and merchant?

‘I actually thought about this a lot before I started,’ Henrik says. ‘No matter how much I was fucking around, I always had this little motto that I reserve the right to be lousy in bed. That’s kind of problematic when they pay you money.’

I assumed that Henrik’s clients would take a kind of ‘customer is always right’ approach, acting entitled to get exactly what they wanted and complain if they didn’t.

‘If anything, it was the opposite,’ Henrik says. ‘You both sort of forget about the money as soon as you start fooling around. It’s more common for them to confuse it with real intimacy than to confuse it with, like, a haircut.’

Henrik’s spreadsheet lists what he did and what he earned for each of his clients. In six months of freelance prostitution, Henrik charged an average of 624 kroner, or $110, per encounter, with a maximum of 1,066 kroner, or $185 (‘I slept over at his hotel and he paid in euros’), and a minimum of 400 kroner, or $70 (‘this fucking guy and his fucking clipcard’).

Some of them he slept with more than once, but most were one-timers. In all, he earned just over 24,000 kroner, or $4,150.

Henrik only paid 6,300 kroner ($1,090) in taxes, or 24.2 percent, because he was able to deduct 11,000 kroner ($1,900) for expenses, including his Macbook. He had sex with a client in Croatia when he was there on vacation, and when he returned, he called the tax authorities to ask if he could deduct the cost of the holiday. Flights yes, came the answer, hotel no.

I asked Henrik why his spreadsheet listed the distance he cycled to each client.

‘Bike rides,’ he says, ‘are reimbursed half a kroner per kilometer.’

5. Make Policy Regarding Customers

In his to-do list, Henrik wrote ‘Is there anyone I wouldn’t sleep with? Do I need to validate their identity? What information should I get from them beforehand?

And, right at the end:  ‘… Viagra?

‘Already back then I felt pretty sure that the world of paid-for sex isn’t filled with weirdos,’ Henrik says. ‘It’s filled with overweight old guys. And pretty much, that’s what happened.’

Henrik kept notes on each client in his spreadsheet. It reads like some kind of gay Xanadu as imagined by an Alabama talk radio host: ‘Porn playing on TV in bedroom…. Blindfolded, wanted dirty talk… Ends in doggy … Loves nipples … Chat while he sits on a buttplug … Wasn’t expecting second prostitute… Way too old, impotent … Met in the park…’

‘But what were they like?I keep asking whenever I see him now.

‘Honestly? The only thing they have in common is that they’re unattractive,’ Henrik says. ‘There’s a guy I still see once a month, he’s like 100-kilo plus. He works at PWC. There’s nothing wrong with him on the inside, just nobody wants to fuck a fat guy.

‘The funniest thing is that the sex is phenomenal. There’s this great big fat guy and I feel like I’m the only one who knows he’s great in bed.’

On a few occasions, Henrik texted his client’s address to a friend before they met, in case something went wrong. In the end, he never had to turn anyone down. He never used Viagra.

‘I did fake a lot of the orgasms though,’ he says.

‘Shut the fuck up,’ I say.

‘Seriously. Nobody ever notices unless it’s a facial situation.’

Like any other professional experience, though, Henrik remembers the people more than the tasks.

‘It’s really obvious that they just want conversation,’ he says. ‘They want a whiff of romance.’

It became a kind of competitive advantage. When potential clients asked Henrik what was included in the price, he said ‘we’ll have enough time’ to signal that some spooning, some conversation, some channel-surfing wasn’t out of the question. One guy invited him to a family gathering as his date, clock running the whole time. Another, a married guy in Norway, recommended Henrik to a friend.

Between the prostitution, his day job and extra piano gigs, Henrik got himself out of debt just before his son was born. He still sees some of his old clients, but doesn’t log on to Homospot anymore. He’s told only a handful of friends. Henrik, obviously, isn’t his real name.

‘My reason for paying taxes wasn’t because I’m a socialist, or a philanthropist,’ he says. ‘When someone confronts me with this, I want to be able to say, in so many words, “It was work, nothing else. I worked, I paid taxes. What do you care?”’

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Filed under Denmark, Essays, Personal

Small Talk Is Horrible. And Everyone Should Know How To Do It.

Small talk is one of the rare social activities we perform where both people involved a) aren’t enjoying themselves and b) know the other person isn’t either. I know you hate talking about the weather, you know I hate listening to you talk about the weather, I know you know, you know I know, yet on and on we go, la la la.

Like a chess game, we play out the initial, routine moves like a sort of ritual (‘What do you do for a living?’ ‘How was your weekend?’) until we get somewhere neither of us has been before. Then we start paying attention.

Yet small talk is weirdly important. Most of your best friends began as people with whom you made inane, obligatory chitchat (‘So, how do you know Steve?’) in a bar, a classroom or a workplace somewhere. It’s like our entire species has decided, hivelike, that before we ask about things we like hearing, or talk about things we like saying, we want to make sure you’re capable of engaging in content-free pleasantries for at least 2 minutes.

I’m fascinated by how this differs across cultures. As anyone who has ever traveled, lived abroad or hosted an exchange student knows, chit-chat is as culturally loaded as manners, dating, sex or food. Some cultures talk to each other everywhere. Riding the bus, waiting in line, sitting in a cafe—everything’s an opportunity to engage with the people around you.

In other countries, starting a conversation with someone you don’t know is an event that provokes stunned silence and stricken glares. The fuck, their tone of voice says as they answer monosyllabically, is this dude talking to me for?

I grew up in America, which is somewhere between these extremes, and I’ve now experienced small talk in London (chatty but aloof), Berlin (chatty when drunk or homosexual) and Copenhagen (excuse me, do I know you?).

It’s not like these countries are genetically distinct from each other. Sometime growing up, someone taught you when to engage with people around you and, if necessary, how to continue upward into actually knowing them.

It’s interesting that, with all of the talk (OK maybe just TED talks) about ‘gross national happiness‘ and how countries should contribute to the overall well-being of their citizens, how little attention small talk receives as a public policy issue.

A population that is systematically equipped to engage new people and form sustainable, mutually beneficial relationships will be happier, healthier and more productive than one without. Social support reduces stress, increases lifespan and seems to prevent everything from nervous breakdowns to cancer. Not having friends is as bad for you as smoking.

And it all comes down to small talk. The better you are at performing these introductory catechisms (‘what neighborhood do you live in?’), the more efficient you are at identifying potential friends and, ultimately, obtaining social support.

Small talk isn’t any more complicated than touch-typing, or long division, or anything else you learned in middle school. You take turns, you listen closely, you stay on topic. Like most forms of human interaction, once you look at it closely, it’s formulaic enough that it can be learned—and taught.

So why don’t countries deliberately promote conversation skills? I’m legitimately curious about this. If schools teach financial literacy and cultural literacy, why don’t they teach social literacy? Making conversation, like sending a resume or acing a job interview, is something everyone should know how to do.

Happy populations don’t just happen. Our countries taught us to add and subtract, collect and analyze, read and think. Maybe it’s time they taught us to meet each other.

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Filed under America, Berlin, Denmark, Germany, Personal, Serious

The 10 Times I Met My Landlord

Originally posted on The Billfold

1

He has an unsqueezing handshake, that’s the first thing I notice about him. He just puts his hand out, and I shake it like a juice.

“Erik,” he says, standing at the door in a bathrobe, a tanktop and untied combat boots. He’s thin, a series of parallel lines and divots up to a starburst of blond hair.

“Michael,” I say. He lets me into the foyer. I look around and realize his appearance isn’t an affectation, but genuine neglect.

The living room bows under the weight of all his belongings. A half-­dozen shelves piled with sci-fi books, stacked in trilogies. Two printers, one in each corner, both shaded by a drift of wires. A balled up blanket under the window, hard angles hinting at something wrapped up and forgotten. Not to mention the souvenirs from Central Asia and the Middle East, making outlines in the dust.

We talk logistics. Sublet, one year. Fully furnished, go ahead and use the neighbors’ Internet connection. Please don’t sit in the rocking chair, it was his grandmother’s.

Everything in the kitchen is old, but the pans are scrubbed and the knives have been sharpened to a suicidal sheen. An espresso machine takes up roughly half the counter space. There are no glasses, only coffee cups.

I tell him this will be my longest period in one apartment. I’m in Copenhagen on a short-term contract that keeps getting extended, and I’ve been living in sublets for two years now. The place I’m living in now has no shower, just a literal water closet, so every morning I walk down the stairs and across the courtyard to a bank of showers in the basement. It costs one kroner for each minute of hot water. Most mornings I gamble, shoving three kroner in the machine and soaping like someone trying to shake a bee out of their clothes. Sometimes on Sundays I spend five.

“OK,” he says.

He seems to have already decided I’m a suitable subletter based on his conversation with Thomas, our mutual friend, and he speaks in whens, not ifs. He walks me through the apartment like a tour guide giving the last circuit of the day. The shelves rattle metallically as we walk.

He shows me a gas mask he got in Bosnia, a sweater from Chinese army surplus, flavored vodka from Ukraine. After a few minutes, he’s not lifting them up, just pointing to piles: “That’s where I keep my barbells.’

We’re back in the foyer. “So!” he says.

It’s too big, too far and too full of the bread crumbs of someone else’s exploration. But the rent is reasonable and I don’t have any other options.

“I’ll take it.”

2

I visit the apartment again to sign the paperwork. I marvel for the second time how a neighborhood with so many apartment buildings can have so few shops or cafes. I bike past a nursing home, then an institution for mentally retarded adults. Most of the cars on the street are minibuses.

It’s the day before he leaves, and some of the detritus has disappeared. The espresso machine is gone, and for a second I suspect he’s taking it with him. The small talk is more like nano-talk. All of my questions come back as logistics.

“So where are you being posted?”

“Afghanistan. So you must forward the mail to my sister in Give. She’ll send it to me.”

“How long have you been in the Army?”

“Since I was 18. I have equipment here, so I may come by every once in while to pick things up.”

When I ask what he’s doing in Afghanistan, he says “the same old thing,” like we’ve known each other for years.

I tell him I’m looking forward to living on my own. Since I moved to Copenhagen I’ve lived with a Norwegian woman who told me I could have friends over as long as they weren’t foreigners, then an old woman whose dog shit on my bed and whose boyfriend told me I should bulk up by eating a bowl of raw hamburger and egg yolks every morning.

He’s looking around the apartment as I speak. He picks up a vintage coffee grinder up from the floor.

“Have you seen this?” he says. “You must grind manually. The electric grinders, they make dust. You should squeeze the beans, not eradicate them.”

3

He stops by the apartment. He e-mailed to tell me that he would do this, but never specified a time. I hear a key in the lock at 7 pm on a Wednesday, and get up from the rocking chair and put it back in the corner. Now I’m standing in the middle of the living room with a book in my hand, like I’m rehearsing a monologue.

He’s training in Aarhus before he ships out in two weeks. There he is in the foyer, taking off his boots and squeezing his hair to get the rainwater out. He’s angry about an incident on the train on the way here. Children talking too loud or something. He only says the word “undisciplined’ once, but that’s the only thing I remember of this conversation later.

He’s picking up his uniform. I’m in the kitchen cleaning up the evidence of my first three days here. He takes a cell phone call, switches to Danish, and tells the story of the train again. He waves as he backs out the door, still talking.

4

I come home from work the next day and he’s sitting in the rocking chair with a takeaway coffee cup.

“Are you picking something up?” I ask.

“It’s impossible to get good coffee in Denmark,” he says, swirling the cup. “All these amazing machines, and it is a 16-­year-­old who is using them.”

“Look, Erik…”

“I know, I’m sorry I came by unannounced,” he says. “I’m leaving in a week, and I just wanted to relax one night before I go.”

“It’s OK,” I say, putting my gloves back on.

As I leave, I ask him whether he’ll be able to find good coffee in Afghanistan. But he’s got his laptop out, and all I get is a grunt.

5

He’s there when I get home at three in the morning, sentried by two pizza boxes and an ice cream tub. Where’s he getting this food? I’ve been shopping near work and taking groceries home on my bike.

He e-­mailed to ask if he could crash at the apartment tonight, since he’s flying out of Copenhagen early tomorrow morning. The apartment is too big for me anyway, and I told him he could stay in the spare room. I can see a duffel bag in there, huge and unzipped like an autopsy. The only thing I see poking out are trinkets he’s taken from the shelves. I wonder if he’s taking any clothes.

It’s November outside, but inside the heat is turned up to an August swelter. This is the first time I’ve seen him in a tank top, and the delta of veins on his arms make him look like an engineering schematic. For all the weightlifting equipment in the apartment, I’m surprised at how wiry he is. The rocking chair could fit another two of him.

He’s watching a movie on his laptop. I can see he’s irritated that he has to pause it while I perform my “how are things?” due diligence.

“Great. Lots of training,” he says with his finger poised to click play. His face asks permission.

“Well, I’m beat. Hope you have a good tour,” I say as the sound comes back on.

6

I thought Danish people, as a rule, spent a few days with their families for Christmas. Yet there’s a text from him at 11 in the morning on Boxing Day: “I’ll be over in 15 minutes.”

He doesn’t have any visible purpose this time. He comes in, baggageless and still jacketed, and goes straight for the rocking chair. He doesn’t sigh out loud, but his body sort of does. He’s lost weight, if that’s even possible, and I wonder if he’s one of those Danish people who won’t eat anything abroad if he can’t find the food he’s used to. Once he settles, he bobs his head and looks around.

“You haven’t done anything with the place,” he says, looking at the bare walls. “You’re not that kind of guy, huh?”

This is the closest thing he’s ever expressed to an interest in my tastes or personality.

“Yeah, me neither,” he goes on. “I like to keep it simple.”

Recalling the two months I have spent systematically banishing his possessions into drawers, under tables and on top of cupboards, I audibly snort.

“How’s your Danish coming along?” he asks.

I tell him I’m taking classes, but it’s difficult to stay motivated with a full-time job.

“Well,” he says, shrugging with his eyebrows. “Either you want to learn it or you don’t.”

7

I’ve been hoping that he won’t make a habit of staging these little drop-­ins, and he doesn’t. The e-mails, however, are as regular as the rain all winter. Was there a letter from an old colleague that I forgot to forward? Is the heater working alright? Have the window cleaners called to schedule?

The medical problems make their first appearance in an e-­mail in February.

“My stomach is acting up again,” he says. “There’s not much food here that agrees with me, so I’ve lost some weight.”

I remember how he kept his coat on the whole time he was here last time, and try to imagine him even skinnier. I stretch his cheekbones out, push his eyes in, thin the hair exclaiming from his head.

Other than the hair, my mental sketch turns out to be pretty accurate.

He’s back in Denmark now, he tells me from the doorway. He has lost a considerable amount of weight, or a considerable-­looking amount anyway. His neck sticks out of his coat collar like a tree growing in a crater, his head gingerly balanced on top. Maybe I recoil when I see him; he apologizes for how he looks.

He’s on his way to Give to stay with his family, and he’s picking up some photographs on the way. His Afghanistan posting has been cancelled.

“Stomach problems,” he says, as if that makes his malady any more specific. He’s angry at the Army bureaucracy, and he answers my questions about his departure from his post with “this bullshit’ or “bunch of idiots,” nothing that yields any real information.

My lease has five months left. I’ve lost three kilos from the long bike commute each morning. I’ve found a grocery store, and a kebab place that serves Turkish coffee and opens early on Saturdays. I haven’t added any of my character to the walls, but I’ve removed some of his.

“I’m not trying to move back in, don’t worry,” he says. “As soon as this is over, I’ll be back in Afghanistan. We might even renew the sublet for another year.”

8

The next time I come home to find him in the apartment, he’s lost even more weight. His eyes have pulled back, peering out from two cavities that reach from his forehead to his jaw. The apartment is so warm that for a second I think he lit a fire somehow.

He’s telling me something about the apartment, something I’ve forgotten to do, but I’m following the vein in his neck past his clavicle, across his shoulder and down his arm. I don’t know if he’s still talking when I say, “Are you … OK?”

He’s losing weight, he says, and no one can figure out why.

“I eat and I shit,” he says. “I never gave it any more thought than that.”

I imagine all the conversations he must have had with doctors in the month since I’ve seen him last.

“They think I’m anorexic,” he says later that night. “What am I, jogging after dinner every night?” He knows his body renders this a rhetorical question.

He’s sleeping here, apparently. He has an appointment at a clinic in Copenhagen tomorrow morning. He tells me this like I already know. I’ve invited friends over for dinner, but I tell them we’ll meet at a restaurant instead. I sleep at my boyfriend’s, and when I come home the next day, the only sign of him is the clanking radiator.

9

“It used to be the girls telling me ‘I can’t figure you out,’” he says. “Now it’s the doctors.”

He’s smiling from the middle of a pillow his gaunt face makes huge. Framed like this, grey skin against the black pillow, he looks like a panel from a comic strip.

I’m at the hospital to drop off his mail. He called yesterday to whisper a request. Was there a letter from the health service? Could I bring it to him? It was important. I could use his bike if I needed to.

I don’t know what to say to him. I was afraid he would look like a stick figure under his covers, but with his legs together and his hands interlocked, he’s more like a mummy. I try not to gawk, but my breathing catches when I see him try to turn over. Shaking his hand is out of the question, so I sort of caress him under the covers in greeting.

“They feed me with a tube, but I’m still losing weight. I show them I’m not anorexic, no?” he says with a thin smile. “They won’t let me drink coffee. No calories.”

I put the letter on the bedside table, under one of the empty milkshakes. His parents are coming soon, and he has to rest before they arrive.

“Thanks,” he says.

“I work nearby,” I lie. “It’s no problem to drop off your letters.”

“It’s good to have friends visit.’

Is that, I think as I reciprocate out loud, what we are?

10

Erik stands at the door, a tortoise in a ski jacket and wool cap, neck all strings in between.

“I gained three kilos last week,” he pants. “Hard to haul all that up the stairs, huh?” I say.

My duffel bags wait, packed, in the foyer. A taxi is waiting for me downstairs. For some reason I’ve put the keys in an envelope and written his name on it.

He leans in and looks through the door. I spent four hours last night cleaning, and the apartment gleams with effort. Behind me the books are 90 degrees in three different dimensions. The souvenirs stand at attention. I even sharpened the knives.

The e-­mails continue after I move out. At first it’s all admin: the deposit, the forgotten socks, the oven needs to be cleaned. Then it’s information: He’s gaining weight, he’s got a new job, he’s thinking of expanding the bathroom.

“Why is it that all atheists claim they are humanists?” he writes in an e-­mail to which an electricity bill is attached. “It just means they will be among those praying the loudest when the boat is going under.”

To the requests, I answer in bullet-­pointed lists of yesses: I made the transfers, I took care of the bills, I’m sorry about the oven. As the admin diminishes, it takes me longer and longer to reply.

“Please come and have a cup of tea,” he writes in the last e-mail I ever receive from him, nearly a year after I’ve moved out. “I don’t get out too often, so knock on the door if you are nearby. If you are hungry, there is food—no gluten, but food anyway.”

I write that I will, and never do.

Here, in the foyer, none of this has happened yet. I lift my duffel bags and Erik and I trade places, him inside, me outside.

He offers to help me down to the taxi. I remember how his leg, sharp under three blankets, didn’t move when I touched it. I tell him over my shoulder it’s no problem, I’ve got it.

“See you around!” I call as I start down the stairs. Through the open door I can hear him take the coffee down from the shelf, and put the water on to boil.

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Filed under Denmark, Essays, Gay, Personal

Backward

Last weekend I went back to Denmark for the first time since I left.

It's still flat

and perfect and cold.

As it spirals upward, the cracks start to appear.

All of a sudden it's not a map or a dollhouse

but an actual city where you lived and worked and grew up for six years.

From the ground, you can't see all the straight lines, only the one you're standing on.

So you just look ahead, until the country falls off the horizon.

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Filed under Denmark, Pictures, Serious

Are We There Yet?

I just finished Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order. It’s basically an attempt to construct a narrative of how human beings went from talking chimpanzees to hunter-gatherers to tribesmen to farmers to workers to us.

It’s surprising to me how little thought I’ve thought about this before. Here’s what I learned from the book:

  • The overall arc of human development turns out to be a battle between bureaucratic efficiency and human vice. Humans are driven by our natures to favor our kin, hoard our wealth and protect our security at the expense of others. The most successful early societies, just like the most successful societies now, are the ones that put rules in place to keep people from gaming the system to benefit themselves and their families.
  • The earliest manifestation of this principle is ancient China. Being constantly at war with their neighbors forced each little territory to come up with education and military training based on talent rather than family connections. Like March Madness, the best-organized armies defeated the others, consolidated their territory and challenged larger opponents. After about a thousand years of this, China went from being 10,000 small principalities to one totalitarian empire.
  • This same process was never able to happen in India, Fukuyama says, because it got religion. At just the time when it could have consolidated, Brahmanism took over and introduced the caste system.
  • Since it was basically impossible for people to rise from lower to upper castes, Indian elites  never devised a way to promote people through talent or grit. Under Brahmanism, you only rise or fall in caste after you die and are born again. Not only is it unlawful to reach a higher caste in your lifetime, it’s a sin. India never got efficient bureaucracy because the upper castes only drew talent from their own ranks, and based status on birth, not merit.
  • In Europe, efficient states developed about 1,500 years after China, and only by imitating the administrative structures of the Catholic Church.
  • Priest celibacy, which was only introduced in the 11th century AD, ensured that priests had no children or families to favor with wealth or appointments. So the church had no way of promoting people other than merit. This drove the Catholics to develop sophisticated  structures to administer all their tithe-collecting and heaven-selling.
  • Since the Catholic Church was basically the world’s first international institution, states started imitating its practices as a way of efficiently collecting taxes and ending disputes between citizens.
  • It’s basically an accident that Britain ended up as the first ‘modern’ society, meaning it had a strong state, rule of law and democratic accountability. The parliament was just a leftover institution for the feudal lords to protect their property, but since it was already there, it became a vehicle for the lower gentry and eventually commoners to represent their interests.
  • I especially geeked out over the section about Denmark. Fukuyama says Denmark’s highly efficient state is a result of historical accident too. After the Reformation, Denmark was one of the only countries in which Lutheran priests were given the duty of teaching all the commoners to read and write. Smart little villages became efficient little towns, which became a progressive little country.
  • We like to think of political development as gradual progress toward a goal like peace or wealth or stability, but what really stands out from the book is how many societies reached high levels of sophistication and development, only to squander them by backsliding into their old habits
  • China, for example, after getting all efficient by 200 BC, let nepotism creep back in once the empire was unified and basically sat development out for 1,000 years.
  • In the Middle Ages, the Hungarians apparently had their own Magna Carta (Called ‘The Golden Bull’ whuuut) that made their king accountable to his subjects. Great, right? Well, it turns out it gave so much accountability that king had to convince the nobles and gentry to protect the country against outside invaders, and eventually it was taken over by the Byzantines and then the Ottomans.
  • The level of corruption in early societies is monumental. The French and the Spanish governments in the 1700s basically operated like organized crime families. They literally sold noblemen the right to collect taxes. So each nobleman got an army together and bayoneted whatever taxes he wanted out of the peasants, while completely avoiding paying taxes himself. One of the reason the British Navy was able to dominate Spanish and French was simply because they had a centralized state that collected taxes, rather than a bunch of Pierre Sopranos.

I’ve been reading a lot of this kind of long-term, comparative history lately, and I’m constantly struck by the degree to which every generation thinks that the world as they found it has always been that way. Societies in the Middle Ages died defending status quos that were sometimes just 30 years old. In our own lifetimes, we constantly forget that the entire concept of a nation-state is less than 200 years old, and the borders of most existing countries have been significantly edited just in the last century.

Sometimes, in the midst of a culture obsessed with where we’re going, it’s nice to look back at where we’ve been.

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Filed under Books, Denmark

Denmark’s Awesome Nanny-State

I am pro-this:

Danes who go shopping today will pay an extra 25p on a pack of butter and 8p on a packet of crisps, as the new tax on foods which contain more than 2.3% saturated fat comes into effect.

One way to look at this is that the Danish state is perverting the free market and limiting consumers’ choice to buy and eat unhealthy food. Another way to look at it is that the Danish state is incorporating the huge financial burden of obesity into the cost of the products that cause it.

As far as I’m concerned, this tax doesn’t go far enough. Soda and potato chips have basically the same nutritional value as a Virginia Slim. Denmark should start to tax them like one.

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Filed under Denmark, Food