Monday, June 20, 2011

DK - Copenhagen

June 20                 Monday                               Denmark                             Copenhagen                     

Another strange dream.  I was at my Dad’s place on the Jersey shore and he had two places… although the street grid was a bit different in that the town’s sole diagonal street – Broadway (not the same one as in NYC) – extended down to about 11th or 12th Street.  So we had houses in our current place & also on the east side of 10th St.  Except our current house was a big 4 story boat… that seemed to simultaneously be at its current land-based location as well as on the water.  And it was a restaurant on the 2nd and 3rd floors… portions of the 3rd and 4th floors were the living areas and the 1st floor was an office that also inexplicably had a Dominos facing the driveway (that was the land-based part).

My dream was all about me trying to figure out who left the “OPEN” sign turned on, causing all the customers to start showing up and dining… I was also trying to figure out who was serving them, as it seemed a full legion of employees had also turned up.  All because the open sign was on.  I seemed to be under the impression it wasn’t supposed to be open, but now that I think about it: perhaps it was and I’d misheard whatever it was I was supposed to do while I was staying there.  Whatever it was: I’m sure taking that massive house/boat out for a joyride probably wasn’t one of them… which I did and did poorly, but I somewhat relished in the glee of causing havoc within the restaurant below the pilot’s seat.

I brought back the boat then began getting myself wrapped up in local small-town gossip… apparently I was with my cousins Chris and Manima (the doesn’t-exist-in-real-life little sister – about 8 yrs old – of my other cousin Rachel, who was around but not there) and Manima had unfurled a property map of the town… going house by house talking about each one, but at some point Rachel showed up and it started ranting about high school boys (despite now being a college grad; it doesn’t help that I’ve barely talked to Rachel in a decade… hence she’s many years younger in my head than she actually is).

Then there was this girl my age who looked a lot like a young Cate Blanchett; she was daughter of the town’s Mormon preacher (I don’t think there is such a thing in the real-life version of our town).  I was chatting with her dad – who looked like the mayor from Spin City – and was getting on good terms with him… but unfortunately there isn’t much more to add to that one because the cleaning crews ARE ONCE AGAIN TREMENDOUSLY LOUD AT 10 AM.  So I woke up.

It was another day for exploration.  My route took me again past the east side of Tivoli, where I stood in wonderment at the construction of a new parking garage for the park; or at least I assumed it was for the park; it’s possibly it may be for the town hall or the downtown in general.  If it is for Tivoli, however, then it’d actually be a strike against the Danes’ amazing implementation of transit-oriented development considering that the amusement park has an entrance directly across the street from the central train station.

While on the subject of transportation: Denmark is yet another example of being bike-friendly but not particularly pedestrian-friendly.  While it’s easy walking in the immediate downtown & on the major shopping streets, in most cases there really isn’t any more sidewalk for pedestrians than you’d see in America.  Actually, in measuring pavement dedicated to pedestrians, there’s probably less than most American cities would provide… and even then: large portions of that are occupied by parked bikes.  I found myself walking in the bike lanes quite often to get around bikes & other people.  Signals also aren’t timed to be too pedestrian friendly… while I was fine as an able-bodied person, I saw many people run out of time to cross… the lack of the “flashing don’t walk” &/or countdowns at most crossings left many people unable to cross in time.  And the Danes stringently adhere to the red man: they do not cross unless it’s green.  I did; I jaywalked all the time.  My work as a traffic engineer has made me the worst pedestrian.  But one word of praise: the Swedes and Danes make adamant effort to maintain ped/bike access through or alongside the construction site; I don’t recall seeing a single closed pathway yet.

Now if you’re on a bike (or even rollerblades have been quite popular in these Nordic countries), then you’re in luck… you have some splendid infrastructure and plenty of companionship, with bikes seeming to be as plentiful as cars (if not moreso).  One caveat is parking: good luck finding an open bike rack space.  Fortunately there are plenty of walls to tie up to or just rest it against… while I understand that’s technically illegal: there’s zero enforcement.  At worst: a bike advocacy group just recently started moving illegally  parked bikes to the racks, where they’d inflate tires & do some other nice things.  Seems like more encouragement to park illegally, in my opinion, but I appreciate the intent.  But the problem is simply that there aren’t enough bike racks, despite there being a large bike rack at nearly every single intersection in the entire city.

Also- most bikes weren’t even locked… or at most they were locked in a manner that it seemed it was just to help keep them upright.  I thought back to America, where bike locking is both an art and science, often involving multiple locks to accommodate both wheels and the frame, and even then riders tend to take a wheel & a seat with them.

I made my way to the Vor Frue Kirke.  The interior isn’t anything too grand, but I definitely appreciated the sculptures lining its sides… it felt as much a museum as a church.  The sculptures, by Bertel Thorvaldsen, were quite exquisite in their depictions of the disciples; and an English handout helped to describe the symbolism within each statue.  At the front was the big man himself… well, the little man working for the big man: the statue of Jesus with open arms; an inspiration for the image of a loving Jesus copied by numerous other renditions around the world.  ...And then those copies went on to inspire Buddy Christ.  Evolution.

Just beyond the church was the Rundetårn (Round Tower), an aptly named classical observatory which is still in use today by amateur astronomers, making it the oldest continuously-used observatory in the world.  But mostly its height & up/down journey are the draw by day… it’s very very round; hence the name.  While most towers have spiral staircases, this tower is unique in that it’s a continuous ramp.  I opted for the inner track, hugging tight to the core and taking on the steeper ascent, flying by all those folk hurled outward by the centripetal force of their travel.  Well, OK maybe not quite to that extent… but most people didn’t seem as keen on the steeper climb as I was.

At the top a cloud had moved in and begun to drizzle, but the slight breeze was all it took to create a dry spot on one side of the tower.  While the tourists quickly disappeared into their descent, I stayed outside and parked myself on a bench: sheltered from the drizzle and able to appreciate the tranquility of a light rain from the peace of being high above the rest of the city.  It took just a few minutes for the rain to pass by before the sun was back out, illuminating the view of the urban landscape & low clouds with a lovely light.

Continuing northward I next reached Kongens Have, yet another palace set beside what is still a functioning military installation.  The surrounding gardens were pretty, but mostly grass & trees – not too many flowers; or at least certainly not on the scale of many other European cities.  The palace, itself, however, was a particularly pleasant experience.  It seemed so tiny from the outside but really opened up within.  The darker décor of the interior made it feel a bit more like a home to me and less that of a state building as yesterday’s palace tour had been.  It was inundated with artwork: many rooms absolutely covered with a variety of different art pieces, from paintings to engravings to tapestries to sculptures to exquisite wares to ornate clocks.  Even the loos were nice; the kind of place I wouldn’t mind dropping my pants for if I were king.  Heck, even if I weren’t king.  I was amused by the Mirror Room, which felt like something straight out of the 1980’s except for the obvious age of the mirrors & décor which was a bit more ornate than what you’d see in a typical 80’s home.

Beneath the palace was a legitimate treasury – indeed, the Danish treasury.  While I’ve still seen more grand elsewhere, this was a respectable trove that certainly beat Sweden’s presentation.  Among the first exhibits were a slew of small gold figurines which immediately prompted Aladdin’s “Prince Ali” to get stuck in my head.  There was a room of alabaster and amber & then on into the vault: home of the crown jewels.  I overheard a guide mention that the Danish royalty periodically pops in to grab some items for special occasions.

The next destination were the botanical gardens… the outdoors part was OK, but I’d missed the peak bloom of the roses and seemed to be a bit early for the peak bloom of other plants.  The indoors areas were all closed for renovations, so that was a bummer.  The grounds really look nice; had the greenhouses been open & the flowers been in full bloom: I’d say it could really be a lovely place.  I did spot some edelweiss.  I couldn't help but smile at thinking back to my time in Switzerland, where throngs of tourists crowded around each edelweiss flower and mobbed about for photos.  Here, however, I was the sole person anywhere around.

I decided to try out the city’s Metro system for a hop over the Christianshavn.  Having finished yesterday’s tower climb too late in the day to see the church, I’d hoped to make it over there in time to see the interior.  Alas, I didn’t make it… but really it was just an excuse to try out the Metro.  It’s driverless: that is, the trains are automated.  Trains were coming every couple of minutes… pretty much as soon one left; another was just about to arrive.  This contrasted with the S-Bahn headways of about 15-30 minutes, and also with Sweden’s peak period 2-minute headways and off-peak 12-minute headways (if I recall correctly).

Having missed the church, I hopped on Metro again for a one-stop ride into the center.  It was time for some more falafel at RizRaz.  This wasn’t really a dinner; more of a late lunch… even though dinner really didn’t seem that far off considering that I pretty much sat on my butt the rest of the evening.  Well actually I just took a really slow pace through the shopping streets again, this time meandering into a Lego store to marvel at some of their constructs.  I was also impressed by a video screen which would read whatever box you were holding on front of the scanner & then project a 3D image of its completed contents right there on top of the box you were holding… you could spin & rotate it, and at the same time the 3D imagery was animated: little guys would run out of a terminal, board a plane, and it’d take off!  Here I am, having grown up in the world of 8 bits… and now I understand how my parents and grandparents felt having grown up in a world of even fewer bits than that, watching as I moved mish-mash of colors meant to represent an Italian plumber as he crushed all his goombas.  Why an Italian would want to hurt his goombah, I do not know.

I finally met my friend for dinner… a dinner which was surely an interesting affair.  So her job, to put it bluntly, is prostitution.  More formally she has worked as an escort, which has enabled her to charge higher rates.  We met by sheer happenstance when I was studying in Budapest and just bumbling about the city as a tourist.  We got to talking and have been friends ever since.  To this day I’m the only person she’s ever told of her line of work at the first meeting, so I can't help but feel a little proud of that.  She actually doesn't really see many clients anymore: instead she now runs an escort business.  Most of the clients prefer women in their young 20's, so as she nears 30 it was a better career move for her to move into management.

Through her I’ve actually become friends with a couple other girls who work or have worked all around the world; some still in the business and some now out of it.  It became a fascinating subject to me, as I’m always interested in anything that happens out of sight of society… it’s why I work in infrastructure, professionally, and even when I'm relaxing by playing video games: I'm playing infrastructure-related games or if I'm doing a first-person shooter or RPG I'm almost always a support class.

Now for those curious: no, like most good friendships one doesn't mix business & friendship together… so it’s been a strictly friendly relationship; but one which has really developed my interest in the legal aspects & women’s rights issues relating to her industry.

Ultimately: I support prostitution as long as it is properly regulated, empowering the women to be their own business rather than forcing them into it.  At the very least, I certainly support decriminalizing it as an offense that the woman commits (as many countries have done); but personally I don’t see why it can’t be permitted to some extent as is the case in Denmark, Netherlands, New Zealand, and a number of other European countries.  Now, New Zealand takes it a bit far in that they legalize street walkers… I can see how that’d quickly sour public support for prostitution in that it’s more difficult to establish the bureaucracy to properly regulate it when you may not have a street address to work with; but I’m certainly intrigued by how central Europe has approached the issue in that they permit regulated brothels.

Now there are really two main issues to prostitution: women’s rights/safety and public health.  To address the former: from what I understand, the regulated businesses of central Europe empower the women.  Most are not forced into it; by and large it’s a choice as a means to an end.  That’s the important part: enabling women to make the choice.  When they don’t have a choice; I absolutely agree that it’s a form of sexual abuse tantamount to rape.  The same correlation can be made to any typical sexual encounter: if those involved don’t consent it’s rape; if they consent to it then it’s A-OK.  So as far as I see it: if we prohibit consensual prostitution where the woman is there of her own free will… we might as well take the next small step and prohibit consensual sex of all forms while we’re at it.

To oppose prostitution solely on the grounds of it seeming immoral is something best left to a theocratic society… if we were a theocracy then fine; but we’re not.  Even if we were a theocracy and fearing fire & brimstone wrath: what do you care, or ye without sin?  No one is forcing you into it; you still have full right to be as pious as you can be – let God be the judge of us all; not you.  Besides, the Bible is rife with prostitution… and there’s actually quite a bit of good to be said of it.

So casting aside the moral argument, there’s certainly a valid public health element.  Clearly, sex workers are at a higher risk of STDs and such, which plays in with the regulation aspect.  I’m unfamiliar with each and every country, but my understanding is that many of the countries permitting regulated prostitution also require that the women submit to regular health screenings -- in some cases STD testing each week.  Should they fail: they must be successfully treated in order to be permitted to return to work.  Now that’s not the way in every country… and even when it is that way there is still a risk; but the risks are mitigated to a great extent.  My friend actually referenced a report published by Danish authorities which found that AIDS infection among Danish prostitutes was less than that of the general population.

In addition to empowering women, there’s certainly a fair amount of money to be made off taxing the industry.  You know the old saying “sex sells”?  Yeah, well tax it & let us get a slice of that pie (pun not initially intended).  All this talk about legalizing drugs is well & good, but a case could be made that someone who gets high before work or before driving could be a risk to productivity & safety…  but someone who gets laid before work or before going driving?  I don’t know, but I’d say your typical man might actually be more productive and attentive.

So yeah… that’s that.  Those are my opinions for now, at least, but it’s a subject I’m fascinated by & my opinions are always open to change should I learn of something that does or does not work.  Hence why I was somewhat looking forward to this dinner, not just in that I hadn’t seen my friend in person for six years; but also because I had a chance to meet two more girls in the business.  I had to inquire how they got into their line of work… hey, it’s a question I often ask anyone regardless of what they do.  Also it was admittedly entertaining to think of how I'm going to write a blog post -- which I know my family reads -- about how I ate dinner with three prostitutes.

So my friend first got into it when she was 20 and ran out of money to pay for school.  She was a knock-out then and could make more money in four hours than she could working a full week in any other job.  Now to be fair, she’s still a knock-out now… but a client hearing an age of 26 is oftentimes immediately repulsed even before setting eyes upon her, so as I said: she’s a bit more in the business management side of things now and also has a more “proper” business job during normal hours; but she still works as a high-class escort… one client hiring her for a single night pays as much as I earn in a two-week paycheck.

Another girl was a cute 21-yr old brunette who was also a student.  I laughed when she said that and responded that yeah, that's the usual story… I phrased it more as a test to see how she reacted, and from her response I feel pretty confident she’s following the same path as my friend; legitimately a student and attracted by the economics of easy money doing something she enjoys.  She was a slight touch heavy for a European girl but would still be thin by American standards, and you’d never guess at her job from the look of her: she was about as innocent-looking a person as you’d ever lay eyes on; even almost like a geeky literati sort of girl.  I definitely got the feeling she’d stop working in the industry as soon as she finished college; or at least she’s one I’d definitely hope to get more out of her degree than some others have… this world just didn’t seem like it was for her; she seemed too nice.

The other wasn’t the strongest at English, but being 22 and looking like a clone of a young Uma Thurman is one sure-fire way to succeed in the business.   She was the second girl I’ve ever talked to who entered the business through more nefarious means: her ex-husband had forced her into it.  Despite her assertions of being Danish, from her accent I highly doubt she actually was…  I didn’t get a clear story nor did I prod for one, but I’d guess that her “husband” was a trafficker & she hails from the former Soviet Bloc; the accent was absolutely Eastern European of some sort, though I could not quite place where.

She assured me that she works by her own accord now, but I honestly didn’t get the warm fuzzy feeling that that was entirely true… she definitely didn’t seem to have the same interest and openness in discussing it as others, but it’s possibly the language barrier or some shyness arising from psychological issues just made her simply not wish to discuss it… my friend later assured me that their business strives to ensure every single woman is well-treated and there by choice.  So I hope that’s true, but while I support prostitution in general: there’s no denying that there can be a darker side to it… and even arguably more “progressive” approaches still aren’t without their failures.

Afterward I once again took a slow stroll through town as I made my way back to my room, albeit this time missing Tivoli’s sound & light show… though I admittedly didn’t make an effort given that I expected it’d once again be the exact same thing.

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