When the city council of Denmark’s third largest city Odense (pronounced Oh-en-suh) was confronted with the menace of angry — a few times slightly offensive — graffiti on its pretty yellow walls, Jane Jegind, mayor of urban development, culture and sports, and her wise band of men came up with a merry compromise. A section of one street was marked out for the spray-painting smartpants to vent their waspish humour and the upstarts were told it would be left uncensored as long as they stuck to their patch. The council received no further complaints, nor were the impetuous students brainwashed into conformity.
Along with the Odense University, Jegind spearheaded the city’s march into advanced studies on drones and ’bots. She also prided herself in noticing something her male counterparts never did: that the gorgeous cobbled streets of this city at the centre of Fyn island in Denmark needed to be friendlier towards high-heeled shoes. Her intervention ensured that stilts now don’t get stuck. Prettiness married practicality with typical Danish attention to detail.
The time of the city’s first woman boss also coincided with the St Canute’s Cathedral, which stands on the showpiece square of the town, getting that rare lady archbishop. Odense, which had only recently decided to start constructing taller buildings than the church-steeple (most residences are two-storey, with sloping roofs), was seeking new heights of gender equality. “It’s not like anyone’d stopped us before. But women themselves thought politics was too complex and too much effort. I have two little ones of my own, and I gained in confidence to speak slowly and my party encouraged me. I started with sorting out the heels on the pavements!” says Jegind lightly.
Today, Odense, a small island city (several hundred islands dot the royal kingdom country of Scandinavia beyond the Jutland peninsula and Copenhagen) is attempting to better the capital. The Funen islanders are busy rolling out the carpet to the world (the Chinese are first movers of course), offering the cutting-edge medical trial research alongside work in micro and macro robotics, also warm, fuzzy retail-shelf tangibles like gourmet cheese and beer, the sweet pastries that waft across cold autumn mornings and, of course, milking their ultimate possession — the fairytale legacy of their own author Hans Christian Andersen.
Honestly, it doesn’t offend the folks of Odense to be told that while the world knows of the tales — The Ugly Duckling and Little Mermaid, Thumbelina and The Emperor’s New Clothes — the wordsmith who sprinkled fairy-dust into those stories isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of Denmark. They don’t really mind you asking them about the national icon’s lucklessness in love. Tour guides delve into details of the author’s longing for his lady love right up to his non-fairytale finish even as you retrace the steps of Andersen’s rise from poverty to literary fame-dom.
It’s not uncommon to find the lanky man’s outrageously large footprint engraved into the pathways as you pass the cottage where he was born, the school he went to and finally, the museum dedicated to his works, almost a century ago. Odense loves Andersen in all his glory and romantic plight, and they never forget to tell you how he wasn’t just about pretty words strung into pithy tales from the world of castles, princes and un-doomed creatures; his other talent was papercutting art.
In the time that we are there, though, the city is readying for Halloween, and a trainful of children dressed as Harry Potter has arrived for the city’s own Hogwarts festival. On Potterfest day here, hundreds of children dressed like the boy wizard walk around solemnly with wands held aloft.
Mid-October also marks the start of the hunting season, and you better not be caught within gun-shot of specified areas, because game-chasers in the forests on the outskirts outnumber the Harry Potters at the city centre. There is much outrage across the world when a nine-month-old lion is dissected in the Odense zoo and children throng there for the skinning-as-science education. While the CNN crew starts dinning, filming the macabre event live, and newspapers from England criticise the inhumanity of it all, the people of Odense tell you that the lion population had exceeded the zoo’s caretaking capacity, and children might as well learn to tell the intestine from the lungs if one from the pride is going to be put down.
Meat reminds me of food and food brings me to the Danish table. Handicapped as I am to not appreciate the meat on my plate — I am a dubious vegetarian who cheats at the first sight of a Mumbai paaplet (pomfret), and loves substituting beef and pork recipes with boring veggies — I survey the fare — fish, beef, veal, pork and chicken — but return (quite ashamed of my miserably limited palette) to the cheese and crackers. Not particularly a cheese fiend either, I go asking around every day for the dill dip that I can’t get enough of. Gushing to the bemused chef (after all, it’s a splotch tucked away somewhere on a plate full of delish meat) gets me a second helping of the dip that reminds me of home. You’ve got to love the Danes for putting subtle cinnamon honey, fine sugar and crumbly pastry and fruit preserve desserts first thing on the breakfast table.
The city is even celebrating the Brunsviger festival — the soft doughy coffee cake topped with butter and brown sugar. But when you meet Zofuz Knudsen and Lars Fischer, you know the sprinkling of love goes deeper than just the plating up. Winner of the world’s second best honey at the global beekeeper’s congress in Korea recently, the two have built themselves a community for beekeeping. Entire families are dedicated to nurturing the back process of honey-making — cajoling the bees into their combs by creating for them a garden lovelier than what Andersen would’ve dreamed up.
The beekeepers of Odense are living the ultimate fairytale on their garden — a community that tends to plants and cooks and sings (wonderfully, with not a note out of tune; they’ll treat you to a performance if you ask) to help produce the golden nectar. They leave you convinced that in Andersen’s land, reality can be more mesmerising than a fairytale.