24 August 2009

Canvassers v. Tourists (Or, Apologies For the Rant)

This was supposed to be a short post about how one of the benefits of tourism is increased numbers of street performers. This afternoon, I saw the most amazing living statue--a living fountain, actually. Worthy of his own post. Ditto the contortionist, the guitarist, and the jazz trio (they did not all perform together, although they totally should). The post was going to be hilarious and insightful and would basically explain the entire modern tourist experience by way of a series of short vignettes and observations, all tied together in the tidiest but most unexpected of ways, and presented in prose that was at once astonishingly lyrical and deliciously clever. Your mind would have been blown. But then some clowns got in the way. . . .

I recently heard someone describe canvassers as "the pop-up ads of real life." This was especially true in Copenhagen today.

I spent the morning tracking down the various restaurants that Frommer recommends here. No success. Not one was still open. A Blockbuster was in one space; another is now the town's requisite Hard Rock Cafe.

Instead, I found--or rather, was found by--a swarm of people from Greenpeace, Unicef, and Some Organization That Would Like You To Know That AIDS Is Very Bad. Now, I support these organizations' work, in general. I just don't particularly care to be on one more e-mail list or to give my credit card number to a complete stranger. Mostly, I just don't want to be bothered. I'm not a talker, particularly when I know the conversation will be one-sided, overtly political, and assertively boring.

This is particularly true when I'm away from home: I'm out of my element, I'm already a bit disoriented, just leave me alone. Don't remind me of the real world and its ills. Leave me in my bubble. Just point me to the bakery and the nearest tourist landmark and get out of my way. Please.

But sometimes I overcome my natural aversion to such interactions because the message the people are promoting is just . . . well, just so fucking batty and offensive that I can't walk by without comment.

Case in point: This afternoon, I was strolling down the KĂžbmagergade (I think that's where I was, anyway) when a sandwich board stopped me in my tracks. It was a doctored photo of Barack Obama, with a Hitler mustache; beneath the image was the caption "I've Changed." I spotted a young woman standing near a table covered with Lyndon LaRouche literature.

"Hey, what's ..." I began.

She smirked. "He's grown a little mustache, you see. He's a fascist."

I'll spare you the full details. It was a long conversation. Too long. It can be summarized by the following exchange:

Me: ". . . So what you're saying is, there's a huge conspiracy that we're all just too blind to see, and it's run by a couple of guys sitting in a dark room, rubbing their hands together, cackling, evilly plotting everything that goes on in the world and basically trying to destroy us."

Batty LaRouche Lady, with complete sincerity: "Yes, that's exactly it."

Our conversation was broken by an American speaking on a cell phone, looking pissed off. He was saying (and this is a direct quote, as best as I remember it): "There are some seriously fucked-up people saying some seriously fucked-up things down here, spewing some genuinely offensive, outlandish shit."

As soon as he hung up, Batty LaRouche Lady started yammering at him instead of me. So Phone Guy and I basically tag-teamed it, swapping Very Reasonable Points to counter the frankly nonsensical and vitriolic claims. Soon a Batty LaRouche Dude from Boston joined the fray. (What a lovely way to pass a beautiful late-summer day on an otherwise charming and bustling street in Copenhagen!)

Several other passersby joined our cause, including one Danish guy who looked old enough to actually remember Hitler--who, you may recall, invaded Denmark, among a few other nasty things. This guy really, really, really did not appreciate the Obama/Hitler comparison. "You're planting the seed," he said, pointing to the photo. His tone was calm, but his face was contorted with incredulity and despair. "You're spreading hate."

All in all, a pretty jarring experience. I'm not big on confrontation, but I have gone to a few protests in the States and had some interesting conversations with counter-protesters. I'm always up for debate with people of differing views; in fact, I enjoy it. This was different. I've never encountered that level of hatred and virulent, over-the-top political extremism first-hand--it's something I've only seen in articles or on TV, where it always seems a world away, something happening in Some Other Place. I certainly didn't expect that Other Place to be seemingly-idyllic Copenhagen. Everything here felt so calm and happy--as I said yesterday, even the "slums" were awfully mundane, if not precisely charming.

The phone guy's name was Harold; he's an American who married a woman from Denmark and has lived here since 1997. I gave him the blog address and by the time I got back to the hotel, he'd already e-mailed me. He called the encounter "the Three Stooges/Dumb & Dumber reunion," which is about right--the level of discourse was roughly even with those esteemed individuals, although we never did resort to poking each other in the eyes or bopping each other on the head. Maybe the silver lining of the encounter is a new e-pen pal (Hey, Harold: write to me any time, and if you're ever in Minneapolis, I'll buy you a beer and we can rehash today's encounter and our incredible display of political acumen, intellectual brilliance, and superhuman ability to remain calm when talking to scary, not-calm nutjobs).

So that's one of today's bad ideas: talking to political extremists who are itching for a fight. I really should have just walked past. Oy.

(Also, I get that most issues are global issues these days, and that U.S. policy affects the world . . . but what the hell were LaRouche people doing distributing their propaganda in Copenhagen? When I walked by the same spot a few hours later, they were gone. I almost hugged the Greenpeace guy who had taken their place.)

I will say this: it was kind of refreshing to see the reactions of most Danes to this ugly scene, to be around Europeans defending the American president and supporting Americans in general. That was not my experience last year--not at all. I wonder how Bush-as-Hitler would have gone over. It's been interesting to see people's varied reactions, a year ago and now, when they find out I'm American.

. . . And then I went to Tivoli Gardens, which was much more enjoyable, if a bit cheesy. I wandered the grounds and marveled at the astonishingly overpriced food (35 DKK for a Slushee--that's seven bucks!) and the even more astonishing array of spinning, Slushee-disgorging rides. I also discovered Danish honky tonk music. Ten seconds later, I discovered that I really, really dislike Danish honky tonk, that it is almost as annoying as canvassers. But I'll take hours of it over another ten seconds with the Lyndon LaRouche people.

UPDATE: Interestingly, Arthur has also gotten a bit politically active lately, calling for a boycott of travel to Arizona after some protesters were spotted carrying guns outside a Phoenix venue where the president was speaking last week.

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