by Lotte Thorsen, Berlin 01.02.2010

Homo Metropolis returns to Politiken

After years of absence, Nikoline Werdelin is back in the printed version of the newspaper.

Interview with Nikoline Werdelin, who is resuming her daily comic strip in the Danish daily newspaper Politiken. About moving to Berlin; about looking for peace rather than fun; about being a middle-aged woman living with her dog, and being comfortable with that.

Three and a half years ago, Nikoline Werdelin moved to Berlin to smoke long, thin cigarettes, look at transvestites and visit the theater. The plan was to read the Frankfurter Allgemeine, discuss literature with the city’s intellectuals, and subscribe to sophisticated German magazines.

The relocation from a safe and cocooned existence in Hellerup (an upper-class suburban town in the outskirts of Copenhagen) to the German capital was about seeing and feeling something different from the distinguished homes with potted ivy in the windows and the fine Hellerup ladies who drove their fancy four-wheel drives to their local discount supermarket and fought over the last bargain-of-the-week floral quilt.

Now she was to breathe in a city where memorial plates with the inscription ‘Honor the dead in your struggle for life’ and bullet-scarred façades would remind her that there is more to life than glazed kitchen tiles and neatly shaped box trees by the front door.

An unfamiliar introversion
Only it didn’t work. When she went to the theater, she couldn’t help but wonder how many hair follicles were actually gathered under this one roof.  Moreover, she felt the actors were too loud.

She had no energy to read newspapers, and she no longer had the courage to make all the new and exciting German acquaintances that she had been looking forward to making.

“I didn’t feel like doing any of the things that had inspired me to move here in the first place. I couldn’t stand the noise from the street, I didn’t like watching TV, and I stopped being interested in the news,” says Nikoline Werdelin.

This total rejection of information was an introversion she didn’t recognize at all.

“I think that I was suffering from massive stress already back then, but I wasn’t aware of this.”

Lost her favorite subject material
An enthusiastic boxer with wiggling hindquarters and an enormous underhung jaw greats me as I enter the first floor flat in Prenzlauer Berg in the former East Berlin, which has been Nikoline Werdelin’s home since 2006.

Outside a white quilt of snow has covered all of Berlin and is contributing to the bright silence that inhabits the rooms.

Indoors, care is distributed to the newly arrived in the form of woolen socks and a sweater. The boxer Cleo collapses on the armchair while we settle around the dining table with coffee, cigarettes and cookies.

Although, strictly speaking, both of us have quit smoking. Werdelin, even to the extent that she no longer likes the taste of cigarettes. However, if you chew on a piece of fusion Vanilla-mint gum by Stimorol imported from Denmark “you actually almost can’t taste the cigarette,” she says.

On the desk in the next-door room lie 11 of Werdelin’s ‘families’, waiting to be brought to life on the back page of Politiken tomorrow, when she returns with a new version of her comic strip Homo Metropolis after six years’ absence.

Most staged playwright
For a long time, Werdelin didn’t think she would ever return to her extrovert job. In 1984, she won a comics competition in Politiken with her comic strip Café. The strip ran daily in the newspaper over the next four years. From 1994 to 2004, her characters in Homo Metropolis reflected the mentality of urban life in Denmark at the millennium.

For more than 20 years she also supplied the weekly strip Laura og Nugga to the Danish women’s weekly Alt for Damerne. Werdelin is moreover the most staged Danish playwright in the last decade, and she has written and directed seven plays in eight years in addition to her strips.

However, in 2006 it was over – just as she had landed in Berlin and was ready to draw inspiration from the city’s theaters, its crooked existences, and the ever-present shadow of the war. For two and half years her physical hardware was down and wouldn’t produce a single drawing. And during her first years in Berlin, Werdelin only reluctantly visited her study to work.

“I felt so tired and was sick of the sight of my desk, which was terrible, because I had been a workaholic for so many years. In a way I lost my favorite subject matter.”

“For years I had been working much more than my physical hardware could handle. I had been burning the candle at both ends. And now there was nothing more to draw from.”

Normally, ideas for drawings always pop up when she is on the phone or when she is merely sitting, gazing out the window. Now, there was nothing, not a word, not a single doodle. She thought it was only a matter of pushing herself harder.

“So I kept on whipping myself as a good flagellant would, thinking all I needed to do was pull myself together. But nothing came, and that was a real shock to me. I have been uncertain about many things in this world. But I have always been very certain about one thing: that I am a very productive piece of machinery.”

And this was strictly necessary, if Werdelin was to maintain a good relationship with her surroundings. Because the 49-year-old playwright and cartoonist has always felt a huge obligation to deliver, to work more and be better than everyone else.

“I imagined that there was some sort of police. And if I didn’t pay my share for the air that I breathe, and the wear that I cause on streets etc., the police would come and say: “Madame Werdelin, you haven’t delivered anything of significance for a while. What were you thinking?” This whole notion of being somehow guilty, the notion that you have to deliver, is very powerful but it also kills the joy of working in the long run.”

White wine for breakfast
In autumn 2007, Werdelin went home to Denmark to receive Modersmål-prisen, a Danish native-language award. During her stay in the country, her father passed away very suddenly.

“I felt as if I had broken in two. I had no energy left to deal with my grief. I was emotionally very close to my father and I have always been told that he and I were very alike.”

After the funeral she went back to Berlin.

“All I could think was: I don’t want to be here. Then I took the dog for a walk and came back and still felt the same. I no longer felt the inclination to pull myself together or talk to someone about my grief. I only wanted to get away from my emotions.”

Before, she would have sat down and written a play about death in order to deal with her emotions.

“Because I couldn’t work, I had to draw more on other substances, which is rather destructive. I was reduced to being someone trying to keep all the pain at bay that I couldn’t deal with.”

It took her two weeks to see “just how wrong things can go”. That is all she wants to say. Except for the fact that she “gave up and asked for help”, and told Husets Teater (where she was house playwright) that she wouldn’t be able to deliver the promised play.

Garden centers and healers
Werdelin called in sick and then got rid of all ‘reality-dodging’ substances.   And then she just sat down and waited for someone to come and expel her from society. But nothing at all happened. Except that Husets Teater restaged several of her plays instead.

“It was great to realize that society could manage without me. That the world carries on its happy business, and when someone exits, someone else steps in to fill the vacancy. It’s like a river.”

No one raised an eyebrow, and Werdelin has spent the past two years refurbishing her life and reading loads of books.

In her own words she was “sent back down into the real world” with the instruction to stay there. Attend a yoga class, bake muffins and enjoy the company of her Danish friends’ 18-year-old triplets whom she has been a third parent for since they were small. “Spending time together with children is the closest you can get to being in the present. But even there I was always in the other, fictitious world, thinking about what actor I could cast for some role, or mulling about an idea for a comic strip in the back of my head.  But now I was transported to the moment, and I sat and listened to the silence behind the noise of the city.”

She is well aware of it. Aware that sometimes she sounds just like the self-help books for middle-aged women that she once would have made a joke about in one of her strips. She also admits that there is “great comic potential in stress and burnout.”

“Before, when I read about some top CEO who had gone down with stress and had become a healer and opened a garden center, I thought: how many garden centers and healers can there be? But it is very typical for middle-aged women to keep up as long as they have the strength. And when this is no longer possible, you have to look up and look inwards.

Look for peace rather than fun
Although an atheist herself, once in a while she might ask a tree for help when things are difficult.

“Nature and psychology are such an immense resource that they are spiritual energies for me. Sometimes, if a thought or a problem is too heavy for me to carry around, I hang it on a branch in the park. I have also joined a breathing institute and am learning how to breathe correctly. This is what has come to characterize my Berlin years. And it is very different from what I had imagined.”

Some time after her father’s death, Werdelin met a German at mutual friends in Berlin, who asked her how she was.

“I said: ‘I can’t see where I am ever going to find the fun in my life again’. And his response was: ‘Maybe you should look for peace instead’. It had never struck me to strive for peace. I only thought about adventure and excitement, and about being productive. However, I have found out that sometimes it’s great to just sit down and feel the peace and quiet, to not always worry about all the things you have to do.”

When she stopped doing what she used to, there was this whole new person that she had to get to know. A more quiet and introvert person. In a book about being introvert she scored 59 out of 60 points in the preliminary test.

“Which is utterly new for someone used to believing she can cope with a lot of social activity or a job loaded with impressions.  If you have this sensibility, you can’t just stand by and watch or listen to things that don’t really matter. You have to expose yourself to less.”

Some of her days have gone by observing the titmice that come to her terrace to eat nuts. Or the squirrel that comes to visit from the Jewish cemetery.

“I have met so many interesting people with strong personalities and powerful energies, but I have never known a titmouse before,” she says and laughs.

Continued her advice column
The only thing that Werdelin has hung on to is the advice column that she manages in the Danish women’s weekly SØNDAG. Working on the column is actually the one job that has made her the most happy, despite the fact that it is her artistic work that has earned her several cultural awards.

“All the things that I have had to learn personally have been recycled in that column. It is such ‘quiet’ work – I don’t have to dip into an artistic vein to deliver. And I can avoid the stress and jitters of opening night, the formal evening gown, the journalists and all the bustle, which in reality is far too much for my temperament.”

For a long time Werdelin thought that she would never be going back to her other working life again. Instead, she was considering teaching or opening her own florist shop – the latter idea she however quickly abandoned, as it doesn’t reconcile with being a late riser.

“But there is also the possibility that I can do what I am good at and love, from another perspective. And this is what I want to do. There are so many stories out there about post-modern man cocooned in the welfare society. These stories should get out to those who want to hear them. And I can convey some of these stories.”

We pass the water tower which served as one of Hitler’s places of interrogation during the war, and cross the Kollwitzplatz named after Käthe Kollwitz, one of Europe’s most important graphic artists, who has been an inspiration for Werdelin since her youth.

“She used coal and a style that was wild, critical and un-self-sparing. She worked as professor at the academy, but Hitler dismissed her and after that she had to work covertly in various studios. It is important for me to remember stories like hers once in a while. As an alternative to expensive designer kitchens, modern antidepressants and worrying about everything going south after turning 40.”

Extreme homesickness
We walk home with our pockets full of loot talking about the strangeness of living in a city that holds no remnants of your past, no street corner where you had your fist kiss.

“I found that difficult to begin with, but this is the situation for almost everyone in East Berlin. We are all forced to reinvent our past here. Many Jewish scientists, bankers, artists and other freethinkers and intellectuals were killed or had to flee. Only a few returned to Berlin after the war, so they know they need input from outside. This is why Berlin is more open than Paris and London, where an old elite still presides.”

“I have felt extremely homesick, but in a good way too – it’s like looking forward to seeing a loved one again. I think that I will settle in Denmark again at some point, but I won’t let go of having a base here in Berlin.”

By now she has gained a lot of friends and acquaintances in her new city – mostly other foreigners, because you get close to people faster “when you have foreignness in common.”

“I don’t have children and therefore I have always had more time to read a lot. I often missed someone to talk to about literature, because my friends in Denmark were busy giving their children a start in life and didn’t have time to read two books a week. If you are at a serious point in your life, where there is a loss, then it’s good to fill it with something else and be glad about the fact that it was possible, and that it was unique.”

And the fact that we are required to succeed for 30 years more than previous generations is new – not just for Werdelin, but for all of us.

“Only a few generations back we didn’t have old age. People had children, lost their teeth and died. However, in 150 years we’ve gained 30 years, so we have to deal with this new, third age. If we were to follow our intrinsic nature, we would perhaps prefer to just sit quietly in a corner by the stove and look at our grandchildren. But there is still a lot we have to do, isn’t there? It is still so new that we don’t really know what’s at stake.”

Growing old with dignity
Nikoline Werdelin has reached a point in life where she has to make an effort not to dwell on the past and to learn that there is no shame in growing old.

“I have talked many times with my girlfriends in recent years about how we can grow old with dignity. Now that we are entering menopause, we have finally become wise and tolerant. This is what is important rather than borrowing you daughter’s clothes or being embarrassed about getting age spots.”

She looks over at the boxer that has once more collapsed on the armchair.

“Cleo here isn’t particularly obsessed with the fear of dying, her looks or her career. She is content slumbering on grandma’s old armchair, as pleased as a Punch when I take her for her walk and absorbed by every little scent on our way. There are so many things in life that aren’t about whether construction workers still whistle at you when you walk by. There are books you can read, and you can sit at a party and say something important or listen in the right way. And then you can give young people a proper picture of what it is like to be an adult. When I was a little younger and saw Mick Jagger jumping around on stage, I thought: Oh my God, what will I do if I don’t have the strength for that.”

Only for fun
This spring, Werdelin handed over Cleo to a luxury kennel “with a double room, a comfy bed, a rag rug and a private yard facing south.” Then she left for a 30-day stay at the refuge San Cataldo in Italy. The plan was to make drawings for a graphic novel that her publisher had encouraged her to do, but for which there were no deadline. She had continued her annual lunch meetings with Politiken’s managing editor, Tøger Seidenfaden. There was no pressure or checking-up on what she was doing. And then, suddenly, characters and stories started to pour from her hand.

“I haven’t drawn for fun since I was very young. I was just 24 when things turned serious for me, and since then I have been delivering strips that were to be published the next day. Now I could sketch and draw without anyone looking over my shoulder, and then all these characters came strutting along with their stories. And it looked a lot like what I used to do for Politiken. I was so excited, but sometimes also sad, because some of the stories are very sad, but that just means that some of my own grief is given a place to be.”

An enormous Mac
When she came back from Italy, not only had she met someone.  She also brought back with her so many stories and drawings that she agreed to start delivering strips to Politiken again.

So, for the past six months she has been spending time getting to know an enormous Mac computer. She still draws on paper, but afterwards everything has to be entered into the computer and sent to Politiken. The new strip will continue under the name Homo Metropolis, but according to Werdelin it will have a slightly different look.

“I draw a little looser now and things are more ‘rough’. It might also very well be that my sense of humor has changed, because I’m no longer so cynical, and as a result I think that I have lost a pound or two of my sarcasm. So maybe the strip will be more ‘round’.”

Among the characters are a worn out woman priest; a modern actress who has lived the hard life and who is now preparing for a guest performance in Oslo, Norway; a violinist whose violin was stolen on the subway; and a little boy whose father is dying. A lot of the characters “are preoccupied with death and suicide”. One of them has a religious awakening. The familiar leitmotif about the narcissistic traits characteristic of our times is continued, but this time around the stories will also touch upon the seven deadly sins.

“The seven deadly sins are probably the relay that I am about to embark on. Envy, for instance, which is one of the most popular and widespread pastimes, but also a very agonizing place to be. I know nothing about hunger or what it is like to live in a regime where you can be arrested in the middle of the night. But I know the problems you have when you have freedom and a roof over your head – and sickness and death are still among these.”

Reveling in the topical
Of course it is going to be a bit different having to diagnose the urban spirit of Copenhagen from a distance. Werdelin may still be based in Western Europe, and much of the news that flows through the media in Berlin reflects what is going on in Denmark, however “when things are astir at home, or the entire nation is preoccupied with a specific agenda, she will have to go home to her boyfriend, the Danish writer Ib Lucas, and “revel in the media”.

“I might also go away to a cabin to work on the main story, and then replace a few speech bubbles with topical ones later on. The topical is sexy and funny, but now that I have reread the old strips, I can see that this wasn’t the main idea.  It’s the epic, the story, the portrait which is interesting.”

Only in Denmark
She is actually looking forward to it. If it wasn’t for the Mac, which sometimes seems to have a life of its own. And when she can no longer keep on going on adrenalin, she will have to work on her structure instead. There is a yoga institute just around the corner that she can visit if she needs to catch her breath. Working nights is banned, and breaks during the day are a must.

“Fortunately, I have a very good imagination and I have convinced myself that I am only drawing for myself. I have found out how important it is to repress thinking about how my work will be received, and I mostly think of it as something I’m doing for me – just as in San Cataldo.”

In spring the book From Wonderland with love: Danish Comics in the Third Millennium came out in the US and Denmark. The book is a compilation of the best comics stories and cartoons by Danish artists from the past decade, including a story from Homo Metropolis about a grandfather who commits incest, which has received fantastic reviews abroad.

“A British critic wrote that this kind of story would never be printed outside Denmark, and that no other newspaper would print a comic strip about a grandfather that commits incest. It is impossible to imagine such a story featuring side by side with Calvin and Hobbes.”

To have paid one’s dues
A journalist is in the process of setting up an official Nikoline Werdelin website. She has prepared a list of Werdelin’s collected works, which the cartoonist and playwright received the other day.

“I thought: God, this is wonderful. I’ve done all I need to do. I no longer feel obligated by my capabilities. I have been so ambitious, I wanted to get out, and then I wanted to show them. But what I do from now on, I do because it makes my life fun and interesting. It’s the greatest feeling. To have paid one’s dues.”