University Post
University of Copenhagen
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Comment: Colour-coded in Copenhagen

Our literary editor ponders the significance of yellow and the yellow card

»A color-coded system works for me. The initial corrections are made in red ink. The next round, in blue, and the final in green … I print each draft on paper of a different color, e.g., yellow for first draft, light blue for second, white for final.«

This passage from Clifford E. Landers’s Literary Translation. A Practical Guide (Landers is an American, hence the above spelling of ‘colour’) stopped me in my tracks when back in 2001 I was reading his book to review it: How ingenious! Very practical indeed. Isn’t it absurdly finicky?

Bizarrely systematic…

Since I came to Copenhagen, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about colour-coding. I’m reminded of it every time I pass a bus stop or clip a klippekort: blå, gul, brun.

The practice of using colour to mark a city zone is probably nothing unusual, and it does help, yet I cannot get over the impression that some Landers has gone over the whole of Copenhagen with his highlighters and post-it bookmarks to ensure the system works.

But the true masterpiece of the Danish colour-coding is the yellow card.

We did learn of its existence and appearance from the official (government?) websites when we were still in Poland. What we did not learn, though, was the fact that without your yellow card you cannot function in Denmark. You can’t open your bank account, you can’t sign the phone contract, you can’t … you can’t…

And strangely efficient

The ultimate control of the yellow card over your life as a Danish resident is exerted by the CPR number. Timidly I asked the accountant of a school where I occasionally teach how to open the pdf document which was my pay slip:

»Use the last 4 digits of your CPR number,« she replied.

Silly me! I should have realized by now, given I don’t need endless paperwork (the nuisance of the Polish bureaucracy, or ‘red tape’ – see, I’m colour-obsessed again…), just the CPR number, to be traced by the Danish government to pay me a child benefit.

The obvious efficacy of the system feels spooky to someone who comes from the ex-Eastern Bloc. Think Orwell’s 1984, or Coppola’s Conversation.

The card and its yellow colour gain a symbolic significance. Yellow – the colour of envy: others have already got it; where’s mine? Yellow – a no-go zone. A yellow flag on a ship warns against contagious disease and quarantine, and yet paradoxically the Danish card bears the precious details of your doctor.

Any more yellows?

I refuse to succumb to this colour regime with its all-too-easy rigid systematization. My Dictionary of Symbols lists also desirable associations: light, energy, eternity. Apparently Islam acknowledges the ambivalent nature of yellow by distinguishing between its hues: pale yellow means treason and fraud; golden yellow symbolizes wisdom and good advice.

Good advice… I need to nuance this Danish colour grid.