The week before an election is I’m sure not the best time to visit the People’s Meeting (Folkemødet), Denmark’s annual political mega-festival on the island of Bornholm, particularly if you’re a journalist with one sole mission — to find, watch and perhaps even briefly interview Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt for a pre-election profile.
The festival, which is pretty much what would happen if all the major parties in your country decided to hold their annual conferences in the same resort town on the same holiday island at the same time, is not designed for that.
It’s about ambling from venue to venue, catching the top speakers in politics clash and debate in a feel-good, hyggelig way.
As I was waiting for the PM to make her first appearance of the day, I ran my eyes over the crowd waiting outside the fire station in Allinge, the seaside town where the festival is held.
I’d been expecting Folkemødet to be full of sharp-suited professional politicians, journalists, business lobbyists and the like. But instead the crowd is overwhelmingly made up of ordinary Danes.
Many were retirees who could afford to make their way to Bornholm on a Thursday and Friday, the men in canvas or Panama hats and polo shirts, the women in cotton blouses.
There were also masses of schoolchildren there, on trips with their classes to get a glimpse of Denmark’s political world in the flesh.
It’s incredible that so many ordinary people, and there are ten thousand of them that day, had made their way to the island just for politics (although there was a fair amount of music, eating and drinking too). It says something heartening about democracy in Denmark. I can’t imagine it happening in Britain.
A rocky outcrop 20 metres or so in front of the stage was covered in young men and women, hugging their knees waiting for the PM to arrive.
When I started asking someone about Thorning-Schmidt, a spontaneous debate breaks out in the crowd around me.
“She’s really talking politics,” said a man in the crowd. “She’s very intellectual, she’s intelligent. I’m not sure she’s a Social Democrat through.”
A woman disagreed. “I think it’s about time that the Danes leave behind the ‘Jante Law’, the idea that you shouldn’t think you are someone. Just because you wear Gucci and look good in high heels, doesn’t mean you can’t have the right thoughts about how to treat people.”
Then there was a commotion and a buzz of excitement in the crowd behind us. It was the PM, pushing her way through to the stage, embracing and warmly hugging everyone she passes, with only a couple of PR helpers and a burly bodyguard to protect her.
She was dressed down to fit the informal mood of the festival, in a loose-fitting, untucked blue denim shirt with rolled up sleeves, skinny black jeans and high heeled boots.
A Swedish small-town politician I bumped into was impressed. At Almedalen, the Swedish political festival on Gotland on which Folkemødet is modelled, he complained, the Prime Ministers and party leaders are protected by a wall of security.
At Folkemødet just about anybody can just walk up to the politicians, the Prime Minister included, and, more often than not, they’ll talk to them.
The exception, I discovered after Thorning-Schmidt steps out into the dazzling seaside sun, is the press.
“You can talk to her later after her main conference speech,” a young PR man informed me after I elbow my way through a small gaggle of journalists watching a short TV interview. When I protest, he’s firm. “It’s the only opportunity”.
Frustrating as this was, it’s fair enough. Folkemødet is supposed to be a break from the normal cut-and-thrust of politics. The PM talks to journalists practically every day of her life. She was here on the island for something different.
Still, as we shadowed Thorning-Schmidt’s entourage back to her car, a German named Matthias, the only other international journalist I met, grumbled about coming all this way and not even getting a couple of minutes.
“Perhaps at the next event,” the PR man said. “As you can see, there are quite a lot of journalists here.”
As I could have predicted, there was no space for an interview after the speech, and I began to feel increasingly stalker-like as I followed the group up a picturesque backstreet.
I watched Thorning-Schmidt take a break to chat amiably to a group of policemen, then admire the baby of someone passing with a pram (who seemed to be a friend more than a member of the public).
At this point, an ageing hippy in blue velvety trousers, a long-sleeved shirt, straggly grey hair and beard, poked his head out of one of the old houses on the street.
He’s a big fan of Thorning-Schmidt, he said, speaking admiringly of how she “looks so fine”, then campily mimicking the way she flicks her long blonde hair.
“In Denmark we say you need five years to get a business up and running, then if it doesn’t work, you can shut it down,” he said, suddenly a bit more serious. “I think she needs more time.”
I told him I thought it must be a bit weird to have Denmark’s entire political world descend upon your town once a year, but he said he thought it was fun.
More than an hour later, after the next event, I finally got my chance. The PR man, to my surprise, taps Thorning-Schmidt on the shoulder and she turns around.
“I’ve seen you’ve been struggling a bit,” she says.
She grants me the one-minute exchange I had been waiting for, telling me that after nearly four years in power, she hasn't changed much.
“I’m still the same person, but of course I’m a better Prime Minister that I was four years ago, because you learn every day in this job,” she says.
And with that, she disappears back into the masses.
Richard Orange is a British journalist who covers Scandinavia for a wide array of media outlets. He lives in Malmö, Sweden and works in Copenhagen.