Terra Incognita

Inside Cafe Retro

There’s this type of people I’ve come to tell apart recently. I’m talking about those contradictory individuals who reach into the unknown hoping they’ll discover something familiar. They’re the ones who go out and build cultural outposts in foreign territories [all the expats put your hands up] and turn them into homes. They’re the kind of people you’ll likely meet when hanging out around Café Retro.


Inside Cafe Retro on Knabrostræde 26


My discovery of the Retro Association might have really been a fortunate accident, but I prefer to think it was my inner pathfinder seeking its folk. I feel there’s a bit of that pathfinder in lots of us, so here I am, sharing with you what I saw on Knabrostræde 26, hoping you too will find yourself wanting to plunge into those comfy couches inside the café.


As you walk past the old entrance door at Café Retro, you get this eerie feeling that you’ve mistakenly crashed somebody’s private living room party. That goes away quickly when people start smiling at you for no apparent reason. It’s hard to believe all the bartenders are volunteers, because they’re so, uhm, nice to you. Could that be the secret to keeping your employees motivated – make them work for free?


Jokes aside, there is something intriguing about how volunteer organizations pull it off. I’m not in the position to assess the success of such institutions, but it doesn’t take too much to reason that there’s something about Retro which keeps it going after 12 years; sure, not without difficulties and rough patches, of which the members talk rather bluntly. They’re actually far from the overly cheerful vibe that’s sometimes considered a hallmark of non-profits. That’s not to say good humor isn’t useful when you do pro bono work. After all, there’s no such thing as a discouraged volunteer who’s feeling trapped in his voluntary position, who voluntarily but scornfully continues to do it only because poor pandas.


In any case, I believe there’s something more behind Retro’s attraction than cheaper beer, after hours parties, and the fact that somebody trusts you behind the bar until you gain enough experience to actually get a paid bartending job. Which brings me back to the contradictory individuals whose inner conflicts usually end with their incursion into previously unexplored territory. It’s probably no coincidence that, most often than not, it’s not Danish that you hear spoken around the cafe. But not only the expats and hippie tourists deserve the label of adventurers and explorers.


There are also the amateur musicians who conquer their inner critics every Thursday and venture onto Café Retro’s stage.


BLUNDA playing jazz at Cafe Retro

Apart from the Open Mic night on Thursdays, Café Retro hosts many other concerts every week; this was BLUNDA with some hazy jazz on a Wednesday.


There are the illustrators and photographers who yield to their need of constantly seeking order and meaning in life’s chaos and uncertainty, and share their findings on the café’s walls.


"It's None Of Your Business", painting by Kenneth Henckel at Cafe Retro

“It’s None Of Your Business”, painting by Kenneth Henckel


There are even the people who take a traditionally homebound activity – knitting – and make it into a chance to meet new people.


Knitting Club meeting at Cafe Retro

If you come here on a Tuesday, you might stumble over a ball of yarn from the Knitting Club.


Most importantly, there are the people who, 12 years ago, reached beyond their comfortable welfare system and into the complex issues of places far away. They are the founders of the Retro Association, who went to Sierra Leone and laid the foundations of a few social projects that have been carrying on to this day, partly thanks to every person that comes into one of the Retro cafes to find some peace of mind, a friendly smile, or themselves. At the end of the day, what holds everything and everybody together here at Retro is this itch to travel out of your comfort zone with the purpose of finding, well, comfort.


The world map of Cafe Retro


The result is an invisible but powerful bond between distant cultures, nationalities, and personal histories, forming a world with no borders or boundaries; or just an awfully nice place for a drink and some music. I guess you’ll have to come and decide for yourself. When you do, please stop to say hi – I’ll be that girl who sits in a dark corner, writing another article for you.     




At my first meeting with the Retro volunteers, I spent the first 3 minutes looking down at my cup of tea, trying to figure out how to handle the strainer [what is it with the gazillion types of tea strainers out there?].  As I lifted my questioning face as to ask “How the hell do you work this thing out?”, Amir stepped in: “the same way you handle everything around here: with care and love.”


Kono cup hugger at Cafe Retro

Kono is one of Retro’s projects in Sierra Leone. Read more about it here.