When in Denmark…

When my husband deployed, all those months ago, I told myself I wanted to visit a Nordic country with Beaner. The travel bug bit hard in college. I was fortunate enough to be able to study for a semester in London. I loved it.

I like exploring new places. I like the feeling I get when I enter a strange place, like lifting a curtain on an undiscovered world. I did this all the time as a kid – exploring strange places – in the fields and woods around our house, and also while visiting family. There are pictures of me running around on the pig shed roof of my great-uncles’ farm in South Dakota. I loved the freedom of wandering off on my own with no particular destination and no set time of when I’d be back.

When I got older, I realized visiting a new city gave me similar freedom, but also challenges. You have to talk to people, mostly. You have to order food. You have to decipher street signs, bus routes, metro lines. Relatively easy in English-speaking countries; much harder elsewhere. I went to France with my husband when we were still dating, and I have never felt so dumb. I know no French. I shrank into myself when asked a question. I became a mute child. I pointed to what I wanted on the menu. I let my husband speak for me, even in his pidgin French. But I also liked being out of my element. I liked how I had to open myself up to new ways of communication. I liked not knowing what people were saying, and so concentrated on their body language, their tone, the musicality of their voice instead. As they say, 80% of language is non-verbal.

After my miscarriage, my oldest sister wanted to visit me. She wanted to physically be with me to help me heal and recover, even if it was months later. I told her I had never been to a Scandinavian country. We agreed to meet in a city neither of us had been to before. We looked at Oslo, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Helsinki. We debated the length of our visit, the smaller towns we might want to see, even if we should stay in a city at all. Once we settled on Copenhagen, we invited my twin, too. It would have been criminal not to since we three don’t get to hang out often. Work schedules shifted, babysitting plans came together, and plane tickets stayed cheap. We would spend a week in Denmark, staying at an upscale AirBnB flat in Copenhagen. I’d be bringing my daughter, too. This would be her 15th and 16th flights. She’s not yet 18 months old.

Fast-forward to two weeks ago and I’m walking through Border Control with Bean in Copenhagen Airport and I look up and see both of my sisters standing and smiling at me. They’ve crossed nine time zones and look loopy from exhaustion, but we’ve all made it. Reunited in a foreign city. We buy a Copenhagen Card for 120 hours – our entire visit minus the early-morning return trip to the airport on the last day – and easily hop on the Metro. Ah, public transportation that works, is on time, and gets you close to where you want to be. In under an hour, we’re unpacking our suitcases. And, in the case of my twin sister, heading to bed.

I like finding local cafes and coffee shops that are good. Our neighborhood, north of the city near-ish Nørrebro, offered plenty of places for us to explore. By happenstance, I found three delightful coffee shops within a block of our flat. Two were strictly coffee/cafes – Shabaz and Darcy’s Coffee – and one was a bakery, Brød Vaerten. Darcy’s opened the third day of our visit, and when we walked in to the smell of newly sanded wooden floors, Darcy himself greeted us from behind the minimalist set-up. He was a transplant from London, spoke little Danish, and absolutely loved Copenhagen. I wish we would have met him earlier; he gave us tips on where to visit, which bars were good, and even how to download stamps from a Danish postal app (true story – the Danes apparently gave up on post offices some time ago). He said all his Londoner friends were working big-time jobs in the rat race, paying stupidly high mortgages for rabbit hutch houses, and generally hating life. I understand why he left.

Monday, Wednesday, and Friday were city days for us. Our Copenhagen Card meant all public transportation was free – buses, water taxis, trains, and the Metro. It also gave us free access to dozens of sights. We never paid an entrance fee to any of the places we went, which made the card worth it. In no particular order, we visited the Palm House in the Botanical Gardens (in which I managed to piss off a construction worker guarding an entrance that was apparently works access only – the signage was terrible), the Danish Design Museum (this blog’s picture was taken there, plus it had a room devoted entirely to chairs), Torvehallerne (a giant fresh food market stretching two blocks housed in huge glass buildings), two super-minimalist Danish stores (one selling books, art, posters, and blankets; the other selling locally-made Danish clothes), Irma and Netto (the two biggest supermarkets that seemed to have a building on every block), Selma (an excellent restaurant selling modern Danish cuisine consisting of posh open-faced sandwiches, plus in-house aqua vitae), and Magasin (think Danish Macy’s – we all got Swedish blankets on sale the night before we left). We also jumped on an hour-long canal tour of the city, complete with bridges so low the guide had to keep telling people to sit down so they wouldn’t decapitate themselves.

On the final night of our stay, my twin sister and I travelled to Frederiksberg, southwest of the city center, to visit a classmate of ours from high school who had been a Danish foreign exchange student. I hadn’t seen her in 20 years, but I immediately recognized her when she opened the door. She and her husband and son welcomed us with strong Danish coffee and three types of cake, and we talked politics, immigration, Danish culture, Copenhagen’s history, American taxes, entrepreneurial war stories, military war stories, west coast U.S. gangs, international travel, raising kids, childbirth and social care, and Danish pastries for three hours. We could have stayed all night. It was refreshing to be able to connect with (nearly) complete strangers and get along so well. And, of course, to get a local’s perspective on their own city.

We took day trips on Tuesday and Thursday, and both days were overcast and rainy. The first was to Helsinore, forty-five minutes north. We got there later than we planned since we were all still adjusting to the new time zone, so we had a hearty lunch first. When we arrived at Kronberg Castle – the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Elsinore Castle in Hamlet – the place was nearly empty. I had Beaner in the travel backpack and just toted her around everywhere. She napped by headbutting me until she finally fell asleep. Helsinore was the day when I realized how heavy she’s getting and that maybe I ought to switch off during the trip (which I did). We climbed the Round Tower so we could see Sweden just across the sound, and then made our way to the catacombs underground. In America, the uneven cobblestones, dim oil lamps, and dubious signage would have surely ended in a lawsuit. The Danes didn’t seem to mind or care. I like Denmark.

By the time we were shooed out of the gift shop, it was nearly dark. We had, however, one more stop before boarding the train back south: Strandvejsristeriet (Goog says “Beach Road Roastery”). The coffee shop and roastery had a Pacific Northwest vibe to me, complete with woodblock prints of owls wearing beanies sipping coffee. I had a terrible almond croissant – the only bad thing I ate during the trip – but also excellent coffee, and we bought Swedish chocolate and freshly ground beans for our “hygge” nights. (Hygge means “fun,” but we meant it as “relax with wine, candles, and treats before bed dressed in snuggly sweaters, flannel, and fluffy socks.”)

The second day trip was less than 30 minutes away to the ancient Viking capital of Roskilde. We started late again (my eldest sister suffered serious jet lag the entire trip), so when we arrived, we were ready for lunch. We spotted a place called Café Satchmo down a quiet side road. We immediately fell in love with the tiny brunch spot and dumped our coats and bags at a round table near the back door. After ordering, we were informed they only took Danish credit cards. This was a first (and only) for our trip. The waiter, an American from Colorado of all things, was really sorry about this. As we prepared to leave, I asked if there was a cash machine nearby. He said yes, so I got some kroners. Problem solved. We ate probably the best lunch we had in Denmark.

Happy and full, we walked to the Viking Museum and spent an hour looking at the 1,000-year-old remains of Viking ships (Danish pirates, essentially). One thousand years! I could have spent half a day in that place, except that I couldn’t move my head since my daughter was using it as a pillow and the place shut down at 1630. By the end of this day, even with my sister hauling Beaner around, my body was done. We were averaging five miles of walking a day and spent around seven hours seeing the sights without coming home. I took a hot shower, enjoyed a little massage from my sister, and turned in early.

Those were our highlights, but I am neglecting one more: our run-in with local law enforcement. Oh, yes.

On Wednesday, my older sister and I decided to take up the AirBnB’s offer of the family’s bikes. Everyone bikes in Copenhagen, much like Amsterdam, and there were two bikes for us. (My twin sister preferred walking.) The cargo bike looked like a keg had been sawed in half, covered with canvas, and glued to the frame of a tail-dragger airplane. The single bike was a rust bucket with squeaky wheels. But, we made them work and even found (nearly) comfortable helmets in a bedroom closet. Beaner complained loudly when we first set her in the harness in the cargo bit, but she soon learned to like her new perspective. After a slow start, we managed to get good at biking around.

After dinner at Selma, we headed home. Before we crossed the bridge over one of the canals, we were stopped by three local bike police. They had set up what looked to me like a breathalyzer checkpoint. I had only had one beer at the restaurant, so I felt confident. That was not why we were stopped. My sister spoke to a cop of her own and I got the Disappointed Dad policeman. He looked down at me (literally) and asked why my bike light wasn’t working. I didn’t know it wasn’t working until it got dark. I didn’t tell him this. Instead, I stammered something about this bike belonging to the flat and I was just borrowing it for the day and I didn’t know the light was out and did I mention I’m just a tourist, sir? In a thick Danish-English accent, Disappointed Dad told me the fine was 700 DKK, over $100. My heart sunk. Our damn AirBnB host should have warned us to check the lights, or better yet, have left working bikes. Yes, it was stupid to bike with no light, but I didn’t expect to be fined. Fortunately, the cop said he’d let me off. I’d just have to walk my bike back to the flat. Yes, sir, no problem. My older sister was getting the same lecture about her light; though it worked, the canvas cover of the cargo part was covering the beam, rendering it useless. She also was let off. This story is only funny because we avoided two fines from the Copenhagen bike police.

One more thing: a word on words. Maybe it’s a genetic trait, maybe it was just lack of sleep, but all three of us had brain farts during our trip over certain words. English words, not Danish. For instance, my older sister remarked on a cool logo painted on a building when we were looking for our flat on the first day. “Hey,” she said, “look at that horse pulling a unicycle!” I glanced at the picture. “Don’t you mean a chariot?” Later in the week, when passing by a shop selling a range of exotic trinkets, I said, “Oo, I really like these… world balls.” My sister jumped in. “Don’t you mean… globes?” Touché. And when we were in the gift shop of Kronberg Castle, my twin looked at a glass-and-metal time keeper and said, “I like these sand timers.” It took me five hours to remember the correct term: hourglass. But hey, at least we were descriptive.

Copenhagen was too short and just long enough, busy and relaxed, cheap and expensive, sunny and rainy. It felt like I had arrived in the land of my Danish ancestors on my Dad’s side (farmers in the valley, apparently), but also like just another European city. Some of my favorite moments were simply snapshots of time: sitting on the bathroom floor, reading my daughter my own version of a Danish tractor picture book; shopping at the local grocery store for pasta and coffee; listening to strangers converse in a different language; watching my sisters laughing while their niece tried on their shoes; trying tasty new cheeses and pastries. These moments make me hungry for more. My travels are far from over, and more Scandinavian adventures await in my future. As the Brits say “cheers” all the time, the Danes say thanks. Tak!

One thought on “København

  1. You got to use the copenhagen card for Helsingør and Roskilde as well? the train there and back is pretty steep and with the two museums the card should be worth the money. BTW Irma is only a Copenhagen based supermarket – it isn’t national wide hence not really the biggest in denmark. It is big in copenhagen since it is a bit high end and with special products.

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