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August 26, 2006 » 11:35 am

People Encounters in Copenhagen

Last Friday, mostly recovered from my jetlag, I set out to explore Copenhagen in earnest. I began my day walking up Norrebrogade towards Assitens Kirkegaard, a public cemetery and park where Soren Kierkegaard, Hans Christian Andersen, and Neils Bohr are buried. All along Norrebrogade were small ethnic shops and places to eat.    (L33)

I slowly ambled up the street, watching the other pedestrians go about their business, stopping often to window gaze. There were a number of Middle Eastern butcher-shops, and I stopped and stared at one of them. (What can I say? I love meat.) A few minutes later, I broke out of my trance and noticed a mother and her toddler son standing outside of the shop, seemingly waiting for someone. The mother was dressed in Muslim garb, with a long black dress and a striped head-scarf. The boy was watching me, and when our eyes met, he smiled. I smiled back and waved, then looked at the mother, who also smiled.    (L34)

The next day, Soren Riis, a friend of a friend, took me on a fantastic walking tour of Copenhagen. Towards the end of the day, we came across a young woman on a bike, who stopped to let us cross the street. I looked at her and smiled, and she smiled back. Soren saw the brief exchange, and quoted another great Dane, Victor Borge: “The shortest distance between two people is a smile.” Thinking back to my encounter with the woman and her son, I decided on a corollary: If you can be smiled at by a young child and not feel your mood instantly buoyed, you are either not human or are severely emotionally repressed.    (L35)

I was so enjoying my walk through Norrebro, I decided to walk past Assitens Kirkegaard and further explore the neighborhood. I finally circled back on Hillerodgade and started walking through Norrebroparken, a peaceful haven away from the hustle and bustle of the main street. I saw some magpies in the park and stopped to take some pictures. I had never seen a magpie before, and I wasn’t sure what they were at the time. As I concentrated on the near impossible task of getting a good picture of these birds on my pocket camera, I failed to notice a scruffy, older man approaching me. It was just after 11am, the park was mostly empty and enclosed on all sides, and he reeked of beer.    (L36)

“Oh,” he said, “You can see the picture on your camera!”    (L37)

I looked up and instantly tensed, but maintained my cool. “That’s right,” I responded, “this is a digital camera.”    (L38)

“Remarkable!” he exclaimed. “And you’re taking a picture of our jacktals. Are you just walking around exploring then?”    (L39)

“Yes,” I responded. “Copenhagen is a beautiful city.” I smiled when I said it, and the smile was real, but strained, bearing little resemblance to the easy, buoyant smile that had appeared on my face a few hours earlier. The old man said goodbye, then continued on his way. I felt a small pang of guilt. He had been pleasant and looked no scruffier than I often do walking around San Francisco, yet I had braced myself for the worst. Yes, he had beer on his breath, but this was Copenhagen, where everyone drank openly on the streets. I pride myself on my openness towards others, and when I meet strangers, I’m willing to assume that they are trustworthy, good people barring any evidence to the contrary. Then again, I also pride myself on my street smarts.    (L3A)

I quickly shook off the guilt. I looked back at the man, who had walked away as quickly as he had appeared, took a few more pictures of the birds, then continued my exploration of the city.    (L3B)

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