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)

My Danish Adventures, Day 1

I arrived in Copenhagen today, a few hours late thanks to a caterers’ strike, which forced the plane coming to pick us up to stop first in Oslo for food. International travel never seems to be smooth, and that’s not even accounting for the terrorist scare.    (L2A)

The craziness started this morning (or rather, yesterday morning). My shuttle was supposed to pick me up at 5am, but at 4:20am, the dispatcher called me and reminded me to be ready in 15 minutes. I had just gotten out of the shower after a whole hour of sleep, and I responded drowsily, “You mean 5am.”    (L2B)

“No, 4:45am.”    (L2C)

After complaining for a few moments about the miscommunication (definitely their fault), I said no problem. After all, I was up, although it was a good thing I had decided to set my alarm for 4am and not 4:30am. I was out the door by 4:35am, just in time to see the shuttle pull up even earlier than expected.    (L2D)

My flight to Dulles was uneventful, and my delayed connecting flight to Copenhagen was a blessing in disguise, as it gave me more time to adjust my internal time clock. I fell asleep as soon as I got on the plane and got another three hours in before waking up at 6:30am Denmark time. My flight arrived at 10am.    (L2E)

Scandinavian Airlines is an excellent airline. The lady at the counter was friendly, professional, and apologetic for the delay, and she gave us all food vouchers, even though the delay wasn’t too bad. The plane was relatively spacious, and the seats had individual screens with a selection of movies and views of cameras attached to the bottom and front of the plane. There were also bottles of water in each seat, a welcome amenity given the recent ban of carry-on liquids. It may seem like an obvious thing to do, but United didn’t do it, and I’m willing to bet that most of the other major U.S. airlines don’t either. Its terminal at the Copenhagen airport even had these beautiful hardwood floors. (I’ll remember to take a picture when I return.)    (L2F)

I bought a calling card from prior to leaving, but I couldn’t figure out how to dial the local access number, and the woman at the airport couldn’t figure it out either. Phone numbers are the next great frontier for standardization. We’ve got international standards for email and the Web, but I can’t figure out how to make a damn phone call in a cosmopolitan European city.    (L2G)

I’m staying at the Ibsens Hotel in Norrebro, historically the working class district of Copenhagen, but on the verge of gentrification today. The hotel itself is nice with helpful service at the front desk and free WiFi (in theory). However, I’ve only managed to find decent connectivity in one tiny nook near the hotel lobby. I get zero access in my room, which is a pain in the rear.    (L2H)

My room wasn’t ready when I arrived, so I slipped away to nearby cafe, Cafe og Ol-Halle for lunch. The cafe is a former workers’ bar dating back to 1892, with a cozy interior. “Cozy” seems to be a good word to describe a lot of the local eateries and cafes. I had three kinds of smorrebrod and a Carlsberg pilsner. I was a bit disappointed by the smorrebrod. They tasted fine, and I had to try them, since they’re a Danish staple, but I saw other patrons eating dishes that looked much tastier.    (L2I)

On the way back to the hotel, I passed Israels Plads, a local park. There was a large asphalt playground with kids playing basketball and soccer, and several stalls selling flowers, fruits, and vegetables. Near the park was a church, Bethesda, that advertised free Danish classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I saw that and thought to myself, “Excellent, I’ll stop by and learn a bit of Danish.” Sadly, it was not to be. When I returned to the hotel, jet lag and the lunchtime beer caught up to me, and I fell asleep while researching dinner options. That’s right, I was figuring out my dinner plans right after eating lunch. What can I say? I like food.    (L2J)

I forced myself to wake up after a few hours, took a shower, bought some toothpaste (currently banned from planes) and brushed my teeth, then set off for Galathea Kroen dinner. “Galathea” is the name of several Danish boats that have pursued long scientific expeditions over the past 150 years. My pocket guidebook claimed that the cafe served Indonesian food, but they only had Malaysian food and Danish meatballs. I had the meatballs, which were quite good, and another ubiquitous Carlsberg pilsner.    (L2K)

Copenhagen is eminently walkable, and it has this wonderful medieval quality. The city has this very old quality, but it’s vibrant and alive at the same time. It’s unlike any other city I’ve been to. Bikes and pedestrians own the road, with plenty of carless roads. Curiously, less than half the parked bikes I saw were locked. Walking to dinner, I passed Copenhagen University, the Nationalmuseet, the Christiansborg Slot, and other old buildings and squares. Although there are over a million people living here, it has a small-town feel, which I like.    (L2L)

Copenhagen is super liberal, moreso than San Francisco. According to my guidebook, Denmark legalized same-sex marriages in 1989. According to this week’s The Copenhagen Post, Denmark has been the world leader in foreign aid for three years running. Convenience stores have a revenue cap. If they exceed it, they have to cut back their hours. This prevents large chains from obliterating independent markets. I appreciate the spirit, but the means offends my conservative-leaning economic sensibilities.    (L2M)

Yet for all its progressive politics, Copenhagen feels very proper. People in San Francisco are wacky. We dress all sorts of ways (or not at all), homebrew bikes and Segways are ubiquitous, and there’s always a protest happening somewhere. People here just quietly go about their business. I wouldn’t have guessed the area’s political leanings had I not read about them beforehand.    (L2N)

Tomorrow, I’m going to pay my respects to Soren Kierkegaard and Hans Christian Andersen at Assitens Kirkegaard, and then I’m going to cover as much of the city by foot as possible. In the evening, I’ve got the Danish bloggers meetup. I may skip Tivoli entirely on this trip — it feels too touristy — but if I go, I’ll go on Saturday night, when they have a “toy soldier parade.” It’s also supposed to be beautiful there in the evenings.    (L2O)