May 14, 2009
What I’m about to write about doesn’t really relate to Denmark, but it has me so shaken up that I really need to share with the public. After all, misery shared is misery divided, so let’s get rolling.
On my host father’s recommendation, I watched a Danish documentary about gun ownership and use in America. Specifically, it dealt with gun ownership in families, and looked at several families who have taught their kids how to use guns at a very early age. Now, I don’t have any fundamental problem with people owning guns. There is the Second Amendment, and if people feel that owning a gun is necessary for their safety and peace of mind, I’m pretty much okay with that. And if they own guns, I would much rather know that they were educating themselves and their family members in the safe and proper use of guns. That’s why I was really happy when I heard one of the fathers in the documentary tell his son to respect the gun he was firing, that the gun was dangerous and not something to be played with.
What I WASN’T happy about was that this child, who was no older than six or seven, had just been firing A GODDAMN ASSAULT RIFLE. My Danish isn’t great, but I believed that the voice-over narration said that the child was using an assault rifle similar to that used in the Vietnam War. Furthermore, he was too little to hold the gun on his own! His father was standing beside him helping him hold it. And yes, that’s a good, safe way to approach it, but I’m saying that the child did not have sufficient arm strength TO HOLD THE GUN BY HIMSELF. This is COMPLETELY unnecessary, and frankly it’s pretty dangerous. You have a child who cannot HOLD the gun, and I don’t think that “giving him a feel for it” before he can do multiplication is a good way to encourage proper respect for the weapon. And I was not comforted by the camera zooming in on the child’s face as he fired the assault rifle. He was gleefully laughing, and his eyes were closed.The father then admonished the child, saying that he needed to respect the gun. Call me crazy, but maybe the father should wait until the child has a respect for the weapon BEFORE HE’S PULLING THE DAMN TRIGGER?! That seems akin to bringing a high school kid into the operating room, handing him a scalpel, and only AFTER he’s started making the incision do we say “Hey now, that’s a human life. Careful there.”
My fears were only further confirmed by the seven year-old girl who said that she liked shooting guns more than school, because “you don’t have to think.” She qualified her statement, saying that “well, sometimes you need to think about where you’re aiming”, and I quote this without mockery. I’m glad to know that she has a sense of responsibility about this. But still, she sees guns as something more…removed from conscious action. And that terrifies me. And the fact that she likes guns better than school. I guess this makes sense–the family in which she was raised was describing their trips to the shooting range as an “after-school activity” like baseball or soccer, and it doesn’t surprise me that a young child would enjoy an after-school activity more than
Earlier, I said that I’m “pretty much” okay with guns. This “pretty much” basically covers pistols and rifles. I have a very hard time listening to arguments that assault rifles and machine guns are necessary for “self-defense”. If you’re an enthusiast, fine. You can go to a shooting range and have a grand old time with your high-powered weaponry. But I watched a father of five say that he keeps a LOADED AK-47 next to his bed in order to “dissuade” anyone who broke into his house from engaging in any sort of a fight. In the most literal sense of the word, that’s overkill. Assault rifles are most pragmatically used to kill large groups of people very quickly. If your neighborhood is known for experiencing break-ins executed by groups of highly-armed, well-trained assailants that engage in urban-warfare tactics, then fine. I stand corrected. But in my defense, though I’m no criminologist, I’m fairly sure this type of crime is isolated in the US.
If this sort of documentary is shown often on Danish television, I finally understand why one of the first questions my host father asked me about my life at home is how many guns I owned.
On a happier note, I watched this documentary while eating delicious home-made cake. And I promise, I’ll be writing my end-of-my-time-in-Denmark-for-now closing thoughts soon. I was just WAY too pissed off by this to let it go.
May 13, 2009
Two things happened today that made me pause and think of what a unique place I’m in.
The first is that this afternoon, I sat down at the fountain on Gammel Torv (a very beautiful fountain at that) to eat a slice of pizza (potato and rosemary pizza at that!). The person sitting next to me looked over at me and said “Velbekomme”, which translates to “you’re welcome” but is usually used in reference to someone who is about to eat or has recently eaten, and in such a context it essentially means “enjoy your meal.” So this stranger was wishing well upon me, the stranger who sat down to share his spot on the steps of the fountain. I said “tak” (“thank you”) and enjoyed my pizza a little bit more because of it.
The second is that, sitting in a bar called “Eiffel Bar” this evening (it’s a bar decorated with Parisian motifs, which adds greater validity to my observation that all of Europe is in love with France and Paris in particular) with my friends Rich and Eric, we hear “Gangster’s Paradise” playing, which is about as noncongruous as it gets. Eric asked, with appropriate incredulousness, “Is it 1996 again?” Despite this oddity, we all agreed that Copenhagen was probably the best place for us to study abroad–the city is accessible and its people make us feel comfortable. Eric and I are already figuring out “an excuse” to come back. I just hope that when I do, my host family will still have the spare room for me. I don’t know what I’d do without their cooking and snarky comments.
I’m going to miss this place.
I am extremely happy about the post I am about to write. This post is the second of two subjects that I planned to write about before I even touched down in Denmark, so it’s rockin’ to fulfill that dream–that’s the dream of writing about wind turbines and alternative energy.
So let’s begin!
OH MY GOD WIND TURBINES. Wind turbines are so damn cool. They’re clean, they’re a source of unlimited energy, they have a minimal environmental impact, and they’re fairly efficient, although they have problems with storing energy and, obviously, wind power is a not-entirely-reliable source of energy. I also think they’re quite beautiful, in a very modern way–the sleek white blades moving against a sky a shade of blue that somehow mixes bright with dark…it honestly moves me. And I had the great fortune to spend a weekend on the island of Samsø, a small island community that produces an energy surplus from renewable sources: solar, biomass, and above all, wind. Aside from transportation, the island is able to meet its entire energy needs from these renewable sources and still be able to sell energy back to the national grid, which is DOWNRIGHT INCREDIBLE. ALTERNATIVE ENERGY IS A PROFITABLE ECONOMY HERE. Our guide on the island, a man named Frank who deserves more mention and will receive it soon, referred to the wind turbines as “money presses” for that very reason, and said that the wind turbines single-handedly saved Samsø’s economy in the early 2000s. Now, I suppose I have to qualify the magnitude of this: Samsø is an island of roughly 4000 people, and it’s very small-town. My friend Eric referred to it as “the scenic Midwest”, and that’s a good way of describing it–lots of farmland, small villages, etc. It’s not as though this is some Danish Hong Kong being powered by the wind. But it’s still an incredibly beautiful place–emphasis is needed on the “scenic” part of Eric’s statement. It is also a small community, yet very warm for it. When we had stopped in one small town and were wandering around the neighborhood, two of my friends were stopped by two elderly Samsø residents. When my friends responded that they were American students visiting the island, the elderly people (a mother and her son, it turned out) invited them in to their house so that the Americans could have a true feel for what Samsø was like. Isn’t that incredible? Apparently the mother even apologized for not having any tea or cookies to offer my friends, as though generous hospitality was just what was expected from a home in Samsø.
We traveled around Samsø on bikes, which was definitely the best way to do it–biking gave you the best feel for the island and gave you the freedom to stop and take pictures every 50 meters, which many of us chose to do. And I’m proud to say that despite my inexperience with biking (keep in mind, my 12-year old host brother mocked my poor biking abilities), these sudden stops didn’t throw me off at all–no collisions with others, no riding into the curb and going over my handlebars…nothing but smooth sailing and INCREDIBLY sore legs for the next week or so. Seriously. We biked about 40 miles over two days. But it was completely worth it, even when we biked up this wretched kilometer-long slow incline. It left my legs burning, but it was worthwhile to get to the stop and sit on a cliff overlooking the ocean.
When we weren’t biking, we were being taught about alternative energy at the Samsø energiakademi by a man named Frank, who described himself as a “frustrated nuclear physicist”, and my God did he look the part. He wore this garishly colored polo shirt, and those who know me and my appreciation for colorful clothing should be shuddering at the thought of something that would make me declare it outlaw. The polo was striped in two different patterns: the front of his shirt was striped in reddish-pink and blue, while the back was striped in green and orange. I spent the better part of the day quietly asking myself what would move a man to commit such an act against himself, and I was surprised when we received an answer, and a damn clever one at that. Frank finally acknowledged his shirt (after it had been shrieking at us all day) and said “You might wonder why I wear such a shirt. It is my defense. As long as I wear it, I give myself a guarantee that I will never be filmed and added in to a documentary.” It was his silent protection for his camera-shyness. I instantly gained newfound respect for this man, because not only is it clever, but it is self-sacrificingly so. This is the type of wisdom that this man possessed–the insight to solve a problem so quietly and so decisively. Frank also spoke at length about how Samsø came to be Samsø, and that too demonstrated his wisdom. He said that the most important part was to make everyone feel like they had a role in shaping the island, that they were invested in and responsible for the project and its outcome. This meant slowing the process down, but the end result was that a much more dedicated community supported the project, and there were more resources (both abstract and concrete, like willpower and large supplies of straw for burning) brought to the table. Everyone on Samsø, Frank said, is proud of what they have done for themselves, for Denmark, and for the environment.
And lest we feel out of place, we did our best to participate in the community/environmental friendliness of the place because, well, everyone on the trip was a hippie (yeah that means YOU TOO, Eric!). So we bought our own food and cooked dinner together, collectively dividing the labor between roughly thirty-two people, and the results were a LOT better than my previous foray into student-led cooking. We had three types of salad, chicken prepared in two ways, an appropriate amount of pasta (although ironically, I volunteered to buy the proper amount of pasta. Why the hell did I do that? Don’t I EVER learn? Thank God someone else was with me to check my impulses), and garlic bread with this incredible goat cheese dip.
And then, when we returned to our hostel, we found that the hostel had a little playground, including this AWESOME semi-inflated…THING. There’s no real way for me to describe it other than a huge sheet of thick rubber stretched over the grass and slightly inflated. When roughly fifteen of us got on the mat, the air was pushed in to the center so that we could all bounce around on it. This resulted in a lot of stupid ideas, including running from one end to the other to ride the wave of inflated plastic/knock each other over, playing duck-duck-goose, and just bouncing around like a bunch of loonies. Subsequently, there were several, several collisions. But one of the professors on the trip with us (who was bouncing around with just as much vigor as the rest of us) pointed out that having fun in this way used no CO2 emissions and was run off of renewable energy (BOUNCING!), and thus it was wholly sustainable. This comment easily added tenfold fun to the entire affair.
The hostel was also situated in the middle of a field so large that you could lose yourself in the sky. My friends and I would go out and stand in the field before going to bed each night, and one of us pointed out that if you looked long enough into the sky, it looked like there were cobwebs between the stars. It was incredible.
The hostel also had ponies. That’s right. Sustainable energy, long bike rides in perfect biking weather (warm enough to be outside, not too warm to make you really sweaty when you were bike riding), the moving asthetics of wind turbines, great food and great community, communitarian committment to a greater good, sustainable fun, and ponies.
P.S. The post title comes once again from Belle and Sebastian’s “Asleep on a Sunbeam.” Second time using that song in this blog. That tells you, dear reader, that you should look into it, because you can bet that it’s a pretty great song.
P.P.S. And speaking of Belle and Sebastian, when we were doing introductions with Frank, he asked us to say something that meant a lot to us. A lot of people talked about building relationships with others, helping others, making their community better, etc. I fell in to the first category, but I said that it was best summed up by Belle and Sebastian’s “I’m a Cuckoo”, the lyrics of importance being “I’m glad that you are waiting with me/Tell me all about your day.” This resulted in many people talking about Belle and Sebastian with me, which made me really, really happy. And one person said I looked like someone who would listen to Tegan & Sara. HUGE compliment in my book.
April 27, 2009
This is my attempt to summarize the three weeks of my spring break, a time period that I am currently entitling “Euro-Hedonism”, during which I explored five countries and eight cities. Hedonism is clearly a strong word, as I lived (mostly) within my means and did not fly off the handle, but I really can’t think of a better way to describe a time spent with so few responsibilities or demands on my time. With the exception of my time spent on a study tour with my study abroad program, I very rarely had anything to do that wasn’t shaped or decided by the will of myself or one of my travel partners. I think that’s a pretty incredible phenomenon, and I think I’m very lucky to have had it. If hedonism can be defined as a life lived according to want and curiosity, then I think it very accurately describes my time.
I think the part of my overall experience of which I am the proudest is that I very rarely put any restraint on my curiosity. If I was walking around and something interesting caught my eye, I looked into it. If there was a building and I could not immediately identify what it was there for, I went over to it. And thankfully, I was traveling with wonderful people who encouraged and enabled this kind of curiosity–we basically didn’t say no to any path that popped up, and it usually led us to good places. As my friend Ben so eloquently put it while we were in Aarhus (the second largest city in Denmark), every road was worthwhile, and every road took I wanted to be. And that’s a pretty awesome thing. Sure, there were setbacks, like longer walks back to hostels or trains taken in the wrong direction or tourist traps sprung (goddamn 50 Czech crowns for a BOWL OF POTATO CHIPS), but nothing ever overshadowed the enjoyment of each day.
So first, a break down of my trip:
March 20th-March 27th: Prague and Český Krumlov with the DIS program.
March 28th-March 30th: Prague with Luci, Henry, Peter, Marissa, Charly, Lisa, Sarah.
April 1st-April 3rd: Berlin with Sarah.
April 3rd-April 5th: Paris with Sarah.
April 5th-April 7th: Cannes with Sarah.
April 7th-April 9th: Amsterdam with Alanna.
April 10th-April 12th: Aarhus with Alanna, Ben, Peter, and Sarah N.
April 12th-13th: Copenhagen with Alanna.
And now, for the curious and meticulous (like me!), a list of all the museums and monuments I visited, by city:
Prague: Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Tower Praha, Mucha Museum, Franz Kakfa Museum, Prague Castle, St. Vitus’ Cathedral, The Meet Factory, The Old Jewish Cemetary, The Spanish Synagogue, The Maisel Synagogue.
Český Krumlov: The Schiele Museum, The castle in Český Krumlov, the Chram Cathedral and Ossuary (a bone church), both of which are technically in Kutna Hora.
Berlin: Berliner Dom, Unter Den Linden, Marx-Engles Park, East Side Gallery, Checkpoint Charlie, Brandenburg Tor, Holocaust Memorial, Reichstag, Berlin TV Tower, Hamburger Bahnhof.
Paris: The Louvre, Eiffel Tower, Monmartre, The Sacre Coure, Centre Pompidou, a walk along the Seine River, the Conchorde, Champs d’Elysees, the Arc de Triomphe, the Champs de Mars, Ecole Militaire, Notre Dame.
Amsterdam: The Jewish Historical Museum, The Van Gogh Museum, The New Church, The Amsterdam Historical Museum, The Anne Frank House.
Aarhus: Aros Kunstmuseum, De Gammel By (The Old Town), aaaand a beach that we reached by walking along an industrial parkway. It was sketchy, but kind of par for the course, considering we asked the gentleman at the hostel desk how to get to the beach and he said “go outside, take a right, go that way.” The previous day when we asked the same man if there were any grocery stores in Aarhus, he responded with a “yes” and said nothing more until we goaded him with the question “Well, how do we get there?”
But to get to the heart of the matter, I’m going to offer a series of anecdotes and observations from my travels. I dearly wish I could do a step-by-step retelling of my three weeks, but I simply don’t have the energy to communicate it all (nor, do I think, do my readers have the patience to hear about five-hour train rides, no matter how much charming European countryside I saw). So instead, a glimpse into these three weeks will have to do, until I sit my readers down for a few hours and a few cups of tea for a more complete description. Maybe saying that means I just lost a bunch of my readers. Oh well.
Prague: Prague is a complicated city, I think. And I think my perspective on the city has a lot to do with the fact that maybe I overstayed my welcome. When I talk to those who were in Prague for a few days, they said that they thought it was beautiful and fun and a great place to explore. And it certainly is all those things–I can very easily say that every street in Prague contained something pretty awesome, especially in the realm of architecture or food. Walking down any given street would very likely take you past a beautiful old house or cathedral or past some restaurant or cafe offering something very tantalizing, and the temptation of the food/drink was awfully hard to resist because GOOD GOD was Prague CHEAP! You hear this from everyone but please, dear reader, think of how it felt for a person from Copenhagen to go from a world where a good deal on coffee means paying $2 for a cup of black coffee to a world where you pay about $2.75 for a good-sized cup of hot chocolate so thick that it flowed like honey when you drank it. Magnificent. But despite the exceptional beauty of Prague’s architecture and the distance my money carried me, I really didn’t jive with Prague, for the irony that it was too touristy (I know, and there I was making it all the worse). I couldn’t turn in a full circle without seeing at least three tourist shops selling really kitschy souvenirs, like a t-shirt featuring the flag of the Czech Republic with the words “PRAGUE DRINKING TEAM” below it. Classy. And despite the plethora of tourists, Prague never really seemed to welcome the tourists. Prague was the only place I encountered that actively used “tourist traps” on the public, like posting a menu outside of a restaurant with prices half as much as what you pay when you actually go inside and sit down. Yeesh. Whenever I broke free of the tourists, I enjoyed myself immensely. Like the long hike up a hill that my friend Luci and I took to visit the Petrin Tower, Prague’s version of the Eiffel Tower (Prague has a love affair with Paris, it’s really quite amusing to see how the relationship expresses itself). Or when I met up with Sarah, Marissa, Charly, and Lisa and basically got to relive some of the good times we have in Boston when I go up to visit–it was really awesome to have a group of friends reunite like that, and it’s pretty remarkable to think about when you realize that we were all coming in from different parts of Europe. Prague also contained a really fantastic shop that was a bookstore/cafe/restaurant/bar/accoustic music venue. That’s about 70% of what I imagine heaven looks like (the other 30% heavily features kittens).
An especially big thank-you to Luci for being a wonderful travel partner in a city as unfamiliar as Prague (the Czech language has no English cognates that I can recognize. You get up shit creek pretty quickly that way), and another great big thank-you to Marissa for welcoming me Sarah Charly and Lisa to the city and making me appreciate Prague again when I had grown tired of it.
Cesky Krumlov: Cesky Krumlov is a small town out of a fairytale, only more like Alice in Wonderland than Sleeping Beauty. While it does have a really awesome castle (built into the rock cliff on which it stands…so damn cool), it’s a strangely labyrinthine town, wherein walking down one street suddenly places you on a riverbank, looking 30 feet up to the bridge you crossed over to get onto that street, only you can’t remember going down so far. It’s quite curious, but the town just feels so old-time charming that you can only smile at it. The Alice-in-Wonderland-ness of the place also comes out in the castle’s moat. Now, it’s not uncommon for a castle to have a moat, but this wasn’t a moat with water. It was a dry-land moat filled with BEARS. FRIGGIN’ HUGE BEARS. It felt like something out of a fantasy novel, where the wizard doesn’t just have a moat, he has a moat with bears in it. That’s REALLY getting screwed during an invasion of the castle. Oh, and by the way, when thirty Americans are standing around and shouting the word “Bear!” over and over again and your name sounds a lot like the word “Bear”, such that you explain to people that you pronounce your name “like the past tense of ‘bear'”, it gets REALLY irritating to try to figure out what’s going on. Cesky Krumlov keeps the castle element alive in all things, including a bar that looks like a dungeon, decorated in stone and iron and full of candelabras. And it is there, in that dungeon-esque bar that my friend Ben described as a place where vampires might gather, that my friends and I had a great night of stereotypical American stupidness. On the night we were there, the only people in the bar were the ten or so of us and the bartender. So we asked the bartender to play some Queen for us. He put on Queen’s best hits and then followed it with something that was CLEARLY a mix CD for Americans to dance to foolishly–it had Green Day, ABBA, a bunch of 80’s metal, Avril Lavigne…all it needed was Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'”. So dance we did, singing along loud and proud. It was a magnficient night, and I am wholly unashamed of being “that group of Americans”. At least no one really noticed us.
Berlin: Berlin was a very welcome change from Prague. Where Prague had been too touristy, Berlin felt almost devoid of any sort of tourist “culture” as it were. There were many monuments that clearly draw lots of tourists, and I did see tourist shops where one could buy postcards that contain tiny little pieces of the Berlin Wall, but it seemed to me like the city was too focused on moving forward and developing itself. There was lots of construction going on, and much of the architecture felt very modern and devoted to housing or commerce rather than looking old and pretty. People have pointed out to me that that’s what a city does after it has been bombed to the ground, so perhaps Berlin is progressive more by necessity (gotta do something after the walls have been reduced to rubble, I guess) than by choice. But either way, I really loved the balance struck between an actual livable city and the REALLY AWESOME monuments that Sarah and I checked out. We spent the better part of our time in Berlin walking around the neighborhoods, and as a result reached a lot of the biggest sites (see the aforementioned list). But the key to our time in Berlin was our wonderful hosts in the Wombat Hostel we stayed in. Sarah and I didn’t really have a sense of where to eat, so we asked the deskworkers for advice on just about every meal we had. And EVERY PLACE THEY RECOMMENDED WAS AWESOME. Sarah and I ate at a brewery with the warmest, most charming atmosphere I’ve experienced here in Europe (and I was under the impression that Copenhagen had a monopoly on that sort of thing), after a really fantastic lunch at a sidewalk cafe. And the people at the desk also sent us up towards the White Trash Fast Food bar, which was very eccentrically decorated, from the large styrofoam airplane that hung from the ceiling to the menu, which described the fish & chips as “so fresh it was mouthing off to us as we stuck it in the fryer”. By sending us in that direction, we also discovered the Volksbar, which, when we went into it, was nearly empty. But it looked like a pretty chill place to hang out before you ended your night, so I’m sure it was an even better time later in the evening (but Sarah and I were there around 11). The Volksbar also made me the greatest White Russian I have EVER had (except for the ones made by Tom and Roxy in Brighton, but that’s because they’re made with love and cats are usually a part of the experience too). And Berlin’s goodness seemed to rub off on others, because Sarah and I had three roommates (well technically four, but we never heard a word out of the fourth one), two from Canada and one from Germany (who was on his way to Copenhagen, woo!), and they were all really good people.
Paris: Paris is everything you’ve seen in the movies and in books and magazines and all that jazz, and it is beautiful for it and worth the hype, in my opinion. I have to thank Sarah for being such a wonderful and ambitious tour guide. Having been to Paris, she had a very detailed list of what we were going to see, so in the roughly 40 hours we were there we got to see many of the major sites, and it was incredible.You can see all those pictures of the Eiffel Tower and the Notre Dame and scenes from the Siene and think that you know what to expect, but, really, the sight is so impressive that it flies in your face and calls for your full attention, and even then you’re awed by it. Sarah described the Notre Dame to me as a spiritual experience, and I really have to agree. The grandiosity of the architecture of these places goes beyond simple asthetics and reaches you on an emotional level. Yet somehow France manages to bring in the modern as well and keep it all in balance. Sarah and I spent a good amount of time in the Centre Pompidou, a modern art museum that was probably the best museum I’ve been to in all of Europe. It had both modern and contemporary art, and the modern art exhibits were incredible. One of the things that particularly impressed me (and really challenged my perception of France as Anglo-phobic) was that many of the pieces had a sign next to them that would not only describe the art, but critique and analyze it as well. And I was REALLY impressed by the thoughtfulness of the critiques that were written in English (I’m sure the ones in French were even better, but, well, I can’t read French). They were very thought-provoking and REALLY brought you into the artwork, which was already astounding in and of itself. I discovered the artist Simon Hantaï there, and was very much drawn to him. His technique of folding the paint into the canvas and letting sheer chance form the final painting really moved me.
And I have to say, I had heard so much about Paris being an unpleasant experience because of the tourists and the Parisians, and I’m really pleased to say that I didn’t really experience any of that. The tourists, while there were many, simply came with the territory of places like the Sacre Coure and the Eiffel Tower. (Oh, and I did get my obligatory photo in front of the Eiffel Tower that every foreigner must get in Paris. Otherwise it doesn’t count) But it felt pretty easy to get away from them, simply by turning down a side street. Cafes got very quiet very quickly, so that when Sarah took me to a really excellent restaurant called Le Comptoir des Saints-Peres, it felt like we were the only Americans in the restaurant. And thanks to the crash course in French given to me by Sarah in the Berlin airport, I was able to speak the minimum level of French that they tell you to speak in France so as to be appreciated by the locals. I feel badly, though, because Sarah, having been in France for the past three months, is really adept at French, and would often converse with our waiters in the native tongue. But because I was silent (or mumbling the few words I know), I think they would catch on that we were Americans, and so often speak in English. But I LOVE to hear the French language spoken, and I hate to think that I missed out on that opportunity. If not for the fact that I wanted to talk to Sarah during our meals, I would have just faked being deaf and dumb and let Sarah and our waiters converse with no translations for the more-visibly out-of-towner. But I did manage to have an entire interaction with the waiter in French at our last meal in Paris, so that should count for something. Here again, HUGE thanks to Sarah. I would have been so horribly lost without her guidance. But let’s touch back on that meal, because I could not mention Paris and not mention the food. Paris was where we were most hedonistic, but good God was it worth it. The food was astounding. Deciding to splurge on our last night in Paris, Sarah and I had a foray through French cuisine that was frankly a work of art. Good red wine, escargot, macaroni a la Provencal and fondont au chocolate for Sarah, roast duck and mashed potatoes with arugula salad and a trio of mini creme brulees for myself… France deserves all the praise it receives.
Cannes: For those of you who read Sarah’s blog, you’ve already heard a great deal about Cannes. And while Sarah can do it much better justice than I, I want to try to sum up how beautiful Cannes is. But first, consider this. You’ve been in Copenhagen for about two and a half months, going through the city’s winter. You have about seven or eight hours of sunshine, and it’s often very cold and windy. And while it gets nicer as you go through central and western Europe, you suddenly find yourself in a place that has a beach, with people out sunbathing on it. Can you picture my love for this place now? It was the greatest welcome to a city a person could dream of. I wrote earlier about how my boots are some of my closest friends, having been with me for so long and on so much, but I RELISHED the opportunity to place my boots aside and bury my feet in the sand. While Sarah was in class, I took some time to simply sit down on a bench facing the beach and lift my face to the sun, listening to the sounds of the surf. That alone would give me reason to stay in Cannes for a very long time. But it gets even better! Cannes is such a charming city, especially the old town. The streets of the old town get so narrow and winding that the awnings of restaurants on opposite sides of the street touch when they’re extended, so the entire street becomes covered, like some sort of circus tent. I love it. I also had my opportunity to sit outside of a French cafe, eating croissants and drinking cappucino. I was very self-aware of the moment, but I don’t care. I loved it. Since Cannes came at the end of about two weeks of travel for both Sarah and I, we spent a lot of time relaxing. But I think this has as much to do with Cannes as much as our travel fatigue–Cannes just invites you to let things go and close your eyes. Sarah and I welcomed the opportunity for as long as we had it.
And then I parted ways with Sarah for Amsterdam. And I really must thank Sarah for being such a wonderful travel partner through four cities and three countries. All the challenges of travel and the frightening size of the world really didn’t seem so bad when we were tackling them side by side, and the enjoyments of all these sights were multiplied when they were shared.
Amsterdam: First and foremost, I must thank Alanna for being such a wonderful host to me. She met me at the train station, presented me with maps, took me to her dorm, offered me her floor and the contents of her cabinets and refrigerator shelf, showed me the city and showed me the Dutch wonder that is the stroopwaffle: two thin waffles pressed together and held together with sweet syrup. Heavenly.
I really liked Amsterdam–it was extremely charming and picturesque, even in the infamous Red Light District, where the sex shops and coffeeshops (those are the ones that sell marijuana. Cafes sell coffee, as I learned) are criss-crossed by really lovely canals. But more than that, it felt comfortably familiar while still offering me new sights and experiences. Amsterdam and Copenhagen have many similarities in terms of their organization, and, as conversations with Alanna revealed, the two nations that house the cities have their similarities as well. Both are old, small nations, known for trying to get along with others and having generous if eccentric welfare states (they pay for you to go to college in Denmark and the state health insurance in Holland includes a methodone program for heroin addicts. Isn’t welfare fascinating?). They both possess funny languages spoken almost exclusively by their respective citizens, they both are seeing a growing right-wing political movement against immigrants, their people love food and comfort (the Danish concept of hygge, which I touched on earlier in my post about warm places to go in Copenhagen, is actually mirrored by the Dutch concept of gzelig, which I KNOW I didn’t spell correctly). I think the only thing that makes Amsterdam more well known than Copenhagen is the legal weed and hookers. Oh well, can’t have everything.
Interestingly, in the Amsterdam Historical Museum, three fellow tourists mistook me for a model. Not a fashion model (devilishly handsome though I may be), but a model on display, i.e. an exhibit. I was standing in a room about 14th century Amsterdam when one of them approached me. Before the tourist reached me, however, I shifted position, causing her to jump. She then explained to me that she thought I was a model and that she was going to have her picture taken with me. I have no idea what would make her think I was a model. I was standing still, yes, but I was wearing modern clothes while standing in a room with no other models in a room about THIRTEENTH CENTURY DUTCH HISTORY. Maybe the museum wanted a display of people in awesome sweaters? I don’t know. But I wish I had stayed still–I really wonder how I would have reacted to being photographed with two smiling tourists when I was just trying to read about Dutch trading vessels.
Aarhus: Although I like to describe my time on Spring Break as hedonistic, there was a certain “poor-college-kid” mentality adopted by me and my friends in Aarhus that I really enjoyed. Not only did I enjoy it because I AM getting to the end of my money, but it also made for some really good adventures that we wouldn’t have had otherwise. For example, we decided to buy most of our meals in grocery stores while in Aarhus. Now the funny thing is, when you buy in a grocery store, you kind of buy in bulk–you’re almost always getting more than one meal’s worth of food. This makes sense when you’re in a given place for a long period of time. But my friends and I were only in Aarhus for two days. Therefore when each of us bought a 1-kg carton of yogurt (you can drink the yogurt in Denmark, it’s like a smoothie and it’s really good), we felt it necessary to drink the entire carton in one sitting. That’s 2.2 POUNDS of yogurt. Likewise, when we decided to cook dinner for ourselves, we completely overestimated how much pasta we would need, and so we ended up buying two huge packages of spaghetti, which makes about 7 or 8 pounds of spaghetti. FOR FIVE PEOPLE. Eating that much spaghetti, even spread over two meals (a dinner and a lunch) wasn’t so much an act of eating as much an act of ENDURANCE. It was like climbing a mountain–each of us kept encouraging the others to keep eating so that it wouldn’t go to waste, but it was more like a “C’mon, we’re almost there! Keep going! I can see the bottom of the pot!” mentality. We also understimated the amount of sauce needed for the aforementioned 8 pounds of pasta, so it was a real culinary experience. Good God.
But now, let’s talk about the good parts of Aarhus. I mentioned the hostel ealier, and it really merits further mention. Every part of the hostel was REALLY nice–the kitchen, the lounge, this really great outdoor area, etc.–with the exception of our actual rooms. There, the mattresses were stained, the lockers were broken, chunks of paint were missing from the walls…it was a hell of a place to stay. But we made the best of our living situation, most importantly with ghost fights. When you, the hostel visitors, are in charge of putting the comforters in the duvet covers, it can get pretty frustrating. The best way to express your frustration is to drape the duvet cover over your head, which creates the effect of looking like a ghost. And when two people look like ghosts in a fairly small space, they’re going to collide with each other. This will inevitably start a fight. Ghost fights! They’re the greatest. The best of these came when we were actually taking the sheets off the beds at the end of our stay and Ben quietly says “So, I hear this place is haunted…” Confused, we turn to look at him, only to see him toss the duvet cover over his head and charge at Peter. I laughed so hard that I actually pulled a muscle. It was so worth it though. And the rest of Aarhus that takes place outside of our hostel deserves some mention, because it is a really beautiful town. Alanna Ben and I went wandering one night in Aarhus and kept discovering really cool place after really cool place, marking them down as places to return to in the morning/in the distant future when we come back to Aarhus. The streets were surprisingly alive for a small city, but it was nice to have the company while we went wandering. We also went to the Aros museum, which had a lot of contemporary art that, strangely, didn’t piss me off. A lot of it had to do with art, technology, and the Internet. One exhibit in particular simply took words and phrases being said on the Internet at that very moment and arranged them into different groups on this HUGE wall made up of small television screens. It was completely hypnotic.
A thanks to Ben, Sarah N, Peter, and Alanna for the great times in Aarhus. All these absurd times just wouldn’t have happened without all of us together, and I would have had a tiny fraction of the good time I had without that absurdity.
So, that closes three weeks of my life. It was unlike anything else I’ll probably experience again, but that doesn’t mean I won’t try it again. I loved my time every where I went. I want to go back.
So let’s start planning.
April 24, 2009
It has been a really rough couple of weeks, work-wise, which largely explains why I haven’t updated my blog in quite some time. I’ve had several papers and presentations that have kept me at school til late in the evening almost every day this week. In fact, last night I decided to simply spend the night in my school so that I could get more work done. It didn’t really pan out, since I was so exhausted that I just ended up falling asleep on a couch, but it made for a good story this evening when we were comparing how long we had been at school for. I won the contest, but I don’t really think you could call it much of a victory.
I had to walk home tonight since I missed my bus (it comes once an hour, damn non-peak hours) and therefore didn’t get home until 11 (My class had an evening of presentations that was supposed to last 3 hours but went closer to 4). I am up at 4 a.m. wrestling with a paper on right-wing populism in Denmark.
But there has been a moment bright enough in all of this to make me pause and write it all down and share. When I reached my house tonight, I looked up and saw a skyful of stars. I’ve mentioned how cloudy it is in Denmark–this is the first time in a while that I’ve really seen the stars. And I had a whole expanse of them (hurray for the countryside!). For a moment, I could let go of my papers and my exhaustion and just stare upwards, losing sight of things for a while. The silence of my village met the stars and I feel like I could have stayed there for a long time, picking out the little points of light scattered in the inky black.
I’m inside now, taking on this paper. But the stars are still outside my window, so it’s not so bad.
A more complete update on my life comes soon!
p.s. The post title is the beginning of a Van Gogh quote: “I know nothing with any certainty but the sight of stars makes me dream.” I do like that Van Gogh.
March 29, 2009
To my dear readers of my blog, I owe two apologies.
The first apology is that I have not updated a wholly accurate portrayal of my life and times–this is because for the past week or so, I have been in the Czech Republic, having various adventures and misadventures in the first week of my three-week spring break, which will be spent touring various parts of Europe. I promise to give a more anecdotal and appropriate update of my life at the end of the break.
The second apology is now that I have the opportunity (hurray for internet access in Czech hostels!) and the time (I really don’t have anything to do and it’s far too early to call it a night) to give my readers that update, I am choosing instead to record, word for word and with very little editting, a stream-of-consciousness-esque piece of writing that I wrote tonight in a Czech bar after my friend Luci had left me and I still had a beer to finish.
So here goes:
March 29th, 2009, 11 pm:
This is really my firs attempt being the eccentric American in a European place that my sister suggested I adopt as a role to integrate myself within the foreign community*. So here I sit in a bar likely designed for English customers in the heart of Prague*, drinking the remnants of Bernard dark, a combination of my beer and that left behidn by my friend Luci as she dashed off to meet the controversial Czech sculptor David Cerny (I drink a toast to both Cerny and Luci, for her steel and ambition in setting up the meeting with him). The conversation aroudn me is alrgely a blur; perhaps English is a part of the commotion but I cannot isolate it, and so remain absorbed in the movement of my fingers and the occasionally-sipped Bernard dark, the taste of which is dulled by the cold from which I am still recovering (which, by the way, I blame on the initial 12-hour bus ride from Copenhagen to Prague). Th Danish identity which I have tentatively yet aggressively adopted tempts me to bellow “Skål!” (the Danish equivalent of “Cheers!”) and see who joins in with tht toast of an ethnicity to which I belong at best tangentially. But I remain quiet, once again reminded of the speech John Hodgen gave at the New England Young Writers’ Conference many years ago: to be a writer is to separate yourself from the group and be along, to be the one away from the bonfire on the beach, looking at the stars while your friends drink beer around the bonfire. A song starts (sung among the patrons of the bar) in a language I cannot recognize. I’ve always had a soft spot for people singing together regardless of motivation, purpose, or language. A brief toast to singing together as a group and a good group of fellowship knowing the words as a bass carries the lyrics along, even though I cannot piece them together. And a brief moment of homesickness for Alpha Delta Phi. Admittedly, a voice speaking unnaccented English cuts through the din, asking without context “Remember? Remember?” I think I am doing my best to do so, is the answer I am tempted to give back, but the question is addressed to me only by coincidence, not by intent. So I stay silent with my voice while my pen still moves, always self-aware (at times painfully so). I tipped my bartenders (who were grateful–maybe I’m not expected to do so? Tipping in Europe is so inconsistent–it is its own set of rules, as complicated and as important as European Union development policy for Eastern Europe), so I think I have gained engouh good will from the gentlemen in tight red t-shirts (nice uniform, don’t you think?) to keep going, at least until my (tasty!) Bernard dark runs out. I see a warm embrace to my right and wonder what it’s like for expatriates and travelers to meet friendly faces in situations that hover between expected and unexpected. Yes, the bar offers Guiness on an English-speaking menu, but it’s still Prague. Whom do we expect to meet? I have used the Danish “unskylld” this evening to pass by strangers on my excursions throughout this bar–whom am I trying to deceive? And what motivates my fear or discomfort to the extent that I mask my English? Luci has made a point of learning “excuse me” and “thank you” in Czech and using them situationally, but my discomfort with the language is so great that I cannot bring myself to write down the actual Czech words. So why Danish? It’s a rare language, but far from exoticized–better to use English and better my chances of actually being understood. But with echoes of Joni Mitchell’s “Carey” in my head (I get that song stuck in my head a great deal, especially whenever I talk about my travel plans, mostly because of the lyrics “Maybe I’ll go to Amsterdam, or maybe I’ll go to Rome”), I won’t think about such things right now. I have my finished my beer (it was pretty good but not as good as the Czech Kozel) and I have a road well worth walking. In all languages, I wish to say that life is beautiful, and here I close.
p.s. The title of this post comes from Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man”, which is an extraordinary song the only way that Dylan can make one. And it’s surprisingly accurate–I’ve been wearing the same pair of boots my entire time in Europe. The boots are some of the closest friends I’ve made.
*My sister’s suggestion came from her text message, sent to me shortly after my departure. It reads as follows: “You’d better be the eccentric American to the point where everyone knows you don’t have any money and aren’t worth robbing, educated enough to know you can’t be swindled or bamboozled, and crazy enough that no one messes with you in any way. If they do…may God have mercy on them because I sure as hell will not. If you at any point need anything you call. Don’t worry about long distance or waking me up or anything. I will be on the next flight without question, a roll of cash in one pocket, a list of ‘special’ numbers in my other and a big sister’s ‘Get the hell away from my brother’ attitude in full force. It will not be pretty but it will happen. Be safe. Have fun. Be safe. Don’t be generous or stupid or caught up in group mentality. Be safe.” My sister is a wonderful, wonderful human being.
*I assume the bar is designed for English customers because it offers Guiness. If a place offers Guiness, it’s probably reaching out to the homesick heartstrings of someone who knows English as their first language.
March 15, 2009
This post comes about as a sort of congratulatory gift to myself. I recently found out that I will be interning at the Community Transportation Association of America this summer, which is REALLY exciting for me. The CTAA is an advocacy/policy organization that tries to connect poor communities to better transportation systems. When I met two of the organization’s members last summer at a Transportation Conference (yeah I know what you’re thinking but whatever I had fun), I was floored to learn that this organization existed, because they do what I’ve spent most of my time in college studying.
And now I get to work for them! What’s even better is that I get to work in their communications department, which means that a good portion of my job is to write articles and press releases and other missives that try to teach people about the importance of transportation access for the poor. That means I’m being hired to do the thing that people usually ask me to stop doing after I’ve been talking to them for about five minutes and they make the mistake of saying “So, what do you study?” Now I get to do it without fear of being hit by a shoe!
So to celebrate, I’m going to write one of the two posts I’ve been dreaming about writing ever since I decided to keep a blog about my time in Denmark. That post is on Denmark’s transportation systems. The other one is about Denmark’s alternative energy, and it will be written after I spend a weekend biking around an island that produces all of its energy with alternative sources and actually produces a SURPLUS of energy. Well I guess I should say that I will write that post provided I don’t die in a biking accident. The odds for that are pretty high.
If you, dear reader, have limited patience for reading about transportation systems (I really can’t imagine anyone would, though), I’ll offer a very brief summary: Danish transportation is amazingly comprehensive, very user-friendly, and AWESOME. There. You can go now.
But I’m going to keep going. Danish transportation is extremely multi-modal, meaning that several different types of transportation are very strongly-supported by the design of the city and even the suburban communities. This means that bikes, trains, buses, cars, and, for a small part of the downtown area (but they’re expanding it!), the Metro system, are all viable ways of getting around. If anything, I think using a car is the hardest method of transportation to use, because the government very consciously creates disincentives for using a car: high taxes for the purchase of a car, high gas taxes, high parking prices, and they may introduce congestion pricing, where they make you pay for driving into the city. I think all of these disincentives are awesome, although I can’t quite say how effective they are given that I do see automobile traffic on the highways leading out of Copenhagen between 4 and 5 pm on weekdays.
Now those who have listened to me talk about transportation policy before (and I owe you an apology) will wonder why I think that discouraging car use is such a good idea, given that I’ve often said that cars are the best ways to connect poor people to jobs. I usually argue that that’s the case when there isn’t already an effective mass transit system already in place. And while it may be that using cars would be better for inter-suburban transit (I was having a conversation with my host brother about this earlier today), I really can’t say the same for getting in to Copenhagen. As I’ve said before, I live in the VILLAGE of Greve; there is farmland out my window. And yet I am a two-minute walk from a bus stop that is serviced by a bus that, during the rush hours, comes about every ten or twenty minutes, and even in the “off hours” the bus still comes at least once an hour. The buses run almost like clockwork–each bus stop has a full schedule of when the buses are expected to arrive at that particular bus stop, and it’s rare that the bus shows up more than five minutes later than the posted time. Buses in the city are even more reliable. Denmark even offers a cell phone service that enables you to send a text message to a number that informs you of how far away the bus is from your exact stop.
The buses themselves aren’t quite the Bus Rapid Transit systems that I wish they were (I recommend that you look up BRT systems, if I go into them here I’ll get too excited and make this long post even more painful for those polite enough to read through everything), but they’re very nice–the aisles are wide, accommodating strollers and wheelchairs without impeding the flow of traffic to the seats. The buses are very clean and I’ve seen many that run on biofuels (or at least I think that’s what the sign says, I still don’t know enough Danish to ask my host brother to pass me the potatoes, let alone ask “So does this bus run on environmentally-sustainable fuels?” I feel like that’s just not a priority). The buses are built pretty low to the curb, so that it’s easy for the eldery and those with strollers/in wheelchairs to get on board the buses, and the buses have multiple entry/exit points to speed up boarding/exiting times. I don’t have a sense of the average bus capacity, but I’d say it’s at least fifty people.
And if you think the buses are cool, you should see the trains. My God, the trains. They’re run off the electric grid, they’re reliable, they’re pretty, they’re CLEAN, which is particularly amazing. I don’t have any statistics on ridership (YET), but each train car holds about thirty or forty people and still the seats somehow remain in better condition than the average chair one would find in a college dorm lounge. There are two types of trains that I’ve experienced: the S-Tog, comparable to the MBTA commuter rail and run throughout the greater Copenhagen area, and the regional trains, which run throughout Denmark and into Germany. The S-Tog system is incredible–there are eight lines running from Copenhagen into the suburbs, mostly on a North-South scale but covering the whole area, and they run every ten minutes during rush hours and every twenty minutes during non-peak hours. My one complaint is that the trains stop running at around 12:30 at night, but they start up again at 5:30 most days (and in Copenhagen, it’s pleasantly easy to find places that are open between those hours). The exception is on Sunday, when they start up at 6:30 or 7. And let me tell you, that’s been one of the most painful lessons that I’ve learned so far.
In addition to seating large numbers of people, each train car also has a section that accommodates bikes and strollers–the seats in these sections fold up, exposing these strange rubber-coated wire frames that will hold the bike or stroller while you ride. And amazingly, people are polite enough to move if they’re sitting in one of these seats and they see someone board with a bike or a stroller. People are also quiet on the train, which is remarkably different from my experiences on mass transit in the States (and especially when I was riding the Green Line of the T on days when the Red Sox were playing at Fenway). They’re not silent, although there are designated “silent” cars, and boy, the people there won’t hesistate to enforce the rules if you board one in ignorance. Between the quiet of the train’s interior and the smoothness of the ride (now I’m writing copy for a car commercial…), it is very easy for one to fall asleep in perfect comfort. And it’s also very easy for one to fall asleep and sleep through one’s stop and wake up on the other side of Copenhagen, disoriented and panicked. Good times, good times…
Each train car also has a display listing each stop along the train’s route, with colored lights on the display marking the train’s progress. This gives you a pretty accurate idea of how far you are from the next stop, and when the train reaches the stop, the stop’s name is announced over a speaker system. This is how I first learned that Danish is a twisted and perplexing language. For example, “Ny Ellbjerg” is actually pronounced “Nooh Ehl-byah” and I still haven’t figured out this one stop called “Sjælør.” It’s something like “Schilleh” but I don’t even know.
Every train station keeps a running display of how far each train is from the station. And remarkably enough, the display is ACCURATE. The company that operates the train system reports that about 95% of trains run on time. And keep in mind, there are eight different lines with trains running every ten to twenty minutes. That’s a LOT of trains and a LOT of opportunities for delays. Yet somehow, that doesn’t happen. Over the past two weeks or so, I’ve had the great misfortune of showing up at the train station when the display says “E-Train Køge: 0 minutes”. So I stand there and swear, having chased yet another train out of the trai.n station (it loses its romance after a while, especially when you’re just trying to get home for dinner rather than catch the train to make it to the airport and tell the girl you love that you still love her and that she shouldn’t take that plane to the other side of the world. Yes, I’ve written the scene. It stars Kiera Knightley and Ewan McGregor, but I will graciously step in if Mr. McGregor is busy). But despite my frustration, I take comfort knowing that the display above my head isn’t lying when it tells me that the next train will be along in nine minutes. And that’s enough time to go get a $4 coffee or something, which is available at the convenience store “Kort & Godt”, found at every S-Tog station. The food is pretty good!
So basically, the S-Tog system is incredibly user-friendly to the point of being intuitive. I’m pretty awful with directions, but within a week of being here in Denmark I felt perfectly comfortable with taking the S-Tog, and most of my friends here feel the same way.
I’ll stop soon, I promise, but first a word about bikes. As I said when I first started this blog (ah, the ignorance of youth!), Denmark’s transportation infrastructure really supports bicycle use. I underestimated how true this statement is. In addition to designated bike lanes on just about every street in Copenhagen, the bike lanes are protected from traffic by an elevated curb, meaning bike-to-car collisions are rare, and bikes usually don’t have to compete with pedestrians for sidewalk space. Bikes also have their own traffic signals, and places to park your bike are FAR more numerous than places to park your car. Bikes are also welcome on trains, to the point that staircases at train stations have a little ramp for the bike to roll up, rather than requiring that cyclists carry their bikes up the stairs. In the summer, the city of Copenhagen puts these “city bikes” around town that are available for use and essentially free. You deposit a 20-kroner coin in the bike, ride it for however long you need it, and when you return the bike to the bike stand, you receive your kroner back. I’m curious to know how the system works that these bikes aren’t stolen, destroyed, or stripped of their parts, but apparently it either doesn’t happen or else it doesn’t happen to an extent that counteracts the benefits of the program.
Bikes also come in different styles that accommodate different uses. Some bikes, called “Christiania bikes”, have a three-wheeled frame that supports a large box in front. I’ve seen people put groceries, packages, children, and even dogs in these bikes. Small businesses will also use these bikes to transport goods from one location to another. These are more expensive, but they’re also much more flexible. This means that the bike is a much more multi-use form of transportation. I once nearly smacked a person for suggesting bikes as anti-poverty solutions in the US (I get passionate about these things, but I should probably talk to someone about that incident) because bikes in the US can pretty much carry one person. Not the case, here in Denmark.
Okay, so in summary: transportation in Denmark is user-friendly. It is comprehensive, with many different systems supporting each other. It seems to get pretty high ridership (I’m not the only one on it at 5:30 in the morning). It is efficient (I get from Greve to Copenhagen, a distance of about 18 miles, in 24 minutes). It fits well within the infrastructure of the city. It is integrating environmentally-sound policy into its services. I don’t really have a proper sense of where the poorer communities are in Denmark, so I can’t quite say if it’s effective connecting poor people to jobs, so the critical element (for me) is as of now unknown. But damn, I’m impressed. The title of this post sums it up–every day I see something about the transportation system that impresses me.
I wonder if I can take a train home as a souvenir.
March 4, 2009
In my experiences so far in Copenhagen, there are two things about the general atmosphere of the place that I do not like. One of them is the REALLY high costs of living here. While the dollar enjoys a favorable exchange rate to the kroner, about 6 DKK (Danish kroner, because each Scandinavian country has its own) to the dollar, the Danes have the last laugh because just about everything costs a whole heap of kroner. For example, a cup of coffee from a decent cafe is about 20 DKK. That’s between $3 and $4 dollars. And I’m not talking about a fancy Starbucksesque concoction, I’m talking about a cup of black coffee.
This has led to an amusing information network reeking of opportunism and desperation that cycles among my peers. Deals and steals are bandied about like trade secrets, and any store that offers an affordable alternative usually finds itself swamped with American students, buying their wares in broken Danish. Case in point: St. Peter’s Bakery, which is astoundingly good, offers a different pastry as a 12 kroner special each day of the week. St. Peter’s is well-known and well-appreciated among Danes, but it is a Mecca of affordability to the Americans. This, combined with the fact that it is about three blocks away from DIS, means that I see at least three or four people I recognize each time I go in to the place. I’ll probably write them a thank-you letter when my time here comes to a close.
The other thing I don’t like is the weather, which is, to be perfectly blunt, dismal. They tell us that Copenhagen’s climate is very similar to Seattle’s, meaning a lot of rain and a lot of cold, but not necessarily bitter cold, weather. Unfortunately, the fact that Copenhagen is on the coastline near the Baltic Sea means that it gets a lot of wind. And the narrow streets of Copenhagen can often create an urban canyon, which funnels the wind into a tight blast that somehow knows exactly how to slip in between the three or four layers that you’re wearing and make you shiver. Frankly, it’s never the cold that gets to me–for the most part, the temperature has never been low enough to make walking outside actually unappealing. It’s always the wind that makes us huddle together and look for the nearest place to hide in.
The most difficult part to deal with, however, is the persistently gray skies, covered almost in their entirety by an even sheet of clouds. My friend Eric, who knows a thing or two about photography, says that these gray skies can make for better pictures, since you don’t have to deal with changing light levels. I, for one, like light and shadow in my pictures, I think they make it more dynamic. But the gray skies can really hang over you and drag you down, especially when they are so consistent. For the first two or three weeks we were here, I think we had two days that you could call partly cloudy? It’s made most of us very excited about sun, whenever it arrives. I was very amused to check facebook on those days (rather than, you know, being outside…) and see a friend’s status reading: “John is REALLY happy to see the sun.” In some cases, people even drop proper grammar in favor of unbridled joy: “Mary is OH DEAR GOD SUN”
The first truly sunny day took me by surprise–it had been snowing that morning (and my host father thought it would be a good idea for us to walk by a frozen lake to get some fresh air. I don’t understand outdoorsy types), but when I returned to my room I found sunlight pouring in through my window. I acted fast and actually took a picture of my shadow on my bedroom wall (and again, I’d put up the picture but my computer is being difficult). It was the last time I saw the sun for about two weeks, and in the mean time I, along with many, many others, grumbled about the dishwater-colored sky as we walked our various paths with shoulders hunched against the wind.
But I’m glad to say that the unpleasant weather does not blunt the Danish spirits. Here in Denmark, there is a historical/cultural concept (taken from a poem! Yay poetry!) of “outside losses, inside gains”. It technically refers to a change in foreign policy in the 19th century, but I think it also describes the way Danes approach the weather. Since it’s so bitter outside, just about every place you go into puts a real effort into being warm and cozy, immediately making up for whatever hellish weather you had been facing moments before. Whether you go into a bar, a cafe, a shop, or even a school, it’s very common to be greeted by lit candles in the windows and tealights on the tables. It is a wonderful thing to go from the cold and wind to the quiet warmth of a candle at your table. It brings people closer together around the table and quickly dispels the gloom. Oftentimes, these candles are the primary source of light for the room, which makes every individual table feel a bit more separated from the larger world. But I don’t think this is a negative isolation, like you’re not supposed to step outside of the circle, but rather draws your attention more fully to the people you came with or the moment you are immediately. I see it as a way of shutting out distractions. My host family keeps candles in just about every room, simply to have going whenever we’re in there together. They even gave me two little lanterns for my room, which made me feel quite welcome. I think if I were to invest my money here in Denmark, I’d invest it in a tealight company. Or maybe a green energy start-up OKAY THERE I SAID IT NOW LEAVE ME ALONE, NEW YORK TIMES EDITORIAL BOARD.
And on the plus side, as I write and complain about things, I’m thrilled to announce that my sentiments are rapidly becoming outdated. It has actually started getting nice here! It hasn’t necessarily gotten that much warmer, but there is more sun these days. In fact, last Tuesday was the first day that hinted at spring’s approaching arrival. It was a clear sky, and just warm enough that if you stood still and let the sun fall on you, you’d feel a warmth combating your cold extremities. And the really nice thing was that everyone in the city seemed to get the memo. I went for a good long walk along the Stroget (walking street, pronounced like “strohl” because Danish is a mean-spirited language), and as I walked past cafes I saw people sitting outside with their coffee, still wearing hats and scarves but clearly happy to be outside. It was magnificent. I cannot wait for the days when I will shed the two coats that I wear, put away my hat and gloves, and sit down with good friends at a sidewalk cafe to watch the world and the shadows it shall cast. I found out from a friend that there’s a beach in Copenhagen about ten minutes away from the downtown along the canals, and that it is perfect, needing only the weather to set the stage for a good day there. They tell me these days are coming soon.
P.S. The post title is a song from The Magnetic Fields’ “69 Love Songs”, which is one of the greatest albums I’ve ever heard. It’s a three-volumn album that touches just about every emotion that love can make you feel, and does so with wit and honesty. The songs are often absurd, but somehow most of them manage to touch just the right heartstring. Some fall flat, but I figure that happens with every album. I never thought that driving with someone would be an expression of love for them until I heard “Luckiest Guy On the Lower-East Side”, which features, among other things, a keyboard playing sounds that a friend once described as the sounds your boots make when you’re out splashing in puddles. If you just want an emotional tour of yourself, see what makes you feel like what, put the album on from start to finish and pay close attention.
March 1, 2009
It isn’t easy trying to summarize the US political system to a group of Danish students when you’re not sure how much of a language barrier exists and you’re worried about whether or not they think you’re some cool American or some dip whose only value is that he’s taking up class time.
But this past Wednesday, that is exactly what I did. I went in to each of my host brothers’ English classes and talked to them about life in America. Stage fright and fear of being judged by teenagers notwithstanding, I had a really great time. It definitely was a challenge, trying to communicate the entirety of my life in the United States my experiences as an American in a foreign land, but in a way it was surprisingly liberating, especially when I realized that there was very little structure to the entire set-up. Furthermore, I could spout misinformation and still be considered an authority figure. I now understand why my 11th-grade history teacher loved to throw little white lies and larger, technicolored lies into his lecture. He had enough authority, being the one standing at the front of the classroom, that he could tell a group of reasonably intelligent high schoolers that Niccolo Machiavelli, a 13th-century political philosopher, had a great outside jumpshot and the students would write down the information and take it as an undeniable truth. I had to fight off this temptation time and time again when the students would ask questions about life in the states. “How do you get to school in the morning?” “I ride elephants. No, really, everyone in America does it.”
In both classes, I talked about where I live, what I do with my time, what an American university is like, and, of course, what it means to me that Obama is now president. Unfortunately, I feel as though I offered a pretty bleak picture of the US at times, especially whenever I found myself drawing a comparison between Denmark and the States. For example, education in Denmark is free up through university. Education in the US is not free, and I was pretty upfront about the fact that because a year at college can cost up to $40,000 a year, it means a lot of students can’t afford to go to college, or if they can, they can’t necessarily study what they want to study because they have to study something that will help them earn a job to pay off student loans. The students were pretty stunned to hear this. And because I couldn’t help but talk about transportation, I told them how you have to rely on a car in the US to get around, which can be expensive and, at times, unreliable, whereas here in Denmark you have a wonderfully comprehensive and mixed-use transportation system that makes it much easier to go from one place to another.
So this was awfully cheerful. Of course, I tried to balance it out by talking about the hope we have for Obama and the new administration (I asked for the classes’ patience as we try to set things right from the past eight years). I told them how my university’s campus celebrated the night he was elected–dancing and singing in a huge crowd, because we were full of hope that things could get better (and kudos for Obama’s progressive budget, btw). I also talked about how fun university is, even though it can cost a lot, and I talked about the drive that Americans have to succeed even in the face of adversity. When my 12-year old brother’s teacher asked me about religion in America, I said how people disagree with each other about religion and whose religion is correct, which makes it difficult to get along, but I also said that we have pretty good dialogue about it, and that the religious differences aren’t as pronounced as they are here in Denmark (more about that later). I have to say, I found it REALLY difficult for some reason to remember all the different religions in America, which led to an egg-on-my-face situation since I tried to diagram them on the blackboard. I could only remember about four sects of Christianity and I couldn’t remember which ones were Protestant and which ones were Catholic. I would have felt better about this forgetfulness if I hadn’t gone full-steam ahead with the damn diagram. I think my confusion was pretty evident to the class, given the number of times I stepped back from the blackboard and stared at it with an audible “Uhh…”
Oh well. The students were a lot of fun. In my twelve-year old brother’s class, it was hard to say if they followed me most of the time–they’ve only been taking English for about a year and a half, and I don’t think I was sufficiently aware of this while I was talking. I didn’t feel like I needed to only use two-syllable words or less, but I think I spoke too quickly at times. On the plus side, the students had a lot of questions, mostly about my life rather than American institutions, like do I have any siblings and do I like Danish food and, best of all, do I have any pets. I got to talk about my cat. I love talking about my cat. But there were two students in particular who really impressed me. One asked about three or four questions and always nodded in a manner that made me feel as though I were reaching her, which was a good feeling. Another student asked a question more complex than many of the ones I’ve heard in my classes back home. She raised her hand and said the following: “It seems to me that you speak of your university as though you don’t have many freedoms about what you want to study. Would you say that you feel limited in your university, and does this keep you from enjoying what you study?” I was so stunned that I didn’t answer for a moment. I stayed for the rest of the class and I’m damn glad that I did. I didn’t understand any of the lesson (which was in Danish), but it was one student’s birthday and she passed out cupcakes. AWESOME.
The students in my fifteen-year old brother’s class didn’t really have any questions for me (or if they did, they asked them in Danish to the teacher, who translated), but they were a very engaging audience. Since theirs was the second class I went to, I felt a bit more comfortable talking in front of the students and so I made more attempts at humor. And whether they did so out of genuine amusement or considerate awareness of a confused American, the students laughed a lot, which certainly made me feel at ease (and, frankly, kind of awesome). They also applauded for me when I spoke in Danish to them, which made me feel oh-so-multicultural. You know, being able to order a piece of pastry really shows fluency.
My experience in US-Danish relations drew to a close, with me nervously asking my host-brothers at dinner that night if their classmates liked me. My twelve-year old brother nodded, and my fifteen-year old brother said they thought I was funny.
I am so going into the foreign service. I’ve got this diplomacy shtick DOWN.
And as a quick P.S. on the topic of US-Danish relations, I just want to say that last night, some friends of mine and I went to a Dominican club to learn salsa. It didn’t really occur to me that these salsa lessons would be in Danish (yay for US-centric mindsets…), but lo and behold, the charming man who stood in front of a group of surprisingly diverse salsa-learners spoke Danish into his headset as he walked us through the steps. But it is with great pride that I say that, knowing how to count to four (en, to, tre, fire) and left (venstre) and right (højre), I learned a couple steps. I was still the goofy American on the dance floor, but my partner and I held our own, at least, against most of the other Danes in the club. I’m definitely going back there.
February 23, 2009
I spent the weekend in Munich, a large city in the southern part of Germany known as Bavaria.
Can we take a moment to appreciate just how awesome that is? I left Copenhagen on 7 pm on Friday and woke up in southern Germany at 9 am on Saturday. I love this continent. You can get anywhere so easily.
But anyway, Munich. Munich is where a lot of our stereotypes of Germany come from: staggering quantities of beer and sausage consumed by loud, raucous Germans clad in lederhosen (if you’re a gentleman) or dirndels (if you’re a lady, and if I spelled ‘dirndels’ right I’m kind of stunned) while they all listen to oom-pah music played by polka bands.
It is my pleasure to say that most of these stereotypes are true, but I won’t get ahead of myself.
My friend Eric and I boarded the train, finding ourselves in a tiny six-seat cabin and praying that we would not be joined by other people and have to end up spending the night sleeping upright. Our prayers were mostly answered, as we were joined by only one other individual–a Canadian philosophy student studying at Copenhagen University. He was a pleasure to talk to, and we had long conversations comparing travel plans and travel experiences–he has already been in Copenhagen for a semester, and seen a good part of Europe. By the sounds of it, there really isn’t a ‘bad’ part of the continent, i.e. a part that isn’t worth at least a day trip. This is both good and bad. Yes, it means that I won’t end up having a lousy time. But it also means that I’ll agonize about where to go up until I actually book my tickets because EVERY PLACE SOUNDS AMAZING. Of course, this is kind of like being at a buffet of all my favorite foods, so I can’t really complain.
Anyway, because our fellow traveler, we ended up with some creative sleeping arrangements. I can’t really remember how this happened, but they told me that there came a point where I had tried to balance my head on one seat and my feet on the other side of the isle, with my torso hanging down between the isles like I was trying to be my own hammock. To put an end to this foolishness, Eric switched with me–he took the seat and I took the floor. But you know, when you’re tired enough, even a floor is comfortable.
Thankfully, once we were in Munich, we found a place to stay that was much more comfortable than the floor. We stayed at the Wombat Hostel, which is one of a small chain of REALLY nice hostels located in Germany and Austria. The hostel has a real ‘youth’ focus, which means putting up with some eccentricities (like a koala wearing sunglasses hanging from the light fixture above the front desk) in exchange for a cheap breakfast (3.50 euro for all you can eat! Heavenly!) and a free tour of Munich in the morning. Really, I had nothing to complain about. They also had bunk beds, which never lose their charm, even if your bunk mate doesn’t feel like turning the beds into a sweet fort (thanks for being a buzzkill, Eric).
But we got to our hostel at 10 am, and we couldn’t check in until 2 pm. What are two young men in the heart of Bavaria to do with so many hours to kill?
They head to the famous Beer Halls of Munich, that’s what. Seriously, the beer halls are their own culture, and they are exactly what you expect. You sit at long tables, eating the traditional Bavarian breakfast–pretzels with sweet mustard, white veal sausages, and lots of beer, usually a style of wheat beer called weissbeer. Here is where you can see the iconic German image of one-liter beer steins, glasses so large that I probably could have put four wheels on them and called them compact cars. We didn’t opt for the steins, because, well, frankly, I don’t think my body can hold one liter of any liquid. But we did indulge in the veissbeer and the pretzels and the sausage, and the whole spread was DELICIOUS, and strangely fitting for breakfast. Veissbeer is almost sweet, so all the tastes compliment each other very well.
It is also important to mention the context of our breakfast. There was a huge football game in Munich on Saturday–Munich vs. Cologne. Munich is apparently the strongest team in Germany, and my God are the fans willing to let you know that. The beer hall was FILLED with people dressed in very, VERY eccentric costumes, a combination of pride for the Munich team and the fact that this weekend was Carnivale in Munich (and I’m sure the liters of beer added a certain…confidence to the way these people dressed). But the fans were having a great time, singing song after song and getting the entire beer hall involved. Eric and I watched in wonder. I took a video to try to capture the scene, but it doesn’t quite do it justice.
We were later joined by some guys from Cologne who told us that this whole scene was tame compared to what was going on in Cologne for the Carnivale. The only image my mind could conjure was Cologne burning. But the guys from Cologne were great–very friendly, willing to coach us on the proper etiquette of drinking at a beer hall (yes, because after all, there is no greater faux pas than not observing proper etiquette while drinking a small lake’s worth of beer). The German police even came in at one point, but they simply observed the audience for a bit, smiled appreciatively, and left. It was kind of surreal.
After the beer hall, Eric and I kicked around the city for a while, coming to the conclusion that Munich is very beautiful, very old, very Gothic, and very lively. I’m sure Carnivale had something to do with it, but there is so much energy on the streets–lots of open markets and street musicians. I probably saw the single greatest accordion player I’ve ever seen. And I know you’re thinking that a great street accordion player is either a) as impressive as a glass of water or b) as welcome as dropping a box of books on your bare foot, but seriously, the man was amazing. He was doing entire orchestral works on that thing. And besides, street musicianship in European cities is a damn impressive talent.
But the city! The city’s landscape is dominated by Gothic spires and archways, which makes the place feel very dramatic (and makes the McDonalds you come across feel very, very out of place). Eric and I wandered across this one place that, as far as we could tell, was simply a gigantic Greco-Roman temple, with huge statues and a staircase flanked by two huge lions. It was puzzling, since it seemed to serve no other purpose other than to be awe-inspiring, but my goodness it was beautiful. This was right near the university area, which I really wish we could have had more time to explore–lots of tiny hole-in-the-wall places. And in the one indulgence I allow myself in this post, Munich transportation is incredible. Apparently, you’re never more than about 300 meters from a subway stop whenever you’re in the downtown, and this is in addition to a light-rail transit system that seemed pretty comprehensive AND a bus system. So. Damn. Jealous.
Munich is also very cheap, especially coming from Copenhagen–we got sandwiches for 2.50E€, which is pretty much unheard of in Copenhagen. So we decided to celebrate with a nice dinner out at the Glockenspiel Cafe, where we had a delicious plate of gnocchi (yeah, I know, Italian food in Germany, but there’s really only so many sausage-and-pretzel combinations you can have before it get’s to you) for 8€. It was magnificent. I was so enamored with the food that I wanted to take a picture of it, but Eric simply said “No, Baird. Don’t be that person.”
The next day was our indulgence in cultured learning and, as Eric so endearingly put it, ‘car porn.’ We went to the Deutsche Museum, which holds exhibits on pretty much everything (I learned about bridges and sailboats and digital film), and the BMW museum, which holds exhibits on cars, and the BMW Welt, which is essentially an architectural wonder of a showroom. If the BMW Museum is perhaps one of the most innovative and engaging museums I have ever been in, regardless of its subject matter. The museum’s layout is very modern and simple, but the light and colors are very warm, and you’re naturally but subtly led from one exhibit to the other, as opposed to the Deutsche Museum, where you were essentially placed in a large room and you could just look at stuff. The BMW Museum did damn sure to make sure you saw everything and that you understood that BMWs are built according to principles of lightweight construction and emotional aerodynamics. And while I wish I could mock BMW for the phrase “emotional aerodynamics”, I really can’t argue that the aesthetics of both the museum and the cars are honestly really engaging and captivating. I mean, look:
They also had these REALLY cool exhibits where words projected from a monitor would run over a blank surface. You could touch the projected words and your touch would open up a window that went into detail about the subject matter. IT BLEW MY MIND.
As for the Welt…my goodness. The structure is based on a double-cone whirlwind that leads the eye up and into the showroom/exhibition hall, and again the architecture is really modern and light–you’re supposed to feel like you’re floating while you’re there, which is an accurate description. Of course, to accomplish this, they included a free-hanging bridge, which I was less thrilled about. I don’t like bridges that shake beneath your feet when the zealous ten-year old ahead of you leaps up and down. Why tempt fate?
As for Carnivale…the gods were not kind to that festival. Those participating in Carnivale were once again dressed in very eccentric ways, and there were lots of food and drink stands, although any three stands pretty much offered all there was to be had at Carnivale: pretzels and sausage, beer and liqour, and those really delicious German doughnuts that I thought were called “berliners” but apparently are called something else when you’re, you know, not in Berlin. And perhaps the greatest part were the people wearing costumes who pushed around pushcarts full of bags of confetti. That’s it. You could buy a bag of confetti to throw in the air or on your friends or at passersby (which happened to me and Eric) But despite all the fun and games, Munich was hit by the Godawful weather phenomenon I thought unique to New England that is ‘the wintry mix’. And let me tell you, when a handful of confetti thrown into the air with zest and gusto is cut down by a wind driving nearly-freezing rain at a 45-degree angle and is then shoved into the slushy mix of snow and sand and salt that is covering your boots and soaking your socks, YOU DON’T FEEL LIKE HAVING A PARTY. I’m sure it got better once enough people showed up to reach critical mass and convince everyone to laugh in the face of adversity, it was a grand old time. And I’m a little sad that we couldn’t be there to see it.
We bid Bavaria a fond farewell and boarded the train, where we were soon joined by a guy from Hamburg who was incredibly friendly, and told us that we should travel to Hamburg in order to get a more complete perspective of Germany. He said that most people base their knowledge of Germany off of Bavaria, but that life is very different in the North. So add that to the list, along with Barcelona, Cologne,
Later on in our journey, we were joined by a woman who was currently living in Copenhagen (the Frederiskberg neighborhood, where I once got lost), but had also lived in Paris, Berlin, Barcelona, and was born in Brazil. This led to some really, REALLY interesting cross-cultural discussions, including the role of the EU and what it’s like being German after WWII.
Despite the amazing conversations, I still ended up sleeping on the floor, like you do, and getting stepped on when the German got off at Hamburg. I woke up in time to head to Danish class.
Oh, and fun fact. Throughout my entire trip, I carried with me a loaf of bread. This is because I thought Eric and I had planned to make sandwiches for the train ride, but apparently Eric thought we had agreed to just take some fruit along. Now, I brought the fruit, but I also brought my loaf of bread, whereas Eric brought only fruit. So I had a loaf of bread by my side for all my travels (well, okay I left it in the hostel once we got there), and it’s been by my side all day while I’ve been in my classes. I contemplated taking it along for all my pictures, thinking I could slowly build up into a series of photos based on the ‘A loaf of bread, a jug of wine and thou’ poem, but I thought that having to explain away my loaf of bread just wouldn’t be worth it. So I think I’ll just make some toast and find a better traveling companion for next time.
p.s. I’m trying to get pictures on to this post, but my computer is being difficult. Pictures will follow as soon as my computer decides to cooperate.