The thing that amazes me most about traveling, especially overseas, is how much my preconceived notions differ from reality. Even at this age, even after having visited five continents, I always have this almost fantastical idea of what I’ll encounter, simply for not having experienced a place firsthand before. I paint these images in my mind – be it of Seattle or deep space – based on what I’ve read, seen, or heard. I synthesize that information like so many pastels to conjure a picture. Maybe I envisioned blond-braided girls and leiderhosened boys wandering whimsically through fields of edelweiss as they make their way home toward their A-frame chalets to eat raclette and chocolate before I actually visited Switzerland, for example. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just me.
But what inevitably blows me away once I land and settle in is how silly these stereotypical scenarios seem, although they do sell souvenirs. We all buy bears dressed as Beefeaters and miniature Eiffel Towers. I’m not sure exactly what I expected of Denmark, even though I’d read two guidebooks cover to cover. Danny Kaye, in his role as Hans Christian Andersen, sang in my ear “Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen, friendly old girl of a town…” I’d read Kierkegaard and revered Niels Bohr. But none of that helped me formulate a more concrete idea of what I’d find in Copenhagen other than a vague sense of a tall, blond, albeit little, mermaid eating Danish pastries and herring. Pretty lame, even for a lame caricature.
Of course what I (and my 21-year-old son) found were people, just like us, doing pretty much the same things that we do, with some striking similarities and some very notable differences.
Denmark’s capital city sits on the island of Zealand, itself surrounded by water. It is beautiful, clean, safe, efficient, and environmentally conscious. Everyone we encountered spoke perfect English and welcomed us with warmth. Here are a few things that really stood out for us about Kobenhavn (as they spell it):
- Everyone, and I mean everyone rides bicycles. Everywhere. In this relatively small city, 36,000 people commute by bike daily. The city plows bike lanes before they plow the streets and strictly enforces cyclist safety laws. Two-wheelers park alongside almost every building, and two-, three-, and four-deep outside rail stations. Families travel in specially outfitted three-wheelers, with a sort of bin at the front where a mother often sat with a child or two while a father pedaled. Most had child seats; very few had locks when parked. This makes for less pollution, less reliance on fossil fuels, and more regular physical exercise.
- Every single inch of waterfront space (and there is a lot of it in Copenhagen) must provide public access. Boardwalks and concrete paths, most outfitted with some form of recreational equipment and seating, line the canals. We saw trampolines built in to the sidewalk on one stretch. The wooden walkway in front of our hotel had exercise equipment, ladders for swimmers to lower themselves into the jellyfish-filled waters, and ramps for skateboarders and bikers. The newly built theater overlooking the canal neglected to allow for access initially and had to go back to the drawing board and add a path around the building. A new port-side parking lot was constructed entirely underwater so as not to block views. Its large, flat roof will be developed as an outdoor performance area. Several of the bridges over the canals are exclusively for pedestrians and cyclists. The imposing national library, known as the Black Diamond because its ebony glass exterior reflects the water and glistens on a sunny day, puts lounge chairs out on its extensive deck area for public use. Even private residences must have public walkways if they abut the water. All this further facilitates physical activity and makes for very beautiful vistas at every turn.
- We spoke to a 22-year old college freshman on our first day. She explained that most students start university later than we do here, often taking time off after high school. Not only is higher education tuition-free, but students receive a stipend during their studies. She said that no one in the country is prohibited from going to school for financial reasons.
- The cuisine is amazing! There is a huge emphasis on organic, local, fresh, minimally processed food. The city boasts that 75 percent of their institutions serve organic food. A huge warehouse on the waterfront houses Copenhagen Street Food, an amalgamation of different stalls offering a wide range of international specialties, ranging from sushi to souvlaki. I enjoyed my personal favorite Danish specialty: smorrebrod, which roughly translates to spread bread. The dense, delicious Danish rye bread is served open-faced, covered with such delicacies as herring and onions, smoked salmon and egg, or chicken salad with bacon. Devon had a thin pancake made of egg filled with pulled pork and vegetables. We also enjoyed Torvehallerne, the more upscale food market with butchers, cheese mongers, and seafood vendors. The Danish consume more coffee per capita than any other country in the world, so we often found ourselves watching the world go by sipping joe in a sidewalk café. And of course, we visited the Carlsberg brewery and enjoyed the two free samples. Just to be polite.
We truly fell in love with wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen. We did pass the Little Mermaid statue during a pleasant boat tour. But I’m happy to say that we didn’t see stores dotting the city selling replica statuettes and T-shirts emblazoned with her image. Yes, many things felt familiar. Yes, people everywhere work, eat, spend time with family, and sleep. But in this Danish capital they seem to do so with great respect for each other and for their environment, with style and an appreciation for aesthetics.
I’m happy to be back to My Life on the Post Road, but I miss Copenhagen already. I look forward to replacing my caricature of my next destination with the tangible reality of a new adventure.