All Laid There By Delicate Hands

Travel Blog 17: Heavyweight Blogging Champion of the World

Generosity takes the form of a small cottage, a preserved fossil sitting on the outskirts of the city of Aarhus in Denmark. It’s one in a protected development that sits enclosed by tall hedges, while a new development rises and rises just a block away, high over any natural divider. The sounds of heavy machinery echo over the low roofs. This is a young man’s cottage inherited from his parents, now loaned to lonely adventurers like me.

But within the boundaries of this small plot of land, the plants are left to bloom, from the blood red roses to the thick bodied sunflowers. A dirty-stained greenhouse is missing a few glass panels, but through the holes the plants push through to claim some of the thick, warm air. A large crabapple tree is burdened with a treehouse built squarely into the crook of its outstretched arms. Fruit litters the ground, grass, and path to the cottage, all that not yet picked apart by birds, bugs or rot. An old broken chair swing dangles by one tangled rope. A tool shed also pulls double duty as the bathroom and shower. The simple bench on the grass faces the crabapple tree and the new development, where one can stick their bare feet in the grass and read in the dying purple light of the afternoon.

And the cottage itself is a collection of all the simplest necessities, of a handful of books on shelves from Salman Rushdie and a number of other Danish authors. There’s a small gas-fed stove and a kettle for boiling water. Two thin mattresses fill out the entire space of the bedroom. There’s a couch and a small desk table to eat you meals or relax by. Everything’s so neat, positioned as if to emphasise that quaint homeliness, as if laid there by delicate hands.

Yes, this was probably the quietest, quaintest place I’ve been in perhaps my entire life.

I met my host Mads in Marseille, as he was travelling alongside his partner for a short jaunt to France and then to visit friends before return to his home in Aarhus. After a five minute conversation, the man immediately offered me the chance to board up in his cottage when I eventually made it all the way north to Denmark.

Danes seem to get around. I think I have met a person from Denmark in every other city I’ve been to this past month and a half. They seem to share the trait of their heritage, namely the need to escape to distant shores. When you talk to them of their home country, they describe it in simple terms, flat fields and coastline. I can take the train and marvel at the flat landscape and slight roll to the moving fields. I can bask in the seaside chill brought on the wind, even through that burning evening sun glare. But familiarity breeds contempt. It’s an aspect of all adventurers, it seems, namely a certain antipathy for their home, and the dread anticipation of eventually being forced to return.

But there is a lot to return to in Denmark. In Aarhus, which is Denmark’s second largest city, everything feels like you’re walking through a small town. The distinct European 19th century buildings barely rise above three stories, and there are plenty of small alleys to duck into where one finds the off kilter and the unique. The Institute for X is a small village/cultural center made out of old shipping containers along the rusted rims of outdated train tracks. Den Gamble By is the resurrected forms of medieval half-timbered houses and other structures. In one of these side alleys Mads himself manages a volunteer-run cafe that’s part of larger nonprofit advocating for several sustainability and diversity causes.

I talked to Mads as he tried his best to both run his cafe and facilitate me, and I told him of the disconnect there seemed to be with America versus the rest of the world. In the U.S. everything felt apocalyptic. Every decision was the end of everything, a spiral that will inevitably uncoil at the base of ruin. There is no sense that problems can be worked out, or that there is even agreement what those problems are. Whereas overseas, people could talk about the issues and know they can be dealt with. My host referenced his own disdain for certain politicians that hold similar views to far-right candidates in the U.S., but his tone is modulated. Maybe its for my sake, but perhaps its because there’s the impression these are issues they can manage.

The Danish people have a certain sensibility toward a kind of happiness, called hygge. It’s probably been overstated elsewhere, but it’s a certain sense of coziness and comfort. It bleeds into their sense of social responsibility. There’s almost no homeless on the streets of Aarhus. There is a wide and deep social safety net for those people who fall through the cracks, and there’s better managed services for those suffering from mental illness: a huge reason why someone might end up homeless. It’s said the quality of life in Denmark might be some of the highest in the world, and their taxes are high enough to compensate for it.

This is compared to many cities in Germany. My brief stint in Hamburg, a beautiful city with what’s called the Speicherstadt, the long rows of old brick warehouses that now enclose hotels, museums and other curios. There are homeless everywhere, sitting under bridges, walkways, alleys and street benches. The homeless issue has become a significant problem for so many European countries, mainly due to the refugee crisis that started in around 2014.

Still, that kind of attitude ascribed to the Danes is exemplified in a willingness to put up a total stranger in the quaintest of cottages for several nights after a five minute conversation.

I sometimes (oftentimes) feel I am a truly selfish person. Those who know me know I can be cheap, yet demanding in my own way. I have milked the generosity of both strangers and the people close to me, and in the same ways. Though I know they would all tell me that is rubbish, that they too find pleasure in seeing others’ joy.

But I have long established a kind of ghost of a life, never owning anything myself worth sharing. To plant roots and then offer those taps to let others drink from is the practical definition of a holistic kind of human connection. I only hope that in the future I can return these kindnesses others have given to me.

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