Living Like a Water Strider on the Streets of Copenhagen

Travel Blog 18: A Blog Now Old Enough to Drive

We can all only be so lucky to have guideposts pointing in the direction of our graves. 

It’s what one can expect when walking into the Assistens Kirkegård, a cemetery in the Nørrebro district of Copenhagen that features many famous Danes. It’s an open air and more reserved version of the Paris Forum, but with that much less sense of fanfare and memorabilia to go along with the presentation of where these esteemed people are buried. 

There are the signs to the grave of Hans Christian Anderson, the author of “The Little Mermaid” among many other plays, poems and children’s tales. His plot is shielded with a host of pink flowers. Another marks the site of Søren Kieregaard, the Danish philosopher, social critic, and father of Existentialism, whose plot also bears the name of his immediate family members. The Danish state has been remodeling his grave and cleaning it, keeping it verdant on the ground in front of him, as apparently “per his wishes.”

Graveyards have a kind of existential severance to them, as if a square of beautiful melancholy cut from some foreign fabric and sewn onto some grand quilt. In San Sebastian, I remember the path up the Monte Urgull was flanked by the graves of the long dead soldiers and mercenaries who came to the Castille crown’s aid during the late medieval ages. These were old and faded, not marked, numbered or in any way cared for like the Danish had with their plots in Assistens Kirkegård. Some of those Spanish graves (for all were people who fought for the kings of Spain, sometimes against the Basque people) were literally splitting apart. Some awesome and beautiful stonework was sliding down the steep mountainside. It seems so much like the Spanish, to build up something so ancient and grand, then sit back to watch it crumble with a fatalistic air.

There may be a timeless nature to the city of Copenhagen, and not so much preserved but somehow everlasting. The new buildings blend in with the old. Streets hold a kind of brilliance that is both subtle and overt in color and age. It’s the leisurely pace of it all, or that is the impression of a person who has only been there for a few days. It seems to be a similar case with so much of Denmark, that there is nothing more sacred to the people there then the opportunity to relax, if not in tranquility, then at least with a sense of communal purpose.

Here in Copenhagen, nobody locks their bikes. Well, they might chain or inhibit the rear tire, but it’s hardly enough to stop any dedicated thief. In Amsterdam, perhaps the most hectic place to ever attempt to take two wheels out on the road, the bike chains are like anchor cables. It would take an industrial press to snap a link on one of their bike chains. In Denmark, it’s said there are more bikes than people. Residents often have two bikes, one for commuting and another for recreation, and still there is not a sense of rush or that anyone is close to being bowled over when walking the streets. 

My previous host told me about Christiania, a kind of post-anarchist section of the city known for its pot smokers and alt-lifestyle. There was a time that the residents of this place, which used to be a disused military base before local squatters took over and instituted a free-state commune on the shores of the old canal fortifications built after the Dano-Prussian War of 1864, clashed with police consistently. Now the area is home to several gift shops. The weed dealers on the street have posted signs around asking not to take pictures. The drug is still illegal in Denmark, but it’s sale is tolerated in and among these forest-rimmed streets. Their request for no pictures made it hard to capture the wonderful street art pasted to the side of old, decaying warehouses and barrack-type buildings. And when you compare it to the heart of central Amsterdam, with its copious number of coffeehouses and the constant party-like atmosphere that stands in stark contrast with most of Dutch culture, Christiania is just another patch on the quilt, an offshoot but a continuation of that Danish attitude toward everyday life.

Most Danes speak English, and very well at that. Their ability to code switch at the drop of a hat is perhaps the most acute I’ve seen among any European country. I almost feel guilty of walking up to anybody behind the counter, greet them, then they immediately switch to English once they realize just who I am. But it’s fine, they don’t mind. There are so many different kinds of people who live in the city, from many different continents. I don’t believe I saw a harsh word exchanged between any two individuals in the whole time I was in that country. Here, life glides as smooth as an eight-limbed water strider along placid river waters, each movement barely making a ripple on the surface

That’s not to say they’re not passionate, nor that there aren’t the angry or rough sort that drink several cans of beer at 9 a.m. on a Thursday morning. There’s discord and disagreement, because of course there are. They have the same discussions about the LGBTQ community that we do here in the states, with just as much rancor and hate. There is no monolith to any people, especially not now in our globalized, internet connected environment. But the sense of the sensibility of such a location is palpable. Everyone I met while in that country has remarked on it.

It’s interesting that my thoughts on a place are only in relation to where I’ve been previously, especially because for all the cities I’ve been to in just two months, Copenhagen, and much of Denmark, stands out for this sense of collective harmony, a kind of balance that’s somehow stabilized by the active mindset of its inhabitants.

Maybe it’s this sense of the place that has my mind returning home. It’s already thinking of certain comforts, of friends, games, and luckless hopess for employment or love. 

We all like to imagine we are changed by our experiences, but more often than not, certain traits of our personalities are reinforced while others subside. That introspective, bookish side of my personality has been bolstered, along with the part of me that makes random and rash decisions. I have also lost a significant amount of body fat thanks to the miles upon miles I have hiked every day for the past two months. 

But I have not become any less awkward in social settings. I doubt anything could change that at this point in my life. I am not led to a life of hanging out in clubs or parties. 

So at what point will all this be memories, and when will all these countries, cities, towns and streets become mere places to me?

And for true change, of me, of everything, will I need to be even more radical in my life choices? Will I need to uproot myself entirely, and live a new existence? I’m sure I’m not the only one with these thoughts. In fact, that’s a community I feel even more apart of now. 

So I’m in Iceland now, having finally met up with my brother. I’m coming back to the states on Aug. 18, and I have plans for two more blog posts to wrap up this little project. For those few who have kept up with these posts, thanks for sticking with me.

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