19 juni 2011

A New Yorker in Copenhagen

It was when I was walking through the Kongens Have that I suddenly realized what it was about Copenhagen that I loved so much. I had been preoccupied by the magnificence of the park itself. Late May brought out the best of the plants and the gardens were manicured to exhibit the best of the flora. There couldn’t have been a more postcard worthy moment…and then out of the corner of my eye, it happened. There they were, two men riding bicycles side-by-side, getting from one place to another. But then simultaneously and calmly they each reached for the other’s hands and CONTINUED TO RIDE. I couldn’t help but stare. Panicked thoughts rushed through my head, «They are riding bicycles and holding hands at the same time? Isn’t that difficult, won’t they find themselves suddenly out of balance from hitting a sudden bump in the road?» (Let’s ignore what in my astonishment I had forgotten – Copenhagen is one of the flattest cities on the planet – it’s PERFECT for biking.) Coming from NYC, where the words «bike» and «accident» are often uttered in the same breath, I couldn’t believe my eyes, it was a lover’s stroll on wheels.

Of course, in chatting with other Danes, I learned that what I saw wasn’t so special; in fact, it’s rather common amongst couples. A small gesture that meant so much. This too, was another point, there was an affectionate quality to almost everyone I met, an extension of genuine hospitality just for the sake of enjoying another human being’s presence that I warmed to right away. Who doesn’t want to feel wanted? Well, it simply doesn’t happen like that in NYC. We’re a wary bunch, and most offerings of openness are viewed with suspicion, like, «what does this person want/expect from me with their courteousness and ‘generous’ spirit». It’s sad, I know, but it’s true; I normally try and keep it at the forefront of my mind as a potential call for judgment, we are animals after all, but here it wasn’t necessary.

Now, it should be stated that my experience wasn’t the norm. To be clear (or attempt to be) many of the things that travelers must steel themselves for were simply removed from my list of potential headaches. I traveled with a friend that was as thrilled as I was about our journey, we were both leaving our lovers at home and we were staying with a fellow chef in her lovely home. So, we had introductions, a place to stay and even a thoughtful food-oriented itinerary, but, even then, people went above and beyond. Shila a colleague of Trina’s, having met us on two previous occasions, invited us to her home for a home-cooked meal! I was touched and astonished (see above). I’ve had friends for over ten years whose homes I have yet to visit, let alone dine at. (This could also speak to the tiny homes possessed by most middle-class New Yorkers and the fact that all those we met in Copenhagen were well versed in cuisine and the gorgeous seasonal offerings afforded by the rich soil.) But, a small kitchen need not hold back dinner, I think the underscoring theme is that Danes seem to take time for the simple pleasures in life.

Everywhere I went, people seemed…healthy. It’s not that everyone looked like they stepped out of a magazine. (Previous to my arrival, a small part of me feared that I would encounter a land of «Raveonette» lookalikes replete with glassy beauty, perfect fashion styling and model-figures.) It was just that the women (in particular) looked absolutely normal. Not fat, not thin, just right. The women in their teens and twenties were thin, but from there every station of life (in my eyes via decades) was reasonably represented. Those in their thirties weren’t thin, they just had the normal inch of overall padding that a reduced metabolism brings, those in their forties, a bit more padded – but, still looking every inch vital, sensual and most of all comfortable in their skin.

I think that is the point here. Everyone was at home in his or her person, even when life wasn’t going perfectly. There was an overarching acceptance of the stages of life and the changes they bring. (Witnessed via many an honest conversation over food or drink.) I think this comfort is an extension of what I witnessed in the two lovers holding hands while riding. I began to wonder how much of it was because of Socialism. Does growing up in a land where you feel looked after lend itself to individuals that aren’t afraid to put themselves out there in all circumstances? Certainly, I met people out of work, underemployed and raised in less than ideal circumstances – but, in this group, all of them still had a core of stability and peace about them. None of them were devoting their entire mornings to meditation and yoga, so there had to be something else at play here. (Although many did seem completely open to such lifestyles.) The Danes I met were interested in life, charged with the energy that each new day could bring.

Gourmands the lot of us, Trina made sure that our weeklong experience was chock full of delicious foods and vistas. Is there anything more satisfying than well-prepared smørrebrød? I think not. We sampled the sandwiches in two well-regarded restaurants, and we were enjoyably sated on both occasions. Food was celebrated, but rather appropriately. It wasn’t the whole picture. In Manhattan there is the term «foodie» (which I hate, and I’m often ascribed to) which basically means someone that aggressively pursues the new in dining out, whatever it might entail with no concern for cost, seasonality or food miles that have been traveled. The joy is in the pursuit, in the hard to get restaurant reservation, the shoes to wear out that evening, the dress that will define a worthy moment. It’s about milestones in NYC, and in Copenhagen, there were no notches, just pleasure, long unaffected, easily obtained pleasure. All in all, it was a trip that could only be described as hyggeligt.

Trine Hahnemann