Sunday, October 25, 2009

Copenhagen Report

My wonderful wife Karen had a meeting in Copenhagen, and I kind of invited myself along. I mean, how often am I going to get a chance to go to Copenhagen? Here’s my brief report on the trip. It will be totally uninteresting to people who don’t know my or to those who are well-travelled. You can skip this post. But for my friends who want to know what I’ve been up to for a week:

It’s amazing that we can fly across the ocean in a day, but there’s no denying that jamming a bunch of people into a tube for nine hours is a pretty brutal way to travel. But a grueling flight to Paris left us with enough time between planes to find a geocache near Charles De Gaulle Airport. What better way to stretch our legs and set foot on French soil?

A few hours later, we were working our way through the Copenhagen airport, trying to figure out how to get to our hotel. There were plenty of the usual missteps one makes when in a new city for the first time, but soon we were settled in. The next day (Monday) would be the only full day we had together, so decided to put another country under our belts and took the train to Malmö, the third largest city in Sweden. Considering that the third-largest city in the U.S. is the huge Chicago, Malmö seemed pretty small and sleepy, but it was a nice little town. We walked around for awhile to get our bearings, and ate a nice Indian meal on Lilla Torg, a beautiful old square. I (of course) added Sweden to the list of countries I’ve geocached in. Perhaps the highlight of our short trip to Malmö was a visit to St. Peter’s Church, where construction began in the 14th century. The roof was originally painted with Biblical and allegorical scenes, but was whitewashed over in the 16th century. The Merchant’s Chapel, however, was added in the 15th century and shortly thereafter sealed off as redundant, so the roof paintings survived. They’re pretty amazing – somewhat faded, but the haunted faces of Christ and the medieval knights still communicate across the centuries.

Back in Copenhagen, we walked the length of the Strøget, a series of streets given over to pedestrians. It ranges from fascinating to tacky. At the end of the Strøget, we walked past the Royal Theatre to Nyhavn, the beautiful “new harbor” neighborhood where the canal is lined with restaurants. Karen picked out a tiny place called Havfruen (Mermaid), where we had a great meal. After one more drink on the way back, we called it a day.

Some general impressions: To an American, this is just a beautiful old city – interesting buildings, squares, and canals all over the place. Bicycles everywhere. There are probably as many bicycles as cars on the streets, and they are left parked all over the place, often without being locked. Everyone seems to smoke, although it’s not allowed inside most places any more. Danish women all seem beautiful and about seven feet tall. And the language makes absolutely no sense to an outsider. Spanish or French is easy to pronounce, at least, when you know the rules. Karen had a short Danish lesson as part of her meeting and tried to explain some things to me, but it seemed pretty random. Just about everyone speaks English, though, and will quickly switch to it when they realize that you don’t speak Danish.

On Tuesday, Karen and I left the hotel early so that she could check in for her meeting. I spent a few hours walking, record shopping, and geocaching. I bought lunch from one of the pølser (hot dog) stands, where I got a Danish hot dog that rivaled one of Chicago’s for unusual toppings – along with spicy mustard, it had bacon bits and pickles. It was great. I found a cache at the Rundetårn, the “Round Tower” built in the 17th century. I was amused by the description on the cache page, on which one of the cache hiders related how, when she was a child, she was convinced that the Rundetårn was the tallest building in the world – she had read about skyscrapers in America, and thought that they must be almost as tall.

That night I heard Jesper Thilo’s very creative quartet at Jazz Paradise in the Huset arts complex. It’s the same for jazz musicians everywhere – they played the first set for an audience of three. However, from the first note, they played as if their lives depended on it – with mastery, concentration, and interaction. Thilo’s tenor sax sound was rich and beautiful, and he swung hard. Even if his playing was not particularly original, it reminded me of how rewarding unadorned straight-ahead jazz can still be. Olivier Antunes took things in odd directions during his piano solos, and bassist Bo Stief deserved a medal for following him at least 90% of the time. The drummer, Frands Rifbjerg, was solid as a rock. Thilo’s selection of tunes was a little old-fashioned by American standards, for the most part, but he did play Ornette Coleman’s “Turnaround” along with “Thou Swell” and “Strike Up the Band.” A rewarding evening – and the audience swelled to eight during the second set!

On Wednesday, Karen was able to get away from her meeting to sightsee with me in the morning. She showed me around Slotsholmen, the small island which was the original center of Copenhagen. (She had been given a tour the day before.) Then we took the harbor bus (a ferry, basically) across to the Christianshavn section of the city. After walking along one of the canals, she had to return to her meeting, so I explored Christianshavn for the rest of the morning. It seems a little more “real” and working-class than the other parts of Copenhagen I visited. There were very few signs or menus in English in this section of town. I paid 25 kroner for the privilege of climbing to the top of the spire of Vor Frelsers Kirke (Our Savior’s Church). In the States, this would be a risk management officer’s nightmare. There are 500 steps to the top. The first 350 are inside and wooden; they get steeper, narrower, darker, and more rickety as you ascend. The final 150 steps wind around the outside of the tower and continue to get narrower to the top. It was fairly terrifying, but the view was great.

I then visited the “free city” of Christiana, a section of Christianshavn centered around some abandoned military barracks and which was taken over in 1971 by a group of (for lack of a better word) hippies. The settlers declared the area independent of Copenhagen, and the settlement has existed in an uneasy truce with the city government since. Maybe I’m showing my age or conventionality, but this was an extremely depressing area. It just seemed dirty and unkempt; it was the only part of Copenhagen I visited which was littered with trash. I was glad to leave it behind and take a nice walk along the moat on the eastern side of the island.

More strolling, more sightseeing. The highlight of Thursday was a visit to the National Museum, which had so many amazing displays that I soon began to suffer from “museum fatigue” – one bronze age tool started to look like another. I’d love to go back and spend about a week in this museum. Then it was time to move to a hotel close to the airport, since I had a 6:00 AM flight the next morning. The TV didn’t work in my downtown hotel, so the main revelation from my last evening in Denmark was that Danish TV is as bad as American TV, except that you can see breasts in commercials.

Copenhagen is a beautiful place. I already want to go back, and take my horn. I hope I have the chance.

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