Baltics Day 2: My Date with a Dane

Day 2: Sunday, September 4th, 2016

Sunday morning I realized that I may never contact Anna ever again. Without a phone, Facebook is the best way to reach me, so while we were out last night, I had her friend me so we could meet up today to hang out. She wasn’t staying at the hostel, so that was the only way we could meet up. Unfortunately, I have my privacy settings to not allow strangers to friend me, thus I had no request when I checked. Since I didn’t know her last name, I had no way to look her up. The only hope for us was if she realized the error and messaged me by looking me up in her search history. There is a scene in Hot Tub Time Machine wherein a 20-something from the present goes back to the 80s and there's a scene where he has trouble figuring out how socializing worked back then. Without technology, it’s hard, man!

In the lobby that morning, I found Tijs and Alex having breakfast. When the tour guide came into the hostel to wrangle those interested in the morning walking tour, I head out with him. Alex and Tijs are to depart that day, so they were going to lay low a bit after the late night.

Off I went to head to the walking tour and Big Gay Chris was there. Only now, it’s just Chris. “CHICAGO! How are you? Late night, huh? I’m only Big Gay Chris when I’m drunk. Also, I noticed this morning that I spent over $100 in shots last night.”

Someone I met on the tour was Rachel from Northern Ireland, who currently resides in London. She and I stuck together throughout the tour. Our guide was a young British guy with a Nigel Barker sort of British accent (just like the US, the UK has their distinct accents. One is officially labeled as the Nigel Barker one, according to me.) This tour is of the main city center, so we meet up first at the Town Hall and move on from there. Across the street is Tivoli Park, a really old amusement park that inspired Walt Disney to create Disneyland. Across the street is a statue of Hans Christian Anderson (author of The Little Mermaid and The Ugly Duckling, amongst others) looking wistfully over towards the park.

Our guide tells us of the major fires that occurred many years ago in Copenhagen, leading to the complete wipeout of certain parts of the city (just like Chicago!). Therefore, the area where our hostel is located is only a certain number of years old (can’t tell you, I wasn’t taking notes), unlike the rest of the city. We see Jacob Jacobsen’s home, the founder of Carlsberg beers (which I thought was Irish b/c of the green label, but no, it’s Danish). He invented the modern lager apparently.

Rachel and me at Nyhavyn

We also walk to the famous Nyhavyn port, the one you see on all the postcards with the colorful buildings. The history behind it was that this originally wasn’t a tourist attraction, but rather a regular port. However, there was a 3-day long ship festival wherein a bunch of boats came in and there were festivities and bright nightlife in the area. When the festival ended, it was unfortunately so humid that the wooden gate keeping the boats in the port was swollen shut. So people just kept coming and coming and coming to the area to eat, shop, and spend money, so the government was like “hey, let’s just make this permanent!” so they did.

Our tour was 3 hours long, so we got a 15 minute break in the middle. Rachel the coffee fiend and I headed off to her new favorite coffee shop, which she found the previous day by googling “best coffee in Copenhagen.” She said that this is the place the chef from Nomi goes to when *he* drinks coffee. Must be great! It was a little underground (literally: you had to go down steps below street level) and understated cafĂ© with a simple black and white chalkboard menu with the most basic options listed. Rachel loved the beans there, though, so she bought a souvenir bag.

We walked to the royal square, where there are four large and similar buildings. The only unique aspect of the Queen’s quarters is a 5th chimney. It’s a joke among the Danes that she smokes so much (60 cigarettes a day) that they had to install an extra chimney. I don’t know why it’s really there, though. The royal family is beloved by the Danish people. The prince and his wife met in a bar (The Slip-Inn) and she was just some regular girl from Australia. When they got engaged, she went through rigorous princess training (think ‘Princess Diaries’ Montage) and when she was revealed to the press for the first time, she conducted an interview with near-perfect Danish. The press was very impressed as they know it’s one of the most difficult languages to learn. Thus, she has always been viewed as a respectable member of the royal family.

We went to the nearby Marble Church which contains the largest dome in Scandinavia. At this point in the tour our guide informed us of Nazi-occupied Denmark. When the Germans occupied Denmark, the Danish government disagreed and repeatedly were all “Jews are cool, you guys. There’s no problem here.” But of course the Nazis were like “Uh, haven’t you heard of the Jewish problem? Clearly you’re not brainwashed yet.” Before Rosh Hashanah 1943, someone overheard the Nazis discussing plans to round up the Jewish population on their holiday, as every Jew would be at home during that time. Jews spread the word in synagogue services and by calling up names in the phonebook that appeared to be Jewish. Those who got word went into hiding. Less than ten Jews were captured during the raids.

Sweden, who previously were all “Not my problem” to the Danes who begged for safety in their country, suddenly issued the Danish Jews passports to Sweden. The reason was that Neils Bohr, a Danish physicist whose mother was Jewish, was transported to the USA via Sweden to work on a top secret project later known as the Manhattan Project. However, when he was in Sweden, he was all “I’m not getting on that plane to the USA until you help out those Danish Jews.” So Sweden kicked the dirt a little and was all “Ok, FINE.” The Danish then transported their Jews on boats to Sweden, some ferries, some rowboats, successfully transporting over 7500 people to Sweden. Note: the Jewish population in Denmark at the time was around 8000. Those Danes really know how to look out for each other.

The tour ends and it begins to rain. By now it’s 1:55pm and the changing of the guards happens at the royal square at 2pm. Rachel and I walk over and watch the ceremonial change. We witness one particular tourist running along them with her big pink umbrella, struggling to get a photo of the soldiers on the move. It was pretty entertaining.

We returned to hostel and Rachel had to leave for London, so we say our farewells. I hang out in the hostel for a bit and run into Tijs and Alex again, who are hanging out until they have to head to the airport around 4pm. The second walking tour departs from the hostel at 3:45pm so the three of us say our farewells and off I go on yet another tour.

This afternoon tour is in a different area called Christianshavn. This time I’m smart enough to bring an umbrella, as it’s pouring pretty badly. First the group is shown a merman statue in the canal. This is different from the famous statue that everyone knows about and that is a major tourist attraction in Copenhagen, The Little Mermaid statue, which I never went to see since everyone told me it was underwhelming. So our guide tells us the fable of the merman statue, which is that he fell in love with a woman from land, she came to live in the water with him, and he turned her into a mermaid. They had 7 children. Then one day, she left for land again…and never returned. The statue is completely under water, so the most of us thought he was just bullshitting as we were leaning over the railing over the canal. But then we began to see the outline of the statue, which is the man surrounded by his seven crying children, as the man reaches his arm up toward land, waiting for his wife to return. So sad! Our guide informed us that while it’s completely submerged now, the statue often can get revealed when the water in the canal is low. Sometimes it will even freeze over when that occurs, causing a person nearly every winter to call the police saying there’s a body under the frozen canal, with his arm reaching through the ice!

We cross the Knipplesbro bridge and look at a couple churches. One is St. Peters church, the first non-Danish church in the city. It’s German! We also see the Our Savior’s Church with a spiral peak. The spiral is in a different direction than spiral staircases normally go, because normally the design makes it easy to descend if you’re right handed as you have more leverage with your sword. But the architect of this one made it the opposite, so it makes it more difficult, as it’s supposed to reach towards the heavens and this isn’t a tower built for battle. The bells ring when we’re there and the guide explains that they aren’t programmed, but rather played live every day, to the tune of a different song. Sometimes it’s traditional, other times you might hear the Beatles.

During this tour I befriend a Scottish guy (also living in London) named Stewart and a German girl named Soni. They’re also from the hostel and leaving tomorrow, so we make loose plans to hang out later.

Our group walks to the free town of Christiania, which is where a lot of liberal ideas blossomed for Finland, such as the free love movement. It was here that spawned greater movement that eventually led to legalizing gay marriage in Denmark. Many years ago it was a drug haven but since then the people who live there have pushed out the drugs as they believe it to be the demise of their culture. Now it’s just weed…and the general odor of the neighborhood would definitely confirm this. There is really cool graffiti throughout, many of which indicate their sentiments of the anti-drug lifestyle, such as a “ban” symbol of a red circle with a line through it over depictions of heroin needles. The guide ended the tour outside as you are not allowed to bring tour groups in or take photos inside, but you are allowed to enter as it’s simply just another neighborhood. It’s self-sufficient and most comparable to a commune. They don’t pay city taxes but they also don’t use anything that the city taxes would cover, like energy, medical care, or city services. That last one I was most confused by, since inside there were recycling and trash bins. Where does it go? If no one comes to pick it up to bring to a recycling center/landfill…what happens to it? I may never know.

Stewart, Soni and I hang out at a bar in the free Christiania neighborhood and it’s generally hard to tell who lives there and who is just visiting. We order two shandys at the bar, which the bartender doesn’t have. But he does have lemonade and beer. This is still confusing to him, so he pours us half a beer and gives us a full bottle of lemonade. No, give us one beer and an empty cup and a lemonade. We split both drinks amongst the two cups and it’s like we just split an atom in front of his eyes. Impressive, I know.

I tell Soni and Stewart about my dinner later with Jespar. I signed up with a program called Dine with the Danes, and you meet a local who invites you to their home for dinner. Yes, you pay a fee of $70 USD, but I think it’s worth it for a unique experience. Soni and Stewart, just like Anna last night, seem concerned. “So this stranger preys on girls, does he?” Says Stewart. Rachel earlier proposed that perhaps it would be me along with a few other tourists. Stewart notes that the Danish soccer game is on later, so maybe it’ll be a TV dinner accompanied by the game on his couch. Stewart and Soni make a few more comments about the creep factor, but none as obvious as Anna last night, who expressed that Jesper would be ass naked at the door waiting for my arrival, and that he also would have cooked it all naked. Normally I’m a pessimist but since the chance of that particular thing happening is so little, I chose to believe it would be normal.

Soni, Stewart and I walked to the hostel and off I headed to find Jesper’s house. I had it marked on my map, and I was following said map, but of course I started heading southwest instead of northwest and had to get some dude smoking outside of town hall to point me in the right direction.

So let me explain this: I signed up for Dine with the Danes as it was recommended in my guide book. On Trip Advisor it’s all rave reviews. They pair you with some Dane who has similar interests, as they ask you what you do and what your interests are prior to the visit. Reviews on Trip Advisor even stated things like the program matched them with a similar family with similar ages, so their children could play together. I got my assignment about a week before my departure, and the person’s age isn’t disclosed, but someone listed as Secretariat Chancellor of the County Council doesn’t seem like a 30-something year old. His interests were wine, culture, politics, football (soccer) and cooking. Ok, I can do cooking! And culture is pretty vague. But I like stuff, too! So we can talk about stuff.

I finally get to Jesper’s apartment and apologize profusely for being around 15mins late. He doesn’t care. As I predicted, he is in his 50s. And yes, I was the only person there. The experience was quite lovely. Jesper told me about the neighboring buildings, which house the local University where he is an adjunct professor. He teaches one class per semester on politics. His bookshelf is filled with cookbooks and loads of different types of wine. His apartment is small, with a third of it comprised of the kitchen. He said it was a priority for him since that’s his main hobby. Good thing I’m here for a meal, then!

I ask to use the restroom which requires some manual switch to get water running to the toilet or the sink, which I cannot figure out. Then as I try to exit the bathroom, the doorknob just pulls right off, and I’m stuck inside. AH! HIS PLAN IS WORKING!

I manage to jam the doorknob back into place and open the door. I inform him that I couldn’t flush the toilet but he says to not worry about it. That was weird, because then the entire time he never went back to flush it. That’s weird, right? Whatever. Sorry this is getting so personal but it was just number one, so I guess it was okay?

For dinner, he cooks a three-course meal, and being so interested in cooking, they are all fancy and gourmet dishes. He starts us off with some flaky pastry cups filled with a mushroom sauce (he named the mushroom and I don’t eat mushrooms, so if it’s not Portobello I have no idea what it is…I had no idea what it was). We each got two that were about 2 inches in diameter, and they were delicious. He paired it with a white wine. He travels to France for vacation quite frequently, and he always purchases wine in smaller bottles since he can try more varieties that way, and because it’s easier to share between two people. I don’t know about Danes, but in the USA, those 750ml bottles are easily finished by two people.

For the main course, he has a pork tenderloin wrapped in bacon, which he sears in a pan on the stove. Pork is big here. After removing the meat, he adds some red wine to the drippings and scrapes the pan to make a sort of sauce. He serves us each four thick slices of the tenderloin with the pan sauce, and a side of green peas. He pairs this dish with red wine. I don’t have to tell you that it was amazing.

Finally, for dessert, he scoops us each a mound of vanilla ice cream with some sort of berry sauce. It appears to be raspberry or blackberry, but it’s something different that’s native to Denmark. It’s a berry he picked earlier today in his summer home outside of Copenhagen! Again, delicious.

During the meal we discussed the politics of Denmark, the international hatred of Trump, travel, the differences in the people from LA vs NYC, and much more. It was definitely entertaining and worthwhile, but I think if I were to do it again, I’d like to do it with a person closer to my age.

I headed back to the hostel around 9pm, put on some “going out” clothes, and met up with Soni and Stewart who were playing Crazy 8s in the lobby. Soni (and some other German lady who was playing with them) were impressed that I’d heard of this game. Uh yeah, my birthday is 8/8/88 and I was quite literally born for this game. If you’ve never played, it’s like playing UNO but with a regular deck of cards. Soni of course has some German name for it, but I don’t recall what it was. Stewart and I then played a few rounds of the card game Speed, which he calls Spit. But it’s the same.

I meet a guy at the hostel who hears my accent and says he’s from Boston, but he knows people in Chicago. He went to Indiana and has college buddies who live in Wrigleyville. Of course you do, that’s definitely the formula. He laughed.

Soni decides to call it a night around 10:30, but Stewart and I decide it’s time to head out. Knowing it’s a Sunday, we anticipate it being a quiet night. There is definitely a lack of pedestrians, but it’s early, so we still have hopes. It’s also still raining so that could deter people. Stewart and I look through the windows of various open bars with literally NO ONE inside but the bartender, eventually settling on one that has a foosball table because…foosball. It’s a German-themed place where the bartender wears lederhosen and looks like a blonde Viking. We ask him where everyone is, and he agrees the rain is a factor, but also the Danish soccer game is over so everyone went home after that.

Stewart and I play several rounds of foosball to the cheesy tunes of Swedish, American, British, and Danish boy band music. It just doesn’t seem like the type of place to play that, but ok. Stewart overwhelmingly wins, but I did fit in one winning round. A couple small groups of young guys come into the bar, and they start playing some game I didn’t even notice before. There’s a giant log, and you pay about a dollar to get three nails. Each person gently taps their nail in the top to make it stand. Then you pass the hammer around taking turns smacking the nail into place, but with the hammer held near your shoulder with big swings (to make it more difficult). I hit the nail on the head a few times in a row, but Stewart fails and eventually just starts hitting it into the log with short, aggressive swings in frustration.

The bartender recommends us to go to LA Bar, which is always packed no matter the day of the week, and he has no idea why. Off we go! LA Bar is definitely packed, and even has a rope outside in case a line queues. But there’s no line so we enter right away to the somewhat tightly-packed, dimly-lit bar. After a couple drinks we go for a walk and eventually head back to the hostel, as it was now getting late.

Tomorrow is my final day in Copenhagen and I plan to squeeze every last memorable moment out of it!