Something about Copenhagen reeled me in. I fell for the city as soon as I arrived, and if someone can be in love without having a person as her object of desire, then I was in love. During my first few weeks there I could hardly eat or sleep I was so excited, and even as time passed, the sense of thrill I had when I was out and about didn’t diminish.
I lived with a family who welcomed me into their life while respecting my independence, and who gave me their presence and attention while allowing me space to explore personal pursuits. I slept in a simple but elegant room under Danish goose down, and when the Nordic sun shone late in the summertime I left my windows open all night long. I cycled into the heart of the city on a direct 20-minute route, and once there I made lefts and rights until I reached my destination or any place I felt inclined to investigate.
In Copenhagen, bakeries pulled me in with their offerings of warm walnut bread and bars with their Danish brews; I drank tea in underground cafés, meandered along lakes and harborfronts, and stumbled upon quirky art exhibitions. I saw thousands of people every day from my view in the cycle lane and hundreds more when I walked the streets—their mismatched socks and skateboard tricks and blue eyes. I ran into friends I’d made and met up with them around town; I had coffee with old professors and new colleagues. Anywhere and anything was reachable by bike—both the places I’d come to know well and the ones I was just discovering.
My sense of adventure was rooted deep in my body, and I couldn’t stop exploring—maps of Copenhagen were firmly in my head just as the city’s pavement was under my feet. I could get anywhere with confidence; all I needed was an address or just a desire to find something new. It was a place I’d traversed and gotten to know by touch, smell, taste, and sight; it became a part of me and me a part of it.
Of course, to say my days were perfect would be untrue; after all, I wasn’t just travelling but living. There were moments when the wind was too much and when the weeks of rain depressed my bright California spirit; there were days when the city felt overwhelming and when I wanted time alone or a childhood friend by my side. Every so often, I tired of hearing the fast clip of a language I hardly understood and felt excluded. But I knew these feelings were a part of things, and that uncomfortable or dull moments were natural.
Denmark became less foreign to me with time and more like home, but I never lost my interest in learning about it. I investigated its capital of Copenhagen through studies and work: it was the subject of both my academic semester and my summer job. I thought about it day and night. What makes it work so well and why do people love residing there? I asked such questions constantly, seeking insights as to why I—and so many others—are devoted to it.
By the time I left, I had many answers to them, but not enough to feel as though I was done with the place. I may have set my rose-colored glasses on the shelf long ago but I’m no less mystified and enamored. Copenhagen will be a place I return to again and again—one that my body will know and recognize forever, that will feel like home, and that will always surprise me and leave me in awe. It grabbed ahold of me and won’t let go—and neither will I. I suppose I’m still totally in love.
These are a few friends who’ve shaped my stay in Denmark. They’re the ones who’ve shared with me the complexities of their lives, sparing no details about the intense joy and pain they feel. They’ve spoken about their girlfriends, boyfriends and ex’s, their husbands and wives, their current romantic interests and past flings. They’ve told me about their fathers, their mothers, their sisters and brothers. They’ve talked about death and what it’s like to lose someone; they’ve told me what it’s like to leave someone, too. From them, I’ve learned more about what it means to have relationships and be supported, hurt, satisfied, discontent, cared for, heard.
These are the people who’ve had me over to their apartments and their summer homes. They’re the ones who’ve sat with me for hours on the couch, the floor, the kitchen countertop, and who’ve talked and sang and stayed quiet. With me they watched candles blaze, flicker and go out; they’ve served me salads and main courses and dessert and finally tea, and then sometimes breakfast in the morning if I was still around. They’ve told me stories, made me laugh, asked me questions about California, taught me Danish words, and told me they just weren’t going to think about me leaving. They’re the ones who’ve pretended I’d never go.
Throughout my stay, I never wasted an opportunity to get to know them for fear of making departing hard. But now I can hardly stand what I’m left with: the fact that I’m going—soon.
I’m leaving the friends who’ve shaped my last six months and who’ve shaped me. They’ve shown me things I’d never seen, taught me things I never knew, helped me discover myself and kept me company. They’ve made me happy and pushed me to tears, but real relationships do that—and there was nothing fake about these: they weren’t temporary, “kind,” or “appropriate,” just to help me out during my stay in a foreign place. They were the connections people hope for most: they were deep and personal. They’ve kept me content and feeling as though I could continue living here with all I need to feel as though I have a place—and that’s why I couldn’t be more grateful for them, or sadder to tear myself away.
The Office: Copenhagen’s Technical and Environmental Administration
If Californians did what Danes do when the sun shines, the Golden State would be completely unproductive. In Denmark, clear skies and warm temperatures are perfect excuses to leave the workplace behind—so legitimate, in fact, that even my boss told me to get out of the office last week when the clouds parted. He said I could work later, when the weather turned sour. Imagine if the heads of Los Angeles or Santa Barbara companies told their employees such things!
As much as I should have heeded my boss and gotten out in that sun I’ve so missed, I didn’t. I had a project to complete, one that I’ve given not just sunny days to but also weekends and even a few nights. With folks from the Center of City Design, a branch of Copenhagen municipality’s Technical and Environmental Administration, I’ve been analyzing outdoor advertising in public spaces around town. I work with architects, planners, landscape designers, and human geographers to map various forms of media in the urban sphere and then to consider their effects. We ask basic questions about what we see: How do ads change the aesthetics of the city? How do they influence people’s experiences? What kind of media is appropriate where, and what’s not working? Our conclusions will soon be sent to politicians who’ll use them to debate the extent to which ads should have a presence in this design-conscious capital.
What those government officials end up deciding will have a very real impact on how the city appears—and is perceived—for years to come. That’s why our work has been so exciting; it’ll give them the information they need to make sensible decisions. Even if they don’t take all our suggestions to heart, they’ll become more aware of what’s at stake in advertising by reading the lengthy document we’re preparing. So it comes as no surprise that I’ve been busy lately—and in the office even on bright days.
When I watched colleagues trickle out the door in the early afternoons last week, I may have been flaunting my Americanness: not only did I work through sunshine but I also worked overtime. I was tempted to hide the fact that I’d been in the office after hours too, because staying late is more likely to be a source of shame than pride here. Danes lead the kind of balanced lives that Americans aren’t used to leading. Nevertheless, I think we’ll all be happy in the end that I’ve contributed the work I have—and I know I’ve gotten something out of every minute of it!
The typical Dane is modest. She’ll never speak about her qualifications, and she’s more likely to be self-effacing than self-promoting. She may wear expensive clothes but they won’t be showy—no chunky gold rings or oversized designer sunglasses here. She won’t receive much praise from others and she’s not likely to give much either, but she’s used to that and it doesn’t bother her.
If she’s a mother, she’ll never tell her child he’s particularly great at anything. If competition arises between him and his friends, she’ll suppress it right away—there’s no such thing as a “winner” or “loser.” She certainly won’t brag about her son’s accomplishments to her friends, because it never even crossed her mind that such accomplishments are worth much attention.
Perhaps it’s the Jante law that has informed her way of thinking—the old Scandinavian doctrine that condemns self-aggrandizement, referred to by some as the Daily Negative Affirmations. More likely, though, it’s Danish society’s commitment to equality that’s shaped her principles.
Here, equality isn’t just an abstract idea that people try to bring into their personal lives. It’s pursued politically and economically. The welfare state is a direct result of the country’s collective conviction that few should have too much and fewer too little. It ensures that all people have the resources they need not just to survive but to lead a good life—and its laws inform Danish views about what’s right.
The State gives the unemployed work and sends them substantial monthly checks for up to three years. It picks up 100% of health care costs under all circumstances. It feeds the homeless and gives them shelter every night, making it impossible for them to be without a roof for long. (I’ve heard that the only homeless here are those who have deliberately chosen be so, or those who have come from other countries in hopes of finding care and whom the Danish system is having trouble accommodating.) It covers most day care expenses so that both parents can work while they raise young kids, and it pays university students the equivalent of $1,000 a month for five years so that they can support themselves while they attend school—which happens to be completely free.
Equality exists even beyond the reaches of the welfare system and is pursued in the educational system too. Students call teachers by their first names and talk with them as informally as they would friends; there’s no Danish equivalent of “Mr.” and “Mrs.” On Friday nights, university pupils meet faculty for a casual beer at events arranged by the school and discuss the world outside academia. Children are told from a young age that their views are as valid as any adult’s—and even though that makes for some unruly classroom behavior early on, it paves the way for meaningful relationships between the young and old later.
It goes without saying that Danes don’t just value equality but go to great lengths to make it part of their lives—and that they do so without second thought. Because equality isn’t just a belief but a way of thinking and platform for action, it inspires people to take on sister traits like modesty, which goes hand in hand with the assumption that people don’t deserve more—or more attention—than those around them.
So that Danish woman in her fine clothes won’t use bling to call attention to herself, and she’ll make sure her kids do the same. But I think that in passing up opportunities to distinguish her uniqueness, she shines. In fact, it’s her modesty that makes her special—even beautiful.
Maybe it’s true that blondes have more fun—but good genes aren’t the reason why light-haired Danes are so happy. Many factors contribute to their high spirits, and one of them is a policy that allows them to drink in public places. This enlivens Copenhagen: people spend more time outdoors relaxing and having a good time because they can do what they want where they want—like have a beer with friends after work in the open air. They fill green spaces, squares, streets, and beaches because those places are destinations in and of themselves, not just areas to hang out before the real parties begin. Young people brighten the places that might otherwise be used mainly by families—like parks—too. Since Danes aren’t confined to drink in private establishments as Americans are, they pack the outdoor sphere with energy—at least when the weather’s good.
So let’s toast to a city that knows how to pander to its people and make life fun!
Earth from above.
Flying from Pisa to Copenhagen, with a little detour over southern Sweden.
I’m sitting in a room that seemed twice the size fifteen years ago, when I was close to half my current height; I’m looking at a watercolor by Marj, a woman who used to take me to old churches at the crack of dawn to paint the light hitting them and who fed me olives on her hilltop deck. Draped over a chair in the corner is a throw my grandmother knit, but I’m nowhere close to her California home—I’m in Italy, on the second floor of a house I’ve visited countless times and nearly lived in when I was seven. My aunt, uncle, and cousins reside here in a narrow brick place built centuries ago, stuffed with paperbacks and films, photographs and flowers, maps and music and big ceramic bowls. Even though it couldn’t be more solid, it’s got movement to it: it practically winds upwards and careens over its terrace and the steps leading up to it, full of magic and energy and currents; people and animals parade in and out the doors, voices and bird calls and sounds from the nearby stream trail through its windows, vines push themselves through cracks and laundry lines run from its walls. This is the place my relatives live—a place I’ve come back to and come home to my whole life.
A few nights ago, my cousin Marina and I arrived here after midnight on her Scarabeo scooter; it had been three years since I’d ridden on the back of one, heavy helmet on my head and layers protecting my skin from wind despite the heat. It was dark of course, but I could place us as we rode through the Tuscan landscape—the roads around here are ones I recognize even without light. My glance brushed over houses and churches as my hand might over a thing it knew, pausing for just a beat at newly constructed buildings and those that have changed with time—as well as those that haven’t at all. My ears caught the cicadas’ electric hum and my nose the smell of burning chestnuts, a scent so powerful I imagined fires. These aren’t the things people typically think of when they imagine this big boot in the Mediterranean, but they’re the things I do; this place isn’t just a romantic getaway with scenery that takes my breath but an old home my body knows and loves.
So far, I’ve done the things I love to do in Italy: sit on the terrace under a hundred heavy clusters of grapes and look out over an abundant garden. Cook in the cool stone kitchen and run out to pick basil for pesto. Wash laundry in the stream and hang it between fig and cherry trees. Nap on hand-sewn quilts. Walk in olive groves in the hills behind the house and take early-morning jogs with my aunt. Catch up with my cousins. Follow winding roads with paperclip switchbacks to rivers in the mountains, where cold clear water runs through rock pools filled with tadpoles black as night. Float in the salty ocean. Feel the heat my body hasn’t known in the six months it’s been in Denmark and enjoy the rich color palette best suited to this climate—sap, ochre, burgundy. Run into old neighbors in the village who tell me how much I’ve grown (“bellisima, bellisima!”). Spend time with people whose memories of me date back farther than my own, and who lend me dresses and novels for my short stay.
When I come to Italy, time around this house and the hills that hold it is all I need to be content. What a perfect trip it’s been so far with loads of time outdoors with family I love, joking and walking and swimming and just being together, moving to the languid tempo of an Italian summer.
And my vacation didn’t even begin in Italy—it began in Denmark last Friday at 4:45 in the morning, when Copenhagen’s skies were already bright. By six Henrik, Lisbeth, Gustav and I had packed our bags into the trunk and filled a cooler with a day’s worth of food—we didn’t know when we’d get to our destination but we knew it’d be after dinnertime. Our GPS predicted that our journey to Basel would take 12 hours, but it didn’t take into account that it was the first day of the German summer vacation and that people would be clogging the highways going here and there and everywhere in between.
The day ended up being a long one, but not as long as I had expected: the wind on the ferry ride from Denmark to Germany knocked me about a little on the deck and woke me up; Harry Potter on tape got us through the rather dull German landscape that followed; and the little of Switzerland we saw that night was enough to keep my eyes wide open. We arrived at 8:30 to Lisbeth and Henrik’s friends’ place, 14½ hours after we’d left Denmark and 1152 kilometers from our driveway there, and after only three brief stops along the way—in true Viking fashion!
Over the course of the next day, my spotty knowledge of the country filled out just a little: 7.9 million people, 170,000 of whom live in Basel. Known for its watchmaking, pharmaceutical research, and cheese. Gorgeous. Very, very old and very, very well-kept (we walked through endless streets of apartments built in the 1200s, 1300s, and 1400s). Clean. Extremely expensive. Stratified socially. Swiss German or Swiss French is spoken, depending on where you are—and both sound laughably strange to foreigners.
Michael and Julia, Lisbeth and Henrik’s old friends from Copenhagen, have been living in Basel about seven years and have a place near City Hall, right in the heart of town. That’s where we stayed—and recovered from our marathon day of driving and subsequent marathon day of walking. On its fourth-floor deck, we looked out over crooked streets buzzing with cable cars and people darting from place to place under umbrellas, and ate local Lindt chocolate (we couldn’t resist the salted carmel—who could?). We explored the surrounding area on foot and sat in churches converted to cafés, moseyed along the Rhine’s waterfront, the snuck into the lobbies of famous hotels. Maybe those’ll be the things I remember down the line, but maybe it’ll be the quiet moments: the morning Michael and I awoke early—6:00 early, on the weekend in the summer—and talked softly at the kitchen table and then decided to make our way down to a bakery—the others would be up at some point and would want a bite to eat, right? Maybe it’ll be the double rainbow we saw, highlighter bright against a dark backdrop of rainclouds—rainclouds I thought we’d left in Denmark. Maybe it’ll be our surprise at seeing meat in the butcher’s window selling for over $50 per pound or our $80 parking bill for our car’s two-night stay in a garage.
In any case, the memories I keep of the brief stay in Switzerland will be good ones, and ones among a shuffle of others: on Sunday Lisbeth, Henrik, Gustav and I headed for the Alps on a drive much shorter than Friday’s but much more enchanting. Montreaux was our first stop—a place that, if you’re not there with a lover, you wish you were. It’s where you look around and can’t help but murmur “oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,” not quite believing you’re actually there—not quite believing that somewhere so breathtaking actually exists. From the edge of milky blue Lake Geneva, you can see chateaus tucked into mountain crevices, snow capping their tops, and grapevines terraced on their steep slopes; it’s where you can take a swim and lay on the shore if you’re there on a day like we were, when the air and water were just perfect. And if you arrive there with a goal like ours—to make it to Italy by evening—it’s a place you only stop for a couple of hours but aren’t so sorry to leave, because the area around it is just as stunning and you’re ready to take it all in.
We couldn’t help but drive through the Swiss Alps with our windows down, feeling the warm valley air turn cold as we climbed up, up, up and away from the heat. A few kilometers above sea level and further south the Alps became Italian, and signaled that we were close to our destination: a small flat in the Aosta Valley where other relatives awaited us—the ones from Tuscany.
It wasn’t long before we were greeted with hugs and dog barks and slices of watermelon, or before the sun set and cast pink light on the mountains. During the next few days the eight of us took epic hikes and got impressively lost, lay in fields when we tired and ate bite-sized plums from wild trees, walked around Roman ruins in the town of Marsan and admired prolific kitchen gardens cradled between the houses in its mountains.
After spending half a week in the valley, my cousin Marina and I took a train to Torino, where we ambled about the university, caught views of the city from a tall building, lay in parks when the heat zapped us, had mango gelato to die for, stumbled into a number of one-of-a-kind shops (“ooooohs” and “aaaaahs”), people watched, and pushed our way through markets and the sellers competing for air space.
At the end of the day, we took another train to Viareggio and shared a compartment with four lively, loud Italian girls; Marina’s Scarabeo awaited us at the station. We hopped on and rode home—to her home and mine, just for a couple days.
This country’s tiny: its landmass is small and so is its population. People here are separated by three degrees and not seven, so your uncle probably dated your best friend’s mom in college and your grandmother has met the queen. Sometimes you run into old teachers who tell you they just had coffee with your dad. Because one-third of the entire population lives in the capital, you might live within a few kilometers of where you grew up and see old mates every once in a while. You all read the same papers and hear the same stories on the radio, and talk about the national news together. In the supermarket, you only have to choose between a few brands of cereal because businesses are small and always have been, and there just aren’t that many of them—and you probably even know a few of their owners. When you were younger, your school required that you become fluent in English and proficient in either French or German, because no other countries speak your native tongue and few teach it, and you have to be able to communicate with them and be an international citizen, after all. Besides, little important intellectual history has been translated into Danish and you have to know it to be educated and informed. In the end, you probably have tight-knit friend groups and value coziness because you’ve grown up feeling close to your fellow kinsmen—the 5.5 million of you are united by a history of military defeat and ensuing commitments to national cultural development, a royal family who represents you and keeps you in the know, and a culture that’s unlike that of any other in the world.
Denmark is one of the most environmentally conscious countries on earth—but what does that actually mean? It’s not a question I could answer with a novel or even a long series, because there’s just too much to say and I’m not an expert—so I’ll have to settle for sharing the things that have struck me most, at least for now.
Seven percent of Denmark’s farmland is cultivated organically, in contrast to the U.S.’s one percent. Half of the population in cities bikes to work or school, and most families living in urban areas have one car and are more likely to have none than two. Vehicles are so heavily taxed that they end up costing nearly triple what they do in other countries, and for a liter of gas (about a quart) Danes pay what Americans pay for a gallon. The country may not have an extensive recycling system but they incinerate all their trash and use leftover resources to heat their homes. Wind machines all over the coasts harness enough energy to meet a significant portion of the country’s demands. One of their islands is completely self-sustained, and the capital city of Copenhagen has a goal of being carbon neutral by 2025—which actually looks like it might be feasible.
All of this is a result of progressive environmental measures that make low-impact living easy. Interestingly, it’s not just people’s independent concerns for the planet that has them acting so responsibly—in fact, in many cases it’s not that at all. Rather, it’s policies, supported by both the right and left, that encourage going green, such as the ones responsible for those “superhighways” that make biking to work easy. Just by following guidelines set by government officials and using systems they’ve implemented, Danes do good for the planet.
Some people go one step further and take matters into their own hands. The family I’m living with takes short lukewarm showers, owns a low-energy dryer but runs it only occasionally, and uses organic products made without synthetics. They buy pesticide- and hormone-free food from local producers and grow their own in the summertime, too.
Despite all this positive action, Denmark gets the brunt of global warming’s tragic effects: located close to the north pole, the ozone layer is thinning fast here, UV rays are hitting stronger, weather is becoming more fickle and temperatures are generally on the rise (yearly averages are up two degrees since the 1950s). It’s time for the rest of the world not only to lament these facts or admire Denmark’s worthy undertakings from afar, but to look to them as a model—ones to copy or at least implement with modifications. We need to do this to help protect ourselves from devastating changes and to prevent future rises in the northern regions’ rising temperatures, which ultimately have global ramifications. The time is now—they’re not messing around and neither should we.