I’m going to start with a critical fact: Danish men are HOT. If you need irrefutable scientific evidence to support this claim, see below a photo of Danish hunk Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, aka Jamie of House Lannister/the “Kingslayer”.
Beyond the fact that Danes are incredibly attractive, they’re warm, friendly, well-spoken, and funny people with really great calves (note to self: ride more bikes). I initially planned to be in Copenhagen for three days, being open to the idea of staying longer, but also a little concerned that my time in the Scandanavian countries was going to deplete my “Where In the World is Sandy” budget. It’s funny how you get an immediate feeling from a new place and by the time you leave you’ve either confirmed your spidey-senses are spot on, or that your first impression instincts are off. As soon as I stepped out of the Central train station, I got a really good feeling about this place and it wasn’t just because of the hot Danish men and the fact that there’s an amusement park (Tivoli) literally across the street in the middle of the city.
I stayed for the first 3 nights in the city center at Andersen Hotel, a boutique hotel with a room that makes my NYC apartment feel like a giant mansion in comparison. As I walked toward the hotel, there were the beautiful old European buildings you’d expect, but there were also strip clubs, bars, some drunks and general grittiness that wasn’t visible to me in Stockholm. I felt completely safe and candidly, more comfortable among all of the imperfections of the city residing along with the beauty. Perhaps that’s what ultimately made it challenging for me to connect to Sweden; it’s just so perfect. It could be the same reason that Martha Stewart didn’t appeal to me, she was a reminder of a perfection that I not only couldn’t relate to, but just didn’t really appeal to me. I can admire it from afar, but being among the imperfect felt much more familiar.
I made a new Danish friend named Coronja on my first full day in Copenhagen. After wandering around lost for a few hours, but not really upset about it because no matter when I went, there was something cool to photograph and observe and I’ve also rediscovered podcasts. I highly recommend the Revisionist History podcast hosted by Malcolm Gladwell, which links an event in history with a current political or social issue.
Instead of ending up at the boat tour, I wandered into hippy Shangri-la, a place called Christiana. This town was founded in 1971 and has only about 850 people living in it, but it’s a totally “free society” where all decisions about the town are made and voted on by the entire community. They have stores, including a very cool, all female Blacksmith shop, cafes, street art, music venues, but the big draw for locals and tourists is the Green Light District where you can openly purchase marijuana and hash. There are only 3 rules in Christiiana: don’t run (it’s not legal to buy/smoke in Copenhagen, but they do it without much police interference), no photos, and no “hard” drugs. Apparently in the ’90s, the hippies threw out the Hells Angels and banned hard drugs and the area has been crime-free ever since. These are some badass hippies.
Coronja and her friend Panelja sat by me on a bench outside of a cafe and she was so direct, smart, opinionated and had a wicked sense of humor. I liked her immediately. We talked about everything from travel, tips on what to do and see in Copenhagen, terrorists (it was the morning of the horrific Nice attack), politics and honestly, poked some fun at Swedish perfectionism. I’d learn later, that the Scandanavians have a friendly competitiveness between the different countries. Coronja and I set a date to hang out for dinner the following night and I was excited to meet my first real travel friend. We spent quite a bit of time together while I was in Copenhagen and I referred to her as my Danish Fairy Godmother because she was so cool and helpful. And in turn, I ended up spending a day/evening helping her move out of her apartment into temporary housing. When she told me she was moving and didn’t have much help, I felt major empathy having just gone through a move myself a couple of months ago and I had the benefit of movers, friends and family who helped and it was still an epic nightmare. Just imagining being 52 and because of a complicated housing system that I frankly don’t understand, she did not have a new apartment lined up and so she was putting her stuff into storage (sounds familiar) and would be staying in a small mobile home. Helping my Danish Fairy Godmother felt more important that seeing one more museum and I’m happy I did it. I have a feeling she and I will stay in touch and hopefully see each other during while we’re both wandering Europe.
In addition to moving Coronja, I got to see some pretty amazing and fabulous places in Copenhagen. There are museums, castles, canal tours, gardens, theaters and so much more. I’m going to only highlight the few things that I felt were the standouts for me, and candidly, I took the tourist-mode down a level and did less visiting sights and more just wandering around and hanging out with my local friend.
The places I highly recommend includes Tivoli Garden – this is the Disney of Denmark, but less commercial and more charming. Yes there are rides and carnival games, but there are also white peacocks, beautiful flowers, random Taj Mahal-like building, and much more.
Copenhagen Boat/Canal Tours – a great way to see some of the beautiful homes, major tourist attractions without having to go in and the ride is about an hour and good way to get a feel of the city. I continue to be in envious awe of the multi-lingual nature of the Scandanavians as my tour guide seamlessly gave the tour in Danish, German and English with seemingly perfect accents all around.
My last day in the city was spent in my favorite place in Copenhagen, the Botanical Garden. This is a free sight, which is a treat since Denmark, like it’s Scandanavian cousins, ain’t cheap. I spent over $50 on city transportation passes. The fact that it’s free doesn’t take away from its value — this place feels like Eden. The flowers, ponds, landscapes and there’s a seriously peaceful vibe that permeates the entire grounds. Danes were spotted all along the grass, having a picnic or just taking an afternoon nap.
While I was sitting on a bench in a wooden part of the garden, I was listening to the TED Radio podcast episode titled “Becoming Wiser” which was a discussion about what makes us grow wiser, whether it’s aging, life experience or more. One of the guests, Boyd Varti, a South African conservationist and author of The Cathedral of the Wild shared stories about growing up in his family’s wildlife reservation, having Nelson Mandela come to their park, being rescued by his hero, an African guide and the story that had me in tears was about a deformed elephant named Elvis. She is a female elephant that the guides named Elvis because her deformity gave her a walk that resembled the slow side-to-side sway of the King himself. Boyd talked about how he was certain that Elvis wouldn’t make it very long and that all of the locals were so happy to see her five years later at a waterhole with a herd that had adopted her. And when Elvis was trying desperately to push herself up a steep hill and kept sliding back, one of the adolescent elephants came behind her to lift her up with his trunk. And the matriarch would leave branches on the ground for Elvis. The herd, according to Boyd, slowed down to allow her to stay with them. This was all in explanation of the concept of “Ubuntu” a Zulu phrase that means “I am because of you” meaning we are truly ourselves when we connect with other living beings. It’s this EXACT thing I felt when I went to Africa in July 2014. I recall coming back from that trip feeling so humbled at what I saw among the animals and the people who live in a way that’s so natural and connected. It’s simple, sometimes brutal, but undoubtedly connected. I never knew this feeling I experienced had a name and an idea that so perfectly captures that feeling. And that feeling is so powerful, it’s what perpetuated me into this life-altering experience.
Ubuntu is not only why I’m doing what I’m now doing, but also why I felt such an incredible connection to Iceland, being in a place of where nature is everything and also in Copenhagen where I could feel connected to the natural beauty, but also to the people.
Here’s a link to Boyd Varti’s TED talk that does a much better explanation of Ubuntu than I’m doing here. https://www.ted.com/talks/boyd_varty_what_i_learned_from_nelson_mandela