Hi again. I hope you enjoy this penultimate journey; I tried to make it special.
Hans Christian Andersen, one of the best loved Danes the world over, told us of “The Little Matchstick Girl” (the best story ever), “The Ugly Duckling”, “Thumbelina”, and of course, “The Little Mermaid.” I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen the Disney version of the last one, and if I have, I forgot completely what happens. And you can tell me my life was horribly deprived (cough cough Melissa), but it was totally worth it when I read Andersen’s the Little Mermaid this week. It was the best book I’ve had the luck to pick up for a few years for a few reasons.
First, it is immediately evident that everyone from C.S. Lewis to Roald Dahl to J.K. Rowling owes the magical simplicity of their prose and the endless curiosity of their there’s-more-than-this-I-just-know-it worlds to Andersen, which is doubly amazing considering that his style transcended his language difference between all of these authors.
Second, it is a beautiful story. Very important point, you know.
Third, it takes place in the waters and shore of Copenhagen. Suddenly, the places I’d been in all semester were splashed with the pastel paint of fairy tales and myths.
In the story, her five older siblings get to travel to the surface before the littlest mermaid gets to go up, and they all tell her what they saw, feeding her imagination and building her Romanticization (totally a word) of this other world.
And I could try to describe why Denmark is beautiful to you, but I think that instead I will let the star-filled eyes of the young mermaids help me.
The first sister saw the beauty of Copenhagen at night, with its low skyline and its streets that are filled with low, warm light, never glaring, and where every surface reflects in the light rain the colors of the pastel-houses along Nyhavn or down the winding streets of Norreport, “to gaze at the large city on the shore, where the lights twinkled like hundreds of stars; to listen to music; to hear the chatter and clamor of carriages and people; to see so many church towers and spires; and to hear the ringing bells.”
The second sister saw the clouds, clouds that make the sky feel bigger than any sky could ever be, caught in the autumn sunset. “She came up just at sunset, and she said that this spectacle was the most marvelous sight she had ever seen. The heavens had a golden glow, and as for the clouds – she could not find words to describe their beauty. Splashed with red and tinted with violet, they sailed over her head. But much faster than the sailing clouds were wild swans in a flock. Like a long white veil trailing above the sea, they flew toward the setting sun.”
The third sister saw the countryside north of Copenhagen, where the city turns to rich manors and low forests; “She saw gloriously green, vine-colored hills. Palaces and manor houses could be glimpsed through the splendid woods. She heard all the birds sing, and the sun shone so brightly that often she had to die under the water to cool her burning face.”
The fourth sister was less in love with the land, and so, far out to sea, she saw the beauty of the empty night sky, when the stars rain down in their Northern constellations; “You could see all around you for miles and miles, and the heavens up above you were like a vast dome of glass.”
The fifth sister went north, and saw the sea turn green and white as the cold took over; “The sea was a deep green color, and enormous icebergs drifted about. Each one glistened like a pearl, she said, but they were more lofty than any church steeple built by man. They assumed fantastic shapes, and sparkled like diamonds.”
And the last, the littlest…she came up to find a ship, and on the ship a Prince. From that day, on her fifteenth birthday, she would come to the harbor and watch for her Prince. And there, where the central canal of Copenhagen opens onto the sea, sits her statue, on a rock in the shallow water.
I’ve visited the statue in Copenhagen. It is small, it is simple, and it is also totally perfect. It’s a statue with total humanity. People like to talk about the fact that it’s a letdown after hearing that it is one of the most-visited statues in the world. These people either a) have not read Andersen’s story, or b) did not look in her eyes and see how sad she was (I know because it took me until the second time to see it). So if you go, read the original story first, and remember that Andersen created beauty out of the most mundane, the most everyday aspects of life, imbued it with an infinite universe of magic and imagination, and that if you pretend, just a little, you can imagine her inescapable need to escape into the world she dreamed of, into elsewhere, where life has more colors to paint with.
She is understated, but so is Copenhagen. Neither is the bombastic monument to Western culture that is Paris or Berlin, but there is something wonderful about living in a city who’s most famous monument is a tribute to childishness and magic.
This is not to say that Copenhagen does not have modernity. Danes are famous for their design, and all semester people have been saying how much they love studying at the Black Diamond, a fancy modern library on the aforementioned main canal waterfront in Copenhagen. So on Monday I thought I would try it out. But I got there and it was so nice (“nice”=bearable only because I was in the maybe four hours of direct sun that I could possibly get) that instead I sat on the wooden dock and watched boats pass and birds fight and tourists take pictures of themselves with a mermaid statue that they probably thought was *the* Little Mermaid statue. I took the metro back because, out of the sun, my hands were going to freeze and explode.
Wednesday night came after a day of pre-packing cleaning and homework. Because we DIS IPC students are attentive citizens who keep our ear to the ground and our other ear out to gauge the barometric pressure of the atmosphere, we discovered (via sleuthing techniques like updating our emails) that there was to be another storm! Apparently Denmark never names its storms because there’s only ever one per season. But not this year.
Remembering how, last hurricane, people had been stuck at DIS for hours until they could take a taxi home, we all pretty much didn’t want to go to class. But I had a presentation at 2:40 that was during the final meeting of that class. So I went at 8:30 for my 10:05 music class, which was normal, and waited 4 hours practicing with my group (also going to get pastries…jelly donuts are so good!). Mostly that was uneventful except for one moment. We were sitting on the third floor looking down into a courtyard in the middle of the building, which was ringed with big windows that open inward from the bottom like a swing. And suddenly all of the unlocked windows popped open about an inch, then slammed shut. That was how much and how fast the pressure dropped for our lovely coming storm. It was so exciting!
Our presentation was fabulous (of course), and I left with my teacher’s last gift to us (royal dark chocolate heart shaped lollipops…don’t know how they are royal but they were?). All trains were canceled starting at 6PM, and we got home at 5:30, just in time to sit around the fire and watch bits of dust fall from the ceiling as it shook. But, amazingly, all of the roof stayed on!
The morning after the storm, we ate breakfast inside our wall-wide windowed dining hall as the wind continued to blow the dark clouds past as, and as the eastern clouds turned from black to deep blue.
An hour later, I was waiting at the bus stop, being very cold, when out of nowhere, a giant wall of snow swept from the other side of the street. It left about as suddenly as it came, and by the time the bus came it was just dark spots of water on the ground. But it started again at the train station, where I of course climbed the walkway to the other platforms, because that way I could take more pictures of Sweden being stormed on under the sunrise. It was a pretty sunrise, but on the train it turned one-of-a-kind.
Once I got on the train, I warmed my hands on the hand rest/heater (best invention ever) and watched Sweden across the Oresund strait as I always do. There is an island halfway between Denmark and Sweden that today was transformed momentarily into Valinor or Valhalla. It’s northern half was covered in jet black storm clouds and the southern half was being alchemically transformed by the sun into a low skyline of golden steeples and rooftops, the water around it turning to white fog, and the sky above it a smear from melted silver to faint gold, backlit by an invisible sun that was hidden behind enough clouds that you couldn’t tell where it was, but not enough to take away the shine.
Then suddenly, between one second and the next, the sun was out. The island vanished in the glare off the sea, and the train vanished into the forest past a thousand falling leaves, ripped from the forest floor and sent to fly with the snow, spinning around us in the completely nonsensical and chaotic wind as we passed, the sun suddenly reflecting off of every forest stream we passed, catching every leaf in its flight. The enormous sky of black mountainous clouds, not covering the sky, but spotting it in groups, which gave the impression of immensity far better than a covering cloud could ever do, were turned from black to blue to gold, and still the lower sky was nothing but white fire, so full of cloud and sunlight and mist and water that the horizon was simply a white line of silver glass that only slowly turned to silver and gold and blue as you looked higher.
So that was nice.
So the train continued on, and suddenly the sky was average.. Regular blues and big clouds. Beautiful…but average.
Is there anything more fun than sharing a secret with the universe? It would be like if the exit from the best play you’ve ever seen opened onto an alley, one that juts off from a busy shopping street full of hurrying people who don’t see anything more in the buildings than bad prices and crowds. But you have a backstage pass. Just me and anyone else who lives between Espergæede and Snekkersten who was out on their ocean-front back porch between 9:20 and 9:35 on December the 6th. Like a fairy tale that gives stories to all things, but that people pass by without a second glance if they were unlucky enough not to hear the story.
I arrived at København H, Central Station, my favorite central station in the world (or in “the list of central stations I’ve been to”); it has all of the romance of a train station, the opportunity to disappear and the urbanity and the vaulted iron ceiling (of course), but it only has 8 tracks. So besides being a music joke, it is also representative of everything good about Copenhagen; it’s connected to the world, but it is also small, and never too crowded; the backstage of Europe.
It is also decorated for Christmas. Which makes it ten times better. A giant Christmas tree and Danish flags hanging in massive banners down the central hall like a throne room, a force to counteract the 7/11 and McDonalds (but also the Danish chains too, let’s be fair) that normally define the decorative aura of the building.
Outside, on the steps that try so hard to be metropolitan (with the closest you can get to Danish panhandlers, with the crazies and the Polser hot dog stands) but who fall so happily short (with the bakery inside, the best amusement park in the world across the street, and the general lack of crowdedness in either pedestrian or car traffic) it is snowing. It makes everything immediate. When you live somewhere it loses it’s cliches. Texans do not need to eat a dove that they shot and cooked themselves every day to make themselves feel complete (usually), and dust does not shake from my boots when I come in the door. But the snow here makes it feel like every cliche you’ve ever heard was around the corner. Maybe because I don’t live around snow, but maybe because it simply is magical, at least on that first day before it becomes dirty and before people (i.e. boring people) get exasperated by the inconvenience, before you get used to it like you get used to anything.
So I decided that the most cliched thing I could possibly do would be to follow streets I’d never followed and go in tourist shops and book shops and strange shops and shops I wasn’t sure actually were shops, and just generally battle the storm for my Christmas-present prizes.
So I went to a thousand stores and, on the way, got asked a thousand times to join the same three non profit organizations, and received a thousand “have a good last week” when I told them I wasn’t here long enough to volunteer for them, and held onto my hat more like two thousand times when I passed side streets that snow was coming flying out of.
And I realized that DIS is situated in totally the center of the coolest part of Copenhagen.. I always felt like I should explore more, and I did explore a lot of other areas of the city, but the reason I felt I hadn’t explored was because the coolest area was simply where I already was. Imagine if there were a school hidden on the second and third floors above the shops along the San Francisco waterfront, or in downtown Austin, or just off Broadway (I actually have no idea what “just off Broadway” looks like in reality because I was 10 or something when I went there but you get the idea). Clearly the cities are different, but we couldn’t be in a more living neighborhood.
So it was nice to come to Copenhagen three hours before my last class of the semester, and explore the places I’ve been in all these months, but not as a student seeing what’s next door to his classroom, but instead seeing it as the snowy, Christmas-shopper-filled, energetic, never-an-empty-building, wintry center of the city.
Then I actually did have to go to class, where I got some pastries with sliced apples and cinnamon and maybe marzipan; (they do marzipan with such enthusiasm, you can buy it in the shape and approximate size of a brick). So after class, I took my Santa-bag of gifts back on the train, but instead of going straight back to IPC, I stopped for one last shopping locale: a certain castle made famous by a certain someone so I could buy a certain present for a certain someone else because she likes the someone who made the first someone a someone in the first place.
Then I went to the back of Hamlet’s castle, which is the waterfront, because the weather was a magical mix of residual hurricane and snowstorm. So I climbed out to the abandoned (except for the four other crazy people) dirt walls that ring the Kronborg Castle and watched the sea go crazy and totally swamp the distant docks covered in boats that I’m pretty sure are not all there anymore. Best decision of the week.
Saturday we celebrated a final Saturday brunch, and I walked down to Helsingor in the snow to walk around downtown and visit the castle again so I could go to the gift shop since it was actually closed the day before (hence the alternative solution of standing in a storm).
After that, we came back for Eastern/Central European Cultural Evening, which was super fun.
Sunday, we celebrated our last brunch ever. Then I wrote about it all so you could read about it, cause I’m so nice.
Now comes my last week, in which I will pack, go to Sweden, pack, do a final paper, and pack. If I can’t fit everything in my suitcase there will be a raffle for who’s Christmas presents I leave behind.
Anyways, next time I write for you, I will be in Texas. So. Ta-ta for now, but farewell from Denmark.
She is a beautiful land, but no more than any other, and her people are kind and welcoming, but no better than any others, and she has history, but no more than any other piece of land on Earth (except, like, islands that recently rose from the ocean? Does that happen?), and she makes me smile, but only because I’ve gotten to know her.
Like the littlest mermaid, I love to sit at the sea and see the land of carriages and clock towers, of three-o-clock meetings and doctors appointments meet the endless ocean, and dream of all the colors that life is painted in here, there, and everywhere. Hopefully I showed you a few of the colors that are still bright on the walls and the forests and the sky, on the days and nights in Denmark.
“We’re the heirs to the glimmering world.”