Sunday, April 22, 2007

Message in a Bottle: Sending out an SMS

It’s weird when a guy breaks up with you and you’re not even his girlfriend. “Sorry, Lars. I mean … Lasse… didn’t realize we were in a relationship?” seems such a lame response.

That’s happened to me in Denmark. It’s even weirder when he chooses to do it in a text message. That’s happened to me as well. It’s the weirdest, however, when he writes the break-up SMS missive in a language you don’t speak.

And he knows you don’t speak it. So, he writes something that he
knows you’ll need help in translating by a fluent danish/english speaker. Which could come in the form of, say, the blonde gentleman in a gray suit sitting next to you on the train from Høje Taastrup to København. Who politely stammers, “I’m sorry, but it’s not a match,” um…. “I wish you off. Tax! Wait no… I wish you well, sweetie.” Yes, that’s it.

You can do two things in a sticky situation such as that, assuming you’re unable to lunge for the nearest emergency escape hatch. Lick your lips and smile broadly at your seatmate in such a way that shows composure and grace. Always take the high road, and if he asks you if you’re okay, respond, “Oh, yeah! I just hope Lasse gets the help he needs.” An illusive story to deflect all blame works like a charm. Adds to the 'hygge' in the train cabin.

If this ever happens to you, the second step is a bit trickier and calls for creativity. Peer around the cabin for a person who looks like an expatriate, equally as non-danish as you. Avoid anyone wearing hemp bracelets and white sneakers (American), or anyone with a massive maple-leaf stitched to their backpack (Canadian). Preferably find a young woman who hails from Poland, Turkey, Pakistan or Namibia; someone with dark eyes that have seen a lot.

There’s an unwritten rule between foreigners in Denmark that you help each other out when in trouble. We all seem to speak the same language, which is called nøtdanish.

Once spotted, plunk yourself down in the seat across from her and say, “
Undskyld! Can you please translate something for me into your native language , [Polish]?”

Then, feverishly jam your thumbs into your mobile phone until you’ve written the following message: “Powitaninia! Porządku. Wy jesteście odurzonymi człowiekiem! i czuję współczucie do waszego *bony* osioł!

In English, it would mean, “Hi! Nimrod! I wish you (and your bony! ass) all the best in love and life! Ta-ta.”

Again, keep it classy. The exclamation points! will convey cheerfulness and civility! Once you’ve fired off the text message, say thank you to your kind savior and return to seat number one.

Proceed to set up a date with the blonde guy. Everything else will sort itself out from there.

(April 14, 2007... Arild, Sweden).

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

An American Rides in Denmark

One of my beloved weekend rituals in Denmark is a ride up the coast of Sjælland on my 10-speed Dutch bicycle. This not-too-strenuous workout fuses three of my favorite activities: sight-seeing, day dreaming and exercise.

On these bike rides I think about nothing and everything. I’ve solved all the world’s problems a few times over (too bad I didn’t have a pen and paper handy). I think about my charmingly Marxist university, and the irony in them embracing with open arms my heartless republican ways. Sometimes, when a bug flies in my eye, I ponder why it is I’ve never been able to wink. After years of trying, I’m convinced it’s a genetic trait that, sadly, some are born without, much like being able to roll the tongue into a burrito or properly pronounce the Danish dessert
rødgrød med fløde.

Sometimes, I consider pressing global events, like the making of the last, littlest superpower on Earth—Denmark— and how it’s a microcosm for a perfect society with values, riches, culture, great pastries, high taxes, skilled workers, human rights and smartly dressed citizens. I call Denmark my pocket country, because it’s just so cute and wonderful, I want to put it in my pocket.

These are the musings that accompany me on the bike.

A couple weeks ago, on the heels of a promising Danish romance fizzling like a can of old Carlsberg, I found myself mashing the pedals along my normal route up the coast. Through the lively streets of Copenhagen, weaving in and out of blond men pushing baby carriages, I headed east 5 km toward the Øresund Sound, then north through the towns of Taarbæk and Humlebæk on a concrete bike path, smooth as glass, that runs parallel to the sea. The Øresund strait is the body of water that separates Denmark and Sweden, the Nordic name for the mingling of the North and Baltic Seas that hosted legendary battles centuries ago between pillaging explorers in funny hats. It was a blustery day, two weeks ago, as I peered out into the foaming sea and imagined Hans Christian Andersen staring into the same space a century and a half earlier. His Little Mermaid lingering beneath the navy-blue water was an image dangling in my mind, safely encased in a bike helmet two sizes too small for me.

Some days — particularly when I’m bothered by some major or minor injustice, or plagued with a hangover — I pedal my bike with an overly excited vigor that would look bizarre to the innocent bystander. I probably resemble a full-grown Napoleon Dynamite, who is still pissed off at the world. Those days are rare, however, as life in Copenhagen gives me precious little to fret about.

But that day, I was upset. And sad. And I didn’t know why—or at least, I thought I didn’t— which upset me further. You know that feeling you get when you haven’t cried in the
longest time, and you peer inside yourself and marvel at your strong, vibrant interior—coated in deep colors and textures of wool and steel? And you reach across your shoulder, and give yourself a proverbial pat on the back, for being so impressively strong? You know, sensations like that? In that moment, riding the bike, I made my escape into that tough-girl daydream.

But I didn’t get far. Peering across the Sound at Sweden to the north — a land where deadpan Vikings ferment their emotions into congealed ale — I noticed a tear leak from the corner of my eye, still caked with day-old mascara. I put my head down, embarrassed.

As the rain began to pour, I looked up to the sky and thanked whomever for not letting me cry alone. Denmark is a country where (when sober) everyone is preoccupied with the issue of embarrassment. I’m picking up on that tendency to a degree. But that day, somebody saved me from such a fate, and wasn’t going to let me be the weeping, pink-wearing American Napoleon Dynamite, pedaling toward Sweden, but going nowhere fast.

I cried freely with heaving sobs. The salty mist conspired with the rain to tangle my hair, swinging in a long ponytail down my back. Looking inland, I let go of the handlebars to crane my neck in sight of the
one white house I needed to spot. A stately mansion on a hill across from the ocean in Charlottenlund is the U.S. Ambassador’s residence, where the Stars & Stripes fly, adding primary colors to a gray skyline. It is the only spot in Denmark permitted to fly the American flag. It is a fixture of vast mystical proportions for a homesick girl on a rainy day… in a land filled with shy, tall heartbreakers uncertain how to receive her.

I tried and I tried, but I couldn’t find the Ambassador’s home. It wasn’t in front of me, and it wasn’t behind me. With each pull on the pedals, each grating swing of my knobby knees, I bobbed my head forwards and backwards, grasping for some sign of life. I needed something to straighten my spine, to salute the tears out of my body like a squeegee scraping on glass.

The absence of the flag made my emotions unravel further, until my breathless moans were whittled down to a whimper, which became a hiccup of laughter. I pedaled on the edge of my passions, between joy and sorrow, between two nations, until the cry became a giggle, and the giggle became a sore stomach. I deserted my search and gazed at the road in front of me, with side-splitting hysterics navigating a crooked path. An old man in his church suit pedaled in my direction, with a wet dog perched in a basket over his front wheel. I winked at the old man, the only way an American girl who
can’t wink can.

I had blinked my last tear. He spun past me, attending to an inner-debate in his mind that lasted an instant and ended with a faint smile over his shoulder, directly at me. Behind him, I spotted my old friend. The American flag soared in the sky, but there was no rain above it. The clouds parted, and a weary sun peeked from behind a canopy of gray that had been in place all winter long.

I call it Denmark’s winter filter that turns bright shades to gray and the moods of an entire population to ash. Soon, in the spring, the filter would fade away, and pale people would emerge from their houses, euphoric.

Seeing all there was to see, I turned for home. On the ride back, I thought about mermaids and Swedish astronauts… and the hard-earned smile from a stranger. I thought about the chipped fortress around my heart… and polished European men and women sipping lattés with their lovers... and all that tricky sunshine.

Sometimes, on rainy days, on bicycles, the world becomes a little clearer. If only you could take that clarity home with you, inside your pocket.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

From Paris to Malmö to Girona...

Recently, I've been fortunate enough to take some quick trips to France, Spain... and Sweden. That last country on my list doesn't really count ('no offense' to my Swedish friends), but the country is only a 30 minute train ride from Copenhagen, via the Øresund bridge connecting DK and Sweden.

In early March, I had my first Parisian adventure... and it was j'magnifique. (I don't speak a lick of French, so that is a completely made-up word, never to be uttered in the company of a francophile). I was there under the guise of "work," which means: a comp'ed hotel room, swanky dinners at Michelin star restaurants and lots of high-grade French wine, cognac and cheese.

I highly recommend the following accomodations: Hotel Saint Germaine in Sector 6. St. Germaine is a bastion for all things culturally inspiring, religiously uplifting, and consumer-centric. That means, there are pretty churches, cool museums and great shopping! Literally, the shops rival the finest boutiques on Rodeo Drive, a formative place where I honed my shopping skills in the my late-teen years while at UCLA. I'll leave the museum critiquing to the experts...

I will, however, freely critique the level of friendliness and hospitality I witnessed in Paris, and give the city a 9 out of 10. Too many Americans (erroneously) believe the French are out to get us. We take to heart the criticism leveled at us by their more-vocal politicians over our foreign policy, which they may or may not find slimier than escargot. Regardless, it's unfortunate we take the comments so personally, and assume that when they speak of the war in Iraq, they speak ill of us. Or even worse, that they hate us. The French do not. Visit the country and see for yourself a population of passionate, honest, good-natured, loyal people with joie-de-vivre and a classic radiance that is all their own.

While in Denmark, I've had the privilege of befriending two French expatriates who live in Copenhagen. One of them (employed as a communications director for the UN) has been in Denmark for 4 years; the other one (working on her PhD in computer science) has been in DK nearly 2 years. After many fits and starts trying to learn danish, both have quit completely. Neither of them are capable of speaking or understanding much danish at all. What captivated me was how proud of this fact they are! The gentleman said to me, "Why do I need to learn danish? Everyone here speaks English!" I laughed at the irony. The woman also turned up her nose at the thought of trying a bit harder to speak danish. Apparently not all french people are averse to learning English, but they draw the line at danish. So, if you want to find a citizen of France who speaks perfect English... go to Denmark. (Please note the lower-case "d" in danish is the correct usage, according to the danes).

Upon returning from France, I had the rare opportunity of hosting two close Sacramento friends, Penny and Alene. It was their first visit to Denmark, and they remarked how impressed they were to find such a clean, friendly country. We had a marvelous time together, even managed to squeeze in a trip to Malmö, Sweden. The photo (above) was taken in front of City Hall... (I think? My Swedish is a bit rusty, and I had trouble reading the signs).

Last week, I spent several days in Girona, Spain… as part of a series of interviews with an American pro-cycling team, with a growing European contingent. They put me up at a lovely hotel in the Jewish Quarter (Ciutat de Girona), near the city’s main walking street – the Rambla—that runs parallel to the Onyar River. Girona is a very friendly and gracious city, with architectural style that mixes modern and classical. It is off the beaten path for most pedestrian tourists in Spain, which adds to its charm. The cycling industry (and the fact that Lance lived there for 5 years, along with many prominent Tour de France riders from various teams) has invigorated the city's appeal to tourists looking for a quiet, medieval town away from Barcelona (on the Costa Brava), and close to the border of France.

Its citizens were warm and inviting—laughing whenever I broke into danish while stopping for directions or purchasing specialty chocolates (one of its famous Catalonian products). Girona’s centerpiece is the old quarter—where I stayed—which stretches out beneath ancient walls and watchtowers on a hillside on the east bank of the Onyar. Girona has a rich and glorious Jewish history in the Catalan region— even housing the medieval community of El Call, where the Kabbalah was first written down in España. I found the following excerpt: “For nearly 500 years, it lay buried, literally sealed off, as houses and streets were, in successive layers, built over it. Now in an ambitious restoration project, Gironans are digging down through levels of construction and back through centuries to unearth a part of Jewish and Catalan history that began at the start of the ninth century, ended at the close of the fifteenth, and then slowly faded from public memory until it was completely forgotten.” The expulsion of the Jews in 1492, and the Jewish diaspora that bookended such events—added layers to the city that could only cover up, and build on… its Jewish roots. You can still find centuries-old mezuzahs on the entrances into homes and businesses.

It is possible this recent field trips—and future pilgrimages to Spain—could initiate my own spiritual renaissance, if I choose to revisit those old feelings. (Those that I nurtured long ago… but have neglected in recent times, in favor of long runs & races. I’m speaking of faith, with such inelegance. Apologies!) In this season of Passover, I guess it’s a timely theme.

Knus, fra Denmark. XO.