Friday, July 23, 2010

Copenhagen is amazing!

I loved this city right from the train station. I felt a special vibe -- a great energy that I have been trying to pinpoint so I could articulate it. Hopefully by the end of my time here, I will be better able to express what makes this city special and magical.

First observations: The architecture is splendid. It is similar to buildings in Amsterdam and Bruges (one of my favorite cities) -- yet distinctly its own place. There is a grand outdoor pedestrian mall -- the first in Europe -- called Strøget. To quote Rick Steves, "Strøget is a series of lively streets and inviting squares that bunny-hop through the old town, connecting the City Hall Square with the harbor, a 15-minute walk away. When this was established, in 1962, a pedestrian street was a novel and very experimental notion. Though merchants were initially skeptical, Strøget has become the model for pedestrian malls throughout the world."

Last night, physically exhausted from a travel day -- I was comfortable instead of overwhelmed when I arrived in Copenhagen. Helsinki had tourists, of course, but Copenhagen seemed to attract many more -- and all in the mood for fun, from families to college students. Usually I want to avoid the tourist crowds, but somehow in Copenhagen, it all seems to work -- everyone out to enjoy the summer, tourists and locals mingling on the Strøget. I was impressed by the array of original boutiques, shops and restaurants. Sure, there was the familiar chain -- such as McDonald's or several British flagship stores such as NEXT and Accessorize -- but also unique places such as "Extreme Fashion," crepe and waffle shops, everything with its own vibe and flavor. I followed the crowds, admired the many spires that poked through the flat skyline, and eventually ended up near a harbor.

I kept following the tourists, refusing to look at my map, and ended up strolling along a delightful canal flanked by beautiful sailboats, tourists and locals enjoying a beer or snack as they dangled their feet over the edge while tour boats glided by. Cool! I remember seeing this area on a travel show, but it was so nice to see and feel it in person. Without an agenda and looking for my next adventure, I saw a sign for a 1 hour live guided canal tour. I hopped on, and our guide David explained the history of Copenhagen in Danish, German and English as we cruised through various neighborhoods awed by the boats and the modern and old architecture.

Sadly, the Little Mermaid is not in town for 2010. She is in Shanghai for the World Expo. Where she used to sit on the rock, there is now a screen broadcasting a live image of her in China. They flew a lot of North Sea water from Denmark over to Shanghai -- and you can put on a Danish colored wet suit and swim around the Little Mermaid in China. It would have been wonderful to see her, although I suppose this is special and unique.

At the conclusion of our tour, I strolled back down to the pedestrian area again, but I made a mistake and ended up on a different street. It was quiet and the sun was sinking low. Since I'm further south, I was back to the land of night for the first time in almost a month. Without looking for my map, I just followed instinct and ended up back in the lively area.

Shortly afterward, a magician was trying to draw a crowd. Magic Mike from NYC. He has spent the last 9 years traveling around the world from city to city -- making a living through his magic and comedy. He was very funny and entertaining -- so I couldn't help but watch. At the end, he explained that he brought together people from all over the world, from different cultures, backgrounds, and religions for this experience. He did. Although of course it was touristy -- and did I come to Denmark to see an American?-- I enjoyed the connection.

In Howard's End, E.M. Forster's main theme was "Only Connect": how humans are social beings, always looking for meaning through connection with others. This is just like John Donne's idea that "No Man is an Island." Traveling alone -- especially after such an intensely social and interactive experience in Norway-- has forced me to reflect and appreciate connection with others. Although I didn't talk to anyone in the group during the magic show, it was special to be a part of the same thing, at the same time. This idea is also in Virginia Woolf, who is always looking for the moments where people are not just in the same place but also in the same mindset. For example, in Mrs. Dalloway, she writes about an airplane skywriting overhead and everyone is united as they try to decipher it. Next, a fancy car drives by as everyone tries to figure out who is inside. Could it be the Queen? In contrast to these moments that unite strangers, Woolf reflects on times where friends or spouses may be in the same place, but their minds are completely lost elsewhere -- disconnected. She always seemed preoccupied with the search for connection, the unity of the spirit.

Yes, "Only Connect." As I continue my travels in Copenhagen, I'll be seeking moments where I can connect with others and the culture. I'm off for some more guided sightseeing on a hop on / hop off bus. I may join a 2:30 bike tour and at some point today or tomorrow I'll visit Cristiania -- a free state, hippie commune right here in Copenhagen. More details about that after my visit.

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