I began my break by leaving London (1 day before classes formally ended), to travel to Denmark and Sweden before heading to the U.S. for my brother’s wedding. Why go somewhere knowingly frigid, traveling alone, 5 days before you go plan to get jet-lagged traveling stateside for your brother’s wedding? I’d like to think it was me being adventurous, but honestly, I chalk it up to impulse. I planned to go to Sweden to see the Northern lights, and to Copenhagen because, well, it was on the way.
The journey started at Victoria Coach Station. The bus I was supposed to climb aboard to take to one of many of London’s airports on the outskirts of the city didn’t stop for me. Thankfully my industrious partner in crime was on it and looked up an alternative route. In 30 minutes, and with a fair deal of sprinting through the tube, I was on route to the airport and finally able to catch my breath.
I arrived in Copenhagen at around 8pm. The airport didn’t strike me as anything out of the ordinary. The same coffee shops and restaurants tucked away in between busy people coming and going. I trudged along, carrying my duffel bag in one arm and small pack in the other, heading to a train to take me to the city center. Despite very few signs marked in English, I found my way. It did help that most people spoke nearly perfect English and were kind enough to help if you asked. After seeing a girl giving directions, I decided to ask. We soon found ourselves on the same train to Norreport station in Copenhagen. In between the locked up bikes sitting in the train carriage, she told me a bit about her life. She was from Sweden, where I was going. We talked about the Northern lights, about the biking culture in Copenhagen, about my background, which is American – – but more specifically, a hodgepodge of Northern and Eastern European roots, much of which probably came from Sweden. That was my first interaction with a stranger. The beginning of many small exchanges with others, which pepper and my trip and make traveling so ephemeral and beautiful.
After arriving at the station, I began walking towards the neighborhood of my hostel.
It was an area Northeast of the city, called Norreboro. When I read about it online, it was described as young and littered with coffee. It was also very multicultural, which took me by surprise. I did not think I had expectations of what Copenhagen would be like, yet without realizing it, some image of Copenhagen that existed somewhere in my mind was juxtaposed with a different reality. That’s what I saw when I walked past the beautifully decorated graffiti walls, halal butchers and people who didn’t just fit a nordic stereotype.
After about 30 minutes of walking I arrived at my hostel, complete with kitschy name, Sleep in Heaven. Like many hostels I had been to before, this one had it’s unique charms. The noticeable input of DIY furniture, the in house cafe, the range of staff personalities. All of it, housed in an industrial building in a residential neighborhood. I checked into my 8 person dorm, taking directions from the graffiti sheep, which were my navigation system to my building next door where my room was located.
Upon inserting the card into my door I was greeted by 6 Italian guys. They were from the South of Italy and were traveling for a few days. They asked me to go drinking with them as they were about to out. But as I had just gotten in, and I was traveling along, I was a bit exhausted and apprehensive, so I stayed in. A few hours later, a bit more intoxicated, they came stumbling back to the hostel.
I knew after their first question that our conversation would be interesting to say the least. They asked me where my boyfriend was, and why I was traveling alone. I replied openly that I didn’t have a boyfriend, I had a girlfriend. Then they proceeded to give me a unanimous thumbs up accompanied by infantile smirks. They then told me how it’s ‘hot’ for two girls to be together, while at the same time making it quite clear it’s not cool for two guys. It was those comments that irked me. To me, the thumbs up approval of girls wasn’t a sign of any kind of acceptance of a lifestyle at all, but rather, some exotic fantasy. That isn’t acceptance but objectification, and it only contributes to the idea that certain kinds of love are better, more natural, or more acceptable than others. Did I mention it’s a bunch of bullshit.
Despite that unsavory conversation, which continued to bother me, I slept quite well that night. The next morning, though, rather than feeling refreshed and rejuvenated from my night in, I felt quite sick. It was as if, my body realized it could relax and it just hit me. I decided to push through the feeling and go out. I was in Copenhagen after all. So in true traveling form, I walked and walked and walked. I started heading to the cemetery where Hans Christian Anderson and Kierkegaard were buried. I continued down the ethnic enclaves and roads filled with more bikes than cars. I stopped at a coffee shop along the way, ordered a cortado and sat down with a local paper, wondering if people could tell I wasn’t a local. On the front page of the paper I was reminded about my former life. On the front page of the paper was Korea was an article about the demilitarized zone DMZ between North and South Korea.
I read this and thought about my old life as a teacher in Cheonan, South Korea. It felt so close and yet so far from the tiny coffee shop I was sitting reading in off a side street in Copenhagen. After finishing my drink I walked further into the center of the city. I stopped and took photos of bikes and people, and the crumbling architecture of a city whose glory days were behind it.
I listened to the street artists, and watched the ferries pass by. Mostly I imagined. I dreamed about how people lived, what they ate, when they went to sleep, if they prayed to a god, how many people biked and took public transport.
I soon found myself at a market. I went in and sat at the bar of a restaurant with Smorrebrod, a Danish tapas which consists of some dense rye bread with butter with various little accouterment adorning the top. I got some with smoked salmon and some with pickled herring.
To me, this reminded me of my family. At home, my parents both scarfed down pickled herring and smoked salmon like you wouldn’t believe. Both of them have a love for fish and it wasn’t uncommon for me to remember them pulling out jars of pickled herring or opening tins of smoked sardines.
After a bit of food and bit of wine, I left the market with a full belly and slightly tipsy head. I walked more, this time over a bridge to an area called Christiantown, which was originally an artist have known for not paying taxes. Now it is basically a ‘green’ area in Copenhagen. I walked through, enjoying the graffiti splattered on the walls. After, I headed back to my hostel. The next day I was feeling even worse than the day before so I stayed in. That evening, I caught my next flight to Stockholm, which is was really just a stopping point to get to a place further North.
After a short layover and one night spent in Stockholm, which consisted of some hostel reservations being cancelled and me struggling to find a place at the last minute, I was relieved to be on a plane to Kiruna, a tiny town in the Swedish Laplands, which borders the arctic circle. The weather reminded me of Nebraska. Cold, windy, and much less dense than the other European cities I had visited. After catching a bus from the airport to the tiny town of Kiruna, I walked around the small town center.
There was a clock in the and a statue of wolves in the center of town, next to what looked like a shopping mall complex with an assortment of travel agencies advertising dog sledding and trips to see The Northern Lights.
After checking into my hostel, an employee working in the lobby suggested I try to watch them from the hill behind a high school in the city center. Equipped with my new information I checked into my room, napped for a bit and woke up around 8 to go see what I could find. At around 8:30 I headed toward the school, filled with hope and expectation. I perched myself atop the hill, squatted low, and stared up into the vast sky.
15 minutes passed, nothing. 30 came and went, and my fingers and toes started going numb. After 40 minutes, I thought I saw something in the sky, but it turns out my imagination got the better of me. After close to an hour, I decided to call it quits. I returned to my room a bit deflated, but told myself I would try again the next morning before the sun rises. At 4:45 I returned to the high school, going up the same small hill and sitting at the top gazing into the black night.
I’d like to say that between the next hour something magical happened and I saw the spectacular lights. But the truth is, I didn’t get to see them. Of course part of me was disappointed. After all, that was how I planned my whole trip, with this particular intention. Yet, on the other hand, I couldn’t be upset. I had so many beautiful experiences. So many memories with people and places, that I cannot be mad that one that didn’t come true. It is in situations like this, I have to remind myself how lucky I am to be able to travel at all, and have the opportunities to see the world in the first place. Yes, I got sick, I didn’t see the Northern Lights, I almost didn’t have a place to sleep for a night. Yet, take the silver lining approach and I tried to some new and some familiar food, made momentary and beautiful connections with people I will likely never see again, and walked my way across cities without any particular destination.