Triplogue - Denmark


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Almost in Denmark

12 July, Grossenbrode, Germany to Vordingberg/Copenhagen, Denmark, 95km

How excellent it felt to be on my way to Denmark, aboard an overcrowded boat full of duty-free shoppers and a segmented train on its way from Paris. The ride from Grossenbrode to Puttgarden was painless, and the big puffy clouds looked like a Turner painting. Plus there was the added satisfaction of arriving in a Danish port called Rodbyhavn, which is written with a line through the "O." I had made it to Northern Europe, and would soon be seeing my friends Niels, Eva and Freddy Copenhagen. The only other cyclists who had boarded with me were a trio of beefy German lads. When I remarked upon their lack of gear, they explained that they were only going to the beach for the day. "But aren’t there beaches just as good on the German side?" I asked. "Yes, but there aren’t any Danish girls on them," the most oafish of the three stated lasciviously, practically licking his chops, nearly causing me to gag. Yes, I thought, as superlative as yesterday’s riding had been, I was happy to be leaving the Bundesrepublik.

My first impressions of Scandinavia –which I have always considered the pinnacle of the civilized world—weren’t overwhelmingly favorable. Well-marked cycle tracks led me through mostly nondescript villages as I traversed the islands of Lolland, Falster and Masnede. Outside a café in Sakskobing (yes, with a line through the "o"), I saw a sign advertising coffee and kringle for fifteen crowns, and promptly decided to take the plunge. I was familiar with kringle from Racine, Wisconsin, where the sticky Danish pastry is lauded as this rustbelt city’s chief cultural contribution, emblematic of its connections to the Old Country. Aside from "tak," "kringle" was the only Danish word I knew. I marched inside and ordered my coffee and kringle with confidence, amused by the boisterousness surrounding me. Every person in the place was hopelessly inebriated, even though it was only 2pm. I guess happy hour starts early in Denmark. I basked in the decidedly un-German ambiance as I sipped my coffee, wondering what could be taking so long with the kringle. More than once I asked the bartendress, "What about that kringle?" to which she smiled and said, "yes," only to leave me and serve the next customer. Finally I had to resort to pointing to the sign, saying "kringle" with every possible inflection before she brought a piece out for me. I learned later from Niels that "kringle" does not rhyme with "shingle," as I had been taught, but sounds more like "strangled." I also learned that "cykyl" –meaning bike—is pronounced similarly to the English word "sugar." This dispelled any further attempts to learn Danish on my part.

Niels also explained to me that Lolland is the "social disaster of Denmark", with the country’s highest unemployment rate (not to mention the ugliest scenery). While it didn’t exactly look like Detroit, it’s true that the area didn’t meet my expectations of Danishness either. The houses and villages seemed devoid of character and the people didn’t seem to have that golden, privileged look I associate with Scandinavians. And the landscape didn’t come close to matching up with the skyscape, which was growing more dramatic by the minute. While crossing the verylong bridge to Seeland (Denmark’s largest island, and home to Copenhagen), rain started pissing down on me. I had intended to make it all the way to Koge, essentially a suburb of Copenhagen, but a few miles out of Vordingborg I saw that the main road didn’t have a cycle path, and that bikes were rerouted along a much longer route. Normally, I wouldn’t have a problem with this, but I was expected in Copenhagen in 3 ˝ hours, so I turned tail for Vordingborg’s train station.

The train wasn’t for another hour, prompting me to expose myself to yet another taste of Danish bar culture. The Amigo Bar was a much classier operation than the hole back on Lolland. Most customers were watching the Tour de France on a giant television, before the broadcast switched to outrageously dull live feed covering Air Force One leaving Copenhagen airport. Two jolly Danes playing a dice game called Chicago informed me that Clinton’s visit was the first by an American president in many decades, and that the whole country was consumed by Clinton fever. One of them told me how much he loved America and how sad he found it that our social system was such a mess. He told me how he had wept the day Kennedy died and gave me a big sentimental hug when I left to catch my train.

The train was full of other cyclists, as well of Danes of every ilk. Most of them had removed their shoes and were munching messily on snacks. Niels’ much espoused theory that Denmark is the Italy of Scandinavia appeared to be an astute one. All the passengers were chatting loudly and behaving as if they were in their living rooms at home. I was surprised when the couple across from me produced a child from nowhere over an hour into the voyage. Apparently they had left her in the baggage car along with their bikes, which reminded me of the story of the Danish couple who had recently been arrested in New York for leaving their baby in his stroller on the sidewalk while they shopped. I didn’t mention this, though, hoping they’d help me unload my beast when we arrived in Copenhagen, and quietly delighting in the remarkably casual attitude with which the Danes appear to approach everything.

I found my way to Niels’ place without the aid of the map, having been there twice before. He lives in what he claims is "the gayest street in Copenhagen," just above a bar, a sauna and a leather boutique. It felt great to be in familiar surroundings. Promptly I was whisked off to Thomas’ house, past the debris-strewn square where Clinton had made his speech only hours before. Thomas is slight and blond and interested in politics. Two remarkable sisters were there, too, who had spent a lot of time in America. The younger of the two, Trini, is a professional fencer –a fact which I found thrilling. It felt gloriously homey after so many days feeling alienated and alone. We munched on salmon and vegetables and talked about everything imaginable before trundling into a pair of taxis that took us to a place called PAN, Copenhagen’s principal gay disco. I ran into my friend Darren there almost instantly (he’s received a prestigious grant to write a book on the state of so-called "gay marriages" in Denmark, the lucky bastard), but I was too beat to hold an intelligent conversation or to enjoy myself in any other way, and was soon pleading Niels to take me back to his ranch. We had a full day ahead of us, after all.

13 July, Eva, Freddy and Niels’ Exclusive North Seeland Bike Tour, 74km

It was everything I had hoped and more. It was the reason I had rushed up to Copenhagen. Eva had long been promising me an unforgettable tour of the glories North of Copenhagen, and even back in the States it had sounded deliciously tempting. I especially liked the idea of being led around without any concern for the route, placing all my faith in my able guides.

The activity-packed day began promptly at nine a.m. Niels and I set out under a cloudless sky along the deserted streets of Copenhagen towards Eva and Freddy’s. Thankfully there was coffee waiting for us (or for me rather, as Niels is a tea drinker, which causes me to suspect he’s actually an alien in Viking drag), as well as the most sumptuous brunch spread I’ve ever seen on this side of the Atlantic. Sitting in the garden of Freddy and Eva’s perfect little house and wolfing down pancakes in the glistening sunlight was almost enough to make me think that there is a God. I could have stayed there all day, but of course other arrangements had been made, and soon we were all pedaling Northwards. Seven-months-pregnant Eva displayed a Viking-like constitution, undaunted by the many kilometers that lay ahead.

My hosts kept a running commentary. "This woods belonged to the kings of Denmark before and have never been forested," Freddy would tell me. "Tyco Brahe lived on that island out there," Eva pointed out. "Just ahead on the right is THE gay beach of Copenhagen," Niels informed. We stopped at the Karen Blixen Museum to wander around the garden and view the famous author’s simple grave. I thought of Meryl Streep shooting lions and bonking Robert Redford, my Danish cultural knowledge woefully lacking. Our second stop was at the home of Niels’ parents, who welcomed us warmly and gushed to me about how much they liked the U.S. (In their many travels they have obviously learned that Americans never tire of hearing foreigners praise the merits of the Home of the Brave). Niels’ dad reminded me a lot of my own father, right down to his enthusiasm for computer technology. Again, I would have been happy to tarry here for hours, but we had a tight schedule to keep…

The world-famous Louisiana Museum for Modern Art was only a few minutes away, and in this gorgeously situated place we viewed a huge and ambitious exhibition on art in L.A. from 1960 to the present called "Sunshine and Noir." I was more impressed than Freddy, who stated that he was more fond of creative output that served a more practical function, like industrial design.

From here it was on to Helsingor, of "Hamlet" fame. Looming over the town was the enormous castle built to collect a tax on all passing ships. Sweden lay across the straits, close enough to swim to. We stopped for monster-sized ice cream cones topped with jam and smushed chocolate-covered marshmallow things before continuing northwards past streets called "Opheliaveg" and "Poloniusstrade" and suchlike.

We arrived right on time for our meal at what must surely rank among Denmark’s most extraordinary culinary experiences, Jan Hurtigkarl & Co. The chef here takes an extended trip each winter, when the restaurant is closed, and comes back to Denmark to create a fixed seven-course meal inspired by his trip. Our meal was influenced by Basque cuisine, and included tasty tapas, two fish dishes, two deserts, and a main course of "sommerbuk," or baby Danish deer. Delicious! The four of us got a bit carried away talking about the practice of circumcision in America, which provided the surrounding tables with free entertainment. No one complained, though, and we stuck around until well after the northern sun had set, and pedaled back to Helsingor’s train station in the dusk, our bellies full to bursting. It had been as close to a perfect day as I can remember having in a long time, and I only hope to be able to return it in kind some day to my wonderful Danish hosts. Thank you Eva, Freddy and Niels!

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Cute Craig of Comfort

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MiniParty 1

15 July, Vordingborg to Copenhagen, 113km

I woke up this morning feeling guilty. Having taken so many trains of late has seriously compromised the integrity of this trip, I thought to myself, and I felt I’d given Denmark short shrift, pedal-wise. Besides, people told me that I had skipped over the prettiest countryside in Seeland by taking the train from Vordingborg; and my legs were aching for a workout. It was too cold to go to the beach, as Niels had formerly proposed, yet too sunny to stay indoors. So I took the train back to Vordingborg, promising Niels I’d be back in time for dinnner at nine.

The Danes were right. It really was a gorgeous ride. I followed the recommended and well-marked route #9 (except for the couple of times I got lost) and generally enjoyed being alone with the hills and trees and wind on my unencumbered bike. I passed cows and churches and lots of other bicycle tourists. I even saw a pheasant. North of Praesto the route followed the coastline of a fjord, which didn’t look quite as dramatic as the fjords in Norway but was picturesque nevertheless. I dealt with virtually zero auto traffic before coming into Koge (pronounced as if you’re gargling nails, ignoring the second consonant), after which the bike trail followed the path of least resistance for some kilometers, namely route 151, which traces a straight line parallel with the coast through an endless suburbo-industrial zone. Thankfully the path turned towards the sea to follow a string of islands that looked suspiciously like landfill before dumping me back onto the 151, where the signs marking the route began to dwindle and where I began to get lost in a land of bike freeways and apartment blocks that looked like a socialist version of Sim City come to life.

I got to Niels’ door with just enough time to shower before dinner. Thomas and Thomas ate with us, and then Peter and Helle showed up with much noisy fanfare. They had just returned from making a documentary of a Catholic pilgrimage site in Bosnia where several villagers have visions of the Virgin Mary every afternoon just before dinnertime. They had ridden all the way down in a bus full of Danish pilgrims and had many stories to tell. After much laughter and many exchanges of "SKOL"’s, I realized I had to be up in just a few hours in order to pick up poor wounded Fred at the train station. It seemed like an eternity that I had last seen him…

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