Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Conditioned (pt 5)

Copenhagen. I will learn to love this kind-hearted and cheeky colossus. I’ve only been here 30 minutes and I feel at home. It’s not the prettiest city, sure, but it’s got moxie. I’m sitting in a café surrounded by unassumingly cool kids with laptops and lattes browsing the creased old novels set in bookshelves below the bar (pulp romance, detective or sci-fi, mostly). They (the patrons, not the books) spill onto the street where bicycles whirr by incessantly. A sultry Danish folk singer croons from the stereo. And it looks like the sun is about to come out.

The best part of the Laundromat Café (probably a novel name in Danish) is what gives it its title: the tiny red-walled room at the back which houses a row of modern washing machines and a couple of gleaming steel dryers. Coming from Malmö, I’m in heaven.
Malmö has no laundromats, no public washing facilities, and no substitutes in the hostels, ya see. In an unrelated coincidence, I arrived in town with no clean clothes. Every residence in Malmö, I’m told, has its own machines in the basement, so there’s simply no call for a Laundromat. I can go to a dry cleaners, the hostel owner hopefully suggests. Yeah. I’ll be getting my underwear chemically cleaned and steam-pressed, because my name is Jean Claude Van Damme and my unmentionables are worth more than pressed gold and I’m incognito for a film here in Sweden based on the true story of an expensive underwear-wearing cyclist who battled his demons while doing the splits on a cheap rented bike. That’s why I’m here at your hostel. I hear it has splits-friendly facilities. Oh, and a pool table.
The Malmö clothes-cleaning crisis was a blow, and last night I was out wearing a crumpled, unironed shirt which I found near the bottom of my bag, and a pair of jeans and a jacket which I literally doused in aftershave before daring to brave the streets. Maybe this contributed to my minor malaise; dirty, running on an average of 3 hours sleep since arriving in Europe, and feeling like a bedraggled stranger in a strange land. Now I’m rested, washed and cheerful. God bless Copenhagen. God bless the Laundromat Café.

Well, you’re back. Now, where did I leave you? Ah yes, Copenhagen. The city has only gotten better. While my time in Malmö was defined by solitude, the opposite has been the case in Copenhagen. In my first 24 hours, I met dozens of people – people who’d approached me, stopped me, dragged me onto a dancefloor or into a bar. Nice change, this.

Meet The Bike. It might not look like much, and that’s because it isn’t much. In fact, since it was the Cheapest Bike in Copenhagen, I don’t think I’m out of line in dubbing it the Worst Bike in Copenhagen. Still, I’m sure we’ll have lots of odd-couple adventures, knocking over apple carts and being chased by fist-waving cheese vendors.

In case I haven’t mentioned it yet, I bought the bike so I could ride down the length of Denmark to the Southern coast, where I’ll jump on a ferry to Germany. Why not, I say. And to add to this completely frivolous decision to camp out in a one-man tent while here, and I just know what you’re thinking: Oh Boy! He’s going insane again.
But that was later. Dalby. We'll get there.

Shortly after I’d done my laundry I saddled up the bike and headed for the camping ground. At this point, the heavens opened up and I stayed drenched for the next six or seven hours. Pitching a tent in driving rain is nasty business, especially if you’re trying to shield two bags from the elements. It’s even worse if you have no idea how to construct the thing.
Luckily, as I stood huddled in a tiny alcove (a remnant of the 1880s fort the site is built upon) and pondered my problem, a Danish man walking past offered to keep my bags in his large tent while I set up. I took up the offer and he introduced himself as Stig, while his ‘travelling companion’, a firm-looking youger guy from Poland, served up steaming coffee from a thermos. When the rain let up a little, we turned to the task of tent-up-putting, though the other guys were as baffled as I was when came to the assembly process. An hour or so later, it was mostly up. A bit saggy, and filled with water, but workable.

I badly needed warmth, civilisation and a drink after the horror, so I thanked my new friends and headed back into town.
It wasn’t long before I met Darko. I was sitting alone at a bar when he approached me and told me he was happy for me to join him and his friends. I’d noticed them on the way in; a noisy, motley lot, mostly young and attractive and energetic. I should have guessed that they were a hospitality crowd; the staff of the bar itself, in fact, sending off one of their own in a typically rowdy fashion. Ethan was an Australian and after eight months here was off to Melbourne again. The others were mostly Danish, with exceptions.
Exceptions like Darko. At 38, he was older, and hailed from Montenegro. He was unnervingly vivacious, with a booming voice and animated features. He’d clap a bear-like hand on your shoulder to emphasise a point, then bounce back in his seat laughing wildly. He didn’t work at the bar, but I could tell he made friends wherever he went. I guessed I was one now, too.
When the bar closed, we were shuttled around the corner, a solid mass guided by unknown forces. We found ourselves in Rust, where Darko managed to fast-talk us past the long and unmoving queue. Inside, the crowd was big and beautiful. Copenhagen knows how to party. But if the daytime Danish are friendly, it’s amplified after a few drinks. More than once I’d feel a tug on my sleeve or a call from a nearby booth as a local struck up a conversation with me. Confronted with a reel of Danish, I’d have to respond with an I-don’t-speak-Danish apology. And just off the boat (or train) my first reply was an I-don’t-speak-Swedish, which was fine since the woman I was talking to didn’t either. But it’s unsettling to feel welcome when you’re travelling blind. Enjoyably so.
It’s probably not right to characterise the city as an especially open and friendly one. The people don’t seem that different to those I encountered in Malmö. There are just as many curt workers, and couples in cafes who’ll politely answer questions but won’t welcome you into their homes. I don’t think Copenhagen is necessarily the most amicable place around, but it sets up the conditions for friendliness. People don’t drive as much; they glide around on bicycles, which are a far more sociable form of transport. Diners and streetside café tables line the roads and laneways. There are spaces to encounter someone everywhere you turn (I’m talking about the areas just outside of the city centre, at least – the centre seems colder). In Copenhagen, it’s just possible that you can go out for a quiet drink on your first night in town, and go stumbling back to your bed as the dawn begins to sweep across the sky.
Though in my case, that bed was a tent still filled with water. Not the best end to a night, but an end, nonetheless.

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