A Note to Myself as Anxiety Rises:

Does the human heart long for apocalypse?

We love to predict it, and we’ve predicted it hundreds of times, all failures. Even Christopher Columbus – an apocalyptic harbinger for indigenous Americans – believed the Second Coming was nigh, and wrote about it extensively. I think we are a species of storytellers, and an apocalypse is a nice neat end to our story. But, nothing about humanity is neat and tidy. We are survivors of plagues, wars, genocides, and our own hubris. We persist despite all reason. We have an infinite capacity for hope which sustains us.

Hate can also sustain us, and it often flares brighter than hope. I’d like to think we burn through hate quickly, but this too can persist through the generations. Hatred for The Other especially can be transmitted like a disease. Hatred flared in Charlottesville, Virginia this weekend. For the Nazis, fascists, and Klansmen and -women who sought to incite terror and violence, their hate has been building for at least eight years, sparked by the election of a Black Man to the presidency and built up through egging-on by right-wing provocateurs (one of whom now ironically holds this same office). Pundits who unceasingly predicted that a Black Man in the White House meant an imminent apocalypse. Now that that apocalypse hasn’t materialized as promised, the Nazis, fascists, and Klansmen and -women appear to be eager to bring it on themselves.

I don’t know how to replace the hate in their hearts with hope. I don’t know how to convince them that they will never get the neat and tidy ending they want so badly. Because even if they burn every Black Church in America, even if they kick every Mexican back to Mexico, even if they get every Woman barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen, and even if every Queer Person disappeared back into their closets – that would only serve as the beginning to a different story. There is no “The End.”

I sometimes find an apocalyptic narrative perversely comforting, because it makes the stakes plain and your actions controllable. Buy a gun, preserve your food, stuff your money in a mattress – these are concepts that are easy to visualize and to carry out. We live in an era of overload in both information and choice, and the rote day-to-day actions key to survival start to seem attractive.

If you make space in your heart for hope, you start to do things that make you stick around for the long term: take out a mortgage, adopt a pet, plant a garden, start writing a novel. Use the energy from that hope to help someone in your community who needs something you have: whether time, talent, or treasure. Ask for the things that you need from people who want to give. Join a group that’s actively working for a better, fairer future. Don’t make yourself small waiting for an apocalypse that will never happen.

Those small men and women who march with hearts full of hate want to pull you into their apocalyptic narrative. Don’t let them.

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Denmark, Days 6 & 7: More wandering around Copenhagen, and then we wandered home

Our last day in Copenhagen found us at Torverhallerne Market, a public market downtown where I could happily shop every day. We grabbed our usual coffee and pastry, and wandered around the shop stalls. We got there just as they were opening for the day, so we had lots of room to roam:

 

Three artificial lakes separate downtown from the Norrebro neighborhood — we decided to cross the bridge and see what we could see. The neighborhood is home to some shopping and antiques. Unlike Vesterbro, I think Norrebro has always had a reputation as a nice place to live.

Grabbed some shawarma and falafel wraps for lunch at one of the only sit-down fast food joints we saw. Saw this in the dining room

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Just about sums it up

After lunch we hopped on the bus to get back to Vesterbro and do a little more shopping before going home to pack. The next morning (Tuesday, May 9) we took our trains back to the airport, grabbed our last cups of Danish coffee, and began the trek home.

 

We saw so little of Denmark on our trip that I’d love to come back and ride the trains from town to town. For beginner travelers like us, this was such a great country to travel to — no one resented speaking English to us, and everyone was so welcoming and pleasant. The food was good, though expensive. Public transportation was cheap and easy. I’d recommend Copenhagen, with a side trip to Roskilde, to anyone.

So how to sum up Copenhagen? A cosmopolitan city of neighborhoods would be one way. Another would be a diverse, welcoming city with a definite Nordic identity. We should have followed the locals’ leads and biked more than we walked, but we’ll know better next time (if I never see a cobblestone again it will be too soon).

I like to think this is Copenhagen in a nutshell — a recycling spaceship with graffiti: “Glas? Yas!”

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Thank you for reading about our little adventure! Hej hej!

Denmark, Day 5: WWI, Beer, and Horses

Sunday, May 7th’s breakfast was found after a brisk walk in Vesterbro. Sunday seems to be a pretty chill day in Copenhagen, so there weren’t many places open for breakfast (as opposed to brunch, which tends to start between 10 and 11 AM). We needed to eat early because our plan was to head down the coast to Mosede to see a WWI-era fort/ museum. Lucky Mad & Kaffe (literally “Food & Coffee”) was open at 8:30. The place was already pretty full when we got there, but we did get a table. The restaurant is adorable, and is very popular with Anglo expats. We heard far more English than Danish there. Food was served on wooden planks in cute little bowls:

On our way to the train station we spotted the Danish version of the Little Free Library. This one had books on one side, clothes on another, and household items on the third side:

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Unlike Roskilde, Mosede is an area that’s basically a bedroom suburb for Copenhagen. The next “real” market town is Koge, which we thought about visiting, but didn’t want to chance everything being closed on Sundays. Also unlike Roskilde, Mosede is actually on the ocean. It was a cold day with a little rain, so definitely not beach weather. Not that it stopped some folks… Lots of fisherman, lots of people out with their dogs. Ocean photo dump:

 

The fort itself had been somewhat restored, especially the lighting. All signage was in Danish, English, and German, which was awesome. I learned a lot — my knowledge of WWI in general is not very deep, but I didn’t know how severe the economic depression was in Europe before the war, and I didn’t realize how difficult it was for Denmark to maintain their neutrality. A very different experience from the US.

Each room in the fort had a different theme, ie Wartime Food, the effect of the draft, the daily life of a soldier, etc. Everything in the museum is meant to be interacted with, so you open drawers, listen to recordings on telephones, can put on costumes. It was not a busy day, so we had a lot of fun playing with everything.

Between the fort and the train station you walk through an apartment complex. They built a house for ducks in their runoff pond:

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The train back into Copenhagen took us to Carlsberg Brewery. What luck! We didn’t take a lot of pictures here, because we know how beer is brewed and we’ve seen other breweries from this era. The most important photos are probably of the horses. Carlsberg maintains a traditional Danish horse breed, and keeps them as “ambassadors.” Long story short, I pet two horses. They were very good horses.

 

We then tipsily wandered around Vesterbro in search of dinner. We’d read raves about Neighborhood, a pizza place and cocktail bar. The pizza tasted good, but the crust was very flaky. Those air pockets crumbled as soon as you touched them, making for a very messy experience. My cocktail was amazing though. Rhubarb and grapefruit, yummmmm….

I read somewhere that the Danes spend more money on candles than any other nation, and I believe it. Every restaurant we went to, no matter how casual, no matter how early in the day, always had candles lit. It was incredibly charming.

Finally, since it was our anniversary, we thought we deserved dessert. We stopped at Kioskh, which has basically everything: beer, sweets, records, green plants, magazines…. It has an outdoor seating area, which is where we enjoyed our treat.

 

Stray observations and surprises:

  • Basically every restaurant has outdoor seating, and the Danes eat anything in any temperature outside. I’ve seen people eat ice cream while it’s almost freezing cold. It’s kind of amazing.
  • After how cute Roskilde was, Mosede was kind of a bummer. We were desperately trying to find somewhere to get a cup of coffee to warm up from the rain, but no dice. Good thing Copenhagen was so close.

 

Denmark, Day 4: Vikings! and burnout

We finally ventured outside of Copenhagen on Saturday, May 6. We had a quick bite at Anderson Bakery, across the street from the train station. I was worried that because of the proximity to tourists, the pastries would be mediocre. They were delicious. The cafe also had kind of a Japanese vibe (Joe had a Japanese-style bun with custard) so that was a fun surprise too.

 

Then we hopped on the regional train to Roskilde! Roskilde is a market town, and has been inhabited for thousands of years. It sits at the bottom of a fjord and due to it’s easily defensible position was the capital of Denmark before Copenhagen was built. The town itself is lovely. They were having some kind of music festival that was more like Play Music Madison — performers on each street, lots of sidewalk sales, and a farmers market in the town square.

Roskilde is home to a cathedral listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We had planned to take a tour, but it’s still an active parish and there was a wedding in process, so we just had to take pictures from outside.

Most importantly, Roskilde is home to the Viking Ship Museum!!! It is also home to some amazing experimental archaeology projects, which I think is the neatest thing ever. In the 1950’s, divers discovered 5 Viking-era ships that had been defensively scuttled in the 1100s. There was 1 fishing vessel, 2 trading ships, and 2 long ships (war ships), all built outside of Denmark, which is a true testament to the scope and connectivity of this empire. The pieces of the ship were preserved and reconstructed, and are on display inside of the museum:

We’re Vikings now:

Other good stuff from inside:

Beyond putting the ships back together, a team used traditional Viking ship-building methods to build a long ship (which meant figuring out what tools they used and making those, cutting down trees, etc), and sail it from Roskilde to Dublin and back (the larger of the long ships they recovered had been built in a Dublin ship-yard). When they sailed the ship they used only the navigational tools available to the Vikings, which meant stars, sea channels, wind currents, and a sun dial. They made it to Dublin with no problem, but bad weather on the way back diverted them to Sweden. Here’s the reconstructed ship in the harbor:

They are constantly building ships based on archeological findings. Here are the tools they use, and one of the archeologists working:

And some of the ships. Some of the ships were built by the archeologists and some by hobbyists. What a hobby!

The smell of the tar, being able to actually touch the boats… as you can tell, I was enchanted.

A few other non-categorized museum pictures:

 

Last but not least, lunch! We encountered our first restaurant without an English menu, but the waitress very kindly explained each dish. We ended up getting a meatball sandwich (*very* good — I recommend getting meatballs or dumplings anywhere, because they tend to be a good representation of how each cuisine spices their food), and a summer sausage sandwich. I also have to say, the Danes make a mean fried potato.

We were very excited to do some shopping — unfortunately, commerce seems to end in Roskilde around 3 PM on Saturdays. Luckily there was a kindly record store owner who let us browse past closing time. We found some good stuff too. Thank you, Vinyl Freaks:

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All in all a beautiful day! We got back to Copenhagen and went straight back to the apartment. The adrenaline of the first few days is starting to wear off and I’m beginning to get tired by mid-afternoon. We’re still doing a lot of walking, which doesn’t help the tiredness. Luckily we front-loaded most of the high-activity days, so we can take it easy down the back stretch.

Denmark, Day 3: Is It Vikings Yet?

Friday, May 5 started a lot like the last two days: looking for breakfast. Our one plan for the day was to visit the National Museum, which we assumed would take a long time to get through (we were right). So we bused it downtown and took a little walk. On Wednesday we had spotted the Improv Comedy Copenhagen Theater and Cafe, which caught our eye because it advertised improv comedy in English. They also advertised their own breakfast plate. We thought, what do we have to lose? We were pleasantly surprised because the food was delicious.

 

The National Museum is in a beautiful building. Everything is in a beautiful building here.

 

The museum has the modest goal of telling all of Danish history, beginning with the arrival of the first humans. These are all pre-Viking pieces. Prehistory photo dump, go!

Apparently it was common practice to sacrifice your slain enemy’s weapons, tools, horses, etc, into bogs after a battle, so the museum just has cases and cases of this stuff (as you can see in the sword-case picture).

There wasn’t a ton of artifacts from the beginning of the common era through the conversion of Denmark to Christianity. They don’t explicitly say why. Here were some of my favorites:

One thing I didn’t have a lot of knowledge of before this museum was how active the culture of sacrifice was under pre-Christian Scandinavians. If a wealthy person died, they would have tons of physical grave goods, plus sacrificed horses, dogs, and slaves. Very intense.

There was a lot of Medieval and Renaissance-era artifacts, some of which were pretty gnarly. Enjoy:

 

Apparently there was a lot of concern during the Enlightenment/Global Colonial Times about Danish folk customs and how they probably weren’t in keeping with Christian faith (especially post-Reformation). Thankfully, the museum didn’t have an opinion on that, but they did have some fun folk artifacts:

And folk costumes:

And some fun nautical-themed stuff:

 

Most of us are familiar with the broad strokes of 20th century European history — I am no exception. Here’s the last National Museum photo dump, all from the previous century. There’s no particular theme here, I just thought they were neat:

 

Worn out, we naturally decided to wear ourselves out more by wandering the streets of Vesterbro in search of dinner. Highlights include these next-door neighbors,

Dinner at Cafe Zakabona (my burger had fresh cucumber and pickled jalapeno, which sounds like the opposite of good but was delicious),

 

And a final stop at a coffee shop/record store. The guy was a little standoffish, so I didn’t take any pictures. It was pretty tiny anyway.

Stray observations and surprises:

  • Not a lot of Viking history at the National Museum.
  • It is impossible for us to pick a place to eat when we’re starving.
  • There’s a TON of takeout places in Vesterbro, which would be great if we didn’t have to cross over a highway to get back to our apartment, which would render anything we bought too cold to be appetizing. Most takeout places have two or fewer seats, so they’re not super welcoming to eat in. Hopefully we’ll have good weather the next couple days so we can enjoy that famous Danish pizza al fresco.

Denmark, Day 2: More Pictures of Buildings and Food

I had planned to recap each day before bed, but day 2 (Thursday, May 4) wasn’t conducive to that plan. Our jet lag hasn’t been bad, but even though we try to go to bed at a regular time, we tend to both wake up around 3 or 4 in the morning and it takes an hour or two to get back to sleep. Then we sleep until 8 or 9 AM. I never sleep that late at home, so we’re already starting the day later than we’d planned. Not the worst thing on a vacation, but it throws everything off-kilter. The other reason is that my calves hurt. It turns out if you work a desk job and never exersize, the muscles of your calves shorten over time. Your body doesn’t like it when you suddenly start walking and standing for most of the day. By the time we got in, I was exhausted, and in pain, so I went straight to bed. Minor jet lag and calf issues aside, we are having a fantastic time. Copenhagen in general is such an easy city to get around, and everyone we’ve encountered speaks at least some English. (We seem to be surrounded by English speakers of every nationality, no matter where we go, so this must be a popular holiday destination, especially for Brits and other Commonwealth folks.)

One of the buses that goes everywhere touristy stops near us, so it’s an easy ride. This is the view from the bus stop. There are bike shops and bike rentals everywhere, but I think this one is very cute:

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This morning we took the bus to Nyhavn, which is a neighborhood you’ve definitely seen in all the postcards. See:

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The canal is lined with these very colorful buildings on both sides, and its a very touristy destination. Many of the restaurants on the canal do breakfast plates, and we chose one that advertised what we thought was a decent price. It had a very old-European vibe with white tablecloths and candles lit first thing in the morning. Our server split her time between us and setting up the sidewalk bar outside. Every restaurant had one, and because outdoor dining is such a big deal here, most of them put blankets out on their chairs. Like, duh — why hasn’t anyone in Madison thought of that?

After breakfast we walked up and down the canal a little more. We met a woman from Malaysia who asked me to hold her phone so she could shoot a video for her friends on Facebook. We talked a little and she said she’d been travelling alone for 10 months, everywhere from Iran to England, and she would love to keep travelling but she has to go home before she runs out of money, which gets me right in the feels. We talked a little about how nice Copenhagen is compared to American cities, and she was a little shocked — her impression of the US was that it is amazing, etc. This wasn’t the last time we talked about the US today, and I have some thoughts about these conversations which I will sum up at the end of this post. I wish I could tell you I took her picture, but alas, I am a dingus. She took a selfie with us and we wrote down our names, so hopefully she’ll tag us on Facebook. Here are the rest of our Nyhavn pictures for your edification:

After Nyhavn we walked to the Danish Design Museum, which seems to be in a very tony part of town. We passed lots of shops full of furniture we’d never be able to afford. I took a few pictures on the street, just to kind of give you a sense of what it’s like to walk around in this city. You’ve got your stately churches:

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And your lovely old buildings:

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And then, suddenly, BLAM! a building that looks like it was lifted out of some tiny Eastern European town and deposited randomly here:

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Plus, if you don’t look down you miss cool stuff like this:

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Also pictured: cobblestones. Cobblestones everywhere…

The Design Museum was fantastic. I took pictures of the first few exhibits we saw, but stopped as I got more tired. What I didn’t photograph was two whole sections, one on the history of fashion and one on Japanese influence on Danish design. I wish I had, but I imagine some of those images are available online. They would be well-worth checking out. Pictures by category (as opposed to by display):

Chairs:

Print:

Miscellaneous:

It was early afternoon by the time we left the Design Museum. We walked around a little until we stumbled on Cafe Komplet, and had our first “real” smorrebrod lunch. The shop is owned by a married couple, husband cooks in the back, wife doing service. The cafe is in the basement of the building and cute as a button:

Her English was not as strong as most of the Danes we met, but it was still very good:

“You want light beer or dark beer? I bring.”

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“Ok, you want smorrebrod? You start with herring and snaps (schnapps)” [It’s like 1 PM at this point, by the way]

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The rest of the platter, including more Danish rye bread. To eat in order after the herring: fried whitefish (top right), chicken salad (top left), pork loin (middle left), fruit and cheese (bottom right). Plus mayonnaise (middle right). Also, I feel like the scale of these pictures makes this look like it wasn’t very much food. It was so much food.

Do you think our day was over yet?? Of course not! We also walked to one of the palaces, Christiansborg. Here is some stuff we saw along the way.

And here is a palace photo dump, because what can you say about a palace that hasn’t already been said:

Ok I lied. There was one very surprising part of the palace: in the Great Hall hang 17 modernist tapestries that look completely trippy within the surroundings. They were presented to the Queen for her 50th birthday in 1990, and they depict the history of Denmark. Here is my favorite, depicting Viking times:

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(and how it looks in the room, for context,

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See? Weird.)

Here’s my other favorite, which rather cheekily sets the royal couple as Adam and Eve:

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The artist’s name is Bjorn Norgaard, and you should look him up.

Our final stop of the day was right in our very neighborhood, Vesterbro. This used to be a meatpacking district and was until fairly recently not the kind of place you’d want to be after dark. I can report it is now thoroughly gentrified which is great for us because we don’t live here. We got a few beers at a bar called Fermentoren and chatted up the bar tenders, one of whom was American and one who was Australian.

 

So I wanted to write about how foreigners view America, and how painful it is for me to think about my home right now. The woman from Malaysia thought America was incredible, and was shocked to hear us talk about how much more advanced public transportation is in Copenhagen, and how the city is so much cleaner and safer than an American city. Our Danish server at Cafe Komplet literally told us she thought Denmark needed someone like Trump to “shake things up.” I think it’s hard for people from other countries to grasp how cruel America can be. All you see is the wealth, but you don’t see that wealth being built on the backs of so many. You hear about immigrant success stories, but you don’t hear about how they’re basically on their own as soon as they get to the US. If you don’t speak English and/or don’t have a trade, better find Lutheran Social Services or you’ll be on the streets. When we got home from having a lovely time at the bar, we found out that the House of Representatives had just passed a bill gutting many of the protections I rely on in the Affordable Care Act, which just made the cruelty of our system hit me right in the gut.

The American at Fermantoren has lived in Denmark for four years and still struggles with basic Danish because everyone here speaks passable English, all public transportation is announced in Danish and English, all the museum signs are in Danish and English, etc. There’s even English-language newspapers. The Australian said you can bar tend three days a week and make enough to live in a good apartment with a roommate. I know I’ve only been here for two full days, but life seems so good here. I hope no one comes to shake it up too much.

Stray observations and surprises:

  • We’ve discovered that we can cut through that brand new mall and avoid the wind tunnel effect that hits us as we’re walking to our bus stop.
  • This is a very diverse city, which I love to see. I’m sure there are grumblings about “too many immigrants” or “too many refugees” but I hope the government doesn’t come down too hard on people from other countries and cultures.
  • The public transportation really is so fucking easy to use.
  • Add we spotted that really puts a pin in the day:

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Denmark: Day 0-1

Joe and I are not experienced travelers. This trip — our honeymoon/anniversary/we better take a vacation while we can still afford it trip — had a lot riding on it. We arrived at O’Hare airport 2 hours too early to check in. O’Hare isn’t the worst airport to be stuck in for 2 hours, but it isn’t the best either. Like, it has free WiFi, but only for 1/2 hour. Anyway. Getting through TSA was very easy, and then we had another 2 hour wait until we could board our plane.

We’d been told that Swiss Air was nice, and the service was good. They offered us dinner and breakfast, plus a Swiss beer that was pretty good. But coach was very cramped. I’d hate to think how tight it would have been if we were taller people. We barely got a full hour of sleep. Maybe that’s normal on flights? Again, we are not experienced travelers. There was also some significant turbulence over Canada (“It can’t be that bad if they’re still serving dinner,” I said, which was followed shortly by the captain telling the crew to stop serving dinner and strap in… yikes), and some turbulence over Wales. Nothing over Ireland, though. I see you UK…

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The scenic French countryside maybe

We changed planes in Zurich, and I can confirm that the Zurich Airport has the nicest-smelling bathrooms. The scenery around that airport was gorgeous. I would definitely visit Switzerland on it’s own.

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I mean look at those rolling hills. Meanwhile, taking pictures of planes is probably a felony in the US…

The flight to Copenhagen was uneventful, and the Copenhagen Airport was super easy to navigate, no problems at all. The train terminal had several very helpful employees who told us how to get to Copenhagen Central Station. At Central Station we found out that we could walk to our apartment. It’s also one stop from the station, so that’s a nice way to cut some time.  By the time we got to our building we were feeling very windswept and Nordic — I don’t want to hear about Chicago being “The Windy City” ever again.

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Across the canal a block from our apartment

We were pretty zonked out after all the flying so we decided to visit the brand new mall next to our apartment building. We had fast food hot dogs (mine had “spicy” sauce, though I would call it “spiced”), and learned that everyone in Denmark speaks flawless English, even the immigrants. It’s a little intimidating, to be honest, but it certainly makes getting around easier. We bought some snacks and cheap beer at the Fotex grocery store in the mall, then basically went back to the apartment and crashed for the night.

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Dinner: traditional Danish hot dogs. Also pictured: “spicy” sauce

 

Day 1 began late. We took our time getting ready in the morning, then tried to plug my hairdryer in… which tripped the circuit breaker. We spent a lot of time looking for it, even going down to the basement of the building, with no luck. No electricity meant no WiFi, which meant no way to contact our host. So we thought we’d try our luck with the WiFi at the Central Station. Turns out the breaker was in the one place we didn’t look, easily accessible, and very easy to use. Despite our embarrassment, our host shrugged it off like it was no big deal. Probably happens with all the Americans eventually. We walked around some neat neighborhoods until we found breakfast — giant chocolate croissants and coffee.

We began our day on a canal tour, which gave us some nice views of the city. The boat was completely dominated by retirees from cruises. The two couples who sat with us were both from Florida, but didn’t know each other, and spent a lot of the tour comparing notes on cruise ships. It was a very sunny day, so I couldn’t really see how my pictures were turning out as I took them. Luckily I got some nice ones. As we cruised around we heard canons fire, and the tour guide told us that the Queen was getting on her yacht. We took pictures of the yacht, obviously. (Get ready for photo dump #1)

Pictures of buildings:

Pictures of boats:

Pictures of miscellaneous:

After the tour we headed to the Carlsburg Glyptotek — a collection of ancient and modernist art collected by the Carlsburg family. The museum staff didn’t mind us taking pictures, so I took some (aka Photo Dump #2)

Outside and Inside-Selfie:

Egyptian stuff:

Roman stuff:

Tired and hungry from a day of walking around, we decided to head to Copenhagen Street Food market. The place is built from former shipping materials, and has a kind of DIY vibe that was pretty neat. It’s near Freetown Christiana, so the vibe makes sense (we did not have the energy for Freetown). We got traditional smorrebrod, beers, and a mixed plate of Brazilian grilled meat. All the food was incredible. We talked about the ubiquity of English speakers with the Brazilian guy, and he asked us what the deal was with cheese in Wisconsin. We are known for our cheese, guys. We are known.

I have to say, the public transportation in this city is fantastic. It’s clean, reliable, and easy to navigate. The city is remarkably clean as well — except for the tagging, which is everywhere. You don’t find it on old building, but anywhere newer or public has it. Here’s an example:

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Near Freetown Christiana

Some surprises:

  • The graffiti, definitely.
  • Biking culture. Not that there’s tons of bicycling (more bicyclists than cars on many streets), but that the Danes tend to just park their bikes and leave them without locking them up. I don’t know if theft of bikes is low because everyone just has one, but we rarely saw bikes chained to anything.
  • The Danes seem to have a different concept of personal space than we do. Americans are obviously very unused to standing close together, even in big cities, but it’s still surprising.
  • Lots of smoking. You’d think with all the bicycling people would be healthier in general, but there’s tons of smoking all over the place, including smoking lounges in the airport.
  • How much construction the city of undergoing right now.
  • How expensive eating out is. Grocery store food is not much more expensive than back home, but there’s no tipping in Denmark and I would assume that servers and kitchen staff are paid a living wage. So a $15 sandwich feels expensive, but it’s just something we’ll have to adjust to.

 

February 20, 2017

The first observation platform is a short walk from the parking lot. The trail head is marked by a large black rock that looks so out of place it must have been deposited in this spot by some prankster. It is late February on a freakishly warm 50 degree day, and the land is the color of toast. Tall grasses still topped with seed heads rustle in the wind as I walk. I see deer tracks, and human. There is a little mud here — later it will be so deep and so thick that it will catch my boot and pull it off as I walk. The observation platform I am walking to looks east over oak savanna until the view is cut by distant trees. It is ten in the morning, and the sun sits low behind cloud cover, positioned over my right shoulder. There is maybe twenty feet of boardwalk leading to the platform, and it is metal. I don’t know when this was put in. I spent a lot of time in the Cherokee Marsh Preserve as a child, and all the boardwalks were, well, boards. Wooden. They certainly made noise, but they didn’t clang as you walk. A couple Redwing Blackbirds keep me in their sights. They can’t be nesting this early; maybe they’re just bored.

Up the platform (still wood, thank goodness) and I hear the staccato trumpet of Sandhill Cranes in the distance. I love these cranes. I love their trilling call, I love the splash of red on their heads, I love the way they move like deer through the tall grass. They are grey, and hard to see in the distance, visible only when they’re on the move. They are loud, though. One dead ahead is calling and calling. I wonder if I had startled him, and then I realize that he’s not calling at me, he’s calling to the six cranes coming in for a landing: “Come home, come home!” He’s obviously the boss of this operation. As they get closer to the prairie they call in return: “Coming, coming!” Seven more appear as I watch, each answering his throaty call with their own higher-pitched. The marsh itself is north of where I’m standing, on the other side of a hill, and a few take off in that direction. As I watch them leave I lose track of the boss, climb down the platform, and aim myself north towards the hill. As I walk I hear him, as loud as if he were next to me, and I turn my head to catch him again. Many of his flock have flown on, but he’s still calling to them so they don’t get too far away.

The trail begins to climb and the mud seems to be turning into clay. This is fine to walk on, and I can keep my head up and look around me. In the summer this prairie would be lousy with songbirds, but in February it’s very still. I very much appreciate the stand of burning bush (I actually don’t know what this plant is — maybe some kind of dogwood? It has red bark and it found in both the prairie and the woodland parts of the preserve -edit) in the distance visually breaking up all this tan grass — the only plant that shows off year round.

The trail curves to the east and then switches back to the west and I’m climbing in earnest now. I have to watch my feet, first because of a persistent patch of ice, then because the melting snow has generated deep, squelchy mud. I am terribly out of shape and have no ability to pace myself, so I’m breathing hard by the time I get to the top. My heart is pounding, and I pause to let it calm. I can now see across the prairie and past the stand of trees at its edge. Beyond is the small local airport, and I can make out the radar towers. It’s suddenly not so easy to pretend I’m in the wilderness. Once I can take quiet breaths out of my nose again, I begin to head down. The mud is dangerously thick here, so I have to keep my head down almost the entire time to avoid losing a boot. I see more deer tracks. Raccoons with their clever fingers have been through since the snow melted. I also see the paw print of some kind of canine, but I don’t know how to tell the difference between a coyote and a similarly sized dog. Dogs aren’t allowed in this part of the preserve, but that doesn’t stop folks from bringing them. There are long tracks cutting through the mud, but I can’t tell what made them — sled? ski? By now I’m breaking the rules and walking next to the trail through oak leaf litter. The smart animals must have been doing this too, because all I see now are other people’s boot prints.

hat

At the bottom of the hill is the marsh. There used to be a boardwalk that ran the length of the marsh, out into the water. Whether for safety, or upkeep costs, or wildlife protection, or some combination of those, the boardwalk is gone. There are now only a few docks and other platforms that look out over the marsh, accessible by a forest trail. One of these allows me to get fairly close to the noisiest, bossiest flock of Canada Geese I have ever seen. I startle a pair of Mallard Ducks as I get close, and I see other ducks hurrying through the air, but they mostly seem to be steering clear of the geese. The Sandhill Cranes are audible on the dry land north of the marsh, also getting far away from the geese — and who can blame them? The geese are completely nonplussed by my presence. A few display their wingspan at me, sending the message not to do anything foolish like venture onto the thin ice they’re congregating on. I guess some hungry coyote might be brave enough, but there’s running water in the middle of the marsh, and running water below the dock, so he probably wouldn’t get very far.

geese

I head towards the bench at the end of the dock. Nearby, in the reeds, something is startled, scurries, and splashes away. I think I spy beaver dams throughout the marsh, and I wonder if I’ll get lucky and spot a beaver so close. I spend a long time trying to see something moving nearby, but it’s too clever and too brown and blends into the dormant cattails. I watch the geese until the sun goes back behind clouds, and I need to get moving to warm up.

In all I spend a little over an hour in the preserve. I am concerned to see the cranes, geese, and ducks flocking so early. Or did they never fly south? Everything changes, especially the land. Humans are foolish to think that we’re the only creatures capable of altering our paths.

 

sign

From the City of Madison site: “Strategically located at the head of Madison’s lakes, Cherokee Marsh acts as a living sponge.  It filters upland runoff, using excess fertilizer to grow marsh plants, and slowly releasing cleaner water to the lakes below.  Cherokee Marsh is the largest wetlands in Dane County.  It is used by thousands of students each year for environmental education. “

February 16, 2017

My aunt passed on the morning of February 10, 2017. My father’s sister. Her two sons, my cousins, are stacked between my brother and I by age: cousin, me, cousin, brother. As adults, we share a sense of humor, politics, ideas about faith, and hopes for the future. My aunt and her brother did not share the same type of relationship. They disagreed about nearly everything, and they mostly didn’t treat each other with kindness, though sometimes they did. My aunt gave me my grandmother’s pearls to wear in my wedding last year. I stopped talking to her after the election.

Not only did I stop talking to her, but she offered an olive branch and I rejected it. Did it matter that she had stopped talking to my mother? Absolutely not. We were all adults, and adults define their own relationships with each other. My aunt’s passing was so sudden that I wouldn’t have had a chance to say goodbye, and it’s the height of vanity to assume she was thinking about me in her last days. Still, she died and we hadn’t spoken for months. I rejected her and she died. Maybe it couldn’t have gone any other way — maybe it shouldn’t have. But, still, I’ll never get to undo that rejection.

Kindness as a concept is the closest thing I have to religion. Any religion can and will be sinned against. I am a sinner.

The visitation was four days later, the funeral the day after that. This was my first open casket, and I had to keep reminding myself that my aunt was both there and not there. Her grandson, the light of her life, was as self-involved and insatiable as all two-year-olds. He was a blessing, a ray of sunshine. His running, his playing, his appetite, his giggles were a kindness to his father, his grandfather, his uncle, and my father.

My aunt was buried with the ashes of all the dogs she’s loved. She was buried in a button-up shirt covered in Boston Terrier embroidery. She was a loving wife, a devoted mother and grandmother, a successful business-woman, and a friend to so many. Her sons and her brother will have hard days ahead of them, and I will try to be kind.

February 13, 2017

We keep the curtains closed in winter and we keep the blankets piled on and on top of blankets we encourage two ginger cats to add their warmth. Outside the window it is a strange day full of sunshine, singing birds, and melting snow. This is not February — at least not the kind of February I used to know. The longest-shortest month with cutting winds and snow that had crusted and cracked under your boots. Imbolc comes not through any sign of spring but because of the hope of a sign of spring. In February it is easy to imagine a long darkness that never ends.

The mud used to come in March, but this muddy February is peculiar — and I suspect we’ll have many more peculiar muddy Februaries to come.  What we can hope for is an earlier start to the gardens. As our winter shrinks in Wisconsin so too do shorelines shrink in Louisiana. But we’ll try not to think about that. We’ll also try not to think about the jumping worms, and the zebra mussels, and the coywolves, and all the other hybrids and aliens that signal the coming apocalypse.

Outside the window is fear. Inside is anxiety.

 

Prompt from thinkwritten: “Outside the Window.”