Bay Times Columnist and SF Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band Member
If you count shopping for trolls, taking a sucker dare to ingest lutefisk (the haggis of my people) and enjoying the sing-song lilt of the Swedish Chef on a crowded city street, I had around 85 reasons why I wanted to see Copenhagen. The only one that mattered, though, was escorting my mom to the border of her ancestral homeland and making her cross it.
Ma turned 73 this year, and other than a couple trips to (English-speaking) Canada, sheâ€™d never left the U.S. Her fear of flying is legendary among flight attendants at all the major domestic airlines, both solvent and bankrupt, so herding her onto a plane without the use of shackles was a challenge. She cancelled our trip on at least three separate occasions, saying Scandinavia sounded terrific, thank you, but she was too old to fly that far. It wasnâ€™t until dad and I put down money on a room during an optimistic phase of one phone call that we locked her in.
Sheâ€™s a Depression Era baby: you can flip-flop on your dreams, but itâ€™s insanity to throw away a perfectly good security deposit.
Seeing Europe through a newbieâ€™s eyes is exciting. One of the things I love about traveling is that it makes us all children again as we see details fresh for the first time.
Ma is a first generation Scandi-American. Her mom was 7 when she immigrated here with her parents, Adelheid and Ola Olander, on the Lusitania on one of its (thankfully) lesser-known passages. Like all good 1900s-era immigrants, Grandma only taught her children English.
So Ma picked up Rosetta Stoneâ€™s Level 1 Danish to fill in the few phrases she knew and got to experience that Helen Keller moment of suddenly understanding language in a world that had been incomprehensible a moment before. Strolling up the StrĂ¸get, the largest pedestrian shopping district in Europe full of high-end department stores and tourist t-shirt and snack shops in historic buildings, she pointed to the store windows and cheerfully translated the jumbles of letters for us. â€śChicken! Those people sell chicken!... Pants! The boy in that book dropped his pants!â€ť
Every day had its share of travelersâ€™ surprises. Danes speak perfect English without the tiniest hint of Jim Hensonâ€™s Muppet sing-song. You canâ€™t find lutefisk on any menu and instead smĂ¸rrebrĂ¸d is everywhere - open-faced sandwiches with shrimp salad, salmon and capers, fresh veggies and comte cheese shavings piled high above rye and pumpernickel foundations. The city smells like hotdogs â€“ pĂ¸lse trucks are everywhere serving the red sausages in rolls with beets as one topping. And the streets are filled with herds of cyclists. Over 30% of Copenhageners commute by bicycle, and every day looks like a Critical Mass demonstration.
Then we had a day when all Danish legends came true. It started with a visit to RundetĂĄrn, the 17th century â€śround towerâ€ť built as an astronomical tower by Denmarkâ€™s flamboyant Christian IV, basically because all the other monarchs had one. Ma had grown up hearing about â€śRooondetaaaaarnâ€ť from Adelheid, and as we trekked 10 stories up the whitewashed, helical interior ramp, her eyes were wide that she was actually in the monument her grandmother had described. Climb one more short staircase at the top, and a rooftop observation deck shows 360-degree views of Copenhagenâ€™s brick and copper-topped skyline.
Down in RundetĂĄrnâ€™s courtyard, we wandered into a flea market sale where lanky retired Danish guys cracked corny jokes and sold the blue Royal Copenhagen collectorâ€™s plates my grandma cherished for about $5 US. After laying in a supply, we wandered into Lagkagehuset, a bakery I can only describe as a Pastry Emporium, and found the capital â€śDâ€ť Danish weâ€™d been seeking. Pastries filled with marzipan and topped with candied blueberries, chocolate and glazed whole strawberries and served with strong, Scandinavian coffee.
We capped off the day with Tivoli, the worldâ€™s second oldest amusement park. Opened in 1894, Tivoli has carnival rides for the kids, but also has fine restaurants, manicured gardens and live music acts for the adults inside its brick walls. Great-grandma Adelheid was a party girl during her Copenhagen days and loved to go dancing there. On our visit, we stepped through Tivoliâ€™s brick archway at dusk, when the strings of lights along the walkways began to blink on. Fifty feet inside the park, a gilt-trimmed stage framed commedia del arte characters â€“ Pantalone, Harlequino, white-faced clowns and ballerinas danced and mimed through romance and pratfalls. As we watched in the fading light, a cry rang out. Up the sidewalk wandered two peacocks, who proceeded to mingle with the audience. Mom just looked at me with saucer eyes and her mouth wide open. â€śItâ€™sâ€¦ magic!â€ť