You turn over the last of your cash to the smiling lady, the amalgamation of months of traveling: Yuan, Tugriks, Rubles, Kroons, Zlotys, Forints, even some Rupees, all heaped on the counter in the dismal hope that the beautiful smiling machine can change it into whatever it is they use here, in this way station, for a ticket to the next place, a beer, maybe some bread. Whirring computer bleeps and more smiling and nodding confirm you are worthy. Transaction complete! Her smile already fading as you sign, eying the person behind you, you take the few slim bank notes, and shuffle down to the next window.
The clerk confirms what the ad says with a brisk smile, “As quick and smooth of an overnight trip as there is…” and you think that you’ll be able to sleep. Save money on a night’s lodging, you say to yourself, the same as you have for how many years now? You imagine that with a little luck you’ll find an unoccupied pair of seats to be able to stretch out the legs. At least an aisle seat. Who knows, there could even be some eastern European princess there to tell dirty jokes to and sneak snorts of wine with. You’ll wake up in the morning refreshed and arrived in the city of the future: Copenhagen.
But not so easy. The Trip, lest we forget, is a living thing and has plans for us. It has lessons. The Trip, after all, it is about getting there.
A small crowd of riffraff coagulated into a retarded line around me just before the bus arrived at Berlin’s main station. The door opened with a shush of air and the man motioned for my ticket, read it and quickly started spouting what sounded like epithets against my whole family. Sounds like Czech, I thought.
The bus, originating in Brno and passing through Prague and Dresden, had been filled almost to capacity. The ragtag bunch of miscreants waiting to board began quickly piling inside while the driver shook my ticket and demanded, “Five Euro!” All managed to find seats by the time I emptied out my pockets, convincing him to let me on for all the money I had left in the world: €4.32. All eyes gazed up me, shifting from the sweat glistening off my scraggly beer-smelling beard to my incongruously stained Hawaiian T-shirt as I walked down the aisle searching for the last seat. No visible place manifested itself as I reached the back of the bus and turned to look once again, the first-day-of-school fear of searching for a seat with all eyes on you hardening into knife-like tension. From the back I counted heads and finally came upon a single mange of hair a few rows up near the toilet. Approaching, standing next to the broad-hipped woman in the flower print dress and asking if I could sit, she looked up, growled something in a guttural German and finally motioned me over her considerable bulk to the window seat. This was the beginning of getting to Copenhagen.
The first time I heard “Copenhagen” was in reference to smokeless tobacco. During high school would-be smokers were dissuaded from the obvious use of cigarettes by abortive district-wide policies. The funneled toward a more manly type of tobacco addiction colloquially known as “chew”, “chaw”, “cope” or “dip”. The moist snuff, sold under the brands of Copenhagen and Skoal, came in small circular cans ringed in metal smelling pungently of mint. Those brave souls who dipped wore cowboy hats, and what they called “shitkickers” and often had telltale can-shaped outlines in the back pockets of their Lee jeans. Once at a party where the beverage of choice was slightly chilled malt liquor in 40 ounce bottles, I was offered, and pinched, a dip, packing a large clump of the grainy stuff into the space between my front lower lip and my gums. Knowing the danger of swallowing the nicotine-rich juices, yet not having an understanding of just how much fluid it produced, and with the malt liquor flowing like a lukewarm river of gold, the two streams soon intermingled and I passed out, only to awaken in the early morning hours with a throbbing head covered in illicit writing and smelling of minty vomit. Never again, I swore, scrubbing my brow. Copenhagen vanished from my lexicon.
The woman was in her mid-fifties, surly in every way, and had amazing upper body strength. Her meaty forearm controlled the armrest like an angry Visigothic warrior. The bus rolled on into the dark toward the thundering skies over Hamburg. As the storm clouds opened up and lightening punctuated the night like a strobe, her ghoulish outline seemed to grow even larger, her thick voice pitched harshly like half-notes from a broken oboe. Complaining loudly to all and sundry in the black of night about how much extra space I was stealing, hers the only overhead light on for spotlight effect of her mini-tirade. Eventually becoming ensconced in the large typeface and glossy photos of her Bild am Sonntag magazine, the warrior subsided, only loudly flapping the pages and harrumphing occasionally at the outrageous American and his too long legs.
Sometime before two am, and just after finally falling asleep, the driver turned on the interior lighting and announced in a staticy Czech: We have arrived in Rostock and will be stopping to be checked by Danish Immigration Agents after which we will immediately board a ferry to the island of Zealand, Denmark and will continue our journey on toward Copenhagen. Thank you, now get out of the bus.
As soon as the announcement was made, voices from the rear of the bus began rising and items in bags were shuffled about in a clamor as several smiling Danish immigration officials boarded, collected and eventually returned our papers, wishing me a pleasant journey. Painless as it appeared to be, apart from crossing over to Estonia from Russia, entering Denmark was the only other European locale my passport was inspected. As we alighted from the enclosed security zone into the belly of the ferry I noticed two men being ushered aside. They, nor their luggage, never made the ferry.
Once aboard I mounted the stairs to the third floor passenger area, peed and found an available bench out on an exterior walkway. I rolled my last smoke and looked out at the light of the full-moon reflecting off of glassy Baltic waters. The clouds had cleared up the early June night sky and in the eastern distance the first filaments of sunrise could already be seen. A woman approached and asked “Har du ild?” When I didn’t immediately respond she looked at me and quickly asked in English, “Do you have a light?” Her accent was more sophisticated than her dress, but less so than her red hair.
“Yes, I do,” holding my own struck match, adding, “please.”
“Excuse me, but can I ask you a question?”
“Would you like to have a seat?”
Quietude. Water flowing. Birds.
“What did you want to ask?”
“I asked you to sit. Where are you going?”
“Oh, I’m going to near Copenhagen. You?”
“Funny, that’s where I am going. Know any good places?”
“All of them. Want to come?”
I told her I did. We exchanged smiles and talked through another cigarette. Eventually she asked where I was coming from. I told her Germany. She smiled at me like I was an asshole and said she knew that, but before getting on in Berlin, where had I been?
“Poland. And before that, China and all the tiny in-between countries too.”
Laughing, she asked where my favorite place was. I told her I had been looking forward to this particular trip for a while, and so far, it was not disappointing.
“Oh, so you like good beer and women…and…”
“And bicycles too.”
“Good answer. What about mermaids?”
“Mermaids? Are there many? Is it polite to feed them?”
“So you know the legend of the little mermaid, yes?”
“It is 300 years to become human. She has to wait two hundred years more for a soul.”
“By the time that have happened everyone she’ll have loved will be dead.”
“Exactly, so what is she waiting for?”
“She’s waiting for herself.”
“She has got faith.”
“Isn’t this a children’s story?”
“Yes and no. Some parts are for children. Some are for adults.”
“Sounds complex. Hearing it read it in the original language, soothing voice and all, might help…”
“Oh, do we have some schooling for you.”
I told her that I hoped so and added that I was entrusting the task to her. I pulled out my two lukewarm German beers – a white wheat ale and stout black lager – and gave her her choice. She took the white beer, opened it with my lighter and handed it back to me, smiling, “Now we’re even.” She cracked the stout and we skoal’ed. The night rolled on into the faintest swipes of blue, slowly brightening at the edges.
She said her name was Maya. With my plan of watching Heston Blumenthal’s In Search of Perfection now dashed as the waves on the hull below, and happily so, we found more private seating inside the fourth floor bar, which was closed, and empty except for the rats. We talked about the excitement of going places, meeting new people, and eating everything imaginable, what she called the strange “pheromone ache” withdrawals of being in a static situation, yet wanting to hop on a plane and fly away to a foreign land for adventure and usually lots of sex. Occasionally I wonder if know enough of whichever language I speak to truly understand it, but not often. Sometimes it’s just best to roll with with the waves.
Eventually the call came as we docked in Denmark and we got back on the bus, agreeing to meet again when we arrived in Copenhagen. My seatmate returned and a tidal wave of shudder simultaneously passed over the entire area. Plopping down she whipped out her magazine and started to paw through the shiny pages. Pausing for some reason, she stopped on a large color photo of a naked female figure cast in bronze and seated on a large round stone on the banks of a body of water, directly beneath which ran the headline: Die Kleine Meerjungfrau: Vermisste. Not recognizing it I laid back and ignored the belligerent panting of my adjacent adversary, slipping quickly off into the first comfortable sleep of any kind while on a bus. For some reason I dreamt of being shipwrecked at sea.
The bus’ clock read 05:30 when we finally arrived, and we quickly found a cafe near the central station. I found a recycled English-language newspaper with a story which explained the German tabloid headline: The Little Mermaid: missing. In trying to rouse its readers to a melodramatic conclusion, it suggested a more sinister destiny than representing the Danish pavilion at Shanghai Expo 2010, “She has been beheaded and doused in paint several times. In 2003 the statue was blown off her perch by vandals who used explosives. What now?” Just as I wondered if the city officials of Copenhagen wanted to embody the Scandinavian ideal of self-assurance that makes the small capital the heart of the world’s happiest country1 in the continuing evolution of any one concept, perhaps it would be Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid, a crew of drunken youths rowdily entered the cafe and sat down, singing loudly and laughing, all carrying green bottles of beer.
I asked Maya about the statue.
She read from her smart phone, “Carl Jacobsen commissioned Edward Eriksen in 1909 to sculpt the Den lille havfrue statue that sits in Copenhagen harbor along the Langenlinie park area.” Did he concretize the metaphor into reality? Anderson may have captured some of the Danish spirit that is adventurous and wants to know the love of man, yet ultimately learns the quiet value of staying home. What Anderson didn’t depict of his fellow Danes, Paracelcus’ Undine, Wagner’s Lorelei, and countless folklore and legends has for centuries: sirens, rusalki, morgens, selkies, ningyo are more than over-sexualized fodder for the peripheral fury of the masses.
With the majority of Danes under thirty still boozing at six a.m. I didn’t care much about analyzing Anderson’s fairytale as an appropriate Christian response to the popular Rationalist thought of his time. Instead I focused on the face framed in red across from me.
“Do you know Kierkegaard?”
“Um, do you want to see his grave?”
What would have been a fifteen minute bike ride for any average Copenhagener, took almost an hour to get through the minefield of broken bottles on Vesterbrogade, and navigate around St. Jorgen’s Lake, which separates the city center with inner Norrebro. The tall blonde joggers pacing the perimeter of the rectangular man-made basins soon outnumbered the drunks, but not by much. Reaching Aboulevard we turned right into the Norrebro neighborhood and found the back way into Assistens Cemetery, a well-tended labyrinth of green. People sprawled out on blankets and coats or passed out in the grass, surrounded by bottles, became obvious as we walked toward where the signs indicated.
“Cheapest hotel in the city,” she laughed, and motioned “here, this way.”
After kicking the pebbles in front of Kierkegaard’s grave for a while we moved to a less densely occupied patch of green and sat. The sun that began to show just over the headhigh hedges, shone down on the slightly freckled skin of her forearm.
“I have to go soon. Before I do, I want to give this to you.” She pulled out Søren Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Anxiety
“It is the novel in which he talks about Adam and Eve and their ‘leap to faith’.”
“Do you mean leap of faith?”
“He said “leap to faith”. That is not what I want to tell you. He talks about the inability of man to prove God, yet our constant wish is to do this. This is a contradiction and there are many more. So, there is no other way to come to God than faith. But wait…” She laughed, moving her head and doing so her red hair shone bright in the sun’s reflection. It was enough to dull all the god-talk to the point that I had the overwhelming urge to grab her, and melt together in the middle of all that death, prettified as the Danish tend to make it, with a little life. Visions of tumbling into the green grass, the blue sky, and her red hair, her… “…I’m not religious and I know how this looks, coming to a graveyard and talking about philosophy and god,” giggling again, she went on, “like very silly teenage things, but I want to give you a special memory, because we will never see each other again.”
“My mama always said, ‘Never is a long time.’”
“I understand it sounds mysterious, but think about how you will remember this day and last night…”
I moved very close to her and very lightly touched her arm, “What if I don’t want to remember it someday? What if we die right now? What good are memories?”
I touched the sharp ends of a swaying loop of her red locks, where the sun played a symphony in and out of shadow, and leaned in, eyes closed, inhaling, feeling it on my face, absorbing the fragrant aroma of apples and hay.
She went on in a whisper, “I see your point. I do.” Exasperated, breathless almost, “What I want to say is that you are free. Free to choose. Faith or no faith…” She kissed me very softly, like a painter applying the final daubs to a canvas, until gradually increasing in intensity we fell back onto the grass. Eyes closed. Fingers fumbling with buttons. A whorl of skin and wool. Warm flushes of engorged capillaries seething. Non-spontaneous chemical reactions going about their business. A runner panted by.
I woke up not knowing where I was and feeling like driftwood bobbing on far-off waves, hollow, lost. I rolled over onto my belly, digging into the side-pocket of my camera bag, found the flask and turned its bottom up longer than usual. Sticking out of the book on my bag was a note that read: It’s just a simple leap to faith and was sealed with a kiss. Reading the page, the phrase “dizziness of freedom” was underlined, “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom…In that very moment everything is changed…Between these two moments lies the leap, which no science has explained and which no science will explain.”
For no reason I could fathom Mark Mothersbaugh’s lyrics to the classic 1980 DE-VO song Freedom of Choice, “Freedom of choice is what you got/ Freedom from choice is what you want” careened around my head. Human hangovers were getting up and trudging off like beautiful Scandinavian zombies, lighting cigarettes. I set the book down on my chest and looked up at the sky at the puffy mermaids on fat cumulonimbus rock-clouds floating by.
1 Ronald Inglehart, World Values Survey