Denmark, Day Twelve: In Which A Side Quest Is Undertaken

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

By Wednesday, sadly, all our Copenhagen Cards were expended, and we were back to having to actually pay entrance fees and metro fare. Actually, it was about this time that we were discovering a bit of a flaw in the current system.

See, to use the various forms of public transport in Denmark, most people-including us, for the duration-had a Rejsekort (‘travel card’), your basic little plastic card with money on it. Bus, train and metro stations would all have ‘check in’ and ‘check out’ machines near them; when you got on or transferred to something else, you would check in, and when you were done you checked out and the cost of the trip would be taken off your card. Simple enough. You could buy individual tickets or have another method, like the Copenhagen Card, but the Rejsekort was by far the most common and the whole system seemed to be set up around it.

And yes, incidentally, this did make it entirely possible to ride around for free if you were unscrupulous that way. Particularly on the metro-at least the scanners for buses were actually inside the bus, so the driver could keep an eye on everyone to make sure they were behaving, but the metros were completely automated, and there was nothing preventing you from walking on even if you had no means of paying whatsoever. As an American, this greatly confused me. I mean, it wasn’t completely without enforcement; periodically a transport employee would be on the metro to go around and check that everyone was in order, and if you weren’t-okay, I don’t know exactly what would happen, but it definitely involved at least a hefty fine. But this was a random check, and by no means guaranteed. Principally the system seemed to rely on everyone just being willing to follow the rules. Which was a particular cultural difference between Denmark and America that we were all starting to notice.

In Denmark, people will leave babies in strollers outside a cafe while they go in for a drink, because who would steal a baby? Fresh fruit or vegetables will be displayed outside grocery stores without anything deterring passersby from carrying them off for free, or things will be set out for sale without any attendants, just a tin or something to put the payment in. We were advised to leave our windows open at the Danhostel so the room wouldn’t get too stuffy, which sounded bizarre to us-we were on the ground floor, for heaven’s sake, someone could just climb in and make off with all our stuff. But no one ever did, and no one ever seemed to consider that a concern.

I don’t mean to imply that Denmark doesn’t have any crime, or anyone taking advantage of these things, anymore than I mean to imply that America is a land of total anarchy where no one follows any rules (although sometimes I wonder). But there’s a different approach to it. Trust is the default, rather than the exception. Sure, some people might grab a piece of fruit from outside your supermarket without paying, but not so many that you’re gonna make a loss. Some people might not scan their travel cards on the metro, but not so many that the system’s not generally going to work. And even as a person who compulsively follows rules (the Danish tendency to not go until the crosswalk turns green, dammit, no matter if there aren’t any cars for miles, is another thing I identify with, and a constant source of irritation for me as I watch everyone else on my campus skip merrily across the street whenever they want), this attitude was strange to me. I go to college in a small and generally friendly town, but I lock my dorm room when I go out. I keep an eye on my bag. And I’m pretty hesitant to walk anywhere alone after dark. Depending on who I talk to, this might be paranoid, or not nearly paranoid enough, but the attitude is always there to some degree. Trust is not the default in America.

This didn’t have anything to do with the problem we ran into with the Rejsekort system, though. No, what we were finding out was that the system required you to have enough money on your card to theoretically go to the farthest stop from that point. Otherwise, it wouldn’t check you in, and also it would make the most incredibly sad machine noise at you. In a way this made sense; the machine didn’t have any way of knowing where you were going, and it didn’t subtract the money for the trip until you got off, so if you rode farther than you had the money for you’d presumably either be really screwed over at the end or get a long ride for free. In practice, though, what this meant was that there would always be a certain amount of money on your card that could never be spent, because once you got below a certain point you couldn’t go anywhere. It wasn’t a huge amount-somewhere around 50-70 kroner, I think, or about $7-10 (ish), but it was pretty frustrating to have to refill your card when there was perfectly good money left on it-especially because, while the card itself and the initial amount on it were on the program, after we depleted that we had to refill it with our own money. I held on a smidge longer since I hadn’t been going out in the evenings, but by that Wednesday a lot of people had already run out.

And that was particularly frustrating on Wednesday because Wednesday was the day we had the neighborhood assignment, and that involved some metroing.

The idea behind the neighborhood assignment was to get us to see more of Copenhagen than just the tourist areas we had been in so far. To that aim, we were split into groups of three and each randomly assigned a neighborhood to go investigate, with an accompanying list of sub-tasks, such as visiting a grocery store, getting a newspaper, and talking to a Danish person.

I agreed with the idea, but I can’t say that I agreed with the execution. Too much of it seemed to work a lot better in theory than in practice. For example, there was quite the lengthy and detailed list of questions we needed to ask our hypothetical Danish person, which frankly to me came off as more of an interrogation than anything else, and not conducive to a comfortable conversation-especially in a country where, as we had just spent the last week learning repeatedly, people generally kept to themselves and didn’t do small talk. Another task was to visit a real estate office and ask another long list of questions, but three people who obviously did not intend to conduct business coming in and taking up time asking a lot of questions did not seem like the sort of thing most real estate offices would appreciate-assuming we could find one in the first place.

But, we had our quest, so we set out to do it. My group was assigned Amager-more of an island than a neighborhood, really, but fortunately we didn’t have to tour the whole thing. We also didn’t have to go very far, only a couple of stops up from the hostel. This did not stop us from being rather grumpy, though.

It was universally agreed that, given our universal grumpiness and not unrelated low blood sugar, the first task we would take on would be having lunch. That’s not just me being glib, that was actually one of our tasks. We even had a stipend toward that end. Only problem was, we couldn’t find anywhere to eat. After getting off the metro we walked past some office buildings-or at least what I presumed were office buildings-and then found ourselves in what seemed to be a residential area. There were lots of apartments, but the only sources of food we found were a grocery store and a Shell station (which had the distinction of being the first gas station I’d seen in Denmark thus far). Later we found out that there was actually a whole street full of restaurants and cafes just around the corner, because of course there was.

In the mean time, though, no one really felt like striking off on weakening legs to search for an actual restaurant, especially given how concerned we were about getting lost, so we collectively shrugged and went for the Shell station. It wasn’t particularly large, as gas stations go, but it had a few rows of snacks, drink freezers, and a mini deli. We all grabbed something from the deli and took it across the street to a picnic table that stood in front of some apartments.

Normally I would consider a sandwich from a gas station deli to be just about the last of last resorts. But damn if that sandwich wasn’t good. It was so good I actually got a little angry at it. It just felt like showing off. Like, geez, Denmark, you don’t have to rub it in.

Bizarre food-directed anger aside, we all felt better once we’d eaten, and headed on up the street, where we found ourselves at the edge of a park. That seemed like a good place to hang out and observe the neighborhood, so we made for a bench.

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For a while we were content to sit there and observe, but our mission was weighing on us. At some point, we had to at least make an effort to go ask a Danish person a lot of questions. And no one wanted to do it. I especially didn’t want to do it. We’ve already been over how shy I am. Just buying a cup of tea in Denmark was consistently proving to be enough of a challenge for me. Interviewing a random stranger on the street? Lord, no.

But fortunately, I was in a group, and while my two partners weren’t any more eager about this than I was, one of them did it anyway. There were a couple of women sitting on a bench over by the water, who had been there for quite a while and didn’t seem about to move. After a good bit of debate about whether it was a good idea, our brave brave partner walked over and began talking to them. They were a bit too far away for us to hear the conversation, but we could watch and cheer her on, and mutter variants on there for the grace of God…

After a surprisingly long time, our partner came back and relayed the conversation. It turned out she had actually had quite the pleasant and in-depth talk with one of the women (the other one apparently didn’t speak much English). The interviewee had said that life was fine for her in Copenhagen, but that she along with most Danes didn’t really get the whole “happiest people on Earth” thing; that they might have high quality of life, but she had found that it was very hard to make friends and connect with people in Denmark because people kept to themselves so much. She was a little fascinated and impressed by the way Americans, in contrast, were so outgoing and friendly, and inclined to do things like approach random people in parks for conversation. When asked what she thought of America, she said she wasn’t sure, because the only time they ever got news about America was when something bad had happened (to which my immediate response was “well that’s the only time we get news about America”), and that she felt that the resulting image couldn’t be very accurate, but she didn’t really have any other information to go on. She did think, however, that our gun policies were completely insane.

And then she asked a question that completely threw me once it was relayed to me: Did we feel safer in Denmark?

It was three days after the Orlando shootings. True to what the woman had said, we had seen it on the news, briefly, while passing through a train station.

On an emotional level, my response to that question would have to be a resounding no. . That didn’t have anything to do with Denmark specifically, just the fact that it was such a fundamentally different place. It was strange and overwhelming and-since we were spending most of our time in a city-overstimulating. No, I did not feel safe in Denmark. I felt exposed and alien and alone.

But that was a phobia, nothing to do with the difference between this and my native country. Intellectually, did I feel safer in Denmark?

It’s always been easy for me to fear catastrophes. A tornado drill in school, or a visit from the local volunteer fire department reminding us to check the batteries in our smoke detectors, easily led to nightmare visions of our house going up in smoke or being carried off by a twister. A school-wide presentation on stranger danger in third grade (which, in my defense, was pretty terrifying) had me quaking in my light-up sneakers until Therapist Dad stepped in. As ridiculous of a cliche as it is, I am the sort that will feel a minor ache and instantly conclude that it is definitely cancer. Because what I have found is that anxiety is so hardy a thing that it can grow in a vacuum, without the slightest bit of food or fuel, and so anywhere that there is even the tiniest bit of fertile ground for it to put its roots into, any frightening situation that has any possibility of actually happening, it can grow so strong that it becomes almost impossible to uproot.

And every time I see the news that there has been yet another mass shooting, that fertile ground gets deeper and richer.

But that’s part of life, isn’t it? That’s the predominant theme in America when it comes to gun violence-that there is nothing we can do, no way to stop it, that it is, basically, normal. And then there I was suddenly in this place where it wasn’t normal, wasn’t normal to steal fruit from grocery stores or cross before the signal or see massacres on the news time after time after time and wonder if one of those times it might you in the crossfire. And I was looking around and feeling nervous and out of place, and it was too loud and too busy and I couldn’t read most of the signs, and someone asked if I felt safer there and I had no idea what to think about that.

We left the park not long after that, walked down another street where it turned out all the restaurants were. We stopped at a candy store, and read the listings on the outside of a real estate office. And then we walked back.

Everyone convened in the conference room at the hostel later that afternoon to discuss what we had found in our neighborhoods. Dr. Dupont provided cake and coffee and tea. One of the questions brought up for discussion was, given what we had seen so far, would we want to live in Denmark?

I thought I would.

 

 

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