Recently, when we decided to look for a place outside of Mexico to house sit over the holidays our only prerequisite was that it be “different.” We didn’t really define what different was, but knew that we wanted to get outside of our comfort zone and experience a different culture, weather, language, way of life, etc. Enter Copenhagen, Denmark. Demark is different than Mexico, right? Copenhagen seemed “different” on paper and once we arrived we realized, whether we had intended it or not, we had picked a place that was the most diametric opposite of Mexico imaginable. Different? Mission accomplished.
First thing we noticed was the weather, of course. We’ve spent the last few years trying to avoid heat stroke in tropical jungles and sunburns on sandy beaches and now we suddenly decide to head to Scandanavia in the winter. Winter in Copenhagen is cold and dark with just a few hours of sunlight during each 35F degree day. So yeah, already starting to question our sanity, different.
In addition, the city is expensive. As in “I think I’m going to have to sell one of my kidneys to afford dinner tonight” kind of expensive. We’d begun to take the cheap eats in Mexico for granted and now here we were in one of the most expensive cities in the world paying $50 USD for a couple of burgers and beers. So far this review of Copenhagen sounds enticing, right?
Now, before you cancel your upcoming Copenhagen vacation (and I get a call from the board of tourism) let me clarify something. Despite the weather and the expense, you SHOULD GO TO COPENHAGEN. Yes, Copenhagen is dark and you may have to trade a kidney for a burger but it’s so, so worth it. Can you imagine how cool a city has to be in order to overcome what many would consider two strikes? Copenhagen at Christmas (and probably the rest of the year) is charming and welcoming and fun and magical. It’s full of canals that you can take boat rides on, historical buildings to visit, cozy fires to sit by and loads of green spaces so you can take full advantage of the sun when it shows up those couple hours each day.
Jason sometimes describes life in Mexico as barely contained chaos. Nothing (and nobody) is ever on time, store hours are
mystifying a bit flexible, there’s almost always music playing or horns honking or roosters crowing and you can’t normally walk more than 10 feet without someone stopping you to say ‘buenas tardes’.
Copenhagen is different (there’s that word again) to put it mildly. Everything is efficient, quiet, orderly and on time. I’m talking down to the second on time. Literally the boards at the train stations show how many seconds the train is away from the platform, and then they arrive when they say they are going to, sometimes early. Amazing. This order and efficiency was so foreign to us that it was a little unnerving and made us a touch homesick at first. Luckily, we soon found the non-order of Christiania.
This autonomous neighborhood was founded when a pack of hippies took over an abandoned military barracks in 1971 and have been living there ever since. It is currently car-free, green and made up of about 850 people who live a decidedly alternative lifestyle with their own set of societal rules and operate independently of the Danish government and mainstream society. Sure, it’s kind of a hippie commune but it’s also so much more.
There are art galleries and installations, music venues, organic restaurants and shops selling all kinds of goods located throughout the community. Many of the buildings have scaffolding erected around them in order to facilitate the street artists that decorate their exteriors. As you can imagine, everything is pretty easy going but not just anyone can buy a house here. You have to apply to be accepted by the society and, if approved, you are given a house. Everything here is open to the public so we had one of our best meals in Copenhagen in Christiania (twice) and loved walking around and looking at all the different art sculptures and creative things made out of scraps.
I’d love to show you pictures of all of the stuff we saw – but photography is frowned upon in this area, primarily because of one section known as Pusher Street. Um yeah, that kind of pusher. While hash is illegal in Denmark it is pretty openly dealt on this street and has been the main reason there have been clashes in the past between the government and the citizens of Christiania. The current Danish government seems to have a more liberal view of the dealings there so everyone is getting along and you shouldn’t hesitate to go if you find yourself in the area.
While Christiania is car-free, the rest of Copenhagen hasn’t quite gone to that extreme, but I feel like they are well on their way. The roads in Copenhagen are ruled by bicycles, here cars are considered second-class citizens. Seriously every single person has a bike, and why wouldn’t you? The city has made it so incredibly easy, and safe, to get around on them. There are dedicated bike lanes on every street, special stoplights for bicycles, bicycle parking lots and racks all over the city, bike racks on the front of buses and even cars on the incredibly efficient subway system that you can park your bike in.
So after all that biking and walking around town, people in Copenhagen are bound to get thirsty and hungry. Us included. And we were anxious to try some of the local food and drink. I’m guessing that you think by now that the only thing we did while in Europe was drink beer, and I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that. I mean for some people (Jason included) that probably would make for a fantastic trip. But it’s not true at all. We did more than just drink beer, we also drank Glögg! Well I did. It’s a warm, mulled wine which loads of fruit and nuts at the bottom. Jason has a weird aversion to warm fruit so he steered clear. But he missed out because at Christmastime they serve up Glögg with aebleskiver (a fancy word for donuts).
One of the other differences we noticed was the people, both the attitude and the appearance. I am of Scandinavian descent and I think it would be fair to describe most of my fellow brethren, at least the ones we came across, as polite and quite friendly, but reserved. While everyone was universally nice after we started talking with them I don’t think a single person said hello to me first (and I certainly didn’t hear any loud radios or horns honking). After coming from a culture that hugs and kisses and dances and sings and talks with abandon, it was quite the change.
And as I have some of that Scandanavian background, my physical appearance matches up with it. I have blonde (ish) hair, pale skin and am tall for a woman in the United States. In Mexico? Well in Mexico I am comically tall, especially in the more traditional Mayan communities. So, yeah, I have never once in three years been mistaken for a local. But in Copenhagen? Well in Copenhagen it seems that just about everyone is ridiculously tall, blonde and freakishly fit (I think it’s from all that biking and walking around). I was able to look people in the eye and I even got asked for directions. ME! People in Copenhagen thought I was a local! (Side note: Winter coats seem to hide the absence of being freakishly fit). Well at least they thought I was a local until I opened my mouth. My Spanish is a work in progress (and I appear to lose my ability to speak English a little each day) but my Danish is way worse and is limited to hello (hej) and thank you (tak).
After having my feet hang off the end of a bed, being forced to duck my way under many short doors and trying to squeeze my legs into some questionably small places in Mexico, it was such a treat in Copenhagen to be able to spread out and stand tall without being stared at.
This was our first holiday season away from our family and friends so it was a bit hard at first. But, Copenhagen and its commitment to the holiday helped out a lot and I loved being in Copenhagen at Christmas. The city was incredibly festive and decorated to look and feel like something out of a fairy tale (which makes sense as this is the home to Hans Christian Anderson – trust me, this town does not let you forget that fact), including one of my favorite places that we visited, Tivoli Gardens. We visited this 19th century amusement park the night before Christmas Eve to get in the spirit and this place did not disappoint. The place is full of rides, games, entertainment and, for the holidays, spectacular decorations, light shows and fireworks.
Copenhagen served up the Scandanavian Christmas I had imagined and gave us an experience that was fun, fascinating, way outside of our comfort zone and, most of all, different. With a few extra layers, a credit card and loads of socks, we managed to not only survive the cold and expense but to really enjoy it. It was so completely different from our experiences in Mexico, not better, not worse, just different enough that I’m still trying to process it all. I managed to make it back across the pond with both my kidneys, a fuzzy new hat and a ton of great memories. Thanks for the break Copenhagen, you were just what I needed.