Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Danish Lessons, Chapter 4

November in Scandinavia will introduce you to more shades of gray than you knew existed. This is one of many lessons I'm learning as I rediscover the meaning of "cold" after spending three years in South Beach.

1. Do not expect to see the sun from about late October onward. And if you do, please run outside and take pictures and frolic about like a six-year-old. Feel free to skip a bit. Because on most days, you wake up to a light gray sort of morning; you work indoors to a backdrop of an overcast sort of fluffy blanket; and you go home to a dark night sky. (Silver lining: Very little light pollution. Stars are often in view.)

2. When it begins to get dark at around 4pm, do not be alarmed. This is simply how things work in Denmark. It might be a little disorienting--say, you look at your clock thinking, "Surely it is 10pm," only to find out that it's 6pm--but you will get used to it.

3. If you are ever a water nymph as part of your job, make sure you securely fasten your headpiece's battery pack underneath your ponytail. No one wants a water nymph with a battery pack dangling in front of her face.

4. Staying on the subject of the water nymph aspect of your new job: You are bare-legged for this bit of ballerina dancing. I know it's winter, and it's annoying, but really make sure you shave your legs. It's just polite to your colleagues.

5. In preparation for your first non-Balanchine Nutcracker in years, it would be a good idea to watch a DVD of the production to sort of get an idea of the style and choreography of this new version. This will prove helpful because you won't be alarmed when the bunny on stilts, multiple Drosselmeyers, and monkey in a tutu walk onstage.

6. Use the sauna at work. It's there for a reason. That reason is to make you feel better. It works. It's free. Go.

7. If you cry at work, do not take it out on innocent bystanders. That is just cranky. If anything, take Eva Draw's class. Not only will her blue mascara and magenta nail polish brighten your day, but so will her wonderful words of encouragement.

8. Your new apartment is excellent, but even better when filled with friends, lit candles, and good movies playing. So make this happen often. It gets you through the coldness. That and gløgg, a mulled wine sort of drink that was surely invented to be enjoyed in the company of fantastic people, in a basement-level bar across the street from the Det Kongelige Teater. Yes. That exact purpose.

9. Get used to sewing a lot of pairs of pointe shoes per week. Just do it.

10. If you have a masquerade ball on a Sunday evening, it's an excellent idea to get ready with some girlfriends. You can eat cookies and listen to music and get reassurance that the feathered bird headpiece you have donned is, in fact, fabulous and not completely ridiculous. Then you can go and enjoy yummy Thai food, an open bar, and hours of dancing.

11. Let's say you have a problem with high heels. The problem being you prefer very high heels to simply high heels. Four hours into the party, be proud and thank the heavens above that you brought your leopard print flats with you. Slip them on, beware of the alcohol-soaked floor, proceed to dance like a moron with abandon, and enjoy the rest of the evening.

12. The morning after said masquerade ball, get out of bed no later than 11am. Drink coffee. Rue your decision to wear waterproof mascara; sure, it didn't sweat off, but despite washing your face the night before, it's still caked on, possibly forever. Ponder what could have happened to your earring. Notice a horseshoe on your friend's desk and recall that on the walk home last night, you both spotted it in the street and decided to take it. Go to the sauna at work, learn the Spanish dance in Nutcracker, and sweat out toxins. Receive disappointing news about a boy you met at the ball the night before. Cry for a little bit on your friend's couch due to feelings of stupidity and general fatigue. Feel better when your dad threatens to hurt said boy's kneecaps. Go home. Sleep like a baby.

13. Realize it's okay to be positive, and okay to cry. Be thankful for your friends, family, gløgg, knit sweaters, candles, Love Actually, the sauna, 10kr blankets from Tiger, masquerade balls, Thai food, couches on which to cry upon, feathered avian headpieces, sky-high heels, and (perhaps most importantly) those leopard print flats.

Danish Lessons, Chapter 3

I have a free Saturday evening, and since the night is young--but a baby, at 7:50pm CPH time--and the rain is falling freely at the moment, here are more Danish lessons. In English.

1. If one of your new friends hosts a dessert (sans dinner!) party, feel free to be a grown-up and have cake for dinner. And brownies, and handfuls of M&Ms, and another kind of cake, and homemade ice cream, and some magical concoction known as a "scab cookie." It's fine. I'm sure all the food groups are in there somehow. Are sprinkles not a fruit/vegetable yet?

2. Take note of the amount of lost shoes littering the streets, particularly noticeable on Sunday mornings. Ponder how they got there. Make a story. Or just snap a picture and post it on Facebook, because your friends definitely want to see someone else's misplaced boot lying on a nondescript slab of pavement.

3. Perhaps you are not so good at sewing pointe shoes, and you knot the end of the thread on the inside of the shoe at the very specific point where it chafes against the skin of your feet. Please suck it up and start wearing tights inside your shoes. Do not let your feet end up looking like Jack Torrance had at them.

4. Knitting helps pass the time at the theatre. If you are not at the point where you can whip out a nice complicated cable-knit sweater, just start a project. It will most likely end up as something simple--say, a scarf, a potholder, a legwarmer, a beer cozy--but that doesn't matter.

5. Be careful when riding your bike, especially if you're not an expert at walking yet. Tooling helter-skelter down a near-empty Strædet is fine, but once you hit a point where you have to make a sharp right turn, please mind the sidewalk. And consider lightening the load in your handbag, because that's probably what will tip you over in the end. Then you will stand up looking like a 6-year-old who just learned how to ride a two-wheeler, complete with gravel burn on your hands and a very impressive artistic contusion on your kneecap.

6. Let's say that despite your clear lack of a green thumb (or ability to keep flowery things alive for a respectable amount of time, cacti included) you purchased an orchid your first or second week here. And let's say that two months or so later, it is still alive. Feel free to celebrate.

7. There are certain things you will find you love very much and will wonder why you never realized it before. Things like pourable yogurt mixed with chocolate granola; riding your new bike and finally remembering your lights, thus eliminating any Politi panic; the combination of peanuts and beer; galoshes; Shawarma at a very late hour; sleeping in on your day off; condiments.

8. It is okay to cry here. Over big things like a bike fall, medium things like your newly slashed feet, or small things like spilt milk. Especially if that milk is Mathilde chocolate.

9. If you are ever in a lockdown situation at a large opera house from 10:30am-9pm, you will discover new heights (or depths) of creativity. Having a small breakdown will kill about 20 minutes. Enjoying nearly every aspect of the Kantine will eat up (no pun intended) sizable amounts of time. Finding a costume rack on wheels, sitting on it with a friend, and paddling around the hallway is a quite enjoyable way to pass a good ten minutes. However, attempting to chat with one of the watchmen posted on the balcony will not use up much time at all, since those possible giants are not very talkative and all into their binoculars.

10. Oprah might come see one of your performances one day. Do not expect a Kindle.

11. Sometimes, on a Friday night with your friends, you will be feeling very milkmaid-ish, or very 7-years-oldish, and wear a donut buns sort of hairstyle. That's perfectly fine here, or it was for this expatriate.

12. It is okay to feel very girly and pretty (albeit dead and bitter) in your practice tutu for Wilis. It is also okay to be uncertain about the spelling of this role.

13. You will find that as the weather gets nippier, you dress more and more like an onion: in layers. And despite the rather unattractive side effects of this whipping wintry weather--which include, but are not limited to, dry skin, chapped lips, and bad cuticles--you might find yourself rather enjoying the crisp sensation of autumn.

14. If you perform West Side Story, you will find that fishnets are perhaps the most flattering legwear ever invented. Not the classiest or most attractive, per se, but you love them. It's fine.

15. Even if you are just this side of cray cray (or use phrases like "cray cray"), you will find that people here are generally wonderful. You'll also start to figure out what hyggeligt means, despite the fact that there is no direct translation in your native tongue. It's a lovely sort of feeling.

Danish Lessons, Chapter 2.

One month or so into la vida Copenhagen, and I learn something new every day. Some of it is useful, but like most things I've retained in my head, most of it is just fun little nonsense that helps me survive daily Danish life.

1. Hypothetically speaking, if you have the equivalent of $10USD in your bank account and two bowls' worth of delicious chokolade Crusli left to survive the weekend, take comfort in the fact that it is most certainly possible to live through Saturday night and Sunday and keep a full stomach going. You will find affordable sustenance mainly in chocolate, beer, and shawarma form. It's very Marie Antoinette. Except, you know, instead of "let them eat cake," it would be more like "let them eat Mars bars, Carlsberg, and shawarma." Which doesn't roll off the tongue quite as nicely, but I digress.

2. Since you now know that jaywalking is simply a menace to society, you bide your time patiently at the crosswalk like every other good Dane. If you ever come upon a drunk urinating woman yelling at you in Danish while you calmly wait for the green light, just play with your fingernails. It seems to work.

3. The bread that this country produces is magical. I don't know what's in it, or how many grains are involved (my amateur guesstimate would be approximately 87), but it's delicious. Especially with smuggled peanut butter. Just throwing that out there.

4. Don't question the condiments. I had ketchup for the first time since I was two on a burger the other day, because I did not feel comfortable altering the menu. And I survived; nay, the burger was delicious. Also, if you ask what kind of dressing or sauce is involved, the common answer will be: "Normal sauce." Which gets you nowhere. So just roll with it.

5. Carlsberg is like nectar here.

6. Whilst you are embarking on the difficult quest known as The Search for A Rental Apartment in Copenhagen, you may in the meantime have to rent out a room in someone else's apartment. If you happen to land in a situation where your flatmate is a cop-in-training and his jolly Scandinavian lady friend, see number 4: Just roll with it. In fact, consider it material for any forthcoming novels you may have brewing in your brain. Or at the very least something to talk about with your family on Skype. Laugh because it would be far too easy to cry.

7. Even if you do not take advantage of the fact that you may, if you so desire, have a drink on the street in public in this city, please feel liberated just possessing the knowledge.

8. If you are out and about having a lovely time with your friends, and an angry Swedish woman with a posse of three angry-looking men scowls at and accosts one of your friends, it's probably best to (a) just keep walking; (b) know that her life, at least that night, is probably not very happy right now, and she desperately needs a good shower and possibly a hug; and (c) realize that because she is wearing what amounts to a glorified Band-Aid, she's not only irate at 1 in the morning but also very cold in uncomfortable places. All in all, you're better off. Plus you have a bitchin' story to tell your family back home.

9. They have assigned seating at the movies here. It's very strange to this American, although it does eliminate the whole awkward "are these seats taken?" spats that often occur. And prevents people with crutches--ahem, Dylan--from saving entire rows at a time. Which, credit to the injured, is genius but unfair to those of us not on crutches.

10. If someone on the street starts talking to you in rapid-fire Danish, the best thing to do is stare sort of blankly, and then say, "I'm sorry, I don't speak..." and trail off sadly. They will be okay with the fact that you are a simple American who is not bilingual, probably feel a little bad for you inside, and then smile and find someone who can actually help them.

11. At some point, you should start learning street names and stop using landmarks like "that big Chinese buffet across from that fountain in the square." It just makes life a little easier.

12. If, like me, you forget your night bike lights every single time you cycle past sundown, learn to pedal really fast. In fear. Every time it happens, I just will myself to not get a ticket. And practice a teary, heart-wrenching speech in my head if I did get bike-pulled over.

13. There may be times when certain churches ring their bells for an absurd amount of time. I assure you, it is not 80 o'clock. I don't know what's going on, but it's not that late. Anywhere.

14. Converse are expensive here--I am not kidding, I saw them for sale at the equivalent of $120USD. Bring yours from home. Even if they're all clean and dorky and new. Not that mine are, or anything, I'm just saying...

15. Speaking of shoes, if you're wearing your awesome Target leopard print flats (which are honestly sort of stretched out and supportless but you still love them) while biking, really be careful not to lose your shoe while biking across H.C. Andersens Blvd. as the light is turning red. It's so embarrassing. Oh, and sort of playing in traffic.

16. Talk to people and they will talk to you. It's a simple system that is bringing me out of my comfort zone but into meeting new people, so the payoff is totally worth it.

Danish Lessons, The Beginning.

After a short time in the land of Vikings, Aqua, and smørrebrod, I have already learned some valuable Life Lessons. For those of you who are contemplating a visit to this small Scandinavian treasure of a land, I share.

1. If you are coming from the east coast of North America, be warned: it is a long, perilous journey through windy skies. The eight hours of non-stop, white-knuckle terror are somewhat eased with the aid of various modern technologies and alcohol. But if you are a member of the Secret Society of Frantic Flyers (which, to date, has its sole member in yours truly), you may want to look into boat travel. Or pioneer the whole walking-on-water thing.

2. Upon your arrival, I highly suggest you indulge in the lone Starbucks in Denmark. It is conveniently located in the Lufthavn terminal, and while its pastries section leaves much to be desired, its coffee is the good tonic of the homeland.

2a. Fear not, worshippers of the aforementioned St. Arbucks: Denmark offers a tasty alternative to the famed coffee chain, something called Baresso. With many convenient locations, light and fluffy pastries, and well-prepared "varm" and cold drinks, this will more than tide you over during your visit. Like everything in Copenhagen, a simple croissant and a latte may cost you an arm and both your legs, but at 9 in the morning, who needs more than one limb anyway?

3. Do not try to pronounce things as they appear. This is the least phonetically friendly language I have ever encountered. Though grammatically simple upon close examination, the words that exist on paper are wholly different than the sounds emerging from the mouth of a tall, striking Dane. Fortunately, most Danes speak perfect English, so when you mangle their language, they respond in your own native tongue with ease. This will inspire feelings of relief (at communicating successfully) and shame (at the fact that their English probably rivals your own, AND you are not even bilingual, unless Pig Latin is now an official language).

4. Do not--I repeat, do NOT--get in the way of the bikers. This is bike country, and they rule the roads. In America, we associate bikers with those Lance Armstrong jersey-clad middle-aged groups who impede our gas-guzzling ways on Saturday mornings. Not so here. In Copenhagen, the bikers have their own lanes, and their own stoplights. They respect the drivers (and vice versa) as well as the rules of the road. If you, as a pedestrian, do not do the same, expect a severe tongue-thrashing that you cannot understand...and yet, somehow do.

5. New Yorkers, prepare to obey the streetlights. Jaywalking is out of the question here. It doesn't matter if it's early on a Sunday morning, the Scandinavian sun is shining, the roads are empty, everything is not yet open and everyone is still in bed. You. Can. Not. Cross. Against. The. Light.

6. If you cannot bear the thought of joining Biker Nation, take comfort in the fact that the Danes have mastered the art of public transportation. Their brand-new Metro system runs on something curious called "Time." So does the extensive bus system, as well as the above-ground train line called the S-Tog. It's all very strange, and very lovely.

7. You will not eat bad food in Copenhagen. It does not matter if you're picking up Shawarma or dining at a Michelin-star Tivoli restaurant for dinner: It won't happen. You will eat tasty food at all meals. And in between meals.

7a. Speaking of in between meals, one of the most important Life Lessons I have learned is that everyone who pays a visit to Copenhagen should--nay, must--make their way to a magical land called Lagkagehuset. Located on a street corner in the neighborhood of Christianshavn, this pastry mecca is worth the wait, and the colorful kroner. Words cannot describe the aromas and flavors that emerge from this place, so suffice to say that although I do not know how to pronounce the bakery's name, each time I leave the place I am quite sure it translates roughly to: "Denmark's Gift to the Universe."

8. Danish currency strongly resembles Monopoly money. It is colorful, occasionally involves hearts, and seems fun to spend. So do not spend your time converting. It will make you sad, and just ruin the experience. Instead, take the Danish coins and string them on a necklace, or a keychain--since they have convenient holes in the middle, clearly for this purpose--and then, when all the coins are gone, you get to make new jewelry with more money.

9. It is perfectly normal for a jar of organic (read: not Jif) peanut butter to cost the equivalent of $12USD.

9a. It is also perfectly normal to encounter more mayonnaise than you ever thought existed, just about everywhere that sells food.

10. It probably goes without saying, but you must visit Tivoli. Rumored to be the inspiration for Disney Land, this small gardens/amusement park/performance venue/restaurant haven is something of a source of national pride for Denmark. And with good reason: For all its kitschiness, the place just works. Specifically, I highly recommend forking over the DKK for a ticket on the Star Flyer. It's the old carnival swing ride on crack, and if one rides at night, it's quite magical.

11. The Danish people are polite, funny, and somewhat reserved. But judging by the noises outside our rental apartment window, once you get a few beers in them they're boisterous as anyone. They love a good sing-a-long at 2am, but then again, who doesn't?

11a. Apparently the Danish language does not have a word for "please." This is ok. When you hear a Dane utter the syllable "Tak" do not be alarmed. It just means "thank you," and they use it often.

12. Denmark is home to ample quantities of very tasty beer. And I'm not even much of a beer drinker. So I urge you, visit a brewery or fifteen.

13. Shops close by 7 at the very latest (with the exception of restaurants, pubs, cafes, etc). Most Danish evenings are spent eating, drinking, and the like. Which, frankly, is fine by me--more time to sample the good Danish cuisine.

13a. Nothing except for coffee places and eateries are open on Sundays. Every first Sunday of the month, however, is "Market Day," so the stores are open. It's a monthly event. I like when shopping is an event.

13b. IKEA is exactly the same here as it is in Hicksville, New York. Except they serve alcohol in the cafe. Other than that, if you simply must visit IKEA in Scandinavia, please do not bike there from Copenhagen. Round-trip it is equivalent to two 10k's, and honestly, if you emerge with bedsheets and some towels, you end up feeling tired and dehydrated. Other than that, though, it's great.

14. Plumbing in Denmark is a source of fascination to this American. The toilet is an eco-friendly world here: When it's time to flush, you often have two options. One side of the flusher button will have a half-filled-in circle, the other will have an entirely-filled-in circle. Depending on the...er...mass of what's in the bowl, you pick one or the other, and it uses appropriate amounts of water. The showers are an entirely different matter. Many involve a squeegee to push the excess water down the drain post-wash, and my first time using a Danish shower took me about 45 minutes to figure out. I'm not good with that sort of stuff, but that is a long time even for me.

15. Finally--for I think 15 Life Lessons are plenty, for now--be assured that unless you have no desire to eat good food, drink good drinks, see a land of fun and culture, and meet lovely people, you will undoubtedly love it here. I cannot think of one person I know who would not at least somewhat enjoy themselves in this increasingly charming corner of the globe, so I urge you at some point to brave the eight-hour death trap and come to CPH.

15a. My favorite word in the Danish language is "hygge." There is no English translation; the closest we can come is "cozy." But this doesn't completely capture the essence of "hygge."