Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Photos - Doors of Denmark

Denmark is the door to Scandinavia from the European continent. Here's a sampling of the doors that grace historical buildings around Copenhagen:

The gate to Tivoli. It was closed for renovations on the day I was there.The door to the country at Kastrup Airport.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

24 Hours in Copenhagen

I didn't have long to make my mark on Denmark, so I started early. My flight landed in Copenhagen, the capital, around 10 a.m. I was still a little tired from getting to Charles de Gaulle airport at just after 6 to catch my early flight from Paris.

I read the Wall Street Journal (in a very airplane-friendly tabloid format) for most of the two-hour flight, but I looked out the window in time to see wind turbines standing starkly in the Copenhagen harbor, their crisp white contrasting with the blue of the sea. I wasn't even on the ground, and the city was already starting to live up to its reputation as a hub for alternative energy.

Denmark was not my destination. It was merely a way point, a place to pass through en route to Sweden, but I was excited. There was no way I was going to let a new country go to waste.

Lakes were everywhere reflecting the light of the late morning, and the land was awash in green and blue. Touchdown was smooth. Kastrup Airport was nice, clean and very modern. The first sign that greeted me when I exited the terminal said "Wi-fi Zone." This validated something else I had heard, that Denmark is one of the most wired countries in the world and one of the top places for information technology.

I didn't have to wait long to try out the country's IT infrastructure. After grabbing my bags, I walked to an electronic kiosk to book a train ticket into the city.

Luckily the instructions were in English as well as Danish. A British lady was struggling with the machine when I came up. I tried it out and had no problem until I entered my credit card. The transaction looked like it was going to clear until the screen asked for a PIN. I had never used a PIN with that credit card in the U.S., but the machine would not be reasoned with. I used my debit card instead and felt lucky that I had brought it with me. This wasn't the last time the PIN problem would crop up.

I had no problem finding the right train. It wasn't too crowded when I hopped on. No one made eye contact. A short American guy was making out with his tall, blonde Scandinavian girlfriend the whole way to the central station, Kobenhavn H. My giant red suitcase impeded movement; otherwise I would've turned away. Their public affection displays made me a part sick, part homesick. I'd been away from my wife for a week, the longest time we'd been apart since we married nearly two years ago.

The central station is a large brick building just across a street called Bernsdorffsgade from the famous Tivoli Gardens. It had a McDonald's and other restaurants and shops, but like the airport, the train station was a bit more quaint than you'd expect from a capital city. Of course, Denmark only has 5.4 million people and Copenhagen less than half that, so the whole place, while undoubtedly cosmopolitan and far from sleepy, has a refreshingly laid-back feel.

Come to think of it, while Paris has the (some say) ghastly 59-floor Montparnasse Tower as its lonely modern skyscraper, I couldn't find one in the Danish capital. That's not to say it's not a modern city, but it is free what some would call tall architectural sins that most shiny new western metropolises have committed in the name of progress and population density.

I took a left out of the train station's main entrance and traced Tivoli's eastern edge. An information sign led me to a tourist center on the corner of Bernsdorffsgade and Vesterbrogade, where I nabbed a map. I'd booked my hotel the night before but hadn't bothered to get directions, partly because I'm lazy, and partly because I knew finding it would force me to be resourceful. (Of course, it's hard to be adventurous for long when you're rolling a 45-lb. piece of luggage over cobblestone streets.)

The map led me to the Radhuspladsen (town hall square). After just a few minutes of walking, I looked up to see my aptly named hotel, The Square, overlooking the sprawling paved plaza that spread out in front of the Radhus, the beautiful old town hall.

I claimed my room at the hotel. The nice blonde attendant told me someone had left me a message at the front desk. This made me feel important, and more than that, relieved. A representative from the Danish Energy Agency would meet me for an interview in about half an hour. I love traveling, but doing so alone and without a context honestly isn't very fulfilling. This interview would give me a job to do and a friendly face to help me make sense of this new city.

While I awaited Peter's arrival, I settled into my tiny room overlooking the square. I hooked the ethernet cable into my computer to start using the first truly free Internet I'd encountered in Europe. I gave myself a mental pat on the back for choosing a netbook that had an ethernet port despite temptations to go with a cheaper model without one.

I pulled up Skype and called another interview prospect, a businessman who had spent five years in Georgia as head of Denmark's trade commission here. He was beginning a weeklong vacation from work, but instead of traveling to exotic locales, he was spending it working on the garden behind his 100-year-old yellow cottage. I tried to tell him I wouldn't trouble him, but he insisted I come for coffee. In half an hour, I had already made two appointments.

I met Peter downstairs. I expected an older man, but I got a tall, thin Dane who looked to be in his late twenties and spoke perfect English with a slight British tinge. He downplayed his English, saying he needed to polish it if he ever wanted a job at the EU. He had hard eyes and features. His brown hair had slight waves. We went for a quick lunch at an artisan sandwich place that showed me Danish food might give the French a little competition. The busy clerk wouldn't accept my American card. "Only Danish," she said in a disapproving tone. I was embarrassed as my new friend had to pick up the 50-kroner (about $10) tab.

Peter and I ducked out of the small shop and took our sandwiches to a bench near one of the city's many canals, just around the corner from the Danish parliament building. We talked about biofuels and climate change, and how Denmark is trying to add to its alternative energy portfolio. The country already generates a fifth of its electric power through wind energy. This December Copenhagen will host what some are calling the new Kyoto, the U.N. Conference on Climate Change.

After a nice interview, I hit the ATM to pay Peter back and get cash for my cab ride out to the suburbs. Peter left me with a Serbian taxi driver who'd been in Copenhagen for 20 years. The ride was only 15 minutes, but it cost me the equivalent of $25, a ridiculously high price for someone who's traveled mostly in China, where cab fares seem to be cheaper than the cost of the gas that propelled the vehicle to your destination. I made a mental note to take the bus or train back to the center of town.

I arrived at Kent's home about 20 minutes after 3. His wife saw the cab drop me off and met me at the front gate. She led me to the backyard, past a few apple trees, some berry bushes and across lush green grass to a patio where Kent was sitting. The coffee in the carafe was still hot even though I was 20 minutes late. He poured me some, and we began talking. He asked me how our publication was doing and gave me a detailed description of Atlanta as an international city and what the state of Georgia needs to do to attract more global businesses.

Afterward, he took me back to the city and dropped me off at the hotel. With the appointments over, it was time to explore. I walked out toward Norrebro, an area of the city the tourist map told me had thriving ethnic populations and a lot of antiques. It sounded like a place to get my cultural fix while finding a great souvenir for my wife.

Heading north, I crossed over a canal that Kent said used to be a moat a thousand years ago when Copenhagen was a fortress. When I stopped to take some pictures of the giant swans in the water, a Romanian lady came up to chat with me. Miruna was carrying her baby in front of her in a sling. She was married to a Dane, but she couldn't speak Danish and he couldn't speak Romanian. They communicate in English. A sad soul, she seemed amused to have a foreigner to speak frankly with about the difficulties of Danish life. The place is tough for foreigners. Some say it's difficult to even get a cell phone contract there without citizenship. Miruna had been jumping through hoops in hopes of gaining citizenship, but the process was taking its toll on their family. She was looking forward to a trip to her homeland to visit relatives.

We parted, and I walked forever looking for a place to eat. South Asians offered kebabs. Middle Easterners sold vegetables at streetside stands. A surprising amount of Seven Elevens tempted me with convenience store goodies. Trendy bars and pubs attracted local crowds. I passed all these up, thinking I'd find something better and more affordable. Food is expensive in Denmark. Beers are upwards of $8 and a good meal can set you back $30 easily. To put it in perspective, know that value meals at the Copenhagen's trendy McDonald's cost $10-$13. I wanted to marry atmosphere with affordability, but it didn't look promising.

I stopped at a candy store for a psychological boost and that high that comes with consuming way too many Swedish fish and strips of sour candy. The stash (I bought it by the pound) lasted until I crossed over the moat and back to the central shopping district. I found a pub offering a a real hamburger, Coca-Cola and fries for $16, a steal compared to Burger King's $13 meal.

After a lonely meal capping a long day, I screwed up the exchange rate and gave the waitress an $8 tip, equivalent to 50 percent of the cost of the meal. At that point I knew it was time to go to bed. Sweden was just across the Oresund, the body of water that separates the two countries. Another country was just one bridge away.

Photos: City scenes, from top to bottom: The old Town Hall building, Tivoli entrance, Copenhagen canal, Danish doors.

Video below: Get a good glimpse of the front of the central train station in my video explaining that Tivoli is closed:

Friday, May 15, 2009

Home Sweet Hotel - European vs. American Lodging

Appreciating American convenience after eight nights in seven European hotels

The hours of ironing, the meticulous folding, the careful closure of the suitcase and the cautious slide of the zipper: None of it mattered. When I pulled my suits, shirts and slacks out of the giant red bag I'd brought to Europe, it was clear that I'd need drastic measures to smooth out these pesky wrinkles.

An iron! I thought. My boss was paying more than a hundred dollars for this cramped room in France; certainly they would offer the courtesy of such a mundane device.

I slid open the door to the room's makeshift closet, and they were all there - the whole array of hotel laundry tools - suit hangers with clips, a bar to hang ties on, a full-length mirror. Still, though, no iron.

But I did see something intriguing. It looked like some sort of black, vertically rectangular George Foreman grill mounted on the wall. Its brown cord was loosely attached to an electrical outlet that didn't have the third hole for the grounding prong. I looked at the device quizzically, opening and closing it like the jaws of a toothless, plastic alligator's mouth. The red button on top begged to be pushed. Next to it, I read the words, "Trouser press."

It turns out that the device was pretty intuitive. You slide a pant leg through, fold the press into place, lock it and press the red button. It begins to breathe heat to both sides until your pants become like the buns of a panini being toasted. At least in my hotels in France, Denmark and Sweden, the trouser press gave off enough heat to give that few blissful seconds of leg warmth after putting on the pants, but not enough to actually remove many wrinkles.

And then you have the more obvious problem of what to do now that you have semi-presentable pants and a shirt that looks like it's been through a war. The trouser press is a limited tool, and try as often and as awkwardly as I might, it just wasn't made for pressing shirts.

The trouser press wasn't my only issue with European hotels. In an eight-day trip across France, Denmark and Sweden, I stayed in seven different hotels. It became clear that those frequented by our European friends are not always endowed with the same inalienable conveniences that a lot of American hotels promise.

Take the bathrooms, for instance. Call me lazy, but after a shower I don't enjoy having to walk back down the hallway toward the entryway to go to the bathroom. That's right, my American readers. The toilet in some French hotels is kept in an entirely separate room from the shower, sink and tub. Imagine a coat closet to your left as you walk into your foyer. Now imagine there's a toilet in it. That's just how it is, without the coat rack, of course. And just like a coat closet, there inevitably is no fan in this little restroom. (After all my travels to China, you'd think I'd be grateful for any toilet you can actually rest your behind on, but I digress.)

There are in Europe, however, two separate settings for toilet flushing - a big button and a small one on the wall - which I did find very useful. As a lazy environmentalist, I'm a bit sad that somehow this effortless water-saving adaptation hasn't made its way to the States on a broader scale.

The inconveniences in the Euro hotels didn't end in the bathroom, though, and some nifty flushing gadget couldn't blind me to other shortcomings. After I finished showering, I'd want to chat with my wife. Without a cell phone, I'd use Skype to call home. Skype requires the Internet, so I generally had to either buy three hours of connection for a decent 10-euro price or get gouged for one hour at five euros. This would've been OK at five-star hotels, but everyone knows - well, at least the owners of Quality, Comfort and LaQuinta Inns do - that inexpensive hotels should have free Internet. That's just the way the world should work.

Because of my indignance, I'd refuse the one-hour trap and get suckered into spending three hours talking, twittering, reading and writing. Then I'd need to sleep, which brings me to my next beef with European hotels:

They have no alarm clocks.

People who know me know that alarm clocks are No. 4 on my version of Maslow's hierarchy of needs - food, clothing, shelter, and alarms to remind me to wake up and go after all of the above.

That said, I like to think I'm a relatively savvy traveler, so I realize that it's ultimately my fault if I don't have an alarm clock that will wake me up. I actually have two that I accidentally left at home. The blame is all mine, I admit.

That didn't change the fact that in Sweden and Denmark I had to stuff my Timex watch into my ear canal to make sure that its measly alarm took the edge off of the sleep before the automated wakeup call came from a muted phone came at the programmed time.

Contrast this with my experience in Savannah, Ga., during a business trip two weeks after returning from Sweden. Not only did I have an alarm clock with two separate alarms, noise settings and snooze buttons, but I also had a personalized wakeup call from the clerk at the front desk. When I didn't answer on the first try, she called back to make sure I was awake, and she even acted cheerful about it! I couldn't believe it.

This post isn't intended to rag on European hotels. I had a great time listening to the nightlife out my window at the aptly named Square hotel on Copenhagen's old city. I had an even better time getting to know the joys of the coffee offered as part of a "city breakfast" at the bar in a Parisian Novotel.

As Bill Bryson so humorously showed me in "I'm a Stranger Here Myself," a collection of essays on returning to the U.S. after 20 years in the U.K., America is a wonderful land, but our excessive quest for convenience doesn't always make the most sense if we look at it with fresh eyes.

Then again, as my wife would say, why would we be looking introspectively our habits when we could be watching the Hallmark Channel on our American hotel's wall-mounted flatscreen?

A serious tip: If you're traveling in Europe, especially Denmark, make sure you have at least one credit card that is PIN-activated. I've never used a PIN on my Visa in America, but they demanded one when I was buying train tickets and hotel rooms. Good thing I had my debit card too. Anyone have any thoughts on whether there's a way to get around the PIN requirement in these places?

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Living Watermelons - An East Asia Missions Story

A short story from one of my China mission trips appeared on the International Mission Board's East Asia field blog today.

On a backpacking expedition in 2005, a travel companion and I shared some watermelons and a poignant 15 minutes with a peasant family at a roadside hut. Without speaking our language, they communicated hospitality to us, even though we were strangers intruding on their land.

I pray that their kindness returns to them in the form of eternal life through the Gospel. Read the story here.

See all my blog entries from that trip here.

Photo: We left a gospel VCD on this well, the water god's doorstep.