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:

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