The Øresund Bridge was obscured by the lights of my train. I wanted to see it again. Alas, I could not. Well, at least not very much of it. That’s the curse of travelling trains by night. Still, I arrived safely in Gentofte and managed to find my way to Viking-type Chum’s flat. At my insistence he didn’t meet me at station. It seemed pointless to make him stand outside in the dank, cold Danish December night.
Sweden and Denmark are very different countries. Walking through Copenhagen reveals as much. Copenhagen is a red city – it’s a city of bricks. It isn’t north German; it’s not Hamburg or Lübeck. The Brick Gothic style of architecture, however, shows that Denmark has a much more pronounced German influence than Sweden – at least outwardly. Sweden, too, was influenced by Germans and not only in de gamla danska landskapen, the old Danish provinces: Skåne, Blekinge and Halland but Sweden’s aesthetics are less obviously German, save for parts of Gamla Stan.
The sounds of Denmark are very different. Sweden can be eerily quiet. Sitting in Swedish trains is an experience. There is little conversation and every effort not to be intrusive is made. People talk, of course, but not in the same way they do in England or Germany. Even Stockholm is a relatively quiet city. Copenhagen is, in contrast, a beehive. Copenhagen has a buzz and a frenetic pace that is almost shocking after the austere reservedness of Stockholm. One struggles to refer to Danish is a melodious tongue, but it has its charms and Danes have no reservations about speaking it in quantities that earn them the reputation of the chatter-boxes of Scandinavia. Danes are also less perturbed by direct eye contact. I managed to intimidate Swedes by making observations too direct. Danes are far more willing to be confrontational if needed. There’s little of that terrified uncertainty that marks the Swede.
This partially explains why I feel more comfortable in Denmark than I do in Sweden. Danes are for the most part straightforward and forthright people. Danes, unlike Swedes, are infamous – at least in Scandinavia – for being direct. That, and for being relatively honest. Denmark could be likened to a xenophobic drunk who puts no effort what-so-ever into hiding his views and bad habits. Sweden is the closet xenophobe with a hidden drink problem.
The Viking and I spent days walking the streets of Copenhagen – Christiansborg, Nyhavn and Frederiksberg. He obediently followed me to the University of Copenhagen’s Medical Museum. He seemed slightly terrified of me after I spent an uncivilised amount of time looking at examples of fatal injuries – accidental and homicide-related, studying them from every angle. I begged him to fear not. My mum, after all, is a theatre nurse and frank discussions of medical procedures – some very unpleasant, even gruesome, have long been part of eating supper. I very nearly became a museum specimen after failing to fall for Tivoli’s charms. It’s a twee tourist destination most famous for being one of the world’s oldest twee tourist destinations. I preferred Christiansborg. The ruins and royal chambers hold far more interest than theme park rides and over-priced tat. I may have saved my life from the Blood Eagle by comparing Denmark’s parliament not unfavourably with Westminster. Westminster is where the world was built and whence it was ruled. Christiansborg is an attractive parliament for a Scandinavian kingdom that punches well above its weight. They both fit their countries well.
I left Copenhagen for Skagen. For the first time in many years I could breathe correctly. Skagen’s air is clean and the light is beautiful. The Skagen Group, a merry band of painters, chose Skagen for its light for the same reason that Impressionist painters travelled to southern France. In the summer Skagen pulsates with life and is overflowing with Danes on holiday. That, and Huns. Huns invade Jutland each summer, pouring across the border with no shame but much reckless abandon. As in Sweden, German is ubiquitous. In the winter, Skagen is empty. I felt splendidly alone. I walked along the strand, stiff winds tousling my hair. It felt as if the sea was singing to me and to me alone. I adored that splendid solitude – alone, my only company being my thoughts or even nothing at all. Among the waves, sea grass and war-time bunkers I could switch off my mind. There was nothing but beautiful tranquillity – the sun setting lazily, dogs running past, birds flying above me. I want to die in a moment like that – but not quite yet.
I left Skagen for Norway. Norway is beautiful. It is dear, but it is worth every last øre. The cold cut through me, each gust of wind slicing through my terribly inadequate Hun jacket like an obsidian scalpel. I couldn’t be arsed to be vexed by this. It was a beautiful pain. The glow of the Oslo night blinded me to the protestations of my ice-pierced marrow. The gentle beauty of the Norwegian capital lulled me into a waking dream. I walked past the shops of Karl Johans Gate, past the Storting, the theatre where Ibsen met his doom and redemption, past the royal palace – the home of a descendent of a spare Danish prince.
I was awed by Viking ships – Norway’s pride, the three vessels best preserved. I couldn’t get enough of Norways long gone – Telemark farm houses and Oslo suburbs, a 13th-century stave church and tenement housing. Then there was Oslo’s historic core, the small group of 17th-century buildings centred on its first Rådhus. Norway’s light, transient as it is, was unbearably beautiful. I adored it and the good-natured chatter of Norwegians surrounding me. The water in Norway is indescribable. It’s softly sweet, it tastes faintly of lavender. My hotel bed was similarly indescribable. It felt like sleeping on a cloud.
I travelled to Gardermoen by train. Clean, new – sparkling. Norway has its quirks, but it’s remarkable. My flights were pleasant enough. Scandinavian Airlines aren’t the best, but they’re far from the worst and the things I disliked about my previous flight were sorted out. I spoke to the crew in Swedish. The filth, squalor and banality of the United States came as a shock. The brutality of the people – the lack of self-awareness, the inability of people with any measure of authority to behave sensibly appalled me. What happened to the glorious world that had only hours before been mine? Did I wake from a dream and into a nightmarish world, or was I having a nightmare?