Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Copenhagen - Oslo (Pt. II)

Note to readers: This is the second part of a recounting of my Grand European Tour, taken in the fall of 1999. You can read Part I here.

I‘d heard about Christiania, before I got to Copenhagen. I’d heard about the old army base, abandoned in the 70’s that had been overrun by squatters and hippies. I’d heard about this free state, founded outside the perimeter of the city, with its own laws and civic administration, independent of Denmark.

And the Danes, bless them, had long ago eschewed their battle-axe enforcement of the Viking way of life, and didn’t know how to respond to it, to Christiania. So they debated and wrung their hands and finally just shrugged and Christiania continued to exist. That’s why I went there.

Jason in Christiania
Jason (dread-locked hippie) and I made our way down there, to that strangely pastoral setting abutting the city limits, and walked down Pusher’s Street, where we bought a hash cookie or two. Then Jason (dread-locked hippie) and I wandered around stoned, hiking the trails that led between the houses, with their vegetable gardens and horse pastures, and hung out at the bar where we spoke with some partying Norsemen from the Faroes.

“Scandinavia may well be social utopia,“ said I to one of the partying Norsemen from the Faroes. He was hale and healthy in that Danish way. He had a grin that would charm a stone. Just like all of them, his English was perfect. Jason (dread locked hippie) asked me, “Did you notice all the old people?“ “It’s true,“ said the Norseman. “We have the highest life expectancy in the world. Now, come . . . won’t you be healthy with me?“ He offered  a toke.

There were children there, in Christiania.  Families were more or less living the socialist dream in a tolerant nation. Jason (dread locked hippie) and I stood on the high stone wall that ran along Christiana’s periphery, setting it apart from the rest of Denmark and gazed back at Copenhagen, with her immaculately clean streets, her efficient and plentiful public transportation, her complete lack of poverty, and saw past her to our own country, over there across the Atlantic, as if it  were some strange alien place where people couldn’t see how simple and easy life could be.  But, then again, Hrothgar’s heirs are a monolithic folk, with their beautiful blond hair and gray or blue eyes, and their white-haired, precocious bairns. In that sense, they have it pretty easy.

But Nelson (youthful idealist) knew about people. Nelson had discovered many truths about mankind because he’d been traveling for several months already. He would smile and laugh and admire beautiful women (he was from Brazil, yes?).  Yet there was a burden on him; a sad acceptance about the nature of mankind that puzzled me because he was so young, and because I didn’t want to believe what he believed. He said, “All of this comes at the expense of others.” As we wandered through Copenhagen, saw the beautiful Polish girls in the orchestra playing a concert in a local church, and ate grapes in the pedestrian mall we never caught a glimpse of a beggar. But Nelson knew about the price that people elsewhere were paying (he was from Brazil, yes?)  He knew how resources get extracted from one part of the world to make life easier for people in another.  I said “You’re probably right,” but I kept thinking about it, trying to find a way that it might not be true.

St. Alban church
We went to the Catholic Church down by the harbor where the water was so clean we had no qualms about jumping right in on that unseasonably hot September day. The Gefion was there by the fountain. Gefion, the sorceress who was to carve out her own homeland from the Earth itself, who morphed her four sons into mighty bulls, brought them to harness, and then with her yoke on their necks, cut Jutland from Sweden. The bulls’ rippled muscles strain against the cut of the plow blade; they drive on before their mother’s mad will.

The church is impressive. Rich, beautiful tapestries inside, paintings and stained glass and lush, red (Sangre de Christu) carpets. “Ostentation,” said Nelson (youthful idealist). He had trouble with it, with the pronunciation, because he was still learning English. “Yes,” I said. Because  I felt that way about the Church, back then.

The old woman (devout British expatriate), who told us the story about the Gefion was friendly and almost apologetic when I gave her a donation for maintenance of the chapel. “We’re not the poorest diocese in the church,” she said. Nelson (youthful idealist) didn’t say anything.


That night, we bid farewell to Martin (compassionate soul). Martin, so smart, so compassionate, so kind, and so happy. We even talked about meeting a year later, and climbing up to Machu Pichu. Good luck, Martin! Let’s keep in touch! Jason (dread-locked hippie) and Nelson (youthful idealist) and I hopped the train to Oslo.

From Copenhagen the train is driven onto a ferry, breaking it up into four-car sections so it can fit. Once on the ferry, everyone gets off the train and goes up on deck. We didn’t want to haul all our gear up on deck, but we were afraid to leave it unattended, because we still hadn't learned about Scandinavia. So we stayed on the train for a while. For maybe twenty minutes. Then we thought, hell with it, and we went up on deck. We saw that we were still docked or . . . were we? Where were all the people?  No, we can’t already be at Malmö . . . can we? Oh shit! Look! The train is leaving! With all our gear!

We raced down the stairs, and up to the moving train. Then, Jason (dread-locked hippie) got lost somewhere.  But  Nelson and I were on, hanging on precariously to the little step outside the door. Then the ferrymen saw us and waved at us to get off!  For God’s sake, get off the damn thing! A young man inside the train saw us, and tried to open the door, but couldn’t, because it was locked. They were all yelling at us while our benefactor was pushing at the inside of the door. Nelson shouted, “What should we do?”

“Hell with it!” said I.  “We’ll ride like this to Oslo!”

And then . . . the train stopped . . . because it was broken up into four-car pieces . . . so it could fit on the ferry, yes? Nelson and I felt foolish, and I don’t speak Swedish, but the ferrymen were letting us have it. We laughed about the whole thing, and a couple of them laughed, too. Then, we got back on the train.  Jason was waiting for us back at our seats.


The memorial had a huge turnout, mostly Mormons, because although Carey (smiling saint) was a jack Mormon, he was such a good-hearted fellow that even the Elders didn’t hold it against him. But we were there, too; Bruce (frighteningly odd, kind), Dave (geek intellect), Andre (smirker, social instigator) and I. All of us decidedly not Mormon: they can just tell, looking at us. (I’ve had them tell me as much.) We had long hair or beards or to them, odd ways of dressing. We loved Carey and Tena as much as they did, and maybe more. We knew how strange Carey  must have thought us to be. Carey, coming from that shiny, posed-portrait childhood, with the smiling, noble parents, and the gaggle of well-groomed, well-adjusted children, each separated in age by two or three years. All smiling and projecting the convincing image that all is at it should be with this family. Andre (smirker) might have something to say about that.

But, nobody was making any judgments that day. I’m glad there were others there that sobbed openly, unashamed, because it made my own tears easier, more tolerable.  Bruce (frighteningly odd, kind) and Dave (geek intellect) were crying, too, and Tycho (bearded, enigmatic) wept like a child.  Although we hadn’t shared a lot of feelings on that level, it was okay. We didn’t make a lot of eye contact.

“Their cats?” I asked. “What about their cats?” Because Tena (soft-hearted trouble-maker) would have worried about them, mostly.

“The family took them,” said Bruce (frighteningly odd). An Australian bush hat sat on straw-like hair. Pockmarked, ruddy face. Clear blue eyes that always seemed to be afraid to show too much. David (geek intellect) nodded. Trimmed beard. Placid expression, even in grief. Poor Andre (smirker) felt most out-of-place. Cynicism just doesn’t fit at a memorial. He didn’t say much.

We all stood there for a moment, looking at each other‘s feet. Tycho (bearded, enigmatic) wiped his nose. I was torn about whether I should be crying or not, because Carey (smiling saint) and Tena (soft-hearted trouble-maker) were the first ones to go, and I knew it. Not counting Grandma (brilliant, sober), because her death had been just another rivulet added to the springtime flood of my youth that flowed right in and added to the current of events (leaving my mountain home, moving to the city, starting a career). I never had enough time to really think about the implications, even though I did (and do) miss her. No, Carey and Tena were the first ones. They lost their footing in a place where that just can’t happen. When they tumbled down those  1,200 feet, I saw past them, to the next domino. There was Grandpa (angel-on-my-shoulder, wisdom speaker), at home that very moment, forgetting to turn off the gas on the stove, forgetting where he was driving, falling asleep anywhere and everywhere. Beyond him the strong, terrible captain in the last fight of his life, mighty shoulders bowing ever so slightly. It scared the shit out of me, and it made me wish that somehow I could have stopped it all right then and there, just keep things the way they were right then, forever.


We got to Oslo after a long night on the train. I had long hair back then. I had my guitar with me, and looked like a vagabond busker. That must be why the customs agent roused me from my fitful sleep and gave me such a grilling.  In the end he must have figured that I wasn't worth the effort and let me go back to sleep.

We were hungry when we arrived in Oslo, but Norwegian prices quickly curbed our appetites. Punching numbers into a calculator revealed that those donuts behind the glass case at the bakery in the train station cost  five dollars US apiece. No thank you.

We  went to the park nearby and saw the statue of Franklin Roosevelt (giant among us) whom the Norwegians regard as a hero for prying the German jackboot off their necks. Yet the alcove beside the statue was littered with discarded syringes; proof that the socialist paradise has a dark underbelly.

Syringes in the park
Jason (dread-locked hippie) left us that morning for the airport. Back to the USA for him. I was grateful to him, because he'd been on the road for quite a while when we met up, and he gave me good advice: shoes laced tight! Eat bread and fruit! Don't carry extra cash!

Nelson (youthful idealist) and I went to the waterfront. There was the drug-addled hipster from Portugal (loving inebriate) and his tall Norwegian friend (severely chic). "You must come here, my friends," said he. "You must live here. I promise you. The women, the life, the success! I promise you!"

Viking longboat
Instead, we went to the Viking museum and saw the longboats. Vikings made all their measurements by eye; no tape measures for them! From Oslo to Waterford to Glasgow to Reykjavik, a plague of axes, plaited beards and horned helms.

In the evening, we went to the train station to await the train for Bergen. I played guitar on the platform while we waited. Stone-faced Norwegians clapped.

To be continued...

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