Hans Christian Andersen's original Little Mermaid had no name. Long before the folks at Disney conjured up the image of the nymphetesque Ariel, with her plume of crimson hair and ample seashells, the famed Danish storyteller described a group of sisters, daughters of the Sea King, with beautiful voices and tails like fish. His little mermaid was "a strange child, quiet and thoughtful."
Ultimately, that is my impression of Copenhagen, the city where Andersen lived and created for most of his life. It is a strange city, quiet and thoughtful in some corridors, but brilliant and beautiful along others.
Jonathan and I arrived after dark on a Friday. A heavy mist of fog hung low over the city and, as we fought to translate street signs and road names to locate our hotel, our first reaction was something akin to disappointment. Coming in from the west, we skirted heavy industrial complexes and passed miles and miles of concrete walls, graffiti crawling over them like many-colored mold. We were blinded by the glare of neon signs, advertising (or should I say screaming about) the newest adult toys, videos and costumes, flagrantly displayed behind giant, plate-glass windows.
Anderson described the way the older mermaid sisters would occasionally rise to the surface, arms wrapped around one another in a row, and sing to sailors on passing ships who were preparing to brave an impending storm.
"They had more beautiful voices than any human being could have; and before the approach of a storm, and when they expected a ship would be lost, they swam before the vessel, and sang sweetly of the delights to be found in the depths of the sea, and begging the sailors not to fear if they sank to the bottom. But the sailors could not understand the song, they took it for the howling of the storm. And these things were never to be beautiful for them; for if the ship sank, the men were drowned, and their dead bodies alone reached the palace of the Sea King."
Like those human sailors, on that first dreary night, I could not comprehend the beauty of the city beyond my own impression of the garish sex shops and groups of darkly-clad men swigging liquor from nearly empty bottles. It felt sinister to me.
The Hotel Centrum is at the very edge of this darker, grimy portion of the city. We checked in and parked our car in an obscenely expensive garage nearby, then ventured out to hunt down some dinner.
A Pakistani restaurant (located above a topless bar) smelled delicious. Over dinner we hastily went through our guidebook once more, choosing what we would see the next day. Exhausted from our long drive from the exact opposite shore of Denmark, we went to bed early.
When she is old enough (fifteen years) to be allowed to visit the surface, the little mermaid observes a party on board a ship.
"There was music and song on board; and, as darkness came on, a hundred colored lanterns were lighted, as if the flags of all nations waved in the air."
On Saturday morning, we rose to find the dark city in which we had nearly drowned the night before had morphed into something inherently bright, exuberantly noisy. Riding high on the delicious breakfast of pastries and cheese and juice afforded by our hotel, Jonathan and I set out to take on the city in true tourist style: warm layers, comfortable shoes, a low-slung camera and curiosity.
Forever I will associate that first stroll down the Strøget, a three kilometre long shopping street in central Copenhagen which was pedestrianized in 1994, with the twang and slice of accordion music. We could hear it filtering down from the other end of the street, urging us forward and into the fray of shoppers and sightseers.
You could tell who the foreigners were. People like us. Our tennis shoes, frumpy jackets and Jon's baseball cap (gasp!) stuck out like a hundred sore thumbs! So, when we walked into a store, the proprietor greeted us in English immediately.
In Andersen's tale, a storm comes and rips the ship and the party to shreds. The little mermaid saves the prince's life, pulling him from the wreckage and back to shore.
"The mermaid kissed his high, smooth forehead, and stroked back his wet hair; he seemed to her like the marble statue in her little garden, and she kissed him again, and wished that he might live."
Jon and I traipsed along the city streets, enjoying the braiding of countless smells and sounds all around us. As we climbed to the top of the Rundetårn, a 17th century tower located in the heart of the city, maneuvering it's ramped, spiraled, 7.5 level entry, we marveled at the engineering.
But at the top of the tower, I fell in love with Copenhagen the way the mermaid did with the "beautiful prince." The city stretched out in all directions from the base of the Rundetårn. Copper-colored roofs and mustard-yellow walls speckled the jagged skyline.
On some rooftops were lines of pure white laundry, hanging to be dried, suspended between terracotta flower pots brimming with fuchsia and orange blossoms. I felt positively, chimney-sweepishly happy from that place on high.
The tower was built to provide university students with an astronomical observatory, and it is attached to a beautiful chapel and, above the chapel, an art gallery. I hated to tear myself away from that building. I could have spent the day just counting the nooks and crannies of Copenhagen.
But from there we wandered to Nyhavn (trans. "New Harbor"), the famous line of very colorful buildings usually associated with the area. Beneath the broad, white cafe umbrellas in front of the many restaurants and hotels which make up the rainbowed face of Nyhavn, sat happy, lunching people. I would imagine that it is a pleasant place to have an outdoor meal in the spring and summer, but that Saturday was very cold. Those partaking in lunch, though, were each given a warm lap blanket, had access to a space heater and heartily enjoyed the sparkle and fizz of their favorite domestic beer as it warmed their throats and bellies.
Once the prince is safely resting in the sand, the mermaid realizes that she cannot remain at his side when his family comes rushing to his aid. And this hurts her terribly. She asks her old, wise grandmother about the pattern of life and death that is unique to humankind.
"If human beings are not drowned," asked the little mermaid, "can they live forever? do they never die as we do here in the sea?"
"Yes," replied the old lady, "they must also die, and their term of life is even shorter than ours. We sometimes live to three hundred years, but when we cease to exist here we only become the foam on the surface of the water, and we have not even a grave down here of those we love. We have not immortal souls, we shall never live again; but, like the green sea-weed, when once it has been cut off, we can never flourish more. Human beings, on the contrary, have a soul which lives forever, lives after the body has been turned to dust. It rises up through the clear, pure air beyond the glittering stars. As we rise out of the water, and behold all the land of the earth, so do they rise to unknown and glorious regions which we shall never see."
Between the cafes and the pubs and the shiny, silly street entertainers is the soul of the city. It is a calm soul, never in a hurry, content with fog and sun alike. The people of Copenhagen seem to relish everything, even the simple act of breathing. They take long, able strides when they walk, and swell their lungs with the damp, cold air rushing in over the sea. Meals take a long time, but only because food, like company, is meant to be savored. This restful mood may be what has sustained the city through centuries of change and conquest and fires and the occasional bout of foreign occupation.
A mile or so past the end of the Strøget, we found Amalienborg Slot, the winter home of the Danish royal family. Exactly opposite The Copenhagen Opera House, donated to the state in 2000, are the four large, stately palaces which have housed the royals at different points in history. The buildings sit on the rim of a bright, circular courtyard, surrounding a statue of King Fredrick V astride his horse. He used to ride among his people daily.
(History holds that the king, in his youth, was also prone to partying with his people and caused an awful lot of trouble. I wonder if he outgrew that at some point. There are many similar statues throughout the city.)
The palace guards stand at toy soldier-style attention, bearskin hats resting heavily above very responsible eyebrows. I loved that the guard stations were Valentine Red, complete with little heart-shaped vents.
The current monarch is Queen Margrethe II. She was not born to be queen, though she was the eldest child of a Crown Prince (later King Fredrick IX). At the time of Margrethe's birth, only male members of the royal family were entitled to inherit the throne. In the 1960s, the Danish parliament passed the new Act of Succession, permitting female ascension to the throne of Denmark. Princess Margrethe became the Heiress Presumptive and, upon the death of her father in 1972, Queen Margrethe II became the first female Danish Sovereign under the new Act of Succession.
After paying a visit to one of the museums within the palace, and spending an hour or so surveying several restored royal studies and dens, and then a while with some of the queen's famous wardrobe (I don't know why Jon was in such a hurry to get out of there... Queen Margrethe is one stylish monarch!), we hurried over to the Marble Dome Church. It is an impressive structure and, within the dark paneled walls, I could feel the sanctuary and peace desired by so many. I sat in the pews and studied the intricate stained glass and berated myself for not knowing more about the disciples of Christ. Each man has a twelfth of the dome dedicated in his honor, and a corresponding bronze statue stands outside.
"Why have not we an immortal soul?" asked the little mermaid mournfully; "I would give gladly all the hundreds of years that I have to live, to be a human being only for one day, and to have the hope of knowing the happiness of that glorious world above the stars."
And so, the little nameless mermaid begins pining for two worlds, earth first, then heaven.
The people of Copenhagen run profitable businesses and bubble over with language and knowledge during the day. As the sun sets, though, a kind of subtle melancholy accompanies the chilly sea breezes into the city.
Evening settles fast, beginning on the water and pulling up over the rooftops. Soon, little windows city-wide are sparkling yellow like stars. Shoppers pick up the pace a tad, nighttime cold nipping at their exposed wrists and necks. While the zip and glow of Copenhagen's nightlife began to swell, I wished we'd had more time to enjoy the clean, bright demeanor of the shopkeepers, the laughter of the ruddy-cheeked women at the chocolate shop, the giddy conversation of teenagers at the coffee shop, a foreign language to my ears but still somehow familiar. Adolescence is without borders.
"So I shall die," said the little mermaid, "and as the foam of the sea I shall be driven about never again to hear the music of the waves, or to see the pretty flowers nor the red sun. Is there anything I can do to win an immortal soul?"
"No," said the old woman, "unless a man were to love you so much that you were more to him than his father or mother; and if all his thoughts and all his love were fixed upon you, and the priest placed his right hand in yours, and he promised to be true to you here and hereafter, then his soul would glide into your body and you would obtain a share in the future happiness of mankind. He would give a soul to you and retain his own as well; but this can never happen. Your fish's tail, which amongst us is considered so beautiful, is thought on earth to be quite ugly; they do not know any better, and they think it necessary to have two stout props, which they call legs, in order to be handsome."
On our way back down the Stroget, headed for home, we came upon a group of teens scattered around a fountain like pennies. One, the youngest in the bunch, was smoking a cigarette in that hard, awful way which denotes that his lungs have long since been used to the black air being sucked into them. They were a raucous bunch, chasing each other and cat calling at the passersby. A man I hadn't noticed in the newly formed shadows passed very close to us in the crowd. I asked Jon to move his wallet to his front pocket.
We held hands. Ten icy fingers wedged into Jon's jacket pocket. It was time for coffee/hot chocolate. At home I am often teased about purchasing a drink at Starbucks which ultimately acts only as a "handwarmer." When everyone else is finished with his or her beverage, I toss out a cup that is almost full... but at least my fingers remain pink.
In Copenhagen I bought hot chocolate in order to survive. The temperatures dipped into the thirties, Fahrenheit. My new purple scarf was folded softly but firmly around my neck and, prior to entering what became our favorite little street cafe, my ears had almost begun to match the scarf.
The cappuccino Jon ordered was almost too pretty to drink.
I purchased a new black, wool coat. For a brief instant I felt very Danish! But my enthusiasm was short-lived. As much fun as I'd had that Saturday, I felt especially out of place in that little cafe. I was fighting my natural urge to get the hot drinks "to go" in the interest of hurrying onward to see more things rather than sitting and taking the moment in. I was bothered by my ineptitude with language. People in Europe, on the whole, speak English. We were gracious about it, but still took it for granted. And that made me feel terrible. When the rest of the world visits our country, we expect them to come on our terms. Our language, our side of the road, our fast food culture. But we can't even take the time to learn a few basic phrases in German or Dutch or Danish before a vacation.
Bristling at myself, I swished my ugly fish's tail.
There is much too much to say about Copenhagen... the second entry is forthcoming.