denmark

Malmö via Copenhagen & Kronborg Castle

I've been so busy these past couple weeks finishing up the Incredible Distance EP that I've fallen behind on my already-belated blogging! I was determined to catch up before leaving for Japan, but I ended up finishing this entry on the plane.

December 9

I left Bjerringbro early, in the dark. This was still my week of running in circles “like a ragged squirrel on a treadmill" ("верчусь как ободранная белка в колесе," as Kuzmin wrote). It would take a few hours to get to Copenhagen, and I wanted to see a few sights before continuing on to Malmö, Sweden, for my show that evening.

Fortunately, I had an excellent guide: Jacob, who had attended my show in Copenhagen two days earlier. We met at the train station, swung by his place to store my suitcase, popped into a little café for some tea, and caught a train to Helsingor, home of Kronborg Castle.

For some reason, when Jacob had asked me if I had been to the castle, I thought he was referring to Kastellet, a "star-shaped 17th-century fortress with ramparts," or Amalienborg, the palace where royal family lives. Both of these are in Copenhagen, so I was surprised at how long the train ride was.

Jacob got cozy on the train, sinking down and propping his feet up on the seat in front of him; I followed suit. It felt rebellious. On the buses in Eugene, the drivers sometimes make an announcement if they notice your feet are on a seat.

A view of Kronborg across the water.

A view of Kronborg across the water.

Jacob let me use his extra train pass, which you're supposed to scan before boarding the train and again after exiting. You have to check in and out. I, of course, forgot to scan my pass when we arrived at Helsingor. I was with Jacob the whole time, and apparently he scanned his, but I missed it somehow. It wasn't until we had already reached Kronborg Castle that we (that is, Jacob) realized what I had(n't) done. He very kindly went back alone to scan the card, giving me some extra time to look around. Near the bridge leading to the castle, I saw some Common Pochards, Tufted Ducks, Mallards, Black-headed Gulls, and my first Great Black-backed Gulls. After crossing the bridge, I saw some Mute Swans, one of whom was eating with great economy of energy.

I got our tickets — which turned out to be a good idea, as the line had tripled in length by the time Jacob returned. We joined the throng of people crossing another bridge leading to the castle. A Gray Heron skulked in a corner of the moat.

The courtyard was bustling and festive. It was difficult to know where to go or what to do. There was no obvious beginning or end, because the castle encircled (or ensquared) us entirely. A line was forming outside the closed doors of the chapel, where some sort of event was to take place. We weren't there for the event, so we went through the museum part of the castle. It was packed with people. The museum provided an overview of the castle's history and depictions of what life there had been like.

In the courtyard we had seen and heard a solitary caroling woman dressed in a dark, heavy-looking period costume, and she seemed to reappear at every turn, singing different styles of songs in different languages.

At one point, our route led us through the chapel on some sort of balcony-level walkway; the chapel itself was blocked from our view, but we could overhear the event that was taking place. A modest-sounding choir was singing "Operator". It was hard to explain to Jacob why I thought this was so hilarious. I think it was just a surprising song to hear performed by a choir at a castle in Denmark.

In a large, beautiful ballroom, Jacob pointed out Julehjerte (pleated Christmas hearts) on a huge Christmas tree. In another room, he pointed out a celebrity, the director of some successful film.

In between each segment of the castle, we inevitably found ourselves driven into the midst of a Christmas market. Some parts of the castle were temporarily closed, seemingly to drive more traffic into the markets. In any case, I already thought the castle was interesting and cool, and then we finally came to the gift shop, where I was surprised to see lots of Hamlet-related merchandise, much of it emblazoned with the quote, "To be or not to be."

I commented on the abundance of Hamlet swag, and Jacob said something like, "Well, yes, that's why we're here..." I was confused, but eventually, finally, I came to understand that this castle was the setting of Hamlet. Helsingor was Elsinore. Basically, my mind was blown, and I needed to rethink everything we had just seen. (Fortunately, the gift shop carried a handy little book with photos of the castle, inside and out, with corresponding excerpts from Hamlet. Jacob was so sweet as to get me this, and I read it when I got back to the US.)

We left the castle and Jacob starting leading us somewhere. As we walked along the docks, he talked about being a Danish folk dance instructor, and I told him about how I had danced at the Scandinavian Festival when I was a kid.

Me and Ashley Delp Weimar (who is actually Danish) waiting offstage at the  Junction City Scandinavian Festival  in 2000.

Me and Ashley Delp Weimar (who is actually Danish) waiting offstage at the Junction City Scandinavian Festival in 2000.

Han, the Little Merperson

Han, the Little Merperson

I had no idea where we were going, and I don’t know what I expected, but I was certainly surprised when a gleaming merperson appeared before us. Jacob knew I was interested in seeing the statue of the Little Mermaid, as well as the nearby Genetically Modified Little Mermaid, but both of these were back in Copenhagen. I hadn’t known there was yet another variation on the theme to be found in Helsingor.

A placard near this merfigure indicated the title of the work: the Danish pronoun “Han,” meaning “He”. Even statues are assigned a gender when they enter this world. I understood what the intention was – to create a male counterpart to la Petite Sirène – but under my queer non-binary gaze, this svelte individual exuded ambiguity. They were certainly petite, but this isn’t generally a characteristic associated with masculinity, or even necessarily with mermen. Was the pronouncement of a pronoun a coming-out? Or, on the other hand, doth the merman (or the artist behind the merman) protest too much? I have experience reading queer texts and reading texts queerly, but I’m an amateur where visual art is concerned.

In any case, this queer encounter (of the third kind, you could even say) was welcome after a fairly heteronormative week. (And it would only get queerer, but I’m getting ahead of myself.)

After this, we returned to Copenhagen, managing to squeeze in a viewing of the original (well, replacement of the original) Little Mermaid before it was time for me to hurry on to Malmö. The Little Mermaid wasn’t quite as tiny as everyone said, but it was true what I had been told – if you can’t find her, just look for the crowd of tourists taking photos. (And perhaps on a quiet day, look for the Mute Swans eagerly awaiting said crowd.) The sun had already set, but she and the swans were semi-illuminated by some dim spotlights, and probably blinded by the perpetual flashing of the paparazzi’s cameras.

At the train station, Jacob and I said goodbye and I hurried onto the train, which didn’t immediately leave. I was standing near the doors, and after a minute he approached and told me there were some seats open in the next car. I found a window seat, and it was still a couple minutes before the train departed. Jacob stood on the platform smiling, framed by the train window, people milling around him, and this became my parting image of Copenhagen.

Copenhagen and Malmö are separated by water, but connected by a tunnel. It’s one of those things that is remarkable to think about but altogether unremarkable to experience.

My Skyroam Wi-Fi connection took a minute to sort itself out after being underwater, so I wasn’t entirely sure what to do when we reached the first train station in Sweden. I had assumed I’d be getting off at the same place as everyone else, but from what I could tell, as many people stayed seated as disembarked. I hesitated, then took my chances and lugged my luggage out onto the platform. Passengers were filing through a gate in a fence, so I joined the queue. The friendliest border patrol officer in the world thumbed through my passport and said, “Single-entry visas… I don’t think you’re a risk for overstay!”

Me, windblown in Malmö.

Me, windblown in Malmö.

Outside the station, the wind was ridiculous.

I weighed my transportation options and took an Uber to Eli and Kim’s flat. As was almost always the case when I took a Uber or cab in Europe, we reached the destination and the driver seemed to expect me to say something like, “Yep, this is the place!” or “Just over there would be great.” But I had never been to any of these places, so I always just pretended that the perfect location was exactly where we had slowed down. Touring solo requires you to feign confidence, approach unfamiliar buildings, and waltz right in. Trial and error can be quicker than finding people who know the answers and figuring out how to ask them – if not only because some of the time, you’ll get lucky.

Anyway, it only took a few minutes to find the entrance, and a few minutes to be let in by Eli. He and his roommate Kim gave me a warm welcome. It felt affirming to be in the company of people who were vegan and queer and trans and used my pronouns. (Eli had even asked in advance what pronouns I’d like to use in Swedish, briefing me on the gender-neutral options in Swedish. I opted for “hen”.) I sat on a sort of bench along the wall of their kitchen/dining area, and they fed me delicious porridge with cinnamon. They also had vegan caviar, which comes in a metal tube like an ointment. This blew my mind, but apparently lots of condiments come in tubes there. (This only blew my mind to a greater degree.) It was interesting to try some of the Swedish options for vegan butter and cheese. There were also some festive, Christmasy Swedish foods and drinks, such as pepparkakor, which are sometimes like gingersnaps but n this case were very soft, gingerbread-ish biscuits. (Eli generously gave me a package of them, which I somehow managed to restrain from eating until I returned to the US and could share them with Adam.) Some of Eli and Kim’s friends arrived, and we had some non-alcoholic glögg. It’s mulled wine, but you toss some nuts and raisins into your cup and eat them with a spoon before drinking the liquid. We also had some of this non-alcoholic beverage that was invented as a beer substitute, to reduce excessive drinking at the holidays. (Apparently it is available two or three times a year, with slightly different labels for different holidays.)

The show was sweet and relaxed. The applause after the first song scared the dog, so it was decided that everyone would snap their fingers instead.

After the show, as always, I was exhausted, and, as always, I stayed up too late, and, as always, I had to wake up way too early.

While dragging my suitcase through the apartment complex courtyard, the top handle – the one most useful for lifting the suitcase – broke. I don’t remember why I was carrying it instead of rolling it – maybe to not make too much noise. I found the metal component that had popped off, but I was in such a hurry that I forgot to look for my luggage tag. Later, examining the suitcase on the inside, it appeared to be potentially fixable. But I never got around to finding a screwdriver, and the suitcase handle remained broken for the rest of my trip. Finally, a couple days ago, Adam fixed it in less than a minute.

Bjerringbro and (Magical) Hjermind Forest

December 8

I started planning the Incredible Distance Tour in June, shortly after returning from the 2017 Japan Tour. My original plan was to tour the UK and western Europe, but I kept finding shows further east and further north. I found shows in Poland and thought, "Hmm... Kaliningrad is right there..." Then I found the show at Think.dk in Copenhagen, and I thought, "Hmm... Aarhus is right there... and Malmö is right there..." Then I found the show in Helsinki and thought, "Saint Petersburg is right there, I can't go to Helsinki and not go to Saint Petersburg..."

You get the idea.

I posted on Couchsurfing that I was looking to play a show in Aarhus. I soon received a message from Rasmus and Ane, who live near Bjerringbro, 45 minutes from Aarhus, in "a magical place called Hjermind Forest". I certainly couldn't say no to an enchanted forest. And I'm glad I didn't. Don't worry, this isn't one of my disaster stories — except for a minor mishap right at the beginning of the day.

I left Think.dk early that morning and caught the metro to the train station. I had bought train tickets in advance, so all I needed to do was find my platform. I'd have more than enough time.

I watched each metro stop go by, and I was pleased to see that we were right on schedule. Then, maybe a stop and a half from the train station, we came to a halt. There was an announcement in Danish. We sat there. One minute. Two. Five.

Finally, we stared moving forward again. When we pulled into the station, I was ready to bolt out and run to find my train. I dashed to the schedule screens, and couldn't figure out which platform I needed. I hurried over to some cops and asked them, and they shrugged and said (basically) they didn't know anything about anything. I ran into the ticket office and asked, frantically, "What platform for this train?"

A ticket agent looked at a clock on the wall and asked me, "For what time?" It seemed to me that it should have been obvious which train I was trying to catch — the one that was about to leave — but I told him the time. He said, 'Why, that's now!" and I said, "I know!!" And with unbelievable slowness, like an Ent, he said, "If you are running, and if you are very lucky, track 6." I thanked him and ran like my life depended on it, my chest burning, and when I reached the platform, the train was still there but the doors were closing. And then it was gone, and I stood there, panting and feeling deflated. And irritated, because if the ticket agent had just told me what track to go to in the first place, I definitely would have made it.

I trudged back to the ticket office, in no big hurry anymore. The ticket agent looked smug and said, "Ah, it was already gone," and I responded bitterly, "No. It was there. The doors just closed before I could get on."

He directed me to a desk and another ticket agent, who said, "Ah, you were late? I cannot just give you a new seat, you must buy another ticket." Seeing how crestfallen I was, she asked me why I was late, and I explained about the metro. A look of commiseration washed over her, and she said, "Ahh, yes, I understand!" She gave me a new ticket, which was a huge relief.

While waiting for the next train, I sat on bench to write some postcards. Immediately, a guy approached me and asked me for money. I offered him food, and he said no, he wanted money. I said I didn't have any cash and he said we could go to an ATM. He said he needed beer, that he was an alcoholic and was suffering from withdrawal symptoms, and I said that sounded difficult but that food was the only thing I could give him. Annoyed, he finally gave up and wandered off.

The train was fairly crowded. My seat was at the end of a car in one of those arrangements where four seats are facing each other. My neighbors for a couple hours were a mother and her children. I seem to remember there being three children, but it may have been two children who were just all over the place. One of the kids was talking basically the entire time, and when they weren't talking, they were singing or whispering (sometimes in Danish, sometimes in English). (I'm not saying this in judgment — I'm just trying to paint the picture for you.) For a while, they were whispering, "No babies at the train, no babies at the train, no babies at the train... no job is too big, no bob is too small... no job is too big, no bob is too small..." Eventually the mom asked, in a tone that was maybe annoyed but possibly slightly concerned, "What's too big, what's too small?" And the kid just looked at her silently.

(I Googled the "no job is too big" thing and it turned out to be from something called Paw Patrol.)

I tried to take some video of the scenery passing by, but it's difficult to see anything past the grimy train window. You can hear the kid talking, though. (Maybe someone who speaks Danish can tell us what they're saying.)

Footage of my dirty train window, and possibly the world beyond it.

The first thing I saw when I arrived in Bjerringbro was a lot of bicycles.

Double-decker bicycle storage at the train station in Bjerringbro.

Double-decker bicycle storage at the train station in Bjerringbro.

My first goal in Bjerringbro was to go pee at the train station, which didn't turn out to be possible. Always make use of the washrooms on the train. You just never know.

Hooded Crow in Bjerringbro.

Hooded Crow in Bjerringbro.

So I started the 45-minute walk to Rasmus and Ane's house. I didn't find a place to pee, but I did find more Hooded Crows. (I had seen my first Hooded Crows a few days earlier in Kaliningrad.)

I went through the quaint little town. Cute little shops gave way to cute little houses, which in turn gave way to gas stations and the headquarters of Grundfos, the world's largest pump manufacturer,  which finally gave way to fields, Christmas tree farms, and Hjermind Forest. I probably appeared to be hopelessly lost, wheeling my suitcase down the motorway, further and further out of town.

The motorway I walked along, and a first glimpse of forest.

The motorway I walked along, and a first glimpse of forest.

At Rasmus and Ane's adorable house, I finally had the opportunity to pee. Then I thought I'd go experience the magic of the forest, but before I even made it out of the house, I saw a Marsh Tit in a tree in their yard. They look a lot like various other tits, but it was still exciting to see a new species in a new place.

Marsh Tit.

Marsh Tit.

I entered the forest, crossing by a small sort of reservoir filled with clay-colored water. The trail had sloped down steeply from Rasmus and Ane's house, leveled out, and then rose again. I arrived at a clearing where there were various surprising structures.

The Cabin in the Woods.

The Cabin in the Woods.

The Three Little Cabins in the Woods.

The Three Little Cabins in the Woods.

The first building was apparently some kind of cabin. It had pretty windows and doors and a thick thatched roof. In an adjacent clearing, there were three squat wooden structures like flattened cabins. They looked a little bit spooky. There was a distinguished-looking placard on the path, and I imagined I had stumbled upon a UNESCO Heritage Site, but Rasmus later told me they were just shelters you could rent to camp in.

There were birds hanging around this clearing, mostly a lot of tits — Marsh Tits, Eurasian Blue Tits, Great Tits — as well as a few European Goldfinches, a Goldcrest, and a couple of Eurasian Blackbirds.

"Come explore Denmark's outdoors." You know, just like Charlotte Gainsbourg does in Antichrist.

"Come explore Denmark's outdoors." You know, just like Charlotte Gainsbourg does in Antichrist.

Being in the forest in Denmark naturally brought to mind that video on The Onion (which is a satire news site, in case you don't know) about a Denmark tourism campaign created by Lars von Trier (Denmark Introduces Harrowing New Tourism Ads Directed By Lars Von Trier). ("Tourism officials hope the acclaimed Danish director's bleak vision of unsettling sexuality and brutal violence will attract more visitors to their country.")

I made my way back to the house, and soon Ane (and the dog) came home from work . (I had gotten in earlier using a key they'd hidden for me.) Ane was very friendly and fun to talk to. She and Rasmus are both educators who work with children. Ane and I sat at the table cracking nuts and eating dried fruit while she told me some recent activities she'd done with the kids. I was impressed by how outdoorsy the activities were, even in December.

Eventually Rasmus arrived — on roller skis. I had seen some of these in the bathroom and had no clue what they were. I thought they must have something to do with accessibility, somehow. But it turned out they had just been drying after being washed.

Rasmus played with the dog, or the dog played with Rasmus — they both had an abundance of energy to expend. It was especially impressive, considering Rasmus had just worked with kids all day and skied home!

Ane made a lovely dinner that definitely involved bread and salad and almost certainly involved soup, though for some reason this part of my memory is fuzzy.

A fun little stage set-up featuring a solar system backdrop and assorted gymnastics equipment.

A fun little stage set-up featuring a solar system backdrop and assorted gymnastics equipment.

We got ready to go to the venue, which for this night's concert was a building that used to be a school but now apparently served various purposes as needed. We set up in the gymnasium against a solar system backdrop; next to each planet was its corresponding astronomical symbol, and then there were also some bonus characters, such as a turtle.

To my right and to my left were a pommel horse and a vaulting box, respectively. I dragged the pommel horse over to the piano to see if I could sit on it to play, but it just wasn't practical.

Rasmus had managed to get me some press coverage in a local paper, which was exciting. The audience ended up being rather small, thanks to a live broadcast of a significant sporting event at the same time as my show. Nonetheless, it was a very nice show, and I'm so grateful to Rasmus and Ane for all the work they did to make it happen.

When we left the building after the show, the night sky was full of stars. Rasmus was locking up, and Ane and I were walking to the car. We passed the corner of the building and were immediately struck by an absurdly cold wind that was no longer blocked now that we were in the openness of the parking lot.

Soon, though, we were back in their warm, cozy home in the forest. Nestled in my comfy little bed in the attic, I wrote a few postcards and dropped off to sleep, wishing I could stay a few days to wander through the forest and meet more of its inhabitants. But it's good to save something to look forward to for next time.

Copenhagen: Challenging the norm

December 7

As with Poznan, it was already dark in Copenhagen when I arrived. Fortunately, I would be able to do some sightseeing a couple days later. That night, I would be playing a show at Think.dk, a "co-creative community and think tank" dedicated to saving the world. It would also my first (and so far only!) Low-Fi Concert. Low-Fi is another world-saving organization that facilitates intimate concerts like the ones I tend to play.

On the way to Think.dk, I was able to talk on the phone with Adam (my partner), which hadn't been possible for several days. The weather was blustery, and my suitcase wheels became cacophonous at every stretch of cobblestones — but patchy, substandard communication is a hallmark of life on tour.

I use Skyroam to stay connected, and it's almost always satisfactory, but my service tends to go AWOL whenever I'm on a fast train — which, on tour, would probably be the most convenient time for me to talk. And each day, when I reached the site of my next concert, it was important to be present and connect with my hosts. I was in a new place every day, but for my hosts and the people attending my shows, the new variable was me. So the opportunities to talk with Adam were few and sometimes far between.

Somehow, I managed to both talk on the phone and successfully navigate to the courtyard where Think.dk is located. The neighboring gym was a hive for fit Danes who buzzed in and out as I hovered nearby in an archway, avoiding the rain.

After a few minutes, I hung up, and it was time to get back to business. I approached the glass door of Think.dk. There was only dim light to be seen through it. I rang a doorbell, and when no one opened, I checked my phone to see if there were any messages from Anja. Then, I tried actually opening the door, and of course it swung right open. Up the stairs I went, then through another door. I remember thinking at that moment how strange it was to communicate with people living thousands of miles away, to see pictures of a room and a piano, then to suddenly be there in that room, shaking those people's hands and getting ready to play that piano.

The room was simultaneously open and cozy. Its design was impressively multifunctional — it appeared ready to accommodate a yoga class, a craft workshop, and a slumber party, with only minimal adjustments in between. For tonight, though, it was a concert venue.

My low-fi shot of the stage setup.

My low-fi shot of the stage setup.

I got settled, and Anja generously fed me some delicious pumpkin soup with bread. Martin's kid Romeo opened the little door for December 7th on his advent calendar, and dropped the chocolate into his soup. While Anja and I chatted, Romeo worked on his Christmas wish list. He showed off a brand-name Santa hat he bought on the way home from school. Anja showed interest, then as an aside to me sort of shook her head in disbelief; not long ago, Romeo didn't think about brands at all.

The end-of-year holiday season is a peculiar time to be traveling. If you're traveling in places where Christmas is widely celebrated, you find yourself becoming privy to people's personal traditions. You see how they wrap presents and where they store them (under a tree? on a tree? hanging from clothespins along a length of twine attached to the wall?). You sample their holiday cuisine (more on that when I write about Sweden). You hear Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas is You" everywhere (or at least in the UK, Poland, Russia, and France).

After dinner, I got ready for the show. I was excited to be playing a real piano, and to have the support of Think.dk and Low-Fi Concerts.

Another low-fi photo, this one of a think.dk sticker that says "#24: Challenge the norm". 

Another low-fi photo, this one of a think.dk sticker that says "#24: Challenge the norm". 

As for the show itself — what can I possibly say when Erika Bálint from Low-Fi has already written so beautifully about it? Read her account of the evening here — it was, as she says, heartwarming. (Thanks again to Low-Fi and Erika for using they/them pronouns for me! Let it be a lesson to everyone else.) It was such a joy and an honor to play this show, and to meet Erika and Delia and Jacob and everyone, to talk to you and answer questions and share songs and some of the stories behind them. Thank you all for braving the weather and taking time out of your schedules in a very busy season to come see the show. I hope I can return to Copenhagen soon.

And in a way, I will, at least in my memory and on this blog, because I did return on the 9th of December. But first, I paid a visit to an enchanted forest near Bjerringbro, where I played my next show.

I laughed when I saw this in the office. It has a slightly different tone than #24, "Challenge the norm". "#23: Feeling a bit stiff? Maybe it's the stick up your ass!"

I laughed when I saw this in the office. It has a slightly different tone than #24, "Challenge the norm". "#23: Feeling a bit stiff? Maybe it's the stick up your ass!"