Wherever you go, go with all your heart. – Confucius
My memories of travelling to European cities outside of the UK are a mixture of wonder, joy, fear and sadness. There is no denying there is historical beauty to be found, but I have also experienced an ugly side that has left me quite guarded. My family travelled around Europe frequently in the eighties. We went to places where there were little, often no people of colour.
We once travelled to Austria on a coach tour that took us to all the poignant places ‘The Sound of Music’ had been filmed. At the time, ‘The Sound of Music’ was my all-time favourite film. I had watched it too many times to count, okay, well if we were to count it maybe in the forties number. Yet all I remember about Austria was how uncomfortable it made me feel.
First let’s talk about a child on a coach tour across Europe, sitting on a bus for hours at an end. It wasn’t the most interesting thing I’ve ever done. I didn’t appreciate the history, the monuments, the beauty of each country, and to be honest, after the third walking tour to another church, I had pretty much lost the will to live.
So when my friend suggested a birthday trip to Copenhagen, I was a little hesitant. I googled Copenhagen, it was a stunning city, but more importantly, were there any people of colour? I didn’t want the eighties experience again, that was edged in my brain.
All I remembered of my trip around Europe was not the beautiful scenery, but the stares, and the comments, the sniggers and the pointing. I wasn’t about to pay money to go through that again.
In the end, I went to Copenhagen. My reasons were more than ‘because it was a beautiful city’, I wanted to re-write my relationship with Europe. I wanted to start a new chapter, give it another chance.
My first step into the airport pretty much set the tone for the entire trip. As we walked into departures I saw three black people, three! Letting out a sigh of relief, I broke into a smile and turned to my friend “I see black people” I said “ walking around like regular people.”
(sixth sense reference for those who didn’t get it.)
What I noticed over and over with Copenhagen was that it was clean. Not just a bit clean, but intensely clean. There were no rubbish, no cigarettes, no sweet wrappers on the ground, nothing.
From the outside looking in, the Danes can seem quite serious and guarded. But we had a few opportunities to talk to people and my opinion quickly changed.
After locating our rooms and freshening up, we decided to find a local store that our driver had said was only ten minutes away. Ten minutes later we were in the middle of a building site and no store.
We approached a man on a bike (note: man on bike is a common occurrence in Copenhagen. Also see woman on bike, child on bike, groups of friends on bike, enormous numbers of people on bike heading towards to you at an alarming speed).
We asked him where the local store was, he politely directed us to one just down the road then rode off.
Now I’m not saying his directions were confusing, neither am I willing to admit we were often confused about pretty much everything. But we reached a set of lights and after some discussion on whether he meant straight on or left, we decided to go straight on.
Out of nowhere, we heard a shrill whistle, it was the same man pointing us in the right direction (which was right, not straight on).
Now I don’t know if he was going our way, or if he went out of his way to make sure we got to our destination. I just know this:
A. He no longer had his bike
B. He went the opposite direction after speaking to us
C. Who cares. Thanks to him we didn’t end up in Timbuctoo.
And that I think pretty much sums up the Dane’s I met. They’re not in your face or loud, and yes, occasionally they may stare. But if you approach them, they will go out of their way to help, and that has been my best impression of this city.
When we first arrived at our hotel, a young man at reception spent a good ten to fifteen minutes explaining the map to us. He showed us where the attractions were, how long it took to walk, and how much things cost. Did he have to do that? Maybe. But it all left a lasting impression on me.
Sure, their buildings are beautiful, and the way they centre everything around water is breath-taking. They ride bikes everywhere and sometimes they come at you so fast on those two-wheelers you really question if you will make it home alive. And it’s no coincidence that Denmark is number two of the world’s happiest Countries (last year it was number one).
But what I wanted more than anything was for it to change my mind about travelling in Europe. What I came away with was a new vigour for travelling in places I would normally avoid.
Because sometimes beauty is more than the colours of the harbour, or the sculpture of the mermaid. It is more than the carnival of people dancing in the street, or the hippy town on the edge of Copenhagen. Sometimes, almost every time, it is the people who make the place. The ones who, without knowing, have given you a new ending to an old tale.