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Published: July 24th 2018
Since I was nine years old I have wanted to travel to Norway and other foreign countries. In my 4th grade geography book I got lost in several captivating photos of Norway, and dearly wanted to go and live there myself. Mountains, and snow, fiords and lakes everywhere, smiling tall people with long white-blond hair wearing beautiful knitted wool sweaters, it all captured my imagination and wouldn't let go. I also wanted to see the tulips in Amsterdam, and bike along the canals there, flying by ancient windmills and seeing Dutch families living in windmills and wearing their white cornered hats and wooden shoes. It was such an exciting and exotic world to see, but I was stuck in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with only my feet and streetcars to take me anywhere, if I was even allowed to go. We didn't have a car. I didn't even have a bicycle! I was truly stuck. And at nine years old, every year was interminably long; it was unimaginable to think of becoming a freed adult person or ever doing anything by myself. This was my life and I was powerless to change it. At nine, most kids have to make do with where they are. Childhood is not always the happy faded memories most choose to remember. And in me the seeds of desire to see the world and how other people live had been planted. They grew quickly.
So here we are, a lifetime later, finally in Scandinavia. Our tour started in Copenhagen, Denmark, a magical city built on the Jutland peninsula separating the North and Baltic Seas. We brought good weather with us, sunny and warm, perfectly delightful for wandering around exploring Hans Christian Andersen's city. It was suggested to walk through the Nyhavn area (the New Port in English) to see the iconic colorful houses standing above the canal, and so we did, passing through several times. As in Amsterdam, bicycles are everywhere; pedestrians almost need to be more careful of them than of cars whose drivers usually look out for people walking. Bicyclists seemed to be far less careful.
Hungry and hunting for our vegan dinner, following a local's tip we crossed the new pedestrian and bicyclists' bridge and walked a bit further into Christiania, stepping back into the 1970s on steroids. A wilder part of Copenhagen, Freetown Christiania is where almost one thousand current-day Danish hippies live. It is an autonomous anarchist district; it even has its own flag! Winding along the canal and then through curving streets, when we asked locals for directions they would look at us closely, then always respond, ah, you want to go to Christiania? Yes, we did, but why was everyone acting so strangely about this place? Finally finding its entrance, a very well marked high open wooden gate, we walked into a colorful world from decades past. People looked similar, but sometimes uniquely dressed; pot is sold openly everywhere, all kinds, including all the necessary paraphernalia. In fact, except for booths of wildly overpriced lovely clothing, and little restaurants popping up here and there, pot and hash were the only items we saw sold on stalls throughout Christiania, but no one was hawking his wares. If you wanted to buy, it was there; come and choose what you want. But we wanted dinner. So we walked the length of Christiania, this intentional and self-governed society and community, finally finding the open air vegan restaurant that had been recommended to us, paying a reasonable Danish price for plain, but very fresh and healthy plates of organic food. As we ate on a bench under the trees we watched the parade of people passing by, tourists and locals alike. The pictures in my geography book all those years ago were not incorrect; Scandinavians are beautiful people, tall, mostly very blond, active, buff, and healthy looking. I didn't remember people looking this good, this happy, where I was growing up. Perhaps I chose the wrong place to have been born.
Our hotel wasn't located in the heart of Copenhagen; it was a ten minute walk and five metro stops away, so on our very first afternoon in Scandinavia Bill and I learned to take the Danish metro to get into the center of the city. In new train cars, at least compared with the ancient ones we are used to riding in Boston and New York, we were whisked into the heart of Copenhagen in minutes, and disgorged into this strange, new (to us) city. Of course we asked the first people we saw riding bicycles which way was the waterfront, and, as in Thailand, each person pointed in an opposite direction. But here we all laughed; no one needed to "save face" by sincerely offering information even though they did not know the answer. So we decided to head off to the left as one way had to be the way to the water. And it was. Boats lined the canal, people and bicycles and restaurants were everywhere; these are the wonders of Nyhavn. We walked a few blocks along the canal to the sea, and stopped to watch boats pass under the bridge, both of us breathing deeply in the fresh sea air, enjoying the warm sunshine on our skin, glad to be here after so many hours of travel in planes and airports.
We had taken a chance on booking this trip with Cosmos, a company we had heard of but not used previously. Already on this first day I began to wonder if we had made a mistake, as our hotel was not in the center of the city, and the first meal was definitely sub-par. Plus there were 43 people on this tour, a large group. Well, two weeks in Scandinavia was our goal, and we were here. We'd make the best of it. Travellers were left on their own for much of the time we were not riding endless hours in a bus. This was certainly very different from travelling with OAT, Odysseys Unlimited, or Road Scholar. At least we were here, and transportation, hotels, and a few meals were included. But I already had inklings that this tour would not measure up to my expectations. How glad I was that Bill had come with me this time! At least I had a companion to explore, get lost, and play with, someone to help create and share the experience. We'd do our best to turn this into a good trip after all.
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