Written by Concrete on . Posted in Denmark, Germany, Team Fail

Stuck in Szczecin with far fewer options than we’d expected, it became time to do something extreme. What it was, we weren’t quite sure, as we frantically Googled and asked around for any possible ways out of there. It seemed from what the information booth would tell us, that the only ways out of the airport itself were on a plane further east, on a train further into Poland, or in a cab, so we called one, and bought yet another bottle of cheap whisky at the duty free despite it being only 11am, chugged a few shots each, and hoped for the best.

About an hour later a cab showed up, and the driver knew there would be a train heading in our general direction – one problem, it’s leaving in 25 minutes, and the station is a 40 minute drive away! So the driver takes a swill of vodka, slams on the accelerator, and we’re off! We even offered him an extra zl. 100 if he could make sure we made our train, making him drive even faster, and straight through a speed camera – KURWA MAĆ! – at almost 200 km/h.

We make the train with plenty of time to spare, almost every second of which is spent on trying to get a ticket from a domestic station that clearly doesn’t see many tourists, and babble-fishing our way through the transaction with Google Translate, and more than a few incredulous questions of “train go to where?!” as the ticket office rightly thought the train was an absolutely ridiculous way to get to Stockholm.

We picked up a few źapiekanky for lunch, got on the train, and the journey began, rather too uneventfully, into Germany, a land apparently festooned with Dr. Seuss trees.

Where are all these solar panels in America?

Of course, it doesn’t take long for the trouble to return. We end up on the regional Re-Bahn, a network that could courteously be described as provincial, and worse yet, it’s a Sunday, so half the trains aren’t even running, and those that are, take leisurely routes to every stop in every tiny village.

And that wasn’t all – not having enough wrong already, DB also had major track works going on, and trains only ran one piece of the route at a time, with connecting buses in between where the single track was torn up. So we circled through the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern one piece at a time, from Szczecin to Angermünde to Päsewalk to Neubrandenburg to Greifswald to Güstrow to Bützow, and finally to Rostock, where we missed the train to Copenhagen by a full three hours.

The only positive about all this was the view – we truly saw the Germans’ Germany, which actually looked curiously like upstate New York, just with more abandonments.

We asked for directions at the station, and the only thing leaving Rostock that night was a Fußballzüg, a special party train bringing hundreds of fans out to an away match, in this particular case FC Hansa 3. supporters on their way to Schwerin. But Schwerin was a slightly bigger city, and quite a bit closer to where we were going (or so we thought – it never occurred to us that there’s a quick and easy ferry crossing from Rostock to Malmö!) so we got on the train, and did our best to get Eurotrashed on the hour long ride, polishing off the bottle of Scotch and picking up a few 1€ beers from the train bar.

From Schwerin, we actually caught the more or less right train to Hamburg, with a chance to make it to Copenhagen… of course, arriving in Hamburg, that one was sold out, and it would cost us 220€ each (first class, since that was the only seat left!) to get to Copenhagen in the morning. So we booked a hostel in Hamburg, and didn’t go much farther than the nearest bar, having no logical options but to drown this night in Erdinger, not even caring enough to check out the Reeperbahn.

In the morning, we got on the packed and expensive train to Copenhagen to do it all over again, on an international express this time. Shortly after Lübeck, they made an announcement in German that I was sure said we had to get off the train and onto the boat. Ben didn’t believe me, but when everyone else did the same, we followed, and realized that we were, in fact, on a train on a boat, about to set sail across the Kattegat.

It’s a train! It’s a boat! It’s a … troat? That’s it! We’re #troating! He’s on a troat, motherfuckers, don’t you ever forget, we’re going fast and (we’re on a troat)!

Soon enough, the troat parts ways, and the train goes on to Copenhagen while the boat sits in Odense without us. At least we had a long enough layover in Copenhagen to get some smørrebrød before the train to Stockholm… I’ll never have enough smørrebrød, and unfortunately the ingredients are even too weird to make them at home, let alone start a food truck selling them!

By this point, we’re both pretty much sick of the road and ready to get home, especially with our Team Fail luck, which Stockholm only delivered more of! We checked in at the hostel no problem, but trying to get dinner was nothing short of maddening, with no one accepting our credit cards, and the ATMs (Bankomats) spitting out our cards with some error message in Swedish. We finally convinced someone on the street to take out 500 krone for us for 80€, a terrible exchange for us but we were pretty much screwed otherwise, and hungry enough that we went to the first kebab shop we could find and bought an irresponsible amount of food.

Yesterday morning, we saw as much of Stockholm as we could with a plane to catch and still absolutely jaded… the highlight of it was lunch at a little cafe with Swedish-style smörgåsbord, a (nominal) salad with about eight different kinds of seafood on top, which was delicious!

Even the flight home was surprisingly challenging. Swedish customs gave me trouble about being born in 1955, a clear confusion arising from sharing a name with my dad, and refused to issue my boarding pass until they could contact him and clarify that he wasn’t in Europe and his son was. I have no idea why they needed to do that, because I clearly had a passport, MY passport no less, but they did, and it was a bit of a close call making the flight.

The flight, as most trans-Atlantic flights are, was long and boring, and I spent most of it writing for this blog.

Once we landed in New York and cleared customs, Ben went his own way to meet a friend in Brooklyn, and I went on to the JetBlue terminal for my flight home, and one last EPIC fail…

I got on the plane without incident, seated in seat 22D of a regional jet – window seat, last row before the lavatories – for the flight back to Rochester, just short of an hour of air time.

After takeoff, I noticed that something REEKS; a realization shared by nearby passengers, who complain, at least two of them, to the flight attendants, pointing in my general direction. They assume it’s me; the smell wasn’t exactly that of dirty backpacker, but it could be said there was some resemblance. Rotten cheese mixed with concentrated fart juice, left to marinate in a soaking wet hiking boot, might have been a better description. And I knew my feet did smell from two weeks of walking around rainy Europe, but they couldn’t be that bad…

As we’re crossing Long Island Sound, one of the flight attendants approaches me with a respirator mask and rubber gloves, and tells me that due to my odor, the flight might have to divert to Binghamton (remember, the entire flight should only take 54 minutes anyway) to deplane me, and if that were the case, I would need to find an alternate way home.

I try to explain to them that I barely have a sense of smell (caught a bad cold in Berlin) and still know how bad this is, and I maintain that it is NOT me, and they never would have let me fly Stockholm-JFK in coach smelling like this. She leads me a few rows up, and presumably noticing that the other passengers aren’t wincing in disgust as I walk by, takes off her mask, and agrees that the stench is not mine.

To placate the rest of the passengers, though, the flight attendant orders me locked in the bathroom for the remainder of the flight and tells me not to leave until the plane is on the ground and the jetway doors are open. At this point, I have to wonder if I’ll get a ride home from the airport in a police cruiser – and whether we will in fact be diverted to Binghamton to add insult to insult – but I more or less accept my fate, and ride out the rest of the flight in an airline bathroom. Luckily, it was a cold, clear night with no turbulence to be found… probably the one positive out of this experience.

The flight lasts as long as it should, a reassuring sign that we weren’t diverted.

Eventually, the seatbelt sign goes on, and I try to perch above the toilet just in case the literal shit hits the fan. When the plane lands, the flight attendant lets me out of the bathroom, and starts apologizing profusely.

It was in fact, partially, my backpack that unleashed the epic stink. But only because someone’s forgotten bag of Asian food stuff from weeks ago, including a burst bottle of something resembling fish sauce, and possibly “stinky tofu,” had been stuffed up and behind the last overhead compartment, and its contents had formed a semi-liquefied congealed mess all over the compartment, and apparently no one with a large carryon had sat in 22D for a while.

The flight attendants brought me to the gate, and after some arguing, agreed to give me a $100 voucher for the inconvenience. Not, mind you, for being stuffed into the lavatory for a flight back from NYC. Only for partial compensation for the damage to my backpack and its contents. But anything was welcome at that point…

By this time, I was just about the last passenger left at the airport. As I approached the taxi stand, the dispatcher shut the window in front of me, and said, “sorry, closed for tonight!”. I tried asking the cabs directly, since there were still about 6 lined up at baggage claim, and they responded that they couldn’t pick up airport passengers without a fare card from the dispatcher. The last one in line finally told me the obvious, that I’d stink up the cab.

While I argued, the last bus out of the airport left too, without me on it.

I got to enjoy a rather long, refreshing walk back from the airport last night.

Even if it was a constant cavalcade of fail, it really has been the adventure of a lifetime, and I would do it all again without a doubt! And maybe without all the fail this time, with a better idea how it works. Only this time, there better not be a general strike or fish sauce on the plane!


Written by Concrete on . Posted in Denmark, Team Fail

I woke up with that strange sense of “where the fucking fuck am I?”

There were people in the room speaking French, and I was on the top of a creaky bunk bed. Nothing made much sense to me at first. It took me much longer than it should have to remember that I flew to Europe yesterday, or that I was in a hostel in Copenhagen. Ben was already up and ready to go to a Danish dentist, we missed the first appointment but again what else can we expect, we’re Team Fail.

We only planned for one day in Copenhagen, and it was obvious from the start that we love the place. So our goal was to see as much as we can, and try to experience as much of Denmark as we can before the flight to London.

Just like the Danish parking lot, Danish rush hour comprises a lot of bikes, more than even New York or Portland, and just a few cars. I’d fit in so well here.

I wish I got a better picture of the clock on the train station… it’s an architectural anomaly, with (by far) the world’s largest Nixie Tube, an array of neon lights displaying the numbers — the first electronic display, before the invention of now-familiar LCD and LEDs.

I fell in love with the place. I could easily imagine living here…

I’m not sure what we were thinking when we wandered into a book sale at a monumental old church. Of course neither of us could read any of the books, nor did we really want to carry them all over Europe. I did buy (and eventually break, before I had the chance to listen to it) a record that looked like it might be the Danish folk music we’d heard in Christiania.

These covered streets aren’t unusual in Copenhagen. These are the kinds of architectural choices that would make even Boston or Toronto just that much more inviting.

Another ‘Danish parking lot’… most Danes don’t even lock their bikes. With bikes being as overwhelmingly popular as they are, and Danes having access to a basic income and socialist state, there is little need for petty crime. (In fact, there are substantially more bicycles than Copenhagenites… most people own at least two: a commuter for the weekdays and a faster road bike for weekend rides, and, for suburban Danes who commute by bus or train, a third bike that stays near the office!)

We spent all morning wandering around looking for a good place for breakfast, checking out a few restaurants before finally finding a bakery that appealed to us.

At first we just got a few pastries and orange juice (confusingly called appelsinsaft), but the baker implored us to try more and more, and introduced us to the concept of sørdansk: things that are peculiarly Danish, and suggested a few things that we had to taste later on: smørrebrød, frikkadeller and gammel-Dansk (more about these later!)

Satisfied, and late for the dentist, we continued toward the office, through the Milk Gate, something of a local landmark. The sign, which has been there since World War II, admonishes everyone to drink a half-liter of milk every day for a long, healthy life (½ liter mælk – hvår dag – hele livet), and, on cue, plays a jingle to that effect as well!

While Ben was at the dentist, I took the opportunity to wander around the local neighborhood, Enghaveplads, a traditionally working-class area of Copenhagen. These red-brick buildings, some of them, like this, emblazoned with socialist slogans (here: WORK AND PURPOSE), are the equivalent of “the projects” in the US, or “council housing” in the UK – homes originally provided to the working poor. In Denmark, however, none of the stigma attendent to these places elsewhere, with the effect instead being that Copenhagen remains an affordable place to live, and (although I haven’t seen the inside of one of these places) if this is the equivalent of our inner-city, the housing provided to all Danes is at a much higher standard than many of us in the ‘middle’ class can afford anymore in the US!

Of course, not everything is perfectly clean. Nor should it be. It wouldn’t surprise me if graffiti is tolerated, even accepted here, at the skatepark in Enghaveparken.

The enormous blocks of social housing look out on this square and pond, apparently home to a Hitchcock worth of birds!

Even the ALDI was impressive in its own right. If this store is any indication, Danes are years, even decades, ahead of us in terms of food. Most of the store was filled with organic groceries, fresh meat, dairy, produce, local beer and wine, and prepared foods. Almost every product proclaimed, “økologisk” (similar in meaning to our ‘organic’, but actually enforced), while processed foods were relegated to bottom shelves and an international area with a small American section.

Where our bodegas would push junk food and slushies, Danish corner stores have racks of fresh fruit. An apple or orange, even here in the inner city, is about 40 cents, a cheap snack in a country where the minimum wage is $22.50 per hour.

And some inspiring words for us wanderers…

For lunch, we decided on a place we’d seen on the internet, where we could try the Danish national dish, Smørrebrød. Delicious smørrebrød!

Smørrebrød is something of a national obsession in Denmark. While its literal definition (and base ingredient) is buttered bread, there are dozens of traditional varieties, and most Danes will eat it for breakfast and/or lunch on working days (usually made at home and brought to work, but increasingly popular from shops like this). Nowadays, it is often ordered an office at a time, the day before, off of a rather extensive menu and delivered to the workplace at lunchtime. Apparently some places also serve it on a conveyor belt like the kuru-kuru sushi of Japan, but Rita’s had premade smørrebrøden available at a counter instead. We were there rather late for lunch (Danish lunchtime tends to be before noon, as weekday breakfast, when eaten at all, is usually a small snack) and only a few of the flavors were still left. Of course we tried every one. Each of these sandwiches costs DKK 15, or just under $2, and three or four of them make a very satisfying meal.

To an American palate, the ingredients in these things are downright strange. The Danish palate seems to favor combinations that accentuate all six primary tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, spicy and umami. One of the most traditional varieties, dyrlægens natmåd (veterinarian’s midnight snack, or nightmare, depending on the translation) comprises rugbrød, a very heavy, rather bittersweet, beery rye bread, sweet butter, paté, herring in aspic, bacon, and something not entirely unlike pastrami, topped with onions and a slice of beet. (previous photo, top left) They also had frikkadellen, which are basically dry-ish meatballs made of beef, pork and veal, and were a distant second to the smørrebrød.

While that’s just one variety, it’s a good example of what we would encounter in the remaining sandwiches, which contain various challenging combinations of ingredients (corned beef and peaches?!) that all managed to go beyond merely delicious, to the point that we stayed and talked with the chef, and ordered seconds, thirds, et al until we were absolutely stuffed and the shop was out of new flavors to try! Most of the combinations are pretty much evident from the photos, except for the meats, which included breaded codfish, paté, liver, bacon, pot roast, and perhaps venison (or elk or moose?). Even this depleted selection had an incredible variety, and I would say, the most inspiring meal I’ve had in quite some time, if not ever.

Nørrebro amazed us just as much as anywhere else in Copenhagen. A block or two from Rita’s we found this sustainable structure: a grassy hill covering over an abandoned (or perhaps closed for the season) community centre.

Did I mention how much I WANT TO MOVE TO COPENHAGEN?!

This, however, was rather strange… we couldn’t find any interpretation of these that wasn’t wrong on at least some level.

And another inspiring message: “Freedom is a road seldom traveled by the multitudes.” If Copenhagen isn’t freedom, I’m not quite sure what is.

These are on some of the major roads in Copenhagen. For some reason my camera didn’t capture the numbers, but they count how many bikes have passed in the last hour, day and year. And the numbers were beyond impressive. Close to 10,000 so far for the day, and almost a million for the year, and it’s only the end of February. I can only imagine what the summer totals must look like!

I took a picture of this because it looked important. I’m still not sure what it is.

This is the old town, somewhere near Skindergade, the college nightlife area. We had some time before any jazz clubs opened so we stopped in the first bar we could find, LA og København. There was something ironic about going to an ostensibly American place in Denmark, but the bartender was unmistakably Danish, and glad to help us discover the sørdansk way. He made it very clear that Danes are one drunken, party-loving people! I don’t think I’ve ever seen a place before where 10 shots and two tankards of beer is a common, acceptable drink order, and the nightly special happened to be Fisch (a searingly strong peppermint schnapps), and his personal special, a mango-based tequila shot which was much more delicious.

Sorry about the blurry shot here, but… how about this for an example of foreign branding? What says romantic spa treatment like coming face to face with the salty slimy lips of a giant halibut?! I would say something was lost in translation, but the German and Danish words are so close (and so many Danes know English) that it could be nothing but intentional!

And from there we caught the early show at Charlie Scott’s Jazz Club. Like everything else in this city, nothing short of amazing. The musicians, (and this just their house band) played 30s-style jazz at the level of almost anything at the Rochester jazz fest! We tried one more taste of sørdansk here – gammel Dansk (literally, Old Danish), a liqueur that tasted like everything wrong with Jägermeister. It was bad. It was awful. But it is uniquely Danish, and we had beer (Tuborg Øl) to wash it down, and awesome jazz to distract us from the aftertaste!

Then, all too soon, it was time to head for the airport and fly to London… and I missed this place already. Someday I’ll be back to Copenhagen!

Team Fail: From The Rescue!

Written by Concrete on . Posted in Denmark, Team Fail

It started out of spite… a few days after New Year’s, I bought a ticket to Copenhagen, for the end of February. I had just had a bitter argument with my parents about the possibility of going hiking in Iceland this summer, and they even offered to use their leftover airline points to get me there… until I was forced to admit I had no idea who was coming with me yet, even though the trip was at least six months away. So I decided to go farther, and sooner, and just kind of hoped that if I waved tickets to Europe in front of enough faces, someone would bite.

I should have seen it from the start, that there would be a lot of failing going on. It was a total scramble finding anyone to go to Europe with me, even after I bought tickets for a few friends who found various reasons they couldn’t go. Five days before the flight, I was at Mendon Ponds flailing around on Nordic skis with Ben and his dad, and the idea came up. Monday night, it became official, he had the tickets, we were going. Tuesday night, we tried a desperate bit of research, which mostly consisted of finding the first hostel we could in the cities we thought we were going to, and watching a few episodes of Anthony Bourdain. Wednesday afternoon, we were in the airport, as ready as we could be for it all to start.

It didn’t take long for the gremlins to appear. Pouring over $9 beers in the airport bar, our flight to New York got delayed again … and again. Then just as it looked impossible to make our connecting flight, a ticket agent stopped by the bar and let us know there was a plane ready, and about to leave NOW!. We got to JFK with plenty of time to spare, but they wouldn’t let anyone off the plane. We had missed the gate by 9 feet, and a tow truck would have to be called in to move the plane in line with the jetway door. During that improbable delay, we decided we could be nothing else but Team Fail, seeing the world propelled by nothing more than curiosity, sheer incompetence and plenty of booze.

Even though we were on the red eye flight to Europe, it was just too exciting to sleep much, so we listened to jazz and played chess and watched a movie about a disgruntled chef who finds himself through a food truck, and eventually the 7-hour flight was over, and we were on the ground in Copenhagen, Denmark! We found the train to the city center, and with only minimal wandering around in circles, our hostel, complete with what we would soon recognize as a typical Danish parking lot:

And then came the jet lag.

Maybe it was noon in Denmark, but it was still 5am to us, and we were up all night.

Perhaps because of that, or just because I was 50% of Team Fail, I immediately started failing as soon as I was in Denmark, starting with trying to get my phone working so my parents wouldn’t panic and wonder if I got here in one piece. I tried everything I could think of and then some to make the thing work… then realized it was in airplane mode! Oops. By the time I got that settled, the hostel had cleaned out our room, so we took a nap for a few hours before trying to explore any of Copenhagen.

When we woke up, it was a wet but warm Danish evening. Certainly nothing like the below-zero and constant snowfall Rochester had blessed us with over and over since Thanksgiving.

We decided we may as well take our chances and see the more offbeat side of KBH, Freistad Christiania. Perhaps most famous outside Denmark as a lawless drug den, Christiania is a former commune (and still extremely progressive area) built on a former Nazi military base, which is de facto independent of Copenhagen and Danish law. The drugs were certainly there, on the aptly named Pusher-street, near the entrance of the village. It was about what you would expect an open-air drug market to look like: market stalls selling paraphernalia with impunity, and slightly camouflaged (behind tapestries and tiki curtains, with almost cartoonish drug dealers standing around in front of them) market stalls selling actual weed and mushrooms, for (to Americans anyway) bargain prices.

Because of this rather unusual activity, and the fact that this is still illegal in the rest of Denmark, taking photos here is strongly discouraged for obvious reasons, under penalty of… whatever angry Danes do.

A few blocks away from Pusher-street and the green light district, Christiania seemed like more of a bohemian night spot, quiet on a winter weeknight but obviously much more lively on weekends and in the summer. Nemoland (“nowhere land”), closed for the season, is the apparent center of this scene, with a huge outdoor stage and surrounding bars and restaurants. We picked the only one that was open and had live music on a February night, which was a strange mix of 50s modernism and 70s post-hippie aesthetic, and named Operæn (little opera house). I made something of a fool of myself trying to order beers, or, in Danish, Ø, off of the bar’s menu. But eventually we had some of the local microbrew, Christianstads Øl, and then under a haze of green smoke, the music started: traditional acoustic Danish folk music, bringing everyone together – and it couldn’t be a bigger variety of people, from Copenhagen locals to college students to businessmen in suit and tie, and three older Roma women in traditional attire, dancing the ländler.

When the music stopped, we wandered around some more looking for food; the only other places open were a Greenlandic bar that didn’t take too well to outsiders, and a döner kebab stand. The lack of options led us to a great choice though; even if it wasn’t what Anthony Bourdain would have done, there isn’t anywhere in Rochester to get a döner, so it did us quite well at the time.

After we got back to the hostel, we met a Parisian girl waiting for the rest of her group to arrive, and started looking over plans for the next day. She and her friends were interested in old castles and the Little Mermaid statue, so it didn’t seem all that likely we’d stay together for long, but we did venture out again looking for that organic food truck we couldn’t find by the train station when we first got there. Of course we couldn’t find it, but we got to see Tivoli, from the outside anyway, and made a new friend that we might not get to see again.