The train to Copenhagen…
In the old days, my teens, which means late 70s, early 80s, it used to be the gateway to the continent. To the world, really, because I could afford the Interrail ticket, but not plane tickets to the States or Bangkok or something like it. It didn’t matter, I was anyway mostly interested in Europe.
Rome, Greece, even Yugoslavia, as was the name of the country then. Denmark. Austria. The Netherlands. Strangely enough not France, but I went to Italy several times, Venice, I remember walking round the city until the street got so narrow I almost got stuck, even with my rather slim 17 years, and it ended in a canal. Which was, of course, a fantastic thing to experience, I thought. I was in love with streets, places, little cafés, stairs up and down narrow alleys or squares.
Having to encounter strange languages.
Learning how to pronounce them, get it as right as possible. I was nerdy and ambitious, and got stuck in a situation once, in Sardinia, up in the mountains, because I couldn’t say in Italian what I needed to say, the people at a closed gas station wanted to know whether we would make it to the next town without them unlocking the gas pumps. I didn’t know the exact Italian words, just that we were pretty short on petrol. Of course I could have said something clumsy, but I didn’t want to be clumsy, I wanted to be something else, not Italian, I think, but I wanted to be somewhere else, something else, why not Italian, then. Maybe not someone else, after all, there was a limit there, but still, I wanted to be a proper globetrotter. So I just made a gesture and left.
We made it to the next open pump, barely, and had enough I think 10 000 lire-notes to pay at the automat. It was late at night, but we got back to wherever we stayed, I think maybe in Cagliari.
Copenhagen was always the start for me, the gateway, to the continent. Getting there always gave me the feeling of being on a real travel, getting out into the world. Today there is no direct train to Denmark from Oslo, but you can get some of the same feeling by going with NSB to Gothenburg, then change, it’s still quite pleasant.
The feeling then – of getting past boring Norwegian woods (boring for us, of course), into Sweden, which was a little too similar to Norway to be really exotic, but things grew better and better the farther south you got, through beautiful Skåne, and in the end, normally in the evening, Copenhagen, København, Tivoli, sweet city exhaust or whatever wind that was blowing and a multitude of impressions and people. The flatness of the land, which brought things on the ground close to you and at the same time gave a different sky to walk under.
Everything was a little different, the sodavand looked and tasted differently, even if I spent too many small coins on it of my meagre budget, but of course I drank it, and probably beer.
I could buy thick cerutter in the shop and smoke, a type of cigars.
The parks…they were great places, nice for feeling the soil of a strange place and making it not so strange. Tame it a little, or be tamed by it. Small shops, small restaurants, I guess, but as I said I had little money. Røde pølser I think were more important and necessary, I bought their red sausages from small carriages in front of the city hall and thereabouts.
Down through Europe I think I survived on white bread and ham, all sorts of ham, boiled and cured, sausages, prosciutto cotto, all the other stuff, and the aranciata and whatever they called it in Greece, which I had never
tasted before, not that special type, which seemed tailormade to make you an addict, it probably was, too. I remember once on the way to Corfu, it must have been in Piraeus, I drank three or four in the blazing sun, waiting for the boat. The thirst didn’t go away, but it felt fantastic, I wished it wouldn’t end.
Usually I worked half the summer, then took the money and left for a few weeks, until I was broke again.
* * *
The other day I actually went completely touristic here, at home, even in Grünerløkka, where I spend most of my time right now. I took a real day off, didn’t even bring my laptop, which was all I needed to do to feel free. I did what I usually do, I went to cafés and parks, walked past the Paulus
church which they are redecorating right now, walked round town. But I did it in a different mode.
Usually when I go to cafés I’m at work, writing or planning what to do, but this particular day I just watched, my thoughts and my feet went wherever they wanted to.
I slept, contemplated, on the grass in Birkelunden, one of the small parks closest to my home, but it was like sleeping in a park elsewhere. Karlsruhe, maybe, the latest park experience that I remembered. There I lay outside the castle of the count – Karl was his name – who I think started to build that city, because of an experience of calm and quiet in the middle of
stressful duties, in the nature somewhere. That’s the story, anyway, I think.
The thoughts wandered from Birkelunden, but they came back home. Oslo in the summer is still fantastic, the feeling of eternal leisure, calm, quiet.
I love sleeping on the ground. You can feel the earth breathing, working, maybe, some big machinery down there, and if you’re in inhabited places like a city you can consider its history while you lie on the lawn, what all those people did there a hundred years ago, two hundred, three hundred. At some point you may even feel the need to visit the library, to check.
In a moment like this I love being home. Come what may come, I don’t care.
* * *
But still, travelling was really necessary. To Copenhagen first. The City of the King, as it is still sometimes referred to in Norway, Kongens by, was the beginning of the big world for me, for us, I think, people I grew up with. I never got any overview of the city, I didn’t need to, didn’t try, all I wanted was to dive in and be there.
I still treat some things like that in order to keep them fresh, to avoid getting fed up or bored. Some people think I’m completely ignorant because I regularly entertain the habit of turning off my knowledge, in order to get everything right. Or I just stay away from information, as I said, sometimes it’s better to be innocently ignorant when encountering new things.
Ok, I’m lazy too, and choose to go my own ways as often as I can, not least
when it comes to work.
Copenhagen too, I think, is like that for me, something and some place I visit whenever I want to and don’t think much about in the meantime. I am bigger, even my mind has grown bigger or is more full of things, it is more difficult not to know, but there is enough to explore.
I recently brought my daughter of seven there, we took the train down, I tried to show her what I love about it all. We roamed in Østerbro, even, which does not have a lot of shops or cafés, at least not in the part where we were. But you don’t necessarily need a flock of things to have fun, sometimes you need only one thing. At seven it is an obvious fact, something to learn again at fifty. We had lunch at a local baker shop, and could watch the bakers working, through a window inside. Cool.
Bringing a new person to a place you love is another trick to refresh them in your mind. Bring a good friend, a girlfriend or a boyfriend. He or she will see things differently, do different things than you do. You’ll be a stranger at
home, in a very good way. Of course you need to be flexible if his suggestions doesn’t match your imagination at first. I’ve grown physically lazy by the years, so it can be trouble for me sometimes, but not mentally.
* * *
In those days, when I was a teenager, Oslo was not much of a city. Of course the city centre was as small or big as it still is, and without all those money bins that were erected later, too many of them by people who don’t love cities. The old buildings were worn then, but it wasn’t important.
For me, in the mode of exploration, the whole city thing was exciting, new. I went to have beers as soon as I could, even if I was too young to drink, earned my position in one restaurant as a familiar guest. Not quite stamgjest, but being greeted in the doorway with a smile at 16, I think by a Greek waiter, was not bad. I was proud to have achieved such a status. The feeling of fooling them and still getting what I wanted, which still prevails in Norwegian mentality. Askeladden.
The point for me was not so much the drink, even if I enjoyed the beer, but the company. Still is.
Copenhagen was bigger, more, different from Oslo, but still, the language gave me no trouble, it was much like home too, thinking about it now it was a little like visiting an old aunt. Later I met some people who could have been my aunts or my grandmothers, but that’s another story. One of them looked like the Norwegian writer Torborg Nedreaas, with a cigarette in hand and of course a glass of wine.
This we always loved the Danes for, their laidback attitude to drinking and smoking, as opposed to the socalled Vestlandsfanden, the Devil of the West, still very much alive today, but unfortunately without the nickname, now he is only always present in discussions on the Internet about moral issues, which in His dictatorial view every thing has to obey.
* * *
Whenever I came back from more southern places, getting to Hovedbanegården always felt like coming home. No language trouble, no being cheated a little with change at shops, no feeling of not understanding at all what’s going on. A feeling of familiarity. Maybe some of the Copenhageners cheated me without me knowing it, but I think, not seriously. I would have understood that much.
I turned down quite a few invitations that came on the trains I travelled on, I can remember that. Not very clever. Maybe the trips was an escape from my own loneliness, the freedom without commitment which you can entertain on a travel, both practically and socially. And the fact that you can sit on a train, and someone else does everything for you, you’ve paid for it, you’ve earned it, no one can take it away, and you’re actually going places.
Going places and doing things. And even if you do exactly the same things as you do at home those things are not the same as at home. On the contrary, there are surprises everywhere, the sensation of buying a sausage through the window of the train, somewhere in now Serbia or Slovenia, the loos in Italy in those days, with only some moulded feet on the floor and a hole in the middle.
There were other things, like entering into a dark church, in Rome, with the feeling of breathing the actual air of something so old that you really don’t know what it is. Only a darkness filled with mystery, pleasant but exciting, full of the unknown.
Maybe the church was from the 4th century or something, I still don’t know, I never found it again. All I think I can still remember was that it was down some stairs, a little beneath street level, and not very big.
Of course, being those places was a thrill. I loved the feeling of cities especially, the brick around you, sculptures, gardens, the houses often worn, maybe dirty, but that was not the point, the point was…
Every city has an imprint of all those who built it. Art also has its human presence. I always appreciated that, even if it was not a conscious thought at this age, just a nice feeling of something I didn’t know what was.
The possibility of meeting someone also triggers me, still does, and the feeling of having many people around you. The possibility of anonymity, the fact that you can go somewhere and no one knows you. If you meet someone you can start from scratch. This is even more so, of course, when you move, but even in your own city, if people in your neighbourhood know you, you can just go to another part of the city.
* * *
Some of the loneliness in me is still there. You have to grab the chance when it’s there, if you sit in your café and someone comes who might be worth talking to, if you don’t react it can be a really bad feeling. Kiss the girl before she falls asleep. Talk to your friend before he gets fed up with your silence and actually leaves you.
Art is fine, but you need both that and real life.
But getting on the train was always the start of the travel to freedom, even if it was temporary. You don’t consider that fact in the beginning of a journey.
Getting on the train, when it started moving, the sound of iron, the feeling of determination and safety at the same time. The train was serving us, serving me and my need of air.
I even had it illustrated at some point. When I got back home I listened to Arutunian’s trumpet concerto which came my way for other reasons, and its opening exactly mimicked my feeling of the train moving out of the station, into the world. Here it is.