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Op-Ed

Home for Christmas

December 21, 2022

A return in winter to the cold country with Christmas markets, hot wine, fresh bread, bicycles and trains, in a search for time lost.

Bill Girdner

By Bill Girdner

Editor of Courthouse News Service.

The open fields of Denmark were covered in snow. A solitary tree stood in the white expanse. A black horse pawed through snow drifts to find grass.

From the train window I saw the land in winter, from Flensburg just south of Denmark all the way to Aalborg in the country’s far north, then back across the Kattegat Sea to Copenhagen.

It was a search for time lost. For the dinner parties illuminated in candlelight where laugher and conversation flowed along with aquavit and beer, for the bike ride afterwards in heavy coat, bonnet, scarf and mittens, for the apartments decorated with strings of little white lights and elves in Christmas hats sitting on bookshelves, for 400-year-old buildings, cobblestone streets, sausage wagons, and for past loves.

One time years ago, I had pushed myself hard at work before leaving to stay with friends in Copenhagen and, as I often did in those days, fell ill with a bad flu once I arrived. When my body came out of that hard passage, it was as though I had emerged anew into a different world, with old people walking along the streets, trundling shopping carts, processions of brightly parkaed preschoolers, a place where everybody bicycled and walked, and stayed fit.

And when I came back to Pasadena after that transformation, I walked up to my apartment door and stopped to look back at my street and saw nothing but parked cars, no old people walking to the store, no kids walking anywhere, no stores, no bakeries. Life over there seemed so sweet and full and here so desolate.

But I stayed.

My parents were here and I had started something, Courthouse News, that I did not want to abandon. And it was in that moment, when I walked through the apartment door, that fate passed its great hand over me.

The girl I had loved over there went on to have her own family and my friends also had theirs, and their lives and careers moved onto the comfortable road of the Scandinavian people, where pay is fair, the fear of losing your job is less desperate, health care is good and free, and nobody pays for college.

So time passed. Years went by.

And then I went back to see, driven by a kind of need, to check the place, my friends and closer than that, and check myself. It was the same and then, no, it was different. The main streets in each of the towns I went to, Copenhagen, Flensburg, Aalborg, had a curving, cobblestoned walking street with buildings that leaned slightly, had great structural beams exposed, and were built 400 to 500 years ago.

As I walked on those streets last week, darkness came early. The cobblestoned streets were arcaded in small white lights with Christmas markets operating underneath. Sausages were grilled, various little gift boxes were on sale, and people in coats and bonnets stood in lines to buy cups of hot gløgg, mulled wine, topped with your choice of aquavit or whiskey. Painted in red, the moveable bars had put out temporary stand-up tables on the cobblestones.

In Flensburg, I stopped with a friend at one of those red wagons for two cups of gløgg, ordering mine with a generous pour of aquavit, and saw that some people were staying and talking and having more, while others simply stopped for a quick cup and continued on their shopping way.

And far to the north, in Aalborg, the street and the scene were much the same. Crowds stood around a small Ferris wheel, painted in red and gold, and a nearby merry-go-round with brightly painted horses, dolphins and fantastical creatures. In the minus two Celsius air, both rides were full of warmly clothed children as parents waited in line with their kids for the next ride.

And further along the old road, in a packed, dark pub, a band played old rock and roll standards while men and women frugged around, not really dancing, kind of moving, in jackets and heavy shoes or knee-length boots. I was drinking pilsners standing by a post next to a small table packed with enormous Danes sitting on bar stools and drinking themselves into a stupor.

I said I was American and they were good with that.

The next morning, I arrived early at the train station. I saw on my phone that my sister had started negotiations about what to bring for Christmas Eve dinner. And on the four-hour ride back to Copenhagen, on a train run by DSB, the national train service Danske Statsbanner, with new or recent cars, comfortable seats, alert attendants, and plenty of riders of all ages, I realized I was done. I had seen the people I wanted to see, and time had come and gone.

Getting off at the main train station in Copenhagen, I wanted to go through the center of the old city one more time. I bought a medisterpølse from the lady standing inside a wagon on the main square in front of City Hall, served with only ketchup and mustard, no bread. At the wagon’s narrow, red-painted counter, I consumed the thick pork sausage with no utensils other than my fingers while watching the Danes and plenty of tourists flow through the square.

Going on along the cobblestoned walking streets, I stopped for a last pilsner at a small bar near the 17th century Round Tower, next to Kultorvet square named for the coal market of old. The below-street-level bar is dark and hyggelig, or cozy. I was sure the place was as old as the tower, with huge dark beams in a low ceiling and almost-black wood paneling. Since all the Danes speak either passable or very good English, I asked the woman behind the bar, “When was the bar built.”

“In the 1960s.”

“I thought it was more like the 1600’s.”

“Yeah, they wanted it to look old.”

A train took me back to my friend’s apartment, which stands alongside the main set of tracks running east out of Copenhagen. The apartment has high ceilings, white walls, large rooms, a herringboned wood floor, and remarkably soundproof glass windows looking onto the street and the tracks. In the clear, wintry night, trains zip by, lots of trains, one every couple minutes, lit cabins with people inside, warm and comfortable, heading to places near and far, streaming by, and then, outside the window, cold darkness returns.

After dinner with my friend, a graphic artist in the city, and his daughter, who had made a meal of spaghetti, fresh bread, salad and Italian wine, I slept long and hard on a small mattress on the floor. In the morning, going back along the same tracks, I arrived at the airport. It was time, time to go back, to have Christmas with what remains of my family.

Walking down the ramp into the sleek Scandinavian Airlines plane, I thought to myself, “Take me home, angel.”

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