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Tuesday, May 28, 2024 | Back issues
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Last Stop

On the last, exhausted leg of a train trek through Europe with my nephews, we arrive in the Hamburg station and see the Danish train at rest, waiting for passengers. It is a crisp, white train, simple and comfortable inside.

There is plenty of room in the car, and although I speak some Danish, the folks working on the train, and indeed the Danish passenger in our car, would rather speak English. As the Italian train reflects the Italians, the German train the Germans, so the DSB train reflects the Danes.

While modern and efficient, the DSB train is more simple and cozy than the German trains where the German prowess in technology and design is on display. And while the Danish conductors have a good human touch, like the Italians, the Danes can still run a train efficiently and on-time, unlike the Italians.

We leave right on time for a comfortable, four-hour run to Copenhagen.

When we arrive at the German coast, the entire train is pushed into a Danish ferry. We go up to the ferry's cafeteria - one of my favorite parts about traveling to Denmark - where I order a Carlsberg and two Danish sausages and watch the passing sea. At which point I am definitely back in the Danish environment.

The next day, we visit one of my favorite museums in the world, the Danish National Museum, in Copenhagen, with its extensive collection of Viking artifacts and vessels for drink and worship in the Druidic religion, preserved in the peat bogs of the low-lying nation.

We arrive there the next day to find the prehistory exhibit closed, undergoing a two-year renovation. But the museum has an extensive exhibit on the modern history of Denmark, from 1660 to present.

In typical Danish fashion, where reason is both a high virtue and part of everyday exchange, the exhibit opens with a discussion on the evolving theory of how museums should present their material. Old school museum thinking is to present all items of a certain period in a particular category, let's say weapons or dresses, in one case.

The modern philosophy is to present the material with as much context as possible, combining, say, a dress with furniture and drinking vessels and paintings from a particular era - while telling the story of the times.

So we see paintings of Johann Friedrich Struensee, the personal doctor for the mentally ill king of Denmark in the 1770s. He took over the functions of head of state and instituted a series of progressive reforms, including establishment of press freedoms. However, in addition to taking over the stately duties of the stricken king, as the text on the wall explains, he also took over the king's bedroom duties, with the queen.

So, in the end, the more conservative nobles engineered his conviction for lèse majesté, or harm to the king, and his head was chopped off. Concluding this exhibit is the actual, short-handled, broad bladed axe that did the deed.

Towards the end of the Modern Danish History exhibit is a recreation of a 1970s bungalow for a couple living on one of the Danish islands, called Zealand, with brown-striped sofas, tile-topped coffee table and knotted rug, with a few prints on the wall and a candle holder on the coffee table.

The exhibit says the décor is "characteristic of the lifestyle of young Danes at the time." Looking in on the room, I note with some discomfort that it reminds me of the décor in my apartment today.

Walking around Copenhagen, I make my own conclusions about modern Danish history. The downtown, where the walking streets are, and where I used to go out at night with Danish friends, seems to have been abandoned by the Danes. It is left to tourists and foreigners who are either just hanging out or peddling knickknacks and more illicit goods.

In contrast, the neighborhood pubs and bars are flourishing. So the neighborhoods of Norrebro (north bridge), Vesterbro (east bridge) and Frederiksberg (Frederik's hill) are now the places to hang out, an observation confirmed by the Danes I talked to, who said nobody goes downtown anymore.

Leaving Copenhagen, we part ways after a month on the road, with my niece Alli and nephew Zach heading on to Amsterdam, while I take off for London and L. A. But, in addition to the regret that accompanies a parting, the event also involved one very large and heavy, green pack.

The pack contained my nephew Nick's things. Nick had broken off from our group in Italy, in order to start summer school in England. Legendarily reserved in matters of expense, Nick did not want to pay what Ryan Air would charge for the pack. So his sister, Alli, volunteered to carry it through the rest of Europe, sandwiched by her pack in back and his in front.

I volunteered to take it on the plane from Copenhagen. But the thing was ill-fated. Flying British Air, I arrived in London to find baggage chaos, with the airport just recovering from the scare of an attempted airport bombing in Scotland. Piles of baggage stood next to every baggage conveyor belt. And sure enough, the green pack never showed up.

I had managed to lose the thing, complete with camera that held the photos of the trip. Much later, the green pack would be delivered in California, minus the camera.

And so ended the long haul through the big cites of Europe, a kind of cultural crash course, covering the Hagia Mosque in Istanbul, burned and sacked over and over in religious wars, onto the pleasant, central square of Krakow near the bone-chilling Nazi prison camp at Auschwitz, onto the remnants of the Greek empire in Athens, and the Roman one in Rome, training on to resurgent Berlin, risen from the destruction and the long shadow of World War II, and on to the land of the Danes, heirs to the Viking marauders of old.

When it was all over, it felt really good to get back to my balcony in Pasadena and drink a glass of red wine, not running for a train or camping out in youth hostel or crossing a border, doing nothing, nothingat all.

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