Visitors From the Cold

An old friend from my soccer days moved to Copenhagen a long time ago, married and set up a successful graphic design studio. His son came to visit last week accompanied by his girlfriend, both with the fresh faces and open outlook of youth.

The pair, Isaac and Salsa, brought the Danish weather with them. It was a cold, crisp day in Pasadena, the right weather for the holidays.

At lunch, we had a good political conversation about, for example, the comparative philosophies of Sweden and Denmark towards integrating immigrants into their societies. The Swedes allow immigrant communities to operate within their separate culture, with schools oriented toward the immigrants, whereas the Danes have become less supportive of separateness.

Salsa, who was born into the Muslim faith, has been raised in Denmark and speaks the language perfectly, as well as English. She was well accepted in her neighborhood, she said, but when she spoke with her Moroccan mother in Arabic, then she sometimes felt the glare of opprobrium.

I had played pick-up soccer with Isaac’s dad for years, appropriating the field at Caltech, and we made it a practice to drink beer afterwards with a coterie of Scandinavian au pairs. I heard stories from some of the girls about riding their bikes through immigrant neighborhoods and receiving catcalls, and the abiding anger that came from experiencing that view of women while within the highly liberated nation of Denmark.

The reaction, collectively, had political and social consequences. I told them about my experience with the sting of prejudice in Denmark simply because I have dark hair and a less-than-perfectly-white face, an inheritance from my French mother. The Danes took me for a Turk and on occasion on the last trip I felt the hard edge of harshness.

The Night Salesman. (Photo by Walt Girdner)

The Pasadena café-restaurant where we were having lunch, called Sorriso, has red brick walls, with some ochre surfaces and dark green, velvety back panels. After our various soups and salads were consumed, we walked along the main street, Colorado Boulevard, to the studio on El Molino Street that displays my dad’s old black and white prints as well as the work of current artists.

Isaac and Salsa showed a fine appreciation of art and chose two photos that were favorites of my dad, one a night shot of a bookseller seated perfectly still at his sidewalk stall in Paris, so still that my dad left the shutter open for a few seconds. The passersby form ribbons of light as they move within the frame, but the old bookseller is crisp, motionless.

The other print was a dark picture from within the Arc de Triomphe, again a night shot, with a policeman in dark cape and kepi hat guarding the eternal flame, a small figure against the massive, arching walls of the monument.

The Arc de Triomphe and Eternal Flame, Paris, at night. (Walt Girdner / Walt Girdner Studio)

I then asked them what they wanted to do in the hour or so before their ride back to Claremont where they were staying with Isaac’s grandparents. I suggested the coffee shop at Vroman’s, a big and well-appointed independent bookstore in Pasadena that was around the corner. They agreed with enthusiasm.

In that bookstore, over hot tea, among the book lovers, with the cold weather outside, we continued our discussion, with the Danes speaking English in a deep almost guttural accent that reminded me of the old English I studied in college.

And the weeks and months I spent in Denmark came back over me. The long hours spent with Isaac’s father in a café called “Bankeråt,” or Bankrupt, over tangy holiday beer.

The ebb and flow of good conversation. The slight gust of cold air that came in when the door opened, the ritual shedding of coats, mufflers, gloves and caps when a pair of girls came in for a drink and a quiet conversation. The eclectic collection of art and lights that decorated the café with, as I recall, mottled ochre and rose-red walls and velvet, olive-green back rests. The dark, worn wood floor with small wooden tables close together.

But most of all what drifted back to me was that feeling of warmth and conviviality and a kind of freeing of the mind from the routine of work and the rest of life that came from entering a café with a friend for a respite from the day.

It was time for them to go and I watched as the two young emissaries from the cold country rushed off to a Lyft car and ultimately back to Denmark.

But the afternoon and that mood stuck with me for the rest of the day and through the evening, and still lingers. It was the perfect thing to get in the mood for the holidays.

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