IT’S BEEN SIX MONTHS since I abandoned my life as an expat in Copenhagen. That year was sweet for a lot of reasons, and seems even sweeter now that it’s out of my reach. Almost imperceptibly, Danish culture became a warm, comfortable space that felt like home.
Some habits died as soon as America was again my cultural reference point, but other habits died harder.
Lesson #1: Bikes are better.
When I was living in Copenhagen, I had a love affair with my light-blue, Føtex bike. It took me places I’d never been before; it carried my groceries; it escorted me home safely from Meatpacking District dance parties at 4am. I practiced my graceful mount and dismount until they were perfect.
That bike took me everywhere I needed to go every single day. And best of all, it was the cheapest, greenest, most-convenient transportation option in that bike-friendly city.
I tried to console myself with my 80’s era Schwinn when I arrived home to the Denver suburbs. I woke up on my first day at home, three days after swimming in the Dead Sea, and decided that I was going to bike at altitude in the Mile High City. And there isn’t a single bike lane in my town.
A woman driving an 8-passenger Hummer slowed down to get a good look. She was the only passenger in that monstrosity of a vehicle. I continued up the hill, trying to mind my own business while she pumped Hummer exhaust into the atmosphere to get her fat ass around town.
A few weeks before, I was living in a city where SUV’s are virtually non-existent, where suited business men pedal a wheel-barrow full of children to daycare in the morning. Now I was being stared at by people who retired their bikes in the 7th grade and watched me like people watch a public drunk — with a mixture of pity and fascination.
People honked. People stared. I was sweating like an animal, my lungs screaming for more oxygen, my ass aching from the bumpy sidewalks. I arrived home drenched in sweat, and stood in my garage staring at the Schwinn with my hands on my knees. I realized that my days of cycle commuting were over. It was also the day I started having elaborate fantasies of running Hummers off the road.
Lesson #2: Being alone in public is liberating.
When I moved to Denmark, I was the first to join the PIPA parade. I threw on my trench coat and perfected the art of staring straight ahead at nothing in particular. I could waltz around in heels that made me a 6’3” monster girl, and still no one glanced in my direction.
I wore the same heels and heavily-scarved ensemble to a shopping mall in suburban Colorado and people stared at me like I was wearing sweatpants in a Straedet boutique. An over-friendly sales woman welcomed me in a high-pitched chirp, and snuck up on me every two minutes to make sure I was still “finding what I needed.”
I began feeling a bizarre sense of nostalgia for the cold and fast saleswomen in Copenhagen who actively ignored me unless I asked them for help, and when I did ask for help, tried to ignore me for as long as they could feasibly pretend not to hear me.
During my first couple of months back in America, I would return from a jaunt in public with a chip on my shoulder. It turns out it was a combination of the man who didn’t place the divider behind his purchases at the grocery store, the middle-aged woman who tried to strike up a spontaneous conversation about the magazine I was flipping through in line, and the cashier who asked me how my day was going without ever making eye contact.
I missed the Danish way, and needed time to be re-socialized into the American culture of friendly (if not at times superficial) public interaction.
Lesson #3: We all have boobs, bellies, and asses.
The Danes have no qualms about being naked in front of strangers. Small children run around naked at the Harbor Bath and no one cares. Women strip down to swim at Amager Strandpark like no one is watching.
Children are raised to perceive the naked human body as just that: a body. The Danes and Americans share the same hyper-sexualized media, but each culture seems to have absorbed it differently.
Americans, on the other hand, are taught to be almost heartbreakingly modest, to be ashamed of their “flawed” bodies while fake, airbrushed bodies are thrown in their faces on the daily.
In Copenhagen, I was initially astounded at the behavior I witnessed in the ladies locker room after yoga class. Women of all shapes and sizes stripped down to shower and walked around naked, wrapping the towel around their head. Two women carried on a conversation ass-naked, one of them bending over mid-sentence to slather lotion on her legs. Meanwhile, I squirmed awkwardly in the corner, trying to pull up my underwear while covering myself with a towel.
But one day, following a particularly grueling session of bikram, I said “fuckit” and walked my naked, pasty ass straight into that communal shower. And guess what? It felt pretty damn good, and no one cared.
I was in the midst of changing in a locker room shortly after arriving home. A woman my age rounded the corner and muttered, “Woops, sorry!”
I continued undressing.
She stood blinking into her locker for a minute, and then gathered up her clothes to change in the nearest bathroom stall.
Lesson #4: Men can be fiercely stylish…and they should be.
To all of you Danish gentlemen out there, I just have to say, “I miss ya, babe.” You in the trench coat, you in the cuffed jeans, you in the suede Clarks. I’m talking to you.
I used to date the hairiest hippie boys I could get my hands on. My favorite wore baggy teal pants to meet my mom for the first time. But goddammit, I loved that kid so much he could have worn anything. And then Denmark went and raised my sartorial expectations, and made me kind of a bitch.
I only ask that you don’t wear a baseball cap to a trendy bar. Or your tennis shoes. Or cargo shorts. Or a short-sleeved button-down shirt. Anyone from Colorado knows that I can ask for one or two of these rules to be followed at a time, and everything else is fair game. My friends tell me to get over myself.
You can blame my pretentions on every man in Copenhagen, and I refuse to apologize for them. You’re pushing 30 and you’re dressed like my high-school boyfriend in public. Buy a pair of dress shoes and get your shit together, man.
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Emily Hanssen Arent
Emily Hanssen Arent is a writer and traveler who has found a home in Boulder, Copenhagen, and Jerusalem. She is currently a graduate student of Middle Eastern Studies in Tel Aviv, Israel, where she writes, studies, and struggles daily with Hebrew and Arabic. You can follow her @emilyharent.
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