Photo: Natalia Bostan/Shutterstock

Lessons Gleaned From a Danish Window

Copenhagen Narrative
by Emily Hanssen Arent Dec 22, 2011

Editor’s note: this article originally appeared in a slightly different form at Emily’s travel blog at Matador Community.

I woke up alone. Early March, Copenhagen.

Barefoot across the floorboards of his kitchen. The coffee was waiting. I poured. To my right: his wine bottles, cooking spices, jars of oatmeal, tea, and hazelnuts lining the bachelor-pad shelves. To my left, the small kitchen window framed fragments of a nondescript Danish courtyard. A steel grey sky, vivid yellow paint of the next building, laundry fluttering pathetically in the misty fog.

I padded across the dimly lit living room. Coffee in hand, I climbed up to his windowsill with a blanket trailing behind me. I spent hours that spring sitting in his window, watching Copenhagen pass on the streets of Sønder Boulevard below. This is where I watched the world, and where he watched me from across the room.


The first days after we met, I was grappling for an excuse to see him, so I chose him as my interview subject for a paper on Danish racism. I sat in that window transcribing his responses, and he sat on the end of the couch at the opposite end of the room, weighing his words on the delicate subject. His knees were pulled up to his chest and he toyed with the strings at the collar of his hooded sweatshirt, pulling them in opposite directions, letting them fall back across his chest. I caught his gaze in the window’s reflection as I watched the cold rain drizzle under the street lamps below.

The last time I saw him, I came over in search of a shirt I had left behind. I sat in the window, tapping my foot like a bitch in a hurry as he rummaged around for it. When he finally emerged, he rounded the corner to the living room wearing the shirt. He wanted to keep it. I told him I’d send him one from Boulder when I got home. We both knew this was a lie. He peeled it off and tossed it to me from the other side of the room. I watched a stoic Danish woman biking up the street with her toddler in a bike seat. The little boy stared intently at his stuffed zebra before a sudden hop over the curb jostled it from his hands and found it a new home on the wet pavement.


The Danish sun is a flagrant tease, even at the height of summer. But in the dead of winter, when it rises at eight and begins its descent before four, concealed by cloud cover the entire day, a ray of sunlight is a moment of fascination equal to the pleasure reaped after building a masterful pillow-fort at the age of 7. The oppressive darkness is so normalized that no one notices what they’re missing until a glimmer of natural brightness sneaks through. I’ve seen grown men in three piece suits kick their legs out on their bikes like a 1950’s soda commercial. I’ve seen bundled children holding their mother’s hand stop cold on crowded sidewalks to declare, “Solen skinner, mor.”

During the week, I sat in the center of the city in a dimly lit conference room. If a momentary ray snuck past the clouds, I could watch from the back row as a room full of heads leaned subconsciously toward the sunshine-flooded window like human plants seeking nourishment. Our professor often came across the room to stand in the patch of sunlight that fell across the floor, not missing a beat of her lecture. The businessman sitting at his computer in the office across the street would stand in front of his window. He gazed upward, perplexed but grateful. And if you were lucky enough to be out on the street at this miraculous moment, the squares would be suddenly overcrowded with a population of mysteriously numerous Danes, motionless with faces tilted skyward, as if the mothership were descending over the city.

This particular morning on the windowsill, I had my eye on a Dane—a woman who had been headed somewhere, dressed well, riding her bike up Sønder Boulevard with a plan. But as the elusive rays shone through the clouds, she kicked her leg over the seat, her feet hit the pavement, and she slowed her pace to walk her bike in a spontaneous mid-morning love affair with the sunshine. The sun was behind me, and shone intensely against the face of the adjacent buildings. She crossed the street, her pace slowing to a standstill as she crossed over into the light. Leaning her bike against a nearby tree, she turned her back to the red brick wall of the building and, leaning on it for support, stood motionless with her eyes closed.

She fidgeted from time to time, adjusting her scarf, her glasses, shifting her hands from her pockets to her sides. But her feet were planted for ten minutes under another Dane’s red brick windowsill, the owner of which was probably worshiping the same sun somewhere else in the city.

As the clouds rolled back in, I saw him. Wearing a hooded green trench coat, he exited out of a side street on his road bike, parked on my side, and entered the building five stories below me. I watched as the woman opened her eyes slowly and walked the few steps to retrieve her bike. She kicked her leg back over the seat and her day under the cloudy sky resumed.

“Don’t move,” he said. A green trench coat hit the floor and he took up his camera. “Look out the window again.”

I looked down on the street, but the woman had turned the corner. She was gone like the sunshine.

“That’s a good one.” He crossed the room to hoist himself up next to me. We sat knees to knees, nose to nose. He touched my hair. “What did you do this morning, love?”

“I watched a woman standing in the sun. And I learned something about Denmark.” Editor’s note: this article originally appeared in a slightly different form at Emily’s travel blog at Matador Community.

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