As I wrote earlier, I am in Denmark for the next three weeks, staying in an apartment I swapped for my own in New York, working, exploring, and generally hanging out.
Thursday, I drove my kids and ex to JFK, where they flew to Crete to visit family there. I don't usually miss my kids so much when we're apart — after all, part of being a divorced family is that you are apart from your kids, and everyone gets used to it. This time we were all so sad about saying goodbye. The worst was seeing little Lucas, 5, who'd all day been saying, “I'm not going to Greece. I'm going to Copenhagen with you,” standing on the curb where I'd just hugged and kissed him and his sister a zillion times, calling after me: “Bye mom!” and fighting back tears with his little, tight, downturned mouth that was trying so hard not to cry.
The following afternoon I found myself on a plane, catching up on all the great TV that I never watch (Veep, Silicon Valley) and chatted for a few hours with the young Danish woman sitting next to me. She was returning from a visit with her boyfriend who is studying in Los Angeles, so of course we talked about dating and men most of the time. She is 32, uncertain about her relationship, but wanting a family. “Do you ever regret having children now that you're divorced?” she asked.
“Oh my god no!” I said. “You cannot imagine how much you will love your kids. It will blow your mind!” I reached over and grabbed her hand. I got serious. “If you want babies, have babies.”
Telling this stranger about my children, and my plans to spend the better part of a month alone in a place where I don't have any friends felt sad. When I was in my 20s I traveled all over the world by myself. It was lonely sometimes, but mostly a great, fun adventure. Things felt different now. Now I have a full life. Then, there was a hostel or Irish pub in every city where other young travelers like myself met. Now, I don't know where to go. Now, I miss my kids, an I am particular about how my coffee ought to be in the morning. Now, I feel the urgent tug of work, owing to my uncharacteristically empty days. Now, I am a middle-aged mom. Where does a middle-aged mom find some delicious trouble?
I admit that I hadn't done much research about my destination, or made many plans — sightseeing or otherwise — aside from some big work projects I plan to tackle. When we landed at 6:30 a.m. local time, I felt a little nervous about navigating this foreign country without a word of its language. Even if the Danes speak very good English, I find it rude not to make an earnest effort to speak the local language, and I hadn't learned a word. Not to mention that not knowing the country's tongue puts you at a great risk for making an ass of yourself. So when, following my host's public transit instructions, and I missed the bus stop, I ate my slice of humble pie and asked the driver to set me straight, and after crossing the street and catching my next lift, arrived at the big, old apartment complex in Vesterbro, an artist-turned-yuppie neighborhood, not unlike New York's Williamsburg.
Per my host's instructions, I buzzed the neighbor, a filmmaker of about 50, who was very sweet as she showed me around the light- and art-filled apartment with a small and highly designed kitchen outfitted with excellent pots and spices. My host had left me Danish bread — a dark and heavy, of sprouted grain — blueberries, local yogurt and beer, along with a hand-written welcome note. My new neighbor showed me to what would be my bike, the laundry, and an outdoor common yard outfitted with a sandbox, grills and elaborate recycling system.
We then took off on our bikes to the local supermarket, which was not too unlike an American store, except this one had an “American” display, with Mississippi Belle (wtf?) brand peanut butter, Jiffy marshmallow fluff, McDonald's brand catsup and mustard (wtf squared!) and Charleston Chews. We laughed and took pictures.
I'd made so many purchases (so American?) they barely fit in the wooden crate affixed to my handlebars, but we made our way home on the bike lanes — separated by an actual curb — that run parallel to most of the city's roads. My neighbor friend was fun and sweet, laughing along with me as I nearly tipped over on my over-loaded bike. That combined with the graciousness of my host, who I liked so much even if I will likely never meet her, but will live an intimate, intertwined co-existence with her, cooking in her kitchen, and sleeping in her sheets, gave me a sense of generosity of the universe. That reminder that there is no need to feel lonely or alone because there are always kind and sweet people who will give you a little or a lot of love whenever you have the sense to open up your doors to take it in.
Back in my new home, I unpacked, took a long and hot shower and slept for a few hours before making myself a cheese-and-Danish-bread sandwich and tomato-cucumber-and-blueberry salad and hit the town on two wheels.
I will say here that exploring Copenhagen via bike was the single thing that I was most excited about this journey. Bicycle riding is my No. 1 favorite form of transportation, as well as my No. 1 form of exercise, as I wrote about in How Biking Gave me My Groove Back After Divorce. For three hours I explored the main roads, and the cobbled side streets and the post-card favorite Nyhaven, where old, colorful homes (now mostly touristy restaurants and gift shops) line the canal. I cruised along the inlets and around the harbor and circled through the parks.
Along the way I'd passed a cool theater, the Grand, and noticed the Amy Winehouse biopic was playing, so after my American thighs started to feel the burn, I headed back to the movie house, bought a small, brown sack of cherries from a street vendor and purchased what turned out to be an assigned movie seat. Sure, the movie was sad, but mostly it made me happy. Because she was such a very real, pure and original talent. And she owned that talent, shared her art with us, and we still have it. Just because her life was shorter than average doesn't mean it was shorter than it should have been. By the time I left, it was close to 9 p.m., and I found my bike and headed the 2 miles back to my apartment, chilly in the evening, as this Nordic city is cooler than any clothes I packed for.
Copenhagen is small — fewer than 600,000 people — and spread out, with neighborhoods separated by ponds and parks. Even though it was Saturday night, none of the streets were crowded, and in many ways it feels like a large town, rather than a capitol city.
In my apartment, I found a wok and a cast iron skillet and cooked myself some local fish, oily and tasty, and sautéed the bok choy, and drank the large Pilsner from the bottle while sitting at the long dining table in the large living room, feeling quite content and tired.
I slept long and hard, and woke up to look from the bedroom door to the large living room windows streaming northern light onto the worn pine floors and Danish chair. It was all plain and gorgeous, and taking it in made me swell with gratitude.
I put on my robe and made myself two large cups of espresso with hot milk and lots of sugar, one after the other, using two of the many coffee-making methods available to me in this one-person home (a capsule Nespresso machine, and then a stovetop espresso maker, which fits on the gas burners with a special wire rack), and wrapped up a client project I'd been procrastinating on.
I then put on my running clothes and jogged through the campus of Carlsberg brewery and its famous elephant gate towards Søndermarken-Frederiksberg Park, when I happened upon a flea market that looks like any flea market you would find in New York City, except the prices are what flea market prices ought to be, and not 80 percent of the original retail price.
Now, I was still in my black capris leggings and sports tank top, neon Brooks sneakers, good and sweaty. In the United States, wearing your Lululemon getup to run errands in the middle of a week day is a status symbol — one that suggests, “I am coming from/going to pilates in the middle of the day because I don't work thanks to my ability to snag a rich husband.”
But this isn't the United States. This is Europe, where women get themselves together before they leave the house and interact with other humans, including flea market vendors. So when I spotted a smart light-weight, bat-winged jacket in my favorite shade of dusty blue, priced at $8US, I had to jump on it, even if I was the sweaty American who spoke no Danish. These Danes, they are cool customers. The two blonde young women happily folded up my purchase and sent me on my way with polite nods.
I wandered to the next vendor and decided on a pretty black silk oversized blouse and mauve and orange silk batik shirt-dress, and the pretty middle-aged vendor quoted me 110 crowns, and — being the American that I am — I offered 100. She smiled in a way that only European women can. In the way that says, “In your country I am old and irrelevant. But I have perfect cheek bones and wear hardly any makeup on my smooth, smooth skin, and even if there are lines around my eyes and my lips are thinning, I dress wonderfully and am naturally elegant and just so very really beautiful because I'm European.” I paid 110 crowns, smiled in thanks, and walked home.
There I cooked myself some very good pasta and cheese sauce with some brie I'd bought the day before, and regretted not buying any wine, even if it wouldn't have fit in my bike basket. I sat down and started writing this post, but then started to feel very isolated and like I am wasting my time by not meeting locals, so I reached out to some friends-of-friends contacts and set up a drink meeting with one, and then researched local leading women in tech, one of whom responded immediately to my Tweet, and she is meeting me for lunch this week.
Because there is no need to feel lonely or alone. Indeed, there are always kind and sweet people who will give you a little or a lot of love whenever you have the sense to open up your doors to take it in.
Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list.
Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.
A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.