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Going Back to Copenhagen

Things to do in Copenhagen 12

I used to wear a Danish krone around my neck. It’s the perfect coin to do so, really – it has a hole in it already. I also kept a few spare kroner in my wallet in Canada, just because I liked knowing the extra weight came from those foreign coins, jangling around thousands of miles from their home.

I first went to Copenhagen as part of my summer-long backpacking adventure in Europe. The night before I got on the plane to Amsterdam – my starting point for a whirlwind journey that would see me through twenty-odd countries – I cut my hair in front of the bathroom mirror with my mother’s sewing scissors. I instantly regretted the decision. I thought that cutting it all off and dyeing it from my highlighted dirty blonde to jet black would make it easier to maintain, and it took me nearly a month to learn not to reach back and sweep my imaginary hair out of my collar when I put on a shirt. I picked out the outfit I’d wear on the airplane, too: a plain black t-shirt, army-green cargo trousers, a jean jacket, and the hiking boots I paid over a hundred dollars for. My carry-on backpack was filled with guidebooks and stomach tablets and AA batteries for the brand new digital camera I bought for the trip.

In my mind, there was no difference between Amsterdam and Timbuktu; an adventure was an adventure. I packed as if I was heading into isolation, heading to distant lands where no foreigner had ever been. I wasn’t going to be a tourist, goddamn it; I was a traveller, a nomad, an adventurer. Travellers needed supplies for every possible situation. They were prepared. I failed to see the naivety in the reflection staring back at me.

Things to do in Copenhagen 3

The trip would be completely solo until my mum was due to meet me in order to travel to Spain and Morocco together. I was twenty-two, and had just graduated from university, finishing with a BA in English and music. I wouldn’t be at the ceremony to collect my diploma. If all went to plan, I’d be somewhere in Germany by then.

In my journal I’d taped a photocopied photo of my mum and dad standing in front of the van they spent years living in, travelling and working around Europe. They had also saved for years in their early twenties to do the same thing I was doing. I liked to think I was following in their footsteps. We had both even chosen Amsterdam as our starting point. I longed to be just like them: the faded jeans, the oversized wool sweaters, the shaggy dark hair, the slouched posture. In two years, in all the photographs of all the countries they visited, their faces are the same: lazy, happy, carefree. In reality I looked nothing like either of them, decked out in the clothing the packing lists told me to wear, bogged down with kilograms of equipment and travel accessories for which I’d probably never find a need. There is a photograph of my dad somewhere in France – he’s wearing a brown corduroy jacket, his hair past his shoulders and a scraggly beard framing a wide smile. In one hand is a round loaf of brown bread, in the other is an unlabelled bottle of red wine, its green glass matching the hilly background.

“He waved to me at the top of that hill,” my mum told me when I was little, “and then slipped. I watched as he tumbled down, somersaulting over and over again, landing in a heap at the bottom. I rushed over to see if he was all right, but before I could reach him he popped up, clutching the bread and the wine. He was so proud that he hadn’t lost either of them, so I had to take a picture.” It’s my favourite photograph of him, and one of my favourite stories of the two of them.

That’s what I imagined finding in Europe – that’s what I wanted. Tumbling down hills with sleepy-eyed hippies, hippies who wouldn’t let go of the wine.

Over the first few months I spent on the continent, I whipped through countries so fast it makes my head spin just thinking about it. On top of that, I would often only visit the main or capital cities of a country, Berlin or Vienna or Florence or Prague. After a few months, I finally made my way to Scandinavia, flying from Poland to Denmark. Copenhagen was different than the other cities I’d been to that summer – crisper, somehow, and cleaner. I had never been exposed to the relaxed, easy vibe of Scandinavian countries before, and I immediately took to the city’s blend of cobblestoned streets, colourful buildings, and sleek cafés. It instantly felt like a place I could live in; it was calming somehow, more so than some of the other cities I had seen that summer with their congested traffic and hordes of tourists and souvenir-peddling touts.

Things to do in Copenhagen 7

I hadn’t planned on going to Scandinavia when I arrived in Amsterdam. Those first heady months of travelling through Europe sometimes bleed into one another, creating one giant memory of EUROPE, a Europe of churches and museums and crepes. If it weren’t for my journal and for my long emails home, these memories might have been doomed to pop up on a non-linear timeline: being followed by a drunk man through the cobblestoned streets of Bratislava, the whirling traditional dancers in Budapest, eating gelato in Italy.

When I pinpoint one of these small details, I can grow my stories from them until they bloom into fully-formed events, almost more so than things that happened to me later in life. I can remember a surprising amount of those little moments, perhaps because each one was so monumental in its own way – getting lost and eating new food and meeting people from countries like Georgia and Ecuador. It’s when I have nothing, not even a glimmer of a detail, that Europe remains a mystery in my own mind. It’s often the bigger events I’ve forgotten: how I got from A to B, the name of the girl I travelled through Poland with, the reason I decided to go to Scandinavia. I can only assume that it was because, by that point, two and a half months into my trip, I was greedy. I had unleashed a monster, drunk on my own wanderlust. I ticked off countries left and right – twelve of them in those ten weeks. Some of them, like Luxembourg, I didn’t even give a night. I arrived in a new city, did as much sightseeing as I could in two or three days, and packed my bag again. I was exhausted, but I was too young to notice, too eager to see the next new place and meet the next new person that I didn’t care. Perhaps it’s only with youth and ignorance that we can travel this way. Still, I was happy, and I excitedly planned each new destination before I had barely seen the one before it.

Copenhagen had been no different, despite my affinity for it. The only stop I made in Denmark, I had checked all of the tourist boxes: a boat tour to see the statue of the Little Mermaid; Tivoli Gardens; hours spent snapping photos of the colourful buildings of Nyhavn, the main port in town. At my hostel I met an Argentinian who I let sloppily kiss me one night after a few beers. It wasn’t exactly the travel romance I had envisaged, but as he forced his tongue down my throat I thought, “Well, at least I’m kissing someone.” Instead of taking the bus to my next destination, Oslo, I decided to go for the slightly more expensive overnight ferry. Taking an overnight ferry seemed wildly romantic. It also fit in well with my new gluttonous personality – it was something new. When the boat pulled away from the harbour I felt just a slight tinge of regret; I liked the city, and I had no idea when or if I would ever see it again.

Things to do in Copenhagen 10

It was on that boat I met a resident of Copenhagen who was on his way for a short holiday in Norway. He was handsome; he had a perfect smile and a way with words, a laugh that was one of someone who had never been told to keep quiet, hearty and contagious. Like me, he was young, and he had chosen to spend his early twenties travelling and living in Europe. After meeting by chance in the ship’s lounge we spent the evening talking, eventually heading out onto the deck. It was a cool evening, the kind you’d expect in the middle of the Baltic Sea, and the air smelled of salt. The sky was still a muted pink and yellow glow; it was the last day of June, smack in the middle of Scandinavia’s midsummer. We talked and talked, the sun dipping down below the horizon only to emerge again a couple of hours later. We hadn’t even noticed the dark. Somewhere in that hazy ruse of a night, as the calendar switched over to July, I realised I liked him. He seemed like the kind of guy who wouldn’t drop the wine. He kissed me as the ship neared the shores of Norway, the morning mist covering our clothes in tiny droplets, and I was immediately hit with the first flushes of love.

While I was in Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Estonia, we wrote each other long emails every day. I’d try to remain patient, spacing my time out in between visits to the local internet cafés; this was before wifi, of course, and before anyone even dreamed of travelling with a laptop or a mobile phone. And in one of those emails, I wrote with shaky hands: “I want to come back to Copenhagen to see you.” And he wrote back, just as he always did, saying that that’s what he wanted, too.

And so I returned to Denmark. The city seemed even more alive this time around, happier and sunnier. We’d sit on curbs of busy pedestrian squares, laughing and drinking from tall cans of Tuborg. I fell in love with him quickly and devastatingly, the kind of love that is hard to suppress and even harder to maintain. When it was time for me to eventually move on – I had to meet my mother in Spain – the goodbye was awful. By the time I returned to Canada to start a new life in Toronto, I was already dreaming of returning to Copenhagen. Within weeks, I had booked a ticket to return later that year. In the interim, I wore a krone on a chain around my neck, keeping it tucked under my shirt.

Things to do in Copenhagen 17

But by the time that third visit to Copenhagen finally came round, things had changed, the emails between us less frequent. It was like the difference in the seasons; you ignore those first warnings of the coming cold, clinging staunchly to muggy nights and green trees, so much so that you’re shocked to wake up one morning to find that all of the leaves have turned to yellow and red, that the wind that once brought you a cool respite from the summer heat now makes you shiver. Our relationship had changed, and, in turn, so too had Copenhagen. The city felt flatter and less welcoming then, its white skies heavy with the promise of rain. When we finally said goodbye in the Copenhagen airport I knew it was probably the last time I’d ever see him, and I was right. He, like Copenhagen, eventually became a foggy memory, one that filled me with both joy and sorrow. Although the relationship was over, the city itself never felt like it had an ending.

And then, last summer, exactly nine years to the day that I had first visited Copenhagen, an opportunity came about to visit Aarhus, another city in Denmark. I took it, with the condition that I would be able to revisit the capital, too. After an amazing time in Aarhus, I took the three-hour train journey to Copenhagen on my own. As I made my way to my hotel, I suddenly remembered it all; the streets felt so familiar, so comfortable. That first night I walked to Nyhavn and sat looking at the water with a glass of wine, the midsummer sky keeping the city illuminated.

I’ve changed a lot since those first visits to Copenhagen. In those nine years, I lived in Scotland, Japan, and England, and even bought a house in Canada; I travelled around the world; I completed a master’s degree and my first book; I secured a job in the travel writing industry; I no longer feared the word tourist; I fell in love again, and again, and maybe even again. I grew older and more confident, and my view of travelling changed – I now prefer to travel deep, not wide. The desperation and the insatiable hunger to see everything and to do everything has waned considerably, being replaced by a slower way – or, perhaps a more rational way – of thinking and acting, a way that in turn made me happier and feel more fulfilled. After not speaking for nearly eight years I emailed that boy and told him I was back in Denmark, though he no longer lives in Europe. He’s doing well, and has become an accomplished and lovely man, though there was never ever doubt that he would.

Things to do in Copenhagen 16

Copenhagen knew me at my softest, at my most pliable. It knew me when I fell in love for the very first time. It may have even known me at my best, or maybe it was my worst; though I’ll never be sure, I know that I wouldn’t change anything about those years or that time in my life, as they shaped who I am. I think there’s a lot to be said for that innocence and that voracious wanderlust, and I’m grateful that I had both. And in finally going back to Copenhagen, nearly a decade later, I felt a deep sense of an emotion I don’t quite know how to describe, a strange mixture of an aching nostalgia for the person I once was – the girl who always had to keep moving, the girl with constant adventure on her tongue and in her heart, the girl who’d give it all up for love – and of a proud acceptance of the person I am now, though who that is is still up for debate. Perhaps that’s how it is with all of us when remembering our first loves – for another person, or maybe for the country that enraptured us, or maybe both. In returning to Copenhagen, I felt as though I was seeing an old friend; it knew so much about the core of me, despite not seeing me for so many years.

But on that warm summer’s night by the water, I felt a different kind of happiness. I knew I’d travel more, and live more, and love more. I’d fall for different men and different countries again, maybe multiple times. I didn’t feel anxious or desperate to see everything and do everything and throw myself so blindly into love; I knew that life could be slow sometimes, but just as beautiful and just as rewarding. And I knew, with certainty, that it wouldn’t be the last time I’d visit Copenhagen, that our story was far from over.

Copenhagen34

On my first visit to Copenhagen, nearly ten years ago

For more on my recent trip to Copenhagen, click here. Thank you to Visit Denmark for helping with my trip to the city. 

 

47 Responses to Going Back to Copenhagen

  1. Anahit Behrooz January 14, 2016 at 8:18 pm #

    This is absolutely gorgeous. I love the way you notice and capture all the small details of your own life, and make them sounds so beautiful!

    • Brenna Holeman January 14, 2016 at 8:34 pm #

      Thank you very much! 🙂

  2. Mélissa January 14, 2016 at 8:41 pm #

    I love every word of this post : you are so good at conveying genuine emotions, and your story is extremely touching.
    Thank you so much, it seems like through your experiences, we learn a little, too !
    And just like your parents’ story impressed and inspired you very much, yours impresses and inspires me…

    • Brenna Holeman January 14, 2016 at 8:43 pm #

      Aw, thank you so much Mélissa, that really means a lot to me. I’m so happy you enjoyed the post and feel inspired!

      • Mélissa January 14, 2016 at 8:50 pm #

        I believe this is one of my favourite post ever, so thank you! And it’s amazing to see everything you’ve accomplished in a few years… I recognize myself so much in your 22-year old self ; craving to see the world, to be loved, to get lost and to know myself better, so frightened and excited at the same time.

        • Brenna Holeman January 14, 2016 at 8:55 pm #

          And don’t get me wrong – that’s a lovely age to be, and I treasure those years of insatiable wanderlust (and insatiable everything, really) so much. You’re going to have so much fun in the world, I just know it!!

          • Mélissa January 14, 2016 at 9:07 pm #

            Thank you, you just make me smile so much! I can’t wait to read your book and to read about your next adventures in London and around the world. Your writings really make a difference, and I hope you know it !
            Have a great year, full of happiness and love 🙂

  3. Rachel January 14, 2016 at 9:23 pm #

    Wow. This was a beautifully written post. It’s amazing to see how we grow and change in just a few years. Traveling is so amazing in that way, teaching us, loving us, breaking us. Thank you for sharing this experience with us! This post was so beautiful, I’m not sure I can say that enough!

    • Brenna Holeman January 14, 2016 at 10:14 pm #

      I agree – travelling is so amazing for all of those reasons and more! Thank you so much for your kind words about the post, Rachel, I really appreciate it!

  4. Alex Berger January 14, 2016 at 9:30 pm #

    Absolutely love it. Come back soon =) we’ll keep the candles burning for ya.

    • Brenna Holeman January 14, 2016 at 10:11 pm #

      Thank you so much, Alex! I’ll be back soon. 🙂

  5. Amy (Two Drifters) January 14, 2016 at 9:42 pm #

    Ahhhh this is so beautiful. You write with exactly the kind of poignancy I treasure! I love this, especially

    That’s what I imagined finding in Europe – that’s what I wanted. Tumbling down hills with sleepy-eyed hippies, hippies who wouldn’t let go of the wine.

    <3 so, so, so GOOD!!

    • Brenna Holeman January 14, 2016 at 10:12 pm #

      Aw, Amy, you are too kind! Thank you so much for your kind words, I’m so glad you liked the post.

  6. Ashley January 14, 2016 at 9:54 pm #

    Beautifully written, Brenna! I was completely engrossed in the story, and I absolutely love the last two paragraphs.

    • Brenna Holeman January 14, 2016 at 10:13 pm #

      Thank you so much, Ashley!

  7. Whitney January 14, 2016 at 10:16 pm #

    Ahh Brenna! I am so excited for your book! When when when???!!!

    • Brenna Holeman January 14, 2016 at 10:19 pm #

      Ha ha! Thank you so much Whitney. I am currently editing the manuscript (for the fourth time, I think, yikes) and then am attempting to get an agent… but I will keep everyone updated along the way!

  8. Holly January 14, 2016 at 10:30 pm #

    What a beautiful story! Your blog is a huge source of inspiration and admiration for me, and I hope you will find even more love and happiness in the future. I’m off to Copenhagen too next week and this has made me very excited!

    • Brenna Holeman January 14, 2016 at 10:31 pm #

      Aw, that’s wonderful Holly – you will have an amazing time, as Copenhagen is an incredible city! I’m so glad you liked the post and that you’re enjoying the blog.

  9. Danny January 14, 2016 at 11:47 pm #

    I know it’s already been said by those commenting above me (and for good reason, too!), but this post is absolutely beautiful, Brenna!

    Your writing is so vivid that I can feel the nostalgia, excitement, contentment, and curiosity taking me right there with you.

    Perhaps it’s because I visited Copenhagen for the first time a year and a half ago, and I can still remember the way the colorful houses of Nyhavn reflected on the water, and how the fall air was crisp but invigorating. Like you, I spent my time checking off the tourist boxes and only planned a trip for three days, not thinking there would be much to see. However, I was struck by how right, how perfect the city felt. It just seemed to fit in any and every way.

    Thanks for sharing your connection with this city. I’m so glad to hear that Copenhagen also holds a place dear to your heart!

    • Brenna Holeman January 15, 2016 at 3:21 am #

      Thank you so much, Danny – I’m really glad that you enjoyed the post! Isn’t Copenhagen amazing?

  10. Erin January 15, 2016 at 2:03 am #

    What a beautiful story Brenna! Reminds me of a boy I met on vacation whom I fell for and now I’m feeling nostalgic …. Lol

    • Brenna Holeman January 15, 2016 at 3:21 am #

      Travel romances are pretty great!

  11. Ella January 15, 2016 at 7:46 am #

    What a wonderfully written post! I love how you share your experiences as beautifully told stories, I can’t help but fall for them and be incredibly touched by them in some way. And it’s lovely to read about your special connection to Copenhagen. I loved this line especially, “In returning to Copenhagen, I felt as though I was seeing an old friend.” I love how we can have positive, nurturing and supportive relationships with places, in the same fashion that we have with people. Great read as always! 🙂

    • Brenna Holeman January 17, 2016 at 8:12 pm #

      Thank you so much, Ella! I really appreciate your kind words, and I’m so glad you enjoyed the post.

  12. Ellie Quinn January 15, 2016 at 7:49 am #

    Another beautiful post and beautifully written!

    And now I want to go to Copenhagen! 😀

    • Brenna Holeman January 17, 2016 at 8:13 pm #

      Aw, thanks Ellie! You should, it’s a great city. 🙂

  13. Andrea Anastasiou January 15, 2016 at 10:47 am #

    Posts like this is what make your travel blog my favourite! Beautifully written, Brenna. I always find that returning to a place that I haven’t been to for years can have quite a postively haunting effect. As you’ve captured here, you can vividly remember the person you were all those years ago, but you’re also painfully aware that the years have shaped you into someone who’s now very different in many ways.

    Thank you for sharing!

    • Brenna Holeman January 17, 2016 at 8:14 pm #

      You’re too kind, Andrea! I agree, there’s something really amazing about that feeling, even if it can bring both happy and sad memories.

  14. Katie January 15, 2016 at 2:38 pm #

    What is it about Scandinavia? Truth be told, that region of Europe was never really on my radar or high on my list of priorities. It was pure luck that brought me to Sweden (I mean, who’d going to turn down a free trip?) and I, too, fell completely in love — the blankets folded atop cafe chairs, the unabashed love of the outdoors (and deep appreciation for that sweet summer sun), and fika every day! I so want to go back to visit Sweden once again and the other countries in the region. Nostalgic or not, Denmark has such fascinating history. This is such a beautiful post, and I can see why you love it!

    • Brenna Holeman January 17, 2016 at 8:15 pm #

      I definitely want to go back to Sweden, too! I never thought I’d love Scandinavia so much but now I recommend it a lot to new travellers and to people who want to see a totally different side of Europe. Thanks for your comment, Katie!

  15. Nikita January 15, 2016 at 3:10 pm #

    Yesss I missed these posts! Absolutely gorgeous, uplifting and heart-wrenching all at once. You perfectly capture that feeling of duality, of being content with who you are and missing who you were.

    I now feel a burning need to meet, in my life, a man who won’t drop the wine. Though there may have been a couple already.

    • Brenna Holeman January 17, 2016 at 8:16 pm #

      I’ve had a couple more, too… 😉

      Thanks for your comment, Nikita, I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

  16. Paige January 15, 2016 at 11:52 pm #

    I read this on my phone at the bus stop early this morning and literally almost cried happy tears at the beauty of it all. Just like, the emotional scope and the way time is handled here is so incredible. I love the idea of cities knowing us as friends throughout our lives–I have way too many new places I’d like to go, but I’d also love to go back to Rome, which I found mildly terrifying as a 15-year-old, almost ten(!) years ago.

    • Brenna Holeman January 17, 2016 at 8:16 pm #

      Aw, you’re so sweet Paige! Thank you very much – I’m so happy you enjoyed it and connected with it.

  17. Ruth January 16, 2016 at 12:10 pm #

    This is lovely! You took me right back to my first trip around Europe. When I didn’t have much money, and I certainly wasn’t drinking wine by the water (which sounds like bliss to me now). I remember those amazing feelings, when you take your first steps on your travelling journey. You are drunk on the anticipation and excitement. Those plans you made all came together and you’re really doing it and you are just aching for what’s to come! I still absolutely adore travel, but it’s so different now, after so many experiences, you don’t have quite the same feeling as when you are 22 and really tasting that independence for the first time!

    Such a beautiful way to start your first posts of 2016! Thanks for writing this Brenna! 🙂

    • Brenna Holeman January 17, 2016 at 8:17 pm #

      Yes, I think my experience was definitely the same! I couldn’t afford the wine back then, either. 😉

      Thanks a lot for your comment, Ruth – I’m so glad you enjoyed the post.

  18. Jennifer January 20, 2016 at 12:35 am #

    Your ability to craft a story is really remarkable. I felt like I was in the bathroom with you when you cut of your hair, or standing by the water. It was a beautiful piece!

    • Brenna Holeman January 20, 2016 at 1:14 am #

      Aw, thank you so much, Jennifer!! I’m so glad you enjoyed the post.

  19. Elisa Zen January 20, 2016 at 11:03 pm #

    What a beautiful place! When I see pictures it reminds me of a story book, I cannot wait to visit someday.

    • Brenna Holeman January 20, 2016 at 11:22 pm #

      I hope you get to visit, too! It’s a wonderful place.

  20. Zalie January 22, 2016 at 4:41 pm #

    Bren, this is such a beautiful and touching story. Your writing is truly captivating! I am so proud of you sister xoxo

    • Brenna Holeman January 22, 2016 at 5:09 pm #

      Thank you so much, Zalie 🙂 xoxo

  21. Megan January 27, 2016 at 10:49 pm #

    Wow.. I loved this post.

    I could relate to it so much.. falling in love with distant cities and the relationships that come with them.

    PS. your parents sound awesome!

    • Brenna Holeman January 27, 2016 at 10:55 pm #

      Thank you very much, Megan! I’m glad you liked the post. And yes – I have to admit – my parents are pretty awesome. 😀

  22. Cate September 26, 2016 at 12:39 am #

    OMG you are such an amazing writer! Your totally my idol now. Sounds like the wonderful, lovestruck trip that all of us pray to have one day. This spring I’m heading to Europe and cant decide whether to go to copenhagen, paris, or amsterdam for my last few days. Any thoughts?

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