Dispatch: My First Week in Copenhagen

It’s mind-boggling to me that I’ve just passed the one-week milestone in my Block Club residency, since somehow I feel like I’ve already been here for a month. I think the constant mental stimulation of being in a new and exciting place, far away from all the routines and familiarity of daily life has a way of distorting time. When everything is new (and in a different language), your brain doesn’t have the luxury of coasting by on autopilot or tuning out the banal—and putting in all this extra work really makes the days feel like weeks, in a good way.

I’m now nicely settled in my apartment, having gathered all the basic necessities, cooked a few meals at home, mastered brewing coffee in a percolator, and established some basic routines. Beyond the apartment, I’ve successfully navigated the city by bike enough to start relying on a general mental map rather than riding around with phone in hand at all times. I’ve even been able to give fellow travelers directions on a few occasions which gave me a nice little confidence boost. There’s a very cool and somewhat euphoric little explosion that occurs in your brain when you turn down a street for the first time and suddenly realize the relationship between two little isolated pockets of the city that you already know separately, thus expanding your mental map.

In this way, I’m now beginning to experience another type of distortion at this point: the shrinking of scale. When staring at a map to plot a course to a distant location for the first time, the number of blocks, bridges and canals that you have to traverse seem intimidating, almost impossible. But now that I’ve crisscrossed the city a few times, I’m beginning to understand how compact and dense this city really is, and how easy it is to get around. On so many occasions, I’ve massively overshot my mark by just happily cycling in one direction with my head on a swivel, taking in all the architecture and beauty, only to glance down at my map and realize that the little blue dot has gone into another neighborhood entirely. In the reverse, when returning to places or areas that I’ve already visited, getting there now seems to take a fraction of the time or effort.

With one week of my residency officially in the books, I’ll take a moment to mention a few of the simple, little everyday things that particularly appealed to me as I began to acclimate to life here:

  • Bike lanes are totally separate from car traffic and pedestrian walkways, and all three groups generally have their own traffic signals.
  • The traffic lights turn yellow both before and after a red light, which is particularly helpful for resting cyclists who can get back up on the bike and be ready to push off by the time the light turns green.
  • Every bike here has a ring lock attached to the frame with a moveable piece that goes through the spokes on the back wheel. So you can just park your bike wherever and no one can ride away with it without the key to unlock the wheel. This makes bike parking way easier than locking to a bike rack or pole, like in the U.S.
  • Almost every single building in the city-proper is exactly six stories tall—no more, no fewer. An architect I was speaking to said this design tradition has always been enforced in zoning laws and building permits so that the few very tall landmark buildings (cathedrals mainly) can always be visible from wherever you are in the city. This is especially helpful when you’re new in town and trying to get your bearings (I have used the lit-up tower in Tivoli Gardens as a beacon to find my way home more than once).
  • All of electrical outlets (in my apartment anyway) are also switches, and all of the switches are also electrical outlets. This is way easier than finding the little switch on the lamp or cord each time you want to turn it on.
  • Danish paper money comes in different sizes corresponding to the value. Similarly, lesser value coins have a hole in the middle where as the coins worth more kroner are solid. All of which makes it easy for a foreigner to catch on.
  • People are always outside here, which is really lovely. The weather so far has been fine but not particularly nice; just normal, chilly, fall scarf weather (nowhere near the heat wave back home). Yet, everywhere you look, people are eating their meals, having drinks, or sitting and talking outside on a patio or in a park, day or night. Most of the cafes and restaurants have heat lamps and umbrellas above outdoor seating, and the brisk fall air, even a light rain, doesn’t deter people from spending their time outdoors in the slightest.