Thursday, February 24, 2011

Why bother?

The thing about foreign travel is that once you reach your destination, you wonder why you’re there and what you’re supposed to do. If you’re like me, you’re used to spending your daily life working and doing household chores. Suddenly abroad, how do you spend your day?

In our case, the reason for our trip was to see our daughter C, who is studying in Copenhagen for a semester.  But she was busy much of the time, so we set about exploring the city on our own. Some days we saw three museums.

But why? Other said it was to get to know a different culture. But can you really get to know the Danish culture by staying in a hotel, looking at castles and canals, going to museums and eating in restaurants (which we’re told Danes rarely do)? In some ways, it seems like a hopeless undertaking. A mitigating factor in our case was that our daughter’s host family invited us for dinner and took us on a drive in the countryside, so we had a chance to see how they lived and ask frank questions.  C’s “new mother,” as we call her, is a rather unusual Dane, however. While I go to an office and sit in front of a computer all day, her job, which she has held for the past 18 years, is singing in the chorus of the Royal Danish Opera. “It’s just a job,” she said when I asked her what it was like.

(A digression: When the little girls who live downstairs from us in New York came to visit a couple weeks ago, they asked what happened to our hamster. It died, I told them. What happened to our turtle? We gave it away to someone who wanted a companion for her turtle, I said. Where was our daughter? She’s gone to live with a “new mother and father” in Denmark, I told them. They were horrified.)

Don’t get me wrong. I loved our trip to Copenhagen, but I’m not sure I know it much better now than I did after reading the Rough Guide before our departure. In fact, watching the “60 Minutes” segment on how Danes are the happiest people in the world was probably more informative than observing the Danes firsthand. I never would have guessed their secret inner happiness, since though they were helpful and kind, they rarely smile at strangers and do not exactly exude joie de vivre. 

Perhaps travel makes more sense for the young, who can hang out in bars and meet their ilk. Other and I don’t really do that anymore.

In a way, I feel as if I learned more about New York than I did about Copenhagen. In the days since we returned home, I am seeing the city anew: the garbage and the cracked sidewalks and the ragged homeless—but also the cheap eats and the diversity and the spontaneity. 

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