"To the States or any one of them, or any city of the States,
Resist much, obey little,
Once unquestioning obedience, once fully enslaved,
Once fully enslaved, no nation, state, city of this earth, ever
Afterward resumes its liberty."
— Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass ("To the States")
Hamburg was a sensible stop on my journey ever north, a final watering hole before I left the European mainland and entered Scandinavia. I was behind on journaling, at least a two-week lag, so I thought I'd stop for one full rotation of the earth and spend two nights in the German metropolis. Hostel pickings for back-to-back beds were slim, though, and I ended up settling on a poorly-reviewed budget dormitory right off the Reeperbahn, Hamburg's sprawling red light district. It wasn't ideal, it wasn't even that cheap, but it was a bed.
I arrived in Hamburg around six and found the city entirely unimpressive for the whole stretch of it between the train station and the Reeperbahn, which was more or less the whole stretch of the city. It was industrial, and crowded, and full of ugly steel buildings all glinting with uninspired glass, and the waterfront was one endless construction site, built right atop the largest harborside warehouse in the world. The Reeperbahn was a different sort of tasteless: it was still too early for the red lights to be seen in the bright sky, but I knew I'd arrived after catching a glimpse of the floor-to-ceiling pin-ups of naked models curtained against the empty stripclubs, by the signs advertising Sex! 39 Euros! jutting out into the street.
The hostel would be a nice place to write, I thought. The hostel wasn't a nice place to write. It was a dirty, weathered ruin of painted concrete that had probably served as a brothel in its prime, now put out to pasture as a derelict dorm for drunken stag parties. The air was humid and the common room atrocious and the atmosphere unfriendly, so I stowed my things—afraid of my bag being carried away by equal parts vagabonds and roaches—and headed to the first falafel shop I could find with a good book.
I read for a while, watched the sun go down, filled my stomach and then headed back toward the hostel for sleep. Along the way, prostitutes would leer and jeer and come up alongside me with a hasty introduction and an indecent proposal. Oh, no thank you, I'd say, no blowjobs for me tonight, but they'd continue, they'd pester. "Why not?" they'd ask. It was a fair question, but I didn't have the heart to answer it, to say that I just didn't find them attractive, the whole lot of them with their pounds of make-up and too-tight skirts and, ugh, cigarettes fuming like little toxic exhaust pipes from their rose-red lips. And beyond all that, the true reason they just didn't do it for me: they were capitalists.
Though I hadn't the least desire to sleep with any of them, I was and am an avid supporter of Germany's approach to prostitution, which is to allow it to exist in a secure, regulated, worker-friendly way, which makes the whole enterprise wildly safer, and more empowering, for those actually doing the work. In the States, we pretend prostitution doesn't exist, because we'd like to think it doesn't, and so it's forced into dark corners and back alleys where women are abused and assaulted and taken advantage of in every sense of the word, with no legal recourse or way out ... but hey, at least we can still call ourselves a Christian nation. Undoubtedly, the females have it better off on the in-your-face Reeperbahn. And the males too, if they're visiting for some pay-for-play fun. I, on the other hand, felt uncomfortable and objectified and targeted: women following me, women making little kissy noises, women commenting on me or my body or what they'd like to do to and for and with me. Women looking me up, looking me down, looking me all over. I felt exposed, vulnerable, and in that short walk from the falafel shop to the hostel, I'd come to cross the street when I saw a sole woman standing alone on my side of the sidewalk, sex worker or not. It was unnerving, sure, but it was revealing too—as I got back to the hostel and settled in for sleep I realized: this is what it must feel like (in some moments) to be a woman.
The next morning, I canceled my second night and headed to a nice park—finally, something nice in Hamburg!—for a little reading. The first train to Copenhagen left early afternoon, so around one I walked to the station and boarded the hot, crowded car and found a little nook on the floor where I rested as the coaches rode the rails north toward Scandinavia.
Denmark is a nautical nation, diced up by bays and rivers and isthmuses into peninsulas and islands and archipelagos. I assumed we'd be making a long arch along lengthy bridges connecting its broken landmass, but no—the conductor came over the PA system and announced to all passengers: "Please gather your belongings; in five minutes the train will board the ferry and you must exit before the ferry embarks." Certainly a mistranslation, I thought. Wrong again: five minutes later, just as he promised, the gorgeous seaside vistas outside the train window became dark, metal views of a ferry's undercarriage, and then we stopped, and then we were simply on the ferry.
We grabbed our things, as told, and exited the coach, which sat on rails that had linked up with the rails back on solid ground. The train was parked below deck, and we weren't allowed to stay on it in the event of a sinking ship, so instead we herded ourselves upstairs to lovely sun-soaked decks and, for the indoorsy type, restaurants and bars and a veritable shopping mall at the interior. I, an outdoorsy type with an indoorsy tablet, compromised for a bright sunroom where I got a little writing done—but just a little, for within an hour we approached Denmark's easternmost island and were ushered back down to the parked train. Back on the coach, lots of clinking and clanging as the ferry dropped anchor, and then we smoothly rolled in reverse, right off the boat and onto land, and we continued our beeline for the Danish capital.
The train arrived in Copenhagen around six; I walked across the small city and arrived at my hostel by 6:15. The hostel was a thumping place, live music and young crowds and taps flowing, but I was a bit tired from the long day of travel, so instead of joining the party I found a nice little corner to write—still, still trying to catch up on writing—and called it a very early night. I met a Swedish bunkmate upstairs, we talked a little about things to do and see in Scandinavia ("it's terribly boring" was his summary), and then we headed to sleep.
I was feeling a little more social the next morning, so I joined about a dozen others on yet another free walking tour, always a great way to meet fellow travelers. The tour itself was uninspiring: I had been so excited for Copenhagen before I left the States, but found it a tad dull upon arrival, and the tour duller still. It's not that Copenhagen itself was boring—no, it was lovely—it's just that I'd seen it all before: in the biking masses of Amsterdam, in the modest buildings of Belgium, in the deep wharves of Bruges and in the same charming streets and statues of all of Europe. I wasn't disappointed by this failure to awe; if anything I was elated: I had come to Europe to see its cities and learn from its cities, and diminishing returns meant that there was less left to learn.
I met some folks and a few of us—Rob from New York, Raphaela from Vienna—ditched the tour and wandered on our own. We talked philosophy and politics and the limits of libertarianism on our way to the Christiana Free Town, a self-proclaimed independent nation in the heart of Copenhagen, once famed for its liberal, creative spirit. I found my argument dealt a hefty blow when the libertarian-minded town ended up being nothing more than a sad, capitalist-stained shell of a once-great ideal, and we left quickly. We sat by the water, talked more, walked more, separated for a few different pursuits. I had booked a new hostel for my second night: the first seemed great, but was about twice the price on weekends, and this new hostel was a city-run affair, which I had always wanted to try. It was a different experience, the city hostel, something like the Spanish-run hostels along the Santiago pilgrimage trail from what I've heard. It mimicked the layout of a minimum security prison, I suppose, endless cubes of four-bed bunks partitioning their way through a small auditorium space. It didn't feel like a prison, of course, just a place for people looking for the cheapest way to get by in Denmark, so the atmosphere was a little lacking and I headed back toward the first hostel to meet up with Rob.
We grabbed drinks with a few others from the walking tour—Allie and Hugh, fencers from London—played cards, ate pricy nachos. Later that night, I was meant to meet up with the Danes I'd run into outside that heating plant-turned-nightclub in Berlin, but our plans fell through at the last minute, so instead I passed the remainder of my second evening in the lively hostel where I'd spent my first night, and then as the clock struck midnight, I walked back across town to the public hostel to sleep away my second.
I left early the next morning for Sweden, a stop in Gothenburg recommended by a Swede back in Prague ("All of Sweden is boring," he'd agreed with his fellow Swede that I'd met in Copenhagen, "but Gothenburg is okay"). He was right: the scenery on the way into town was just nice, the town was pleasant, clean, yet wholly unremarkable. Okay.
There was an art gallery on the far end of town—an art gallery set up in an old power plant—so I strolled about an hour east toward that. The venue was cool, well-worn and industrial and splashed with graffiti all over the facade, but the exhibit was simply awful. I walked around aimlessly, admiring bad art in good space, shuffling my feet and pivoting about with a head craned toward the tall ceiling, and then—
Ouch! I had nearly tripped over something at my feet; steadying myself, I banged my leg hard against it: a giant roll of barbed wire. I looked down. Blood trickled from my right ankle. Who the fuck leaves a bale of barbed aluminum in the middle of a museum?
Of course, it was part of the exhibition (I'm not sure why it was part of the exhibition, but it was) and so I backed away and watched my steps carefully and rushed to the restroom to halt the bleeding and clean the cut, a little amused that after all my urban exploration and reckless climbs along forbidden grounds, my first real injury in Europe had come from a neat roll of barb in a Swedish art museum. We never know how we'll meet our grisly ends.
I walked along the waterfront of Gothenburg—yes, lovely, yes, boring—back to the station, marveled at a still-operating video rental place I found along the way, and caught a mid-afternoon train to Oslo. At least, I thought it was a train to Oslo, and I found myself inexplicably excited when I found out it was actually a bus, positively enthralled by something new. As it turns out, the bus was just a bus, which is to say that it didn't really live up to its hype. It also didn't take me to Oslo, just about an hour north where we all quickly hopped off and transferred to a train which shepherded us the rest of the way.
I should probably mention that somewhere between Hamburg and Gothenburg, prices had gotten a touch out of control. If something was rotten in the state of Denmark, with its sixteen-dollar nachos and nine-dollar beers, then it was positively rank in Sweden, all seven-dollar coffees and three-dollar apples. But nothing prepared me for Norway (not even Switzerland): ten-dollar bags of chips, seventeen-dollar Subway foot-longs, eight-dollar muffins and twenty-five-dollar cocktails. Vacant hostels, of course, were upwards of a hundred dollars, and hotel rooms maybe three times that, so rather than waste away my travel funds on unrewarding creature comforts, I'd resolved to rough it through Scandinavia, to catch my sleep in train stations and city parks and quiet alleys—after all, it'd been nearly a month since my last vagabonding adventures.
The sun was still up, though, so no sleep yet. Instead I went for a stroll through the city's center, climbing the gorgeous sloping opera house, which rose like a floating glacier from the placid harbor, watching a little live music from its pleasant peak. My stomach grumbled, and my phone echoed with a rumble of its own: I could use a bit of food, and maybe a place to charge my devices before bed (well, "bed"). I knew it'd be a pricy endeavor, not the best way to start off a low-budget tour of Scandinavia, but I figured an inaugural feast was only fair—let's start my stomach and my batteries on full and watch them drain to a sorry nothing from there.
I found a cafe, ordered a coffee and a plate of roasted vegetables, sat there a while and read, paid a groan-inducing forty dollars when I got up to leave. By that point it was beyond midnight, yet the sky still glowed gold: far north as I was, it was a summer of white nights. No matter; I walked the dusky-dawny streets back to the opera house, once more climbed its sloped roof to a quiet perch by the peaceful bay, and settled down on the cold concrete with a scarf over my eyes.
I woke an hour later. The wind had picked up and I was victim to its full force on that exposed peak, so I stood and hurried down from the roof with a slight shiver. Still the south sky glowed in brilliant amber, still the north and east and west sat saturated in a magnificent royal blue. Still I needed sleep. I walked around town looking for a niche in the cityscape, was amazed by the crowds of Norwegians ambling about. A snapshot of the scene could have passed for an ordinary twilight, so bright and busy it was. By the time I found a quiet bench down by the water, the sun had once again begun to climb in the sky, a simple reversal of its retreat earlier that night. I laid down, closed my eyes, tried for sleep, even caught a little. I woke up again, it was 4AM, it looked like noon. I headed back to the train station.
Back in the station, which had just reopened for the day, I rested my tired body on a little curved bench, stuffed my bag under my head, and again wrapped the scarf around my face to block out the light. And then in the tranquil station, I rested once more.
Noise, footsteps, the dull roar of a station's worth of early morning travelers. I pulled the scarf from my head and it was as though I had woken in the middle of Times Square: all around me, hurried herds rushed to and fro on their way to the trains. I sat up, rubbed my weary eyes, checked the time. It was already seven.
Norway's train timetables were oddly excluded from the interrail application on my phone, so I knew neither the best time nor way to get to the country's western fjords. But an 8AM train left for Bergen, and that seemed like a safe bet, so I woke myself up with a begrudgingly expensive little muffin and a ludicrously costly bottle of juice and took off for platform eight with heavy legs and heavy eyelids. Time creeped by and it took all my strength to keep standing, to keep rooted to the earth with two feet and not crash down upon it in a heap of exhaustion, but finally it came, first the rattle of loose pebbles on the iron tracks and then the thunder of the train and then the great big locomotive itself, and I rushed aboard and folded my scarf into a neat little pillow to place against the window and before I could even take my pass out for the inevitable conductor, I was asleep beside it.