Helen in Paris

iPhone photography and sincere commentary from around the world

From the recommendation of a friend I made at the airport, I decided to venture into Malmo for the day (a half hour’s train ride from Copenhagen) in search of the affordable cuisine and quaint Swedish flair I was promised. Unfortunately this plan was derailed rather literally when I was kicked off the train seven miles from the city center (although in all fairness I didn’t buy a ticket — I suck — and they were kind enough not to fine me). My American card rarely works in Europe and I had no Swedish money, so I set off, walking along the highway in an ill-fated wrap dress on a blustery day.

By the time I staggered into the city after a tour of its large industrial grounds, I was in no mood for sightseeing, which was fine because Malmo seemed pretty bland. I got a chai latte (a much more acceptable $3.50) and tried to recover in a cafe before taking the train back to Denmark. Money and time well spent.

The Botanical Gardens: maybe my favorite thing about Copenhagen. And free!

On the stormiest day of my trip, I hiked over to Christiania (in near-horizontal rain). Freetown Christiania is a commune founded about forty years ago that recently gained official autonomy from the Danish government, complete with a sign at the exit that reads “You are now entering the EU.” It is torn between the eco-friendly hippie principles on which it was founded — meditation, public art, unregulated plant life — and the violent strife that its open drug policy has fostered. When I walked through the winding streets, on which cars are banned, I noticed how idyllic the whole place seemed. Though I can’t say I would live there, I certainly admire the way that the community thrives despite being composed of those on the margins of society. It welcomes creatives, homeless people, and drug addicts — not really the types of people we imagine structuring and holding up a community, and yet the place functions amazingly well, probably far better than if I and a group of other neurotic but “normal” people got together and tried to start a government.

Further evidence of my trek.

After Berlin, I headed to Copenhagen, a city that was fundamentally very different. It may very well have been wonderful; I had a hard time noticing anything other than the prices, which were exorbitant. A cup of coffee: $6, Thai takeaway: $25. Sure, the Danes have universal healthcare, but is a 25% tax really worth it? (Of course, I say this from within the bubble of people with full health insurance that they don’t pay for.)

Anyway, partially because I couldn’t afford to do anything else, but mostly because it’s my favorite thing to do in a new place, I wandered. Copenhagen is pretty decentralized and fairly residential, but has some really spectacular parks. I can imagine it’s a better place to live than to visit: the people all seem rather affable, biking around the city with their little blond children. It has much more the feel of a small town than a bustling metropolis, with brightly colored townhouses and friendly neighborhood restaurants (where, by the way, they charge you for tap water, which is bullshit).

One of my favorite aspects of Berlin was the presence of a quiet but distinctive literary culture. Pictured is a open library system or public art — I couldn’t tell, and there was no explanation proffered; the trunks were unassumingly displayed on the sidewalk next to a flower-shop-and-cafe venture (the amalgam of my two favorite things).

I next wandered over to Shakespeare & Sons, an outpost of a Czech bookstore dealing in English and French tomes. Unlike the Paris institution with a similar name and objective, this place was near deserted and remarkably unpretentious. Amidst the delicately wafting scent of baking zucchini bread, I browsed, and then relaxed on my choice of welcoming settees with a used and moderately affordable edition of Cutting for Stone and an Earl Grey tea. Perfection.

Naturally, I stayed in the exact wrong area of the city: Charlottenburg, when I meant to stay in Friedrichshain. I found the most interesting neighborhood to be Prenzlauer Berg, where there is a mixture between the upscale trendy and the grungy hipster, with a definite emphasis on green living.

I found Berlin to be a fascinating city with definite character, something I readily found in Asia but miss in Paris, where I find culture has given way to rampant consumerism and tourism. Berlin is still under the shadow of the Wall, and while the city does not have an overtly prevalent divide, neighborhoods seem more disparate than other places I’ve visited. Cold War aftereffects run deeper than this, however: Berlin is very much a young city, still struggling to define itself while dealing with the onslaught of modernity, an undertaking rarely seen in Western Europe. The polish that has eradicated the Paris of my dreams (of bohemians and literary salons and avant-garde ideas) is strikingly absent in Berlin: from the ubiquitous graffiti to the extraordinary prevalence of “concept” marcados, it is clear that Berlin’s identity is still in flux, which gives the city a wonderful approachability.

Upon my arrival in Berlin, I was told to indulge in a currywurst posthaste. An acquaintance I made on my hour-long train detour through the outskirts of the city (take the S9, not the regional train) and I found a stand on the edge of the famous Tiergarten with all-organic ingredients. I’m still unsure what a currywurst is, but it’s nice with a bit of mustard and a fresh dinner roll, followed by a stroll through the city’s surprisingly large central park.

I haven’t updated my blog in a while but will be doing so in order to keep up with my burgeoning celebrity and moral values of following through on things. Stay tuned! Pictures and vaguely spasmodic anecdotes from my recent adventures in Berlin, Copenhagen, and Malmo are imminent!

Feeling antsy due to my suddenly-sedentary lifestyle (working in an office is quite a change from wandering Thailand!), I actually had the desire to go running. I picked the banks of the Seine as the most scenic locale for this unprecedented athletic incident to go down, though unfortunately not a few pedestrians had the same idea for their morning stroll. I have since discovered that the Bois de Boulogne and the Tuileries are better options, but not a bad view!