30 October 2012

Gypsy Kitchens: Potted Potatoes in Edible Dirt

"Your next course is in the flower pot." We were about six courses into the rapid-fire introductory 'snack' portion of dinner at Noma - a dinner we'd nabbed a reservation for three months ago despite a nationwide internet outage in Montenegro, a dinner we'd almost not made it to thanks to the lovely cop who stopped us on the way there for not having lights on our bikes, a dinner at "The Best Restaurant in the World" three years running.   Noma is almost mythic at this point. Do the chefs really forage ingredients from parks and shores around Copenhagen?  Yes.   Do they actually make you eat dirt?  Well, kind of.  The 'edible dirt' filled flower pot, from which perfect carrots and radishes are messily unearthed by hand, is one of Noma's signature dishes.   So, we decided to create our own version as an homage to Noma and New Nordic Cuisine.   Everything in that flower pot is edible.
New Nordic Cuisine is the biggest thing to hit the culinary world since molecular gastronomy and we were lucky enough to be introduced to it at three of the best meals of our lives, Fäviken Magasinet in Sweden and both AOC and Noma in Copenhagen.   In 2004, Noma's founders, chef René Redzepi and Claus Meyer, got all the top chefs and restauranteurs in Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark together to discuss the concept of a new cuisine.  The idea was to utilize the fruits of the the Nordic's soil and water and its traditions of food preparation and preservation, salting, marinating, drying and curing.  New Nordic Cuisine is doggedly seasonal and place specific. The ingredients are foraged, collected and farmed. The preparation allows the natural flavors to shine.  "Simplicity" is a hallmark, but the actual execution is anything but simple.  Throwing out any rules from world cuisine, the chefs create something beyond easy explanation or comparison.  Now known as "Nordic."
We began with the dirt.  Noma's was explained as "malt soil."   Like just about every explanation that evening, something utterly complicated was stated as simple fact.   Oh, that's just some carrot leather and parsley snow.   Their dirt recipe is no mystery, a quick google search gave us all the instructions which  require two days, two unconventional flours (malt and hazelnut), beer, sugar and precision.  Our own soil is much more basic and required fewer ingredients and less time.  It's a little odd to look at items in a market and gauge how much they look like dirt, but that's just what we did.  Pumpernickel bread and dried chanterelles were obvious winners.  Roasted pumpkin seeds were added in for flavor, a punctuation of salt and fat. The bits of mushroom provided that dirty, earthy taste all soil should have (right?) and, visually, it reminded us of crumbled dry leaves settling into the earth before the winter frost.  Food dirt shouldn't just be edible, but also enjoyable.
What to plant? The radishes and carrots at Noma could be pulled up by their stems, but our own market had trimmed the green right off their veggies.  We'd just passed harvested potato fields on the bus back to Vejle from Legoland.  The idea of unearthing warm root vegetables on a frosty day also held an appeal.  So, we chose fingerling potatoes.  To complement them and get the aesthetic look we needed, chives were ideal. They were sold in a pot of their own, their roots deep in actual dirt. Once all washed up, their thicker white stemmed bottoms made them much easier to work with than shortened all-green chives would have been.  The potatoes were boiled.
At the bottom of Noma's flower pot was a green goop.  We were instructed to harvest our veggies and then use them to scoop up as much of the goop and dirt as we could.  Our own base layer, served a second function, keeping our potatoes upright and their tops high enough that we wouldn't have to dig around too deeply to grab them.  We used Icelandic skyr, a version of yogurt that is a little thicker, and flavored it with chopped chives, parsley and minced horseradish root - a nod to horseradishy Danish remoulade.  The result was a play on sour cream and onion, the perfect flavor combination for potatoes.  In fact, sour cream would work just as well, as skyr isn't widely available outside of Scandinavia.  As would a thick, plain yogurt.
We spooned the mixture over a slice of bread we'd placed at the bottom of our flower pot to cover up the pesky drainage hole.  Then, we stood our potatoes up in the skyr, submerging them about halfway.  The chives planted deeply to keep them as vertical as possible. When the potatoes are added to the cream, the level rises significantly.  So, you want to be careful not to fill your pot so much that there isn't any room for the dirt.  Enough potato should be sticking up that you'll be able to get a good grasp on it when searching around in the soil.  At least an inch of soil on top keeps them well hidden.  As we sprinkled the dirt carefully between our potatoes and packed it around the chives, keeping them vertical, it felt exactly like gardening.  Then came the harvest.
Things got a little messy.  But that's part of the fun!  It was harder to get a grip on the potatoes than we thought it would be and we definitely wound up getting our fingers gloppy.  The potatoes' skyr-covered bottom halves did an excellent job at grabbing onto the soil on their way up.  So, with a little fishing around and yanking, a fingerling would emerge covered in every ingredient we'd put in the pot.  The Potted Potatoes in Edible Dirt were fun to make and fun to eat.  And if you set one of these surprising dishes out at a dinner party, our Martha Stewart tip would be to write each guest's name on a 'plant tag' and stick it right in there.  Then, bask in the pleasure of saying "Your first course is in the flower pot!"
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The Plastic Nation: Legoland

You shouldn't go to Legoland to play with Legos.  I had always assumed that it was a kind of utopian nation full of bricks - a place where the landscape was made of mountains and floes of plastic.  It seemed the land's only pass-time would be pawing through the Legos, admiring all the strange and unusual pieces - something like collecting butterflies or rare wildflowers.  "Look at this strange wheel, and this remarkable helmet from the early 1980's."  Serious work would consist of grand building projects, dozens of kids banding together to create cityscapes and space fortresses.  I imagined building something very impressive (maybe a spaceship or a space-car) that everyone would admire - "no big deal, really," I'd say, "all it takes is hours of practice and a healthy imagination."  Maybe one of the Legoland chief architects, who I suppose would be elfin creatures who were paid richly to sit around and play with toys all day, would notice what I had built and offer me a job ("we don't usually hire kids, but you've got so much talent…").  I'd be let into those secret rooms in the factory where they design special pieces, and there I would play at being god and create the raw matter of plastic life, the elements that form the universe.  "I'd like a four-long, two deep slope with about four screens painted onto it and several knobs, made of clear plastic and…"
Well, that's not what Legoland is like at all.
On a frozen, white-edged morning we took a bus through rolling farmland to Denmark's original Legoland, on the outskirts of Billund.  On the way, we watched the sky lighten over cow pastures and sleepy towns.  Drawing closer, huge buildings began to pop up - square, massive, windowless factories.  They could have been anything, except that there were refrigerator-sized Lego bricks in front of them, and some had giant Lego people standing on their roofs. I assumed that this was what we had come for and got excited, but it turns out those are just the manufacturing buildings.  They're off limits.
We were let out in front of the Legoland hotel (where I'm sure the beds are very hard and bumpy).  Across the street were the ticket booths and lines.  Strange, tinny music echoed in the cold air.  Little kids ran around in snow suits.  We bought tickets and went in.
And here's what we discovered: there are millions and millions of bricks at Legoland, but almost all of them are fenced off.  This is a theme park.  The theme is "Legos." That doesn't mean you get to actually touch any.  People come for the rides.
Well, that's not entirely true.  There are a few instances where you can get up close with some of the toys, but these chances are few and far between.  Here, for example, you could sit with a shockingly dressed prostitute in the "Legoredo" wild-west section of the park.  The rest of the western themed section was almost empty of bricks, except for a few big displays - a 1.4 million brick Mount Rushmore and another huge "running of the buffalo."
Most of the rides and areas are based on older product series - Knight's Kingdom, Polar Land, Pirates, Vikings - that children today might not even recognize.  There are roller coasters and spinners, splash-rides and pop-shot booths.  It's not much different than most theme parks.
The most interesting part of the park is "Miniland", where famous European cities and world monuments are re-created in miniature.  Amsterdam, Bergen, Copenhagen, the US Capitol Building, the Statue of Liberty (etc…) are set up in fine, pixilated detail.  The visual effect is fun: there are trees towering over skyscrapers and grass growing up around tiny people.  Leaves drifted in the streets and the whole of everything was covered in frost.  Little trucks drove through the streets, powered by battery.  Barges floated in the canals.  The Cape Canaveral tableau emitted steam when the shuttle was about to "take off."  Young men walked carefully between the displays, picking up twigs and dusting tiny courtyards.  There were boats to ride in between some of the bigger creations, and a nearby "safari" had near life-size models of exotic animals.  This part of the park was great, and it was where adult visitors lingered the longest.  Here were the fun Lego creations we had expected to see.
Over a thousand pieces are produced every second, stamped in one of three factories on two continents.  Rubber World magazine recently recognized the toymaker as the world leader in tire production, based on units produced - 381 million in 2011.  Lego, by its own estimates, has produced over 400 billion pieces since 1949, when they began making the "automatic binding brick."  Incredibly, the pieces from that first year are compatible with modern bricks - there have been changes made to the plastic and the process, but not to the basic design.
Tastes have changed, though, and Lego began losing money in the late 1990's.  The company was forced - they say - to change the focus of the bricks.  Instead of sticking with the free-form pieces that made them famous, they began creating more specialty pieces that would grab the attention of children used to video games.  In fact, they began making video games, then movies and clothes.  Most of their old product series were scrapped in favor of movie tie-ins: Star Wars, Harry Potter, Toy Story, Pirates of the Caribbean, Cars, Lord of the Rings and others - there's even Spongebob Squarepants Legos.
The company also opened more theme parks.  The Billund one is the first, built in 1968, but there are five other, newer parks and three more on the way.  Lego says that 1.4 million people visit each of the six parks annually.  I believe it.  Legoland was packed.
The best part about these toys is that they seem limitless.  Nothing else is like them. Legos are a magical base substance that allows the builder to create incredible shapes, machines, towns, vehicles, castles, whatever. And not only that, but this act of creation is fast, easy and fluid - unlike, say, carpentry or sculpture.  But the most incredible thing about Legos isn't that they can be used to build, but that they can be taken apart and used in a different way, then a different way, like a process of alchemy and atoms.  What is built is only a temporary form, brought into being or reduced to its elemental parts on a whim.  They give someone the ability to think and imagine in three dimensions.
Which is why the themepark was a little disappointing.  Not only were the rides less Lego-centric than they could have been, the rest of the place just didn't feel that imaginative.  They do have brick-shaped french fries, but that was the only theme-specific food - what about Lego waffles (their waffles were normal shaped)?  Or Lego-decorated brownies, carrot cake and cookies?  How hard would it be to put on a few dollops of frosting?  And what about a few bricks to actually, you know, play with?  Instead, there's a Nintendo video game center and a movie theater.
Legoland Billund is the biggest tourist attraction in Denmark outside of Copenhagen, and it's easy to see why.  There are millions of people around the world who love Legos, and who are willing to travel all the way to a fairly remote town for a big Lego experience.  We weren't the only twenty-something travelers there without kids.
Sadly, we left a little disappointed.  Not that it wasn't fun.  It just wasn't the experience I'd dreamed of.  It's not a place I would recommend, unless someone really likes tame amusement park rides and happens to be close by.
Still, it was fun to think about the toys again, and to see Miniland.  The tiny, leaf-covered houses and people were perfectly charming.  They were weathered and a little faded from the elements.  It had me wanting to build something.

29 October 2012

The Curious Case of Danish Sandwiches

Denmark will have you questioning everything you thought you knew about sandwiches.  It all starts with smørrebrød, the legendary Danish open face sandwiches.  Now, open sandwiches are a bit of an anomaly to begin with.  Doesn't the word 'sandwich' imply at least two pieces of bread with something between them?  Would you call a piece of toast with butter and jelly an open sandwich?  Probably not.  Now if it were peanut butter and jelly, you may.  But what if you ate it with a fork?  These things are complicated.  Even more so in Denmark, the land of smørrebrød.
The Danish open face sandwich begins simply enough,  with a slice of bread and some butter, the two words from which smørrebrød is derived.  Traditionally, the bread used is rugbrød, a deep brown, dense rye.  If smoked salmon is involved, unspoken law dictates the use of white bread.  Next come the pålæg (toppings), which typically include meat, fish, egg, cheese, etc.  The meat can be sliced or roasted, tartare or pate;  the fish, marinated, smoked, fried, steamed; the egg, scrambled, boiled, or raw from a chicken, quail or fish.
Next up, the pyntet (garnishes).  Herbs and sliced lemon are common and remoulade and/or mayo are smothered, dolloped and spread.  The finished product couldn't possibly be picked up off the plate and eaten with your hands.  This is what makes the Danish smørrebrød different than other open-faces, the bread is so smothered, covered, buried that you wouldn't know it was there!  I promise there's a bread needle in the above smoked salmon and scrambled egg haystack.  My final bites of a "shooting star" (stjerneskud) entree at Restaurant Klubben revealed a soggy, square slice of white bread, excavated from beneath two fillets of plaice (one steamed and one breaded and fried), a mound of shrimp, a dollop of caviar, remoulade, dill and lemon.
Much of the time, there's no way to tell a smørrebrød and a salad apart.  We tested this theory one afternoon at lunch, with one of us ordering a shrimp salad and the other a shrimp smørrebrødGuess which is pictured above.  (Hint: this post is about smørrebrød).
To be fair,  Danes themselves make a distinction between a smørrebrød and a sandwich.  An entire menu will be in Danish, except for the word "sandwich" and anything called such would almost certainly come with two slices of bread.  However, that second slice just didn't make the case for its being there. We ordered many 'sandwiches,' as part of this unofficial sandwich/smørrebrød study, and not a single one came topped with a piece of bread.  The second slice either lay alongside an open face that you couldn't possibly close or in one amazing case....
... both slices of bread sat side by side under the whole she-bang! Behold the delicious salmon salad sandwich from Mokka Cafe in Kolding.  In the case of both open and 'closed' sandwiches in Danish restaurants, forks and knives are always necessary.   I noticed that a big distinction Danes make between a smørrebrød and a sandwich is the type of bread.  This salmon salad sandwich required a sharper knife than a salmon salad smørrebrød probably would have, as it was on a crusty french bread.  As far as I can tell, it's square bread only (rugbrød or white) for smørrebrød and anything but for sandwiches. 
This chicken sandwich came on a poppy seed bun, whose top was so unnecessary that it actually came on a little plate of its own.  A side note.  Now, I'm only talking about sit-down restaurant sandwiches here.  There were definitely occurrences of To Go heros and boxed sandwiches at convenience stores.  At Legoland, we saw a family of four eating some hoagies they'd packed, complete with cold cuts, lettuce and tomato all layered thickly and neatly between halved loaves of Italian bread.  But when I looked closely, I noticed something I've never, ever seen before.  Rubberbands, blue ones, held the sandwiches together at the center.  They're new to this whole closed-sandwich thing.
In the Vesterbro neighborhood of Copenhagen, hip young things eat burgers with utensils and leave the top of the bun behind.   Superfluous.  The same is true for the pulled pork sandwiches that are the current rage.  At Dyrehaven, the perpetually full cafe/restaurant on Sønder Boulevard, the lunch menu begins with four classic smørrebrøds: smoked mackerel with egg (above, and heavenly),  chicken salad with bacon, smoked pork tenderloin and the kartoffelmad, a smørrebrød topped with sliced, roasted potatoes, radishes and crunchy onions.  But the cool kids don't come for something traditional.  They come for something else, the dish that Dyrehaven is famous for - - eggs benedict.  Quite possibly the best open face sandwich of all time.

P.S. It's pronounced  SMUHR-bruth.

Winter Comes to the Danish Coast

On the bus from Odense to the village of Faaborg we passed thousands of Christmas trees.  Funen island is full of them, planted for some future yule.  The air was cold, but not yet freezing - the rain stayed wet, the ground stayed green.  It felt like fall.  By the time we left town and the island, a feeling of winter had come over the place, drawn in from the dark sea beyond the harbor.  Mornings dawned with white breath, coats and cloaks were pulled tight.  In this part of northern Europe, where thatched roofs and half-timbered houses still stand sentinel next to ancient fields, winter feels like the natural mode of being.  It's a part of the oldness and rockiness of the landscape.  In three coastal towns - Faaborg, Kolding and Vejle - waves and cold air mixed, and the wind began to smell like snow.
At Oasen Bodega, a salty place with a palm tree on the wall, we were greeted by a cloud of cigarette smoke and curious stares.  The regulars were drinking bottles of Carlsberg beer and nodding at one another.  One old lady fondled my butt as I passed her on the way to the bar.  A glassy eyed old man gave Rebecca his facebook address.  Not long after we sat down, a taxi driver came through the door and began calling for John.  John was reluctant and feigned surprise, but there was a powerful force at work - likely his wife.  He stumbled out the door with the help of a friend's shoulder.  None of this happened with any great urgency, or even much movement at all.
The scene was like one from Chaucer's winter tavern.  We could have come back in April, when the land was thawing out, and found the same group sitting on the same stools.  It reminded me of bears settling in for hibernation - eyes closing, heartbeats slowing, mouths slackening, the world growing quite dark around the edges.  This is what living on a winter island must be like.
Sea and land mix easily here, because traveling overland through Denmark is deceptive.  The bridges and train causeways make separate pieces of land feel like one entity. It's all very flat. Copenhagen has an air of solidity, and I never felt like I'd been off the mainland until I was on the mainland.  This after crossing bridges from Zealand to Funen to Jutland, which is attached to Germany and the rest of the continent but isn't much higher above the waves. So Funen feels like an island, but also doesn't.  The land is wide-horizoned, and no-one is hemmed in, but the people still share a closeness - everyone grew up with the same sea around them.
The leaves were being blown out of the streets, leaving bare cobblestones behind.  Faaborg is an old place, where once a huge fishing fleet docked.  The houses are pretty and close together, painted in bright, earthy russet and yellow.  On our last night, we began wondering when the weather was going to turn - the season had already tilted into winter, a storm felt inevitable.  Everyone had shut themselves up indoors.
In the castle town of Kolding, on a fjord of the same name, we saw our first snow of the season.  It wasn't much, and it came out of a bright blue sky, but it was unmistakably snow.  The flakes were the hard, bouncing kind that might have been sleet, but it wasn't sleet.  We caught the sight through a window. A team of construction workers stopped what they were doing and looked around at the sudden white.
Later, in the early dark of a late October night, we found ourselves surrounded by a throng of people at another pub.  There was no lethargy - the cold and season had invigorated the crowd, and they drew together for comfort.  There was a lot of beer to drink and a quiz game to listen to - a man stood up to call out questions and we all scribbled on sheets of paper.  He spoke in English, which was surprising, but nobody had a hard time and it was lucky for us.
Vejle is drawn as far away from the water as it can be without really leaving the shore.  The harbor and town are at the far end of a narrow, long cut of water.  This far inland the ocean is calm and full of sea grasses and gulls.  A little fish market was set up at the head of the water, near the bestilled boats and a big factory.  This scarred shark's head rested on a bucket of ice.  It wasn't clear if the meat was for sale or if there was some other meaning.
In the morning, Velje was coated with a thick frost.  The dense grass by the water was white and stiff, the air was frozen dry.  Dead leaves lay on the sidewalk, coated in patterns of crystal.  The day would cloud up and grow windy, but those early hours were as clear and bright as any midwinter dawn. Our hands and ears were cold - the first pinches of real cold we've felt this year - but the sun was warm on our faces.  We walked along the fjord and listened to the birds squawking.  The nordic winters are dark, but the season has some brightness too.

28 October 2012

You Are What You Sit On

The Swedes may have given the world IKEA, but the Danes gave us all a place to sit.  Sure, chairs existed before the Danish design movement, but the idea of what a chair was or looked like was vastly different.  To be fair, it really started with the Germans.  Danish furniture makers were highly influenced by the Bauhaus school in Germany which, from 1919 - 1933, taught a revolutionary style of furniture design that mixed craftsmanship with fine arts, encouraging creativity, but also keeping human proportions, modern materials and technique top of mind.  The even greater 'gift' (I really hesitate to use that word) from Germany, when it comes to Danish furniture design, was World War II.  Denmark was relatively unscathed, the rest of Europe was looking for cheaper, simpler products and plywood construction became the start of a Danish empire on four legs.
It's amazing how little you think of designs that have become so mainstream they are simply the default.  For example, we have missed Q-Tips deeply since beginning this trip, never really realizing that "cotton swabs" are just not the same.  If I saw the above chair in a home, I might think "nice chairs."  Maybe.  If I saw it in a store, I would recognize that it's a perfect version of chair that I may want for my own home.  In a museum,  specifically Trapholt in Kolding, I realized that this chair is a work of art that didn't just always exist.  The fathers of Modern Danish chair design were (or worked closely with) cabinetmakers.  Lighter woods, function and simplicity, the idea that the piece would fit into the personal world of its owner all factored in.  Thoughtful craftsmanship was key.
Arne Jacobsen, Kaare Klint, Hans Wegner, Verner Panton led the wave of design, teaching and studying at the Royal Danish Academy of Art.  They were commissioned by hotels to make one-of-a-kind furniture.  Wegner's Round Chair became known simply as The Chair after it was used by Nixon and Kennedy in one of their historic, televised debates.   Jacobsen's The Egg and The Swan are icons of modern design and his stackable Ant Chair was so popular that it became Denmark's first industrially manufactured chair.  Above, Ant chairs fill Trapholt's museum cafe.
Finn Juhl was a little more radical than his Danish design contemporaries.  The Pelican Chair, strung up in a colorful array at Trapholt's exhibit commemorating what would have been Juhl's 100th birthday, was called "aesthetics in the worst possible sense of the word" when it debuted.  A great artist panned during his lifetime? Shocking.  What I found more shocking, though, was that this and other curvaceous and plush, colorful and space-age designs were created in the early 1940s.  Looks that I associate with the swinging 60s or the groovy 70s predated both by my entire lifespan.  Juhl may not be the most influential of the chair designers, but he is credited with bringing modern Danish design to America, where it gained instant popularity and still flies off the shelves.
The above Ball Chair was actually designed by a Finn (Eero Saarinen), but when you read the architect's account of his process, you see why Trapholt would include it in a retrospective about Danish design.  With all of its whimsy, uniqueness and its futuristic feel, the chair's dimensions were still based on the most functional of factors.  "Being the taller one of us, I sat... and my wife drew the course of my head on the wall,"  Saarinen explained.  From there, it was simple enough to make a ball "just remembering that the chair would have to fit through a doorway."  It's the art of making something completely logical look and feel imaginative.
The thing about chairs is that, more than any other piece of furniture design, it just won't catch on unless it's truly functional.  You can own a table and define its use by what it can handle.  Lamps, shelves, they serve functions, but there's really no wrong way to do them.  Chairs have to hold weight, they have to be comfortable, they have to fit the owner's taste and also their frame.  Imagine a world where chairs didn't stack or swivel, weren't light enough to move with one hand or inexpensive enough to buy in large matching sets.  Then, thank Denmark.  (with a shout-out to Germany, Finland and the US).

27 October 2012

The Great Dane

Less grim than the Brothers Grimm, more lucid than Dr. Suess, an actual person (unlike Mother Goose), Hans Christian Andersen was a master of fairytales.  His works have been translated into 160 language dialects and have been rehashed, updated, paraphrased, quoted and borrowed for nearly two centuries.  Some of his stories are so woven into popular culture that they've become figures of speech, illustrations of some of life's most pervasive themes.  The naked, duped, leader in the Emperor's New Clothes is the archetype of vanity.  The Ugly Duckling's triumph over bullying is the original It Gets Better.
"It doesn't matter about being born in a duckyard, as long as you are hatched from a swan's egg!" The Ugly Duckling, 1843.   Andersen's duckyard was Odense, where he was born to a poor cobbler There are places and things names after Anderson throughout Denmark, but the greatest congestion of tributes is here in his hometown.  On a Saturday afternoon, we joined the rush at Den Grimme Ælling ('The Ugly Duckling') which was serving a brunch buffet of epic proportions.  The 'all you can drink' period was just ending, but the servings of pork crackling, smoked salmon and fried eggs were being replenished with fervor.
Odense is a charming, livable town with a strong attachment to its famous son.  There are statues of some of his best known characters scattered around town, a large statue of him in the park.  There is the big, wonderful Hans Christian Andersen Museum and a smaller collection within his childhood home.  My favorite tribute was Odense's Walk/Don't Walk signs.  The little green man wore a top hat and held a cane, no doubt an impression of Hans' silhouette.
The Hans Christian Andersen Museums itself was fun to explore.  My knowledge of the author came from childhood viewings of Hans Christian Andersen starring Danny Kaye.  The movie-musical was as much a work of fiction as Thumbelina or The Princess and the Pea, but the fact that all of these stories sprung from the mind of a single man still resonated with me.  As it turns out, the real HC was much more interesting than the Kaye version.  He was a paranoid neurotic who traveled with a big rope because he was convinced he'd need to escape a hotel fire.  When pen wasn't being put to paper, his high-speed creative mind found an outlet in paper cutting.  Think snowflakes gone beautifully mad.  His nose was big, his feet were bigger, he abstained from sex and had infatuations with both genders.  In a questionnaire, he answered "Fresh Air" for his "Favorite Perfume."  This 'fresh air room' in the museum celebrated his love of outdoor introspection.
Other answers in the questionnaire included "to be happy" for "Dream in Life" and "contentment" for "Your Idea of Happiness."  The museum had a pair of old dentures, as lifelong toothaches kept him constantly ill at ease and these 3D portraits that you could view through stereoscopes.  Beyond these, there were hundreds of portraits of the author around the space and quotes from friends saying that no photo or painting ever really looked like him because he'd always try to put on a 'dignified pose.'  In that same questionnaire, he answered "Hans Christian Andersen" for "Who would you most like to be if not yourself?"  It's a good guess that he never really saw himself as the swan. 
For all his eccentricities and depressive moods, he appeared to be well loved by everyone he met.  Dignitaries and royals fawned upon him.  Before he ever published a word, chance encounters with nobles resulted in scholarship to school and connections in Copenhagen.  There was the Charles Dickens debacle, when Hans accepted an invitation to dinner and then stayed for five months.  He had no idea why Charles never returned his calls afterwards.  But mostly, he was adored worldwide.  It actually took Denmark a little longer to recognize their own genius, but once they did, he became a local hero.  Above, a 3D statue of Hans Christian Andersen at Legoland.
From the very start and until the very end, the greatest love for Hans came from children who ate up each new collection of fairy tales as they were published.  It was fitting that our trip to Odense coincided with the last day of the week-long Harry Potter Festival.  Children ran around in costumes playing a game I don't know how to spell because I've never read the books (blasphemy!)   Andersen enjoyed a notoriety akin to Rowling's.  When a nasty rumor started about Andersen being destitute and ill, children in America began a collection and a big wad of US cash arrived in an envelope.  On his deathbed, once he was actually ill but still not destitute, Hans requested that his funeral march be composed to "keep time with little steps" because "most of the people that will walk after me will be children."
Of course, there's a kid in all of us, right?  (Hence our visit to aforementioned Legoland, which will be covered in more depth soon).  The tourists taking photos at the little mermaid statue in Copenhagen may not even know the origins of the character or the author of the tale.  Disney gave her red hair, a purple shell bra and a happy ending, but Hans Christian Andersen gave her to the world as a version of himself.  In that same questionnaire posted in the Hans Christian Andersen Museum,  he was asked to state his occupation.  "Dreaming life away."

A Nation on Two Wheels

One night in Copenhagen, as the two of us were riding our rented bicycles to dinner, a policeman stopped us on a bridge.  At first, I assumed that he was motioning to a passing car, his stance was so official.  But he was making eye contact, and I noticed that a few other cyclists were also stopped there on the sidewalk, talking to other officers.
"Where are you from? How long have you been in Denmark? Do you live here?" he asked, once we'd pulled over.  We were smiling and almost laughing at him - it didn't seem like we could be in any trouble. Our passports are in fine order, we hadn't broken any laws. Turns out, he wasn't worried about our immigration status, and we were doing something illegal.
"I can take you to the bank right now," he said.  "Seven hundred kroner fine for you" - sticking his finger in my chest - "seven hundred kroner for you" - pointing at Rebecca. "Payment immediate, or I arrest you."  He put his hands together, miming handcuffs.  Uh… what?
It turns out that bike lights are required at night in Denmark.  It's a national law.  As soon as the streetlights are illuminated, every cyclist needs a white light in the front and a red light in the back - this being one of the most bicycle friendly places on earth, riding un-lit is a bit like driving a car without working brake lights.  The policeman very sanctimoniously let us go - walking our bikes - because we were foreigners.  "Buy lights at a seven-eleven," he grunted.
Yes sir.
About half of Copenhagen's citizens bike to work or school every day.  In a flat, mostly temperate metropolis like this, it's hard not to see the benefits of taking a bicycle instead of a car - it's faster, easier and maybe even safer.  During the three days that we had our rentals, we fell in love with the capital's terrific double transportation system - one set of lanes and traffic signals for cars and a separate one for those of us on two wheels.  It's orderly and well set-up, and almost everyone plays by the rules.  Cars are very careful of bicycles and every rider stops at the miniature traffic lights.  Most main roads have good bike lanes, and on smaller streets the smaller vehicles have the right of way.
This reliable bike is a postal trike, for delivering the mail.
Like in Holland - another flat, much cycled country - the wealth of different cycle options is really outstanding.  Ingenious, front-mounted platforms and crates allow people to carry heavy loads - we saw one man riding with a set of four dining room chairs.  Children are whisked around in a similar way, in the front bucket.  There's a multitude of different companies making vehicles like this - from Copenhagen's own Christiania Bikes to the hipper Bullitt Cargobikes. There are mail bikes and delivery bikes, street vendor bicycles and cycles with pizza-boxes built in.  Sometimes the cargo is carried behind the seat, but usually between the handlebars and the front wheel.
The best part about getting around by bike is that you never have to look for parking - just pull over, flip down the kickstand, lock the back wheel and walk away.  The woman we rented our apartment from told us not to worry too much about bike theft.  "Sure, it happens," she said.  "But not like in New York, for example."
One reason why is that there are so, so many bicycles parked out on the street.  Huge masses of them - like shoals of shining fish - congregate around train stations and supermarkets.  In crowds like that, the nicest bikes are usually the only ones fastened to something sturdy.  Most - like our rentals - just had a locking bar that clicked through the spokes and prevented the bikes from being ridden away.  We didn't worry too much.  Someone might have picked up our rickety old things for scrap, but that would have been a lot of work.
It's not just the city streets of Copenhagen that are full of cyclists.  All through Denmark, people are enthusiastic about riding.  On Funen island and in Kolding it was about as common as in the capital, if a little less organized.  Local governments have been banding together to create "superhighways" for two-wheeled commuters, complete with air-pump stations and winter plowing.  Several of these mega-paths already service Copenhagen's suburbs, and the government is planning on adding more soon.
An initiative (curiously) named "karma" has also been started, to reward cyclists for following the rules of the road.  Supposedly, volunteers on the street hand out chocolates to riders who obey traffic lights and use the proper signals.  I'm not sure why this is really necessary.  Barely anyone breaks the law.
In recent years, there's been a wave of public bike rental plans - or bike "sharing" - in European cities.  Most of them work with some kind of easy, credit-card based system.  The idea is, you have a charge card that's billed for the amount of time the bike is used - or, maybe, a payment is made that's good for a full day.  Special bike racks are set up at different points so that it's possible to pick up a ride on one side of town and "return" it on the other.  Some version of this exists in 165 cities worldwide, with notable examples in Barcelona, Paris, Amsterdam and soon in New York.
Copenhagen has one-upped the other cities though, with free "borrow" bikes.  A twenty kroner coin is all it takes to unlock your ride.  You get the money back when you re-chain the lock - much like the  deposit mechanisms on supermarket carts or airport baggage dollies.  They're not the greatest vehicles - heavily built, with airless, hard tires and balky gears - but they're dependable.  They also come with handy maps mounted to the handlebars.  We didn't use them - they're not always easy to find - but did see plenty of them around town.
The night we were stopped by the police, we did end up buying lights (dinky, flashing, plastic things) and making it to the restaurant we were heading to.  There, when we were talking to the American chef, he congratulated us for arriving "like the locals."  He laughed when we told him about getting pulled over.  "I always play the tourist card," he said.  "I've been in Copenhagen for four years, and I still haven't gotten the lights. Never got a ticket."