29 October 2012

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.


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