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Draft Four: Walking into your best thoughts
“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
It’s Monday, and I’ve been in Copenhagen for four days. It rained in all of them. It’ll keep raining all the way until I take off Wednesday night. But I don’t know that yet.
All I can think about is that Denmark retains second place in the World Happiness Report (Romania is 24). It doesn’t seem that rain is problematic for locals – they’re biking, walking, babies in tow. It’s cold enough to feel better with a beanie, warm enough to ditch the gloves.
I’ve come to Nytorv („the new square”) to start The Philosopher’s Last Walk. It’s a self-guided audio tour built around Søren Kierkegaard, the city’s famous philosopher. He’s known, among other things, for writing that “anxiety is the dizziness of freedom”. Life is about the choices we make, and our choices and actions are what shape our identity. Anxiety creeps in when one’s individual choices (freedom) clash with limitations imposed by society.
I choose to walk, rain be damned.
There is a plaque on a nearby wall with Kierkegaard’s name on it. It used to be a bank; now it’s about to become a JD Sports store on the main shopping street, which looks like today’s shopping street from everywhere. I walk into the arms of commerce as the audio talks about the bombings of Copenhagen in early 1800s by the British. That capped a shitty century in which the city was almost razed to the ground three times.
I had heard of the two fires of the 1700s in a walking tour I took a few days back. The bombing was not mentioned.
I love walking tours – especially the free ones (that you still end up tipping 10-20 euros for). I try to do one in every city. It’s a solid 2-3 hours walk, a tourist-oriented crash course on the history of the place, but also a great way to hear whose narrative the guide is selling.
I started this tradition with a fantastic tour I did in Madrid with Ramon, a born entertainer. The city, through his eyes, was a litany of things Spain owed to North Africans, most importantly to the moors. He made a big deal of al-Andalus, that special time of mostly peaceful co-existence between Christians, Jews, and Muslims, and the advances made in science and the arts. What he was saying – and this was relevant as the refugee crisis of the mid 2010s was heating up – is that we should keep the gates to our cities open.
A tour I took years later in Madrid passed some of the same sites, but the guide told a slightly different tale: about what it takes to become a gato (“cat”), which means a local. And by local he meant being in a lineage with two or three generations, born and raised. (One theory says madrileños are called “cats” because of their ability to climb castle walls to fight, you guessed it, the moors.)
In Copenhagen, the free tour was led by an Australian who’d been living there eight years. It was amazing, he said. He sold the hell out of Denmark as a paradise of ingenuity, and generosity (“just watch out for the biking Vikings when crossing”). Superb social safety net. Amazing pensions. Trust like you wouldn’t believe. Astounding work life balance. You get paid to go to university! Plus, incredible generosity – the man who came up with the Carlsberg brewing recipe, for example, gave his fabulous yeast to everyone in the world that asked, thus we’re all probably drinking the best beer in the world. He even named the brewery after his son, Carl.
Of course, the story is more nuanced. J.C. Jacobsen didn’t fix the world-changing beer yeast; that was done by a scientist he employed. And J.C. and Carl had serious a falling out – it was so bad that the son started Ny Carlsberg (“new Carlsberg”), while the father left the original brewery to a foundation. The two eventually merged.
The Kierkegaard audio tour was less celebratory. Denmark was still mostly rural in the early 1800s when the philosopher was born (unhappy childhood, family believed they were cursed etc.). The country expanded, industrialized, and went through a cultural Golden Age. Kierkegaard wasn’t much of a fan – he railed against what he saw as conformity, and he was especially pissed at the Church. He believed in God, but he also believed spirituality to be an individual matter; organized religion had perverted one’s personal relationship to God.
This didn’t win him many fans. He became known in the city as a troublemaker – more accurately, as the guy who would say things other would not. One landlord wanted to refuse him room and board fearing his reputation. (She did eventually take him in).
His contemporaries also believed his walking made him weird.
The man loved to walk; he composed his books like that. For him, walking was thinking, and thinking was walking. He wrote in a letter to a relative what is an often-quoted passage about its benefits: „Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Every day, I walk myself into a state of well-being & walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.”
I try to walk into my thoughts as well. I run for the same reason. There are benefits for my health, and my energy, but I walk because I like myself better in motion. I feel I walk into life lighter, walk out of problems, or, as Kierkegaard said, walk into my best thoughts.
„The more one sits still”, he wrote, „the closer one comes to feeling ill. Thus, if one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right.”
I came to Copenhagen because it was the city I was supposed to be in at the end of March 2020. Then, lockdown. Today I’m walking its streets to close a loop. I’m walking to think. I flew across the continent to walk in a new city, on streets I’ve never seen, curious both of what I’ll discover outside, as well as what I’ll discover inside.
I’m staying in an apartment a local journalist found for me. It belongs to his relatives, and they’re not in town. It’s on the ground floor of a building in Vesterbro, “the cool neighborhood”, he tells me. A few Internet searches away, I understand that not that long ago, Vesterbro and its Meatpacking District was the place for drugs and prostitution. Now it’s bakeries, flat whites, craft beer, and boutiques. I’m not complaining; I’m just as guilty of endorsing the urban-creative-class narrative as many of you. For an anxious traveler, it’s a modern form of safety: if going too local is too scary, there’s always and everywhere a Nordic-style coffee shop that’ll overcharge me for a latte.
The building is old – more than a hundred years I’d guess –, but it’s been renovated in the past decades, along with the rest of the neighborhood. The floorboards are creaking, the pipes are showing, and the windows look into a beautiful fenced-in inner courtyard that is a block long. I’ve read about these buildings, I think, as I look out into the yard at elegantly arranged army of trash cans, each one with a distinct purpose. These apartments housed the working class of the city – usually families crammed into a very small space – while the inner courtyards were everything from cheaper lodging, to outhouses, stables, playgrounds, or other communal spaces.
I am learning all this from Tove Ditlevsen, whose memoirs, collected as The Copenhagen Trilogy, I’m reading. Ditlevsen was born in this neighborhood in 1917, to a father loyal to the union, and a mother unhappy with her life choices.
„In the morning there was hope”, Ditlevsen begins. These were the mornings of childhood, just before life kicked in and kicked everyone in the face. Mother had not yet faced her family’s poverty, and her set role in society. Father had not yet faced the prospect of being laid off. Her brother had not yet faced the decision to abandon school to start working to support the family. There was still time, still hope.
Ditlevsen walked these same streets, most of which carried the same names as they do today: Istegade, Vesterbrogade, Sønder Boulevard, and I couldn’t believe it. In Bucharest I live on a street that has changed its name five or six times in the past 100 years based on the narrative the city wanted to push.
She walked to think, but also walked to escape her upbringing. She walked to school, then walked to her odd jobs as a maid, and later a secretary hoping to walk into history as writer. Hoping to meet someone who would help her do that. Or to be blunt about it (she was), hoping to meet someone she could use. (“Mr. Krogh said that people always wanted to use each other for something, and that there was nothing wrong with that. It’s quite clear what I want to use the editor for, but what does he want to use me for?”)
She was married four times, had three children, but her great love remained words.
Kierkegaard’s great love was Regine Olsen. They got engaged when he was 27, and she was 19. Kierkegaard wrote to her, and about her, wrote her into his books, and eventually wrote her out of her real existence, as if she wasn’t a woman, but an idea. This consumed him to the point that he decided he had to make a choice (freedom to think vs. marriage, to simplify) – and for an existential philosopher, choices are not something you go back on. He broke off the engagement and ended the relationship. Was a bit of an asshole, the audio guide kindly informed me. He never found another Regine and her ghost kept haunting his writings. (Fun fact: in Danish the word for marriage and poison is the same one, gift).
For a long time, history (that often male of professions), had Regine alongside other “muses” (think Dante’s Beatrice). But she was flesh and blood, and she did have things to say. Although they had parted, they still ran into each other on walks through the city over the years. One might think some of those coincidences were timed. (“As often happens to me of late, I can’t help but smile when I see her”, he wrote in his journals.) Before leaving the country to join her new husband as governor of the Danish West Indies, it’s said Regine went out on the streets of the city to find the writer. When she did, she said: “God bless you – may good things come your way!”
That was in March 1855. She was 33, he was 41. It was the last time they would see one another. Regine went on to marry and live into her 80s. Kierkegaard died just eight months later.
In 1940, the Germans walked into Copenhagen unencumbered, the Australian guiding our free walking tour said. The Danish government had decided occupation was better than bloodshed. By 1943 the two camps weren’t getting along, and the Germans decided to get rid of the local Jewish population. The locals found out and, in a fateful night, helped almost 90 percent of Denmark’s few thousand Jews flee to Sweden in boats.
Tove Ditlevsen was in Copenhagen during the war, too. She was in her mid-20s by then and had published a couple volumes of poetry and a novel. The war, to her, was a bit of a nuisance, as editors were harder to reach and much of Copenhagen’s art scene was engaged in talk about resistance. Even her husband at the time flirted with joining. Ditlevsen didn’t necessarily care for the Germans, but she also didn’t see what else she could do but focus on her life, her daughter, and her writing. (“I’m too busy with my own life, my own uncertain future, to be able to think patriotically right now.”)
When the war ended, she married Carl, a budding doctor who she also wanted something from: painkillers, in ever-increasing doses, until her addiction made her unable to function and she was admitted to a clinic.
Ditlevsen’s language is matter of fact. There is no kindness towards herself, no attempt to protect “her image” (“I think I can only like other people if they’re interested in me”, she writes at one point). The memoirs paint a picture of a woman going against the world to get what she wanted: to write books, as much pain as that caused her and others. Or write books even as life proved to be nothing but painful. (Kierkegaard like this).
Although she was well known and well read, she was largely dismissed in her time by the male literary establishment (as a “woman writer” as opposed to a “writer”). She published many books – poetry, novels, collections of short stories, kids’ stories. In March 1976, at 58, she killed herself. Today, she is included in the Danish school curriculum.
Kierkegaard, more than a hundred years before, suffered a similar fate. He was known, but he pissed too many people off to be liked and the city mocked his eccentricity. The audio tour wraps up in a cemetery on the edge of Østerbro, a neighborhood that is more multiethnic than others I’ve walked through.
I saw a pro-Palestine rally in a park, and thought about the fact that Denmark, while progressive and still with a solid safety net, has been doing plenty in the past decade to curb and dissuade migration, especially from North Africa and the Middle East.
The cemetery is large. The writer Hans Christian Andersen, both famous and loved while he was alive, is buried there. And so is Regine Olsen. In a fenced off grave, the family plot, on one of the three tablets, you’ll find Kierkegaard’s name.
In November 1855 he was 42, and furiously working. He stopped to take a walk, and during his walk he collapsed and died. He dedicated all his work to Regine, and he left her his estate – whatever it was at the time. She took some of it – some keepsakes and his letters and papers, which she later donated to the university. He was rehabilitated a few decades later, and Regine was alive to witness the newfound fame of her former lover.
As I was standing by Kierkegaard’s grave, the rain picked up. (Fun fact: In Danish, his name translates as “church yard” or, more commonly, “graveyard”.)
The ground became slippery. The clouds pulled into each other. I’ll be 42 in a couple of months, I told myself. Interesting stories I chose for this trip. I could have walked into different lives than Kierkegaard and Ditlevsen’s. But there I was, in the rain, by the grave of the grandfather of existential philosophy, in the second happiest nation on Earth. We walk into the stories we need.
I rushed off and later tucked into a bookstore, planning to walk out with some Kierkegaard. Until I passed a shelf where patrons could place books they thought others should read. Among big name books by big name authors was a slim mustard-colored volume that imitated a notebook’s design, with the title and the author’s names in cursive. The book? A memoir, more of a journal made up by a series of meditations recorded during a trip the author takes with his wife while they are expecting their second child, and waiting for the results of a test that will reveal whether the fetus carried the risk of birth defects. The author? A Kansas-born and raised poet named Cyrus Console. The title? The Romanian Journal.
There are a lot of things Cyrus walks into: his role as a young father, his procrastination, the Romanian relatives of his wife, the roads of this odd country, accumulating „desperate sensations of self-pity and frustrated rage”. But, just like that, “a curious new feeling comes over me: that this trip, stressful though it has been, was somehow unavoidable”.
There are plenty in the links above. Read Ditlevsen’s memoir when you get a chance – it cuts deep, while being both direct and restrained. And if experimental nonfiction featuring Romania and Romanians is your thing, Console’s book is beautiful, too. If you read to the end, I’m deeply grateful.