Riding through the streets of Copenhagen was an education in itself for my sister Rebecca. Her study abroad program provided a language and culture class, and also a bicycle, which introduced her to the cadence of Danish life in its own way. She regularly passed groups of friends who, unconcerned by freezing temperatures, had chosen the outdoor seating for dinner. Restaurants provided rows of candles, piles of blankets, and heat lamps, so why not enjoy the fresh air? Even on the coldest days, Rebecca rode by day care workers out for a stroll, leading clumps of toddlers in puffy snowsuits. Exposing young children to the cold is healthy, you know.
Biking through Copenhagen, Rebecca learned that you never need to mumble an apology for nearly crashing into someone, nor do you make eye contact with strangers. Denmark is full of strangers, after all–refugees from dictatorships and immigrants from countries that do not have such generous welfare benefits as the Danes provide. Rebecca sometimes passed dark-skinned women with head scarves sitting on curbs, holding out upturned palms.
Rebecca often biked down the medieval cobblestone streets to visit Nørrebro, a neighborhood of Copenhagen with lots of middle eastern shops and restaurants, where she would study by the lakes. On her way, she used to see a Greenlandic man sitting on his front steps. Greenlanders are easy to spot in Denmark–stocky and dark-haired in contrast to the tall, blond Danes. Greenland supplies Denmark with oil, while Denmark supplies Greenland with welfare money, some of which goes to quiet the problems caused by alcohol, which Denmark first introduced to the country.
On one of Rebecca’s trips to Nørrebro, the sun made an appearance, illuminating already gilded fall leaves. The warmth made her wonder if she needed her quintessentially Danish over-sized scarf. She thought of the sun slipping over the soft peaks of lake water. She started to whistle.
She spotted the man from Greenland at his usual post. He caught the notes twirling out in the sun and looked up at her. The music arced across continents and cultures, catching them up in its melody. He raised two brown, work-worn hands and began moving them up, down, out and in, up down, out and in, keeping time. He smiled.
Rebecca smiled, nodded at him, and pedaled on, whistling a little louder.