It was light out, as it almost always is in Copenhagen in the summer, when I arrived early in the morning. I struggled to wheel my too-heavy suitcase down the uneven sidewalk. I didn’t know anyone in the city, but I moved down the road quickly, excited to begin my eight weeks there. Alone! as all my friends and family made sure to emphasize, sounding somewhat horrified by the idea. When I finally made it to the apartment, my Airbnb host greeted me with a cup of strong coffee and launched almost immediately into her life story. I was surprised that she was willing to share all these details about her past with me, but they seemed so plucked from a movie that I didn’t mind. She was a sixty-something artist and singer who had twice campaigned unsuccessfully for the European Parliament. She frequently hosted various EU-related meetings in her living room. I noticed she had one of her own paintings in every room, all birds, it seemed: peacocks, swans, hummingbirds, all painted in similar swirls of blue and purple. Her first gold record from 1978 was hanging at the end of a long corridor of books. She played the recording for me one of my first nights there: “Hej Lille Drøm” it was called, and she sang along to the music, strumming chords on a phantom guitar.
After a weekend settling in, I started work. I was surprised to see how small the staff of the company was—10 people, including me. This forced a certain intimacy, even if it was only a sort of superficial kind. During my first week we had an office birthday party, complete with a beer pong tournament. I made fun of my coworkers for having a printed-out rule sheet for the game, which they followed diligently. They made fun of my pronunciation of Danish words, my habit of putting lots of sugar in my coffee, and my reluctance to try the fish at our company breakfasts. I soon enough learned the schedule of one coworker’s smoke breaks, and could tell which of her family members my officemate was on the phone with even though her conversations were in Italian. I learned another coworker’s peculiar habit of requesting that people bring back aphrodisiacs like chocolate and oysters from their business trips. My coworkers got to know me a little bit, too. They asked constantly about my sisters and my opinions on Donald Drumpf, and gave me recommendations for my work playlist. Apparently Elton John does wonders for office productivity.
Outside the office, though, I was generally on my own. My host left for her summer house two hours outside the city shortly after I arrived, and my other housemate was a dancer who had shows running late every evening. That meant I had the apartment to myself most days. “Go meet some new people you can spend time with!” a coworker told me during my first week, echoing my taxi driver on the way to the airport. Not to sound misanthropic, but I didn’t particularly want to seek out companions. I was happy on my own. My favorite place to go was the lake area near my apartment, a man-made patch of nature in the city center. Despite the lakes being surrounded by glowing signs and popular shops, the sounds heard there were mostly ringing bicycle bells and sneakers hitting the pavement. I could start walking near my apartment and keep following the straight lines of the basins all the way up north to Østerbro, admiring the regal buildings on the opposite bank and the cute dogs that bounded past. If I stayed up late enough for the sun to finally set, which it seemed to never do in Copenhagen, the sky’s orange streaks were reflected in the water, the mirror-like rectangular surface of the lakes only disturbed by the movement of the ducks and swans. The planetarium at the edge of lake showed films on space and nature; one rainy day I finally went inside. The narration is in Danish, the cashier warned, but I didn’t care. I went and watched the next film that was showing. I hoped to hear something about the stars, how many of them there are, how they are trillions of miles apart, separated by vast expanses of dark matter, but instead I got a film about U.S. National Parks.
When I was on my own, I could do as I pleased; I could listen to some deep-voiced Danish narrator tell me all about Yellowstone if that was what I wanted. I wasn’t so sure if I could do that were I with someone else. My reservations were confirmed when I caved one night and met up with some guy from Dartmouth at a nearby hostel. I wanted to be nice, and he was only in town for a few days, so I spent the night following his lead on where to go. We ate the free meal at his hostel on his recommendation, mystery meat that was drowning in an inexplicably green sauce. We detoured across the bridge to Christianshavn in search of some of his roommates from the hostel, only to learn that they had headed to a bar near where we began; we spent the next forty minutes trying to hunt them down before giving up the search. We tried to see the sunset, climbing up to the top floor of another hostel near the canal, but the building faced east and we couldn’t see anything. The view is much better by my lakes, I thought.
For the better part of that evening, I was plotting how I could go home without seeming completely rude. That wasn’t what exploring a new city should feel like. I decided then that I didn’t want companionship just for the sake of companionship. I didn’t want to have to try to make myself seem more likeable or mold my sightseeing plans to someone else’s. I wanted to be able to take a walk on the lakes nearly every night. I visited Nyhavn probably ten times during my stay, even though it is one of the more touristy areas, because I loved the bright colors of the houses and boats. Vesterbro, where I lived, was another favorite area to explore. I got on my bike and rode down Istedgade until the road ended, seeing the seedy clubs and sex shops slowly give way to cafes and upscale clothing shops. I found a café I loved nestled between these trendy stores; it served amazing cappuccinos, and had a wall filled with portraits of fishermen.
I spent just enough time with other people to avoid becoming a total recluse. I had scattered visits with Princeton people who were in town; my dad came to visit for a few days. One night after work, I drove to the ARKEN Museum of Modern Art outside the city with a few coworkers, where we saw an exhibit on Gerda Wegener’s art. I still texted my family every day, called my sisters a couple times each week. But I loved the freedom that came with me being alone, making decisions without having to check in with anyone else. I wanted to take advantage of cheap airfare, so I traveled to Stockholm, Hamburg, and Norway, booking each trip somewhat impulsively. Even though I didn’t travel with anyone else, I encountered a few characters I’ll remember. In Stockholm I walked along Monteliusvägen, a walkway on a hill that gives you a panoramic view of the sparkling Old Town, where I met an older Swedish couple dressed in matching pastel outfits who were celebrating their anniversary. A few weekends later, I arrived in Hamburg by train at 5:30 in the morning. As I made my way down the neon-lit Reeperbahn to the apartment, there were still clusters of people in the streets drinking beer. My German host was awake to greet me, and he had a grand total of 2 books on his shelf: Das Kapital and the Kama Sutra.
When I went to Norway, I flew into Oslo, then took a train and then a boat along the fjords, eventually making my way to Bergen. The boat cruise was filled completely with tourists. I seemed to be the only one traveling alone, at least as far as I could tell. I pulled a chair to the rails of the deck, positioning myself for the best view of the looming gray-green forms, which were peppered with villages pulled straight from fairytale illustrations. I sat in silence for most of the two-hour long cruise, just looking and taking some pictures. Eventually I was asked to take a photo for a couple sitting on the deck near me, who told me they were from Chicago. Then they kept talking; it seems most people are more willing to befriend strangers than I am. They asked me about my own travel story. I told them, and they responded somewhat predictably: Isn’t it beautiful? But, tell us, don’t you get lonely being all by yourself, don’t you get bored?
By that point in the trip, more than six weeks in, I wasn’t sure how to answer. I have always been a person who needs a lot of time to myself, but I was starting to feel as if I had had enough for a while. As I sent all my favorite photos I took and some of my best stories over text, I wished I could be sharing at least some of these experiences in person. My calls home became more frequent, and I was kind of glad when my mom couldn’t sleep because it meant I’d have someone to text when I got to work at 3 AM New Jersey time. When I saw my friends at home post a picture on the beach, I wanted to be there, even though I loved Copenhagen. I missed stupid things. I wanted to hang out in my friend’s basement and listen to everyone complain about their crappy jobs or dumb boyfriends. I was even jealous of my sister’s Snapchats of watching Bee Movie in our living room, because I missed that shitty movie and her and the popcorn my mom made and our orange couches that are the perfect length for me to lie down on.
I recently looked up the words to the song that my host, Pia, played for me during that first week. She sings about dreaming of escaping to a new star or planet, a distant untouchable place, one that doesn’t exist. “The Earth is no star,” she concludes. We aren’t like the stars, so isolated, separated by light years. My two months in Copenhagen were never truly alone. I had Pia and my coworkers and the random people on the streets. I was surrounded by people all the time, whether I interacted with them or just tried to orbit on my own path. But I was ready to go back home to my ordinary life and see my family, to make adjustments to my plans and have things not always work out perfectly, because that’s how it is with other people. It was time. I listened to the song again, alone in my room, before I left for the airport. When it was over, I got up and gave Pia a hug, and gathered my luggage. I left before I could start to get mixed emotions about leaving. I wanted to preserve that feeling of loneliness for a moment, to remind me that all the people I loved were waiting at home. At the very least, it made it a little easier to say goodbye.