I recently found myself relaxing on Dronning Louises Bridge in the heart of central Copenhagen. The bridge, affectionately referenced as Copenhagen’s hipster bridge, is the perfect spot for enjoying the late afternoon sun. Situated as it is, the eastern side is bathed completely in warm white afternoon light. Though ostensibly a bridge built for cars, it was taken over long ago by bicycles and pedestrians. One of the great automotive arteries that once fed central Copenhagen has been re-worked, narrowed, and refined with pedestrian benches and sidewalks wide enough for five people and two dogs to stand abreast. The old streets have been further narrowed in favor of bike lanes in each direction which can comfortably handle two, perhaps even three bikes, shoulder-to-shoulder in the middle of rush hour. After all, the bridge, which sees more than 30,000 bikes pass across its old square stones, is no minor thoroughfare. Not unlike the once great and mighty Colorado River, Norrebrogade has been narrowed – its grand flow of cars and buses choked to a trickle of what they once were. Yet, unlike the great Colorado whose story is a sad one, the story of Louises Bridge is a happy tale still being written.
My vantage point, perched as I was on the bridge’s old stone railing with feet resting on one of the large green park benches that line the bridge, allowed me a grand view as my fellow Copenhageners went about their business. Some walked, some biked, some bussed, and a select few drove. Beyond them the waters of the lake were covered by paddle boats – does that count as a form of biking, I mused?
The flurry of activity and late afternoon sun caused my mind to wander back to a question I constantly get asked. As a resident in one of the world’s great biking cities, and as someone who is a competent biker, why did I hold off on buying a bike for so long? Why is it that I often opt for walking between destinations in place of the speed and convenience of a bicycle?
As I sat alone with my thoughts, I mused over a now nearly automatic assortment of common responses. Mulling over them and in the private of my own thoughts I asked myself directly – what is the true source of my insistence on walking? Is it, as I often say, tied into the experience and connection with ones surroundings that comes with walking … or … was it in truth some embarrassing fear of the high-intensity biking atmosphere that defines the Danish bike paths? Was it a question of physical fitness? A question of long buried anxiety stemming from one of the grand bike accidents I had as a teen? Or just the discomfort of biking in the oft windy, wet, and at times harsh Danish weather? While there might be some small bit of shame associated with one or the other, as I stared internally and sought to better understand myself I found that each echoed equally untrue in my mind’s eye. No, my general apathy towards biking in Copenhagen stemmed not from an aversion to biking but instead from my somewhat recent re-discovery of the art of walking.
Through my travels over the last few years I’ve come to realize that I’ve fallen in love with the act of walking. Not in the way a marathoner loves to run, or a competitive hiker loves to hike – no, that I can’t be bothered with and am utterly apathetic about. Rather, for me, it is the powerful connection with my own thoughts, the earth or stone beneath my feet, and the fine details which would otherwise be easily missed that shape and define the urban landscapes around me.
To walk a city, even on old and oft traveled routes, is to discover the city and its people in a way that is otherwise impossible. A car, even bogged down in traffic, is a tool of rapid transit. It spirits you from place to place with no concern or consideration for what lies in between. The glimpses we see through the windows are just that – glimpses. A bike is better. It is slower, more individual. It requires increased attention and the added flexibility to pause, disembark and explore. Yet, it is still a tool for transport from location to location which largely glosses over and neglects what rests between.
To walk, even when one uses a bus, train, or subway for the longer gaps – one has the opportunity to casually caress each cobblestone with their feet. To taste the flavors and smells of the air on their tongue – both those which delight and those which are pungent and foul. In turn the pedestrian cannot help but associate those smells with each street, alley, and doorstop along their route.
I’ve come to learn the personality of each street I visit regularly. Just as one might come to know the sound of a friend’s steps, the smell of their cologne or shampoo, and the pacing of their movements. I’ve come to know the same about the neighborhoods and streets I frequent. As with any social meeting, that relationship evolves over time. The first meeting is slightly awkward, rushed, with only the most pronounced details standing out. A general sentiment may linger but the details were surely glossed over if not missed outright. It is only if there is cause for repeat exposure to the acquaintance that one begins to notice the subtleties, feels their breathing slow, and their pulse normalize as they near a state of ease and natural comfort. Then, with time as the acquaintance turns from casual companion to friend, one learns the finer personality quirks, discovers old scars, and nearly forgotten triumphs. It is at this point that we start to share our new found friends with other companions, partners, and loved ones in the same way an ancient old street can cease to become merely a means to an end and starts to become a destination in and of itself.
There are also moments of trial and tribulation when the friendship faces obstacles. Perhaps it is something temporal such as the scars and inconvenience of construction. Or, perhaps it is just that sense of boredom which stems from to much shared time where routine trumps new revelations in favor of apathetic grinding and wandering attentions. Perhaps most often though, the times where my relationship is most stressed is when my circumstances shift or relocate. The end of a job, the transition to a new flat, or the discovery of the novelty of a new route.
Traveling on the road the prospects of forming a grand and long-lasting relationship shrink away. But, just with friends made over cans of warm beer in humid hostel common areas, these relationships begin with their own unique intensity. The temporal nature of the interaction stokes the fires of discovery and exploration. They take normal context, and throw it to the wind. Replacing it instead with its own story waiting to be written. And, as with those same hostel relationships, there is always the prospect of maintaining and re-visiting that relationship in the future. A relationship sustained and nurtured by the slow burn of favorite memories and powerful moments that simmer in the depths of our soul nudging us towards rediscovery.
So, it was with a little added kick to my step that I hopped down onto the bench and then onto the cobblestone sidewalk of the bridge. A soft wind messing my hair and stealing the ash from my pipe, leaving behind it the rich scent of vanilla, amaretto, smoke, and a simmering ember. It was time to walk a bit. Time to explore. The street demanded my attention – after all, a late summer storm was blowing in and there were new stories in the cobblestones to discover. The road called and whispered the promise of things yet undiscovered to my ears … like a sailor drawn to a siren I was on the move.
A bike would have to wait …