A Winter Weekend in Copenhagen by Kerri Ni Dochartaigh
‘I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.’
I am alone in the non-priority queue, right at the very front, hoping that the kind lady at the Ryanair desk will ignore my much-too-big bag if I’m the first person she sees: a bag that, if I’d been booking on my own, I would have happily paid to bring with me onto the plane. I’d have been more than willing to pay the tenner or however much it is, to knock this feeling on the head; that feeling like I’m about to be caught stealing nail polish in Superdrug or dobbing school (neither of which I’ve ever done).
A bell starts to ring above all of our heads, and Dublin Airport begins to feel even more like school. The bell doesn’t seem to want to stop, and soon the staff are growing irritated as folk start asking questions: as the process of scanning is silenced by the ringing in this increasingly high-pitched soundscape.
I’m not with the friend whose 40th birthday we booked this trip to celebrate. When she cancelled, a handful of weeks into me going sober, it only took me a few days to see how much of a gift that actually was; how absolutely essential it was that I still went. I am completely on my own, utterly solo in the queue, as the last passenger from the priority queue is keeping all us non-priority folk back. Her passport has only just become invalid today and we are all waiting to see if she is allowed to travel- given that she’s only booked a one-way ticket. The guy behind me has already been taken aside to get the ‘talking to’ about his bag and I am standing there doing that nonchalant thing, you know, that solitary pose that so much, I hope, resembles a heron that knows it is being watched: calm and collected, with only the slightest whisper of discomfort. To keep the appearance up, I turn to that tried and tested method of drawing attention away from myself as a lone human; I take my mobile out of the wee pocket where it is nestled in safely with my passport, and log into Instagram. And so it is there, in the queue to board a flight to Copenhagen, to spend more days alone than I have in quite some years – heralding my first time alone since I became a non-drinker, underneath a broken bell that feels like it is echoing on my nervous insides – that I lose Mary Oliver.
The news of her passing comes to me, both then and in the days that follow, over and over, in the form of beautiful imagery accompanying a variety of her poetry. Birds (not starlings) in a pink winter sky was the very first image I saw, standing there in the queue, and it came along with the ending of ‘Starlings in Winter’. I have always loved those lines, feeling drawn back to them often like a moth to a flame, but something about the context of the beginning of that solo trip made it feel like I was reading them for the very first time. Cheesy as it sounds, those words defined that trip: a fact for which I feel very grateful.
My friend’s seat fills the void between the body of the man beside me and my own, as the plane lifts up off the ground and into the Dublin sky; a sky aglow with an almost full blood moon. It is the only empty seat on the whole plane, and we share the space her absence has afforded us both: he – with a woolen green hat, me – with my journal, pencils and a copy of Alys Fowler’s memoir ‘Hidden Nature’. The man tells me he was very lucky to get a seat. He’s caught up with some immigration issue and is on this flight due to a problem in London. He moved from Nigeria to Copenhagen thirteen years ago and had no idea that the island of Ireland was broken up - North and South. He asks me which part I come from. I tell him I come from Derry; ‘at the border’. He asks me about Brexit and I laugh; we both do. He falls asleep and I open my book where I left off, finding these words on the page;
‘We tell stories and draw maps to make sense of who we are, where we are, why we are. Sometimes we get stuck telling the wrong story about ourselves: the story does the telling when it should be the other way around.’
I think about all the women I know, and of their stories. Of who they are, on the inside and outside; on both sides of that imagined border. I think about myself, and of that shifting, liminal space between inner and outer; the belly of that thin place where we hold our rawest truths. I consider the new paths that I can already feel forming on my insides, just a few hours into this trip; I can feel the shape-shifting begin. I am becoming an unmapped space, in the air above the Irish Sea; where borders hold no sway.
I arrive in the city, late, and with the hunger upon me; like a wolf. I get off the train a stop early – the heightened vigilance that has settled onto my weary, solitary bones; too keen in its communication with my brain. There is frost on the ground as I emerge, moth-like, from the wrong station, and the first building I see is the very pizzeria I’d read about on a ‘Sober-Girl’ site. It is the first of many things that happen, seemingly coincidentally and utterly outwith my control, that are exceptionally good things. Things that, I know deep within me, would not have happened if I hadn’t been on my own. I sit sipping my mocktail, marking my first time in my own sober company, in public, with various strokes. I draw, I write, I Instagram the moment because: if I don’t - did it even happen, right?
If I couldn’t scroll back for an image, would I even remember sitting, immersed in real-life hygge, with the smell of snow on concrete, in the soft grey-yellow glow of the world as candles soothed my tired, grateful eyes?
Without the permanence of those marks would I lose the memory of that night I arrived, alone, in Copenhagen, with hipster waiters complimenting the wild canary on my left arm - the bird that flew onto my skin the day I was brave enough to stop masking over sorrow with drink; the day nearly eight weeks before when I gave myself back to myself? I could be wrong but I don’t think I’m ever letting that one go.
In the six-bed female dorm I am the only solo traveller. Introductions are made and travel tips are passed around the room like secrets by the fire in a wild, unknown place. I make for sleep, full of the hushed gratitude of a whispered song.
In the morning I awake to a sky so blue it’s almost not there at all. It’s a hue that seems only possible in Northern European winter beside bodies of water. I recall glimpsing it in Reykjavik five years ago and in Stockholm a decade ago. I think now about how much I’d have rather been in both those cities alone - of how that would have vastly altered the time spent in each; of how differently the memories of each might now lie on my inner geography.
Thoughts about the reflection and refraction of light onto tall, cream northerly buildings bounces on my insides – alongside memories of winters past, as I drink strong black coffee in the hostel and write poetry. I am, for this terrifyingly beautiful moment in time, a perfectly formed stereo-type and it feels so unbearably good.
That first day, like the other two that followed it, was spent wandering one of the most enchanting, inspiring cities I have ever been lucky enough to be in; completely, and blissfully, alone. Like every day in every life, they were made up of a plethora of moments – some of which sang out more than others. I gave up on trying to record all of the lines of all of the songs in those short Danish days very early into the trip. I learned to accept that it was fine to simply just be there, on my own, doing whatever I had chosen to do.
That revelation came after pushing the bike that I’d rented three miles through Downtown CPH – the only area I didn’t want to explore but the area in which the bike decided to call it a day; right underneath a darkening, snowy sky. Once more, literally the first place I set eyes on was the only café that I’d been really keen to try but that had seemed, on Google Maps, much too hard for me to find. The idea I had had to do the only touristy thing I wanted to do that afternoon was swiftly abandoned for sitting by a record player, at a communal table, eating baked eggs - writing, writing, writing, and watching soft snow dance by candlelight.
At one point during those three hours, a wee small voice inside started to guilt me that I should really be out exploring again; there is so much more to see. I stood up, and right in my direct line of vision was a framed poster, the only on the whole wall, with two words for me; ‘IT’S OK.’ I took my coat off again and ordered a hot chocolate. I was on my own, in Copenhagen, spending precious time looking into parts of my insides that I’m not sure I even knew where there.
Yes, yes, yes; there is so much more to see.
The thought of trying to choose which moments of that life-changing trip (I did mention this might be cheesy) were the most beautiful makes my brain feel foggy.
There was the bit where I was sitting by the canal drawing a merganser and watching magpies quarrel in the silt, when I heard the call of a bird that I could not identify. It was low in frequency with a strictly ordered rhythm, only breaking out from that every ten or so seconds. It was so odd and so mesmerizing that it was actually haunting; that sound still rises up to the surface of my being, almost daily, over a month later. I looked all around me in the bright, full winter glow but to no avail; the bird was hidden from all view.
After many moments spent observing that almost ethereal scene, I realised that the ‘call’ was, in actual fact, the sound being made by a swan that was making her way – slowly, gracefully, effortlessly, through the partially frozen lake. A solitary bird made up of folklore and other-worldliness was cutting through the water, creating a song so different from what we think of when we imagine swansong. For that moment I couldn’t tell her apart from the water that held her, from her icy ‘song’; from me, as I stood there watching her; beguiled.
There was the morning in Christiania - full of more bells that rang out like a warning or a promise, as delicious wood smoke billowed into the air, painting it a hazy pink - beneath tall trees full of nesting crows and unsettled sparrows. Walking around that ‘Free State’, recalling childhood moments spent in my own free state, across that border that none of us in Ireland has actually seen; wondering when the last time was that I really allowed myself to think about Kinnagoe Bay the day my brother and I were followed to the cove by that fox. Wondering when the last time was that I really sat and thought about my brother’s little boy face, the way his voice used to sound, the way he looked when he fell asleep on the drive home; like he always did. Being alone in a space such as that, of a cinematic winter morning, does things to a person that is outside of their understanding.
There was my last coffee in my favourite coffee shop of the whole trip, with its coffee plant painted on the wall in indigo - with its seats laid out in such a way that the winter light makes you an integral part of the daily shadow show. I had an hour before I had to check out of the hostel, and I was journaling and thinking; trying desperately to process the experiences of that winter weekend. The couple beside me - the only other customers of that early Sunday morning - began to laugh and gaze at my hands. Self-consciousness began to creep in under my skin but straight away I chose a different mode.
We began to talk, and they alerted me to the magic they had been watching. The sun was making a rainbow of the steam from my coffee right before our eyes. It was breathtakingly, heart-wrenchingly beautiful, and our conversation moved from colour, through movement, to lighthouses.
For my birthday a few weeks earlier- my first sober one – I'd been given a photo of my favourite lighthouse. The picture, like so much else after Copenhagen, means an awful lot more to me now than before I went.
I board the plane for home, alone, and absolutely shattered. The in-flight magazine has a four-page spread on the rise in solo travel. I accept my new role as a walking/dancing/ singing stereo-type.
I sleep for most of the journey, wakening up close to landing, to catch the first glimpse of the full blood red moon that is getting herself ready to eclipse.
The plane makes contact with solid ground, and I know, all at once, as the wheels grind to a halt, noisily, that I am getting myself ready, too– slowly and delicately, to tell the right story about myself.
To tell that story of myself to myself; which, I have started to see – may be the bravest decision of all.
My wings are so, so ready and I don’t care how cheesy that sounds.
Sometimes cheesy is OK; like the poster says.
In fact, sometimes; it’s so, so, so much more than OK.