Friday, February 3, 2012

Copenhagen Cold

In the past week, I have come to understand where my father gets his taste for rye bread and licorice. I’ve been surrounded by people who pronounce “Bang-Jensen” correctly. I see my name everywhere: in stores, in cafes, in cemeteries.

I came here as a break from name research, but coming here, it is somewhat unavoidable that I’d learn about my own.

It’s been an important week for me. It seems somehow perfect that the halfway point would find me in a place I’d never been before, but a place where roots run deep. I am so glad I came.

A relative here recently told me the story of one trip my Dad's family took to Copenhagen in the winter. My Dad, used to coming here in the summer, hadn't realized Tivoli would be closed. When someone told him the news, he informed them, politely, they could just turn around and go back home then. (Dad, I feel your pain).

In honor of the Bang-Jensen side, my family has a tradition of hanging Danish flags on our Christmas tree every year. Walking around the Copenhagen streets, seeing all the Danish flags, I've realized that somewhere in my subconscious, I've been thinking it's just a few weeks before Christmas.

It’s a beautiful (albeit ludicrously expensive) city. If I were here longer, I could easily fall in love with this place.

I love these roofs.

It’s been very cold in Copenhagen this week (even the Danes are saying so), and this weekend it’s supposed to reach a temperature lower than it’s been in early February in 25 years. I did not choose the most ideal time to be here. There’s been some sun despite the cold, however, and some very warm and welcoming people.

One of my first days Kirsten and Ole, (technically my “first cousins once removed”), took me outside of the city center to do some castle sighting.

I nerded out at Elsinore...

Ophelia, are you in there?!

Marveled at the Frederiksborg Palace’s moat:

And hoped for an invitation to summer with the Queen at Fredensborg palace:

(I don’t think I’ve ever used the word “summer” as a verb before. I quite like it).

Ole & Kirsten at Fredensborg.

(I’ve also decided it would be really great to figure out a way to become part of the Danish royal family. Unfortunately, both Princes are already married. But doesn’t it look like a great family to be a part of?)

(Courtesy of the Danish royal family).

This photo is actually of Prince Frederik’s family. He is the son of the current Queen (Margrethe II). If you’re curious about names (probably why you’re reading this blog) the Crown Prince is married to the Princess Mary and together they have four children with some pretty awesomely old European names: Prince Christian Valdemar Henri John, Princess Isabella Henrietta Ingrid Margrethe, and twins Prince Vincent Frederik Minik Alexander and Princess Josephine Sophia Ivalo Mathilda.

The Danes have a lot of national spirit. They must in order to convince them to pay 40-50% income tax. I accidentally stumbled upon an event at city hall last week which was the Crown Prince congratulating the Danish handball team on a recent victory. 25,000 Danes had come out to catch a glimpse of this in the city hall square and they were decked out with face paint and flags. (It is Christmas now?)

In other words, the Danish royal family is immensely popular. This is their house:

These are their guards:

This is the iconic Little Mermaid statue (perhaps Copenhagen’s most famous sight) which was built in 1913 to honor Hans Christian Andersen in his home town. (Fun facts: Hans Christian Andersen was an actor at the Danish National Theater for a while. I also recently learned that he went to boarding school at ELSINORE. Perhaps wandering ghosts during his school days are the reason for his dark fairytale endings?)

Statue of H. C. Andersen himself.

I especially love the iconic colorful houses in Nyhavn.

The Louisiana art museum is about 40 minutes outside of Copenhagen on the train but is most definitely worth a visit. I feel in love with the Andreas Gursky exhibit that’s currently there and the whole museum set up makes it one of the best art museums I’ve ever been too. It’s beautiful and the day I went, Sweden was crystal clear across the water.

By Ai Weiwei

Andy Warhol

Ai Weiwei

I also spent some time at the new(ish) Danish Resistance Museum, which is all about Germany’s occupation of Denmark during World War II. It’s really well done and full of interesting & terrifying stories about escapes to Sweden. (Number the Stars, anyone?)

Christiania (or “Freetown Christiania”) is a self-proclaimed autonomous part of Copenhagen. It’s a community that began in 1971 when someone hopped the fence to the area and moved into the old army barracks there. In that time, it became a sort of hippie commune with its own laws and own flag. Today there is a lot of dispute between its residents and the Danish government about who owns the land as well as what should be permitted there.

The highlight of the trip, however, was getting to know some distant relatives who live here and being able to put names to faces. A special treat was meeting my second cousin, musician Kamilia Amelie, and attending a concert of hers downtown at Mojo’s Blues Bar. She is leaving in a couple days to go on tour around Europe with a musician named Lukas Graham and I’m wishing her all the best. Here’s hoping one day there will be a U.S. tour as well. (

It is said that in Copenhagen there are more bikes than people. I believe it. It’s also the only country I’ve been in where if you look up something on google maps it will tell you walking directions, car directions, public transit directions OR biking directions.

It’s been a week of cold but sunny streets, of Danish pastries and open-faced sandwiches. A week where I was able to envision the summers of my Dad’s childhood much more clearly. Of saying “Tak” and marveling at the social welfare programs here, of looking across to Sweden and behind to old buildings and cobblestone streets, thinking somewhere deep down that it is Christmastime.

In Copenhagen, I came face to face with my grandfather’s grave for the first time in my life. All that was written on the stone was his name. It was a reminder, if there ever was one, of how much these names can carry with them. How I could look at his name, and his name alone, and be overcome with feeling. How my love and warmth for this man I never got to meet can emanate through the cold stone, through the snow, through the name that connects us.

Thank you Kirsten, Ole, Mads, Anne, Kamilia & Steven.


  1. This is a very surreal comment so bare with me!

    I'm a first year university student from London and I've always been interested in names. I started following your blog from the beginning when I saw your post on another naming site. Your posts are really interesting and I'd love to be able to travel the world like you have, I'm lucky enough to have been to a few of the places you have on your trip and you've captured them so well!

    Anyway, the point of this comment was to say that this summer, I went on holiday to Budapest and everyday when I walked out of my hotel, I'd walk past a memorial plaque to someone called 'Povl Bang-Jensen' and by the end of the week me and my friend were obsessed with his name haha! And now it turns out he's your Grandfather, the world really does feel small sometimes!
    Hope you're enjoying Copenhagen and this arctic spell Europe is having! x

  2. Wow, it is SUCH a small world. Thank you so much for your comment, I can't believe all of these wonderful connections.

    Yes, Povl Bang-Jensen is my grandfather. He was a Danish diplomat who played a role in the Hungarian Revolution (

    I'll be in London for a few days in mid-April while I'm trying to get my bearings after 6 weeks in Zambia and before I move on to Ireland. I have zero plans for while I'm there so if you're around and interested, I'd love to meet up for coffee or something with another name-lover.

    Stay warm!

  3. WOW, such brilliant pictures, I feel like I#ve been in Copenhagen as well.
    I hope to see you soon again in Leipzig,
    and we'll be in Berlin for the 15th and 16th of February, we should meet again!

  4. Thanks Anne! You are so kind. I would LOVE to see you and Chris in Berlin. Right now I have zero plans for the 15th and 16th so I'm all yours. Let's be in touch as it gets closer and you can let me know what your plans are. Looking forward to seeing you!

  5. I really like the length of your posts and the fact that I still don´t stop reading them because they keep me interested!

  6. Man, I miss Copenhagen now... I lived there as an exchange student from '99-2000.