words & images ona abelis
Over the years, I could feel New York City’s attitude growing on me like a hard shell. Somewhere along the way, I had started to sigh loudly in deli lines if someone was taking too long to order. I had learned to anxiously zip around people walking too slowly on the sidewalks, and I knew how to expertly, but begrudgingly, sprint up the left side of the escalator stairs. I had gotten my Metrocard swipe down to a fluid, gliding motion as I strode through the subway turnstile without breaking pace, and had mastered the art of crossing the street not only first, but also with a speedy nonchalance, in spite of the oncoming traffic.
I did everything to save time, to be in-and-out, and to avoid talking to strangers. Sure, New Yorkers are friendly—but they’re only friendly if you manage your expectations. This is not a small town so let’s not act like it is. If you happen to ask someone who actually knows their way for directions, you should, for instance, stride along with them as they point you out your route for you. I felt battle-hardened and on alert: I did not stop to look at the skyscrapers; I did not stop anywhere near Union Square; and I knew exactly where my cab driver should go at all times.
Except, I positively hated being outside. Every interaction with people seemed like just another obstacle to be overcome. How do I get a seat inside this crowded restaurant without a wait? How do I bypass this long coat check line but still get my coat back? Is there a faster barista at the coffee shop down the street? Can I come back to the museum when the tourists aren’t here? I even briefly considered reversing my sleep schedule—Maybe if I operated only at night, I could finally have parts of the city to myself? But, that didn’t quite work out. There are only so many nights in a row that you can wander the aisles of your corner bodega alone before the owner gets inquisitive. Most parks are closed at night, and unless you’re doing laundry, they don’t want you hanging out at the laundromat, either.
I had finally settled on a temporary solution: I’d just leave New York every so often to visit friends in other cities. This system is the golden nugget for battle-hardened New Yorkers—A quick weekend trip to less-crowded Boston or Washington, DC would leave me feeling calmer when I returned, and it would take a few weeks after each trip for me to lapse back into my old, impatient ways. I knew that I was definitely in a love-hate relationship with New York.
One day, my roommate was flipping out over an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown. She had started recording the show on DVR, and had already watched the episodes covering New Mexico, Spain, and Jerusalem. “Let’s just watch Copenhagen,” she said. What followed was a completely mesmerizing jaunt through the city with Bourdain, who often would pause to call Copenhagen “f**king beautiful” and “the happiest place on earth” as the camera panned around the peaceful streets. At one point, Bourdain actually looked euphoric simply standing in place near a streetlight.
Ever since that episode, I had kept an eye out for cheap tickets from JFK to Copenhagen. The moment that Norwegian Air fares hit at an all-time low, I texted my roommate in caps, “COPENHAGEN NOW? CHEAP TIX! CIRCLE YES OR NO.” She wrote back, “YES!!! Buy mine! I’m in a meeting!” I immediately booked a seven-day trip and picked an AirBnB near the Nørreport Station. I had no idea where that was relative to anything else in the city, but the price was good and the host was a skinny Master’s candidate in Environmental Urban Development named Rikke who had pages of positive reviews on the site and boasted an apartment with big windows—in short, the place seemed equipped to host two New Yorkers desperate for a change of scenery.
We arrived in the city early in the morning, collected our luggage, and found out that none of our credit cards worked at the train ticket machines. In front of us, there was a line of at least fifteen people in the same predicament or worse, all waiting to talk to one of the four human ticket vendors. The New Yorker in me grimaced internally, and I braced myself for a thirty-minute wait in line and, surely, a rude encounter at the ticket window. “I’m going to yell,” my roommate said, preemptively readying herself for the warpath. “I called my bank and got a credit card pin that works. They have to accept it.” I shrugged absently. I was still tired and hungry after the flight, and didn’t want to get angry just yet on top of it all.
We turned our attention to a couple with three large suitcases and a paperback Japanese-English dictionary. They were trying to cobble sentences together at one of the windows, and I could barely understand what they were asking. “Here goes,” I thought, “she’s going to tear into them.” But instead, the ticket vendor began patiently trying to get to the bottom of their request in a flat accent that sounded like something out of northern California. I looked around, and the other three vendors were treating everyone similarly—with care and understanding. I was shocked. The line was moving quickly, and when it was our turn the ticket vendor explained how the train system worked and even offered, unprompted, to exchange our dollars for us. My friend and I looked at each other in disbelief.
The politeness continued on the train, however, as the other passengers offered to help us with our luggage and then, later, when the bus driver showed us how to swipe our train tickets for the transfer. In fact, we continued to meet warm people throughout our stay in Copenhagen. No one yelled at us for accidentally lingering into the bike lanes. No one sighed loudly as we ordered indecisively or asked what came with the Smørrebrød. No one rushed past us on the sidewalks or tried to cut us in line at the museums. Our host made us coffee, and asked about our days. We met up with Danish friends of friends who gladly answered our questions about the city. Waiters didn’t try to push desserts on us or to shoo us out with the bill after we had declined to order more. When we looked lost, strangers stopped us to ask if we needed directions. Daily, people told us that they loved New York.
“Everyone here looks like they’ve never been fat,” my friend said out loud one day while we were waiting to cross the street at a light. She was surveying the tall, trim, fashionably dressed pedestrians that surrounded us like a crowd of models on the catwalk. “They also generally have a resting niceface,” I whispered back. While we walked around the city munching on pastries until dark, and I slowly built a plan of action in my mind: I was going to save my relationship with New York by returning with a Copenhagen attitude. When I told my friend this, she laughed out loud. “Yeah,” she said, “we’ll see how long that lasts.”
But my friend didn’t know how determined I was. When I came back to New York, I decided that nothing was going to stress me out in this city again. I started to approach each person who I encountered with a smile, patience, and infinite kindness. I started standing on the right side of escalators. I even started drinking my coffee sitting down. When my Internet connection timed out for a few hours before a deadline, I called Time Warner Cable and joked around with the technician while he ran my modem through tests. Eventually, I even joined a gym and started working out.
Recently, I ran into an old friend who I hadn’t seen for a few years. “You look really good,” he said, eyeing me up and down. “Something’s different about you. You have a different energy.” And, silently in that moment, I thanked the city of Copenhagen.