The Baltic Sea flows through the port of Copenhagen and the city’s vibrant culture revolves around its vigorous current. Fishing boats, huge barges, cruise ships, even kayaks all pump busily through the canals. Everyone is drawn to the water, a gathering place to bike, skateboard or to sit at cafes and eat open-faced sandwiches (smörgåsbord). And everywhere the Danish kids are squeezing out the last minutes of summer.
Looking out of the hotel window I can see a group of young 11 or 12-year-old boys jumping off of the long wooden planks into the cold black water. And there are sunbathers and baby strollers sprinkled along the walkway and teenagers stripped down to their underwear, smoking and drinking bottles of Carlsberg.
Later in the afternoon I finish my run along the waterway and stop to watch. I really want to jump in the water but I know it is icy cold.
The boys are so beautiful with their blonde hair and Nordic features, they are strong and fearless and fully confident in their bodies as they flip and dive. They are a golden tanned color with a hint of muscle and have voices that croak out to one another as they wrestle and play. My son ten years ago.
Summer is almost over and soon we’ll all go back to school and work and, in my case, home. In this time of transience, Denmark steers me towards that place. Copenhagen is a real city and it grounds me.
Over the weekend we drove up the Zealand coast to enjoy the beaches where the Baltic opens into the Kattegatt and eventually into the North Sea. And as I looked out over the ocean, I imagined how short the summer is here and how soon the winds would grow cold and usher in the next season. Splayed out on their towels all around me, the Danes were storing up sunshine to get them through the coming dark winter.
The wind is a constant friend and it holds a rough energy, one full of possibility, but the sense that moments must be grabbed up quickly or lost. Lying on the sand I felt it whip through me as I reflected on my time coming to an end here in Europe. All of the opportunities to explore that I took advantage of and some that I didn’t.
The landscape here is scruffy with fields of rapeseed and grazing sheep. And the giant pine trees on this island weep tears of sticky resin that mix with the salt water and over time are scoured into the honey colored stones called amber.
And it seems to me that the tiny teardrops of sap are like gifts, like the minutes in time that I have been given these past two years. Small acts of faith without the foreknowledge of what will come. Like spores cast into places I never imagined, never sure what to expect or how things would go. Living in Switzerland has been like that.
And now the kids are really whooping it up, I can’t understand the strange things they yell at one another but the pushing and splashing are universal. I absorb their joy in this moment. I try to imagine how it might feel to throw myself off of a dock with only the thought of the pure pleasure it would bring, no yesterday, no tomorrow.
Maybe this is that moment for me – never mind that I’m in my running clothes, what the hell.
Of course I climb down the ladder instead, slipping on the thin rungs awkwardly, but whatever, I’m in. It’s absolutely freezing and when I submerge up to my neck my heart stops. And in that brief instant I’m paralyzed until my lungs finally fill and my body begins to relax. The water feels soft and thick through my fingers and tastes like metal. I duck as a kid narrowly misses my head as he dives over me recklessly. Small waves from a fishing boat slap at my neck but the salty water keeps me afloat.
I’m proud of myself for jumping in just as I am pleased with saying yes to travel.
I’ve tried to stay open-minded towards new cultures but early on I decided to be honest in my reaction to things. At some point I stopped being a tourist who routinely admires everything and I started to plumb my own level.
Honestly, I find the Swiss people chilly and remote and sometimes it gets to me. And no, not everything is better here in Europe, they have serious problems like we do. And while spending days in Milan sounds great it can be hot and lonely riding the crowded tram by yourself. Montana, where my son lives, seems like it’s on another planet.
Anyway, I’m back on the dock drying off. I watch the boys with their bright noise and energy in the hot sun, and all of it shimmers into a blurred iridescence when I close my eyes. And I imagine the dark ocean below and the ancient sediment at the bottom, eroding and polishing and becoming burnished gemstone.
Amber, an older more mature thing, not the bright yellow fire of youth. Mellow and deep-flecked with tiny flaws that are frozen in time like a bee trapped in honey. Like my memories, not all of them shiny and perfectly cut, but flawed and unique and all mine. And that’s what I’ll take back with me, that sweetness I’ve gleaned for myself.
And as the sun starts to lower I watch its reflection on the boys’ rubbery torsos as they twist and thrash in the sparkly water like bright trout. And I breathe in and let all of their golden light fill me up and shine though me, filling all of the cold places inside, and when I exhale I try to let go of my thoughts about where I’m going and what will be.
4 thoughts on “Amber”
Beth, I have loved reading about your experiences—the good, the bad, and the not-so-shiny moments. Bill Bryson wrote: “The greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.” Thank you, Beth, for taking us along for the ride—and please, please, keep writing. I have a feeling that you will also view “home” in a totally different way, and I look forward to reading your thoughts about how “home” has changed for you.
Another lusciously descriptive piece of writing. You cause me to feel the elements and the lure of Denmark. I am looking forward to your return home in September. FaceTime does a good job of doing what it does, but an old fashion face-to-face visit is best. On my way to Ann Arbor this weekend, I send you my love.
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Thanks Dad – wish I could join you in Ann Arbor – say hi to everyone!