the danish girl

Frederiksborg Slotskirke, May 2022

SOME TIME AGO, when I was an undergraduate, I lived in Copenhagen, the capital city of Denmark. I don’t actually remember much of what I was doing in Copenhagen in those days, other than hanging out in night clubs on weekends and confessing to various Danish women that I loved them, “jeg elsker dig.”

One Danish girl did take me seriously enough to arrange a second meeting, which I was not brave enough to attend. I’m not even sure I told her why I loved her. It sounds absurd doesn’t it? But my Danish was primitive, and perhaps it was just the nicest thing I knew how to say to a member of the opposite sex.

I got to thinking about this long-lost Copenhagen night club girl a few weeks ago, on a trip to the Scandinavian city with my daughters. We were over by the university and happened to walked right by that same exact night club, and I only briefly remembered the girl. There were others from that time that began to flit in and out of memory. A Norwegian called Ingrid who was studying economics. Åsa, a Swedish designer. There was an Icelander named Ester, who lived with a fellow Icelander named Jón, who had a very taciturn expression and never said much. Lena from Jutland. What had become of all of them?

THAT WAS THEN and those were my memories of that time, but I certainly never visited any castles when I studied in Denmark. But it was to one such castle, the impressive Fredericksborg, situated in the Danish town of Hillerød, where I took a train with my daughters during the first warm days of May. Fredericksborg was built by King Christian IV in the 17th century. My teenage daughters love castles, you know. They love castles and they love royal costumes, and they love pageantry and jewelry. The castle at Frederiksborg is now an art museum and it is impressive. There are floors of paintings, portraits, clicking wooden clocks that ring and chime, dangling chandeliers, hand-carved beds, mirrors and tapestries, and a movable celestial globe and astronomical clock from 1656.

These were once the possessions and likenesses of noblemen and noblewomen, courtesans and artisans, consorts and escorts. The ceilings and walls are adorned with frescos of angels and gods, characters from antiquity, the stars and the heavens, pineapples and other exotic fruits. The clocks tick, tick, tick, ringing out every 15 minutes, on the half hour, then the hour. Through the warped window glass, one can see the baroque castle gardens on the other side of the lake, nestled in the sun.

One exhibit tells of the origins of the Danish flag, and the 13th century Battle at Lyndanise in Tallinn between the Danes and the Estonians. My daughter noticed the three lions of the Danish coat of arms in the castle. “That used to be on the 1 kroon coin!” she said. “When I was small, we didn’t have the euro, you know. We had kroonid.”

WHILE WE WERE in the museum, I started to became aware of a vague female presence. She was a younger woman, with curly hair, dressed in a sweater and skirt, and I cannot really say any more about what she looked like. That hair was familiar to me. There is something about girls with curly hair, and sometimes I think I continue to fall in love with different versions of the same woman who looks just like this.

Something about this person was so familiar to me, though, and I noticed that when we passed each other, we would look away, as if to ignore one another, and then look back, only to smile. It’s funny how these things work, how people just recognize each other. There was something so comforting about her presence in a haunted old castle, that I badly wanted to know her name. Even if it was something average and Danish, Sine or Stine, Mette or Jette, whatever it was, I wanted to know it.

I felt a little bit like that Shinagawa monkey in the Haruki Murakami story, who steals women’s names. I didn’t want to steal the name of the lady of Frederiksborg though. No. I wanted to cherish it forever. All I needed to know was her first name and I could build her into a breathtaking and beautiful illusion. I would devote myself to her name, pledge my very soul, rechristen cities in her name, rename navy ships, bastions, fortresses. I would write great novels and epic poems, and then affix her name to the cover, or perhaps some reference to her appearance. Something to remember this moment by. Something to last.

ALAS, SHE DISAPPEARED into the museum ahead of me, and I never saw her again. In the gardens I looked for her too, and in the town, and on the train back to the city. I kept waiting for her to walk in with her curls and look at me like she looked at me in the castle, but it never happened. She was just gone and maybe it was better that way. No need to fall in love. No need to troubleshoot a long-distance relationship. No need to worry about what went wrong. No need for anything other than the memory of an ancient castle with chiming clocks and celestial globes and gardens.

Farewell, my Danish girl. Jeg elsker dig. Thanks for the memories!


An Estonian version of this column appears in the June 2022 edition of the magazine Anne & Stiil.

use your illusion

People at the Viljandi Folk Music Festival, July 2021

I CAME TO VILJANDI years ago because I was really in a hard place. I felt that I needed to leave Tartu, where I was living, to create some space for myself. I really felt like the rabbits in Watership Down, who have to avoid the predatory bears and foxes and weasels to stay alive. Viljandi became a sort of rabbit hole for me then, a place where I knew I would be totally safe.

At least, I thought I would be safe, at first.

Back then, I was exhausted. I remember I drove into Viljandi one night, probably in November, that now infamous November when I turned 37, and I sat down in the Green House Café. It seemed like such a relaxed and welcoming environment, and I remember thinking, I could just sit in this chair here in the corner forever. There was no place else I wanted to be or to go then. 

Of course, Tallinn was always an option. Tallinn promised some kind of job and some kind of career. But Tallinn also required some major startup capital just to get going, several months worth of rent money, which was hard for me to put together, because I was totally broke, and also educational issues. The school system in Estonia is complex. Kid A, who lives next to one school, has to travel across town to go to another school, where there is space, while Kid B, who lives next to that school, has to travel across town to go to the school next to Kid A. 

It makes no sense to me either. 

IN TARTU, this situation was somehow more ideal, because most of the schools were located within walking distance. But Tartu is also a bit like Los Angeles, in that you have to drive everywhere. Multiple times a day in Tartu, I had to drive to take a kid to swimming lessons, or to pick one up from kindergarten, or to take another to her zoology course after school. There were a lot of logistics involved. So, to imagine living that kind of life in Tallinn was more challenging, especially since my kids had a habit of going on their own adventures and calling to have me pick them up from, say, McDonalds at 7 pm after their zoology course. How did they get there? We walked! But now should I expect them to hike across Tartu in the dark in December? No. Imagine these incidents happening in a place like Tallinn. Imagine your child getting lost in Kopli or Lasnamäe? It just didn’t seem like the kind of setup I needed in my life at that moment.

In this sense, Viljandi emerged as a strong contender as a place to live. It had affordable rents, multiple cafes to work from (if you are a remote worker like me), lots of green space around, and it was entirely walkable. My child could walk to school, and to all of her activities, and even to the cinema or supermarket, all by herself. It really was, in some ways, the perfect place to live, at least for someone in my situation.

I NEVER COMMITTED myself fully to Viljandi in my heart though. It always seemed like a temporary base camp from which to launch future expeditions. Yet the fact is, my kids are tied to this place, and one of them was even born here. Viljandi, in this sense, will never leave our lives, even if we did move very far away. As you see, there were a lot of moving pieces that led to the decision to live in Viljandi. I suspect for anyone who comes to live here, they have their own reasons, both practical and personal. I am not by any stretch some kind of cosmopolitan, who absolutely must dine at the finest restaurants and pretend to be someone of importance by attending various showy public events. I think some people in, say, Tallinn, would feel less of themselves for living in a small provincial town. I couldn’t care less what people think of me. I don’t even do these things in Viljandi. I rather prefer how exiled I feel living here. The loneliness suits me at times though in winter it can really get to you, and you can get severely depressed. You won’t even know you are depressed, that’s how depressed you can get in winter. Not sad, mind you. You are not actually sad. Just somehow detached from your own feelings, detached from the joys of living this life.

Viljandi’s community is both a blessing and a curse. In Tartu, I did not know my neighbors very well. I still get this anonymous feeling when I go to Tartu, that people give each other space, distance, room, because in their minds Tartu is a big city, and such anonymity is normal. In Viljandi, I cannot walk down the street without bumping into multiple people who know me very well, almost too well. Sometimes they know more about me than I know about myself. This has real value. If you have a problem, for example, your car won’t start, you can always go ask the Krishna devotee upstairs and he will come down with a fist full of krokadiilid and get your car going. If your child doesn’t come home, there are at least five acquaintances who saw her heading toward the Castle Ruins. Having eyes everywhere is really helpful. It creates a social safety network. On the other hand, let’s be honest, having people around you all the time, who involve themselves in your business, can be tiring and make you yearn for the anonymity of a larger city. It seems at times like people in Viljandi even know what color underwear I have on, even when I don’t. This is why it is a relief to leave Viljandi at times, to get away from all of those prying, curious eyes.

WHEN I THINK BACK to that decision I made, to move to Viljandi, I have to say it was an emotional decision as much as it was a practical one. Obviously, I could have gone to Rakvere, or even Pärnu, or Kuressaare, and enjoyed many of these things that I enjoy here. I had strong personal reasons though for setting up a new life here. My best friend was going through his own strife, and we were supporting each other in a way. He was living here then, and he sort of pulled me back into Viljandi, though he has since left. I also was really in love with someone at that time, which was a unique and compelling feeling I had not felt often in my life, and still do not feel often, or encounter, at all in my daily life. I suppose I just do not feel love that often or am bereft of romantic love. After dealing with complicated situations, hers was a light that shone as bright on me as the north star. She also left Viljandi behind, very long ago. So that was also bubbling away inside of me. The illusion that life could be different. It was an illusion, of course, but even those of us with the strongest constitutions can be led on by an illusion. My daughter’s best friend in Tartu had also moved to England, and life felt so hopeless then. Viljandi promised at least some kind of new experience, some way out of what was going on, and a way toward something new.

At that moment in time, staying awhile in the Green House seemed like the best decision I could make.

I DO NOT REGRET coming here at all. These have been very creative years for me as a writer, and I have to thank Viljandi and its dreamy landscapes for it. Someday I will probably pack up and hit the road again, but Viljandi has fulfilled at least some of its promises. It has been supportive.


An Estonian version of this article, translated by Triin Loide, appears in the 27 May 2022 issue of Sakala.

the town that time forgot

EVERY TIME I am in Riga, I have a car accident. This is because the traffic system, if it can be called that, is a little confusing. I type the address into Google Maps — Igaunija — and the little voice starts directing me, “go left, then go right, then make a left, and then a right, then go back,” and I look down at the screen, just to see this weird geometric pattern I have drive to get out of Riga, and in the meantime traffic has stopped and my car has hit the one in front of me, which is driven by either a Latvian Latvian or a Russian Latvian, either of whom is displeased. 

Fortunately this time, there was no damage, and the driver, a Latvian Latvian, I think, drove away looking miserable, but not miserable enough to call the criminal police, or the traffic police, or whomever is responsible for such mishaps in this country. The driver was an older man in a sports jacket with white whiskers and sharp eyes. He looked like a wolf. I was left to drive away, to “turn left, slight right, turn left,” all the way back to Igaunija. Actually, I saw no sign for Estonia. Instead, there was a sign pointing to Ainaži. Heinaste. That was where I needed to be.

There is actually a pleasantness to Riga, though, with its lush spring greenery draped across the colorful buildings that remind one of Prague and other points south. Once you get out of Riga, you encounter the forests that seem to guard the border areas between the countries. It had never occurred to me that forests could also be a physical border, but we were driving through this area. After being in Denmark for the week, the sight of such vast misty pine forests was stirring. I thought of those Teutonic Knights who once rode on horses through this landscape. 

How did they even do it?

I HAD SPENT most of my week in Copenhagen, where I once studied as a young undergraduate two decades ago. Not much has changed in Denmark’s capital city since then. There is a new metro system, and many of the old restaurants have changed hands. The people look the same though, posh and blonde, and somehow very satisfied with their lives, and the feel of the city is exuberant, and lively, more so than Tallinn. Copenhagen is walkable and thick with diversity and somehow true to its Danishness. The pretty girls on bicycles are still there, except now they are texting and cycling at the same time. The smell of cannabis and sizzling falafel is in the air. Something about Copenhagen reminds me of Tallinn though, the same way that something about Amsterdam reminds me of New York. It has the same feel, and I could only conclude that Estonia was still in its soul a Danish colony. But the Estonians are not Scandinavians, they are something else. Just weeks ago I had stood on Uus Street in Viljandi and passed by a house where the entire roof had collapsed. How long would it stand there, rotting in the weather? Until someone approves a renovation plan? Or the owners have enough money to fix it? Would the Danes allow their country to fall to pieces like that? Wouldn’t it break some safety ordinance? 

I HAD SOMEHOW forgotten of this poverty while in Copenhagen, which has a different kind of poverty, the poverty of old trains covered in graffiti, of city street sidewalks littered with trash, of indigent people who smoke hashish, rather than drink vodka, and sleep on benches, undisturbed. Even when we passed over the border into Estonia, where the traffic situation seemed to snap back into place, and I felt everything was more efficiently run, familiar, comprehensible, we still saw nothing really, even on the road past Kilingi-Nõmme, and then up through Kõpu to Viljandi. Our first sights of Viljandi were the waste station, the police station, a gas station, and then some derelict houses of Kantreküla, then the Old Cemetery, and Ugala Theatre, and the road back up toward the center. Our street, Posti Street, is riddled with holes, the sidewalks are broken. Piece by piece, the city is being put back together but this zest for restoration has not yet reached us. There have been projects on Tallinn Street and on Pikk Street, but one has to ask, how did it even get this way? Was it a lack of money or consensus? It’s been 30 years since 1991. How long can we blame Communism for this shantytown life?

Through this well-lived-in shanty town called Viljandi, the town that time forgot, drifted some strange and exotic characters, whom I recognized as the läänemeresoomlased, the Baltic Finns. They were all actually the same big nation, the Estonians and the Finns and Karelians and others. I was back in their nation, and would have to readjust my mindset to theirs, the same way one moves the arms of a clock. The cool wind toyed with the straw-colored hair of the young women of the town, who walked by aloof, each in her own world. Packs of young boys roved the lanes on bicycles, yelling out “Satan,” Kurat. In the evening, I went for a walk by the lake. It was mid-May and still so cold. The wind moved the waters of the lake and the castle hills were growing greener. I came up by the Airplane Factory, and the old building across from it, which is being renovated into apartments. Slowly, ever so slowly, things were coming together. Viljandi felt like the sleepiest, dreamiest place there was though. Perhaps a good place to write a novel, or do anything creative. To disappear from the world, to focus one’s energies within.

Something like that.


This article appears in Estonian, translated by Triin Loide, in the 19 May 2022 edition of Sakala.

enghave plads

10.30 PM, PASHA KEBAB. I have no idea what this neighborhood is called, Enghavevej, I think. There is a park here, and it is ringed by fine cafes, cocktail bars, shawarma joints, etc. My daughters went to the concert early, there was a line around the block of 15-year-old Danish girls with chipped black nail polish smoking cigarettes, their eyes painted up like Cleopatra. It was really a moment, and I could see why I was prohibited from attending the show, and as soon as they got in line, I was banished. I saw one other adult person in line, a Danish mother, and we looked at each other, as if to say, “I feel your pain.” There were Swedish girls as well sitting around, maybe from Malmö, and then I did hear a few American voices. But then I disappeared and left them alone, and wound up here, at the kebab house.

From here I ventured to a nearby kaffe, where I downed an espresso, two bags of potato chips, and two teas (actually a third, but it was a refill). Nice kids at the bar, one, a young man, is from the south of Sjælland, and the other, a pretty young lady in a white blouse who spoke both American and British English is from who knows where. I eavesdropped on her conversation, she had just broken up with her boyfriend, “And now I’m living the life!” she said, and her mother told her that in the scheme of things, her relationship was just parentheses, “And it’s true, you know. It’s really true.” I started to develop a slight rapport with these two, the kid from the south, the pretty girl. I told her about how I studied Danish years ago, after she said that speaking Danish makes your voice lower over time. My favorite Danish word was the word for nurse, sygeplejerske. Her favorite German word is the word for ambulance, krankenwagen. She absolutely loves, loves the word for ambulance in German. “It captures the drama of an ambulance,” she says. If only the German krakenwagen was transporting a group of Danish nurses, or sygeplejersker? This is our shared dream. I like talking to the Danish baristas at the kaffe.

Beside me, there is a woman approximately my age that looks dead bored, checks her phone, and digs through a mound of chocolate cake. Before, another writer type about my age came in with a pen and pad of paper and ordered a cappuccino and also checked his phone and wrote nothing. This made my very basic attempts to write dialogue and some concepts for my novel seem like a stunning achievement, and yet I also felt like a colossal failure, because I just couldn’t get it all done in two hours with a pen and paper in Denmark. I wanted to get it all done!

I love and loved the view from the window of the people talking underneath the umbrellas, and how just a bit of sun crushes the gray clouds at Scandinavian dusk, and turns the whole sky red. The people keep talking, and gesturing with their cigarettes, and dogs scurry by, and more bikes come, and some bikes leave, and other people come into the kaffe, and others leave. One man tells the barista who likes ambulances that he hasn’t touched coffee in 40 days. Forty days! An Indian student with a beard and long coat. Our krankenwagen barista loves this too. “I just love that you even counted the days,” she says.

Ah, the lush exuberance of youth.

mikkel bryggers redux

LAGKAGEHUSET, a Copenhagen bakery facing Buka, another Copenhagen bakery, facing a money exchange, cornered by pedestrians, pigeons, cappuccino foam drying in ceramic cups on little tables in the hot sun, and an old(er) bum sleeping on a bench nearby, which reminds me of another bum I saw this morning by the train station, sunburned and adrift, long greasy hair, indigent garbage picker, laughing at the joke of the world, amid the commuter crunch rush onslaught, and an impromptu business meeting in a café corner meantime overheard, the English catchphrase being, ‘exactly, exactly,’ all hours ago now, but a short distance from this Bum No. 2, under the God Smag, God Tid sign of the bakery, slumbering beside a peeling concert poster for an event that took place in April. This street is called Mikkel Bryggers Gade. It terminates with the Grand Teatret, gilded cinema venue of yore, wherein Young Justin and Young Patrick once watched Apocalypse Now: Redux in ’01. Patrick was unimpressed, as I remember, Young Justin was nonplussed. (‘Some more people die, and everyone gets laid,’ Pat’s review.) There used to be a little deli here too, run by an aspiring Dane in a chef’s hat and his wife selling smørrebrød. Today, their dream is dead, but the cinema survives, as well as a Vietnamese eatery. Across the way, an erotic boutique called Lust. The bum sleeps on, wonderfully.

sunny afternoon

Copenhagen, Denmark, 7 May 2022

HOW TO DESCRIBE a place like this? Tang of cannabis smoke, thick, white, and familiar, bicycles (many) and of all kinds, bearing all kinds of cyclists, young families (for example) with carts, Muslim businessmen, men with both ears pierced who are deeply in love, strawberry-haired girls as sweet as soft-serve ice cream, that choppy, guttural, lively language, spoken between shopkeepers watering flowers, or shoppers thumbing vintage clothes between the Homoware sex boutique and Café Dubrovnik, all of this at Studiestræde and Larsbjørnsstræde on a sunny May afternoon in Copenhagen.

the traffic incident

AN ODD DREAM, involving a) driving through a city while Ukrainians and Russians shoot at each other, with bullets visible as almost lightning bug-like glowing orbs of light; b) somehow surviving this unscathed; c) driving a car down an icy road to escape a rather ferocious musk ox-like creature; d) parking my car in a field to allow another vehicle to pass; e) from which exits Woman No. 1, who informs me that it is illegal to park your car in a field in Estonia, and that she has to wait for the police to arrive; f) following Woman No. 1 into her office, the entry way of which is littered with shoes, while we await the arrival of the police; and g) passing through a kitchen, wherein a Sicilian dwarf is making dinner. I try to summon romantic feelings for Woman No. 1, but it comes to nothing. An ice queen, business type, her only vice is apparently the impartial and ruthless enforcement of the law. The relationship is never consummated.