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Freeloading Europe’s capitals: Copenhagen

It was 4.30 in the afternoon when I lugged my bags off of the train at Copenhagen station. This was going to be the hardest challenge of the journey so far. I hadn’t arranged a place to stay, I had no contacts in the country I was in, it was already starting to get dark, and on top of that it was freezing cold and pissing down.

As I headed out onto the street, hunched over under the weight of my backpack like that bloke from Notre Dame whose name escapes me, I knew that I wasn’t going to be in any fit state to locate a place to sleep until I first emptied my bladder. Use of the facilities in the station came at a monetary price, so I was left with two options; I could pester commuters until someone agreed to put a coin in the gate for me, or I could roam the side streets around the station until I found a suitable spot. I chose the latter option as it went against my pride to beg – later on in the journey you’ll see how pride became a thing of the past, but at this early stage in proceedings I was still full of it – and also because I find it rather liberating to have a wee in the street.

After relieving myself up against the station wall – It was a quicker solution than looking for a side street – I gave myself a little motivational speech, making sure that I didn’t allow myself to panic in the face of adversity. I was getting wet, the atmosphere was getting greyer, and it would’ve been all too easy at this point to go and sit on the floor in the station with my head in my hands as I cried for home and berated myself for ever coming up with the idiotic idea of trekking over the continent without so much as a credit card for back-up. I wasn’t going to let that happen. Not yet, anyway.

Outside the station a girl in a yellow anorak gave me a free lollipop as she tried to promote some product that funnily enough had absolutely nothing to do with lollipops, and as I sucked on it I spotted a backpacker crossing the road in front of me. He was instantly recognisable as an Australian. You know the look I’m talking about, right? The facial expression that gives away their experience in the situation of finding oneself arriving in a strange city at dusk. That look that says ‘been here before.’

An Aussie is never flustered. Never! He can pick up the scent of a youth hostel from 30 miles and will always lead you to safety. It’s in the genes. I love the fact, as well, that there’s no upper age-limit on being a backpacker if you’re from the land down-under. You can be seventeen, twenty-seven, forty-seven, or have one foot in the grave and not one of your fellow compatriots will so much as raise an eyebrow when you tell them you’re going to pack up your stuff and go and stay in youth hostels whilst travelling around Europe for 9 months, leaving work, family, obligations, and everything else at home. The reply you’ll get is “Good on ya, mate. See you in a year, you flaming Lunatic. In fact, you’ve put the idea in my head now as well. Fuck it, I’ll quit my job, leave everything behind and come with ya, mate. It’s not like I’ve got anything else to do. Now before we get down to all of that, let’s open a couple of tinnies, there’s cricket just about to start on the telly.”

English travellers tend to do things a little differently. They’ll spend half a lifetime planning it and then finally the day will come when they pack their stuff onto their backs and head out the door for up to 12 months in between finishing college and starting university. Hence the term Gap Year. After returning home it’s then time to start arranging their life, getting the qualifications in, starting a career, getting onto the property ladder and accepting the fact that they’ve done their travelling and will never again have the freedom to undertake such an adventure. From there on in they’ll be doing grown-up things whether they like it or not because that’s what society orders.

Occasionally, the ones who didn’t take a gap-year will travel for a while after finishing their university degree. The areas covered on the journey will always consist of one or all of the following; Australia, New Zealand, South-East Asia (especially Thailand), and Southern Africa.

The whole trip will be a cliché. There’ll be drinking and fruit-picking in Australia; drinking, smoking drugs, riding around on motorbikes and wearing sandals in Thailand; and bungee-jumping, going on safari, having their photo taken with tribesmen and perhaps doing some charitable work with children in Africa. The entire duration of the journey will be spent in the company of other travellers, mostly people from back home, and at the end of the journey they will have learnt little if anything at all about the cultures and peoples of the places they’ve visited.

This isn’t how an Australian does it. An Australian will spend at least a year at a time travelling different parts of the world. He or she will more often than not travel alone, sometimes with a friend, and will make no itinerary in advance. He’ll explore places off the beaten track, he’ll discover things that not many tourists have before, he’ll mix with the locals, and if you bump into him in a hostel or pub he’ll have a list of stories as long as his arm to tell you. The downside to this, of course, is that God made Australians one of the most unbearably annoying groups of people on the planet, and to hear his stories means having to sit and have a beer with him whilst picturing yourself wrapping your hands around his neck and squeezing until the loud, cocky, “we’re the best sporting nation in the world, mate” shouting, shorts-wearing, scruffy-haired, know-it-all stops breathing.

Only joking, my Aussie chums.

How did I get on to this, anyway? Oh yea, the backpacker crossing the road in front of me. That reminds me of a joke: Why did the backpacker cross the road? Answers on a postcard to the usual address.

I managed to catch up with the guy and as we stopped together at another set of traffic lights I asked him if he knew of a hostel. Of course he did! We walked together and introduced ourselves. My new mate was a native of Melbourne, in his early 30s who went by the name Greg. Could I have found a more stereotypical Aussie? The only thing missing was the hat with corks on it, and I would’ve wagered a few quid that he had one lurking somewhere in the depths of his rucksack. He told me he was quite near the beginning of a year jaunt around the continent, and that he hoped to work in London and earn enough money to then take another year or so travelling Asia. Every time I hear a story like that it lights the spark in my head that fills my mind with ideas of one day being able to do the same. To see the world on my own terms. To not know where on the planet I’ll be in a few days time. To come back home, never knowing when the next random trip is due to start. To have that freedom. And most importantly, to learn.

After he’d told me his story I explained a little about mine. I got the basics through to him, avoiding going in to intricate detail at this point as I didn’t want to appear too self-indulgent. He seemed quite concerned that I wouldn’t be able to blag a free bed in the hostel and that I’d end up sleeping outside in the rain. I told him I didn’t allow negative thoughts to creep in to my psyche, but that if the worst came to worst I was big enough and ugly enough to handle a night of sleeping rough, most probably in the train station. The hunger would be an altogether different obstacle, but again it was one that I’d cross when I came to it. He said he felt inspired and that he couldn’t even imagine going anywhere without at least a few dollars in his pocket. He asked if I needed anything. I thanked him but told him I wasn’t in need.
The rain was pouring, the sky was now dark, and there was a yellowy blur from the headlights that morphed into one another as people in cars making their way home from work got caught up in the traffic. It was hard to feel positive as we approached the hostel and even harder once we’d wandered in to the reception lobby and seen the size of the queues of people waiting to check-in. The hostel I’d been brought to was called DanHostel. It was sixteen floors high and held over one thousand beds. Truth be told, it was more of a budget hotel than a meeting-place hostel.

Working behind the desk, checking travellers in, were a hippy-looking guy and a stunningly beautiful blonde girl, a picture postcard image of what the Nazis had said an Aryan woman should look like sixty-five years previous. Just as they didn’t come much more Aussie than Greg, they certainly didn’t make them any more Nordic than this girl. Greg suggested that I join the queue in front of her as there would be more chance of me charming a young lady than a male hippy who from his accent we had both now ascertained was from Ireland. Greg stood in the other queue and kept an eye on me to see that things were going well. We arrived at our designated members of staff at pretty much the same time and the first thing I did was throw the blonde a smile before asking if I could show her something. She was intrigued so I pulled out a soggy copy of The Shoreham Herald and explained to her that it had been a long, hard day, that I had nowhere to sleep and wouldn’t be able to offer any money, and that the question I had to put to her was would they be so kind as to help me out, even if it meant me sleeping on a couch in the reception area? I made it clear that in return the hostel would get nothing but the best write-up on my blog that was being followed by travellers all over the world, and that also they’d get the peace of mind that came with doing something for a good cause and putting themselves above all competition when it came to such matters.

“If that’s not enough, then know that you’ll be keeping me from sleeping rough in the mean streets of Copenhagen.” I said.

My charm seemed to be having some sort of effect on the girl in front of me as she was reluctant to say ‘no’ and also felt the need to tell me what an amazing thing I was doing and that she wished there were more people like me. I felt touched, but still had no clue as to whether or not it had worked in getting me a bed.

“I’ll have to call my manager” she said, nervously. “I can’t make any promises, but hopefully I can persuade him.”

I waited for a second, then heard the Irish guy lean over to her and say that it was fine; she should book me in to a dorm. I smiled, she smiled, the Irish guy smiled, Greg smiled, some Korean people who hadn’t understood a word of the conversation and therefore had no idea what was going on smiled, everyone on the ground-floor smiled and the whole lobby started to resemble a video-shoot of R.E.M’s Shiny Happy People.

The girl took my passport and filled out all the necessaries before handing me a sheet and a pillow case and giving me the key to my room up on the 16th floor. Greg came over and congratulated me on blagging a room and I told him I’d look out for him later on if he wanted to take a wander around town.

Up on the 16th floor there was a slightly different welcoming party awaiting me. It was all my own fault, though. Somehow I managed to misread the number on the door and pushed my way into a dorm thinking it was mine. Inside I could see that every bed was already taken and that there was a guy having a shave in the mirror.

“Oh, I’m sorry, but you have the wrong room.” His Graham Norton-esque voice and little laugh immediately told me that he was homosexual.

“Where are you from?” He smiled, wiping shaving foam from his chin.

“England.” I replied in the butchest voice I could muster. “Sorry, I’ll find my room now.” I turned around to walk out the door.

“Wait! We are from Norway; we’ve brought a school class on a trip. I’m one of the teachers. Why don’t you put your things in your room and come back to mine, I have lots of beer {he pointed down to a carrier bag by the door full of cold cans}. We can have a little party. The other teachers will join us a bit later on as well.”

As politely as I could I declined his offer. In fact, if I’m being honest, I was too polite to actually decline, opting instead to just tell a flat-out lie. “OK, I’ll be with you in 10 minutes.”

In my 8-bed dorm I found just one other guest. A middle-aged German man who came across as not only strange but also quite depressed. He was stockily built, had a moustache and smelt of body odour. Just to be polite I made idle chit-chat with him but his English was almost as bad as my German, and that’s really saying something. Still, I managed to get out of him that his name was Andreas and that the company he worked for in Germany had sent him to Denmark to help complete some sort of project, I believe of the construction kind. He complained that he hated his company for being so tight and forcing him to live in a youth hostel, and he told me he’d also started to hate Denmark, full stop. He said he had to get up for work every morning at around 5, the same time that many of the guests were just making their way to bed.

He found it close to impossible to get the sleep he needed because whenever he tried to get his head down early it was made pointless due to all the noise of the other guests, not only in our room but everyone else on the floor as well. He had one of those faces you try not to stare into when talking for fear of him snapping and smashing you over the head with a glass ashtray, but still I felt sorry for him. He said his contract in Denmark was for 6 weeks and he’d had to leave his wife at home. This made my pity for the poor man even stronger. At the very least, surely the company could’ve put him in a private room.
I made my bed, ate a muesli bar whilst enjoying the view over the river, then took a long, hot shower. It was a luxurious feeling to say the least. Under the steaming water I stood and thanked God or whoever else was responsible for once again seeing to it that I’d have a roof over my head for the night.

The rain was battering down against the windows and I knew that on my hunt for food I was going to get wet and cold again. I decided to prolong my time under the shower, just standing there, running my fingers through my hair, wondering what the people close to me at home in Brighton were up to at that very moment. Eventually I was called out of the shower. Not by another guest but rather the loud monster that had taken up residence in my stomach and was showing his dissatisfaction by roaring like a furious animal. It was time to feed the beast.

I took a map from reception and strolled out into the crisp air. As well as needing to put something in my stomach I also had to try and find somewhere to use the internet free of charge, as I hadn’t arranged anything for the next day. I’d decided that I’d attempt to make it to Hamburg in Germany, en route to my next capital city, Berlin.

Finding someone kind enough to let me use a computer was no real challenge at all. A lovely hotel receptionist in the Copenhagen Plaza, next to the train station, showed me to a little internet booth that was usually reserved for the hotel’s guests. I’d shown her the newspaper article and she’d laughed before telling me to take as long as I needed. I checked my emails, wrote a little update on the blog letting people know I was still alive and kicking and had made it to Denmark’s capital, and then started searching for someone to host me in Hamburg. There weren’t too many potential hosts available so I only managed to send out about five requests, explaining to each person the purpose of my journey.

Back out on to the streets and now in search of food, it soon became apparent that the friendliness and generosity found in Sweden and Norway wasn’t as prevalent here in Denmark. There was an almost German attitude and behaviour to the people. Don’t ever tell them I said that, though. I went from restaurant to restaurant, each time asking if they could spare some leftovers, some food that they weren’t going to be able to sell that night. Each time I was told that it was impossible to give anything away for free. I was becoming desperate and frustrated. I tried baker’s shops, coffee houses, takeaway kiosks, everywhere, but all I found was people telling me to get on my bike. The more desperate I became, the less hopeful I was each time I walked in somewhere. A pizzeria looked promising when I could see through the glass that all the staff were authentic Italians. Surely they’d be friendlier and more generous to someone in need, especially if I explained everything in their mother tongue. After pleading with the restaurant’s owner, a guy in his early 30s, I couldn’t believe the response he gave me. Switching to English he explained that he’d give me his right arm to help if he could but he couldn’t possibly give me any food because his chef was an extremely temperamental character who’d be very upset if the food he cooked was given away for free.

Now hang on a minute while I analyse that statement. You’d be quite ready and willing to actually take a knife and hack away until you’d physically removed one of your limbs if it would help me but you could never do something as drastic as hurting the chef’s feelings a little bit? Fair enough, I know that chefs have a bit of a reputation for being a bit mental at times, but I’m fairly certain that whatever the man in the white hat would have done to the manager if he’d found out some of his food had been given away, it wouldn’t have been quite as severe as cutting off a piece of his body. I considered the option of calling the guy’s bluff and asking if he’d be so kind as to give me some of the meat off of his forearm, but decided against the idea when I noticed the amount of hair on it, instead just lowering my head in shame and disappointment and leaving the restaurant empty-stomached.

After the experience with the Italians I gave up. I was too hungry, cold and tired to keep walking around the city begging, and I didn’t think it would be good for morale if I took any more rejections. I made my way back to the hostel and slowly ate another Muesli bar from my bag. That was dinner for the night. It was getting on for 9pm and all the lights in my bedroom were off as Andreas was tucked up with his head under the blankets, trying to block out the world and get some much needed sleep. Rather than bother him by attempting to do anything in the dorm, I took the lift downstairs to the lobby area where I sat and wrote the days’ events down in my notebook. All around me, noisy Norwegian teenagers wandered about, waiting for the moment one of their teachers would take his eye off the main door and they could sneak out to explore the fascinating streets of a foreign city. Their opportunity never came, but it made me smile to remember similar school trips I’d been on as a teenager. In particular, a four-day trip with the school to London stood out in my memory, the time that I learnt that too much alcohol may lead to uncontrollable vomiting.

After I’d finished writing and the reception area had died down for the evening I got into conversation with the two members of staff on the front desk. It took me right back to the year I spent doing the same job in a hostel in Rome as a nineteen-year old. It had been the best and also the worst year of my life. When I hadn’t been asleep I’d always been pouring some sort of alcohol down my neck, chatting to friends, had been in the middle of a party every single night, had met amazing people from all over the world, befriended them, then had had to say farewell to people that despite the promises I knew I’d never see again. I’d slept with more beautiful girls than most men do in a whole lifetime. There had been no responsibility, no bills to pay, no one to take care of or to worry about, just a carefree existence that in the end took its toll and dumped me back at home in Brighton suffering with stomach, kidney and liver problems as well as mental issues that led to severe bouts of depression. That’s a whole other story, though, and not one for here.

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