All 24 Countries Have One Thing in Common
On holding space for suffering and joy when learning about others.
August 26, 2022
Happy Friday, travelers!
This week, as promised, I’m talking about Copenhagen. Denmark was a surprise, my very own surprise after a difficult year. Country #24 was almost Portugal. Denmark wasn’t on my radar until Portugal plans fell through. After all, how many broke twenty-somethings travel to Scandinavia? Most of us save those countries for our slightly-less-broke days.
But that wasn’t the story of my journey. Copenhagen was meant to be this year because I have been grounded the majority of 2022. I’ve spent my travel budget on Mexico, Scotland, and Denmark. That’s it.
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Of all the words that could be spoken on Copenhagen, of all the words I alone could say, all fall short. I return in my memories again and again to our afternoon at the Museum of the Danish Resistance. We went to a castle. We saw the colorful architecture of Nyhavn. We saw boat after boat after boat, and I took photos of all of them. Those will appear in a blog post with a clickable title and lots of SEO-friendly “content.”
But when I think about what to share with you, what to emphasize in this space, I cannot move my mind from the young people who resisted. Many of them, maybe even the majority, died. Or, rather, were murdered by a tyrannical occupation dictatorship. In this museum, I saw the stories of twenty-year-olds. University students. People younger than I, and I’m still under thirty.
One of them was shot and killed hours before the Nazis lost. Mere hours. My sharp intake of breath when I read that last sentence on a museum plaque is echoed every time I think about him. The bullet just barely grazed his shirt collar, its path visible in the soft frays of his light blue button down that has been frozen in time since that fateful day in 1945.
A few steps away from his story is an exhibit of a kitchen, its 80-year-old appliances frozen in time. Its European vintage charm was juxtaposed by the story of a woman pacing back and forth, back and forth across the small linoleum floor worried about those she knew in the Resistance.
This is why most kept it a secret.
This is why so many Danes first learned of their relatives’ clandestine activity after they lost a loved one to a firing squad. How many Danes walking around today are descendants of these men and women? I wonder if they even know their heritage, or if their family history is fraught with so much pain it was better to move on, pretend it never happened.
After 24 countries on three continents, there are few things all these places have in common. One of them is suffering. Not in the same historical periods. One could even argue these sufferings were not in equal measure. But the existence of suffering is the same, looming in painful memories and national shadows. How can a person walk in country soil and on city streets of so many places and not see it? I can’t unsee.
Travel is a largely positive industry. We want to portray our adventures as so happy and amazing that people pay big money to go and see it for themselves. To have their own adventure of sorts. And I want you to, I promise. One of the reasons I even document this journey is to speak to people like the person I was on July 3, 2015, on the last day before I left the U.S. for the first time. If you don’t come from a family that flies overseas for vacations, neither did I. If you don’t own a passport as an adult, neither did I. If you would be the first in your family to start seeing the world, whatever that means for you and however travel fits into your life, I was the first in mine, too.
We know now how that month in Costa Rica ended. It didn’t. It didn’t end at all.
Here I am, looking at my travel budget and trying to figure out where Country #25 is. Some people don’t fare well with the unpredictability, loneliness, and discomfort of being a foreigner. Traveling is what makes me feel alive.
Even in its positive qualities that, in my opinion, we have overemphasized in the name of making sales, travel is more than that.
We are being invited into countries that are people’s homes, some of whom never leave that home. We are newcomers to their sacred rituals with a limited understanding of what it means to them for this place to be home. Sometimes, that means holding space for their pain, their history, their national memory. Sometimes, that means going to museums where you see the terrible things that happened to them and wonder how they’re even a functional society.
It is this heaviness that I remember, in bits and spurts, when I enjoy the postcard-worthy moments of Copenhagen. As families stroll down pedestrian streets marked by colorful architecture, as friends meet in cafés to enjoy the evening breeze, each moment is a memory that adds to the story of a place. It doesn’t erase the terrible things that have happened there, but it does show there’s more to the story than pain. That humanity is capable of destruction, but we are also capable of building anew.
And sometimes, renewal looks like taking that millionth picture of a sailboat in front of pastel picturesque architecture set against an indigo sea. Because when dreamlike settings do actually exist, and they’re existing right in front of you, how can you not want to remember them just like this? Scars and all. In the beauty and the pain. Because being human means having both, so it’s only natural the world we inhabit would have both as well.
Here’s to experiencing places in their fullness. Here’s to appreciating everything they have to teach us. Here’s to learning from our past and doing things differently.
What’s on My Tray Table
Since I last wrote you, I’ve finished three books.
The first was historical fiction author Madeline Miller’s newest release, The Librarian Spy. I started this one in the peace and quiet of a transatlantic flight, in those hours after people are settled and meal service is over. The overhead lights go down, and my reading light comes on. I was 100 pages in before I knew it.
The novel is about an American librarian who accepts a job in Lisbon a year or two after Pearl Harbor. Being a librarian is technically her cover, because she’s actually there to take photos of newspapers from occupied countries like France. Because Portugal was neutral, they had newspapers in circulation from all over Europe, from the Allies and Axis powers.
Told in parallel is the story of a French woman in Lyon, working in the Resistance. Their lives overlap when two Jews need to get out of France. You’ll have to read it yourself to find out what happens next! I won’t spoil any more.
After The Librarian Spy, I re-read Number the Stars. It’s a children’s novel about Copenhagen in World War II. It’s so powerful to talk about difficult things with a child as the protagonist—to imagine what their young minds perceive, and what they don’t. To see what adults try to hide to protect them, and what they figure out anyway. I highly recommend this book for learning more about the Danish resistance and about Copenhagen under occupation.
The third is Jacqueline Woodson’s Red at the Bone. This was one of my summer reading picks, a quick read of less than 200 pages. The story opens with Melody’s sixteenth birthday party in her family’s Brooklyn brownstone and tells the story of their family history, from the Tulsa Race Massacre to 9/11. It’s a beautiful story with even more beautiful writing.
That’s all for now. I hope you have an amazing Friday and an even better weekend!
Be brave and stay that way,
If you want to know the planning details of our short days in Copenhagen, I’ll share that blog post once it’s ready. I really think you should go if you get the chance, and I want to make that easier for you. Writing down how I plan each trip is my way of doing that.
The S21 Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia comes to mind. Did you know the Cambodians survived a genocidal isolationist dictator in the 1960s and 70s? He came very close to destroying their country, and yet, here they are. That is remarkable.