Updated: Feb 16
Once upon a midnight train, I was a graduate student in Germany, minding my very own business. Really. That’s all it was.
I purchased a two-month student Eurail pass prior to my departure from Los Angeles. It was intended for use during the semester break, but my Scandinavian heritage tour de force was delayed unaccountably until late summer by a variety of interruptions, all quite pleasant in nature, if you must know.
The trip began with a short stop in Hanover, where I talked to a few people about light rail system development and the history of British royalty.
Next stop, Copenhagen. I was met at the border by a full-fledged member of the Danish Gestapo, otherwise known as a border guard with a serious attitude problem.
Both my passport and student Eurail pass were confiscated. Lucky for me, I was not immediately placed under arrest or thrown in jail. My crime? I was six months too old. I was 26 when I purchased the student Eurail pass, but 27 when my northward odyssey began. This was a high crime and misdemeanor against the state of Denmark. With people like me riding around on trains like we owned the place, how far away might Anarchy and Chaos be? Not very far, as it turned out.
Stuck in Copenhagen without a passport, I received a small dose of Franz Kafka’s adulterine castle treatment, otherwise known as adventures in bureaucratic reshuffling. I was given the runaround at City Hall three or four times until I finally found a city planner who was willing to answer my questions about urban rail. He promptly sent me to Coventry, which he called Christiana for some idiosyncratic reason.
The last bus stop was strategically placed in the middle of nowhere. Nothing daunted, I struck out bravely across the dunes, heading east toward the Baltic Sea. I was soon joined by an inquisitive stranger, who asked me to state my business. Having none, I simply repeated what the city planner told me. “Let me take you to our leader,” the stranger said. “Of course, she’s not really a leader per se, but rather what might better be called a spokesperson. She represents our interests in dealing with outsiders such as you.”
The non-leader of the largest unorganized community of anarchists in the world met me with a grave smile and a firm handshake, just like real people.
“What can I do for you?” she asked.
“I’m not sure,” I confessed. “Perhaps you can tell me a little bit about Christiana?”
“Anarchism as a form of political expression is street legal in only two nations of the world, Denmark and Australia. There are many anarchist communities spread across the globe, including a rather large one in Eugene, Oregon, but most such are barely tolerated.”
“The Spanish Republic was run by Anarcho-Syndicalists, wasn’t it?” I asked.
“Why do you think the Soviets, British, French, and Americans let Franco win so handily?”
“Just like the Bourbons and the Stuarts in the Eighteenth Century?” I asked, my eyes open wide with newly acquired insight on the dark underside of world power politics.
“That’s it. Politics makes strange bedfellows.” A military helicopter made its third pass over our heads, dropping lower and lower each time. “I think you should go.”
On my way out, three gentlemen poured into well-tailored business suits intercepted me, each and every one of them more serious than the grave. “He should learn to take other people’s feelings into consideration more often,” one of them declared with undisputed authority.
My passport was restored to me the next day, but my student Eurail pass went the way of the woolly mammoth, and became totally extinct. I was graciously awarded a three-week adult Scandinavian rail pass in its place, out of the goodness of Danish National Rail’s massive steel heart.
I went on to Stockholm, where I met some Swedish professors who failed to invite me to join their doctoral degree program, the best or at least the most relevant to my research interests in all of Scandinavia. “I’m sure you will find your place,” one of these particularly pesky people offered by way of consolation as I walked out the door into the bright sunshine of random chaos and black despair.
On my way back to the hotel, an elegant and subdued elderly lady sat down next to me on the bus and asked me if I liked ballet. It occurred to me that I had never been to the ballet before, but I said yes anyway just to be polite. “You should go,” she said, handing me a ticket.
The Royal Swedish Ballet performed modern dance that evening, after which Birgit Cullberg was honored for fifty years of internationally acclaimed achievement as a dancer and choreographer with a huge bouquet of flowers and the thundering applause of a standing ovation that seemed to last forever, even if it amounted to only five or ten minutes. To my complete surprise, Birgit Cullberg and the elderly lady I met on the bus were one and the same person!
In Narvik, I climbed a mountain in tennis shoes to place a small stone on a cairn and observe the curvature of the Earth spread out across the North Atlantic under a clear blue sky.
In Bergen and Trondheim, I turned right around in the train station and headed straight back to Oslo, maximizing the number of miles traveled on my rapidly obsolescing rail pass.
In Oslo, I flashed through the National Gallery looking for an ancient ancestor who painted some decent landscapes in the Nineteenth Century, but failed to recognize him, even though he was there somewhere.
Perhaps I should have made a side trip to Telemark, the birthplace of modern competitive skiing, to see the family farm, but I was running out of time, and didn’t have anyone breathing down my neck to reconnect and reestablish those all-important family ties.
Next time. Maybe. For sure. I promise. Really. I do.