Monday, September 15, 2014

The Best Danish Cure

“The cure for anything is salt water—sweat, tears, or the sea.”
—Isak Dinesen

Our fifth day of biking in Denmark featured all three salt water elements in Danish writer Isak Denisen’s quote above . . . and more.

We didn’t have to break a sweat to get to our first destination of the day—the Valdemar Slot (castle), located not far from our hotel in Troense. Our group was given a personal tour by a woman who truly loved taking people through the grand home. The castle is still occupied part of the year by descendants of the same noble family that was awarded the castle in 1678 after a famous naval battle. Family photos and portraits abound, as well as a museum with lots of hunting trophies, including a huge polar bear that one of the nobles bagged years ago.  For those of us who are non-hunters, the trophies were a little disconcerting and a lot scary.

My favorite part of the tour was a visit to the basement level, where the housekeeping staff spends most of its time and effort. In one corner was the head housekeeper’s bedroom. Right outside her door were several ironing boards. I figured they were there in case she woke up early in the morning and needed to fill her time productively. Talk about working overtime!

The castle seemed like the perfect place for us to take a group portrait. Here we are!

Here's the crew posing in front of the castle:
Barb, Doug, Casey, Phyllis, Harvey in the front
and Leah, Audrey, me, and Patti in the back.
The sweating came after we left the castle. We made a brisk ride across the island of Tasinge and came to a bridge that looked like Mt. Everest to me but didn’t seem to deter anyone else. I de-biked and decided to walk up the bridge, grumbling all the way. I am not sure what was going through my head, but I knew that I HATED that bridge! I had had it, at least for a while. I bailed out, and decided to hitch a ride with Per in the van for most of the rest of the day. I am a little ashamed, but not sorry, as you will be understand as you read on.

The group rode across part of the island of Langeland (“long land”), and finally joined Per and me at a ferry landing. (What took them so long? I joked) Waiting for the ferry along with us was a family of daredevils, too crazy to be believed. They were a young mother, father, small child, and either a friend or sister (I never learned which). They were cycling across Europe from their home in Paris, with the child being transported in a cart, and the sister/friend/cousin making the trip mostly on roller blades (you can’t make up this stuff!). Now they were making their way across Denmark.

Here are the dad, child, and crazy roller-blading sister
waiting for the ferry as they biked across Europe.
Coming off the ferry, our group began biking across the island of Lolland, which rhymes with “Holland” and was supposed to be just as flat. The plan was the ride for about 15-20 miles on Lolland, moving from west to east. This should be a snap, we were told, because the winds supposedly always blow from west to east there, providing a strong tail wind. There is an old Yiddish expression that goes, “Man plans, and God laughs.” God was definitely chuckling that day because the winds were very strong from east to west, turning helpful tail winds into sweat-inducing headwinds. Even Audrey bailed out after a time, but Lars and many of the group soldiered on. Then Harvey discovered that his difficulties biking that day were not all wind-related. He was riding on a rapidly deflating tire. Even that had not deterred him much. The group stopped to help fix the tire and then took a potato chip break to replenish the salt they had lost while sweating as they rode into the wind near the sea. If I had been there, I would definitely have been shedding tears to complete Isak Denisen’s triumvirate.  But I was safely in the van (chuckle, chuckle) on the way to our next destination in the town of Maribo.
Harvey, Audrey, and Phyllis rode happily
without my grumbling this day.
According to Isak Denisen, the cure for everything is salt water. Not to disagree, but I think the best cure for uphill climbs over high bridges and biking into stiff headwinds might be a welcoming van and a few glasses of Danish beer.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Our Danish “Odyssey”

“I am saying that erotic love is comic to a third party—more I do not say.”
—Soren Kierkegaard

On our fourth day of riding in Denmark, we went from Faaborg to Troense. The trip took us onto four different islands, and we rode not only on our bikes but also on two different ferries. We ended up in a charming little town that had a dirty little secret. Well, not exactly a secret, because it is mentioned in the guidebooks and Lars, our guide, shared it with us. And not everyone might consider it dirty . . . but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Because I am always an English major at heart, I am going to call this day “our Danish Odyssey.” Our adventures were not exactly epic, but they did have some unusual Homeric parallels. We started the day with a quick ride to the harbor in Faaborg, took a walk along the town’s cobblestone streets, and came across my favorite Danish sign of the trip—a store window that advertised home delivery of pizza and kebabs with the quaint saying “du ringer, vi bringer,” which I figured must be translated “you call and we deliver”—though doesn’t it sound better in the original Danish? From there, like Odysseus, we boarded a ship and sailed for the island of Aero, a name that certainly sounds Greek to me.
Anyone need kebabs delivered?
Once in Aero, we mounted up and began a trek across the island to its largest town, Aerøskøbing. Halfway through our ride, we stopped to admire the beautiful seacoast and the blue seas, when we were attacked by marauding lady bugs. I know that sounds a little overdramatic, and not exactly on a parallel with facing down the Cyclops, but those bugs were downright vicious. Below is my photo of the creatures resting up en masse on a rock to prepare for a new attack. Perhaps there was mythological symbolism in that attack.
Did any Greek myths mention marauding lady bugs dotting the coastline?
We continued biking on to Aerøskøbing, enduring some Odyssean uphill and downhill stretches. Then we boarded a ferry that took us back to the town of Svendborg, which we had left two days earlier, and we quickly biked from there over a bridge to the island of Tasinge and the town of Troense.

I have received some feedback that my accounts of our Danish trip have been overly negative. To which, I say, “nope, nyet, nein, no way!” I have only positive things to say about Troense. It was the kind of small, quaint European seaside village you dream about. After dinner that night in our charming, small hotel just across the street from the water, Lars took us for a walk along the town’s most appealing and notable street. That’s where he revealed the town’s “dirty little secret.”

Troense's nicest street lined with thatched cottages.
Check out the placement of ceramic dogs on the window sill.
Lars explained that many Danish naval and merchant marine captains decided to settle in Troense even before they retired. Not a bad choice. Some of the wealthiest of those captains bought homes on the street on which we walked that night. Most of the houses had bright whitewashed walls, dotted with windows, and thick well-cared-for thatched roofs. Lars prompted us to look on the window ledges inside several of the houses, where we spotted pairs of ceramic dogs. Some pairs of dogs were facing out toward the street; others were facing inward. The dogs, he explained, had been gifts the captains picked up for their wives during their travels. What was behind the dogs’ orientation on the window sills?  That’s the dirty part. Some of the wives found an unusual use for the gifts. If her husband the captain was home from his travels, his wife would turn the dogs inward. If her husband was away at sea, she would place the dogs looking out toward the street, as if anticipating his return. A nice gesture, and nothing dirty about that, you say. Oh ho. It turns out that some of the wives had boyfriends on the side, who would check out the placement of the dogs. If they were looking in, the boyfriends would wait for a better time to woo their married girlfriends. If the dogs were looking outward, the coast was clear. And we had been told that the Danes were such straight-laced people!

Which brings me to my last Homeric connection. As I remember the story, Homer considered Odysseus’ wife Penelope to be one of the true heroes of his epic tale. During the 10 years during which Odysseus sailed to and from Troy and got into all sorts of travail, Penelope stayed home raising their son as a single parent. During those 10 years, many people—particularly potential suitors for the desirable but unwaveringly faithful Penelope—tried to convince her that her husband was long dead and it was time for her to move on. She turned all of the suitors away. There were no ceramic dogs on her window sill. At least I don’t remember any. But I read The Odyssey a long time ago, and my translation may have been cleaned up a little.
Penelope's suitors compete for her attention but never win her love.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Do Not Go Gentle . . .  

To commemorate his 80th birthday, former president George H.W. Bush parachuted out of an airplane some 13,000 feet in the air. Pretty daring.

To commemorate my 65th birthday, I also took on a dare. I floated in a red 16-foot kayak on Monksville Reservoir in Ringwood, New Jersey.

Not the same, you say. Not even close!

Let me explain some of the parallels and the contrasts. I would bet that the last time Mr. Bush jumped out of a plane, he did so successfully. As I recall, he even made a successful parachute jump at age 20 during World War II when some bad guys were shooting real bullets at him. So another parachute jump without bullets must have seemed like child’s play to him, even at 80.

The last time I kayaked some three years ago, I ignominiously flipped over and found myself underwater looking up into my boat. Undeterred (well, only slightly deterred), I scrambled from under the overturned kayak. I managed to flip the boat back over, but it was filled with too much water to bail out. My peaceful sail near my currently uproariously laughing wife (was there no empathy to be found!) was interrupted. Only somewhat daunted, I dog-paddled myself and the boat to shore, where I managed to persuade a sunbather to help me pull the boat onto dry land and dump out the water inside. Then I got back into the kayak and tried to pretend that all was normal as I paddled back to the boat rental launch.

President Bush had cameras recording his safe return to land and a supportive family cheering him on. I had that same laughing wife recording everything mentally, and she was sure to tell everyone we knew about the incident. While it is true that, unlike President Bush, I was never in a life-threatening situation, was he ever in fear of dying from embarrassment!

So is it any wonder that I had not returned to kayaking for three years? And I might have stayed away longer, except that Audrey gifted me a kayaking “discovery activity” as part of my 65th birthday present. I guess she figured that if I was going to drown while kayaking, I should at least know how to paddle correctly before my demise. She was even coming along for the ride and possibly to take a picture as I went over.

Our lesson on Labor Day featured two guide/instructors and one other paddler, who probably didn’t suspect the danger possibly at hand. Both Audrey and I had worn bright shirts for the outing. The lead instructor thought that was a good idea. “At least we won’t have any trouble spotting you in the water,” she quipped. (Still no empathy!) She also proudly proclaimed that no one had ever overturned during one of her lessons, which smacked of hubris to me.

So many kayaks, so much potential danger!

We donned our PFD’s (portable floating devices, aka life jackets), and Audrey made sure I was snuggly strapped in. (She did care.) We learned proper paddle techniques (or PPT, as we kayakers might say) on land, and then headed toward the boats. Audrey’s was a 14-foot recreational kayak. I was given the 16-foot craft, noted for being a little wider and a lot more stable. Flipping this one over might be a challenge.

I made an almost graceful entrance into the boat, aligned my butt and back in the seat, planted my feet firmly on the foot rests, and began paddling—a little right and a little wrong. The instructor noted that how I handled the paddle could influence how quickly and smoothly I went places and how likely I was not to overturn. I spread my hands slightly, loosened my wrists, moved my body to about 10 degrees less than straight up, and tried to pivot my “core” without rocking the boat. So much to remember in order to have “fun.” Amazingly, it all worked. I paddled around one part of the reservoir, went under the overpass to the other side, made a circle that was a little wider than everyone else’s (not just because of lack of skill but also because by choosing a wider, longer boat, I had sacrificed some maneuverability for stability—a worthy sacrifice).

We kept this up for over an hour. Then, thankfully, we headed back toward dry land. Just one more hurdle to overcome—emerging from the boat without falling butt-first into the water. More instruction from the guide, and I was up, out, and striding toward shore. Take that, George Bush! And I did my birthday ride solo; Mr. Bush sailed down from 13,000 feet tethered to a guide, the wimp!

So I had conquered kayaking—at least for the time being. But could I rest on my laurels? Later that day, Audrey, looking over the L.L. Bean adventure guide, asked with a straight face, “So do you want to go on a three-hour, full moon kayak sail in two weeks?” Could she be intent on collecting my life insurance now that I’m an official “senior citizen”?
The two candles on my cake are a 6 and a 5. Oh my!