An adventure at open mic night

An adventure at open mic night

“Hey everyone,” two females, Tama and Nuka, introduce themselves for their audience: the folks at Cafe Hygge. “Tonight for you all, we are first going to play a rock n’ roll song.”

It’s open mic night at Cafe Hygge, a place that claims to be the “coziest cafe in Copenhagen.” The Norrebro shop holds the sour scent of body odor — the repercussion for housing an event of this caliber — but somehow the sweet aroma of coffee beans. Warmth emanates from the crowded bodies sardined in the tiny room but also from the candles, the comfort and the ease of “hygge”. Or perhaps the heat is turned up too high, I think taking off my jacket. With the warm amber ambiance, it feels as if a filter of gold is placed over the scene. Coffee cups and beer bottles are scattered on the wooden tables. A woman with dark curly hair and a Spanish accent holds her empty cup mindlessly between her hands, not realizing that it’s been empty for a long while. She’s been sitting on that antique chair for some time now, listening to the music as if no time has passed at all. She leans to her friend and whispers. The two chuckle comfortably and turn their attention back to the women on stage.

Tama and Nuka stand on the small coffee shop stage under a golden chandelier with a borrowed guitar and a bundle of nerves. Nuka is tall and lean with a fierce expression and heavy black eyeliner, a leather jacket and dark hair whisked over to one side. Tama has a similar vibe, so similar in fact that the two twenty-year-olds could pass as sisters rather than friends. They met at High Voltage only a few months ago. High Voltage is an edgy rock ‘n roll bar where Tama and Nuka both work and, on occasion, perform. But tonight is their debut as a singing duo and Tama’s first vocal performance ever. Cafe Hygge is cozy but I wonder, as Tama timidly tucks an emerald green hair behind her pierced ear, does the atmosphere calm the pre-performance jitters? Does an open mic night in a hygge cafe lessen the risk?

When I spoke with Tama afterward, she described these moments on stage at Cafe Hygge as a “nerve-wracking experience.” She stood on the stage holding her guitar and curling her toes within her boots — a skill her music teacher once taught her as a way to combat performance anxiety. “In the moment of the performance, it was just a good thing I wasn’t wearing flip flops,” Tama joked to me.

During the open mic night, I sit in the back of the room and watch the two performers, sipping my chai and listening easily. At the time, I am unable to tell that Tama is curling her toes, oblivious to the way she shakes and sweats and grips the microphone like it is her lifeline. I only know these things because she later admits them to me, revealing her insecurities with a bashful grin and mug full of coffee.

I think back to my own performances and my time singing on stage in high school and college. I wouldn’t curl my toes but my hands would sweat and my mind would race. In a way, a performance is one of the greatest risks you can take. I know the feeling well … you breathe easy and assure yourself that all of your hard work will pay off. But suddenly, you’re unsure. Your breath quickens and your head becomes clouded. “What if I …?” you think, and your mind roams to the worst possible scenarios: falling off the stage, forgetting the lyrics, getting the hiccups right as you begin to sing. And then, you’re there in front of the audience with a million eyes staring back at you and you decide to take that risk. You’re at the top of the highest hill of a rollercoaster, looking over the edge and as the car lurches forward, you begin to sing.

Nuka, too, feels the pressure of performing. The moment she opens her mouth to sing, she begins to sweat. In the past, Nuka has performed for countless audiences, full of people. She steps on every stage and visualizes herself as a rockstar. She thinks of her future performing for audiences all over the world, first in London where she plans to move one day and then, who knows? But this performance, singing a rock song at open mic night, she finds the small space of Cafe Hygge intimidating. “With an audience here, everyone is so close,” she tells me. “There are so many people to project to, to give yourself to.”

There is a rumble of voices in the cafe and a constant humming and buzzing throughout Nuka and Tama’s first song. Chatter around me ebbs and flows as the audience continues their conversations without respect to the performance. Nuka could barely hear herself. Her voice trembles and wavers, rising above the notes when it should fall below. “Something had to be wrong with the mics,” she told me. “I could only hear the people and the guitar and the muffled sounds of my own voice.” She didn’t realize how loud Cafe Hygge would be compared to the real stages of her past performances.

With the antique chairs scattered around the room, the eclectic decor and the framed photos hanging from the walls, the interior of Cafe Hygge feels more like your grandmother’s living room than a coffee shop. It doesn’t feel like a performance space, that’s for sure. I remember performing on the “real stages” of my high school and college — the ones Nuka prefers. When I was in theatre, I’d step from behind the curtain into the spotlight and my stomach would somersault. These lights would ease my nerves; their harsh glare would blind me from the harsh gazes of my audience. I’d wonder what people were thinking of me, how people were judging my performance or how people were criticizing my voice. And my voice would squeak and crack on occasion. Once, I sang the wrong lyrics and then repeated them again and again. Once, I forgot my lines and ran off the stage. Once, I was so sick my voice couldn’t hit the notes I was trying to sing. But with the bright stage lights, I couldn’t see my critics. I could pretend I was performing for myself and myself alone. I could blind myself to my own mistakes and the witnesses to them. However, in Cafe Hygge, the lights are soft and hazy. The Danish low-lit atmosphere, flickering candles and hazy steam rising from the half-drunk coffee cups make certain that every set of eyes, fully on Nuka and Tama, are one hundred percent visible to them. Sitting in the back of the coffee shop, I can even make eye contact with the two women as they perform. Their critics are in full view.

“They’ve got the look, but not the talent,” my friend taps my shoulder and says. I set my teacup down and shudder at the comment. The judgment. During my time performing, one of my greatest fears was comments such as this. But the Cafe Hygge listeners didn’t seem to mind how the females’ voices faltered, how their words fell on the off-beat, how their fingers slipped while strumming the guitar. Their music — flaws and all — added to the ambiance of the place.

A twenty-something nods his head and taps his foot along to the beat. I recognize him from his own performance. He had stood on the same stage under the golden chandelier with his man bun and easy confidence. His voice had been deep and crackly, a notable complement to the candles glowing on every table. His talent was equal to the easy-listening Indie boys I often hear on the radio. When the girls’ first song is complete and they softly smile, the man-bunned vocalist claps his hands together in support.

Nuka and Tama’s second song is a folk song. It’s the type of song that lulls you into a slumber. A couple cozies up on a couch under a wool blanket; the folk song plays as the background noise to their intimate conversation. “This song is a kind of a dream,” Tama told me. “It is this dreamy world you’re entering into when you hear it.” The couple on the couch gazes up above them and I wonder if they’re staring at the red and white Danish flags draped from the ceiling tiles or if they’re pretending to look beyond the ceiling up to the stars. Maybe this is a romantic night out for them, coming here to cuddle and listen to the singers perform.

Nuka doesn’t even notice the couple or anyone else in Cafe Hygge during the folk song, a song that means the world to her. “I was too busy looking down at the lyrics so I wasn’t looking at any of the people,” Nuka admitted later. She had sung this song a dozen times and it fits comfortably into the notches of her voice. “I remember when I was younger, I wasn’t that good at English,” she recalled. “But, I’d look at these lyrics and think, ‘okay, I can understand what this is about.’” At this moment, Nuka doesn’t feel the nerves. She imagines she is sitting high up in a tree, glow from the summer sun rather than the heat of her anxiety or warmth of the stuffy, cramped coffee shop. She stares intensely down at the lyrics typed on the sheet in front of her, the same lyrics she has tattooed on her left calf: “How strange it is to be anything at all.”

Cafe Hygge is a place where your soul can breathe, where hours pass but you happen both to feel in the moment and forget that time exists. Anyone can play their music here — a curly-haired Spaniard, a stargazing couple, a first-time singing duo — and the audience will always applaud in support. Performers from all over the world had stood on that stage under the golden chandelier that night: an elderly Dane sang a song about revolting Scandinavian food, an Argentinian man came halfway around the world to tour his music, a teenage girl with a half-shaved head and a powerful set of lungs sang a Ukrainian song and two women with black and emerald green hair who just wanted to sing beyond their nerves.

“I don’t know why I wanted to come here and play,” Nuka told me. “I was so shy.” Tama laughed in agreement. “We came an hour before to just to process the space,” she said. Before they stepped onstage to sing, before a single person entered Cafe Hygge, before the coffee was drunk and the candles had melted, before the air became stuffy and the voices vibrated the air, the two women sat down on the antique, living room chairs. “Instead of just walking into the room right before a performance, I paused to calm my nerves,” Tama said. The two watched people walk in through the door as it would ding behind them. “It helped,” Tama admitted. “There was one person. There was five. And all of a sudden, the coffee shop was full and I was like, yeah, I’m good. I’m ready to perform.”

Denmark’s Must-Do’s: Winter Bathing

Denmark’s Must-Do’s: Winter Bathing

 I’m starting a new blog series called “Denmark’s Must-Do’s” which dives into all of my bucket list Danish things that I will (hopefully!) be doing with my remaining month here in Copenhagen. The idea is not only to do these things but recommend to others how to do them. Is the activity worth it? How can someone get the best experience out of the activity? As always, feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions.

According to the Danes, winter bathing has serious health benefits. On the long list of benefits, winter bathing boosts metabolism, improves blood circulation, boosts libido, clears and brightens skin, builds a stronger immune system and works to detox your body. Not only that, but Danes, the crazy people they are, actually find enjoyment in jumping into freezing cold water. They go “winter bathing” then warm up in a sauna and then do it again. AND they do it multiple times during the winter season. 

Winter bathing had been on my list since my friends jumped into the ocean as an Outdoor LLC activity in early February. They then complained to me how they lost all feeling in their toes walking barefoot on the rocky shores of Amager Beach. They told me about sprinting into the icy waters, about the feeling of paralysis and shock, about the brisk walk back to their LLC. But I heard their horror stories and thought, “Honestly, sounds fun.” I might be as crazy as the Danes. 

Skip forward to Friday night. A group of my friends signed up for “CopenHot,” which is a hot tub experience along the shores of Refshalevej. Copenhot uses the concept of New Nordic Wellness, or wilderness facilities in and urban setting. They use all natural materials — sea water hot tubs heated with firewood — to create a luxury experience (for 40 dollars a pop).  

 

On the right: Tori, Kristen, me and Claire enjoying our hot tub with a view experience

The worker told Kristen that if we get too hot, to just walk through huts 9 and 10. “I thought, ‘Oh, maybe there’s a temperature dial to turn down the heat,’” Kristen said. “Nope, that’s just the path to the ocean …” The FREEZING ocean to be exact…

Then it’s time …

Claire and I (check out her blog) step out of the warm cocoon of the hot tub and climb down the ladder. I am suddenly aware of the icy metal from the ladder, the coolness of the breeze, the shivers and the goosebumps. We walk through huts 9 and 10 all the while trying to pump ourselves up. Claire has done this before so she knows what’s coming. She’s more hesitant to do it than I am, fearing the cold, or the “paralysis” as she describes it, she will soon be leaping into. We step to the edge of the dock and grab hands. I plug my nose — an old habit — and we count to three. 

I have a moment and pause, gazing down at the water, black and thick like oil reflecting the sunset. Suddenly, we are leaping into the air and into the water. I feel the shock, the “paralysis” Claire mentioned, as if my body was submerged in icy needles. A moment in the water passes and then I break the surface. I scream loudly and mutter a few swears under my breath. My mind is only thinking of one thing — the ladder. I want OUT. I climb the ladder and step up to meet Claire, who is hopping up and down, yelling for warmth.

We go back to the hot tub to enjoy our fizzy pink champagne in plastic glasses and watch the sun set over the harbour. When we finally warm up enough we decide to do something crazy …we go winter bathing again. 

Denmark Must-Do? I would 100 percent recommend. DO IT. Pay a little extra money for the luxury experience (instead of just jumping in the ocean in February on the beach) and know that you’ll have to walk home so pack some warm clothes I’d also recommend doing CopenHot and going when the sun is setting as the breathtaking view is part of the experience.

Denmark’s Must-Do’s: Pickled Herring

Denmark’s Must-Do’s: Pickled Herring

I’m starting a new blog series called “Denmark’s Must-Do’s” which dives into all of my bucket list Danish things that I will (hopefully!) be doing with my remaining month here in Copenhagen. The idea is not only to do these things but recommend to others how to do them. Is the activity worth it? How can someone get the best experience out of the activity? As always, feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions. 

If you would have told me a month ago that I would try pickled herring, I would have laughed in your face. I would have told you that, no, I’m not a crazy person who likes to subject herself to the torture of eating such a disgusting, revolting food and that I’d rather spend my time eating pastries (see my post on pastries for context). The only type of pickled food I would choose to eat would be actual pickles and only if they’re dill. However, I tried pickled herring and … and I didn’t hate it. 

 

Apparently over a thousand years ago, Vikings would preserve the herring they’d find in abundance in the fjords in salt and vinegar. This was pre-refrigeration so, even though I hate vinegar with a PASSION, I’m going to cut them some slack. Herring was a huge part of their diet back in the Viking Age, through the medieval period and beyond. We know because there are plenty of pictures (one featured here) of fisherman scooping herring out of the water in heaps. And today, Danes keep herring in their diet, serving it out of tradition and, for some, taste.

 

I tried pickled herring first at my visiting host family’s house. It was my first time meeting them so I didn’t want to turn it down when they offered it to me. Plus, I was truly curious about the taste. My Dad, a huge advocate for pickled herring (and olives and sardines and many other “gross” foods), has been slurping pickled herring from the jar my entire life. It hasn’t EVER appeared appetizing. I’d look at those poor, silvery dead fish floating in that mysterious liquid and think, nope, never trying that …

and then I try it with my Danish family (sorry, Dad) …

Kirsten and Jens, my visiting host family, served it on rye bread — brown and dry but a complement to the meaty fish — with a layer of a white cream (perhaps mayonnaise?). I took a bite fully expecting to spit it out and then I kept chewing … and then I finished my piece … and then I go in for seconds … who is this crazy person and what have you done with the vinegar-hating person who usually inhabits my body and controls my tastebuds?!

The pickled herring was sweeter than I expected and the vinegar was not present. It was a bit sour in flavor and meaty in texture. The fish were small and grey and part of me felt guilty for consuming an entire life form in a single bite. 

Tip: Eat this fish with BEER. Please, I’m begging you. It’s apparently the best way to consume herring as the hoppy, liquid gold balances out the sourness of the fish. 

My second herring experience was, fitting, with my dad. I was lucky enough to have my family in Copenhagen during the second travel week. I was even luckier to have my Dad, who was traveling to Scotland for work, have his layover in Copenhagen. This meant that I got a morning with my Dad all to myself. So, naturally, I took him to eat some herring.

We walked along the Nyhavn canal, asking every shop that was open to serve us herring. “Herring?” they responded. “That’s a lunch dish! It’s still morning!” as people sat along the canal drinking pints of beer … but eventually, we got our herring. I told my Dad that I would sit out on this herring eating experience, and I would let him enjoy the dish all by himself.

My Dad told me that this was the best herring he had ever had. His face just lit up eating herring — a food that his dad loved before him. Seeing him happy as he ate it made me love the food (even if I wasn’t the biggest fan of the taste). He said that eating herring with me, sitting on an outdoor patio chair along the colorful Nyhavn buildings, made his trip. And honestly, mine too …

Denmark Must-Do? If you like fish, I say yes, why not try pickled herring. If you don’t like fish, know that it will be a bit fishy, slimy and likely very cold. Not enough beer could wash down that flavor … BUT if you often enjoy fishing pickled herring from glass jars filled with liquid (as my Dad does), then trying this food in Denmark is most definitely a must do.

 

An afternoon with my visiting host family

An afternoon with my visiting host family

An afternoon of perfection, I’d say … the cool air sways the boat gently in the Roskilde harbour. The three of us — me, Kirsten and Jens — sit peacefully together. We drink instant coffee out of red, white and yellow mugs. I’m not usually a coffee drinker, definitely not a black coffee drinker, but I make an exception for Jens and Kirsten. The sun heats up my jacket. It is the warmest day I’ve had all semester — the sign of spring reminds me that my time in Denmark is almost reaching an end — and I’ve spent it in the most wonderful way.

Kirsten and Jens are my “visiting host family.” At the beginning of the semester, I opted into the DIS Visiting Host program which paired me with a family to help me discover Copenhagen during my few months here. Because I live in an LLC, I don’t get the same cultural immersion that those living with host families gain. But the visiting host program is a good middle ground. I was paired with a different family at the beginning of the semester. Honestly, it wasn’t the best fit and I requested a switch. DIS then paired me with Kirsten and Jens and wow, I had no idea I’d get so lucky with these two. 

Kirsten and Jens have been involved in the DIS hosting program for 20 years. They rotate between housing students, visiting students and travelling the world (seriously, these two have travelled everywhere). They live with their sleepy, lazy black and white cat in Roskilde, the viking town with breathtaking views just a 20 minute train ride from Copenhagen. Yesterday, I spent my second afternoon with the couple and I can say that they are the kindest, gentlest people I have met. 

They picked me up from the train station and the three of us went to explore the mountains of Denmark … I say mountains lightly, as I’d explain these mountains as more of grass-covered plateaus. They were beautiful all the same. We stumbled over golf-ball sized rocks looking for flat stones to skip in the fjord. I’m convinced Jens was a pro-rock skipper back in the day. He could throw stones the size of a shot put into the water and they’d dance along the surface as easily as the pebbles I’d throw … correction, my pebbles would drop in the water with an audible “thunk” the way his stones should have. Then we watched the swans and climbed the “mountain.” 

Fun fact: A few years ago, swans would only collect in bodies of water 2 at a time. But now, you can easily see a dozen swans in a lake or fjord. Swans are also the national bird of Denmark and the inspiration for The Ugly Duckling story by Hans Christian Andersen. They really are ugly little furballs when they’re young.

After our fjord adventure, we sat on their boat in the harbour. The boat was white and wooded, cozy in both its open deck and covered library/bar and one of the “most unique boats in Denmark” according to Jens. The two of them often enjoy the sunshine atop this boat, drinking their coffee after work or enjoying breakfast out on the water. The three of us ate chocolate and drank coffee and chatted about Danish holidays. They even made sure to post the Danish flag off the edge of the boat. 

Then, we went back to their house — a Danish style home with wooden floors, large windows, knitted blankets, a colorful, blooming garden and a sun room — for dinner. I worked on what seemed to me a never-ending puzzle while they prepared our meal. Then we ate a homey pork tenderloin meal and apple cakes for dessert. They were like fluffy pancake balls — like the baked pancakes my mom always made on special occasions — and, despite being called apple cakes (Aebleskiver), they didn’t have any apples in them. We coated them in powdered sugar and raspberry jam and ate them like New Orleans Beignets.  

After we ate, we chatted until the sun went down (which, in Denmark is pretty late in the spring). I couldn’t help but feeling overjoyed with the sense of family and the feeling of home that I felt visiting Kirsten and Jens.

 

Denmark’s Must-Do’s: Wednesday Snails

Denmark’s Must-Do’s: Wednesday Snails

I’m starting a new blog series called “Denmark’s Must-Do’s” which dives into all of my bucket list Danish things that I will (hopefully!) be doing with my remaining month here in Copenhagen. The idea is not only to do these things but recommend to others how to do them. Is the activity worth it? How can someone get the best experience out of the activity? As always, feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions. 

In my last post on the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, I talked about Wednesday snails, also known as “onsdagssnegle.” They’re these delicious cinnamon rolls that St. Peder’s Bakery serves at a discount on Wednesdays. Well, I decided to go back to St. Peder’s and write about the experience for the “Denmark’s Must-Do’s” series I’ve started. These pastries are a classic here in Copenhagen, a “Must-Do” some may say. And I decided, for no other reason than good writing experience, that I would eat these delectable pastries … oh, the sacrifices I make for this blog … #doitfortheblog

A little background on St. Peder’s Bakery before I write the food critique … according to Lonely Planet, “Sankt Peders Bageri” is the oldest bakery in the city, dating back to 1652. It stands on a cute corner near St. Peder’s church in the Medieval District of Copenhagen, only a 3 minute walk from DIS. The building is even protected by the city because it is such a vital historical landmark (I have a theory that the city wants to keep the shop around just for their cinnamon pastries). They sell their snails daily but on Wednesday, with their special deal, they sell an average of 4000 pastries.

So back to why St. Peder’s Bakery is a “Must-Do” in Denmark, let me just paint a picture for you. On St. Peder’s street sits the little sunshine yellow bakery with the giant pretzel sign reminiscent of a German postcard. The storefront window, inscribed with the words “Sct. Peder’s Bageri,” lures you in with the glimpse into the rows and rows of freshly made pastries. Stepping through the front door, you’re immediately overtaken by the sweet, yeasty aroma of baked goods. “It reminds me of Easter,” my friend Sarah told me. The shop is small — not a place for studying but for long conversations sitting on the black and white checkered cushions along the wall — but cozy with its golden chandeliers and wooden accents. And what better way to enjoy a conversation than with a pastry in one hand and a coffee in the other?

 

Sarah (pictured) woke up this morning with a text from me saying, “Wednesday snails?!” which, according to her, is the BEST way to wake up. So here she is, excitedly waiting for the best pastries in all of Copenhagen. 

Tip: I’d recommend getting to St. Peder’s early in the day as they often times run out. I’d also recommend waiting for a freshly made batch of snails. We waited ten minutes for our pastries (worth the wait!). 

The first bite is … well, I’m the type of cinnamon roll eater that only mildly enjoys the outside — you know, the crispy, breadier part that, while coated in cinnamon, sits dryly on your tongue and forces you to take a sip of your drink to swallow it down — but I’m really here for the inside of the roll. I’m here for the doughy sugar explosion, the under-cooked melt-in-your-mouth, doused in frosting center part of the pastry. Well, for those of you out there that feel the same as me, that patiently eat the outer ring of the snail knowing that it will be worth it the further into the spiral you get, I have a pro-tip for you … well, Sarah has a pro-tip for you. Sarah is my best friend (she is my roommate back at St. Olaf) and she lives in the Culinary LLC here, so I trust her food judgment. She recommends dipping the outer bready ring into the center dollop of frosting. Coating the dry bread in the creamy sweetness makes every part of the pastry a part to look forward to. I recommend accompanying your Wednesday snail with a cup of coffee. The sweet and the bitter complement one another perfectly. 

Pictured: The snails are affordable at the low price of 18 kroner (that’s under 3 USD) and filling! Of course, if you get them every single Wednesday (@me), the cost starts to add up.

My favorite part of the experience was the atmosphere of the bakery. Sarah and I, in Danish Hygge fashion, took our time eating our snails and enjoying the Natasha Bedingfield album playing. During that time, waves of people entered and exited the shop. Groups of teenagers, DIS students, couples and even a dog came in to St. Peder’s bakery to grab a bite of a cinnamon roll (the dog was particularly interested in my snail). And by the end of our meal, the entire tray of freshly made snails was empty. 

I would highly recommend St. Peder’s Wednesday snails if you plan on coming to Copenhagen. After my cozy, Hyggelit, DELICIOUS experience, I would place these cinnamon rolls high on my “Denmark’s Must-Do’s” list.