Excerpt from The Stages

By the time I reach the street, the 8:00 a.m. chimes from Town Hall have already begun and the morning commute proceeds in its usual orderly fashion, with a lane for cars, a lane for bikes, and a sidewalk for pedestrians.  Except for the noise of the ubiquitous construction workers—which is more than enough noise for me, thank you—the road is relatively quiet.  Unlike in cities in the U.S., drivers in Copenhagen never blow their horns, unless there really is an emergency or the Danish National Team has just won the European Championship—neither of which is the case this morning.  At the light on Tietgensgade, cyclists stand three in a row and five or more rows deep, waiting for the light to change.  Most of them are dressed for work, some of them quite nicely.  After all these years, it still strikes me as odd to see a woman in a fancy woolen coat and high heel boots straddling her bicycle in the middle of a busy intersection, or to watch a man in a business suit take out his cell phone and prop it on his handlebars, dragging his thumb down the tiny screen.

When the light changes, I turn onto Stormgade and enter one of the busiest parts of the city.  Ahead of me is Christiansborg Palace, where the Parliament meets, and beyond it I can see the twisted spire of the Old Stock Exchange.  Politics and money—two things that I neither understand nor care to understand.  In the congested traffic I feel my nerves bunching up inside of me and wait for the right moment to dart across the cobblestone and through the gate to the Library Gardens.

Once inside, the street noise dies away and I find myself in an enclosed space.  Here, everything is arranged for contemplation and peace.  Ivy grows along brick walls.  Tall beech trees stand on both sides of a sandy path.  Benches with plenty of space between them line the perimeter, and everything is kept neat and tidy: even the trash cans for disposing cigarette butts are encircled with picket fences.

In the center of the garden there is a pool where a pair of ducks swims around.  Someone, I see, has built them a nesting box and placed it in the water—it looks like a miniature cottage, complete with a thatched roof and painted beams.  Small windows let you look inside and see the nesting material.  Maybe in spring you can observe hatchlings.  The only eyesore in this entire place is a sculpture the locals call “The Shower Nozzle,” which juts up some thirty feet from the same pool where the ducks paddle around contentedly, poking their bills at old pieces of bread or diving for weeds.  It’s hard to tell what they think of the artwork looming over them.

Of course, the library garden is prettier in spring when the flowers are in bloom, but then it’s also crowded.  This morning I’m the only person here, which is the way I like it.  Maybe it’s selfish of me to want the whole place to myself, but I get annoyed with the tourists who only come for a quick look at the Søren Kierkegaard statue, just long enough to say they’ve seen it.  They check off a box on their “Copenhagen Landmarks” brochure, then stride through the rest of the garden on their way to see the Queen’s Riding Circle or the City Arsenal.  There’s no slowing them down for a closer look.  I tried once, and regretted it.  It happened a few years ago, in springtime, when I was sitting on a bench near the statue and heard two Americans trying to say the name “Søren Kierkegaard.”  I thought I’d be helpful.

“Say the ‘S’ like the ‘Z’ in ‘Zurich.’  Don’t pronounce the final ‘d.’  ‘Kyerk-ah-gore.’”

It turned out to be a father and his teenage daughter, from Cincinnati, Ohio.  They walked up to my bench and introduced themselves.

“Sounds like you’re an American, too,” said the father.   “Where you from?”

Small talk.  For me, that’s where everything starts to go wrong.  Tension fills me from head to foot, even when I know what’s expected of me.  I know, for instance, that the question “Where are you from?” is meant as a catalyst for conversation, a polite way of showing interest in someone else, but I’ve never understood how the answer to that question could possibly matter or why I should want to talk about a place I’ve decided to move away from.  If I was interested in talking about Buffalo, NY, I’d be living in Buffalo, NY, but I’m in Copenhagen because it’s more interesting and it’s where Søren Kierkegaard lived an interesting life.

“The statue,” I said, keeping my head down and holding my lunch on my lap, “is based on a much smaller model that used to sit on Harald Høffding’s desk.  The model is on display at the Copenhagen Museum.”

“Really?” the father said.  “That’s interesting.”

“Høffding taught philosophy at the University of Copenhagen.  He was influenced by Kierkegaard.  And naturally he passed on his interest to his students, including Niels Bohr.”

“You don’t say.  Hey, what about the green stuff on the statue?  We’ve seen it on spires and roofs all over the city.  Do you know what it’s called?”

Verdigris?  Was this man actually more interested in the oxidization of copper than about the story behind Kierkegaard’s statue?

“The statue isn’t one hundred percent accurate,” I said, still looking down at my open-faced sandwich.  “For instance, the sculptor has depicted Kierkegaard holding a quill pen, but he actually used a steel pen for most of his writing.  When he edited one of his manuscripts, he often used a pencil, especially for crossing out passages that he no longer wanted to use.  Another error—at least I would call it an error—is the careless pile of books strewn beneath the chair that Kierkegaard’s sitting on.  Kierkegaard was if nothing a careful person—‘persnickety’ might not be a bad word to describe him—and so it’s hard to imagine him having such a messy study.”

When I looked up, the father and his daughter had quietly walked away and left me all alone talking to myself—like an idiot.  They were already several paces off when I saw them glance back over their shoulders, which were shaking with laughter.  Another group of people stood nearby and seemed to be in on the joke.  I returned to my sandwich and cursed the Tourist Office for adding the Søren Kierkegaard statue to its list of city landmarks, but then I remembered that Mette had lobbied for the statue to be put on that list and my anger subsided.  I couldn’t be mad at her.  I could only sit there on my bench and feel like a fool.

Today I pause in front of the statue just long enough to remember the sting of being ridiculed.   It’s a feeling Kierkegaard understood all too well, having been teased throughout his life.  As a child, his schoolmates made fun of him for dressing like a choir boy.  When he became an adult, a satirical magazine called The Corsair allowed its cartoonists to depict him so unflatteringly that Kierkegaard became the biggest joke on the street—to the point that, for a while, he had to give up his much-loved walks through the city.  “I feel like I’m being trampled to death by geese,” he said of the relentless mockery.  Wit was always his way of getting back at detractors.  How else to overcome suffering but with a joke?

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