All these years later you can’t even remember his last name, but for 45 minutes of your life, Paul was the most important person in it. He was supposed to pick you up at the airport, assigned to you by the university as your international student guide. He had emailed you a few weeks prior to your arrival with instructions to meet him at the café next to baggage claim. And even though his message was brief, you were relieved to know at least one person in all of Denmark.
The thing that really irritated you when you arrived at the Copenhagen International Airport was how attractive everyone was. The other passengers at the gate, the airline employees checking baggage, hell, even the cashiers at the convenience store were putting you to shame. After sitting in coach class for nine hours, you found yourself buying a pack of gum from a 6-foot-tall blonde woman — whose silk blouse fell exactly right — wearing a hint of lipstick and blush in natural tones that made her look like she wasn’t wearing any at all. But you knew. Oh, you knew.
Yes, that Scandinavian beauty you’d heard so much about was rearing its beautiful head in every damn corner of the place. Even the Danish design furniture store was just too much for you at that moment.
You landed there on the first double-decker plane you had ever taken, together with 400 other passengers, but very much alone. All told, your trip took 1 commuter flight from Iowa and everything you had known, 90 minutes of nervous pacing in the departures terminal of O’Hare International Airport, 2 Xanax, 1 Dramamine, and 9 transatlantic hours of medically dulled anxiety. But you made it.
Your face still smelled like tears. You were able to avoid crying when you said goodbye to your poor parents, but like a badly timed geyser, it all came pouring out on the tram ride to your connecting gate. Badly timed because, no matter how hard you try to be invisible at moments like that, you will always run into someone you went to high school with.
“Lydia, hey, are you OK?” she had asked with a mix of enthusiasm and concern.
“Oh, yeah, how’s it going.” You said it, rather than asked it, willing the conversation to end. Also, you could not for the life of you remember her stupid name. Megan? Ashley?
Undeterred, she soldiered on with “So, are you coming or going?”
Which, at that particular moment, was a little too much — a little too symbolic, too deep. And the fact that she would never, ever realize that just made you cry harder. You did, however, manage an “I’m going to Denmark for a year.”
“Oh, wow! That’s really neat! I’m coming home from a week in Denver!”
The exchange with Megan-Ashley was enough to propel you out of the tram with aggressive speed — the speed of someone practiced at the art of avoidance. And the speed seemed to calm you down, forced you to focus on something other than your anxiety.
But then you arrived at Gate K-25, which is where your anxiety (Hey, wait up, I’m on this flight too!) caught back up with you. While there, you discovered that people do really interesting things before boarding an international flight, and you watched them with the focused curiosity of an anthropologist studying a newly discovered tribe.
- There were the young parents who, despite knowing this was the worst idea they’d ever had, were about to take their toddler on an overnight, transatlantic flight. Their sequencing of events was highly strategic: They first tried to exhaust the chubby pink-cheeked boy by chasing him through the rows of connected metal chairs. They next transitioned him into calm sleep mode — changing him into cotton footie pajamas and giving him a Pavlov baby bottle that signaled bedtime. Everyone at Gate K-25 was rooting for these parents. But every time the boy emitted one of his ear-piercing shrieks, you could also see in their faces that these people would band together to overthrow the tiny tyrant if necessary.
- There was the older couple — late 60s, maybe — wearing eye masks on their foreheads like sunglasses, doing what looked like tai chi in front of the roped-off Diamond Platinum Preferred Elite line. They were wearing durable slippers, the kind with hard rubber soles and fleece tops, not about to let the water-retention-induced foot swelling get the better of them this time. They both took a swig of Emergen-C to prevent any airborne pathogens from ruining their river cruise through Germany and the former Czechoslovakia — something they had done before, but never on the 12-day Jewels of the Danube package. The instant they boarded the flight, they would put on their eye masks and take one Ambien each. Until then, they busied themselves with deep squats and forward bends — the woman almost reaching the linoleum floor, the man hanging down with his fingertips just past his knees. They executed all of this with choreographed synchronicity.
- And then there was you, the lone young woman clutching her computer bag as if it were a security blanket, impatiently ready for this part to be over, and scared shitless for the next part to begin. You had already taken your plane meds, a cocktail of anxiety and motion sickness pills that you were accustomed to taking before every flight. This, though, was your longest one yet, and for that reason you convinced your doctor to increase the dosage. She agreed, but cautioned you not to let this become an addiction “like Jeb Bush’s daughter did.” You weren’t familiar with that reference, and forgot to look it up online afterwards. However, you remained confident that your fear of plummeting 35,000 feet from the sky to your tragic death was strictly airplane-induced.
Despite your best efforts to irrationally panic, the flight was uneventful. You were served the best airplane food you’d ever had, by the most pleasant-but-cool flight attendant you’d ever met, and you had complete control over your own movie and radio channels. All of this proved to you that, not only do the Danes do everything right, you were completely out of your league in moving to their country — and so you did find a reason to irrationally panic after all.
It looked hazy as the plane made its final descent into Copenhagen; you could tell that the city was surrounded by water, but in the fog, everything took on a gray-toned hue. You didn’t have many expectations for what it was supposed to look like; but after a suspiciously perfect Danish airline experience, it was nice to see that even the Danes couldn’t control the weather.
And so, there you were. In a haystack of beautiful people, looking for a needle whose name was Paul. Besides his name and his birthplace (South Africa), you didn’t know much about Paul. For some reason you scanned the crowd for someone who looked like he might have played rugby growing up.
It became clear to you when you met Paul that he had never played rugby, but you did not rule out the possibility that he was an underwear model at some point in his life. He was handsome, with a lean build that made you feel like you towered over him even though he was at least two inches taller. You were suddenly keenly aware of the fact that you had spent the last 12 hours soaking up airplane stench in every fiber of your clothing and laugh-crying during a medley of romantic comedies that you watched with preemptive homesickness.
“Hello, you must be Lydia.”
He said it in an accent that made your name sound exotic. You shook his hand, trying not to touch too much of him for fear that he’d discover the strange combination of smells — recycled air and tears? — was coming from you.
Walking to the baggage claim, you exchanged a predictable dialogue of one stranger welcoming another to a foreign land. The fact that Paul was South African added a little dynamism to the conversation, although it was you who did most of the talking. You have always been the type of person to fill silence with words, a carryover from middle school days of wanting to impress and charm and entertain people into liking you.
Paul seemed stoic, thoughtfully answering the questions you fired off about school and work and South Africa, evening out the pace of the conversation into a more measured calm. His gentle tone complimented your nervous buzzing nicely, you thought, and as you casually glanced down at his hands, you surprised yourself with how delighted you were by his lack of ring.
As you neared baggage claim, you became very concerned that Paul would soon discover how much luggage you had deemed appropriate for a year abroad, and would quietly judge you for it. You considered warning him about your suitcases, which weighed about 80 pounds each, but decided just to tell him that you’d know your bags (you called them bags to downplay their size) when you saw them.
Your suitcases circled around together, and as you pointed them out to Paul, it occurred to you that their weight might actually have been an important detail. You stood side by side, each reaching for a suitcase — you knowing to expect the strong heave required to lift a cannonball from a moving target, Paul probably anticipating a moderately sized bag of clothes. Your expectations, of course, proved accurate, while Paul was forced around the carrousel — all the while holding onto the bag’s handle, grunting his way through several surprised onlookers, eventually deadlifting the bag first onto the metal frame and then onto the feet of another passenger.
You wished you could laugh, you really did, but it was not the time for that. Maybe someday you’d laugh, when you were sitting around a table with friends, reminiscing about your amazing adventures in Copenhagen. You hoped Paul would be a central figure in those stories, the one person you knew in the entire country of Denmark, on whom you would eventually grow.
First, though, Paul needed an apology, and you rushed over to offer a heartfelt one. His response was simply a quiet “It’s ok,” which alarmed you in its finality. You trailed Paul out of the sliding glass doors toward the train tracks, trying to decide whether more talking or silence would be best. You went with silence, which was not easy for you.
Up until that point, your experiences on public transportation had included a nostalgic trolley service that ran the five blocks of downtown Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and a school bus ride to a friend’s house one middle school afternoon. The Copenhagen metropolitan train system was an interesting divergence from those experiences in a lot of ways, but most notably that day was the level of difficulty with which you and Paul had to 1) sprint to the platform to catch it; and 2) lift the 80 pound beasts three feet straight up into the train car in the middle of rush hour traffic.
Paul was really keeping it together; you had to give him credit for that. He may have had a hard time even looking in your direction, but he had not yet abandoned you — something you frankly would have done if the roles were reversed.
The train made periodic stops, and you found it stressful not knowing which one was yours. You kept shifting around your suitcase to let other people on and off, eventually picking out the one phrase they all seemed to be using — one that sounded like “oon-skoolt,” which you had to believe meant either “excuse me” or “stupid idiot.” Paul had not yet volunteered information about the duration of your ride, but at that point you had gone too long without speaking to break the silence.
Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on how you look at it, your stop was the exact same stop as literally every single person on the train, including all the school children in all of Denmark, who were coincidentally all riding that very train that same day. You lost Paul in the sea of beautiful people, but somehow managed to right yourself and your gargantuan suitcase on the platform below.
On the walk from the train station — with Paul once again at your side — there were cobblestone sidewalks for days. Days and days of plastic suitcase wheels getting stuck between the historic bricks that laid the foundation of the beautiful old city
From the comfort of your Iowa cocoon two months prior, you had received a welcome letter from the university, telling you that you would be living in a dormitory called Regensen, on a street spelled “St. Kannistræde,” with the little ‘a’ and the little ‘e’ making one single little letter, which sort of looked like two number 8s put together. Like any rational human being, you had no idea what that little letter sounded like, but you assumed the “St.” stood for “Saint,” so when Paul seemed lost on the walk from the train station, you cheerfully noted that you were looking for “Saint Kah-nis-straid?”
You had never seen Paul look so disgusted in your entire life.
And though he had not uttered a single word to you since that unfortunate baggage claim incident, he spat back, “It’s Store Kannistr-uhhhhh-thuh,” with such a forced pronunciation that you gasped a little bit.
You couldn’t help yourself; your only real option was to kill him with kindness. And so you pursued a line of questioning thus far left unasked, one that began with an innocent “Do you live somewhere around here, Paul?” and ended with “No, we live outside of the city to be closer to my girlfriend’s parents, who help with the baby.”
And just like that, everything changed. In that one moment, you realized that Paul would not be someone you could commiserate with over drinks about being a foreigner alone in this place or with whom you could develop a lasting friendship. You were not looking at an equal; you were looking at a man who had gotten his Danish life together, who had made this place home. And you started to notice in his demeanor — his eyes gave it away — that he was doing the university a favor by escorting you from the airport.
When you finally made it to the thick curved wooden door that was sandwiched between two solid brick walls, you were choking back strange tears — homesickness? loneliness? or, damn it, both?
Paul leaned into the electronic dialing pad and said some nonsense into the speaker. Overhead, you heard a long high-pitched tone and a click, and just like that, you entered into the hallowed halls of Regensen Dormitory. You wanted to reach for Paul’s hand, but after everything, you knew you couldn’t.
Together, separately, the two of you walked through a short tunnel and into a large, sunny courtyard where a group of beautiful Danish models were sitting on a beautifully rustic picnic table, drinking champagne and eating strawberries. You let Paul do all the talking, but with every harmonized glance given to you by the picnickers, you wondered what exactly he was saying. At last, one of the Danish men stood up, shook your hand, and reached for the suitcase that Paul had carried this far.
You turned to say thanks to Paul, generically promising to “See you around,” to which — although your memory is a little foggy — you recall him replying “Cheers” and lifting his hand in a motionless wave, leaving you there, in the middle of the courtyard.