Bike Locks in Copenhagen and Thoughts on Feeling Safe

A lone bike, unmoored, in Copenhagen

I noticed it on my first day.* You can’t help but notice the bikes in Copenhagen – among other reasons, if you don’t, you’ll likely be run down by one. They are legion and ubiquitous (and the separated-by-a-curb bike lanes look fan-fucking-tastic). Behold:


This is actually not the best example, but I neglected to get a picture of the bike horde by Nørreport because I was too busy trying to figure out where the hell my next train was whenever I was by there. But you get the idea: bikes bikes bikes.

Here’s what’s not ubiquitous: redundant D locks attaching said bikes to a fence or parking meter or bike rack or any fairly stationary object that would be hard to cut through.

I have an Oakland state of mind right now. The advice for being a cyclist there goes as follows. Choose one:

  1. Find the bike of your dreams and then either store it with BikeLink or take it indoors with you wherever you go, or:
  2. Buy a $200 beater that’ll get you where you need to go and assume that shit will get stolen at some point.

There’s an in-between step, which is two D-locks used in the way described by an official BART sign I see at MacArthur station most mornings: one securing the front wheel to the frame, the other connecting frame and back wheel to one of the previously mentioned stationary objects. Even this is not considered necessarily adequate; it’s just what we have to work with.

So to walk around Copenhagen and see this actually kind of blew my mind.


The fence is RIGHT THERE.

If this happened in Oakland, someone would be along in about ten seconds with a truck and a quick route to a closed warehouse. It feels like walking through a video game and spotting loot. You have gained one bikeTwo bikes. Like 400 bikes in the space of a couple of blocks.

Now, it’s not that they’re completely unsecured. What I mistook at first for a rear brake is actually a clever little lock. Can you spot it?


This bike was on the island of Slotsholmen.


Is it locked to the rack? Of course not. It’s just there to correct the bike’s posture.


Instead, there’s this. Arrow added because it was, at least to me, subtle before I picked up on what was actually happening.

There are a couple things going on here, as best as I can tell.

First, it’s not Oakland. Or San Francisco or New York, come to that. I had an interesting conversation with a Swedish friend while I was in Stockholm about social pressure in Scandinavia (which led to speculating what elements of that fed into the creation of Midwestern Nice). If you lift a bike on the street and someone sees you carrying it instead of pushing or riding it, you’re going to look mighty suspicious. That’s not to say bike theft doesn’t happen – apparently it’s fairly common, but more people seem inclined to have a series of shitty bikes, so your heart and bank account don’t break when your latest beater goes missing. You have a bike for a while, then it disappears, and you’re stranded. You get mad. But maybe you’re drunk and need to go home another time, so you liberate an unlocked bike from someone else, ’til we find our place on the path unwinding.


Fair, fair. However, there’s also another element, which I think has to do with living without fear. This came up when I talked to the front desk person at my hotel when I checked out my last morning in Copenhagen. She mentioned that Americans in particular seemed to freeze up when instructed to just leave their bags, unsecured, behind and by the front desk if they wanted to pick them up later. I confessed that I’d had that exact reaction, even though, deep down, I knew it would be fine. “They ask me if it’s safe, and I tell them, well, sometimes I do go to the bathroom or the back room,” she said. She shrugged. “Nothing’s disappeared yet.” And indeed, there was my stuff when I returned from my canal boat ride.** There was my wallet, returned to me by kind people.***

Risk and trust. It’s a game and a balance that seems to have gotten really difficult for Americans in the last several years. I don’t claim to know exactly why, though I suspect a culture of fear and anger, with media that feeds it, has played a key role. Bad things might happen. They probably will sometimes. But most of these things are survivable. It’s hard to remember that, though, when news networks have 24 hours to fill with the most sensationalistic stuff possible. If all you’re hearing about is terrorism and little white girls going missing, the world’s going to start looking like it has sharper teeth than perhaps it actually does.

When I leave the U.S. these days, it’s a metric I pay attention to. The time I climbed an Icelandic glacier, ice axe in hand, with no waiver signed. When I feel paranoid when I suspect everyone else is calm. When I feel protective of my own little domain of stuff and dignity as I cross through unfamiliar spaces. The streets I choose to walk down, those I avoid, what inspires my discomfort. And, sometimes more interestingly, the streets I do choose to walk down. The process of listening to valid fear and hearing anxiety that will keep me from doing interesting, nourishing, important things.

There’s still no way in seven hells I’d lock up my future bike in Oakland with only that tiny black cuff. But it’s an interesting exercise, reading one’s fears and assumptions within a new context, asking yourself who has the right of it and who’s living in a delusion.

I guess I mostly choose to treat my life as the beater bike. I keep it safe and do what I need to for things to be ok, but in the end, it’s something meant to get me from one point to another. If I don’t get to see and do the good shit while I’m going about my life, what’s the use at all?

*Well, my first full day. My actual first day, I arrived in Copenhagen from Stockholm midafternoon, a carefully thought out move designed to give me an extra chunk of day there. Maybe I could go to the Designmuseum? Take a walk in the daylight? See an extra neighborhood, yeah? I laid down to rest after walking from central station to my hotel with 30-plus pounds of shit on my shoulders and woke up ten hours later at about 2 am. So much for that. At least I got to see snow?

**No pictures from that either. It was raining pretty hard, which made for some pretty smears of color as we motored around, but shit pictures.

***I have since discussed this with friends, though, and we agreed that the great wallet walkabout would have ended very differently in other cities, among them London, anywhere in France or Italy, San Francisco, Oakland, and probably Seattle. You win some, you lose some, and ideally you’ll strategize based on how these situations are likely to go based on where you are.

One Reason I Will Be Going Back to Copenhagen

I’ve come to be very fond of traveling in the off season. I dislike heat even more than I dislike crowds, so it works well for trips to Europe.

However, there are drawbacks.

The entrance to Tivoli amusement park in Copenhagen

This is an entrance to Tivoli, the second-oldest operating amusement park on the entire earth. It is beautiful, or at least its tall parts are. Because I was there in February, I only got to peek at towers and spires tall enough to be visible over its containing walls and gates. I had the same feeling about Skansen in Stockholm, where the animals were mostly in hibernation while I was there. I’ll save it for next time – another year, another season.

There were a few other things I missed while in Copenhagen, so I’m already looking forward to going back. (I kinda already was when I was there, when I saw how beautiful it was and how relatively few hours I had there.) The current list includes:

  • The Dome of Visions
  • Having dinner, like at all, because I didn’t, not in the entire three nights I was there. Travel schedules are weird.
  • Drinking a flood of Mikkeller beer (though I did at least make it to a bottle shop)
  • Roaming more and taking in even more of the endlessly intricate buildings
  • The National Museum of Denmark – by the time I’d arrived, I was kind of historied out, so I focused on art
  • More pastries*

But Tivoli rubs the most right now. I have a deep love of theme parks (and themed parks), so it’s a pretty major bookmark.

As ever: in time.

*I just finished watching The Great British Bake-Off, so I’m kinda feeling this way about every single place I go to ever, including San Francisco for work. More pastries. Always more pastries.

How to Get to Europe for $318: Taking Norwegian Air from Oakland

Stockholm Harbor, a boat, and swans on iceIn November, Sweden and Denmark were not on the hazy, voluminous to-travel-to list I keep in my head. The top contenders right now are Peru, Mexico, Montreal, Washington DC, Thailand, and (of course) France. But almost everywhere that doesn’t limit the rights of women, sexual minorities, or anyone considered gender variant is a contender, so it’s hardly a limiting list. I liked Iceland for sure; I idly wondered sometimes if other Scandinavian countries had the qualities I liked about it. But that’s as far as it went until one fateful day late last fall, when a friend who knows these things told me to get on the Norwegian Air site like right now, because there were round-trip fares from Oakland to Stockholm for around $318, if I picked my dates right.


Cue a fairly adrenaline-chased hour, in which I frantically wrote to my boss, played with dates, tried to envision an unclear future*, and ultimately decided to book a trip and get it refunded in the following 24 hours** if it indeed would not work with work (which was and remains the major priority in my life right now). I found I almost literally could not resist traveling that kind of distance for that little money. As of this writing, a similar ticket through Norwegian is more than $1,000. Other airlines come in at $1,500 or more. Because it’s a freaking flight across the world. 

Fortunately, my company is founded by and filled with insatiable travel fiends, and I was given the green light. At the end of what I thought would be a fairly ordinary workday, I suddenly had plans to travel to Sweden in the coming winter. Stunned and with plans to make, I tried to wrap my head around what I’d done by researching, starting with this unfamiliar airline. I learned that Norwegian has a different balance of services and fees as compared to most airlines. Thus, it required some strategy.

Norwegian Air progress map, with bonus USB

The A La Carte Model

In the US, we’re not completely unfamiliar with this. It’s pretty common on your average airline (Delta, American) to pay for blankets and snacks or to pay to check a bag. Then there are airlines like Spirit, where you might find a ticket somewhere for $6 but have to pay a couple hundred dollars or more for the amenities (carry-ons, water) to make your trip tolerable.

Norwegian falls somewhere in the middle. In the couple of months that passed after I booked the ticket, I did buy three add-ons:

  1. I paid $45 to select my seat on the way there, because I figured there was a chance I might see the Northern Lights during the flight. I didn’t, but it was worth it, for me, to pay for the possibility. Getting to the airport three-plus hours before the flight would probably accomplish the same thing for no extra money.
  2. I paid $45 ahead of time to check a bag on the flight back. I did this so that I wouldn’t have to look at any individual souvenir and wonder if it was worth paying for a checked bag later. I considered this a gift to myself, because I know my tendency toward overthinking.
  3. I paid $15 for Fast Track through Stockholm airport security. On travel days, I’m nervous and unhappy until I’m through security and at the gate; this was, to me, a small price to pay for an easier travel day. It was ultimately pointless, as the regular security line was almost as short as the Fast Track lane, but the motivation was sound.

Things I opted not to pay for: $42 each way for drinks and two meals; a seat assignment on the way back.

One thing to keep in mind while booking is that they have different classes of service; indeed, the Norwegian booking path was one of the most complicated ones I’ve ever seen. I booked the cheapest level, which includes basically nothing; if you go a level or two up, meals, checked bags, a greater weight allowance for carry-on bags, and other things are included – but, of course, you pay for it then too. You can learn more about their fees, in a variety of currencies, here. Like many airlines in the style of European low-cost carriers, you’ll pay twice as much to check a bag if you only decide to do it on the day of travel. And Norwegian Air’s bag check is a highly involved procedure, you see.

Sky outside Stockholm from a plane

The Best Time I Weighed My Carry-On Like Six Times

Have you ever traveled during the winter? Your bags bloom to twice their usual volume. Have you ever tried traveling during the winter with a 10-kg/22-pound carry-on allowance? This is not your usual luggage Tetris.

I realized immediately that I’d be doing laundry while there. I was ok with that. And I wasn’t tempted to check a bag on the way over, because I would be staying at four different places across my nine days, which would include multiple train and bus rides. My travel backpack and the cloth shopping bag I use on trips would be more than enough to deal with while going between spots. So economy of space (and money) was the name of the game.

The night before my departure, I managed to get my bag within the acceptable weight range after about five iterations. I did cheat in the end, stuffing the pockets of my coat with socks and tights and wearing my heaviest shoes and skirt. My coat felt like a pea pod, but it got my bag where it needed to be. In addition to the 10-kg main carry-on, there’s a 5-kg limit on a smaller carry-on, in the vein of a laptop bag or purse. It helps, but it’s not much when trying to envision a sensible wardrobe for Scandinavian winter. Something very helpful: they weigh your bags only at check-in, meaning you can stuff all available space with heavy water and snacks after you’re past security.

I read several different accounts of the strictness of airport bag weigh-ins with Norwegian (they weigh, they don’t weigh; they care, they don’t care), but I decided to leave nothing to chance. (See: departure anxiety.) The day of, I arrived, carrying my uncommonly lumpy winter coat. I watched as person after person in front of me had their bags weighed and, often, found overweight. A quietly impatient (but very pleasant) ticket agent oversaw the whole thing, moving between two desk spots to give one group and then another time to shift weight between bags.

The group in front of me was a four-person family, and I had a feeling they hadn’t been very fastidious with reading Norwegian’s strict rules or with their packing. Indeed, all of their bags were somewhat over, and the agent left them with four open bags and looks of great uncertainty when she walked to me. After having to deliver bad news to several people within the previous ten-odd minutes, I think she just didn’t want to bother with me. My bags read as sufficiently compact, it seems. I was given my boarding pass and was good to go, with no weighing required. Strategy: look like you know what you’re doing, and be behind a bunch of people who don’t? Or something like that.

On my return trip, since I’d paid to check a bag, the ticket agent didn’t weigh my backpack then either. I still think I got off lucky and would not suggest assuming this might be your experience, especially if you read as a less-straightforward traveler, with kids, companions, lots of carry-ons, and other complications.

When I got through security in Oakland, I stuffed my small bag with snacks and an extra bottle of water, trying to imagine what would look good to me after nine hours in the air. The pasta was ok; the quinoa was so gross I felt haunted by it several hours later. I might’ve paid $42 just to get the taste out of my mouth after a while. Which brings us to…

The $42 Multi-Course Experience

This is where flying Norwegian got, to me, truly strange. Shortly after takeoff, the flight attendants walk around and double-check to see who ordered their meals ahead. About an hour into the flight, those people get coffee, wine, hot food, and dessert. (They get a cold breakfast bag not long before landing.) Only then is the possibility of buying snacks opened to the rest of us, usually about two hours into the flight. On the flight back in particular, I could see lots of people around me doing just as I was, checking the seat display to see when the closed tag would be taken off the snack bar button.

On the way back, I found buying in-flight snacks an almost frugal alternative to buying Swedish airport food, particularly after I accidentally spent $22 on an orange San Pellegrino and one of those lovely open-faced shrimp sandwiches. (Thank god I didn’t get the beer; I’d probably still be there, working off the bill via indentured servitude.) However, the open times for snack ordering are finite and, to me, a little unpredictable. I ordered the vegetarian dish (a salad with hummus and assorted veg), a ramen cup, a snack box, and a water, because I didn’t know if I’d get to order again when I needed a second meal.

If you like not thinking about things, maybe $42 for a one-way ticket of airplane food makes sense to you. However, most of the people around me appeared to have opted out. I saw clever people with leftovers in food storage containers and other people like me eating good-enough snacks bought at the airport, sufficient to get us to our destination.

The strangest thing was that, minus any pre-ordering, I felt pretty ignored by the flight attendants. If you haven’t paid, you don’t even get water. And they’re mostly not concerned about you. You’ll get attention if you ring the button to summon them, but otherwise, they don’t even collect trash very often. It’s a different model, but anytime I started to raise an eyebrow, I thought, “$318.” And then it all became amusing again.

Conclusion: Super Worth It

I was a little concerned about this trip, based on some of the research I’d done. There were stories of being stranded for two or three days due to mechanical problems. Norwegian’s fleet isn’t huge, and they don’t fly every route every day. When I booked, there were only three days each week to choose for my departure and return. If a plane went out of commission, a replacement might be thousands of miles away – and possibly also spoken for for a day or two. I said “$318” to myself one more time and said that, if I ended up with a couple surprise extra days in Stockholm, I’d make do (with profuse apologies to my work).

In the end, both flights were perfectly on time. My checked return bag made it with no problems. Flying out of Stockholm is a little odd – I went through an initial round of passport check to get into the international depatures area (to officially leave Sweden) and then an additional round to get into a separate gate area just for our flight (to comply with US regulations). But everything went exactly as promised, and I ended up with a surprise (and incredibly wonderful) trip to two countries I now love. But more on that later.

If a slight risk of inconvenience and having to work with a somewhat unfamiliar paradigm of airline service doesn’t bother you, I’d suggest going for this, if you have the chance. Norwegian’s sales aren’t rare, and they’re starting to go to more destinations. I subscribe to their emails now, and they’ve joined Icelandair in the short list of airline sale emails I am likely to push on friends.

If the timing is right, and the money works out? Do it. The details can come together later.

*I was maybe three weeks into a new job in a new industry and only recently permanently arrived in California. Travel was not on my mind.

**Like some other airlines, Norwegian lets you get a complete refund on a ticket in the 24 hours after booking. This is lovely, and I wish more airlines would adopt it.

So I’ll Be Living at Knippelsbro from Now On

A more distant view of a control tower of Copenhagen's Knippelsbro

Please forward my mail.

Looking up at a control tower of Copenhagen's Knippelsbro

I was walking back from Freetown Christiania (which I won’t be writing about here because I didn’t enjoy it very much), when I noticed… these. The control towers of Knippelsbro (or Knippels Bridge, if you’re a monolingual thing like me), just being all verdigris and weathered and incredibly beautiful. And… inhabited?

The side of a control tower of Copenhagen's Knippelsbro

Thar be curtains, no?

A ladder on the wall of Copenhagen's Knippelsbro

If I were more mischievous than I am, I could’ve tried to scale it to get some answers. Alas, I am polite.

The door and wall of a control tower of Copenhagen's Knippelsbro

But I could be a bridge control tower professional; I can feel it. No one collects tolls these days, so it’s probably a part-time thing.

Closer look of the door of a control tower of Copenhagen's Knippelsbro

Still: please forward my mail here sometime soon. I’m sure they’re fine with cats; Denmark and Sweden seem, on the whole, cool about the whole pet thing. Because, for reasons I can’t fully articulate, this is up there with houseboats and sailboats* and the narrow tops of skyscrapers so far as deeply and immediately desirable accommodations. This is why we rent, right? Options.

*Uh, related: today I realized, with a jolt, that I want to learn to sail. I began thinking about this when I was asked why I chose to stay in Nyhavn for my three nights in Copenhagen. “I like boats,” I answered, with very little conscious thought required. And… it’s just true. I like water. I like boats. Seeing both from my hotel room window made me happy every time I poked my head through the curtains. I can drive a motorboat. I can paddle a canoe or rowboat. But if one is going to do, say, a longer-distance boat journey (which feels like something I’d like to do, I realize), and one does not care to have (or afford) a yacht or crew, knowing how to sail seems pretty important. Well, French class is done in a month anyway. God forbid I have unscheduled spare time.