Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Coping with Copenhagen

As soon as I glimpsed the headlines on the latest eruptions of the -- cut, paste -- Eyjafjallajokul volcano, the nightmares came flooding back. Just two weeks ago, clouds of ash from the same Icelandic vent had caught me in their callous grip -- and held me hostage for three horrifying days in -- shrill, staccato notes from Hitchcock's Psycho -- Scandinavia!!

As I indicated in my last post on the subject, I was on business in Malmö, Sweden, and got stuck there due to ash-induced air space closures. The degradations I endured in this barbaric northern outpost are difficult to recount. But for posterity's sake, I'll soldier on.

After spending an unplanned Saturday in Malmö frolicking around on a rented bike, I returned and monitored CNN and the Internet for news of the eruption. The vent would not relent! So on Sunday, I took the 20 minute train ride from Malmö under the Sound to Copenhagen, with plans to take a similar bike ride there.

I don't know why, but I was caught off guard by how quiet Copenhagen was on a Sunday. I'm familiar with the complete absence of Sunday commerce in Vienna, but somehow I thought Copenhagen, being in a country with the third largest population of atheists in the world, would take a less solemn view of the Lord's Day.

But my intuition was wrong. I arrived at Copenhagen Central Station around noon and followed the signs to a large bicycle rental on premises. An attendant was on hand but when I inquired about bikes, he said they were closing in 30 minutes. I asked about other possibilities for hiring a bike and he suggested I go to the Tourist Information Centre across the street. I did but it was closed for Sunday.

I had the addresses of a couple Copenhagen bike shops scribbled down, but judging from the virtual absence of downtown business activity, I decided these would probably be useless. My only hope was one of Copenhagen's public bicycles. When I mention "public bicycles" in my blog, I usually follow with the appositive "like the Vélib bikes in Paris". But Copenhagen's bikes are not like the ones in Paris. Rather, they are old, old-school bikes that run on a simple technology from the days before swipe cards were invented.

The way it works is that there are bikes chained to docking stations at various points in the city. You take a 20-kroner coin, insert it into a slot on the handle bars, thereby releasing the chain from the bike. It works exactly like a shopping trolley. When you're finished, you return the bike to a station, re-insert chain, and your 20-kroner coin pops back out. Brain-dead simple, no subscription fee, no procedure, no nothing. Only problem is, there are hardly any of these bikes anywhere. Reportedly, there are around 1,200 bikes in the system, but during my day riding all over Copenhagen, I saw about 6-7 public bikes. I have to assume a good many of them have disappeared into people's garages. A 20-kroner coin isn't much collateral to discourage theft.

That said, I DID spot a public bike in the vicinity of Central Station, and this was my salvation. I dropped into a convenience store, bought a lunch of pigs in a blanket and beer, and asked the cashier to give me some 20-kroner coins with the change. Bingo! I was on my way, and practically exultant that I'd managed to achieve my goal of riding a bike in Copenhagen despite the rigor mortis of the Sunday business culture.

The bike was heavy, a bit wobbly and had only one speed. In addition, it had hard, solid-rubber tires -- like the tires on a shopping trolley, come to think of it. It did not go fast, or maybe I did not go fast. As I peddled furiously down Copenhagen's wide bike lanes, I kept getting overtaken by women in high-heeled boots, often as they casually chirped away or tapped out text messages on mobile phones. I have to believe it was the bike.

Concerning the nattily dressed female cyclists, I was struck by just how commonplace they were. Most readers will probably be aware of the Copenhagen Cycle Chic, a blog focusing on photos of nattily dressed female cyclists in Copenhagen. These sorts of bike riders are not common in Budapest, but in Copenhagen, they're everywhere. Like pigeons in St. Mark's Square although more pleasant. But the guy who does that blog -- it can't be hard work. At least the picture-taking part. Especially with the quality of that northern light. It's a fantastic city for outdoor photography. Unfortunately, my camera was out of batteries.

So much has been written about Copenhagen's brilliant cycling scene that I balked at adding more. But one thing stuck me that I just can't get over. I remember experiencing the same in Amsterdam, but it's so counter to my day-to-day experience here in Budapest that I all but forgot it by the time I visited Copenhagen. It's the habit of car drivers who, when preparing to make a right turn, will stop and look to their right to make sure they're not cutting off cyclists riding along the curb.

When I first saw a car ahead of me signal to turn right, I slowed down and prepared for it to cut in front of me. But it didn't. It waited for me to pass. During the whole day of riding, not a single motorist cut me off with a right turn. It seemed weird at first, but after awhile, I adjusted to this deferential habit of Copenhagen drivers and I kept my momentum right through every intersection, despite motorists hanging fire off to the left with their right turn signals blinking. As a cyclist who at least once a week dodges a "right hook," this experience in Copenhagen left me thinking, "Now this is civilisation."


dalos said...

Nice to read about your experience with this 2nd generation public bicycle scheme.
something more about this issue fyi:



Jelica said...

Yeah, sounds like you had a really difficult time coping with Copenhagen :)))