There was a faint glow, and an aura of something flickering amid the barely discernible sound of people conversing in an alien language. Apparently a herd of elephants reposed somewhere to the rear, occasionally bellowing fair warning.
Flat on my back and shirtless, but providentially still wearing pants, I felt sore all over, like I’d just finished running a marathon or boxing a couple rounds with Mike Tyson.
It seemed I was marooned in a foreign land, emerging from a mysterious coma, but in fact the coma was self-induced and the destination purposeful, even if the precise whys and wherefores remained elusive.
24 hours earlier I’d spent a final evening in rigid East Berlin, drinking voluminous quantities of Wernesgruner Pils with my friend and workmate Jeff prior to departing on the overnight train to Copenhagen.
In the company of a few dozen westerners, we had spent three weeks in the German Democratic Republic (otherwise known as East Germany) working as employees of the East Berlin parks department, followed by another week of quasi-touristic revelry in Rostock and Dresden.
Now it was September 2, and I’d been in the East Bloc for the better part of three months, first in Czechoslovakia, then the USSR, and finally East Germany. Experiencing communism in these places was like taking a graduate-level university course in sheer weirdness. It was exhilarating and exhausting in equal measure, and I was ready for a wee bit of exuberant capitalism in Copenhagen.
Up to this point, my 1989 travels had been largely routine given their specialized locale, and nothing had gone seriously wrong, but the law of averages was about to catch up with me over the three-month coda to come, and it all began that final evening in East Berlin.
I’d sensibly checked my backpack at the rail station’s left luggage desk, all the easier to drink beer unencumbered until the time came to reclaim the bag before boarding the train for Copenhagen. It was a tremendous buzz kill to return to the desk at 21.00 and discover that I’d lost the claim ticket.
If you think the TSA’s invasive bureaucracy is bad here in L’America during these times of permanent terrorism alert, try imagining the 1940s-era, by-the-book-you-idiot-foreigner approach to verifying one’s identity and ownership of belongings amid Stasi-infested East Berlin, on top of being royally intoxicated and on the verge of missing the train.
When did my entry visa expire, anyway? If I didn’t leave the country ahead of the deadline, there might be … shall we say, difficulties.
It worked out, but only after somersaulting through numerous hoops and signing one document after the next to the dull accompanying soundtrack of cascading rubber stamps. Sweating, I regained the bag and boarded the train on time. It was a few hours north to Warnemünde, then onto a rail ferry across the Baltic to Gedser, Denmark and the final link to Copenhagen.
East Germans may have been dirty rotten commies, but they hadn’t neglected the utility of a profitable duty-free shop on the boat. I took the fateful opportunity to score an inexpensive bottle each of Zubrowka Buffalo Grass Vodka, an infamous Polish treat, and Korn, the latter a colorless moonshine from East Germany made not from corn, but rye and wheat.
I’d be an American bearing gifts.
Drinkers learn early that it’s challenging to move directly from inebriation to hangover without the grace period of intervening sleep. Absent sleepers or couchettes, my “bed” on the East Berlin-Copenhagen route was an upright 2nd class seat in a cramped compartment, and shuteye was hard to find. Naturally the timetable refused to acknowledge the condition of my condition, and I was released into Copenhagen’s spacious central station at 8:00 a.m.
The adrenaline kicked in. The first priority was to change money; purchasing coffee with my fresh kroner, I found a pay phone to call Little Kim for instructions. Unexpectedly a disembodied voice answered in what sounded like Boris Karloff’s dialect of English.
He turned out to be the chosen representative of my friend’s answering service. Remember those? Stammering, I identified myself and was told to relax; I definitely was expected, but because Mr. Wiesener had an “emergency” the plan had been changed. Rather, I was given the number of a bus and a street address, which brought me to the apartment of Allan Gamborg, who laughed when I asked the nature of Little Kim’s emergency.
“He has a family gathering, and he’ll come by later. We have more important things to do, because (Big) Kim Andersen is coming for lunch.”
He paused: “For Danish lunch.”
The slightest curl of a tiny smile could be detected on the infamous sandbagger Allan’s face. Much later, when it was far too late to escape my fate, I understood the nature of their planned ambush.
It was 9:00 a.m. at the latest, and I had no idea what was about to happen, although it all began gently enough. Allan and I went to a bakery down the street and bought pastries, returning to his flat for more coffee. Big Kim phoned, and Allan issued foraging orders.
Looking around Allan’s pad, food could be seen stacked in all corners of his tidy, small kitchen, or at least in those spaces not otherwise filled with bottles of beer, liquor and more bottles of beer, to which my two doses of liquor were gleefully added.
We were expecting a huge crowd, right?
It was my third visit to Copenhagen in 1989, and it was gratifying to have befriended these three wonderful fellows, all of whom lived there at the time. However the concept of “Danish lunch” was as yet unfamiliar to me. To better explain it, here’s a random 2019 offering from the Restaurant Kronborg.
The “Traditional Danish Lunch” is the classic Danish lunch menu, like the one your grandparents would eat (had they been Danish), pure comfort food and a great way to experience the intangible Danish concept of ‘hygge’ (best translatable as ‘coziness’).
The lunch is served on platters in three servings
- Old-fashioned pickled herring with onions and capers
- Curried herring with ’smiling egg’, onions and capers
- Pan-fried fillet of plaice with Greenlandic shrimps and ‘dillnaise’
- Kronborg’s gravlax with fresh herbs and lime crème
- Liver paté with bacon, beetroots and mushrooms
- Roast pork pickled red cabbage and cucumber
- Roast beef with ‘remoulade’, crisp onions, horseradish and pickled cucumber
- Very mature cheese served with rum, meat jelly and onions
Includes rye bread, white bread, butter and duck lard
That’s a solid and delicious overview, indeed.
In 1999, a decade after today’s tale of Allan’s home-cooked version of traditional Danish lunch, Barrie Ottersbach and I were joined by “Boris” Lawrence as Big Kim took the four of us to Danish lunch at a local joint near the harbor.
In my memory the eggs, fish, and beef were raw (not a complete exaggeration, by the way); most other items were pickled or adorned with horseradish; the beer and schnapps were consumed with an atypically judicious temperament — we were older by then — and the early afternoon hours soon passed into late evening, enlivened by a long chat with a pair of crusty ancient Danish merchant mariners.
In its more respectable form, Danish lunch surely is a civilized institution, 1989’s affair notwithstanding.
|The American and Big Kim.|
Sunday, September 3, 1989.
Big Kim arrived bearing even more food and alcohol, and it was determined that Little Kim would drop by later in the day. I may have been sleepless and a tad hungover, but I was looking forward to the mounting spread.
Allan’s Danish lunch began with salty snacks and a crate or two of serviceable mainstream Danish lager, including Tuborg Gold and perhaps Carlsberg’s Sort Guld (Black Gold). Allan didn’t stick to the exact script, but offered multiple courses of fish, eggs, meats and a main course of chicken.
As the meal escalated, so did the consumption of alcohol, which soon shifted from beer to “the hard stuff,” beginning with akvavit — was it the Aalborg brand? — before moving to my bottles of Korn and Zubrovka,
Remember, there were only three of us.
The vodka came last, as a chaser for chocolate ice cream. It was dark outside at this juncture, and I’d surrendered any concept of time. I was stuffed full of food, beer and booze, and the ice cream played the role of Monty Python’s wafer-thin mint.
I recall the room spinning, and being helped to the orange-upholstered couch in the living room of Allan’s small domicile. There is a vague recollection of becoming violently ill, miraculously keeping the vomit off Allan’s furniture by keeping it on me – hence the severely soiled shirt. The necessary purge lasted quite a while, and I apparently returned to the couch to become unconscious. Allan and Big Kim fell asleep soon after, hence the elephantine snoring.
I awoke around 9:30 p.m. to the faint glow of the television set, flickering amid the barely discernable sound of talking heads on a Danish current events show, with Little Kim calmly seated in a nearby chair, slightly wide-eyed, surveying the unwashed dishes, chicken bones and empty bottles as though he’d wandered into a war zone.
As he wryly noted, it seems he’d missed the party. Little Kim had arrived, although the lunchers had long since departed, especially me.
In the 30 years since that day, stories of my epic Copenhagen arrival have not abated. It took multiple washings to get the smell out of my shirt, and a full clip of Tums to calm my innards.
Several years later, when the FOSSILS homebrewing club was established and my official title was “President for Life (PFL), Allan sent a postcard and asked if the acronym wouldn’t be more accurate if it stood for “Puking Fountain Lurcher.” He was promptly knighted as Keeper of the Couch. It was a sad day in the 2000s when he finally ditched it.
September 3, 1989 was the metaphorical halfway point in my six-month-long journey through Europe, which began in late May peering across the Berlin Wall at East Germans with guns, and ended in November on the very same orange couch in Copenhagen, in the company of the same good friends, watching on television as East and West Berliners came together to tear down that wall.
I came home anyway, and I’ve never understood why.