© 2017 by Dale Zurawski

Denmark and Marriage on Bikes

Danes love of biking. Despite frequent rain, 36% of Copenhagen’s workforce commutes by bike. Most streets and roads offer cyclists a bike lane that is separated from vehicle traffic and regulated with its own traffic signals- elevating the status of bikes in Denmark to that of cars in California. Similar to the bike-friendly Santa Ynez Valley, Denmark is mercifully flat. However, with seemingly limitless bike paths to places with names like Dyrekaergardsvej and Tisvildevej, finding your way around Denmark is surprisingly difficult.

My husband, Geoff and I were on a three-month around-the-world trip to celebrate our early retirement. After nearly endless sightseeing on foot between planes, trains, boats, and automobiles in exotic China, Russia, and Turkey, we were hoping for a leisurely five-day bike tour around the Danish island of Zealand, home to Copenhagen. We felt that Denmark, a reassuringly Western country, would offer a welcome retreat for our reflections on the joys of a marriage about to reach its 32nd anniversary.

Eager for adventure, we pedaled confidently out of Copenhagen. On Geoff’s bike, a clear plastic rainproof holder displayed a detailed map; on my bike, an identical holder showed written instructions. And yet at our first intersection leaving town, lengthy deliberations began. I suggested we take the road to Nyhavn, or perhaps, Kvaesthusgade. Geoff thought we should head toward Ostbanegade,  or upon reflections, maybe Ostbrogade, Oster Alle or Osterport. We decided to simply head north, laughing it off. Geoff reassured me, at a leisurely pace of about 10 miles per hour, we would reach our first hotel in two and a half hours.

Although the numerous intersections were slowing us down we couldn't resist a detour to explore Dyrehaven, the historic hunting grounds of Fredrick III, a 17th century king. Though busy during the summer, it was enchantingly empty and cool in the fall. Finding the royal hunting palace was easy. Sitting on top of a hill and visited by a herd of deer, it gave the ancient forest a sense of grandeur and history. But after biking in circles an hour later we weren’t thinking grand. The cool fall temperature felt cold. The rain gear leaked. Our instructions, map, and the signs posted throughout the forest had nothing in common. We were huddled under the trees, raincoats on, umbrellas up, and we were lost. With biking paths and hiking trails galore for 7.5 million annual visitors, the park had become a seemingly infinite loop. Apparently identical gates led us not out, but back to places it seemed we had just been. Our confusion fueled the blame and open hostility toward each other.

That was when I most wanted to go home. Biking the Santa Ynez Valley was my idea of a perfect day. We had been looking forward to cruising along Denmark’s flat paths, separated from cars, with enchantingly beautiful views of farmland and the sea. But even amid quaint villages with thatched-roof homes and flowers still in bloom, we were bickering every three to five minutes about which way to go. Now we were stranded in a downpour. Geoff, as always, was optimistic; I simply regretted the whole trip. After the rain let up, we came across a policewoman on a horse and then a troop of elementary students both giving us directions. With a bit more luck we finally found our way out of the park and onto a “national” bike path, Denmark’s cycling equivalent to an interstate. We rolled into Helsingor seven and a half hours after leaving Copenhagen. I had been fuming for the last five hours.

It wasn’t always raining and I wasn't always mad. Part of the joy of bike touring is chatting with curious locals. With a view of the northern coastline from our booth at the Hornbaek Sailing Club, we drank beer, shared stories, and talked politics with five Danes. They lunched together daily and loved living in Denmark. Free college, health insurance, paid maternity leave, and subsidized daycare were some of the big benefits. With jobs guaranteed after maternity leave, most children were raised in communal daycare. Their resulting high tax rate was also the most frequently mentioned hardship. Complaints about taxes are also common in California, but we lack many of the Danes’ social benefits.

In the following days, our arguments at intersections became relentless. But two days before returning to Copenhagen, Geoff gently suggested a little swap. He would follow the written instructions on his bike while I, resistant to following directions, would take the map. Our fighting stopped, just like that. We relaxed as we rode. Denmark by bike, I reflected, was a near perfect combination of enlightened Danish culture, European ambiance, and gentle exercise. But focusing on our shortcomings had led to long, miserable days. Enjoying our good fortune required trusting each other and concentrating on what we did best. Luckily, Geoff’s persistent search for a solution won out over my anger. The final day, we hit our toughest, longest, and rainiest stretch. Yet we were feeling fond enough of each other to share a half bottle of wine in the middle of another downpour, trapped once again under foliage with umbrellas up. As it turned out, playing to one’s strengths and sticking with them, was the secret to biking around Denmark—not to mention a happy marriage.

Dale Zurawski | Dec. 10th, 2016