It was a cold, drizzly late-January day in Copenhagen.
Scott and I had just arrived from Madrid the night before, and we would not be in Denmark for more than a day.
I always try to get some exploration time in whenever I visit a new place. And this would be my first trip to any of the Nordic countries. Despite the force of jet lag, I was excited to see what I couldn’t quite make out from our car the night before on our drive to the hotel.
We had just kicked off the European media and book-event tour for Scott’s recently published memoir Endurance. Scott had an early interview that morning but would return to our hotel afterward for the rest of the day’s media lineup. Rather than my rushing to get ready as we’d had a late night the night before and since his publisher would be present for the interview that morning, we decided I could afford to stay behind.
So I did.
I emptied a small, yellow tulle sack of bath minerals into the tiny, European-styled hotel bathtub, filling it with the hottest water it would give up.
I could tell with one glance outside our window, it was still cold outside. The sky was almost colorless while the air seemed to whisper soft, grey tones. I pressed my hand on the glass, confirming what I already knew, pulling it away quickly as goosebumps prickled my bare skin.
Our hotel was situated in the heart of the city. While I had hoped to walk about some and knew my time was limited, I wasn’t feeling in any hurry.
After a long soak, I pulled on a pair of skinnies over my legs reddened from the hot bath and layered a thick sweater with a tank top underneath for extra warmth. I didn’t even feel like standing at the bathroom mirror to finish getting ready, so I plopped on the floor in the hallway in front of a full standing mirror to put on my makeup.
I finished my snail-paced grooming and finally made my way down to the main floor of the hotel. I stepped inside a little Italian café just outside the lobby lounge area where I found a cappuccino bar.
“Now, this,” I thought to myself, “I feel like I deserve this. Not only do I deserve to take my sweet-darling time, but I’m going to enjoy this frothy, whipped cup of cappuccino and a dash of cinnamon too.”
I wondered for a moment if I should feel guilty to be enjoying myself as I was. Because a small part of me did.
Carefully carrying an overfilled, bowl-sized cup of equal parts espresso and hot milk, I sat myself at a small, bistro-style table closest to a window, catching my first glimpse of Copenhagen’s charm. Slightly lowering my head to prevent spilling, I sipped my coffee. When I pulled the mug from my mouth, I felt the milky foam fleeing from my upper lip as did that moment of guilt.
“Ah,” I said drawn out and out loud, an intended thought that had escaped.
A woman from the publishing company had mentioned she would arrange a short tour of the town for me while Scott talked with media that afternoon. We would be leaving immediately afterward to catch our flight to Paris that same day, so I would only have a few hours to explore.
I sat sipping my cappuccino unsure if I wanted to bother anyone for a tour and maybe even allowing guilt to creep back in my thoughts.
I finished my cup but continued to sit with no urge to leave my post. It was quiet in the café, and I relished the solitude.
The woman who offered to make city tour arrangements for me earlier returned with Scott following his interview. She sat with me while he made himself a cup of coffee. I felt silly to request a guide for the day and was feeling as melancholic as it appeared outside. So I prepared to waive her offer away, but she insisted in a way I couldn’t say no.
Scott returned with his coffee and was preparing to begin a round of interviews. More swiftly than I had moved all morning, I returned my cappuccino cup to the café’s kitchen, went back to my room to gather my coat, hat and gloves and wished Scott good luck with a quick hug goodbye.
“Hi, Amiko!” said a woman in the lobby, greeting me with a burst of sunshine in her voice.
Line is an executive editor for the Denmark publisher of Scott’s book. I met her briefly the night before.
I reciprocated her hello with a little less cheerfulness than her sing-song greeting but genuinely and with less dreariness than the morning sky.
Line brightly outlined our brief agenda for the afternoon as we hopped into a car.
“We don’t have much time, but luckily we are in the center of the city. And the city is small. So everything is nearby,” she explained with infectious optimism.
In a short drive, we arrived at a Renaissance castle known as Rosenborg that was built as a summerhouse back in 1606 and was once used as the royal residence before Denmark’s government evolved to the democratic monarchy it is today.
Rosenborg Castle was expanded a few times, and it now serves as a museum, filled with memorabilia of the Dutch royal past.
We perused through the castle room-by-room, admiring the riches of Copenhagen history through large, intricate-woven tapestries, depicting past Kings’ victories; ivory-carved busts; hand-painted Danish tile; crystal, gold, and fresco paintings. Each room, a storied hall of love, war, family, betrayal and secrets. Of men and of women.
I was intrigued by the stories of the women and reflected on how far women and their place in the world have come. Also, how far we have to go today after more than 400 years.
Women in the Elizabethan age were only allowed basic knowledge unless you were a wealthy woman, and then you might be afforded the right to an education. Most women were not wealthy, so few were allowed to pursue an education—and with basic knowledge—the role for women was to rear children.
The women in this castle were wealthy and thereby entitled to pursue an education beyond basic knowledge through a personal tutor, but still they were taught—as all women of that era were—they were the lesser gender. They began to marry with parental permission at 12 and typically gave birth every two years as most children died from disease. The Elizabethan-age woman was not allowed to get a job—and once she married—she was not allowed to divorce.
There aren’t many similarities in women’s rights and the treatment of women then and now. But there are still a few, some of which are hundreds of years of patterned behavior rather than written law.
Line and I ended our castle tour with a quick stop in the basement where we admired the Crown Jewels: scepters, ceremonial maces, swords, gilded orbs, miniature ivory sculptures and large, ornate gemstone jewelry. We exited the castle and strolled under a canopy of trees through the estate gardens.
We talked about some of the stories we learned and even tried to imagine what our lives could be like had society never changed.
With only a little more than an hour left, we made a quick stop by Amalienborg Palace where today’s Denmark parliamentary democratic crowns live. A country flag raised on one of the buildings indicated the Queen was home.
We hopped back into our car and headed to a cozy French restaurant for lunch. It was still fifty shades of grey outside.
“Fifty shades of grey,” I thought to myself, referencing the novel series controversial amongst feminists and anti-feminists. Some say the basis of this series empowers women; others say it merely highlights hyper-stereotypical gender roles and glorifies the conventional patterns of chauvinistic male behavior. I have not read the books nor watched any of the movies. So I have no opinion thus far.
But the thought hovered in my mind like the thick clouds looming above.
Inside, we were seated at a small, wooden table. Next to a window. Despite the fact it was still dark and damp outdoors, my melancholic mood had dissipated like when a storm vanishes into thin air.
Glancing over our menus, Line suggested the mussels.
“They come in a little pot. So if you’re looking for something good but also light, I recommend them,” she said.
“Sold,” I said, emphatically, smiling at my self-assured decision.
We both ordered a glass of wine to pair with our midday meals. Line chose a white, and I, unable to pronounce the name, pointed out a light red, to our waitress.
We both pulled off our heavy coats, hats and gloves, shaking off any remnants of cold air as if snow had fallen into our hair.
“Cheers,” Line said, raising her glass.
Our conversation had moved from women of yesteryear to the present. We began to share our own stories, attempting to get to know one another a bit more.
Line has two young children: one boy and one girl. They have opposite personalities similar to my own two sons. Her daughter is a spritely, self-motivated girl. Her son, a sweet, calm and wise, old soul. Line had recently received a promotion at her job. It is challenging, but I gathered from her other stories, she embraces life’s trials head on.
The waitress placed an iron pot in front of me. I wrapped my hands around the sides, warming them, and I immediately imagined the taste of the drunken garlicky mussels within.
I shared with Line some of my own stories: about my starting on my own at 15, pursuing my education, my professional career and raising my two sons, ultimately, as a single mother. We swapped stories of our successes and failures, joys and pain; and past wishes and future hopes.
It dawned on me at some point–as I scooped out another mussel from its shell–that the overarching theme of our conversations throughout the day was strength. Strength of character, strength of women, strength of relationships, strength of autonomy and that of friendship.
I was stuffed, unable to finish my pot of mussels. The wine and conversation had warmed my core, and we had overstayed our visit. We were late returning to the hotel for me to gather my things and catch our next flight. But we made it.
I left that day reflecting long on the kindness from a stranger, another woman, whom I now consider a friend.
I have acknowledged International Women’s Day for many years now as I was first introduced to it and its meaning when I visited Russia as it is considered a national holiday in the country. In Russia, International Women’s Day is a non-working day. The holiday is much less politicized than when it originated, but still women are revered and celebrated.
This year as International Women’s Day approached, I immediately thought back on the power that late-January day in Denmark had on me. The power of a smile, the power of kindness, the power of encouragement to pursue one’s dreams, the power of lifting others, the power of numbers and the debilitating ways we too often hurt ourselves as women.
So in honoring International Women’s Day, let’s choose to lean in. Abandon the antiquated middle-school, mean girls mentality. Let’s support our sisters.
Because we rise by lifting others. We can create change together.
Expose it. Inequality, gender wage gap, violence against women, sex slavery, underrepresentation, lack of health care, gender bias in tech fields and others. Keep the conversation going. Be open and honest. By keeping the discussion on the table, we disallow our voices to be silenced.
Be a superstar. Recognize your own worth and live from it. When you realize your own value, you focus on doing good with it. Be amazing. Raise the bar. Crush ceilings. Change the world.
Build up; don’t level. Stop trash talking one another. Just stop it. It doesn’t matter if you think that shade of eyeshadow looks terrible on another woman, don’t allow yourself to fall into that pit of negativity. Applaud others’ successes. Offer support.
Never tolerate. Set clear boundaries for expected treatment of other women. Don’t passively participate in group activities or conversations that hurt other women.
Be kind to you. Just as you should respect others, respect you, girl. Nurture your needs. Feed your own purpose. Find your happy place. Do you. And yes, drink the damn cappuccino. Guilt free.
Thank you from the deepest part of my heart, Line.
We don’t share nationalities, but we share a special common bond worth celebrating 364 days more than a single day in a year. You were a breath of fresh air and a gentle reminder of the kind of woman I want to be every day, even the hazy ones.
I will never look at a pot of mussels the same way.