Monday, September 02, 2013

MAD for Copenhagen

It's been over two years since I've blogged. It's not that I've lost interest in travel or writing about it, it's just that I've been busy with other things. Around the time of the second-to-last post (also set in Copenhagen) the initial seeds of Emperor Norton had been planted, and it has since become a successful little venture - leading up to two more trips to Copenhagen to attend the MAD Symposium.

The city we formerly found expensive (solution: Airbnb, eating at home, bike rentals), maddening to reach (solution: private sleeper cabin on Deutsche Bahn, which costs less than a flight when you factor in a dog), and difficult to leave (go for a full week, minimum) has become extremely important to me and Alannah.

Why Copenhagen?
Our last visit to MAD was - quite seriously - life changing. The theme of the event in 2012 was "Appetite" and the speakers helped Alannah and I find our own hunger and examine what we were doing as cooks and broaden our horizons. (Videos of all the speakers are here.) We spent a week biking around the beautiful city, taking our dog to its gigantic parks – where grilling is allowed! – and feeling genuinely inspired to chase our dreams.

We had no doubt that we'd come back to Copenhagen again – because of our now even greater love for the city, as well as to attend MAD3 in 2013. Dates hadn't even been announced but we were already planning our vacances around it. Because when you take your piss break with Ferran Adria or get handed ice cream bars by René Redzepi, as a young chef you are obligated to want to repeat this experience.

And that's what we were afraid of: Alannah and I both thought that perhaps we'd be like heroin addicts, chasing the unattainable peak of that first high in an increasingly futile manner. Would we still love biking around Copenhagen? Would we still love its parks and green spaces? Would we still think of the Danes as absurdly friendly (and ridiculously attractive)? Would we still eat as well? And most importantly, would we get as much out of the event on which we were spending nearly a month's pay?

The answer is unequivocally: YES. And even more so.

I've attended and even helped run many a conference in my life. Nothing, in my opinion, comes close to the inspiration, camaraderie, and relevance of MAD. Rather than bore anyone any further with explanations of what the event is (the link to the web site is above) or give a summary of the event itself, I'll sum up my little takeaways of each speaker, presenting on this year's theme of "guts." (For those that don't care, you can skip to the bottom.)

Day One
Dario Cecchini, butcher: Don't be wasteful. And learn to passionately recite Dante (and the occasional Shakespearean pun) - it's seriously impressive.

David Chang, chef & restaurateur of the Momofuku empire (& co-curator of MAD3): Don't be afraid to fail. Homeboy's empire goes from New York to Toronto to Sydney, so I'd say he's worth listening to.

Heribert Watzke, scientist: Our gut has a "brain" and we must feed it well – like we do our proper brain – to stay healthy and on top of our game. Going by the size of my gut, it must have a very high IQ.

John Reiner, writer: Food has a social function, and if you want proof of it, try being completely unable to eat or taste or even ingest anything. (Winner: prize for second most terrifying life story of the day.)

Sandor Katz, fermentation expert: The war on bacteria is a war on the diversity that makes life happen. I'm glad I called bullshit on anti-bacterial soaps years ago.

Souk el Tayeb, cooking collective of Lebanese women, provider of lunch: The differences that have lead to strife in the Middle East conversely enrich even the smallest of communities. Their amazing, kaleidescopic food was proof.

Josh Whiteland, Aboriginal cultural guide: The aboriginal calendar has six seasons, which really makes more sense. Also, I really need to go to Australia again.

Roland Rittman, forager: Foraging isn't just a trend, it's an essential link to the Earth. (And really, foraged herbs taste so much more real than whatever your industrial purveyor can deliver.)

Daniel Klein & Mirra Fine, filmmakers (The Perennial Plate): Sometimes telling a story requires the guts to be vulnerable. Also, their short films are really cool and you should watch them.

Jason Box, glaciologist: Climate change is for real, motherfuckers, and the J-Box has the proof. The good news is we can do something about it. See his research here.

Chris Ying, editor-in-chief of Lucky Peach magazine: Do you have the guts to see what your CO2 footprint really is? Noma and Franky's did, enabling them to make effective changes. Also, I will NEVER use my nitrous oxide canister ever ever again. (Ok, only when absolutely necessary.)

Tor Nørretranders, scientist: Tickle me, chef! (From the inside...) (Note: Just about every purveyor of food on this trip did exactly that. Fantastically.)

Martha Payne, 10 year-old food activist (and her dad): Feeding kids properly helps them concentrate in school – so let's make sure that's happening. I can't tell you how many times I teared up during this bit.

Diana Kennedy, cookbook author: If you're 90 years old, you can say whatever you goddamn want, and luckily what Ms. Kennedy wants to say rings true – BE MORE RESPONSIBLE.

Pascal Barbot, chef of L'Astrance: Spontaneity comes from mastery. This may sound like some high-falutin' bullshit, but it's true: If you know your craft incredibly well, it's much easier to go off-script and still come out with good results.

David Choe, artist: Lactose intolerance and irritable bowel syndrome stories are always funny. Also, damn, there's a lot of Koreans in the house this year! (Though I must personally fist-bump the other Iranian in attendance.)

Ahmed Jama, chef of The Village: Think having a restaurant in London is difficult? Give it up to open a place in Mogadishu, tough guy. (And then have a suicide bomb wipe out a dozen people in your joint.) That, my friends, wins the terrifying life story of the day award.

Day one was an emotional roller coaster. I laughed my ass off. I wiped tears from under my eyes. I got angry. I felt futile. I felt empowered. And once again I felt inspired.

Alannah and I took the boat across the canal and biked our way back to our rental in Østerbro, chilled in the park with the dog, and had a quiet almost-vegetarian dinner of all local market goods at home. It was nourishing, it made us feel a little responsible and healthy, and allowed us to quietly reflect on what we'd seen and heard during the day.

On Monday morning I started running again for the first time in forever. Inspired by the clean air, beautiful parks, and beautiful and fit people of Copenhagen, I figured I'd actively do something good for myself. After all, I can spend all the time I want surrounded by the world's greatest chefs and thinkers going on about having courage and changing the world – but none of that would be any good if I we don't make ourselves better as well.

We went into the second day of the conference feeling recharged and ready for what lay ahead.

Day Two
Knud Romer, author: Making mean comments isn't honesty, it's rudeness. Also, writers are obligated to drink. (Maybe I do need to write more to keep in line with my drinking habits!)

Vandana Shiva, environmental activist: The food industry was borne of the war industry and its mentality of domination. This lady blew my mind. Seriously, Google her. And in the meantime, join the fight for Seed Freedom.

David Kinch, chef of Manresa, and Cynthia Sandberg, farmer at Love Apple Farms: The relationship between restaurant and farmer is far from simple, but can be extremely rewarding. (Also: Northern California rules!)

Michael Twitty, food historian: Culinary justice is difficult to encapsulate in a one-liner, but I'd say we have an inalienable right to our own historical foodways and we should learn and teach them to maintain our respective heritage. Deep stuff from the black gay southern Jew (How's that for someone who has some heritage to study?) who famously reached out to Paula Deen.

Margot Henderson, chef of Rochelle Canteen: Masculine cooking seeks to dominate the ingredient/technique, whereas feminine cooking nurtures – not sure I dig the male/female dichotomy, but she did ask the most important question of any culinary event: "Where are all the women chefs?" (I was glad to see Alannah accept her identity as a chef finally and raise her fist at this point!)

Barbara Lynch, chef/restaurateur: She went from being a dyslexic number-runner to managing a $24m empire – by having "quenelles of steel," from wanting to be Robuchon or Ducasse to be "happy being Barbara." This lady should be a motivational speaker.

Mission Chinese Food, former pop-up turned bi-coastal restaurant venture that kills it for charity, provider of lunch: These guys had the balls to turn up in Europe and not tone down their food. Mad respect. Of course, most of us would've lynched 'em had we not gotten our fill of chilies and Szechuan pepper. For those of us living in Europe and missing heat, this was a godsend.

Ben Reade, Nordic Food Lab: Ben didn't speak, but was showing off his Scottish roots by presenting the delicious "Dream Haggis" he'd made using various suggestions from the Twitterverse. (Alas, while my contribution of chicharones had made it onto the whiteboard, it was not in the haggis.) A bagpiper led the ceremony and beautifully recited some Robert Burns with a full-on brogue. Oh, my takeaway from Ben: Shaving cream removes red wine stains from white dress shirts. (Long story.)

Alain Ducasse: Even when speaking at a conference themed around "guts," only a 10% risk ratio is the norm in the Ducasse group. (Ok, so that's a remarkable amount of risk for a French enterprise, so there's that...)

Jonathan Gold, food critic (& fellow Bruin): There is no authenticity other than being true to your time and place. (Take that, purveyors of shitty Mexican food in Paris! Or, uh, not...? Now I'm confused.)

Roy Choi, modern food truck pioneer & chef of Kogi BBQ: Bringing good food to the streets can help the poor and hungry who live in food deserts – it's a chef's responsibility to the community. (Take that, purveyors of €15 food truck burgers in Paris!)

Christian Puglisi, chef of Relæ and Manfreds & Vin: Opening in a neighborhood overrun with drugs/gangs/violence isn't necessarily "gentrification" but sometimes an opportunity to revive and build a community. (This is true - Jægersbrogade is now more habitable but maintains much of its character. My favorite single street in Copenhagen.)

Alex Atala, chef of D.O.M.: Death happens. I found this chicken-choking finale to MAD3 too macho for my taste, but the point behind it is important. Death is a reality behind everything we consume to give us life – whether animal or plant. As such, we must respect the cycle of life.

While equally heavy and thought-provoking, Monday felt a little more "manageable" than Sunday. I once again laughed my ass off, was moved to tears, angered, and ultimately inspired, but a little less exhausted. This is good, because the after-party under a Copenhagen bridge would go late into the night. It was fantastic that the party was open to everyone this year, as it really provided an opportunity to cement the brief relationships attendees had formed inside the conference and during the breaks.

I thought it had been because I'd been preoccupied that I hadn't written about my travels in two years. But I think that in all my busy, crazy, hectic life, even when traveling I had lost touch with the number one, all-important, raison d'être facet of travel that always motivated me, kept me going, and fueled my wanderlust: The connection with people.

Although MAD brought me to a now familiar city to a now familiar event, it renewed my ability to connect with people. For a brief moment I was not in my office. I was not in my kitchen. I was just out there and getting face time with people who share a common interest but who come from all backgrounds and walks of life. I listened to and then broke bread with creative freaks from California, ultra-specialized professionals from London, coffee roasters from Scandinavia, head-down chefs from New Zealand and Canada, writers from France and Turkey... When I was younger and drunker and singler, these relationships were forged in the common areas of hostels over a deck of cards and a bottle of liquor. Now we come together in a slightly more grown-up manner (though admittedly no less crazy) thanks to a little conference started by the guys at a little restaurant called Noma.

Speaking of which, the third time must be a charm. On this third trip to Denmark we finally landed a reservation at Noma. For three years it was ranked the number one restaurant in the world (yes, such things are arbitrary, but it's no little thing either) and thus made Copenhagen one of the culinary epicenters of the world on par with Tokyo and San Sebastian for the amount of media and attention going to it. In the restaurant world, there is an unbelievable amount of hype, often unsubstantiated.

Our lunch at Noma felt like an extension of the MAD Symposium. (And not only because all the Noma staff work their tails off at the event themselves.) We laughed our asses off (the front of house staff are genuinely charming and fun). We got angry. ("Why haven't I thought of that!?") We felt futile. ("We will never cook this well.") We felt empowered. "We could totally do this.") I wiped tears from under my eyes. (That dessert of potato and plum? Holy shit, you guys! It changed how I view dessert forever.) And more so than any other meal in recent memory, we felt inspired.

Chef René Redzepi and his entire team (and they are many but still relatively small for the amount of work they do) do an amazing job, and I don't know where they get what seems to be the boundless energy to keep firing on all cylinders. It has been a week since the conference and a few days since Noma and I am still in awe.

Omid & Alannah at Noma, Copenhagen

This is not, of course, to disparage any of the other amazing meals we had on this or past trips to Copenhagen. The hype is for real not only about Noma but about the city. We may live in what people consider to be the "culinary capital of the world" in Paris, but it has been our trips eating and drinking in Scandinavia – and the CPH in particular – where we have had an inordinately high number of amazing meals and "wow" moments, whether at fancy Michelin-starred tasting menu joints or casual walk-ins. (This is not a food blog, so I won't bother listing every place that tickled us on the inside!) We've made some bad choices here and there, for sure, but krone for krone (and believe me, you can spend a lot of kroner) this is one fantastic eating and drinking town. And you better believe I'll be back.

I'd previously half-joked about wanting to move to Copenhagen. After several trips this has become less of a joke and more of a crazy pipe dream – but still quite silly especially since we haven't experienced winter there. But there's good reason Monocle has ranked it as the world's most livable city.

For now, though, I plan on continuing to visit. After all, Emperor Norton has yet to complete its conquest of Paris, and we still have a lot of growing up to do before expanding the empire. (Har har.)

Thursday, May 19, 2011

London: Wiping My Hands of This

I've been traveling and eating weird shit since before Andrew Zimmern got elevated from Minnesota morning TV to the the US iteration of the Travel Channel. Hell, I've been writing about it (if not particularly well) since before the first typewriter ribbon was installed for Tony Bourdain's first travel and food tome. In that time I've visited most of the continents, overlapped the stamps on my bulging passport pages in every way imaginable, and eaten one of everything in the animal kingdom. And a few insects to boot. Once cooked. Once raw. Probably once fermented for good measure. I've achieved this not through intestinal fortitude, but by maintaining a steady travel regimen of alcohol to kill the bad stuff and local yogurt to keep the good stuff alive. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the key to eating anything you like (or dare) in almost any locale in the world, and why in about a decade, I've never been victim to Montezuma's Revenge. Until now. And I'm going to make sure it never happens again.

But sometimes we intrepid traveler-eaters let our guard down. Sometimes we don't do enough shots to kill the intestinal buggers. Sometimes we forget to have a cup of cultured yogurt with our breakfast. Sometimes we forget that the first-world industrial food system is just as dangerous – if not more perilous than – eating freshly killed whoosiwhatsit in the jungle. And sometimes, forgetting that, we have a bacon burger with runny egg. In a pub. In London.

And that's how my weekend of ass-clenching and desperately-trying-not-to-vomit began.

Mind you, living a two and a half-hour train ride away from London barely makes a trip there warrant an entry in a so-called travel blog anymore. While this site has existed since late 2005, I wrote up my first travel journal nigh on a decade ago... From London. And I've written about the place ad nauseum since.

So there has to be a good story to warrant a blog entry, right?

This trip was supposed to be epic for other reasons. Chiefly, because the weekend was marked in indelible red ink on my calendar for Short Circuit presents Mute, a two-day festival at the Roundhouse in Camden celebrating 30+ years of the record label that helped form my own identity as a youth and to this day. The wife and I – as well as friends from around the world – got tickets the moment it was announced, knowing what a big deal this festival was, reuniting and cross-pollenating – in one place – many of our lifelong favorite artists.

Things started out well enough. We arrived well before the festival on Wednesday and were met at the English end of the Eurostar track by our friend David. He happens to be my old roommate from San Francisco and now lives in London, and we joke that we've seen more of each other now that we're a train ride apart than when we were actually in the same town.

We lugged our suitcases over to his flat in Paddington and got to the business of enjoying London, with a couple of free days to quaff some decent beer, do some shopping, and scout out fun locations for my sister's wedding the following month.

Pints here. Ethnic food there. More pints. Scouting out locales. We'd brought two suitcases and a duffel bag with us – which is now our modus operandi when taking the train (no baggage limits, hooray!) to places that have a) things you can't get in France or b) things that are much cheaper than in France. We capped off our night by gorging ourselves at the damn-near-impossible-to-get-into new Heston Blumenthal joint. (Yes, yes, as always, you can expect to find a culinary recap of this trip over at Hungry Amateurs.)

Thursday saw us go to yet another fancy restaurant for one of those languid Michelin-starred lunches that seems over-the-top even at absurdly low prices, and that make you wonder when the business people who go to them actually get any business done. We then strolled through Bloomsbury to meet up with our American friend Micah for pints, pints and even more pints. Then wine. Then a classic chip shop that fries their fish in beef fat. (I told you I have an iron stomach.) And then we hit another pub for good measure.

The Old Fountain. Home of the best cask ale selection in London.

The best part of the day wasn't the amazing meal or the fantastic local cask ales we were having, but to be in the company of a first-timer in London. Although we're not there day in and day out, we kind of take the city for granted: Just another nearby destination from the hub of trains that radiate out from Paris dozens of times a day. Newcomers notice things that old hands often forget to look at. And we enjoy this aspect as much in Britain as we do in France, even if we're just visitors there ourselves. So thank you, Micah, for the new set of eyes.

Friday morning came and we were feeling good. The sun was shining brilliantly. The air had an uncanny perfection to it. I got up early and shot some video for a project at work. Then we went shopping. I found trousers that fit my non-existent ass. Books that Alannah and I have been wanting for a long time. Great English pastries. Can't-get-'em-in-Paris groceries up the wazoo. We returned to David's with our booty to fill up one of the suitcases, then it was off to Camden to start pre-partying before the evening's shows at the Roundhouse.

We made some calls to other internationals who'd be at the gig. Our friend Christian from Paris. Micah, again. JR from Norway. We Tweeted. We Facebooked. We set up our potential rendez-vous points. And in the meantime we went to grab a pint. And maybe a bite. "Hmm, bacon burger with egg, eh? Does that come with chips? Good, I'll have that, please."

An hour or so later we were at a nearby, much classier pub with Christian and Micah, killing whatever bugs may have been in the grubby pub grub with craft cocktails made with the finest (mostly) English booze. Gin. Another kind of gin. Yet another kind of gin. Everything that was England, we were drinking it in.

Soon enough we were all inside the Roundhouse, gathered in one of the side rooms to see Komputer (formerly Fortran 5, formerly I Start Counting). It was packed and rather hot, and after a couple of their iconic tracks from yesteryear we made our way out of the room to jockey for a good spot in the main auditorium to see Recoil (aka Alan Wilder of Depeche Mode plus Paul Kendall). The performance was fantastic, and it included not only their cover of The Normal's (aka Daniel Miller aka the founder of Mute Records) "Warm Leatherette," but also the original vocals from Nitzer Ebb's Douglas McCarthy on "Faith Healer" then on Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus." For good measure, McCarthy was joined on stage by the rest of Nitzer Ebb plus Architect (aka Daniel Myer of Haujobb) to perform a scorching rendition of Nitzer Ebb's "Family Man" which was, of course, originally produced by Wilder himself. This was all followed up by a full Nitzer Ebb performance.

If the rather tightly-knit relationship between artists on the Mute roster over the years seems a bit incestuous, you can imagine this festival as a once-in-a-lifetime family reunion full of potential for awkward or explosive moments. Oddly enough it was Alannah who provided the first bit of awkwardness, as she announced her need to go to the bathroom and disappeared for a good while. Concert. Long queues. Seems logical, right?

It was while we were trying to enjoy a none-too-abstract and surprisingly melodic set by Thomas Fehlmann that I started to feel odd. Perhaps it was the blips and chimes over the throbbing bass making me flash back to chemically altered nights back in Club Six or Sno-Drift in San Francisco. Or maybe it was all the draught Old Speckled Hen catching up with me. But something was amiss. My shoulders were tight. I was uncharacteristically sweaty. I felt like I really needed to take it easy. I chalked it up to all the decadent eating, that it was my body's way of saying "enough with the black pudding and the chicken livers and the deep fat fried foods." Fair enough, body. But you're not making me give up the beer. (Alannah wisely urged me to have water. Smart girl.)

Despite having a premium pass that would afford me entry to the after-parties and exclusives going on 'til three in the morning (thank you for the upgrade, Christian!) we had to bail and get back home to the west side of town. Then came the explosive part.

I'll spare you the details. Suffice it to say I spent more time on the throne (and not the one at Buckingham Palace or wherever the Queen rests her royal derrière) than in bed. Alannah wasn't faring any better. We traced our gastronomical (or perhaps gastrointestinal) footsteps back over the preceding few days to find the culprit, eliminating places we'd eaten with others (all our friends share all our food), places we hadn't eaten anything remotely food-poisony, and places that simply shouldn't provide the opportunity. By our magical, Sherlock Holmesian deductive reasoning, all the fingers pointed at the pub burger.

By morning I had the wherewithal to find the nearest off-licence and pick up some ginger ale and probiotic yogurt. Too little, too late, sure, but at least it would be of some relief and prevent the puking of bile. It also gave me the opportunity to unload seven-odd quid worth of shrapnel on the shopkeeper, having amassed in three days enough copper coins to weigh down a body in the Thames. (All the non-copper bits were used for beer.)

Having another suitcase to fill, we did manage to get some shopping done at midday, and while Alannah declined to even bother taking such risk, I was somehow able to eat half a grilled cheese sandwich without vomiting. Unfortunately, I had to run into a piss-soaked toilet stall at Borough Market to have my "Trainspotting moment" not long thereafter. This relieved me long enough to put together a serious English craft beer haul to bring back to Paris, and we somehow managed to survive the rest of the day without having to buy me yet another pair of trousers.

Shopping done, we could focus on our new deadline: To leave for the Roundhouse again by 7:00 p.m. Saturday's action had started at noon, but neither of us were in any shape to go any earlier. As evening rolled around we made it to the venue, and Micah and Christian had kindly saved us some lovely, easy-on-the-ailing-ass balcony seats right next to the Recoil Boss himself, Alan Wilder.

I sat and politely applauded through a solid art-rock set by the Residents – a band I'd never had the opportunity to see in our shared hometown of San Francisco – and then sat and impolitely heckled and Tweeted and Facebooked through a sad DJ set by Depeche Mode's Andy Fletcher. (On that note, cheers to the Roundhouse for free and functional wi-fi throughout the venue.) A rumble came over my stomach but I was immovable. Vince Clarke stepped behind a keyboard on stage, followed shortly thereafter by a beautifully voiced, surprisingly svelte Alison Moyet who performed several Yazoo (Yaz if you're North American) songs.

Andy Bell came on to join Clarke for the scheduled Erasure set, making many in the audience speculate who the two other mics were for. Could it be the full Depeche Mode mega-reunion people had breathlessly (if unrealistically) speculated about?

No, they were for two backup singers, but it didn't make the Erasure set any less fantastic and sing-alongy and the starkest possible contrast to the Residents act that preceded it. Bell did announce a surprise, not-at-all-Depeche-Mode-related appearance to follow him, as Feargal Sharkey came out to perform the one (chart-topping) track he did with Vince Clarke as The Assembly, "Never Never." To be honest, I never knew Feargal was a dude... Listen to the chorus and you'll understand my childhood error.

If all that's a little too effeminate, the stage took another 180º turn as Laibach came on with their martial, industrial Neue Slowenische Kunst. As much as I hoped they'd do their cover of Europe's "The Final Countdown," the covers they delivered were their classic "Life is Life" and once again The Normal's "Warm Leatherette." No complaints here, though I'm sure Alannah would've been amused with "Countdown."

Laibach's set included a projection of a woman giving a deep throat blowjob, making me wonder why all of a sudden on-screen sex was making me squirmy and uncomfortable. Then I realized that, no, it's not the balls-deep action giving me sweaty palms, but the fact that I'd been clenching my ass for the last three and a half hours.

I did something I never thought I would ever do in all my years of clubbing, concert-going, festivaleering, and traveling. I dropped a deuce in a venue toilet.

Luckily, this is the Roundhouse. They have good beer at reasonable prices. They have good food at even better prices. I already mentioned the wi-fi. And the toilet? As pristine a public toilet I've seen outside of a five-star hotel lobby. Had I known this, I wouldn't have missed so much of the festival. Up here, on the third floor, was possibly the cleanest bathroom in the house, well stocked with toilet paper.

Oh. My. God.

Sure, Martin Gore of Depeche Mode was in the main room now putting together an epic set of good, danceable techno (like, real techno, not that clubby shit that people often call techno), but I was more in awe of the fact that I was going number two in public.

This revelation complete, it was soon time to check out the after-party. Alannah made her way back to the flat and I joined Christian and Micah for an evening of DJ antics, starting with Mr. Mute himself, Daniel Miller. He put together a respectable set of Mute tracks that – while not groundbreakingly mixed – had a sense of rhythm and flow and cohesiveness that was barely detectable in Fletch's earlier set.

Then came Rex the Dog. I don't know much about Rex. Or at least, I didn't until I suddenly developed a little bit of a man-crush and read every page of his site after the ass-kicking DJ set he threw out on Saturday night. Rex was on fire, leading me to declare to Micah (and then the whole geek world via Twitter) that he MUST produce the next Depeche Mode album. Previously, to me, he had been "that house DJ who did one of the few respectable Depeche Mode mixes in recent years." Now I'm mounting a campaign to put him behind the recording desk for my favorite band ever.

I'm not saying this just because he masterfully twiddled the knobs on some remixed versions of Depeche Mode songs in Ableton Live, but because for the first time in years, I fully, genuinely enjoyed a DJ set, where heart and soul and talent were shining through.

And it's not because I'm older or married that I don't go clubbing anymore. It's that almost every time I go to a club in Paris, besides the irritating crowds and shamefully overpriced drinks, the DJs can't spin worth a damn. They can't work a crowd. They can't even match a beat. I'm a mediocre DJ myself with only a couple of moderate club gigs under my belt and it takes every fiber of my being to not jump into the booth, strangle the hipster motherfucker not mixing in there, and take over the decks myself. So to see, in this day and age of iTunes-on-shuffle-is-considered-DJing, a guy who actually has technical skills and a love for the music... I was impressed. And his body of work kicks a good deal of ass.

I came to London figuring I'd see a lot of old-time favorites and heros and maybe hear a few youngbloods I might actually like (label head Miller has quite good taste, I trust the man) and walked away being most impressed by... the closing party DJ. Go figure.

On our way out, I hit the bathroom once more. One for the road. I washed up, only to find that the air dryer was no longer working. No worries, my hands are clean, and it's not like I need to scrub in for surgery.

Christian spots Daniel Miller Himself in the Roundhouse lobby. We go up to say hi. Introductions are made. My turn comes. I extend my hand simply to tell him "All I can say is thank you. Your work has made my life better." He returns the gratitude. We get a group photo on Christian's phone.

Despite a rather wicked case of food poisoning, I hung in there not only for a great show but to end up meeting one of my heroes and properly thank him. I'm sure in my one short utterance he got that I implied "Thank you for giving rise to and influencing and – decades down the road – assembling the musicians who were there for my first dance, my first breakup, my first guitar, my first car, my first car accident, my first mosh pit, my first bungee jump, three of my four broken ribs, my first turntables, my first keyboard, and every significant moment of my life with which I can associate a song." If not, he should know that.

However, I couldn't help but feel like an ass the whole time. Not because of what I'd said. Or what I was thinking when I said it. But because after I shook his hand, I saw Miller discreetly wiping it on his pants. My hand was still wet. Here I stood, meeting the guy responsible for – quite literally – the soundtrack of my life, and he was probably thinking, "Good god, this bloke pisses on himself."

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Down and Out in Denmark

The stereotypes are true about Copenhagen: The constant parade of beautiful, rosy-cheeked blondes streaming by on bicycles. Bountiful beer on just about every corner. Baked goods to die for. And it's expensive as hell.

The view from Nørre Sogade

One of the guides I'd looked at claimed that those on a backpacker budget should steer clear of Denmark, but for those of less meager means, it's still cheaper than London or even Paris. Well, considering I live in rip-off Paris and think London is a comparatively cheap-o spot to spend the weekend, this whole "Scandinavia is so expensive" thing should pose no problem.


The thing is, the wife and I aren't on vacation when we're in Paris. We usually eat in or at our favorite ethnic dives. We avoid overpriced bars, overrated restaurants, and we have our own ways of amusing ourselves. Hell, even in London we have our spots and our friends to be our guides.

But after only a few days in wholly unfamiliar Copenhagen, the ol' bank account was well beyond overdrawn. Sure, we have friends there, but they'd only moved in a few days before we arrived!

Beyond not knowing all the ins and outs of CPH, there's the problem it's just too easy to spend a ton of cash. While the plethora of bakeries and bars and cafés are no more expensive than in Paris, they're just too damn good to pass up. Yes, I was subject to some terrible Danishes and some bland glasses of Carlsberg – but despite those failures, the EPIC WIN rate is entirely too high. And even reasonably priced beers direct from the tap at Mikkeler and affordable breads from Meyers Bakery and pennies-on-the-dollar pastries from Sankt Peders add up after you have a lot of them. This is enough to leave any traveler without a huge bankroll down and out. And that's not even speaking of the new wave of Scandinavian cuisine that's put the city on the foodie map.

Despite coming home in the hole, every moment on the trip (except those on the phone with my bank) was worthwhile.

15 hours by train or 2 hours by plane
We had the choice of flying in and out of Copenhagen from Paris, or taking the train, both at roughly the same price. Since we had the sneaking suspicion that we'd be coming back again, Alannah and I figured we'd try both, taking the train in and the plane out.

Taking the train gave us the enviable option of riding the Thalys from Paris to Cologne, Germany. Thalys trains are not only smooth and comfortable, but in the negligibly more expensive first class car, the food is remarkably good and the wi-fi is free. Score one for trains.

Stopping over in Cologne gave us the opportunity to see more of the town we'd previously only seen for only a couple of short hours. This time around we had over seven hours to kill, which meant we got to see some friends from the area (and make some new ones!) and drink our livers into submission.

Staring down the barrel...

The copious amounts of cheap, free-flowing Kölsch beer made the next leg of the journey easier: A 12-hour overnight ride to Copenhagen.

When booking the trip, we assumed Deutsch Bahn's awkward translation of "moving bench" for our compartment meant the type that folded down into a bed. We learned upon boarding the train that it means "fully upright seat with the capacity to move forward roughly one inch for relaxation/sleep."

What else are you supposed to do in a sparse compartment
for 12 hours than shoot one another?

Add to that the very nice but motion sickness-prone family who ended up sharing our compartment, and it was the least restful all-nighter I've experienced since giving up chemically enhanced party aids. We now know full well to pay a few euros extra to upgrade to a proper couchette. Score one for planes.

Shock therapy
We arrived in Denmark with nary a scratch and after checking into the Hotel Kong Arthur, it was time to relax. One of the reasons we chose our hotel was because – even though we didn't know we'd be spending the night with Pukey the Kid, Barfy the Baby and their band of German cohorts – we knew we'd want to take advantage of the attached Helle Thorup spa.

And that we did. Soft, voluminous robes. Bubbly jacuzzi. Hot steam room. And is there anything more Scandinavian than a nice, hot sauna?

Yes, yes there is. And that would be the koldt vand spand. Translation: Cold water bucket. After each round of heat in the tub or the steam room or the sauna, I'd position myself under this bucket of ice water and pull the rope.

Pure masochistic bliss.

But even more fun is watching and listening to others as they dump ice cold water on themselves and shriek like little girls. Especially Alannah. Even purer sadistic bliss.

This spa ritual became our daily retreat from our everyday lives, and even from the moments of stress on the trip itself. Work issues on your mind? Sweat it out. ATM card not working? Nothing a cold shock can't eliminate. Realizing you can afford only one nice night out? Luxuriate in the jacuzzi like a boss.

Brain bath
All that bubble and steam is great for reducing stress from the outside, but sometimes we want to massage our brains from the inside. Like our previous trip to Amsterdam, Denmark is an up and coming destination for beer lovers.

Needless to say, we largely eschewed the local Carlsberg and Tuborg for much more local Mikkeler and Nørrebro brews.

Mikkeller single-hop tasting event? Yes, please!

One of the beautiful things about Copenhagen is that it's a beer drinking city. Stroll along the touristy Nyhavn canal and there are sidewalk cafés lining the entire length, each with beer taps out front. Better yet, across from all the tourist traps, locals sit along the canal and drink their own beers, seemingly non-stop. It's not uncommon to see people walking around with plastic crates full of half-liter beers.

This penchant for public consumption does have one ill side-effect, however. No, it's not broken glass or litter or puke on the streets. Copenhagen is one of the cleanest cities I've ever seen outside of Japan. Even the habitual drunks know where to find the recycling bin... It's the day-and-night presence of staggering drunks almost everywhere, to the point that it's seen as normal.

This guy stumbled into a phalanx of bearskin-capped guards in front of the Royal Palace and had to be shooed away. Interestingly, not a single one of the dozens of drunks I saw in town was belligerent or mean. Just drunk.

Sunny dispositions
Perhaps it was the amazing weather we had while in Copenhagen, but it wasn't just the drunks who fell far from the mean tree. Despite a few indifferent people here and there, one could largely conclude that the Danish people are staggeringly (ahem) nice.

Maybe it's the relative lack of vehicular traffic. (1/3 of people commute by bicycle.) Maybe it's the impeccably clean public transit. (Often with free wi-fi.) Or perhaps it's because a higher priority seems to be placed on relaxing and enjoying one's surroundings rather than me-me-me consumption and attention whoring. This isn't to say that there aren't sinister aspects here and there, but this is – again – the first time since Japan that I've seen people more than willing to park their baby buggies outside of stores while they shop. With the babies still in them.

Even the highly ethnic 'hood that is Nørrebro – unlike many ethnic enclaves in large cities around the world that seem to house a more marginalized population – appears just as bright and happy-go-lucky. The only difference is that it's, well, ethnic.

You hear a lot of Farsi being spoken in Copenhagen. So it
was unsurprising to find an Iranian restaurant in Nørrebro.

Aside from the massive construction going on there, the sidewalks are clean, people are polite, and like many ethnic enclaves around the world, some of the best shopping and eating is to be found there. Certainly as a visitor there are some issues I'm unaware of and I'm sure the great shopping and eating has something to do with gentrification, but in general it was one of my favorite parts of the city.

On the tourist trail
We literally followed the tourist trail provided on the free city map given out by the tourism center. On it there's a dotted line in a large loop, taking you from place to place, including the famous Little Mermaid statue north of the city center.

Is she sad because she's surrounded by smoke stacks?
Or because she has useless legs?

Alannah and I had initially planned to use the Copenhagen's free bike program which, at the price of completely free (a 20dkk deposit is given back to you the moment you return a bike to its stall), edges Paris' €29/year scheme. Its disadvantage is that it doesn't start running until May, and so we ended up taking in the unseasonably warm weather on foot. Hence the tourist loop.

Close to running on empty, this was actually a great thing to do for our last full day in Denmark. We opted against having a pricey dinner and decided instead to follow the tourist trail and hit various snacks and street food along the way. This added up to a lot of pastries and sausages and cappuccinos, not a single one of which was bad.

Our tour also started a little on the late side, so the sun was setting by the time we got to the area where you find the Little Mermaid. Moving further to the north, it was just about nightfall when we arrived at the new "Genetically Modified Little Mermaid," and the eerie silence and lack of human presence around us made it that much more creepy. We picnicked in front of it.

The genetically modified Little Mermaid.
This is where industrial tuna comes from.

By the time we started making our way back to the city center, it was completely dark. We were able to walk through the Kastellet, a pentagon-shaped earthen fortress. Slowly making our way through the old barracks in peace, I decided that the time we spent after the sun had set in this less populated part of town made it feel like the whole of Denmark was ours.

Ghosts of the Kastellet

The sadness of departure
We performed our now ritualized last-day-in-a-country routine that includes hitting the markets and shops for food and drink we can't easily find in Paris, meeting some interesting characters along the way. We had our last traditional Danish lunch. Our last beer. Said our last goodbyes. And, of course, survived our last koldt vand spand.

Despite having spent only a few days in Copenhagen, I think I can speak for the both of us and say that Alannah and I felt very much like we were at home. This feeling last occurred while traveling during our first visit to Paris together...

And no, that doesn't mean we're moving to Denmark all of a sudden. We happened to arrive at the beginning and left at the end of a serendipitous burst of excellent weather, and the Miserable Weather Season lasts longer than it does in Paris. I bitch enough about the weather here as it is!

What made it hard to leave was being around so many of the things we miss. Cinnamon rolls. Good beer. Bicycles. Wide sidewalks. Clean streets. And above all, our friends from California for whom we are so thankful that they can drop by Europe every so often. Even if it requires a 12-hour train ride to see them.

Bye bye, awesome Danishes. We're not sure when we'll
see you again. Say hi to rye bread for us!

The last moments in Copenhagen were spent wrangling with our luggage to make sure each piece of Danish market goodness was distributed properly to avoid weight surcharges, security issues, and potential damage in transit. Then we waited and waited 'til boarding time, and then takeoff, and then for our baggage on the other end, and then to finally arrive home via the busted-ass RER commuter train. Total door to door time: 6.5 hours. Amount of which was pleasurable: 0.

This round goes to: Train.

As usual, for a more food-oriented account of this trip, see the upcoming entry on our cooking site, Hungry Amateurs and the full complement of photos on my Flickr page.