40 Years in Beer, Part Twenty-Two: A placid traditional Danish lunch in Copenhagen, 1989

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Nyhavn (new harbor) in Copenhagen, 1989.
Copenhagen, Denmark (1989).

Previously: 40 Years in Beer, Part Twenty-One: Those legendary working beers with the FDJ in the GDR.

There was a faint glow, and an aura of something flickering amid barely discernible sounds of distant people conversing in an alien language. Apparently a herd of elephants camped 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 of rounds with Mike Tyson.

It seemed I was marooned in a foreign land, emerging from the haze of 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, doomed East Berlin, drinking voluminous quantities of Wernesgrüner 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 change.

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 the misadventures 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 I’d lost the claim ticket.

If you think the TSA’s invasive bureaucracy is bad here in L’America during the era of permanent terrorism alerts, 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 all 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. I’m sure they remain in a moldering Stasi file. Awash in perspiration, 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.

Happily, while East Germans may have been suspicious commies, 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, a colorless moonshine from East Germany made not from corn, but rye and wheat. In a pinch, it could be used to power a Trabant.

In Denmark 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 my condition was in, and I was released into Copenhagen’s spacious central station at around 8:00 a.m.

Copenhagen’s central station in 1989.

Adrenaline kicked in. The first priority was to change money, then after purchasing coffee with my fresh kroner, I found a pay phone to call Kim W. (“Little Kim”) for instructions. Unexpectedly a disembodied voice answered in what sounded like a Boris Karloffian 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. W. had been unexpectedly called to work, plans were revised. I was given the number of a bus, and a street address, which followed in consecutive order brought me to the apartment of Allan G.

“Kim will be by after work,” Allan reaffirmed. ”But 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 this legendary sandbagger’s face. Much later, when it was far too late to escape my fate, I understood the nature of their planned ambush.

Shorter term, it was 10:00 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?

No, there’d be just three of us. Danish lunch with Big Kim, before the deluge, 1989.

It was my third visit to Copenhagen, and I was grateful to have befriended these three wonderful and well-traveled fellows, all of whom lived in the city at the time. However the concept of “Danish lunch” was as yet unfamiliar to me. To better explain it, here’s a random Internet description from a few years ago, as offered by 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

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    • Liver paté with bacon, beetroots and mushrooms
    • Roast pork pickled red cabbage and cucumber
    • Roast beef with ‘remoulade’, crisp onions, horseradish and pickled cucumber

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    • 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 traditional Danish lunch, Barrie Ottersbach and I were joined by “Boris” Lawrence when 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; most other items were pickled or adorned with horseradish; the beer and schnapps were consumed with an atypically judicious temperament— we were older and wiser 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.

Neighborhood shop, Copenhagen, 1989.

It was Sunday, September 3, 1989.

Big Kim arrived bearing even more food and alcohol, and it was reiterated 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 imported bottles of Korn and Zubrovka.

Remember, only three inebriates were in attendance.

Tuborg’s “thirsty man” advertising, Copenhagen, 1989.

 

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 (I shan’t relate the role of Allan’s kitchen sink in this debacle), 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.

Later the same trip, with Kim W. at a well stocked bottle shop.

To the present day, stories of my epic Copenhagen homecoming 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 (P-F-L), 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 the famed upholstery.

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.

Next: 40 Years in Beer, Part Twenty-Three: Beery Copenhagen days and Oktoberfest nights in Munich.

Homemade armored car at the resistance museum, Copenhagen (1989).

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