Many of us dream of living on the edge—giving up our jobs, letting the wind blow us from one place to another, no possessions or responsibilities to weigh us down. Sometimes people need to completely shake up their worlds in order to find a new direction. For me, the past year has been about living nomadically, and I’ve definitely discovered its bonuses as well as its limitations.
Recently, I spent one week in Copenhagen, a city of waterways and bike paths, and of many notable, delicious places to eat and drink. The weather was stunning—sunshine and light breeze—and everybody was out, cycling and relaxing in the city’s many parks, drinking beer on terraces, walking in the botanical gardens. Some friends, who were also in town for a big natural wine tasting called Fri Vin, asked me to join them on a boat ride along the canals. Obviously, my answer was yes!
I rode my rental bicycle to the other side of the bridge, parked, and waited alongside the sparkling blue water. Soon, my friends arrived in a ramshackle sailboat that was missing its sail, with a bucket of Belgian beers. All aboard . . .
“Let’s head toward the pirate cove,” said our captain. We rode along the calm water, checking out various architectural marvels like the opera house.
Fifteen minutes later, some of us were ready for a swim, so our captain slowed down the boat. Two of the guys stripped their shirts off and jumped in, immediately howling at the frigidness of the water.
Then we noticed a woman standing on the deck of a boat, which was part of a cluster of boats looking even more ramshackle than ours—and even a shipping container of sorts, parked atop a raft. “Hey there,” she said calmly.She was wearing a bra, a sarong, and eyeglasses, and her long brown hair flowed down her back. We hollered back: “Just stopped here for a swim.” We come in peace.
“Just let me know if you need anything,” she said in a friendly tone before disappearing into her boat house. Clearly, this was her territory. I saw now that this collection of boats was a squat. We were on the waters just outside the Copenhagen district known as Cristiana, which was established in the 1960s as a “free state,” and today is sort of a tourist attraction (and an open market for marijuana), although many people also actually live there, governing themselves according to their own principles.
Two minutes later, the woman reappeared. “Actually, you got an extra beer?” Of course we did! Quickly, she was standing atop a raft, using a plastic oar to make her way toward us, her brown hair blowing around her shoulders. Her raft parked besides us and just as she was coming aboard, my arm outstretched a plastic cup of beer already poured to welcome her, we heard a call from back on her home base:
“Check this ouuuuuut!”
There was a young woman on deck, jumping up and down and smiling wildly. She had pixie-cut, bleached blonde hair. Beside her was a guy with his shirt off, soft wavy brown hair hanging down his back, and a calmly poised woman wearing a flowered skirt and striped t-shirt. The blonde woman was holding up a box of wine in one hand, and a six pack of beer in the other.
“Whoa,” said our friend who’d first greeted us, looking back over her shoulder. “How’d you get all that?”
The guy replied proudly, with a shrug, “Just walked in and out of the store a few times.” Their looted bounty was ample: a few boxes of wine, and many beers. Soon, the modern-day Vikings had all rowed over to us, eager to meet the visitors and share their appropriated booze. They were from Latvia, Denmark, Sweden. They’d found their boats in different ways—one was half-sunken near shore and they managed, somehow, to dig it out of the mud. To get into the city limits without a boat license, they’d snuck through by night, keeping a watch for any coast guard. They mostly didn’t speak to their families, except for the Danish woman, who said she saw her parents from “time to time.” They lived by their wits on the canals of Copenhagen, and planned to sail the Nordic waters once the weather was fully warm. The pixie blonde clinked her plastic cup of beer with my wine, and told me I was welcome to live on her boat, anytime.
After half an hour of sharing beers and stories, we had to go, and the pirates retreated on their rafts—one was a canoe, actually. After the boat ride, I hopped back on my rental bike and rode back to my AirBnb in the hipster neighborhood Nørrebro. Suddenly, my nomadic life of freelance writing felt very bourgeois, very tame, compared to the Vikings we’d met, who survived thanks to illegality, cunning, and the strength of a group.
I keep thinking of those Vikings. Their story shows that a city can be experienced in so many ways. In Copenhagen, I visited many of the cool restaurants and coffee shops and wine bars, discovering their beauty or critiquing their food, collecting material for an upcoming article (and I also rode around on a bike, distributing copies of Terre to shops all over the city!). But the encounter with the pirates was something that will stay with me forever, even if I can’t show it on Instagram—it wasn’t a consumable experience. It was an encounter, out on the open waters, a reminder that there are no real limits or boundaries to how we live.
I’m not suggesting that you join a squat and drink shoplifted boxed wine! (Ugh.) But I think there are ways to be a modern-day pirate, in every day life—to sneak outside of the boundaries of what’s expected, live with fewer things and a greater sense of freedom, enjoy a city for its hidden forms of livability rather than seeing it as an object of desire, a furnace that stokes our constant need to consume.
Often, when visiting a new place, we feel compelled to use up every minute of our time at cool restaurants or shopping. That’s fine—my best memories of that week in Copenhagen include the soft, sweet warmth of the kardammomme I had at Juno bakery, as well as the long lunch I had at Relae, enjoying some of the most creative dishes I’ve seen in a while. I feel transformed by walking along the paths outside the Louisiana Museum, where works by sculptors such as Richard Serra and Alexander Calder are installed amongst forest and scraggly rocks with a view overlooking the water toward Sweden. But the everyday encounters are what humanize the city and make it more than just a collection of experiences; they make it a place where people achieve their dreams of freedom, however humble or impossible-seeming they may be.