My arrival in Copenhagen for the first time was punctuated by both enthusiasm for the short visit, and an acute sense of not having had lunch. I headed straight for a sandwich kiosk in the station when I alit from the train. I had every intention of sampling whatever local cuisine I might find, and bravely ordered the most alien-looking sandwich on the menu.
"Ein skinkenburger," I said, drawing on my high-school German. The Dane at the counter nodded.
I had been instilled with the attitude that it was almost sinful to visit a foreign country only to restrict oneself to Burger King or MacDonald's. My parents were known to ridicule tourists who travelled to Germany without trying Wiener schnitzel, to France without trying escargot, to Greece without baklava. Part of the point of going, they said, was to immerse oneself in local culture. This included using public transportation, wearing dark clothing in order not to stand out, and eating the local food.
Naturally, eating American involves less time and apprehension. One always knows exactly what it consists of, how it will taste, and whether one likes it. The familiarity of the setting imparts a measure of comfort in knowing that sustenance in a proven form will be ready quickly, it will be comparatively cheap, and that there will be a ladies' room within sprinting distance, featuring modern plumbing fixtures and toilet paper.
I felt no small sense of pride for the courage to jump right into Danish culture with a skinkenburger.
Knives and spoons flashed in the artificial light of the train station as the Dane chopped and slopped, skinked and burgered. Almost too nervous to watch, I turned my head aside in order to enhance the element of confident expectation. Her thick fingers molded a piece of waxed paper around the huge sandwich and slapped it down on the counter.
I found a bench and settled down for a brief rest. My bravery evaporated after one bite. Upon close examination, the skinkenburger appeared to contain a sheet of gristle with a little ham around it, sIiced raw carrots, and approximately half a bucketful of thick, yellowish mayonnaise. Somehow there didn't seem to be much point in wiping off each carrot slice in order to salvage something from this fiasco. The skinkenburger landed with a greasy splat in a nearby trash can.
My itinerary over the next four days included regular, shameful visits to a certain American fast-food franchise in town. I would pause on the sidewalk before entering, embarrassed to be behaving like a stereotypical, un-adventurous American. I had blasphemed.
I did, however, succeed with other requirements. I wore dark clothing, and managed well with the buses and trains. I made several excursions outside the city and took in a respectable assortment of museums and cathedrals. Big Macs served as tiny American oases - respites from maps, train schedules, and my attempts to communicate in a language of which I knew not one word.
On my last day in Copenhagen, I had breakfast with my two new roommates at the youth hostel. The Austrian was ravenous and heaped sausages, eggs, and potatoes on her tray. The other, a German, was nearly as hungry, while I, anticipating the second and third meals of the day, picked at a sweet roll.
We discussed the local attractions; the German had little money and restricted herself to the Little Mermaid, pedestrian shopping districts, and the exterior fence of Tivoli Gardens. The Austrian had arrived the night before from Odense, Denmark and wanted recommendations. Since I was to catch a flight out that day, I distributed my map, guidebooks, and good advice between them.
In an effort to maintain the flagging conversation, I indicated my sweet roll and made a joke about the irony with which tasty pastries are called Danishes in my country. I instantly regretted this reference to food, knowing I risked exposing my dirty little secret.
But they agreed with me. I could barely mask my surprise. Surely these Europeans would appreciate local cuisines. I dug myself in deeper.
"Well, if you want to try something truly awful, get a skinkenburger over at the train station," I said.
"You've got to be kidding," said the Austrian. "You actually ate that stuff?"
A little deflated, I admitted that I had.
The German was scowling. "You couldn't pay me enough to eat Danish food," she said. "It's disgusting!"
Given my opinion of sauerkraut, the vehemence of her statement impressed me. I asked, "But what have you been eating while you've been here?"
In their respective accents, they spoke in unison. "Big Macs!"