Marie has bright, light blue eyes the colour of ice, eyes that don’t leave you alone. Her smile spans the entirety of her face, an undeniable force that harasses you with friendliness. From the dark apartment doorway, purple with the shadows of the encroaching gloaming, she stands, arms outstretched, fully open to welcome. She smiles, and it’s massive. There is no trace of awkward meeting, no lingering unsureness, even after almost 15 years. She is not larger than life, but rather throws life out of her with a carelessness she can afford, because she has so much of it to spare.
‘Hello!’ she exclaims, and hugs Andrew, a man she’s only seen in wedding photos.
Marie lives on the first floor of an apartment between Amager Øst and Christianshaven, amongst brick gargantuan buildings with flower boxes and picture windows. The buildings come at you as you walk down Amagerbrogade towards the city like big things out for lunch, the sun lighting one side of them like mountains.
We cross the bridge from Sweden to Copenhagen at 110 kilometres per hour. We had watched the bridge disappear behind an island from the other side, and speculated at its length as we ate our lunch on the beach.
It was too many years ago that I met Marie – just years, and years: so many years that seems like the me in the photos must be a different person. But they show me for who I was, and who I am: same teeth (my cousin called me ‘Buck-tooth Bec’); same licks and curls in the hair. Different colour hair; naturally blonde. Me in my room, with Tess in the late ‘90s, the walls covered with pictures of Stereophonics and the Spice Girls, the Cranberries and Korn. Weird art that I had scratched out with hard wax crayons, and that I thought was pretty good (it wasn’t). Me laughing with Tess, Marie behind the camera. Us laughing without worrying who was looking at our teeth. Me in a beanie and my favourite short sleeved baseball shirt, long sleeved shirt underneath it, dirt down the arm, the flush of exercise on my cheeks, having made Marie-Louise hike through the bush in a country she wasn’t used to. I remember Tess and Marie and I in the bottom paddock, teaching her how to go squat when you were busting and didn’t have a toilet, and how to climb over a barbed wire fence. A city girl, she was naturally bad at it, and sent us all into fits of laughter.
Marie-Louise is a photo saver. She has a box of them, and the box is full – probably one of many. Her apartment is decorated in sparse Scandinavian whites and pastels; her friends call her ‘grandma’ because of her impeccable taste for antiques. She says she doesn’t understand why in Australia, we have only one name for ‘grandmother’, when they say ‘farmor’ for your father’s mother, and ‘marmor’ for your mother’s. I agree, and say that we’ll institute that custom when we have kids. I would agree with anything, this morning, because Marie has moved one of her client’s appointments back, and gone out and bought danish breakfast for us. The table is spread with Danish nut bread, which we have with cheese, or Nutella, or red fruit jam I don’t recognise, and proper butter; she has bread chocolate (that I think you put on toast); she sprinkles muesli over little glass bowls filled with a yoghurt-milk hybrid that they all eat for breakfast, and sprinkles it with juicy raisins; she boils eggs and we have them with small pieces of something like pumpernickel, sliced delicately lengthways, which she folds into three pieces with her fingers; we have orange juice and coffee that I have bought from the coffee shop twenty-five steps around the corner. There are meats for the bread. And of course, the danish. Marie assures us that the only place you can get proper danish is in Denmark – those things they have at meetings are not danish.
‘It’s… she looks at the ceiling, trying to translate it in her mind. Struggling. ‘Ah… fat bread.’ She shrugs. Smiles. Proud of it. ‘They’re not something you have every day. You would put on too much weight. It’s like cake – you don’t eat that every day.’
The danish is just like she says – when you bit into the pastry, it seems filled with a pleasant kind of… lard. You can feel the fat as it dissolves in your mouth. It’s wonderful.
We give her peanut butter. She hasn’t had it before. I won’t pretend the exchange was fair.
We look at the photos over breakfast, which stretches from nine to eleven thirty.
(As a small aside, we were going to have danish this morning – that’s why I went for an extra run. I went out at 7am to burn the 600 calories I figured it would take to allow me about 900 calories for breakfast. Then Marie went out for breakfast, so it worked out well. But I think I overspent on the calories. I ate a LOT. She said to me, this morning, ‘there will be more danish this week,’ and smiled. So it looks like I’ll just have to sightsee in the daytime, and run at night. I can replace sleep with danish.)
Years and years ago, she came to Corryong Secondary College as an exchange student – I never would have believed it was only for six weeks. It seems much longer. Tess and I latched on to her, I guess, like we did every new person, and took her for rambles around the cow paddocks on an Australian farm, or in the mean main street of Corryong where you could see the school from Tess’s bedroom window.
Marie is younger, too, in the photos. But her eyes and face still have the same exuberance they have now. There is something different about me to now, though. I can see a confidence, and a disregard for fear, that I don’t have now. I can see that I’ve become something I don’t want to be – something that Marie is not. There’s a sort of cowering, now, that wasn’t there before. And I know that it was there; I was shy. But if it’s worse now, it must be pretty bad.
I don’t smile now, in photos, because I don’t like my teeth.
When do we become so scared of ourselves? Or is that just me?
Marie talks about her city with a pride that oozes from the core of her being. She talks about Copenhagen in personal collective pronouns. ‘We’ do things this way, and ‘we’ do them that way.
‘Just wait until you see the Palace,’ she says with fervour. She talks with no clapping excitement – no outlandish enthusiasm, just honest respect. ‘We have it open, so that we can walk around it and through it. It is not closed.’ She just knows, because she knows her city, that we will be as captivated as she is by it. And we are.
Copenhagen is modern, without giving way to modernity. The buildings are strong, solid, brick and old, in this part of town. The city, too, is bristling with old ways of doing things. There are none of the sky scrapers that blight other cities, in the parts that I have seen. All stone, all bricks, cobbles and sandstone. All cafes and hairdressing salons and cultural buildings. The Royal Theatre, the Opera House. Christianshaven, with its gardens and ramshackle housing, intermittent with its own large brick houses, and running tracks that lead you right up to someone’s house. (I’ll need a separate post about Christianshaven, because Marie wants to show us around.) We travelled by bus to the Royal Palace, a large open round with no locked iron gates. (I tried to see Princess Mary, but no luck. Thought I could ask her where you buy Vegemite around here. Had new respect for the fact that she isn’t now the size of a small building, with all the danish available.)
There is something outstanding about Marie that I can’t quite explain. It has to be one of the reasons that I sent her a message that we were coming, and would love to see her. I don’t generally do that sort of thing. She insisted that we come and stay with her straight away.
‘Oh! Wonderful! That you are coming to my small country!’
At night on the first day, after Marie was asleep, I thought about the fact that I had contacted her, and felt profoundly embarrassed. She was sleeping in the lounge room, and had given us her bedroom, regardless of our protests. I didn’t know what had lead me to call on a friend that I had made fifteen years ago, for only a few weeks, and was now staying in her house, cooking in her kitchen. I was shocked at myself – I’d cooked Andrew and I food in her tiny apartment, on the first night, as if I belonged there! Has travelling, and having no real home, changed me into a presumptuous monster? It’s nothing I can put my finger on, but we fit in now, with anyone, as if we’ve been there all our lives. There is no… pretence. No polite distance any more.
Perhaps that comfort is merely a result of Marie. When she speaks, her words actually comfort me: I can feel my shoulders relaxing. She reminds me of family, of my Aunty Faye, the way her words can soothe me seemingly without cause. And I think: well. I don’t know what to put it down to, other than good fortune; to have good family, and to have met good friends.