Tuesday, September 27

Horsens, Denmark | sunlight and Springsteen

It is a strange thing to be writing about a last-minute trip to a small town in Denmark, now that I'm over nine weeks and five thousand miles away from that time.

Before that, though, there was Horsens, Denmark, mid-July 2016.

A great side-effect of obsessive love for a musician or band is that when they tour, you have a reason to explore places you've never been to - or never heard of. When I find some face-value pit tickets for Springsteen's Horsens show, I have to look up which country Horsens is in. I haven't even heard of nearby Aarhus, second largest city in Denmark. If it wasn't for Springsteen I'd probably never have travelled to these places; they now hold almost sacred status in my mind.

Because before I know it I'm on a plane to Billund Airport: bewildered at a bus stop in the middle of rural Denmark: then stood in the car park of CASA Arena Horsens with a cluster of European Springsteen fans, feeling completely at home.

What I want to write about, though, is not the Springsteen show itself, but the bits in between: the glimpses of Horsens the trip necessitated, the insight into Danish life away from hip cool Copenhagen.

Tiredness hits almost immediately after retrieving our Springsteen pit queue numbers. Rather than hang about the portaloos, trucks and creased grass of the arena, ready for the next roll call, we head back over the hill into the centre of Horsens. It takes a while to track down a coffee shop that isn't attached to a hotel or restaurant. Those hip, subway-tiled, Edison-lightbulbed coffee shops dotted around Copenhagen don't much exist in these smaller towns. There is one place, Kaffe Brød & Co, though without the hipster population of a city, the clientele here are a confused mix of teenagers and pensioners. More importantly, however, it offers good, strong coffee and big chairs to nap in.

Near the cafe sits Torvet, the town's main square. A sun trap most of the day, this space is overlooked by the giant red brick Vor Frelsers Kirke. An orange bicycle leans against its crannied walls (Denmark is good for aesthetically placed bicycles). The square is wide and quiet, save for the adult-sized musical swings installed in the centre. As you swing, ethereal notes play, and if all five swings move together, they produce this beautiful, slightly ghostly orchestra effect. I can't quite capture how it makes me feel to swing slowly in that quiet sunshine, generating music with every stroke of my legs.

The walk between the arena and the town centre grows familiar over the next twenty-four hours. Much of Horsens is made up of wide suburban streets, almost American in their neat affluence. There are butterflied allotments, small red mailboxes, locals gliding along on bicycles. The arena where Springsteen will play sits at the edge of town. Here the countryside begins abruptly: haystacks, tractors, the fresh smell of soil.

Later we stand outside the swimming pool next to the arena. We're sweaty and tired, and suddenly nothing's more appealing than the turquoise water within. Half an hour later we're floating in it, like starfish, watching the sun dance along the ceiling.

That evening, the 9pm roll call is marked by a blazing sunset. Nothing in the air but golden light and the giddiness of Springsteen fans the night before a show. A caravan, painted all over with flags and band names and stars, booms Bruce out of a pair of speakers. As Born To Run plays we walk down the street towards the station, the sun so low and dazzling in the sky. I've never felt happier.

8am the morning of the show; rush hour, but there's no such thing in rural Denmark. The train from Aarhus to Horsens is cool and quiet. A red bandana is tied round my wrist and I have a handmade cardboard sign tucked under my arm. My heart is jumping. I want to be forever in this moment: sweeping through sunlit fields, on my way to a Springsteen show.

Between morning roll calls we walk the streets of Horsens, stocking up on sugar and caffeine. The warm hush of the morning gives way to heat and noise as the streets fill with sweaty faces. Springsteen's music plays from parked cars and moving vans, from shops and from huge black speakers set up on the pavement. It's like I've wandered into a dream world where the sun always shines and everybody else loves Springsteen too.

Queueing in the afternoon, though, the heat becomes overwhelming. There's temporary respite in a nearby field, listening as the breeze carries the saxophone strains of the arena's soundcheck. A Danish dog walker finds us dozing in the grass. She says hej, and many other things in Danish, the only two words of which I understand are 'Bruce Springsteen'. I nod enthusiastically. It's a mark of how unusual a venue it is for Springsteen; not a cosmopolitan city but a place where locals are faintly bemused by this American rockstar landing in their quiet town.

And then the interminably long three hours before the show. Standing in line in the heat, anxious to secure a spot in the front row, beads of sweat rolling down our backs, striking up conversation with Bruce fans from around the world. A guy from Dublin on his own. A girl from Scotland (I saw her at the Glasgow show too, and will bump into her in September in Philly). A Danish family. The mother plaits her daughter's translucently blonde hair as they wait. An extremely enthusiastic German fan who produces endless bags of Haribo from his pockets and gleefully talks about his 'Bruce shrine' where he keeps all his pit ribbons and tickets. He ends up a couple of people along from me on the front row, and is the best dancer in the arena.

And then the show itself. I promised I wouldn't go all 'evangelical Springsteen fan', so all I'll say is that it was different, oddly magical, special. I posted something about it on instagram this week:

Every time I listen to the song 'Frankie' (@springsteen's, of course), in the opening riffs I see the hot open fields of Denmark, the bluest sky, early sunlight shining through little glass lanterns. It's an image that's come to define this summer for me. They talk about the 'long hot summer' you get in between school and college in your late teens. I never really allowed myself one though: I spent the weeks in my room, pale, shy, calorie counting, hunched over a laptop. 2016 feels a bit like it's been my belated long hot summer. I've had bare legs since April, I've not seen a drop of rain in two months, I have freckles and farmers tan lines. I've travelled to a few new countries and moved to a new continent. Found spaces that make me happy, or whatever the feeling is that's closest to the opening bars of 'Frankie' and the Horsens sunlight.
A photo posted by Kate (@_katefm) on

And that is where I'll end it. Thank you Horsens, for your bright streets, for the five pastries I ate, for Bruce, for an almost transcendently joyful two days.

'Talk softly tonight, little angel
You make all my dream worlds come true.'

Thursday, September 22


On Monday I catch the bus to the city again. 

The outside slips along: the suburban homes and weed-cracked white pavements (still can’t bring myself to say sidewalk), the wide streams of traffic that splinter through clapboard and eucalyptus, the narrow concrete pillars of the freeway, the Ikea store, and then the water. So linear and reassuring. Stripes of blue and grey like the white venetian blinds that stretch and collapse my windows morning and night. 

The bay bridge’s posts stutter past the bus window and the pale sea silhouettes passengers' heads. Then come the buildings, comforting sentries of the city. The skyscrapers of the Financial District are an emblem of wealth disparity and gentrification, yet they're also a friendly greeting, an invitation in. They are waiting to hug you with their height and their familiar smoky-grey cityishness. 

'Go out into your nows,' our American Poetry professor said to us at the end of his first lecture. 

The same way people need to stand on a cliff and breathe country air, I need that lungful of the city, rows of windows running way up above my head, urban noise billowing about bottom floors, traffic, people, coffee and noodles and exhaust fumes, movement: feeling nestled in now

Monday, September 19

California, month one | in and out of the game

Four weeks ago I moved from London to California. Life here has settled down enough to be able to watch the American sun get swallowed up by dusk and streaky northern fog, and wait for the tiny rainbow lights of the Thai place on the street below to blink awake. Down towards the bay, that great body of water that nods at you from the ends of sloped streets and campus paths, the sky is turquoise and orange. Purple clouds skim up the darkening hillside. Evening falls so fast here.

I live in California now. Misty early mornings, giving way to steady sun every day. (The rainy season will come, I've been told.) I drink iced coffee. I walk to class. I study Whitman and Dickinson, and ecofeminism, and the history of New York City. I'm mocked for my accent. I cling to those words that make me British: quid, lift, module, bin, trainers, trousers, loo, pavement, you're welcome. And then one day I find myself saying elevator, and I feel half-annoyed at letting go of my identity, and half-excited that my identity has started to reach out and grasp this new home.

There are some lines of Whitman's that have taken hold of me. He says,
Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,
Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,
Looks down, is erect, or bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest,
Looking with side-curved head curious what will come next,
Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it. 
Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it. This is exactly how I've been feeling! Because it's as if some random force has picked me up and carried me along the air like a flying carpet, dropping me down in California. I'm not quite sure how I got here, or why. Have I come on holiday by mistake, like Withnail?

I spent the whole summer simultaneously unable to think about nothing but the trip, and unable to think about the trip itself at all. I felt strangely separate to the passing of time. So when I suddenly find myself in Berkeley, I am there and I am not there. A participant and an observer, planning and stalling, active and passive.

For the first two weeks I wander the campus and surrounding streets, looking looking looking, trying to root myself to this new place. It's not that I'm unhappy, or violently homesick, as I've been in the past. The sensation is more like I'm a puff of air, blowing about Berkeley, wisping circles under the sun, lingering in classrooms and cafes and dorm rooms, feeling as if I might blow away again any second. I want to be more substantial, be tied down to the Californian earth. I'm trying to avoid a redwood metaphor here, but when I walk past a cluster of them near the creek on the western side of campus, I have no choice but to stop and watch them stand there, so fixed, so knowing, so comfortable. To stand next to these redwoods gives me a slight sense of connectedness, as if through proximity and osmosis I can absorb some of their physical confidence and belonging.

There are so many little details of this new life I’m already forgetting: the sound of skateboards gliding down my sloped street in the early hours, the homeless guy who says 'hey sis! Like your boots!’ every time I walk by, the stolen jalapeños, the old lady in the college cafe who knows everybody’s order ('no bagel today, Lana?’), the cool of the fog before dawn and after dusk, the campanile striking the hour, the squeak of the road crossings, the broad fresh-bark sweep of campus.

In the bathroom of a Haight coffee shop in my fourth week here I see graffitied the line, ‘in this moment, I am happy with myself’. Most of the time I still have to drop the last two words but I can say that in this moment, I am happy. 

A whole week of happiness, actually. Sitting in fairy-lit bars drinking expensive wine; cuddling dogs; climbing the Sather Tower, hiking hills to sit on a swing and look over the whole of the bay; introducing friends to Frances Ha; catching a bus into the city and roaming the Mission District, where I eat the best burrito and visit the best bookshop. A solo adventure across the whole of the states to Philadelphia to a Springsteen show, the most independent thing I have ever done. Holding Bruce's hand again, being recognised, sort of, by him. Holding his hand. Holding his hand. Dancing in the dark in 38 degree heat with fireworks and the sweat-jewelled faces of new Bruce friends. Realising my deep unshakeable love for eastern US cities. Roaming with friends in hot city heat. Eating chips at 10pm, talking about life. Seeing state after state unfold beneath me on the flight home. Signing up as a volunteer at a radio station and feeling like I never belonged so much. Just happy.

In fact, those plane journeys to and from Philly, alone, free, an entire continent at my feet, exploring the places I've longed to see, and that fleetingly special moment with Springsteen: all this triggers a kind of happiness that I haven't felt in a long, long time. Is this what growing up really feels like? Not stepping into the predictable, dreaded shoes of adulthood, but finally finding a space that makes you feel as happy as you did that time when you were sixteen, lying on your bed after your last GCSE exam, windows wide, soft summer rain outside, Gimme Shelter starting up on the radio, a whole world of promises waiting for you.

I know this happiness won’t last. The winter, though mild, is coming. My tan will fade, the junk food will catch up with me, and the post-Bruce blues will hit (edit: they've hit). I have a paper due and a big big hole in my savings. Laundry to do. Money to earn. Notes to catch up on. Midterms looming. 

'Playing a show brings a tremendous amount of euphoria,' Springsteen said, 'and the danger of it is, there’s always that moment, comes every night, where you think, Hey, man, I’m gonna live forever! You’re feeling all your power. And then you come offstage, and the main thing you realize is "Well, that’s over." Mortality sets back in.' 

Mortality will set back in. But Springsteen’s heading to the west coast in three weeks and his autobiography’s coming out, and I love my classes the same way I love late night hot chips after hours of dancing, i.e. voraciously, and there's time ahead in the radio station music library, thumbing the rows of vinyl, and in San Francisco’s record stores and thrift shops, and there'll be club runs, an election all-nighter, halloween parties, movie nights, another ear piercing, band t-shirts to wear, and a half-marathon to run. 

America makes me feel more 'me' than I ever have. I think about how I was, back home, and I feel like I’ve cast off those chains, that I’ll never go back, and yeah. I’m happy about that.

Songs: month one

Going Away To College  |  Blink 182
Noisy Heaven | Beach Slang
Wheels  |  Restless Heart
Putting My Tomorrows Behind  |  Daniel Norgren
Take It Easy Baby  |  The Animals
Hard Travelin'  |  Woody Guthrie
Trapped  |  Bruce Springsteen
Rock & Roll  |  The Velvet Underground
Sweet Soul Music  |  Arthur Conley
From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)  |  Bruce Springsteen
Gold  |  John Stewart
Driver's Seat  |  Sniff 'n' the Tears
My Sharona  |  The Knack
Domino  |  Van Morrison
Every 1's A Winner  |  Hot Chocolate

Wednesday, September 14

Walk tall

Three years ago I was stuck in a giant, sad, boring rut and had no idea how to get out of it. Then a song called New York City Serenade began to open me up to a wider sense of the world and of myself. This song was partly what got me back to university, back to the city, back to a life. 

This weekend, with time and money I don't have, I travelled 2500 miles from California, where I currently live, to Philadelphia to see Bruce Springsteen play. (That sentence alone would've sounded insane to me three years ago.) And what did he open the show with? New York City Serenade. In that moment, standing there in Philadelphia on my own solo adventure, I realised how much I owe that song, and his music. Eyes suddenly real watery. 

'So walk tall, or baby don't walk at all.' 

And then.

Two songs later Bruce is standing right in front of me. We establish eye contact. And yeah this is a big stretch - lots of other people get to the front multiple times, and he's seen a lot of front row faces over the years - but his eyes flash with this look as if he genuinely recognises me from Glasgow, Denmark, holding his hand in London. It was kind of like that 'hey, look who it is!' face you give close friends you haven't seen in a long time. So he raises his eyebrows at me. I raise mine at him. Then he sticks his hand out, takes mine, and grips it so tight for ages, literally will not let go of it.

It took me all summer to get over Wembley. I'll never get over this. 

This photo is of that moment. 

'Let there be sunshine, let there be rain, let the brokenhearted love again...' 

(Afterwards, the Philadelphian, New Jerseyan and Italian fans around me I'd befriended enfolded me with giant hugs, squeals, handshakes of respect, 'well played'. This is what I love so much. The power of his music to forge a fiercely special community.)

Here's a photo of it.