Why the hum of the city? Snob alert: having lived overseas (exchange students, extended work exchanges), my husband and I were both skeptical about the ability of a short stay in any country to have much effect on people. Spending a year plus living in Paris was life-changing for us. My husband’s one-week college vacation in Mexico? Not so much. We ended up on a short stay in Europe with our kids because of a series of work-related coincidences; I had business in Copenhagen, my husband had business in Paris, the dates of both were flexible, and neither of us wanted to travel without our kids for a week (or stay at home as single parents while the other was away). So we doubled down and booked our trips back to back, spending the money we would almost certainly have spent on two weeks of extra child care, and then some (ugh), to fly our kids along with us.
We arrived in Copenhagen on a Sunday and so the absence of traffic was no surprise. The city was pretty much silent, except for the occasional bus roaring by and the hum of bicycle wheels going by on the pavement. We walked to our rental apartment after taking the train in from the airport because there were no cabs on a Sunday–carrying the two-year-old and our bags and more or less dragging our tired and cranky six-year-old. Thank goodness we’re light packers. The first unwelcome pedestrian surprise was that street lights are timed for bicycles, which meant we ended up with a long wait at every intersection.
On Monday I walked to the hospital. At that point, the absence of traffic WAS a surprise. Even in the middle of rush hour, the sound of the city was something close to… silence. I saw a car maybe once every few minutes, except on the busiest streets. Even then they were hugely outnumbered by bicycles. In San Francisco we live on the university campus, right on top of the hospital, and when we moved in getting used to the noise was challenging. All night long there are ambulances, all day long there is shuttle bus and Muni traffic, plus the usual garbage trucks, delivery trucks and the every day collection of people driving to work. Virtually everyone drives to the hospital–we drove there when I was in labor. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time. But in Copenhagen there were basically no cars on the roads. The hospital parking lot had space for about 12 of them. And what I heard walking there was all the sounds of a city that are normally drowned out by the roar of engines. Sure, there were bicycles, bicycles, bicycles, but they are so quiet that we spent our first few days nearly jumping out of our skins when cyclists appeared out of nowhere, not really, but that’s how it seemed. We weren’t listening for the low whirr of wheels on the pavement. Now that I know to listen for the sounds of the city, I hear them in San Francisco, when traffic dies down or on quiet streets: people talking, the clink of glasses in cafes, the sounds of deliveries coming in at the door. Sounds like these make the city scale down, suddenly, to human level. Without the sounds of cars, a busy pedestrian street in San Francisco is like rural Main Street, but with much better food and more diversity.
So: the hum of the city. Our kids immediately took to the bicycles and tricycles strewn around the apartment courtyard; there was even a mini-box bike. We rented bicycles, and it’s a measure of how different cycling is in Copenhagen that renting bikes with child seats is no big deal, although it takes an extra day to install them. We got on the bikes and suddenly felt like we were a part of the city; everything was accessible. We went to the National Museum, the canals, and the center of the city. We biked out to see the Little Mermaid statue. Our kids nearly spent every minute of the rides screaming “whee!” and pounding on our backs or hugging us, at least until they fell asleep. And we could talk to them the whole time because our bicycles whizzed along at a low hum. We thought that a short stay in Copenhagen wouldn’t change our lives but it did. While we were there, we fell in love with the hum of the city, a sound we’d never really heard before. And we fell in love with bicycles.