It’s been four years since I lived in Aarhus. In June of 2014, I packed up my dorm room, tied my suitcase to my bike, and started the next chapter of my life in Hamburg. Since then I’ve only been back twice, primarily to visit the few remaining friends I have in Denmark, but also to take a trip down memory lane.
Sandwiched between a canceled train journey and a grueling 7-hour bus ride, I spent just over 24 hours in Aarhus last weekend. It was Pride Weekend, and my Danish friends who have since moved away from Aarhus were back in town to see the parade. I jumped at the opportunity to see them again in one place and booked a train north.
Old Friends at Aarhus Pride
After wandering around the city, following the music and trying to intercept the Pride Parade, I finally found a good vantage point at a street corner. Watching the parade, I felt a tap on my shoulder. The smiling face of Torben, one of my closest Danish friends, greeted me.
Close behind was his wife, Katrin, and their three-year-old son. When we met in Aarhus, Katrin was his girlfriend, she had become pregnant during the time I lived there, and they were to be married the following summer. All of us were students. Now their little family lived in a small town half an hour by car outside of the city, Torben and I have grown-up jobs, and Katrin has just finished her studies and is on the job hunt, which she’d postponed due to maternity. Things change.
But some things don’t. Within minutes, Torben had me belly-laughing at his jokes, his antics with his son, and his funny turns of phrase when speaking English. I remembered why we became friends.
I remembered attending Aarhus Pride once before and it being a low-key affair. This time the parade was nothing to sneeze at. For more than an hour, festive figures made their way through the winding streets of the inner city, dancing to music and marching to the beat of a few different drum corps. Dozens of clubs and organizations were represented: LGBTQ Youth, diversity organizations, women’s organizations, trans women, drag queens, fetishists, the like. A highlight near the beginning was a group of Samba dancers, dressed in colorful (and revealing!) costumes, complete with feather headdresses and bird tails.
The parade concluded at Officerpladsen, a large grassy area near the city hall. Food trucks were selling their wares in a parking lot and tents were set up representing various political parties, clubs, and organizations. Torben’s son had a blast at the bouncy castle, doing arts and crafts, and getting his face painted. Walking between the tents, I ran into Søren, an old acquaintance I hadn’t seen for four years.
The (in)official pride after party
A mutual friend of Torben and I organized a Pride afterparty at his house at the edge of the city. Our entire friends circle was there, plus some family members too. I had an absolutely fabulous time with everybody, socializing, eating, and drinking. We snacked on fresh strawberries and raspberries before dinner, and had a wonderful, mostly-vegetarian grilled dinner outside: vegetable skewers, veggie sausages, pasta salad, bread and butter, kale salad, and chicken skewers made up our dinner. I was pleasantly surprised, since I remembered vegetarian food in Aarhus being hard to find and Danes being heavy meat eaters. Indeed, walking around the city the next day, I saw a surprising number of cafes advertising vegansk food, and even the fast food chains had introduced veggie burgers.
When it got dark, we lit a campfire, and continued socializing until the sky was just starting to turn to twilight again – only about 3 or 4 in the morning, this far north of the Equator in June. With these people who I’d barely seen in the past four years, I felt an incredible sense of kinship, and hygge.
An Aarhus Walking Tour and a Trip Down Memory Lane
Torben dropped me off in the city early the next morning, and I killed time by walking around.
We drove past Moesgaard Beach, where I took a little bike tour to once on a gray and cloudy day – it was sunny and bright on this morning.
We drove past my old dorm, and I recognized the bicycle shed and the little balconies we used to store our crates of beer on.
We drove along the achingly-familiar street Frederiksgade, which I drove on nearly every day on my way to university, and past the central train station, where I’d go shopping at an Asian supermarket and try to connect to the free WiFi from a nearby hotel whenever the bus was stopped at a red light.
I walked down to Godsbanen, a former train-station-turned-cultural-center which had been one of my favorite spots while I lived there.
I was shocked to see that the entire Institute for X was gone, replaced by a giant construction site where they were building an architecture school. I looked in vain for the graffiti-covered shipping containers and little plywood DIY buildings, but they were gone. I checked the Facebook page of my favorite little techno club there, Double Rainbow. It had been closed since 2017. The greenhouse for a community garden I’d just started volunteering at before I left the city was being used for storage. There were things I didn’t recognize.
But there were new things as well, and some of the old things had stayed the same. Radar Club, where I attended a burlesque show in 2014, still stood. And there was a small cafe which, according to the sign on the door, was only open one day a week. I’m sure there were more hidden treasures behind the brick walls, and around corners I didn’t explore, but they were unfamiliar and lost on me.
I walked by Aros, the art museum, topped by its famous circular exhibit “Your Rainbow Panorama.”
I walked downtown, through the shopping streets, past the stores with their fast fashion and their Danish designs – furniture that looked like it was from IKEA, blankets in muted pastel colors, candles in jars, leafy green plants of all shapes and sizes.
I had brunch with a lovely American family, who I’d recently met in Hamburg and happened to be in Aarhus at the same time as me, and had a great conversation about Germany versus Denmark, wind energy (the father worked at Siemens), and living and raising a family as an American living abroad.
I walked down to the harbor, at the mechanical engineering college where I once went to a party at a Friday Bar, and saw the boats and the cranes and the containers.
I saw Aarhus ∅, which means Aarhus East, the city’s newest neighborhood – an inaccessible jungle of construction sites and bland, modern apartments, which had neither a tram stop or a supermarket yet.
I saw Dokk1, a space which is “redefining the concept of a library.” None of it had been there when I left.
Aarhus: a city of impermanence
I was struck a bit by the discontinuity of it all. In Aarhus, projects are started and then they die out. The organizers leave the city, they get involved in other hobbies, they simply lose interest. When I left in 2015, the city was gearing up to be a European Capital of Culture, and was investing in arts and culture, and trying to make the city more international-friendly. Now, former art exhibits and performing arts centers are abandoned throughout the city, some standing as ruins, a testament to what was, while others are swept away with the wave of gentrification that comes with the housing boom.
Not that I blame the city for building more living spaces – Aarhus has a housing crisis, and centrally-located apartments are hard to come by. Still, without robust government policies to subsidize and make housing affordable for the low earners, the new neighborhoods will be doomed to become a playground for the rich, a novel new community to live in, without doing anything to support those who already struggle to access housing.
So what are my thoughts on Aarhus? No matter how much Danes insist it’s “the world’s smallest big city,” to me it will always be a small town: small enough to walk and bike everywhere, small enough to start projects, small enough to learn your way around the city and make a few friends in 10 months… but too small to continue projects, too small to warrant a robust public transit infrastructure, and too small to house all of the people who want to live there. For a city of its size, it has a decent amount of cultural offerings, but even those tend to come and go in waves, with projects coming to life and then dying again as their founders move through the city. Would I move back? Probably not – I found it too hard to make friends, and too lonely without a large group of friends. But will I continue to visit, and see the Danish friends I still have? You bet.