The Glass Door market is the place to be for all local and visiting foodies of Copenhagen. There are food stands from dates-based desserts to Italian kitchen pastries, and organic ice cream to smoothie bowls and Danish traditional smørebrod.
At this Glass Door market, I met a woman who is happy, very happy. A 26 year old Iraqi refugee, mother of two sons and a daughter, grandmother to a newborn baby, and wife to a loving husband.
She had her hair bunched up at the back, twisted, then prompted up to rest on her scalp like a little cocoon pressed against the safety of a fortress with a big hair clip. A casual blue apron wrapped and hugged her waist, tucking beneath its straps a graphic t-shirt you might pick up at a souvenir store at some small town in the middle of a cross country road trip across America. She reminded me of my mother. Being in her vicinity, you can tell she had a sense of purpose maneuvering her way around the approximately 240 square feet kitchen provided for her with her hair pushed up just like how my mother had hers when I used to watch her prepare my lunchbox every morning from the dining hall table.
I walked up to the open fridge that separated me from her, decorated by her wide and colorful variety of Mediterranean food on display: hummus, feta cheese stuffed peppers and olives, sun-dried tomatoes. She tilted her head and looked at her food on display. She then looked back at me with a smile.
She told me her name was Koma, that all the food in this stall is homemade, and that it started as a family business she and her husband had been running for a very long time now. She told me she fled Iraq with her family of four at the time during the latter periods of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Since then, they “migrated everywhere, from Yemen to neighboring countries,” she told me, cocking her head side to side like a metronome with every country she named. Until she landed in Bulgaria. “There, I received a PhD in food science and gastronomy.” Her head stopped moving. She focused her eyes and glanced at all the food she had prepared in the open fridge. Slowly, her cheeks started to crinkle, and she pursed her lips into a smile stretched across the lower half of her face. In Bulgaria, she and her husband started a family restaurant business under the same name as displayed at the Mediterranean food stall. Nine years ago, upon the advent of the Glass Door Market, she was invited here to sell her food. Since then, she has had her third child, and her now family of five runs this food stand together. She didn’t forget to emphasize just how much she loves it.
We talked about her job. She looked up into the air in search of words, as though to grasp onto specific thoughts floating around her head that she wanted to pinpoint exactly in response to my question. “I like serving people, doing service to others, and making people happy. A restaurant business is the best version of this,” she responded slowly. Further, she motioned towards the other stalls, telling me how the Glass Door market didn’t always look like this. It started as a foreign foods market where chefs and gastronomists from all over the world were invited to bring their taste of culture and food to this collective dining hall at the heart of Copenhagen. She said, “It’s changed a lot, now you see a lot more Danish and Nordic food stalls, and that it has become more of a sit-in place to eat rather than a take to-go and eat at home type of place.” I asked her if she enjoys this change, but quickly she bounced her head around and gave me a rather bitter smile. The bitterness gradually faded, and with a warm expression on her face again she told me, “it’s all good now. I’m happy, and my family is still very happy. So I’m very happy.”
Her two sons are now off to college, one studying at the IT University of Copenhagen and another studying to become a mathematics teacher. Her daughter just recently had a baby, “a very cute little one.” Rolling her shoulders in, bringing her palms together in front of her heart, she squeezed them tightly against her chest, before letting out all her energy with a deep, satisfactory sigh.
“You must be so proud!” I told her. She hugged the Tupperware stacked in front of her as though they were her babies, and she nodded ever so meaningfully, with a big motherly smile on her face. With her hair still clipped back, apron around her waist, she simply uttered the word, “happy.”
I told her about how I am studying abroad in Copenhagen, and that I actually am from Tokyo, Japan. With excitement, she responded, “Oh, Japan!” She told me it has been her dream to go there someday, if she ever found the time. Gently, she brought her hands up, sculpting something in the air. “Pink things? Cherry blossoms?” Knowing exactly what she was talking about, I responded with excitement, “Yes! Cherry blossoms! They are beautiful in the Spring.” She smiled. “I want to see them someday,” she told me. She looked off into the distance as though her dream had come true for a split second, and I felt lucky I had the chance to share this moment with her.
Some faces and smiles stick in your memory, like a postage stamp on a letter traveling around the world. Hers was one of them. She smiled with her eyes, her posture, her nose, and her body, the way she held her Tupperware when she spoke of her family. Though she traveled long and far from home, through incomprehensible hardships of life and survival, her love of family and food anchored her soul. The conversations that rose out of them stabilized her life in one place, and in Denmark she found a new home.
By the end of our conversation, we both had big smiles on our faces. I thanked her for her time. Then, she held my hand. Sandwiched between hers, she looked into my eyes and said, “Thank you.” I felt gratitude and harmony wavering both ways. Both of us smiling, both our hearts full, we parted ways. In me, and I assume in her too, we found a greater sense of value and place for our love of food and family, two features in life I can attest have intertwined tremendous lengths to define my identity. I walked away, leaving the Glass Door market with my values reinforced by the woman I met at the Mediterranean food stall.