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The Dane who, for me, best embodied what I’ve always loved about the Danish was a keen 73 year old grandfather whom I met not in Denmark but in Kenya, at a safari lodge in Masai Mara.
He was traveling with his family, his two brothers and their families, a happy band of 25 siblings and cousins who vacation together annually. From Africa they would fly to the Seychelles for a week of snorkeling. Some of the kids, I noticed, were school age, and it was mid-January. “We take them out of school,” he explained. “My brothers and I decided years ago that if there’s any money left when the three of us die, we’ve done something wrong.”
This conversation took place over drinks one evening before our bush dinner. We stood visiting in the darkening air, as waiters lit candles on tables a few yards away and baboons barked across the Mara River a hundred yards further. He wore an ascot with his tweed jacket, and held a glass of whisky in one hand and an unfiltered cigarette in the other. When he informed me that his family could trace their lineage to the 10th century, I believed him: his blue eyes contained a thousand years’ of Scandinavian fables. I asked about his compatriot, author Karen Blixen, knowing the disdain many Danes have for her. “She was a liar,” he said, “and a terrible snob.”
Blixen was (let’s put it more kindly) a storyteller and a romantic, and I couldn’t help thinking the two had something in common: this man contriving to spend it all before he died, and the author of a story (Babette’s Feast) about a chef who spends a large lottery prize on one sumptuous blowout dinner.
When I think of the Danish I think of mathematicians—and mermaids: twin strains of rationality and romanticism. A predilection to daydream without descending into either madness or listlessness. An independence felt in one’s bones that crosses over to orneriness only under provocation. In the 19th Century, Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen spun a tale involving a child who spoke the truth about a naked emperor, in innocent defiance of both the emperor and the fawning crowd. A hundred years later, while the European crowd cowered at the emperor of the Third Reich, the Danes defiantly transported their Jewish citizens to sanctuary across the water.
In saner times, Danish respect for human dignity manifests itself simply in an appreciation for human proportions. It can be seen in the custom of eating æbleskiver with jam in a serving of three. One of these powdered-sugar treats isn’t enough; more than three and you’re pigging out. Copenhagen restaurants were onto the thing of offering wine by the glass in a range of tasting sizes long before their American counterparts. And the charming scale of Tivoli Gardens is unimaginable in America. (To begin with, it’s in the center of town, with no parking lot.) Danes come to Tivoli on a summer afternoon or evening to ride a boat or enjoy a meal and glass of beer, and listen to some music, before returning to their happy lives. Studies regularly show Denmark to be the world’s happiest country.
Happy and helpful. One morning I went swimming in the Copenhagen canal—at 15 degrees Celsius, only two others were in the water. As I swam past the first, he told me, in Danish, to beware of the stinging jellyfish ahead. The words for stinging jellyfish had been omitted from my language lessons, so I smiled back stupidly, assuming he’d offered a pleasantry along the lines of, “Glad I’m not the only idiot in this frigid water.” The next guy cleared things up, in the fluent English most Danes speak, so tragedy was averted.
I love it when glossy travel magazines ask their readers to name their favorite must-pack travel item. Answers range from the banal (iPod), to the fatuous (cashmere/mink sleep mask), to the clever (Bubble Wrap to bring home fragile souvenirs). My don’t-leave-home-without-em’s are binoculars and earplugs. Binoculars I use from airplane window seats, and, more smugly, at touristy observation towers while everyone else is fishing for change for the pay-as-you-go contraption.
Earplugs were handy when I visited Rosenborg Castle, home to Denmark’s royalty until the early 18th Century. The Crown Regalia are “exhibited in soundproof rooms,” according to my guidebook, whose author obviously wasn’t visiting that day, when a crowd of excited Italians were enjoying the exhibit—and each others’ company—in a manner that was anything but soundproof. Earplugs in place, serenity was restored, and I returned to the game I had invented: selecting a portrait of one of the Danish monarchs and trying to guess who it was (which of the nine King Fredericks or ten King Christians), before allowing myself to peek at the engraved plaque below.
The castle’s lovely mirror room, its hue the soft green of dulled copper, has a dignity of the sensual rather than show-offy type, a quiet aristocratic retreat-within-a-retreat designed to delight rather than impress.
You won’t need a guidebook to learn that Århus is, demographically, the country’s youngest city. Walk a few paces outside the train station, and the flocks of twentysomethings will make you think you’ve happened upon the campus of a university whose only admission requirement is being blond.
Just outside Århus is Moesgård, a museum of Scandinavian history, complete with a reconstructed stave church and the bog-preserved body of the prehistoric Grauballe Man. Under rainy skies, I hiked from Moesgård to the coast, and found a beach with two public lifeguards but no public. Nobody but me. When I asked the temperature of the water, one of the guards pointed to his white board: 16 degrees. I’m an alumnus of UC San Diego, which means I spent five years of my life wearing swimsuits in place of underwear. Still prepared, I stripped down and dove into the chilly waters of the North Sea.
|Later I met up with Californians Aaron Bartleson and his wife, Olympic gold medalist Nathalie Bartleson, who were touring the Baltic capitals, and took in a twilight organ performance of Arvo Pärt's Pari Intervallo at the Århus cathedral, whose gothic tower is the tallest in Denmark.
When visiting those old Lutheran churches which predate the Reformation, I always wonder about the historic moment when the diocese changed from Catholic sovereignty. I imagine a businesslike scene in some 16th Century escrow office in which the bishop, graciously accepting destiny, hands over the cathedral keys to his Protestant counterpart, along with a helpful piece of homeowners’ advice about which brand of furniture polish will best keep the wooden pews looking spiffy. In fact, the Reformation in Denmark included a two-year civil war of succession, known as the Count’s War, before the national church was established in 1536.
A woman I know who did missionary work in Africa for several years says that when the Danes in her community traveled home for a visit, they invariably returned with a supply of Danish flags—little ones on toothpicks—to ensure the party food remained suitably patriotic during their exile.
If I were Danish, I would proudly display a flag, too—not a toothpicky one, but a huge canvas affair, to show the world I’m a citizen of the greatest country on earth.
I guess that’s what makes me American.
© Fredric Hamber March 2010
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