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'Rock for Fred'
Roger Smith in Denmark

"You Americans think it’s all very humorous, don’t you?" he says,

Newly arrived, the foreigner feels a between-ness while taking up residence in a strange country. You concentrate on appearances, which are new, and rely on the context of your home country to make sense of them. You are neither here nor there until the mind catches up with the body. It is a pleasant, occasionally exhilarating time, enlivened by novelty and regulated by comparison. It is also a chancy time, even for a foreigner in a country as culturally similar to his homeland as the United States is to Denmark. Consider:
I am walking through the halls of the University of Copenhagen, Amager, on my way to my temporary office and thinking about letters I have received from home and the people who sent them. I am passing by a cafeteria that is entirely open to the hallway. By chance I glance at a large poster on one wall.
I do a double-take. "ROCK FOR FRED!" it says in commanding, hand-painted black letters. I guffaw.
And that is a mistake. The beginning of an incident.

A gangly, hatchet-faced Dane glowers at me from a nearby cafeteria table. He has a tall forehead. The lines of his frown are deep, clean, and perfectly parallel, like a Euclidean diagram.
"You Americans think it’s all very humorous, don’t you?" he says, his English precise and gently lilting. He shifts around to face me square-on, still seated, and by that simple movement alone manages to convey assurance and authority. It is a manner that many Danes of the professional class have, a crisp self-possession that always seems to me a sign of intellectual clarity and sophistication. It intimidates.
"It is humorous to you because you think the next war, like the last ones, will be in Europe, and you think therefore that you will be safe. That attitude"—he slashes sideways with his hand—"is nothing worth."
He is older than the students sitting by him at the table, probably a lecturer. The rest match his outrage, glaring over the remains of their lunch, plates that held open-faced sandwiches—smørrebrod—and glasses that held tepid beer. One of them says something that sounds like "arrogant prick" in Danish.

I truly haven’t the slightest idea what they are angry about. I must look it, too, because the leader snorts and turns away in disgust. I am a hopeless case to them. Another student says, in Danish, confident that an American won’t understand, "Just like the Russians, either too stupid to know what’s happening or they think it’s all a big game." It is a young woman who says it. She glances at me. She is so pretty it is humbling: lucid blue eyes, blonde hair in a long French braid, delicate features, skin as blemish-free as new snow, and her regard as cold.

I don’t know them. I don’t know many people at the university other than a few students and faculty members at the Medieval Centre, where I have my office and a lot of time. One month into my Danish Year, I still socialize little. My advisor has introduced me around, people are friendly enough, I immediately forget most of their names, and they leave me alone to my studies by and large. But even to those I have not met, I am known: The American at the Medieval Centre, a kind of chimera. A too-large man from another continent studying Viking ships from the distant past of northern Europe.
I look again at the poster and realize my mistake.

It was useless to explain to them, back then in 1985, and so although I felt the urge to, I didn’t try. Americans were not particularly popular. But even if we had been well liked, the gaffe was beyond recall. I suspected that at once, instinctively. It took my entire year in Denmark really to understand why.
The mistake, in fact, takes a good deal of explaining. A week before, I had been watching my landlady’s television. It received four stations, two Danish and two Swedish. Browsing through the channels was a perverse delight because the stations broadcast American series. For all the Scandinavian disdain about American culture, Dallas and The Cosby Show were widely popular, and so were a few others. Whenever I felt daunted by Denmark, a quick look at an American sitcom, cumbersomely subtitled in Danish, was anodyne.

I was switching from one channel to another when I stumbled upon a broadcast of The Flintstones. It was a half-hour cartoon show that I knew well from my boyhood. The Flintstones are a comic version of the American family—man, wife, older daughter, younger son, dog, cat—like many TV families of its era, the early 1960s. Only, the setting is a Hollywood version of the Stone Age. The hero is a Jackie Gleason-like character, blustery, hapless, and good-hearted, named Fred Flintstone, who wears a ragged leopard skin and works in a quarry operating a dinosaur that lifts rocks like a steam shovel. It is all simple time-displacement; the humor is pure Eisenhower America, right down to drive-ins and bowling leagues. I watched the episode through, a pre-Vietnam American child once again.

So, given that TV show, recently seen, and the poster, read in passing with half my attention, and the product was spontaneous delight. I took ROCK FOR FRED as a reference to the Flintstones. Unlikely? Yes, too. I was after all at the premier Danish university, where culture was pitched higher than prelapsarian American animated sitcoms. Nevertheless, out of inattention and a penchant for puns, I interpreted ROCK to mean both stone and popular music and FRED to be a whimsical excuse for a concert, certainly of American music, probably of ‘60s vintage. All this occurred to me in a flash, and then came my laugh and the Danes’ disapproval.

I was half-right about "ROCK." It referred to an upcoming concert. FRED was another matter entirely. It is the Danish word for peace. So the sign said: Rock for peace. The concert was to protest the introduction into Western Europe of American Pershing II medium-range missiles with nuclear warheads, under the auspices of NATO. President Reagan wanted to counter a threat from Russian weapons, introduced into Eastern Europe under the auspices of the Warsaw Pact. Danish students were more worried about the missiles than about superpower strategy, and the concert was one of many attempts to say that in the Danish way—with lots of music, eating, speechifying, and drinking.

To the lecturer and students at the cafeteria table, I was sneering at the national anti-nuke movement. This was a very serious matter, a point of national pride. By voter demand, no atomic power plants were allowed. A plebiscite had turned out overwhelmingly against atomic power. Even the atomic power plant across the strait in Malmø, Sweden, attracted such constant Danish criticism that the Swedes were promising to shut it down. The Danes did not have nuclear weapons either, of course, and were extremely touchy with their putative military allies about them. The month before, the USS Iowa, an immense battleship rumored to carry nukes, sailed into Copenhagen harbor. There was loud popular disapproval in the form of protest rallies, including one hosted by Grandmothers for Peace. Iowa’s captain made matters worse by refusing to admit or deny there were nukes aboard and implied it was none of the Danes’ business anyway. Moreover, the ship arrived at a bad time. President Reagan had just sent bombers to Libya to punish Col. Qaddafi for supporting terrorists. The bombing was decried in Denmark: More American militarism. Our stock was low.

So there was no explaining my delight in an accidental inanity. To Danes, American intellectuals were superficial and invincibly naive. It was hardly the time to reveal us to be silly as well.
The incident embarrassed me. But it annoyed me, too. Educated Danes had an astonishing naïveté of their own about the United States. It came via their furtive love of our pop culture—Dallas was the most watched show in the land, although called Dollars. Yet the misconceptions went beyond TV shows. Once a historian, a University of Copenhagen MA, asked me in earnest if I carried a pistol for protection against Indians when I was back home in the West. Another time, a middle-aged woman button-holed me at a party, and I knew I was in for trouble from the outset.
"You Americans," she began. It was the way: generalize, then attack. "You Americans ought to be ashamed at what you do to your coloreds."
I didn’t correct her terminology. She was already a little drunk, I could see, and besides, the distinctions among colored, Negro, black, Afro-American, African American, and person of color were lost on Danes. Instead, I pointed out that the US ambassador to Denmark was black. "He is?" She blinked, suspicious. "No, coloreds are poor and uneducated."
"What about Muhammad Ali?"
"Muhammad Ali, the fighter." I was incredulous to find someone who did not know of him.
"Yes, fighter," she smiled triumphantly.

The poster had much on it other than its headline that I should have noticed. There were, for instance, anti-nuke slogans and the universal symbol of disapproval borrowed from road signs, then more common in Europe than in the United States: the red circle with a no-no line slanting diagonally. There were three circles on the poster. The first enclosed the silhouette of a rocket. The second disapproved of a bomb. The third, of an atom. It was typically Danish to get to the very bottom of things with a single image: disapproval of the atom. That the atom depicted was the model for helium, rather than that for uranium or plutonium, didn’t matter. It was still the bad atom, no matter what. Upstairs in my office, later, the photographs of the Roskilde ship and the Gokstad ship that I had pinned up over my desk and the open book about Christian ship symbolism in patristic literature could not hold my attention. I daydreamed of symbols of my own to add to the poster: a circle with a slash through a neutron—better yet, a quark. Really fundamental. Best of all, a slash-circle of Niels Bohr, the great Danish physicist who helped build the first atomic bombs during World War II.

But the embarrassment would not go away. I had been stumbling into endless opportunities for embarrassment, it seemed, from the very beginning of my fellowship. The Fulbright program was held in great esteem. As one of that year’s Americans, I was on stage; the spotlight was direct and, sometimes, harsh. The director of the Commission for Educational Exchange told me that I was not only a visiting scholar; I was an ambassador of good will. As a scholar I felt like a sham, a mere grad student trying to write a dissertation. As an ambassador, I was a walking gaffe dispenser. I made slips in Danish all the time, eliciting great mirth and condescension. Sometimes I caused anger, as when I called a bus driver busmand instead of buschauffør, the correct job title. He thought I was saying bussemand, "bogey" or "booger," and didn’t like it one bit. I also dressed poorly to the Danish point of view and had incorrect manners. I blew my nose too loudly and had an astonishingly poor grasp of the best English-language writers. I didn’t like warm ale. I hummed at bus stops. Minor things, but they added up.
American, they said. Yeah, so? I said.

I told Kaja, my landlady, about the "rock for fred" incident at dinner that night. I expected her to enjoy it. She often laughed in a motherly way at my blunders in Danish.
It didn’t amuse her at all. She stuck out her lower lip and wagged her head, a gesture elderly Danes seemed to prefer above all others.
"But, Roger, war is not funny." She had experienced war during the Nazi occupation of Denmark. War was personal to her, nothing to joke about.
It was just a silly mistake, I countered, a misconstruing, a bilingual pun, but she wasn’t having it. We both had had wine and akvavit by then, and through the magic of alcohol, she decided with complete assurance that I approved of President Reagan’s military buildup and challenged me to defend it. I pointed out to her that Denmark bought American fighter planes and belonged to NATO. She reminded me I came from the only nation ever to use atomic weapons on an enemy. I reminded her that Bohr had helped make them. Our voices began to rise. There were now more Danish-Americans in the US than Danes in Denmark, I asserted. Name them, she demanded. We had more akvavit.

The poster gave a date for the concert, a Friday afternoon late in October at Copenhagen’s central square, Rådhusplads. I felt obliged to go, an expiation of sorts.
It was a cold, clear fall day. Flags and banners snapped in the breeze gusting in from the Baltic. The square was crowded, and people were in happy motion. Slow, continuous bands of movement passed in front of the stage, which was very wide and crammed with people. People clustering around microphones. People playing guitars, many guitars, and people sitting behind drums and keyboards. The music was British and American, mostly New Wave, and so loud it pulsed through the square and echoed down Frederiksberggade and vanished among the central district’s fashionable shops. It’s amazing how foreign accents soften, even disappear, when people sing. The air rang with English.

Occasionally, a band would break into a golden oldie of the "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" or "Just Give Peace a Chance" type. That, in fact, was about the extent of the afternoon’s message, give peace a chance; be decent, you superpower warmongers. Some of the banners were a bit more strident: Peace Now or Never; Pull Out of NATO; Nej Euroshima (I jotted that one down in case Kaja and I ever argued again about word play and anti-war protests); and good-old Ban the Bomb. But what ruled was bland symbolism and earnestness. There was a feeling of community defined by a cozy "to hell with the US and USSR" sentiment. Everywhere there was the peace symbol—another circle, but this one with three bold lines in it and nothing in the background. During the heyday of the anti-Vietnam War movement, military veterans in my hometown liked to call it the track of the great American chicken. I wondered how long it had been since I’d seen it back home. A decade, at least.

The atmosphere had a strong hippie flavor. Headbands, glad hairiness, a profusion of flat hues, dreamy faces, except that the crowd was overwhelmingly Scandinavian, physically more beautiful and homogenous than an American gathering and smoking and drinking more intensely. That aside, it was as if I were transported back to 1970. I wandered among them, an anonymous cold warrior savoring a sweet nostalgia.
The afternoon grew chillier, the music and milling more aimless, as if the concert had outrun its message. The Danes, who are never far from thoughts of food, began thinking of food. Soon, the pølse carts were doing a brisk trade selling Tuborg ale and the thin, dog-penis-colored sausages that Danes so love, but I noticed a funny thing. The carts’ customers were mostly the older, hippie-ish share of the crowd. The high school- and college-age share was streaming across the boulevard to a Burger King and returning with paper sacks of whoppers, French fries, tater tots, apple pies, and onion rings, clutching shakes and Cokes. Then they sat in loose clumps, many of them wearing jeans and shirts bearing American product names, eating the American-style food, listening to protest songs at a most American type of event, the peace concert, which was convened, in large part, because of U.S. foreign policy. While they rocked for fred.
Only the time was theirs.

© Roger Smith Feb 2004
"Something is rotten in the state of Denmark."
Roger Smith on an impossible word

Hacktreks World Journeys


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