A Frenchman in the Cold North

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Photo credit: Torben Eskerod, Kongehuset

Prince Henrik, who passed away yesterday, was a dividing figure, as well as a unifying one. He was ahead of his time and opened Denmark to the world before we were ready for it.

A French noble and diplomat, he came to Denmark from France in 1967 to marry Crown Princess Margrethe, renouncing his career, nationality, and religion, and even changing his name from Henri to Henrik.

Clearly in love with the popular and soon-to-be-queen Margrethe, his eccentricity was well-received at first. But despite his sincere efforts to become Danish, in the public eye he remained, to his death, different.

A man of the world

He was cosmopolitan and well-educated, with a degree from Sorbonne and a budding career in the French Foreign Service.

He had spent his childhood in Vietnam, had a passion for East Asia in general, and spoke Mandarin. While on many people’s radar today, Asia was far away back then.

He unashamedly enjoyed life, the arts, food and wine in a manner perhaps uncommon in Denmark in the 70’s. Also that has changed, with the Copenhagen dining scene among the best in the world, and indulgence a national pastime.

For these things, and for his work as ambassador for Danish business and cultural interests, he was celebrated by politicians, the business community, and international relations.

Don’t stand out

In the gossip magazines, however, these things were ignored, or even seen as a liability. In little Denmark, equality rules, and you’re not supposed to stand out. To the masses, he primarily rode on the popularity of his wife, children, and grandchildren, and challenging the glossy image did not go down well.

Henrik was also traditional in his views on family, and never came to terms with his role. Which, in all fairness was never defined. As the first-ever prince consort in Denmark, he was expected to support his wife the Queen, but it was his own nightmare to consolidate that with his role as husband and father.

Most fatally, however, he never shed his accent, notwithstanding his sincere efforts to integrate, and his foreign language skills in general. Prince Henrik himself has admitted this regret, that he did not learn to speak Danish better, and more quickly.

Assimilation, not integration

This illuminates an important, and sad, point about Denmark. Despite our own language skills, to really become one of us you need to master the language perfectly. Which is not exactly easy. Any hint of an accent, and we’ll forever think of you as coming from somewhere else. Perhaps it is our smallness which makes us feel threatened by outsiders and defend the well-known. Or perhaps it is our social democratic culture and tall-poppy syndrome (jantelov) which seeks to cut down anything different, whatever the reason.

The obituaries for Prince Henrik are rightfully positive, lauding the man’s efforts, but all commenting on the fact that he was both loved and criticized by the people he tried to serve.

In the public debate in Denmark there is much talk of integration of immigrants. But if Prince Henrik is any measure – and mind you, he came into privilege, starting on a wave of popularity – what we want is not integration, but assimilation.

Prince Henrik died in peace, surrounded by family, and the press had backed down on their criticism of him after the announcement of dementia last year. But I believe it’s morbid stroke of luck that he did not survive his wife: had the Queen been the first to die it would have made his role even more difficult.

Rest in Peace, Prince Henrik.

The Road to Norway

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Saying a final farewell to my Grandmother this week was also a final closing of a chapter. And it was a journey of mourning to a destination that used to be filled with joy.

There are many ways you can travel from Denmark to Norway. And being half Norwegian, I have tried most of them growing up, as we would visit my maternal grandparents for summer and Christmas holidays, and more.

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I have flown to Fornebu, and later Gardermoen Airport. I have twice taken the train from Copenhagen. I have travelled by ferry, Copenhagen-Oslo, Frederikshavn-Oslo, or even Hundested-Sandefjord, where an infamous trip on a ship named Gelting Nord had many of us seasick. On that trip, I would have been younger than my oldest daughter is now. What are the memories that will shape her life?

For me the memory, despite the alternative routes, will primarily be driving on E6, the main road through Sweden from Copenhagen to Oslo. This is our family storytelling, and we have travelled the route often enough to recognize and appreciate the waypoints and notice the changes.

The first section in Sweden would resemble Denmark: flat and uneventful. But before long we would scale the massive Hallandsås, bigger than any hill in Denmark, and with long queues of trucks in the old days before freeway standards.

North of Varberg we would reach the first tunnel: an early harbinger of the mountainous land which was our destination. The number and length of tunnels would intensify as we proceeded north, and has also increased over time. As kids the sport was to hold our breath for the duration of the tunnel.

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There was Gothenburg, the big city we only knew from the freeway: heavy traffic, a tunnel under the river, a high bridge across it, and potentially a pit stop at Burger King.

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There was “the siren in the tree”: a resting area somewhere in Sweden where we once stopped to sleep in the car. During the night there was a break-in at the shop next-door, with police sirens waking us up. We were untouched by the event, but the location became a family landmark.

To pass time, my brother and I would have fun with the place names on the way, such as Mastemyr, Dingle (a giant lived here), Sarpsborg (with an obscure animal called a Sarp featured in its coat of arms), and later the signpost to Åmål (made famous by the Swedish film Fucking Åmål).

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Later, on the very day I obtained my driver’s license, we were on the road again, and my first experience driving without an instructor was somewhere on the E6. Hills were something I had not been trained for.

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As we came closer to our destination, the anticipation would grow: crossing the stunning Svinesund to enter Norway, passing through Oslo, seeing signposts to Drammen, exiting the tunnel near Lier with a view of the city, passing over Drammen, catching the first glimpse through the trees of the house, and driving up the last stretch of gravel to the end of the road and my grandparents’ house.

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It was a wonderful place, with ample opportunities to play inside and outside. But more importantly, it was a place filled with love, warmth, hospitality, generosity, and fun, which my grandparents created for us and for many others.

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The house was sold long ago, a few years after my Grandpa died in 2002. And the final years of my Grandma’s life were such that death came as a blessing. At 97, she had had a long and good life, and will now rest until the grand reunion at the end of time.

The E6 is mostly freeway these days, and while the journey may have lost some of its allure and now its previous primary endpoint, the memory will remain forever in our hearts.

Remembering the secret neighbor

I’m not a boxing fan; in fact, I don’t believe I’ve ever watched a match. But Muhammad Ali, who passed away last Friday, was a household name when I grew up. Not only was he a famous world champion, who had somewhat obscurely changed his name after converting to Islam, he also lived next-door.

Yes, of all the places in the world, Muhammad Ali had chosen to settle after retirement in Berrien Springs, Michigan, a small town of 2,000 people. He moved there in 1986, the same year my father’s academic pursuits brought our family to the very same town.

I never saw or met him myself, and according to media he mostly kept to himself. But just knowing the fact that a world-famous sports champion was living in the neighborhood brought a sense of excitement and awe to us. And as was later been revealed, he provided anonymous support to many local causes.

We moved away, and so did he, leaving Michigan in 2006 for Arizona for health reasons due to his battle with Parkinson’s. But his estate is still there – in fact, it’s just half a mile from my parent’s current home, and we regularly walk past the gates when taking an afternoon stroll. This is a picture I took of his main gate back in 2012.

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Although he made a career hitting people, it is perhaps Ali’s legacy of peace that stands out the most. His resistance to the draft for Vietnam earned him fame, and a lawsuit. Troubled by xenophobic America, he found solace in religion, standing up for Islam as a religion of peace especially in the tensions following 9/11.

Muhammad Ali will be buried tomorrow in Louisville, Kentucky. May he rest in peace.

Obama: 1, Osama: 0

Osama bin LadenRest in peace, Osama bin Laden. And in death may you find the peace that in life you fought so vigorously against. May God be the judge of your soul, even as your deeds on earth have been judged by Men.

You were number one on the CIA’s most-wanted list even before 9/11, after which, of course you became a household name. The Afghan people suffered from your support for the Taliban regime, but the hunt was prolonged, and even as you managed to stay alive, the Al-Qaeda network was severed, and your influence waned. In the end, it had to come to this, and while the war on terror is not finished, your death is a fatal blow to the survival of your ideas.

As rejoicing broke out in Washington and New York last night, some people questioned: should we be rejoicing the death of a man? While a solemn respect for the dignity of human life – even that of bin Laden – is in order, my answer is yes. We should be rejoicing the end of a regime of terror, just as there was rejoicing at the end of WWII, or when the Berlin Wall came down. Barack Obama said in his address that Osama’s “demise should be welcomed by all who believe in peace and human dignity,” and I agree. In the long run, the world will be a better place for his death.

Thus Obama sums it up: “For over two decades, bin Laden has been Al Qaeda’s leader and symbol, and has continued to plot attacks against our country and our friends and allies. The death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat Al Qaeda.”

Politically, this is great news for Obama. He managed to pull off what George W never achieved, and his credentials as a warrior are thoroughly strengthened. Finally, the U.S. has good news to talk about. While much can happen in a year and a half, this will be remembered on Election Day in 2012.

On the other hand, history has moved on. Killing bin Laden was important, but it was the war of the last decade. The end of Al-Qaeda (if that be the result) also marks the end of terrorism as means for change in the Middle East. The uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, etc., are the new way. Finally, the man on the street is having his say. As Fareed Zakaria points out, America now needs to move from supporting dictatorships to democratic forces in the Middle East, as they have done previously in Asia and Latin America.

Obama also pointed out that “Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader; he was a mass murderer of Muslims.” People everywhere acknowledge that, and they are choosing another way. The death of Bin Laden may not bring peace right away (he still has some supporters left), but is an important milestone, marking a new way forward.