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 2012. 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.

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Flying to Chicago

Tomorrow night I will celebrate a silver anniversary: crossing the Atlantic Ocean for the 25th time. And no route has more significance than Chicago-Copenhagen (ORD-CPH), a journey that has impacted my life. This is a story with several chapters.

1986 (CPH-AMS-ORD-SBN)
I am six years old and have never before set foot in an airplane. The world as I know it is changing: we are moving to America. I will have to learn a new language and am somewhat worried of the great unknown, but flying is certainly an experience.

We are in KLM business class, sitting on the upper deck of a 747. My brother and I each have a window seat, and are treated to a visit to the cockpit. Security worries were fewer back then.

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Our final destination is not Chicago, but Berrien Springs, Michigan, which will be our home for four years. We are there temporarily, living in a basement apartment for much of the time, but as a child temporary means less. This is our home, and this is in no small measure where I grew up. The city of Chicago is huge, with as many people as our home country, but several hours away – the place we go for school field trips, occasional Christmas shopping, and most importantly the airport, our connection with the old world.

1990 (ORD-AMS-FBU)
I am ten years old. No business class this time, and the flight itself is less memorable. But after four years in Michigan we have been looking forward to returning to our native Denmark, bringing back a larger world-view and amazing memories. My connection to America remains, but the memories begin to fade as I grow older.

1997 (BLL-FRA-ORD)
I am sixteen years and in high school. My parents have gone back to Michigan for a nine-month period, while I remain in Denmark in boarding school.
This trip brings up many feelings, missing my parents an important one of them. Once again there is a fear of the unknown, since I have not travelled alone before. “Landing card – what is that?”

But more than anything else this is a trip of nostalgia. As a teenager, seven years seems a lifetime, and coming back to America also means coming back to a lost childhood. Seeing the Chicago skyline from the airplane (“skyscrapers!”) is something I will never forget. (For some reason, I listened to Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto for the first time during that flight and will forever link this heart-breaking music to that memory.)

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This trip and a consecutive one a few months later rekindle my connection with America, make me feel somehow different from my Danish peers, and also teaches me the pain of distance. A few years later, my parents will move to Australia, settling the fact that long-distance is here to stay.

2010 (CPH-ORD)
Many years have passed, and the third chapter of this story has my parents once again living in Berrien Springs, Michigan. But this time with more permanence, here to work, not study, and with a house of their own. Not very far from where we lived in the 80’s, and with a basement which resembles the apartment which was our home.

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Since then flying has become mainstream and cheaper, and with a direct Copenhagen flight visiting for just a week at a time makes sense. I have also married, and my wife joins me on her first trip to America, enjoying the sights and attractions of rural Michigan in winter (you don’t need more than a week for that).

2014 (CPH-ORD)
Several trips later, this one is different yet again. My first-born daughter is with us on this her first flight, for an extended Christmas vacation. Flying long-haul with a baby is indeed possible, and we manage fairly well, but it’s not quite as relaxing as going by yourself.

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The trip once again brings back memories, and singing “O Come, All Ye Faithful” in my childhood church my daughter on my arm is probably for me the most sentimental one.

2017 (CPH-ORD)
We have come full circle. Now I have two daughters. Flying to Chicago in February means not a lot of other passengers, so the trip itself is easy.

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But this trip is also the definitive end of a chapter. My parents will finally move back to Denmark later this year, which means that I will have no reason to visit Michigan again in the foreseeable future. This prospect by far outweighs any sentiment I may have had to this place. And with the current political climate in the U.S., it is with some relief that I sever the connection for the time being. America has shaped me, and will continue to be a part of my story, but closing the door as others open up is not a bad thing.

About aebelskiver and medisterpolse

So apparently, there’s a little town in Iowa of some 600 people where half the people have Danish roots, and a large part of them celebrate this fact vigorously. Much less known than its Californian counterpart Solvang, Elk Horn, Iowa was featured in a Danish documentary aired last night on DR1.

For all its quirkiness, it was a wonderfully made and very honest film. The old people of Elk Horn think they’re speaking Danish with each other (they are to a degree, but with many broken words and a heavy South Jutland accent). The main staples of the town are aebelskiver and medisterpolse, eaten together for breakfast (which never happens in Denmark, I can tell you that much). And while the film portrayed a town in slow, but gradual decline, the one thing that seemed to tie these people together was their perceived Danishness, their common heritage.

This is normal in America, of course. Since everybody originally came from somewhere else (except the Indians they killed), the link to the old world and, for some people, memories of the Atlantic crossing is a big part of your identity. There is no doubt that the shared heritage plays a large part in tying this community together, as also highlighted by several characters in the film. That’s a good thing. But there are also downsides worth mentioning.

One thing is how quickly a shared memory veers so far from the original that it’s almost impossible to see any resemblance, apart from a few obvious elements (like the flag or the ubiquitous mermaid). The few Danish food items they have chosen to retain or the elements they see as typically Danish are hardly representative, nor are they in any way in tune with the reality of Denmark today. Many of the town dwellers have actually visited Denmark, but we hear two of them talking about what the country is like, based on a visit to Struer (in the rural west) in 1979, as if nothing has changed since then. In Elk Horn, nothing has seemingly changed since the town was first settled in 1901. This is laughable, perhaps, not also quite harmless.

Worse, in my opinion, is the notion of moving to a new place but keeping your feet so firmly planted in the soil you left behind. In Elk Horn’s early days, everybody was Danish, and everyone who was not ended up moving elsewhere. Even today new settlers to the town are quickly asked if they are Danish, and have Danish culture (Elk Horn style) thrust upon them. Is that something to be proud of? Why is it that many Danes are so proud of the Danish enclave of Solvang where a group of immigrants have refused to integrate, when they are so adamant that immigrants to Denmark should shy away from their old culture and adapt that of their surroundings? These people left their homeland for a reason – shouldn’t you be a part of the world you live in?

And the point is that in spite of Elk Horn’s Tivolifest and Danish windmill, these people are actually full bred Americans. Take politics. Iowa is notoriously a swing state, but even so, in the presidential election of 2012 the voters in Elk Horn precinct sided overwhelmingly with Mitt Romney (61% of the 643 votes). Similar figures were the case for House (60% Rep.) and Senate (65% Rep.). You can look this kind of stuff up online. And while it’s just one data point, it’s a pretty clear sign that in terms of real culture and opinions, Elk Horners (?) are probably more American than Danish.

On a personal note, one other thing struck me when watching the film. For although I am Danish, I also grew up in the rural Midwest, in a small town in Michigan. And there were many things I could recognize about this place with an unsettled sense of melancholy. For most purposes, rural towns no longer exist in Denmark. But here in the old American heartland, apparently they do. I do find some comfort in that.

I’ve been reading Bill Bryson lately, who famously began one of his travel books with the phrase “I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to.” Bryson left his childhood home of Iowa and live abroad for many years, but coming back to Iowa, for all its seeming drabness he still felt that he belonged.

In a small town in Iowa, he philosophized: “I was seized with a huge envy for these people and their unassuming lives. It must be wonderful to live in a safe and timeless place, where you know everyone and everyone knows you, and you can all count on each other. I envied them their sense of community, their football games, their bring-and-bake sales, their church socials. And I felt guilty for mocking them. They were good people.” (The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America, 1989, p. 193)

For the people of Elk Horn, I think – and hope – that this passage holds true. Who are we to judge? But do watch the film, if you understand Danish. It’s really good, and you can catch it online here.

Patriot Games

Patriotism fascinates me. Even though for many purposes I am reluctant about the concept of the nation state, there is something to be said about the emotional attachment to your country. And despite postmodernity and globalism this sentiment seems to be alive and well in many places across the globe.

Last week I had the pleasure of experiencing Norway’s Constitution Day in Oslo (17 May) for the first time. Our choir Camerata were welcomed by our friends in Uranienborg Vokalensemble to a day of celebrations and community across boundaries. And to me personally, it was a connection to my heritage that left a lasting, positive impression.

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On other occasions I have curiously and even happily joined in national celebrations in Australia, the United States, Canada and Singapore. Denmark, however, is another matter. We could all agree on 17 May that it is a shame we don’t have anything similar in my home country. There may be good reasons for this, and for my own reluctance.

It is obvious that there are bad types of patriotism. It is not a pretty sight when patriotism devolves into loving your own country as opposed other countries: an excluding nationalism, instead of an including nationalism which embraces differences in the midst of all the unity. E pluribus unum.

This was the message in the church service in Oslo Cathedral on Constitution Day, the keyword being thankfulness. Being thankful for what you have been given, for the deeds of others before you (founding fathers, and previous generations), and turning that thankfulness outwards in embracing others and welcoming them into your community. This was the founding ideal of the United States. It should not, however, be allowed to mutate into fascism. This is a valid fear, and probably part of the reason why Danes are wary of patriotism.

Immigrant countries such as the United States and Australia have a natural head start here, compared to old-world countries. But remembering concepts such as Manifest Destiny, White Australia, or Apartheid, even that seems to be no guarantee.

Going back to Denmark, the Danes have a quirky way of believing our people, country and system to be the best in the world, while at the same time looking down on any explicit exhibition of patriotism. We are too good for that. In fact, better than everyone else. Ironic.

My own rootlessness also plays a part. Regular readers will know of my struggling with identity and continuous reluctance about staying in Denmark. Perhaps it’s easier to love a country that you have actively chosen, instead of one you happen to have been born in. I could definitely connect with my Norwegian heritage last weekend, but I’m sure the novelty will wear off eventually. And by emigrating to another country, would I really find the sense of belonging that is currently lacking? Probably not.

Where, then, to find that sense of belonging? An old gospel song comes to mind: This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through…

Other People’s Lives

We recently spent 25 days in the United States. There are many things you can do while travelling and we do try to put in a certain variety: visiting museums and tourist spots, sampling local foods, going to musical performances, shopping, etc. All on your standard Lonely Planet fare.

But there’s one thing that I think we focus much more on than many other travellers do. And that is the question of: what would it be like to live here?

We happily wander around neighbourhoods like the Upper East Side, Greenwich Village, and Brooklyn Heights (New York), Beacon Hill, Bunker Hill, and the Waterfront (Boston), trying (not always successfully) to look as inconspicuous as possible, wondering what it’s like to be a local.

Sure, other visitors also visit these places, but compared to more touristy spots in the Big Apple, Washington Square Park in the Village seemed positively devoid of outsiders. And I’m sure that at least some travellers occasionally stop to think about the life of the locals. But I suspect that we take it just that one step further and treat is not only as a fleeting thought, but as an opener for a lengthy and semi-serious discussion.

Instead of leaving it at “Oh, this street seems nice,” we’ll venture into “What kind of jobs could we find here,” “What would the commute be like,” “What kind of pay could we get,” and even look at unit prices in the window if we happen to pass by a local real estate agent. This has almost become a pastime of sorts for us, comparing the liveability of towns and cities we visit. We’ve done this in as different locations as Melbourne, Canberra, Darwin, New York, Boston, France, and probably others I’ve forgotten.

So what’s up? We still live in Denmark, and there are no immediate plans to the contrary. But I take it as yet a symptom that I don’t feel as bound to Denmark as my passport might indicate, neither am I completely settled in in my native country. I guess this is the perpetual wanderlust rearing its beautiful head once again.

Sydney is a State of Mind

The summer that never was finally ended. Never mind that last weekend was exceptionally warm for October, setting records all across Europe. When I got up this morning it was much darker than yesterday, colder, and raining. There are still limits to global warming, apparently.

So sitting on the train, watching my umbrella dry, my mind wandered south. To another world, another hemisphere where summer should now be approaching. A world in which rainy days are an exception, where the wind doesn’t threaten to blow you over, where people smile and welcome you, where everything is beautiful year round, where you don’t exclaim “Oh, the sun!” as if it’s a rare visitor. A world of beaches, surfers, barbecues, friendly people, world-class business and dining, kangaroos and koalas, possums and kookaburras. A world down under, but in most ways coming out on top.

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Walking in the dreary Danish autumn twilight, I can smile and think of that other world. I can relish the hope that lives on in a dream which will never die.

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But Australia is not just a dream world. It is for real, and even after many visits and the extended stay of a year the passion never waned. Does that mean the place is perfect? No, of course certain downsides could be mentioned (long travel times to the rest of the world, poor traffic planning, minor xenophobic sentiments), but only the first one is a real discouragement. Too good to be true? I have still not come to that conclusion.

So often, and in so many ways, I still call Australia home. It has been two and a half years since we left, and we are still in the process of settling in as Copenhageners. I wonder if I will ever settle in, or settle down. Is it just wanderlust? Or is it the frustration of having to choose between two countries with no obvious compromise available?

Around Denmark in 48 Hours

On Sunday and Monday I will be part of a rather crazy venture: Travelling around Denmark in 48 hours, stopping in 48 different towns along the way. Flying and driving. Here’s the story.

The Seventh-day Adventist Church (worldwide) has launched a program called “Follow the Bible“. A specially produced multi-lingual Bible (with each of the Bible’s 66 books in a different language) is travelling around the world in 650 days. Two of these days are allocated to tiny Denmark. And instead of just doing one or two events, we decided to copy the world tour, only on a smaller scale. So the Bible will visit every single Adventist Church in Denmark during its two-day visit.

Why are we doing it? Simply put, we want to draw attention to the Bible as the word of God. Hopefully, this event will encourage Christians all over to (re)commit to reading the Bible and sharing it with their friends.

Such a venture demands a heavy logistic effort, a private plane, several sponsored cars, and many hands on deck. My part is largely in communications, updating web sites, writing press releases and so on. So I will join the entourage, armed with wireless internet access, and try to keep people updated on the progress. We will work somewhat in shifts, so I won’t be at all 40 sites. But you may meet me in either of these towns along the way: Hjørring, Østervrå, Jerslev, Aalborg, Randers, Viborg, Silkeborg, Lille Nørlund, Herning, Holstebro, Odense, Svendborg, Nyborg, Slagelse, Faxe, Haslev, Ringsted, Roskilde, Nærum, Copenhagen, Lyngby, Køge, and Holbæk.

Danish readers should follow the event on followthebible.wordpress.com.