I am three quarters Danish; my mother was born in the tiny fishing village of Karrebeksminde on the coast of the island of Sjaelland (Sealand, if you prefer) in Denmark. Sjaelland is also home to Denmark’s capitol, Copenhagen. My father, as it turns out, was conceived on the high seas as my grandparents immigrated from Denmark to Canada. He was their first child, born in Calgary, Alberta.
My parents met in Vancouver and were considered rather old when they had me; my father was 35 and my mother 37. As a result, I was an only child, and all through my childhood I heard about Denmark. My parents both had Danish friends, so I remember visits between them, fat cigars smouldering, Danish delicacies like festsuppe and vienerbrod (translated literally as “feast soup” and Vienna bread or Danish pastry), and at Christmas, little Danish flags everywhere. I remember visiting the Danish Lutheran Church in Vancouver, where I had been baptised, and its red roof and model ship hanging from the rafters, a site in pretty much every Danish Lutheran church, and I recall attending the Danish Bazaar in the church’s basement every year. My first words were a mishmash of Danish and English, and my mother loved to brag to her family back in Denmark that I spoke that language. I found out years later that my Danish was actually pretty much a hybrid between the two languages and my grammar was all wrong, but as a child it seemed perfectly natural to me to converse in either language. When I first went to school, I remember being given a spelling test and asked to spell the word “milk”, which I dutifully spelled “melk” because that was the Danish spelling. I was offended to be told that it was wrong. How could it be wrong to spell something correctly in Danish??
Eventually, my Danish was overshadowed by English, although I kept it up in conversation with my parents over the years. In the spring of 1970, my mother’s sister, my Aunt May came to visit us. It was a real adventure for me to have my Aunt May, who spoke a little English but not much, staying with us for a few weeks. We introduced her to Vancouver, where she marvelled at the skyscrapers and mountains, both unheard of in Copenhagen. I loved to tease her at her inability to pronouce English words starting with “th” and “shr” because they came out of her mouth sounding hilarious to me! She good naturedly went along with my teasing and we got along famously. I didn’t know at the time that the reason my Aunt May came to visit was because my mother was dying, and this was their last chance to see each other. When my aunt was preparing to fly back to Denmark, I was upset that my mother wouldn’t let me go with them to the airport, but of course, I know better now.
My parents were planning a trip to Denmark when my mother passed away. In a phone conversation with my Aunt May shortly after my mother’s death, she convinced my father to rebook the trip for the following year, 1973. And so that spring, my father and I flew to Europe, neither of us having been out of North America before. By this time I was 15 and a real teenage brat, but we spent five weeks in the country of our heritage, travelling from Sjaelland to Lolland Falster where my grandparents were born, enjoying Copenhagen, riding bicycles and light trains and buses and visiting with everyone we could on both sides of the family. I was able to see the house that my mother was born and grew up in, the church where my father’s parents were married and the country that I had, up to then, only imagined. I spent my 16th birthday in a pub with my Aunt May and my Dad, which would have been unheard of here in Canada. My Aunt ordered me a pint of beer and after that, I was blitzed!
At a dinner out one evening, we decided to have Chinese food, and I was absolutely entranced listening to the Chinese waiters speak Danish…it was utterly fascinating to me. I was also perturbed to hear the Danes talk about “pizza”…what? There’s no Danish word for pizza? I bought and wore Danish clogs as my father and Aunt May and I wandered the streets of Copenhagen, visited the real Little Mermaid and enjoyed the sites and sounds. There were beautiful castles, cobbled streets, fairgrounds, a depth of history I could barely grasp, great food and wonderful people. When I said goodbye to my Aunt May, I was sure I would be back again some day.
As it turns out, I have not been there since, and I recently found out that my Aunt May passed away just before Christmas 2009 at the age of 95. Many times I have had dreams about being there or flying there, but life has always found a way of distracted me from actually going. I have kept in touch with some of my cousins, and every now and then I think about and talk about going back, perhaps with one or both of my daughters. In the meantime, every Christmas I put Danish flags on our Christmas tree, and once every year or two I hold a smorgasborg for my good friends with traditional Danish food and lots of beer and schnapps.
My father remarried a couple of years after my mother passed away, and I inherited an unusually blended family of Danish and Chinese. My brother, who looks more Chinese than caucasian, was told as a child by his Danish grandmother “Never forget that you’re a Viking!” I smile, imagining this little boy who always indentified more with his Chinese roots hearing that from his grandmother. I often tease him that I’m going to bring out the Dane in him, but I have yet to succeed :-).
In the meantime I’ve never forgotten my Danish roots, and although my mother worked very hard at speaking English without an accent and becoming a Canadian, I’m happy that she and my father gave me such a wonderful, rich culture to celebrate.
Godt Nytaar means Happy New Year.
To all of my readers, here’s to a year full of happiness, harmony and good health!