Paul Andersen: A native son returns to Denmark
I studied the faces of the Danes we met in search of something familiar. I listened to their voices for recognition of sounds from my childhood. I explored the varied landscapes — the forests, shores and farm fields — searching for places of my genetic origins.
All of my grandparents were born in Denmark and immigrated to the U.S. a century ago. This makes me an anomaly in the melting pot of American homogeneity. As a second-generation American, I know where my people are from.
Bicycling through Denmark in June with my son, Tait, was a powerful way to feel the connection to a distant island nation that I have loved all my life. Growing up in a Danish household, anything Danish was celebrated, including the guttural sounds of the foreign tongue my parents spoke when they had secrets to share.
In the small, neat city of Frederikshavn at Denmark’s northern tip, the quaint red brick houses felt like home. The house I grew up in was red brick. It was designed in Danish style by my architect father and built by my contractor grandfather.
From north to south, Tait and I followed designated national bike trails that are beautifully planned. The Old Military Road we chose straddles “the spine of Denmark” 500 kilometers south to the German border. We discovered that Denmark is anything but flat.
We rode across farm fields hip-high with wheat, past small villages and even smaller settlements. We negotiated single-tracks through primeval forests of towering trees that formed dense green canopies.
I was reminded of my mother in the crouching stance of a woman bending to her garden. My mother’s lush gardens during my childhood reflected the pride most Danes show for their green thumbs.
They do the work themselves because hiring it out would not fit the Danish model of self-expression through horticulture. The Danes create their own beauty, each home or farm exhibiting beautiful floral designs as a statement of fecundity and loving labor.
At an ancient Viking burial site I felt a link to the ancient past where my warrior ancestors rest beneath large earth mounds. At another site, vertical stones stand watch over the graves of Vikings whose conquests spanned Europe, whose navigation reached across the seas to the New World, whose explorations followed waterways all the way to Russia.
I wonder if my forebears were among the earliest Scandinavians who followed the reindeer north millennia ago as the glaciers retreated into the dark winters and brilliant summers of the high latitudes. I feel rooted to this long ago human migration.
How far does genetic memory go? Can I remember the kin of my bone, my flesh, my blood? I stand on my ancestors’ shoulders and survey their world through my own lens, a child of the far north transplanted to the desert Southwest.
I look at the fine farming land where every inch produces a crop, and know that the best lands were already taken when my grandparents came of age, forcing them to leave Denmark and claim their own farms in the black loam of Minnesota.
Tait and I try to pronounce the place names we see on signs, twisting our tongues and challenging our palates to produce the guttural vowels and the rasping consonants familiar to me as a child.
A folk song about a hunter and a crow springs up from my earliest memories with words I haven’t heard in 50 years. “Højt på en gren en krage, Simsaladim bamba saladu saladim …” The verses come back in a refrain that was sung by my mother as she taught my brother, sister and me the words. Memories are selective, and this one stuck.
I stood at the edge of the sea in a deep forest south of Arhus and threw a stone into the water. The ripples radiated across the flat, calm bay. They spread and grew and would eventually touch foreign shores, just the way my ancestors spread and grew from this very shore to the dream that was America.
I am one of those ripples, a traveler returned to the shore from where my bloodline began.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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