i arrive to find the familiar blue neon “Welcome to Copenhagen” sign nowhere in baggage claim. disappointment is quickly replaced with excitement as i follow the growing noise of Danes, enthusiastic as ever, with their flags waving, shouting to their loved ones as they come through the Udgang. there are no flags for me, but Camilla’s face shows plenty of excitement. she and Lasse came in their new Peugeot to collect me from the airport. instead of the usual crisp Scandinavian air i have been anticipating, the gray sky is muggy and warm. their apartment is typisk Dansk: whitewashed pine floors, white walls, glorious crown molding, tiny appliances, square light switches, a mix of antique and modern furniture. it is on the third floor, which means you go up four flights of stairs. i instantly regret missing my opportunity to come live in a Copenhagen apartment. we relax and talk, have dinner, and go out in what has now become a steady rain. it is cool, but not cold, and i don’t mind getting wet as i walk the narrows of old apartment buildings and rows of secured bicycles. after i use their single shower, which is a corner no bigger than a small toilet stall, i climb under the dyne and sleep hard, until 5 am when the sun creeps in. a massive chorus of birds is in full force, singing loud constant urgencies for those still slumbering. it isn’t long before i hear the bells from the church steeple across the street. an ambulance goes by, and instead of the familiar BA-Bu BA-Bu, i hear the wail of a typical american siren. Camilla informs me, this is standard now. had i known i might not hear it again, i would have tried to record it.
It had been five years since I was last in the homeland of my ancestors. The time of year when the weeks confuse spring and summer, caught between the seasons, is when I got on a plane, left my husband and children behind to spend twelve days with my mother in Denmark. Since I could crawl, my mother instilled her native tongue and country into my own identity– one of Viking heritage, of belonging to an ancient kingdom and flag. Our pasts are deeply rooted in it, yet we spend our present caught in a foreign way of life. This trip was a way for us to reconnect with ourselves, with each other, with this tiny country of water and islands, and with those we love who still reside there.
I needed to feel alive. Something deep in me was hungry for a change I couldn’t quite grasp. I prepared for an adventure in which I would record my journey, my transformation, the sights, sounds and smells of this country I call my second home. The struggle was not in capturing the daily events or emotional thoughts. How does one preserve the details? Danish words whose meanings easily conjure physical senses, yet translate with difficulty. These are finite sensations one cannot know without firsthand experience.
When Mormor was alive we would stay at her home on Snerlevej 29, where my mother and her siblings had grown up. My favorite thing about this house was the staircase which led from the lower basement level to the main floor. It was narrow, steep, and the top curved to the right, the door leading to something wonderful. The front of each step flaunted a different color, and the walls were wallpapered in deep red. This was the only place throughout my childhood that remained a consistent home. A new family lives there now, and they have completely remodeled it into a modern Scandinavian structure.
Still, I find wonder in the architecture and landscape throughout this tiny country. My best friend Camilla and her husband Lasse live in the heart of the city, where castles and church steeples rise above the apartment buildings as the narrow streets crawl with bicyclists, tiny station wagons, and parents pushing prams. I long to pick up a Danish house and replace my current one with it.
Kilometers away from the capital, yet only a few meters from the ocean is the family summer house, built in the 1920s. Røsnæs is not just a peninsula, but an identity. The sand is a mix of fine and coarse grain, tiny bright orange shells, sea glass and stones. Often the waves lap gently, quietly; but occasionally they have come as high as the roof of the boathouse. The pheasants honk early morning greetings, the cuckoo tells us from the trees it’s time for afternoon coffee, and the doves coo the evening hours away. The sun sets into the ocean in the North Northwest, and on the longest summer nights, you can catch a glimpse of light across the horizon until dawn. The nightingale's melodies remind me that I never tire of being in this hyggelige place.
There is great contrast between the farming villages with kilometers of rolling fields and kæmpehøje marking the Viking graves, and the grandiose cathedrals that litter the land. It is a fairytale kingdom, where a girl sweeps cinder from her thatched roof cottage, and a breathtaking domkirke hosts the crypts of royalty. I am a giddy child, with each cottage like a story I want to hear again and again. I long to ride the horse in the field and sip fresh milk from the dairyman’s cow. When I step inside Grundtvigskirken, my chest tightens, the stillness echoes off the gold bricks, more bricks that any other church in the world. Taking photographs provides inadequate sense of scale, and the reverence is impossible to capture. It is fantastisk. I am minuscule, yet overcome with intense significance in this sanctuary.
There are bakeries on every corner, delighting the nose and tastebuds. In the early mornings, when the jet lag has yet to wear off, we would walk to the Kongelige Bageri, returning with hot, fresh boller and pastry. Even now, when I wake up early to walk my dog, the air feels the same as those Danish mornings, as though I can close my eyes and transport myself to Snerlevej to hear the solsort sing its distinctive song.
There has always been magic to me here, in the buildings, people, food. The passion for the Danish culture flows through my veins as though the sea itself were in my blood; yet it seems impossible to capture the intonation of the language, the taste of fresh pastry, marzipan, and soft is, the smell of my Mormor’s dank basement, and the sound of the ocean. It doesn’t matter that this is my thirteenth visit. I experience each moment as though it’s my first, yet it all is as familiar to me as drawing breath. If you saw me sitting on the train, you might think I live here.
For the first time in nearly thirty years, my time in Denmark ended with a sense, not of going home, but of leaving it. The vast cavern of my soul is the Dane in me, longing for fulfillment. I have discovered that in all the details, from the buildings to bird songs, from my childhood friends and family to the food, I have been created by the collision of two cultures. Capturing its essence requires more than paper and pen.
as the airplane rises quickly into the blue, i watch the land and its shape, the towns and water, so much water. we approach the west coast of Sjælland, and as i strain to see where Røsnæs should be, the tears force themselves from my soul to my eyes. i cry uncontrollably as i think of leaving those i had spent so little time with, longing for more. the sensations that have permeated my clothes are dissipating as we reach altitude and all i can think is, i don’t want to go, i don’t want to leave. there is an empty feeling, as if that part of my soul that had come alive, is being left behind.