Thursday, April 25, 2013

Danish Laughter and Castles

Photos and text copyright 2013

From the castle wall I stare down on Vordingborg harbor.  This town was the capital of Denmark when Shakespeare wrote of a Danish Prince named Hamlet.  And so like Denmark, defined by history, by the past, my life, my past, is entangled in this town's net.
Built without cement, the Goose Tower stands today.
As I walk among the castle ruins, the sun warming my face, the scent of spring crops and wild flowers carried on a breeze, it is hard to imagine the bloody battles that occurred here. Attacked by Swedes and Germans, occupied by the Nazis, all that now stands of the nine towers and 800 meters of wall is a remnant of the outer wall, the moat where ducks paddle about, and the Goose Tower, a medieval tower with a huge goose atop.  Legend says the goose was put there by King Valdemar Atterdag (I have to admire anyone known as ‘Valdemar tomorrow is another day.’) to taunt the Hanseatic League to the south, around 1360.  But the truth is the goose first flew above the tower in 1871. It takes years before the locals will admit the Hanseatic league, who the goose was meant to taunt, came and plundered the golden goose.
So like the battles I imagine here, catapults flinging diseased animal carcasses over the walls, soldiers screaming and fighting with swords and bleeding into muddy puddles, my own memories hack at me with a sword dulled by time. Undoubtedly, as with the battles of old, a woman stood in the eye of my hurricane. And yes, like the castle around me, the battles waged here tore down my defenses, my towers of pride.  Without the battles peace would not taste as sweet.
Scandinavian churches have seen bloody battles.
It is difficult to imagine a more ideal setting, and that is why we chose Vordingborg as a base for our vacation, from which to see the sights.  There is something joyful about diving into the tourist throngs, knowing an island of peace awaits you later in the day.  And that is how we used Vordingborg.  Being refugees from Big City, USA, we wanted to relax and walk along forest paths, sit on quiet beaches not packed with tourists like Disneyland.  We wanted to check our city stress for country simplicity, taking measured day trips to see the sights.  This village was ideal with its little cheese shop and sidewalk cafes, not to mention the fish market at the harbor and walking paths through the forest, where dashing peasant often startled us, and, on pristine mornings, still silent and covered with dew, we were lucky to see a doe leading her foes into the brush.
This is more than a dream vacation.  In my twenties I had been world traveler, living to travel and roaming the world, my playground, picking apples in Switzerland, grapes in France, wintering on a kibbutz.  I sewed my jeans up with dental floss. My back pack became part of me. I could hitch hike across Europe faster than trains could carry me. 
When I met her I tried to change.  You can’t imagine how difficult it was to go from hitch hiking Europe and experiencing new places and people daily, singing at the cars on a Paris onramp, laughing with Ethiopians in an African bar in Cologne, to finding myself in a provincial Danish town, the only foreigner there, working in a factory on a tiny island, staring out at the world through a one foot square window, watching snow cover the fields.  My life, my heart, withered.  Inside I cried to be accepted, to be able to speak to people without a look of amazement coming over their face when they heard their language spoken with an American accent. My Saturday-morning-cartoon-Danish startled so many.
After a few days of seeing the sights in Copenhagen, a city where we found it difficult to find anyone who spoke Danish, we were happy to head south, away from the big city.  Through an online service we rented a little cottage beside Freden’s Skov (Peaceful forest), a short, barefoot walk from the beach. Evenings were spent on a mattress, sipping red wine before the wood-burning stove while shifting out of the corporate office mindset, pretending we could stay forever.

Rhunes for Harold Bluetooth 
Denmark is a small nation of islands. Jutland, the large peninsula that sticks
into the Baltic North of Germany, is the largest land mass. Copenhagen, the capital, is on Zealand, a large island to the east of Jutland, between Germany and Sweden.  On the Southern tip of that island sits Vordingborg. The Danish royal family can trace their blood line back to about the year 1,000 A.D., to Gorm the Old, who sat king over England.  Probably the most famous Danish king is often mentioned today: Harold Blue Tooth.  That’s right; Blue Tooth technology is named after Harold, who united the warring tribes into a kingdom, because of his ability to make diverse factions communicate.  The Blue Tooth logo is the Nordic runes for Harold’s initials.
During long evenings spent laughing and eating with Danish friends, drinking ice cold Aquavit (water of life), called ‘snaps,’ a drink that dates, like so many things in Denmark, back hundreds of years, it often occurred to me how charming and fun loving the Danes are, yet when I looked on a map, I laughed because I could not find a neighboring country they had not fought or conquered.  Was my country now doing the
Generals plan the invasion.
same thing?  Was the U.S.A. still in its angry, rebellious teenager years, as yet innocent of the horrors of war on its own soil? I wondered. Was my country going through the same maturation process I had been through with love?  Did the U.S.A. need to experience the horror of war on its own soil to value peace?  Is that what Denmark had gone through?
Prehistoric burial mound near Vord.
Such thoughts are why I enjoy travel.  It allows me to lift the ‘sunglasses’ of culture and upbringing, and peer at life anew, to perceive new ideas and mentalities, to shake free of the heavy weights that seem to pull me down in the waters of judgment, and rise to the surface for a breath of new thought, new air.  
Although Vordingborg seems a sleepy village drifting away in the mist of glories past, it is the home to a tremendous festival every spring.  From the ninth to the fourteenth of July is festuge, party week.  Music groups from all over Europe fill the stage beside castle walls.  Mimes and comedy acts perform on Algade (the walking street) to laughing crowds. Sidewalk beer stands keep everyone happy as families carry silver-haired children on their shoulders.  For a short few months their world is warm, and the Danes get out and shake it.  They laugh and dance.  During festuge Vordingborg is a living country fair.
It always cracked me up to see how quickly the Danes would grab the kitchen table at the first sign of
Rented summer house beside forest.
spring sunshine, and carry it outside to sit with friends and drink cold Tuborg and discuss the good weather.  It was during one such patio gathering with family, the conversation turned to circumcision. Finding out that I was circumcised, the family demanded I show them!  Yep, right at the table. But alas, some things are best left a mystery.    
No matter how hectic our day of sightseeing, upon return to our little cottage, hidden behind a green hedge, we pulled off our socks and slipped on sandals and walked to the beach so we could sit with wind song, sigh, open a cold Tuborg and watch sailboats, and cars as colored dots traveling over Faro brogen (Faro Bridge).
Street and castle wall on Mon.
Lise-Lundslot, Mon.
A day trip we had to take several times was along the coast of rolling fields and white-washed churches, through the village of Kalvehave, on the southern tip of Zealand, and over the bridge to the island of Mon.  (The name has a diagonal line through the letter o, from one o’clock to seven o’clock. It is one of three vowels found in the Danish language, and not in English, creating sounds only made by English speakers by sticking out the tongue, to the amusement of many a Dane). 
This side trip is comprised of three stages.  The first is a visit to Mon’s Klint
Mon's klint: Cliffs of Mon.
(Cliff), the most dramatic landscape in Denmark, and the highest point in the country.  Standing here with the white cliffs below, the Baltic imitating the Caribbean, sparkling with a lovely turquoise color, I remember a house not far from here, where a woman set her hand on my leg beneath the table.  It changed my marriage.  I was young and hadn’t experienced how that type of deception lays waste everyone involved.  I had not drawn the line in the sand of my life and said I would not cross, no matter how green the grass of a friend’s woman. 
Another plus to an excursion to Mon is a visit to Lise-Lundslot.  If ever there was an estate to inspire a fairy tale, it is Lise-Lund.  So apart from the world, it should have its own time zone.  I compare it to the Taj Mahal.  Not for grandeur, but because both were built out of love for a woman. How inspiring to lie on the grass and watch swans and ducks in the pond, and lovers stroll the grounds.  And I think of the girl in the butcher’s shop who packed the picnic lunch for us, so shocked that we would eat Frikededelle (Danish meat balls) without slicing them on bread. Very unDanish, you know.
Country road 'self serve' veggie stand
By the time we reach Stege, the main town on the island and our
'Put coins in milk container.'
final stop, the sun is coloring the clouds with crimson highlights. We sit at a harbor table beside the water and sip white wine while trying to devise a scheme to buy Lise-Lund. But as our glasses become empty we realize that hunger beckons, so we abandon our high finance scheme as folly, and walk to the brewery on the main street for fresh baked bread, home-made salad and soup, and a berry flavored ale that makes me laugh with pleasure. For dessert, pastries equal those of Paris and Vienna can be purchased in either bakery found on the main street, and should not be missed.
Castle wall of Stege, Mon
Built with the wealth of a long past Herring industry, this beautiful port
A two faced king, really?
town, with some of its fortress wall still standing, is a simple jewel.  Shopkeepers lament how Copenhagen takes their children with its schools, pubs and nightlife. They do not listen as I explain with awkward Danish, that Stege itself is a treasure: its peace, charm and simplicity coveted by city dwellers.  Yes, for pilgrims like myself who have traveled for years and been herded through the world’s attractions like Chartres, Chichen Itza, the Pyramids of Giza, the simple, quiet charm of Stege is comfortable and healing.
Broken up for building stones.
A wonderful surprise we found near our summer house was something very rare.  While on a magical country walk along a winding road bordered with fields, I spied something strange: A rise in the middle of a field, covered with huge boulders.  These rocks were not piled about by nature.  There were standing in a circle and supporting a tremendous slab above them, forming a Stone Age burial chamber, or Dolmen, dating to about 3,500 B.C.  It was a rare experience to sit atop the structure and imagine the burial ceremony taking place. Only about 10% of Danish Dolmen survive today.  Most were used for building supplies.  Even Ornehoj (eagle high), as this Dolmen is called, shows scars from a mason’s drill. I wonder how many of the old stone houses nearby are built with Dolmen fragments.
Sausage stand in the square.
The final day trip is to Nykobbing, Falster.  On the island of
Small square on walking street.
Falster and nearly four times the size of Stege at 16,394 inhabitants, Nykobbing is a beautiful, charming old city that Danish royalty used to frequent.  Peter the Great once stayed here as well!  Its walking street is filled with great clothing stores pubs.  We even stumbled across a jazz club and enjoyed a few songs at a sidewalk table, along with a mug of Carlsberg Klassic. 
For those of you interested in the middle ages, close to Nykobbing you’ll find the Medieval Centre theme park.  (  Here you and the family can enjoy a medieval town, jousting, dining, etc. 
The morning of our last full day we watched a doe and her two foes nibble the dew covered grass beside our house.  One generation was aiding another, strengthening it, teaching it so that the trial to come would be surmountable. 
      How like parents are memories.