On being Danish
To hear an interview recorded on New Zealand radio with Jeanette Knudsen, go to:
After nearly 3 months on the road, Martin and I have come to Denmark. For four Kiwis, the Silk Road is completed and I had intended that the blog should be so also. But recently I decided another chapter was in order. After all, there may be a link between the Silk Road and the ancient Scandinavians, who between about 800 and 1100 AD, as Vikings, went charging around Europe, not only warring and pillaging, but also trading and settling down to domestic life. We all know they invaded the British Isles and got as far as Greenland and North America, but they also went east into Central Europe and Russia via the major rivers. So perhaps the trade routes of the Silk Road met those of the Vikings.
But it wasn’t this rather tenuous link that made me think of another blog chapter. It was the singing of patriotic Danish songs. First we were invited to a street party in Nibe, a small town west of Aalborg, where one of Martin’s cousins lives. As I listened to the 40 or so people in the small marquee after dinner singing a mix of songs both in praise of the virtues of their homeland and those that told home-spun yarns about fabled local identities, I found inspiration for another blog.
Their songs extolled the gentle sunshine on their fair land, the glistening fjords, the corn waving in the breeze, the wonderful summers (it can be very cold here even in summer!) and the people of their nation. “I love you, Danmark,” was the unashamed theme. Street parties in mid-summer seem to be quite common in Denmark and while they are not uncommon in NZ, I can hardly imagine us at home singing community songs about the forest and the birds and the rivers, and telling forth our love for our land. In fact most NZers would look slightly embarrassed at the idea.
A week later we attended another function with some other cousins that included dinner (the Danes know how to eat lovely food), a mid-summer bonfire and singing patriotic songs around the fire. On both occasions words were provided and the tunes were simple and easy to sing. Again the virtues of the land were celebrated. An expression of a gentle patriotism that is so commendable. Another manifestation is the common flying of the lovely red and white flag, seen in towns and villages and private homes, many of which have their own flag pole.
“With the rule of law, so the land is built”. So reads the Nibe town motto over the old Radhus, now the local museum, perhaps a summary of much of the character of the nation. Denmark is a land of consensus with a highly developed social welfare structure, held together by high wages and a strong work ethic. From the south where it divides from Germany to the North Sea, it is in June and July a green and pleasant land, gently rolling with prosperous towns and industries, innumerable little villages and a cropping agriculture of wheat, barley and maize. Forty years ago when I first came here the rural scene was made up of many small farms, each with their homesteads and white barns placed in a quadrangle around a central courtyard. Today the economy has dictated the amalgamation of many of these into very large farming units. Farm houses are often bought up by city dwellers and barns lie idle, some beginning to fall down.
Several things encapsulate the culture. The summer houses (baches), for example, along the coasts. In 2007 we rented one on the east coast of Jutland and this time we stayed a few days in Lokken on the North Coast in a summer house belonging to one of Martin’s cousins. Small homes lie tucked into the rolling vegetation-covered sand dunes, few rising their roofs above others to declare their superiority. No grandiose structures such as one finds dominating the natural landscape and beach in Mt Maunganui. All are low to the ground, and in tune with nature, some even covered with grass roofs.
The cemeteries also exemplify the Danish character. Each plot is neat and tidy with small plants and flowers growing around the low-key headstone, often giving little more than the name and relevant dates. Some say ‘Tak for alt’, thank you for everything, After some years, if the family does not wish to keep paying the up-keep, the headstone is removed, perhaps to the back of the church yard and the plot is reused. Many cemeteries in towns and villages surround the traditional white stone church with its tower at the front door end where in former times a man left his weapons before he went in to worship. Many of these churches were built between 1100 – 1200 AD, in a time when devotion to the Christian faith must have been quite high.
Travelling through China and Central Asia has caused me to rethink the role of religion in the culture of a people. I read an interesting book while travelling, about the demise of the Eastern church up to the modern day and the role of the state in its protection which somewhat challenged our modern understanding of the separation of church and state. Christianity certainly plays an important role in the culture of Denmark, with the state church called the folkekirke, the people’s church. Most families attend church to have their babies christened and most young people about the age of 14 go through the process of confirmation including a big party celebration afterwards.
Being a member of the Lutheran church is part of being Danish. However between birth, confirmation and death, the church may play very little part in the life of its people and for the devout folkekirke priest, like our young family member, the task of engendering real commitment is problematic. With the increasing tension between east and west, the Moslem and the former Christian world, countries like Denmark may be forced to consider their position more seriously.
On a less serious note, good food seems to be enjoyed among the Danes. Kartofler (potatoes) used to be the basis of any traditional meal and still there is nothing better than delicious small newly dug Danish potatoes. With roast pork they are often served cooked in a brown buttery sauce that may not be good for the waist line but makes for a tasty addition to the meal. Sunday breakfast is often fresh rolls brought straight from the local bakerei which also sells absolutely scrumptious weinerbrod, impossible to deny to oneself and not to be confused with the sugary objects sold as ‘Danish pastries’ in NZ shops. The genuine articles are fresh and light and buttery and crisp and moist with filling all at the same time. Danish rye bread is also great too, delicious for adding sild (herrings) or liverposteg (pate).
One of Martin’s elderly aunties who had a great garden even in her old age, used to say that Danish strawberries are the best in the world. I don’t think she had travelled much at all out of her native country but she was probably right. They are plentiful in June and seem so tasty, perhaps responding to the summer sun after the long cold winter. One of Martin’s cousins took us to a fish smoke house in north Shaelland where a variety of smoked fish was purchased for our lunch - even the wonderful smell made the visit worth-while, but the eating was a gourmet’s delight.
One hopes the next generation will value their traditional fresh fodder. On board the ferry from Lavrik in Norway to Hirtsalls in Denmark, I observed many a Scandanavian by-passing the lovely roast pork or meat balls and veges in favour of a plate piled high with hamburger and chips. Is every nation despising their wonderful traditional food in favour of international edibles of an inferior nature? Several years ago staying in a Mediterranean hotel largely for Turkish tourists we saw the guests make the same choices away from their salads and lamb and in favour of chips, piles of chips. Obesity used to be hardly seen in that country but now beckons its young people. As a visitor to foreign lands, one hopes to enjoy or least sample the local distinctive food, rather than partake of a bland diet that can be purchased anywhere and everywhere. (PS I do enjoy chips at times!)
I think this is my eighth visit over 38 years to Denmark with my Danish born husband, Martin, and I can safely say that I have a real affection for this little land.