Is You Danish?
“To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself.”― Søren Kierkegaard
I grew up thinking I was part Danish. My mother’s maiden name is Christensen, my great grandpa came to America as a child in the animal hold of a ship. It is my only “coming to America story.” But while my great grandpa’s portage is not in question, my grandpa’s parentage is. There were always family rumors about him being left on a doorstep. He never actually found out, perhaps he didn’t want to know. Others of us do want to know, but there isn’t anybody alive with the answers. The mystery started looking a little more mysterious last year when McKane and I decided to do genetic tests. Our primary purpose was to see our likelihood for diseases. There were some good revelations and some things to keep an eye on. Fortunately, McKane’s overall risk factor was better than mine. Way to go Gilliom genes. The real shocks were the genealogical ones. McKane’s maternal line comes from Chad (the country in the center of Africa.) There is a small group of people with Portuguese blood who have that maternal haplotype. I conjecture that somewhere a few hundred years ago there was something untoward between a master and a slave. Other than that one gene, there isn’t much else to go on, but that is my guess. My genealogy was bland in comparison. It was a little high on the Neanderthal genes and very low, if not completely lacking any specific Danish genes. I didn’t even have 4th or 5th level Danish cousins. There may be something to the foundling story. But even if I am an adopted Dane, I still love Denmark and was looking forward to sharing it with the kids.
We took the train from Berlin to Copenhagen. The train passed through the saffron fields of canola flowers and giant steel windmills as we trekked north. We were jolted from the peacefulness of our bucolic train ride when our the train pulled into a ferry to cross the Baltic sea. In my head, I think of trains as an apex transportation method. It was shocking to see it swallowed up into the bowels of a ship and equally shocking to watch it spit out of the ferry at the other end. The train dropped us off in a drizzly Copenhagen around 8:30. By the time, we got to our Airbnb, all the places to eat were closed or closing. Copenhagen, or Scandinavia for that matter, was not going to fit in with our family’s penchant for late nite eats. We found a pizza place and a supermarket, and we walked back to our apartment. As we did, we saw a couple of interesting and unique aspects of Copenhagen. They have an affinity for building amazing parks including extravagant playgrounds with slides big enough for adults, and little trampolines. These small parks were going to be perfect for our bouncy balls.
Secondly, This is “the” bike city. Amsterdam may be a close second, but everyone gets around on bikes in Copenhagen. I couldn’t help but think of how we discovered on the last trip how Vietnam had evolved from water buffaloes to bikes to motorbikes and are now headed towards cars. It feels like such a luxury of modern living to evolve back to bikes. I don’t expect the horse and oxen to make a comeback, but expect more and more cities to become bike friendly. I heard from the Vice Mayor of Long Beach that they have 150 miles of bike accessible paths and roads.
I had prepped the kids that we were going to ride bikes on the trip and to be ready. We borrowed a few bikes from a friend, and the kids practiced. However, when it came time to rent bikes in Copenhagen, they all questioned my parenting abilities and argued that one crash could end the trip, and they guaranteed a crash. I thought about pushing it but realized they were right and learning on the busy streets of Copenhagen or Amsterdam was not the best place to learn. So we walked. We walked all over Copenhagen and two nearby Swedish cities of Malmö and Lund. It has been a cold late spring, so the tulips were still in full bloom, and the rain showers chased us through each of our three days in Copenhagen. The showers made the Danish hotdogs on the street, the fabulous fresh pastries, or the kababs, that much more fulfilling and tasty.
As we walked, we played our super ball games and focused on architecture and public art in all three cities. The Little Mermaid is the most famous of the statues, but we loved the underwater statues of the merman and his seven sons, the cubist band in Malmö, and the outdoor art garden in Lund. However, my favorite walks ended up being the ones we took in the graveyard in Copenhagen. The giant Assistens cemetery was filled with flowering trees and tulips and benches along its wide walking paths. At first it was disconcerting to see joggers and bikes in a graveyard but then it began to feel more friendly. The dead weren’t sent to a sterile location outside the normal flow of the city, but were included in the everyday lives of the living. The graveyard is also special because it houses some famous Danes. We visited Hans Christian Anderson’s grave and spent time discussing the life and writings another famous Dane and a resident of Assistens, Soren Kierkegaard. He has always felt like someone who suffered much, thought deeply and sought truth, so it was nice to help the kids to become familiar with him.
Our apartment was close to the cemetery, and we ended up walking through it multiple times. I searched in vain for some “Christensen’s.” There is something interesting about finding dead people who might or might not be your relatives. Future generations may need to put an asterisk on our Danishness, but I think our family will still claim Danish roots; the little mermaid, the Vikings, the deep thinkers and maybe even winter in May, might just be a part of us.