Only in Denmark…

…could you make a children’s show about a magic penis.

I love being of Danish descent. It gives me cause to take note of all things Danish, and even though I’ve yet to have the opportunity to visit that country, I can tell that I would like the people. Danes have a very unique way of living and thinking that can sometimes be shocking but is more often delightful.

It’s unfair to pigeonhole an entire nation, but based on my observations, albeit from a remove, the Danish qualities discussed in this article entitled, “5 Danish traits you should embrace to improve your life” seem pretty spot on.

  • Danes respect privacy. They are not busybodies or conspiracy theorists.
  • Danes don’t mince words. They are straight shooters. They get to the point.
  • Danes never hesitate to express their opinions. What you see is what you get.
  • Danes hate to be late. But they also hate to waste time in overlong meetings.
  • Danes can be very sarcastic.

These are my people, for sure. Being surrounded by others with these traits would be a refreshing change after having tried to fit in in the Pacific Northwest, where people find my directness, honesty, and sarcasm very off-putting. I’d rather hang with people who show all their cards than with those who keep them hidden, which keeps you guessing. When people leave you no room for doubt, it reduces gossip, because whatever you might say is already out there. It’s a relief.

According to the World Population Review, Denmark is the second happiest country on earth. Finland is the only country that surpasses them. I would love to live in Denmark, at least in the warmer months.

Given the Danish propensity for being wide open, and not getting worked up over silly things, it does not surprise me at all that in 2021 they created a children’s show called John Dillermand. It’s a claymation show for kids from ages 4 to 8. It’s about a man with a magic, prehensile penis that can be as much as 20 feet long, based on personal observation. Check out the show’s funny intro below, and then go here to listen to a review of the show by CBC’s As It Happens.

John can use this appendage to walk a dog, pick things up from a distance, and even fly.  He can bounce into the air, using his penis like a spring. Diller is slang for penis in Danish. Kind of like wiener here. Kids love to laugh at penis slang.

As you can see from the picture below, you can’t really tell that this penis is a penis. It’s not anatomically correct. It is funny, not at all sexual. Teaching children to feel shame about a natural human inclination toward sexuality is what creates warped, twisted abusers. There should be no shame attached to body parts.

Oftentimes John Dillerman’s magic penis has a mind of its own, though, and gets him into trouble. He then has to figure out how to turn the situation around. All the short episodes from the first season seem harmless and funny and full of moral lessons. The creators consulted with a child psychologist to make sure that kids wouldn’t misinterpret the message. And it does indeed seem to be quite popular amongst the 4 to 8 set. Another season is planned.

I would love to watch this show. It is cute and funny and doesn’t body shame. It appeals to the Dane within me. But my puritanical American side does tend to overthink it. For example, teaching children that a man’s penis is out of control, and that what it does is not really the man’s fault is, well, disturbing. I could see where pedophiles could use this show to groom children.

But honestly, sometimes claymation is just claymation. I really doubt kids would see the nefarious undertones if we warped adults weren’t present to clue them in. And I’m confident that children know the difference between claymation and real life. I’d rather that children explore, and then get over, their penis fascination in a controlled and healthy environment, rather than out there in the world where things could turn ugly very easily.

I like that this show is making parents have straightforward conversations with their children. From what I can see, this is a harmless, silly kid’s show, and it won’t become a thing if we don’t make it a thing. So let’s not make it a thing.

Love it or hate it, a show like this could only be made in Denmark. It’s just too (pardon the expression) “in your face” to be able to be shown here in uptight America. I mean, if the radical right saw evil intent in the Teletubbies, imagine what they’d make of a penis that can steal a hamburger off the neighbor’s bar-b-cue.

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Dancing Cow Day

I’m already longing for Spring.

I don’t know about you, but I’m already longing for spring. So when I read about this delightful spring tradition in Denmark, it made me even more proud of being of Danish descent. In fact, my Danish grandfather was a dairy farmer.

According to this wonderful book I’m reading, “The Year of Living Danishly” by Helen Russell, every year many Danes come out to celebrate Dancing Cow Day. I’m charmed that people find this entertaining enough to make a day of it. If I were there I’d be right in the heart of that crowd, without a doubt. And I can think of no better harbinger of spring.

It seems that in order for these cows to be certified organic in that country, they have to be outside eating grass for at least 6 hours a day between April and November. The rest of the time they are kept in the warm barn because it gets really, really cold in Denmark.

Because of this, all the organic cows in the country are let out for the first time at pretty much the same time. And they are so happy to be running free and eating fresh grass again and seeing the natural sunlight that they actually dance for joy. It’s really amazing to watch. Just go to Youtube and do a search for dancing cows and you’ll see a bunch of videos. They’ll make you happy.

I love that this spectacle draws crowds, and that it’s looked upon as a family event and a chance to have a picnic even though it’s still usually cold. I love that this bovine bash is celebrated by both the humans and the cows alike. I love the greater context of marking the passage of time and celebrating a new season. Most of all, I love the idea of spring fever writ large.

So mark your calendars. If you ever have the third Sunday in April free, get thee to Denmark and dance with the cows! No doubt about it: This is a new item on my bucket list.

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Cultural Traditions

New experiences give us a diverse palette with which to paint our lives.

Recently I kicked off my holiday season by going to Julefest at the Nordic Heritage Museum here in Seattle, Washington. It’s become one of my favorite traditions since I moved out here, because I’m half Danish, and my mother always shared that cultural heritage with us, particularly around Christmastime. I ate my Æbleskiver and I purchased my Juleneg for my yard. If you don’t know what those things are, you aren’t Danish. That’s okay, though. You can learn.

That’s what I love about cultural celebrations. You don’t have to come from that particular culture to enjoy them, but if you do, it adds another layer of pleasure to the experience. The whole day, I felt as though my grandmother were peeking over my shoulder and smiling. I was transported back to childhood and beyond.

I have never even been to Denmark, but all things Danish seem to speak to me. “Here are your roots. Here, you are home.” It’s a warm, comfortable, welcoming feeling that I get nowhere else. The Danish would call that Hygge.

If you have an opportunity to explore your cultural heritage, I highly recommend that you do so. I don’t know how these vibrations get passed down through the generations, but there’s a good chance that you’ll find that things resonate with you. It’s a wonderful feeling. It tells you more about who you are.

This planet is chock full of heritage. That’s what makes travel so exciting. That’s why I welcome immigrants of every stripe. New experiences give us depth and breadth and they open our minds to new possibilities. They broaden our horizons and give us a diverse palette with which to paint our lives.

Experiencing other cultures is not the same as cultural appropriation. That theft comes with mockery and arrogance. Experiencing, on the other hand, is a way to honor our differences. It says, “I don’t know much about you. Please tell me. I want to learn.” I can’t think of anything more valuable than that mindset. Can you?

Æbleskiver
Æbleskiver! Yum!

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Shards of the Past

So much of our history is oral.

Somewhere, nestled in my family tree, is a guy who got stuck with the nickname The Prince of Prunes. He got this dubious distinction by somehow falling into a wine vat. I’d love to know the rest of that story.

I think, but I’m not sure, that he’s the same guy that my mother used to have a tiny little picture of. He was wearing a spiked helmet and a monocle. He looked very severe. Apparently he was Prussian.

Here’s the thing. (Yes, there’s always a thing.) I have no idea who this guy is, where he came from, or how he popped up in the Danish side of my family. The fact that there was a Prussian floating around in there somewhere was apparently a source of a great deal of embarrassment. My grandparents didn’t like to talk about it.

I don’t even know where the picture is.

My mother also mentioned some Czech ancestry, too, but for the life of me, I can’t figure out when or where. I wish I had listened more. (I actually listened quite a bit, come to think of it. I just didn’t ask enough questions.)

My mother also said that back in the day, we had a family crest. She once showed it to me. I remember it included a unicorn, which I thought was extremely cool. I have no idea where that crest went. She said it was the Von Barby crest. But my cousin, who is the genealogist of the family, insists we were just Barby. Again, I have no idea when or where or how.

So much of our history is oral. We lose so much over time. Mine is probably the last generation of my family to hold even these small fragments of stories. I wonder what else has been lost?

Still, it’s kind of fun to be related to royalty, even if it is only of the wine vat variety.

Prussian helmet

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Nostalgia Food

About once a year, something will come over me and I’ll buy a can of sardines and eat them in one sitting. I don’t particularly like sardines. I don’t dislike them, either. It’s just that they remind me of my grandmother.

When I was little, not yet of school age, my mother would drop me off at my grandmother’s house before she went to work. She was in her 70’s. I wonder how she coped with caring for a small child day after day.

I do remember walking to the grocery store with her. I also remember being bored silly much of the time. And I remember her feeding me sardines, good Danish grandmother that she was.

It’s funny how food can transport you to another time and place. This is not the only nostalgia food that I eat. I’ve written before about my sister’s apple pie. And my recipe box is overflowing with recipes that my mother used to make. Mangoes transport me back to Mexico, and stroop wafels send me back to Holland.

When I was sick, my mother would give me ginger ale and ritz crackers. In the winter, since I was allergic to hot chocolate, she’d heat me up some apple cider and drop in a cinnamon stick. I’m old enough to remember a time when people still ate local foods only in season, so when the occasional orange would cross my path in Connecticut, it was an event. And as I’ve written before, I have a particular fondness for ice cream trucks.

Food does not just sustain us. It comforts us. It helps us maintain traditions. It defines families. It allows you to time travel. I’m adding sardines to my grocery list even as I write this.

sardines

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The Pansy Connection

“Is there anything of mine that you’d like when I die? Tell me now, so I can make note of it,” my sister said.

(Not that she’s going anywhere anytime soon, I hope, but yeah, it never hurts to have all your funerial ducks in a row.)

“Just the pansy picture,” I replied.

“As a matter of fact, I have a housewarming gift for you,” my sister said, handing me a package.

IMG_2941

When I unwrapped the present, it was the pansy picture! I had coveted it since childhood, but being the youngest, I never thought it would be mine. Sisters connecting. I flew home to Seattle with it sitting on my lap, encased in bubble wrap for safe keeping. If it could talk, it would have quite a tale to tell.

That painting has been a part of my family since long before I was born. My grandmother, Helga Schon, brought it over from Denmark around 1916, when she was 24 years old. She taught herself English on the way over, using the Saturday Evening Post, newspapers, and a Danish/English dictionary. Her husband, my grandfather, insisted that his family would speak English. We would be Americans.

Helga came through Ellis Island with only 10 dollars in her pocket. My grandfather arranged for her to be met by a Danish minister in New York. He arrived soon after, and they started a family. Through it all, this pansy picture bore witness.

Imagine. My grandmother moved 3845 miles away from home, away from everything she had ever known, to a place she’d never been, where she knew no one. I can sort of relate to that, because I moved 3100 miles from Florida to Seattle a few years ago. I knew no one, and had never been here before. And it was scary. I can’t imagine adding additional layers of complexity to the mix, such as knowing you’d probably never see your loved ones or hear their voices again, and barely speaking the language. She was brave. I have cell phones and e-mail and skype to stay connected. She may as well have been jumping off a cliff into a bottomless pit.

But the story gets even more poignant. My cousin once sent us a ton of old family photos, and my sister mentioned that in the background of one is another pansy painting, almost identical to ours, but not quite. If you zoom in on it, you’ll see that each one has a few differences, the most obvious being the fact that they both have a different number of fallen petals. (I love that these pansies are in typical Danish copper pots, because that is another thing that has been passed down to me. My grandmother’s copper pot sits proudly on my mantelpiece.)

 

So the question became, where is the second pansy picture now? I asked my cousin about the photo in question. She’s the family’s history expert. She felt that the photo may have been taken at the house of my grandmother’s sister, Else, who lived in Copenhagen until she died. She never had any children. They also had a brother, Paul Petersen, who lived near Birkerød, who apparently did have children, so maybe one of them has the painting now.

The third photo from the left below the pansy is my great grandmother, Sophie Dorothea Nielsen. My mother shares Sophie’s middle name. Grandma loved her very much, and never saw her again after coming to America. That must have been particularly hard for her, because shortly after she got here, she had her first child, Henry, but he died within a few weeks. She had to cope with that in a foreign land without her family. She went on to have 4 more children, including my mother, but my grandfather died during WWII, when my mother was only 17 years old. The family was pretty much destitute for many years after that.

Helga did visit Denmark one last time in the 50’s, but her mother was long gone by then. She did see her sister. I’m sure she also saw that second pansy painting and mentioned that she still had hers, too. Sisters connecting.

Did they know the artist? (The signature seems to say Ayn Kras, but nothing pops up on Google.) Did the family buy these paintings at a festival as a remembrance of a wonderful day? Did they get them just before Helga boarded the ship, as a way to feel connected? We’ll probably never know, now. My grandmother died when I was 8. She was 80.

I think my grandmother would be amazed to know that her painting has been from Copenhagen to New York to Pittsburgh to Portland to Connecticut to Florida to Georgia to Washington State. That’s approximately 15,000 miles, or the equivalent of more than half of the way around the planet at the equator.

Somewhere in Denmark is a pansy painting hanging on a distant relative’s wall. That branch of the family has probably forgotten that it even has a twin. As for the one that made it across the Atlantic and across America and has witnessed births and deaths and wars and sacrifices, it now hangs proudly over my bed. I like to think that it watches over me while I sleep, as it has watched over my family for generations.

I wrote this to demonstrate that immigration (and art) provides us with a richly-woven historical tapestry. It connects us to the wider world. We are much the better for it.

_______________________

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I Sure Could Use a Nisse

My mother was first generation American. Her parents came from Denmark. So as I grew up, she would sometimes tell me Danish folklore, especially around Christmas. I was particularly fascinated with stories of the nisse.

The nisse was an elf-like creature who lived on your farm, usually in the barn or the attic, and if you treated him well, he would protect your family. If you didn’t, he could be a bit of a troublemaker.

He was usually described as a short little man, half the height of the average man at most, and he had grey hair and a bright red, pointy cap. He could disappear at will and had incredible strength. These tales probably sprang from ancient stories of house gods or ancestor worship. Regardless, the nisse was definitely someone you wanted on your side.

I think it would really be comforting to know you have someone whose sole purpose in life is to have your back. It would be great to feel constantly protected. I would love to know that there would always, always be someone to respond when I called for help.

It sure would be nice to feel ever-confident of my own security. I’ve never really had that. I’d be willing to build a barn if that’s what it takes…

Nisse.jpg

Danish Juleneg

I am proud of my Danish heritage, and now that I’ve moved to Seattle, I have a unique opportunity to learn more about it, and add more Danish traditions into my life. Seattle has a very big Nordic community, and even a Nordic Heritage Museum that has a Yulefest every year on the weekend before Thanksgiving.

I’ve decided to make Yulefest my new holiday tradition. I’ve done it two years running so far, and it always brings me back to my youth and memories of my grandmother. The food, the music, the decorations all cause a great deal of nostalgia in me. I really enjoy that feeling.

It was at Yulefest that I discovered a Danish tradition that I’d never heard of before: Juleneg, which means Christmas Sheaf. (In Norway it’s called Julenek, and in Sweden it’s Julkarve.) I suspect that this tradition dates back long before Christmas existed, as it’s rooted deeply in the rural farming communities of Scandanavia. It’s one of those rituals that relates to farming and good luck and abundant crops.

Throughout the region, on Christmas Eve at sundown (which is very close to the winter solstice, it must be pointed out), people will put out their last sheaf of grain from their harvest to feed the birds. It’s believed that taking care of the animals and spirits during the coldest, darkest days of winter will cause good luck and a bountiful harvest the following summer.

The Juleneg can be tied to pillars or fence posts, or hung in trees. It is said to be especially lucky if the birds flock to them even as you’re putting them up. I find this a delightful tradition, and hope to carry it on for years to come.

Happy holidays to all, no matter what your heritage may be. Peace on earth. Good will toward Men.

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[Image credit: danishmuseum.org]

IMG_1210
My very first Juleneg.

Don’t Sail Out Farther Than You Can Row Back

That Danish proverb has pride of place as a magnet on my refrigerator door. My ancestors were very wise. The also liked to take risks, but their cultural longevity would lead one to believe that their risks were mostly calculated ones.

I’ve been thinking about this proverb quite a bit lately because I’ve definitely sailed into uncharted waters. I’ve moved 3000 miles across the country to a state where I know no one. Have I gone too far? The other day, after a bit of a kerfuffle at work, it suddenly occurred to me that I may have.

I’m on probation for a year. I have a little over 8 months to go. I spent 9k getting out here, and it will take me years to pay off that debt. If my employment boat starts taking on water now, I’m sunk. I can’t afford another 9k to get back to a more familiar job market, and I have no contacts out here. Who would hire me after I’d just been fired, other than someone who already knows me? As the ancient maps used to say, “Here there be dragons.” I suspect those dragons are going to keep me up at night for a while.

But on the other hand, without risk there’s no reward. I guess I could have stayed in Florida, rotting in my own miserable swamp, but I preferred to sail out where the air is fresh and clean. I think, I hope, it was worth the risk. I love where I am so far, and I will continue to do so unless someone fires a cannonball through my hull. God knows it’s happened before. But I really think I’m drifting very close to my happy place, and I just had to try to get there.

And hey, bailing and rowing does wonders for one’s upper body strength, right? So it’s all good.

sail

[Image credit: ar15.com]

Exploring Seattle – Part 9

I’ve decided that Ballard is my favorite neighborhood in Seattle. I doubt I’ll ever be able to afford to buy a home in this outrageously expensive town, but if I could, that would be the area I’d want to live in. It is rich in Nordic history, which brings me back to my roots.

Apparently I spoke Danish before I spoke English. As a hard-working single woman, my mother had no choice but to leave me with my grandmother during the day, and she spoke to me in her native tongue. Once I was old enough to go to school, I lost this talent, and my grandmother passed away when I was 8 years old. I have no memories of speaking Danish, and that’s a pity. I would love to have that ability today.

I thought of my grandmother quite a bit when I visited the Nordic Heritage Museum last week. It’s housed in the heart of the Ballard neighborhood in a former elementary school, so all the railings and door handles are unusually low, and that brought me back to childhood as well. While there I read the stories of the people who had come to America from that region to make new lives, and I saw a lot of the items they brought with them along the way, which reminded me of some of the things my grandmother brought. There were also crafts that looked familiar to me, and skills that my grandparents possessed. My grandfather was a very experienced seaman (in fact he died at sea during WWII) and he was also a dairy farmer. These are very Danish qualities.

All the faces in the pictures, with their pale skin and ice blue eyes and heavy eyelids could have been relatives of mine. And the Danish room with its plain, simple, severe Lutheran religious display struck a chord, too. A translated excerpt from a Danish children’s book entitled The Flight to America made me smile. It said, “In America the rain tastes like lemonade and you can spit on the floor as you please.”

I was delighted to see that they were having a Nordic Christmas Celebration soon called Yule Fest and it would fall on one of my days off, so I made a point of going back. The place was packed. It was full of craft and food vendors and musicians. I spent more money than I intended, because I couldn’t resist the Danish Æbleskiver (which is a kind of pancake that’s shaped like a tennis ball, topped with jam and powdered sugar), the bratwurst, and the clam chowder. I was also dying to buy the sweaters, the candles, the Danish plates, and the jewelry, but I had to control myself.

As I sat there in the crowded hall eating my delicacies and listening to the music, I looked around at the weathered faces, and listened to them telling stories to their grandchildren about the home country. It made me feel somehow connected. As transient as my life has been, that’s a feeling that I’ve rarely had.

I want to get more in touch with my Danish heritage. I even thought of taking Beginners Danish at the Scandinavian Language Institute that’s housed in the same building, but unfortunately it takes place on a day I have to work. Maybe some day. I quite like the idea of coming full circle. Like an Æbleskiver.

300px-Aebleskiver

[Image credit: wikipedia.org]