Letter from my Denmark Trip — June 28, 2005

The Internet is everywhere.

Perhaps I already knew this -- everybody knows this -- but it was brought home to me tonight in a little village called Pandrup, in the North of Denmark. The village is lovely, and surrounded by green fields and windmills. (Some of the old-fashioned Cervantes kind, but mostly of the new electricity-generating kind.) But Pandrup is small -- I drove through it in less than five minutes.

I spent five hours with my mother and Grethe, my mother's sister, having dinner with Hene, Lene, Byorn, and Annaruth. Everyone in the room was related to me in some way, but it's far too complicated to go into, and I'm not sure I've got it right. Byorn and Annaruth own a pig farm, Lene is studying to be a nurse, and I geek for a living. Everyone else there was retired. I was the youngest in the room, at 32, with Lene being the next youngest at 52. Hene is in her 70's, and my mother is only a whisker away from 70. And, as the evening came to an end, a new ritual came into play -- the e-mail address exchange. (For the record, it wasn't initiated by me.) With the exception of Grethe, everyone there had an e-mail address.

Going back a moment -- yes, I did say I spent five hours having dinner. It's the Danish way. It's easier to get out of Fort Knox WITH gold than it is to get out of a Danish house WITHOUT food. We called Hene when we arrived in Pandrup yesterday, just to let her know we made it safely. She invited us to "coffee" -- code for 15 different types of pastry. We tried to back out, but she pulled the trump card -- you have to come, the food is already on the table.

The next morning we were roped into breakfast via the same route, and then when we managed to escape before lunch to do some exploring we couldn't make it out the door without a picnic basket. (Delicious gragadella, a kind of squashed meatball that's fried, and potato salad from new local potatoes.) So we're back for dinner at five, and yes, we ate until 10:30 at night. Here were the courses, numbered for your convenience:

  1. Aperitif: small glasses of orange juice for everyone.

  2. The pickled herring course. Eating dinner at a Danish house is kind of like going to the doctor when it's time for a prostate exam. You know there's going to be a finger up your butt, it will be unpleasant, but it will end and you will get over it. The herring open-faced sandwich: Take the kind of really dense rye-bread you can only get in Denmark. Put some butter on it, or not. Your choice. Put a slab of pickled raw herring on it, along with the pickled onions they come with. Cover with some kind of strongly flavored egg salad type dressing. Use a lot. Eat with a knife and fork, and wash down with beer, schnapps, or the beverage of your choice. Try to smile. It's not as bad as I make it sound (the herring has a firm but tender texture) but it isn't good. Just try getting out of it -- Danes delight in inflicting pickled herring on their foreign guests.

  3. The fish course -- fried fish filet on buttered (or not) rye-bread. Make an open-faced sandwich and eat with knife and fork.

  4. The third fish course. Smoked salmon on white bread with white asparagus stalks on top. Denmark is composed of islands, and a peninsula sticking out of Germany. It's water on almost every side. Danes are fishers and sea folk. Lots of fresh fish.

  5. The meat course -- some kind of beef cooked and covered in cream, and another dish of fragadella.

  6. The cheese course -- crackers, and about 10 different kinds of incredibly great Danish cheese.

  7. Coffee and chocolate candies.

If it seems like this letter is entirely about food, that's because this is my third day in Denmark, and other than drive from one end of the country to the other in six hours, all I've done is eat, talk about eating, or try to get out of eating.

This message is somewhat tongue-in-cheek -- most of the food has been incredible (especially the fragadella and cheese) and I must say a word about the ingredients -- farm town living is nice. The eggs we had for breakfast come from the farm down the street -- the organic milk comes fresh from the cows at a different farm. Everything (except the herring) has been incredibly delicious and fresh.

The sun set just as we were leaving Hene's place tonight -- at 10:30 p.m. Life close to the Arctic Circle. And we're not even that close. Not like Northern Finland, where you apparently get 50 consecutive days where the sun doesn't rise in winter. In summer here the sun rises at 5, goes down around 10:30, and never gets really dark -- it's 11:30 now, and it's JUST NOW dark enough that I can't read from the light outside.

My Mom, Aunt, and myself are going exploring tomorrow -- and although it took a lot of talk, we're NOT getting breakfast at Hene's first. At least, that's the plan now. I wouldn't be surprised if Henny calls us tomorrow morning with a story that her fridge broke and we need to come over and help eat the food. Or she slipped and set the table or something.