The road to Denmark started in a dorm in Hungary when I got a scholarship from the French government for Hungarian summer school. Still with me? Good, because this is typical. Ask me where I’m from or what my first (therefore native) language is, and you get an entire litany instead of a three-word-answer. I’ll try and make it short though, for the sake of everyone’s comprehension.
The scholarships were a joke, 40 places and only 20 applicants (after all, who in their right mind would willingly study Hungarian). But we all got scholarships, all being pretty much every student on the course (except for the ones who’d attended high school in Hungary) – all three years – so off we went.
Why am I telling this story? My roommate at the summer school program was Danish, and I promised her that one way or another I’d learn her language. She came to visit me the following year, and I stayed with her after Christmas six months later. She even hung out with my brother and his family. We actually told everyone at the program we were half sisters, and the system had randomly thrown us together as roommates. Our friends backed the story completely.
Flash forward a few years and we’d long since lost touch, but I’d learned some Danish. Or what passed for Danish. Let’s just say that our Danish roommate in Norwich and I really implemented team work when it came to helping each other (I seem to be surrounded by Danish roommates or colleagues). Mia was quiet, witty, and one of the few people able to deal with what my brain throws at them, the good, the bad, the crazy. Mia was also around at the time I was developing some characters for a story, and they happened to be German “but with Danish influences,” as I was always quick to point out.
All of which may or may not explain how I ended up in a Danish summer school program. My roommate from Hungary all those years ago was now one of the teachers. When I told my present roommate, a Portuguese girl, she laughed straight out. I couldn’t blame her, I’d been laughing about it, too.
It was a good program, good on providing language practice with practical advice and cultural knowledge. One of the cultural components was a visit to the art museum in Århus, and that’s where the magic happened, at least for me. There were a lot of great pieces, but all I remember is a horse split into pieces and bottled in formaldehyde (if memory serves, don’t ask), a giant baby (scary, and not at all comforting), and the Skagen Painters. And where they were concerned, boy did they mesmerize me! I couldn’t stop staring.
You could go into a whole song and dance about cultural interpretation and identity, but the truth is, I was intrigued by the paintings themselves. That rendering of an ideal you knew couldn’t possibly be real. And – once the guides explained about it – the concept of painting a false world as an ideal. Like an Ibsen play rendered in one frame. Those fishermen who looked so peaceful and happy, so zen, they were actually relieved. Nobody, least of all themselves, knew if they’d come back when they went out to sea, nor if they’d even catch anything. Those men in the pub laughing, one of them was beating his maid because his rival – an aristocrat – liked her and was always coming around for a chat. Or rather to see her, she wasn’t allowed much time to chat, her master and his wife both saw to that.
It was an idealization of a fake world if ever there was one, and for someone who’s always seeking out the story behind the object or in the painting, this was beyond bliss. It was the equivalent of sending mind, body, and soul back to the Garden of Eden.
Because that’s another possible interpretation, that I lived there, walked with these people, breathed the same air they did. Based on my reaction to the paintings, I wouldn’t see myself as one of the painters, more an outsider. One of the fish wives perhaps, though my money is really on the maid. It would also help explain my love for Ibsen, and why when I’d never heard Grieg in my life before, I managed to write down Anitra’s Dance exactly as the composer had intended. Again, I’m not claiming to have been Ibsen or Grieg (though obviously someone was in a previous life), but I was there, I heard enough, even if it was not while clearing the table or cleaning. My guess would be a Norwegian family vacationing in Skagen. We’re still investigating this, so hopefully time will tell.
In the meantime, regardless of whether you believe in reincarnation, or have ever been to Skagen (I still haven’t made it there), those paintings speak for themselves, creating a faux realism into which you want to insert yourself. The perfect ad, if Skagen were a product to sell. Which, in some ways, it really was, an exclusive little club. Instagram of the 19th century.