I suspected I’d pay a big price someday for not fluently speaking my parents’ native language, and like many of my personal flaws, I also hoped I’d never be called out for it.
So much for hope. I should have prayed instead.
Last month, I flew to Denmark for nine days with my sister, and her daughter and grandson, to fulfill our late mother’s wish: To have her cremains buried next to Dad’s at Faaborg Kirkegaard, a cemetery in Faaborg, Fyn. Although both my immigrant parents were enthusiastic American citizens, they wanted their mortal remains to be returned to the soil of their birthplace.
If you’ve ever been to Denmark, you’d understand my parents’ want of going home. Aside from being one of the most pastoral and verdant places on the planet, most Danes are friendly and generous, and are fervently loyal to their little country, even though you’ll often hear them whine about how much they pay in income tax (for comparison sake, about 60 cents for every dollar).
They also love and are proud of their country’s history, heritage and lore (Vikings, mermaids, trolls — and Legos!), and traditions that date back over 1,000 years, all of which binds this little nation of 5 million Danes together in eternal Valahalla bliss. It’s no accident that Denmark has for years been rated the happiest nation, even though a lot of its culture is soaked in beer and schnapps, yet with DUI laws more strict than Utah’s. It recently being bumped to second place for happiness by Norway likely won’t last long. The Danes will take the demotion personally and step up the joy.
And if you’ve ever been to Faaborg Kirkegaard, you’d understand even more. The cemetery is located on Faaborg Fjord not far from the town’s idyllic Danish harbor that is filled with colorful commercial fishing vessels and sailboats. The cemetery is immaculate and revered: Every tree, shrub and blade of grass is lovingly manicured; every rock and pebble in its rightful place. Seabirds fly close overhead, and the smell of cold salt water refreshes the senses.
So when Dad died in Sept. 2005, a few months later we flew his cremains over the Atlantic and held a graveside memorial service at Faaborg Kirkegaard. When Mom died in March 2016, we couldn’t make the trip until a year later. On a cloudy, yet surprisingly mild morning two weeks ago, our little family, with family and friends from Denmark, stood beside a small grave and lowered Mom’s urn, which was green with spring flowers painted on it, into the ground. We sang a long, Danish funeral hymn, and let our tears join the sea.
Although there was much sadness, there was also joy, for we had completed a family circle begun by two amazing human beings. My parents came to America after World War II with only a few Danish kroner in their pockets, no English skills on their tongues, yet started a successful plumbing business, provided jobs for dozens of employees, lived the American Dream — and eventually spoke fluent English with a distinct and lovely Danish accent.
Am I proud of them? You bet! But evidently not enough to fully embrace and fluently speak Danish. Oh, I understand most of what I hear, but unlike my sister, who can speak and read it fluently, I fumble my way through every conversation, even though Danish was the household language while I grew up and I had been to Denmark three times as a kid.
A few days after my mom’s memorial service, my cousin and I did a little walking tour through Faaborg’s 800-year-old cobblestone streets. The town’s brightly painted buildings and red tile roofs looked festive in the early spring sunlight. We walked the street where my parents were born and lived until they left for the U.S. We toured Faaborg’s church, which was built in 1479 — 13 years before Columbus sailed to America — and marveled at Faaborg’s clocktower that has served as a landmark for fishermen and sailors on Faaborg Fjord for centuries.
Lastly, we walked to Vesterport, which is on Faaborg’s west side and is one of two remaining medieval town gateways in Denmark. Built during the 15th century and nearly burned down during the 1700s, Vesterport’s simple architecture and red bricks are timeless.
While standing beside Vesterport’s east side to take pictures in morning light, I suddenly heard behind me a woman’s voice. My cousin and I turned around and it was an elderly woman in a motorized wheelchair. She had short, silver-gray hair, and striking blue eyes that made her round face appear friendly. In thick Danish, she began to proudly tell me all about Vesterport’s history. When she stopped, I thanked her and tried to explain in my broken Danish that I was from America but my parents were from Faaborg.
She looked at me suspiciously then turned to my cousin and said, “Han er en dum svin.”
Translation: He is a dumb swine.
Now I don’t know if she thought I was a dumb swine because she watched me stand in the middle of the street to take pictures of Vesterport, or because she doesn’t like America, nor thinks highly of our politics or President Trump.
But what I’m more sure about is that suspicious look she gave me before imparting one of Denmark’s most notorious insults. She didn’t smell a dumb pig; she smelled a dumb, first generation Dane from America, who couldn’t fluently speak his parents’ and his bloodline’s language.
Upon hearing her words, my cousin and I burst out laughing and he said to her, “Han kan forsta dig!”
Translation: He can understand you!
She didn’t care.
But I do. She called me out. And I can’t hide anymore. My days of being just a tourist of my Danish roots and family are over.
Since returning home, I’ve made a commitment to speak fluent Danish by 2020. Not living in Denmark, I guess that’s a realistic goal. I’ve even downloaded a Danish speaking app to help me get there, and every time I now talk on the phone with my sister, I speak Danish.
I hope soon her chuckling at me lessens. But if you don’t mind me asking, wish me a little luck.
And, oh yes, I’ll pray for help, too.