A road trip through Denmark was my sister Laura’s idea. She explained: we knew next to nothing about our Danish grandparents, except that they had come to America early in the 20th century, prospered and died. We’d only had glimpses of them long ago when we visited them in Iowa or they came to Napa where my father had met my mother and decided to stay. Less snow, he’d explained.
She wanted to find the towns where they’d been born but she was also intrigued with the notion that we were descended from people who lived in a country now considered the happiest place in the world (or near the top of the list anyway).
She explained to me the concept of hygge, a Danish word for which there is no exact translation into English; but it generally means a cozy comfort, a satisfaction in simple things — candlelight, watching snowfall by firelight, drinking cocoa and wearing warm wool socks. To this list, I added: universal healthcare, free education, great pastries, a common agreement on climate change, and Nordic cuisine. Thus you have the happiest people on the planet and a word that we don’t have: hygge.
After I’d agreed on this project to reconnect with our Viking roots and experience hygge, I superposed a map of Denmark on top of California and realized we were going to spend two weeks driving around a country that is a little bit larger than the Bay Area. I packed “Hamlet,” “The Collected Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Anderson,” and Isak Dinesen’s “Seven Gothic Tales.”
I’d been to Copenhagen four times, always on my way to somewhere else; still I’d retained an image of a city that combines the ancient with the cutting edge with enthusiasm, and is entirely delightful to visit, as long as you don’t accidentally pause in a bike lane and get run over.
After three days of exploring Denmark’s capital and learning that Walt Disney drew inspiration for Disneyland from the enchanting Tivoli Gardens (go there and you’ll see where he got the idea for his Small World ride), we picked up our car and headed out.
I had only one request when Laura mapped out the route to find the ancestors: I wanted to see Kronberg Castle in Helsingør, (Elsinore to Shakespeare), the home of Hamlet. It is about a 45-minute drive north from Copenhagen. En route, if you are a fan of Karen Blixen, whose penname was Isak Dinesen, you can visit the farm where she wrote, looking out at the sea.
Helsingør: Even if one is not inclined to be swept away imagining Hamlet and his ghost (my sister was a business major), the lonely 15th century castle at the edge of the sea is a splendid stop as is the entire town, which also has a state of the art, underground maritime museum, and a view of Sweden, four kilometers away.
Of course, Denmark being a collection of islands plus one narrow thumb of land connected to Germany, nearly everywhere you are close to the sea. Copenhagen is on the island of Zeeland; our destination was far to the west on Jutland, the thumb, to a town called Thisted, where my grandmother had been born. It seemed significant to me that everyone we talked to on Zeeland said of Thisted: “I’ve never been there.”
To reach it required ferry hopping, and traveling through a Hans Christian Andersen fairytale landscape of thatched roof, half-timbered cottages, gardens of roses and hollyhocks, and fields with the happiest-looking cows — they leave California’s happy cows in the dust; they, too, must have hygge.
Along the way, we stopped at romantic, brooding castles, and old hotels with crooked steps and ghosts and names like Dragsholme Slot. We digressed to Skagen, Denmark’s northernmost, sea-faring town, which has the remains of a church buried by wind-blown sand. From Skagen, it’s a few kilometers to Grenen, a sandbar where the North Sea and the Baltic meet, creating a fascinating image of waves colliding, in a line that reaches far out to sea. It’s a wild and magical place, a protected nature reserve, filled with birds, and seals basking in the sun, eyeing human visitors with a lazy kind of curiosity.
We also stopped in Ribe, the oldest town in Denmark, settled by Vikings in the early 8th century. It's a village, where archaeological digs crop up on the winding cobblestone streets. And although it has a Viking Museum and a living history Viking Center, like every place else we visited, it’s not subsumed by the idea of being a tourist destination. Rather, it’s a place where people live and grow roses and walk their dogs and gather in knitting shops, on top of a thousand years of history.
Presently, we arrived in Thisted, and two remarkable women, Marianne Sørensen and Jytee Gehrke, at the Thisted Commune Archives went to work looking for my grandmother, about whom we knew that her name was Anna Dorothea Jensen, and her birth date, Sept. 8, 1891.
They found her in a matter of minutes. A computer brought up a facsimile of a baptism record, where her name was written in a fancy flourish. “You are lucky that the pastor wasn’t drunk,” one woman said. “Also that he could write.”
They found a census, with the names of her parents and many siblings, and they showed us photographs of the Thisted of her time. Thisted today has a population of 13,000, a thriving organic brewery and a nearby national park, but a century ago it was a poverty-stricken region, where life, for farmers or fishermen, was bleak. Parents encouraged their children to find a way to America, knowing they’d never see them again. One of them was my grandmother, who left at 19, to join her brother and sister in New York, and never returned to Denmark.
Tracking down my grandfather was a bit more challenging. This was because, according to the information in notes from an aunt in Iowa, he had hailed from a town called Middleford, on the island of Funen, the one where Hans Christian Andersen was born. As it turned out this was not true: there is no Middleford on Funen in Denmark. My aunt was a lady, who apparently felt it was improper to write the real name, Middlefart.
“We know it is not a very nice word in English,” a woman at the Middlefart Museum told us apologetically. But Middlefart is, indeed, a very nice town, prosperous and picturesque with more cobblestone streets lined with rose-covered houses leading to a tranquil harbor. Its library is open 24 hours a day. My grandfather, we learned, had not left to escape poverty but conscription into the Danish army. The museum woman directed us to the town church, which has a display of whale bones and chandeliers shaped like ships. “He would have gone, like every one else, to services here,” she said. Before he became the family draft-dodger.
We’d learned that Jensen is the most common name in Denmark, and Poulsen is not far behind; we didn’t have to look far for relatives; we could probably claim most of Denmark.
This settled, we caught a ferry south to the island of Ærø to spend the last few days before we returned to California. It’s an island renowned for its idyllic beauty and its commitment to preserving its history. To visit is to step into another time; no Starbuckses have slipped between the pink and blue and yellow cottages or invaded a windmill on the rambling, narrow roads.
We’d reserved a cottage at the end of a narrow bit of land, surrounded on three sides by water where swans were swimming.The other side was a pasture with cows and sheep. The owner, knowing that the one local grocery story was closed for repairs, had left us a supply of cheese, bread, beer, eggs, fruit and smoked salmon. There was no WiFi, but candles were everywhere. We lit all the candles, partly because we did think something might creep out of a trap door in the kitchen. But all that happened really was that my sister found a jigsaw puzzle to work on, and I made notes for stories by candlelight. We had found our Viking ancestors, and we’d also found hygge.