The International Writers Magazine
Roger Smith in Denmark
think its all very humorous, dont you?" he says,
the foreigner feels a between-ness while taking up residence in a strange
country. You concentrate on appearances, which are new, and rely on
the context of your home country to make sense of them. You are neither
here nor there until the mind catches up with the body. It is a pleasant,
occasionally exhilarating time, enlivened by novelty and regulated by
comparison. It is also a chancy time, even for a foreigner in a country
as culturally similar to his homeland as the United States is to Denmark.
I am walking through the halls of the University of Copenhagen, Amager,
on my way to my temporary office and thinking about letters I have received
from home and the people who sent them. I am passing by a cafeteria
that is entirely open to the hallway. By chance I glance at a large
poster on one wall.
I do a double-take. "ROCK FOR FRED!" it says in commanding,
hand-painted black letters. I guffaw.
And that is a mistake. The beginning of an incident.
A gangly, hatchet-faced Dane glowers at me from a nearby cafeteria table.
He has a tall forehead. The lines of his frown are deep, clean, and
perfectly parallel, like a Euclidean diagram.
"You Americans think its all very humorous, dont you?"
he says, his English precise and gently lilting. He shifts around to
face me square-on, still seated, and by that simple movement alone manages
to convey assurance and authority. It is a manner that many Danes of
the professional class have, a crisp self-possession that always seems
to me a sign of intellectual clarity and sophistication. It intimidates.
"It is humorous to you because you think the next war, like the
last ones, will be in Europe, and you think therefore that you will
be safe. That attitude"he slashes sideways with his hand"is
He is older than the students sitting by him at the table, probably
a lecturer. The rest match his outrage, glaring over the remains of
their lunch, plates that held open-faced sandwichessmørrebrodand
glasses that held tepid beer. One of them says something that sounds
like "arrogant prick" in Danish.
I truly havent the slightest idea what they are angry about. I
must look it, too, because the leader snorts and turns away in disgust.
I am a hopeless case to them. Another student says, in Danish, confident
that an American wont understand, "Just like the Russians,
either too stupid to know whats happening or they think its
all a big game." It is a young woman who says it. She glances at
me. She is so pretty it is humbling: lucid blue eyes, blonde hair in
a long French braid, delicate features, skin as blemish-free as new
snow, and her regard as cold.
I dont know them. I dont know many people at the university
other than a few students and faculty members at the Medieval Centre,
where I have my office and a lot of time. One month into my Danish Year,
I still socialize little. My advisor has introduced me around, people
are friendly enough, I immediately forget most of their names, and they
leave me alone to my studies by and large. But even to those I have
not met, I am known: The American at the Medieval Centre, a kind of
chimera. A too-large man from another continent studying Viking ships
from the distant past of northern Europe.
I look again at the poster and realize my mistake.
It was useless to explain to them, back then in 1985, and so although
I felt the urge to, I didnt try. Americans were not particularly
popular. But even if we had been well liked, the gaffe was beyond recall.
I suspected that at once, instinctively. It took my entire year in Denmark
really to understand why.
The mistake, in fact, takes a good deal of explaining. A week before,
I had been watching my landladys television. It received four
stations, two Danish and two Swedish. Browsing through the channels
was a perverse delight because the stations broadcast American series.
For all the Scandinavian disdain about American culture, Dallas
and The Cosby Show were widely popular, and so were a few others.
Whenever I felt daunted by Denmark, a quick look at an American sitcom,
cumbersomely subtitled in Danish, was anodyne.
I was switching from one channel to another when I stumbled upon a broadcast
of The Flintstones. It was a half-hour cartoon show that I knew
well from my boyhood. The Flintstones are a comic version of the American
familyman, wife, older daughter, younger son, dog, catlike
many TV families of its era, the early 1960s. Only, the setting is a
Hollywood version of the Stone Age. The hero is a Jackie Gleason-like
character, blustery, hapless, and good-hearted, named Fred Flintstone,
who wears a ragged leopard skin and works in a quarry operating a dinosaur
that lifts rocks like a steam shovel. It is all simple time-displacement;
the humor is pure Eisenhower America, right down to drive-ins and bowling
leagues. I watched the episode through, a pre-Vietnam American child
So, given that TV show, recently seen, and the poster, read in passing
with half my attention, and the product was spontaneous delight. I took
ROCK FOR FRED as a reference to the Flintstones. Unlikely? Yes, too.
I was after all at the premier Danish university, where culture was
pitched higher than prelapsarian American animated sitcoms. Nevertheless,
out of inattention and a penchant for puns, I interpreted ROCK to mean
both stone and popular music and FRED to be a whimsical excuse for a
concert, certainly of American music, probably of 60s vintage.
All this occurred to me in a flash, and then came my laugh and the Danes
I was half-right about "ROCK." It referred to an upcoming
concert. FRED was another matter entirely. It is the Danish word for
peace. So the sign said: Rock for peace. The concert was to protest
the introduction into Western Europe of American Pershing II medium-range
missiles with nuclear warheads, under the auspices of NATO. President
Reagan wanted to counter a threat from Russian weapons, introduced into
Eastern Europe under the auspices of the Warsaw Pact. Danish students
were more worried about the missiles than about superpower strategy,
and the concert was one of many attempts to say that in the Danish waywith
lots of music, eating, speechifying, and drinking.
To the lecturer and students at the cafeteria table, I was sneering
at the national anti-nuke movement. This was a very serious matter,
a point of national pride. By voter demand, no atomic power plants were
allowed. A plebiscite had turned out overwhelmingly against atomic power.
Even the atomic power plant across the strait in Malmø, Sweden,
attracted such constant Danish criticism that the Swedes were promising
to shut it down. The Danes did not have nuclear weapons either, of course,
and were extremely touchy with their putative military allies about
them. The month before, the USS Iowa, an immense battleship rumored
to carry nukes, sailed into Copenhagen harbor. There was loud popular
disapproval in the form of protest rallies, including one hosted by
Grandmothers for Peace. Iowas captain made matters worse by refusing
to admit or deny there were nukes aboard and implied it was none of
the Danes business anyway. Moreover, the ship arrived at a bad
time. President Reagan had just sent bombers to Libya to punish Col.
Qaddafi for supporting terrorists. The bombing was decried in Denmark:
More American militarism. Our stock was low.
So there was no explaining my delight in an accidental inanity. To Danes,
American intellectuals were superficial and invincibly naive. It was
hardly the time to reveal us to be silly as well.
The incident embarrassed me. But it annoyed me, too. Educated Danes
had an astonishing naïveté of their own about the United
States. It came via their furtive love of our pop cultureDallas
was the most watched show in the land, although called Dollars. Yet
the misconceptions went beyond TV shows. Once a historian, a University
of Copenhagen MA, asked me in earnest if I carried a pistol for protection
against Indians when I was back home in the West. Another time, a middle-aged
woman button-holed me at a party, and I knew I was in for trouble from
"You Americans," she began. It was the way: generalize, then
attack. "You Americans ought to be ashamed at what you do to your
I didnt correct her terminology. She was already a little drunk,
I could see, and besides, the distinctions among colored, Negro, black,
Afro-American, African American, and person of color were lost on Danes.
Instead, I pointed out that the US ambassador to Denmark was black.
"He is?" She blinked, suspicious. "No, coloreds are poor
"What about Muhammad Ali?"
"Muhammad Ali, the fighter." I was incredulous to find someone
who did not know of him.
"Yes, fighter," she smiled triumphantly.
The poster had much on it other than its headline that I should have
noticed. There were, for instance, anti-nuke slogans and the universal
symbol of disapproval borrowed from road signs, then more common in
Europe than in the United States: the red circle with a no-no line slanting
diagonally. There were three circles on the poster. The first enclosed
the silhouette of a rocket. The second disapproved of a bomb. The third,
of an atom. It was typically Danish to get to the very bottom of things
with a single image: disapproval of the atom. That the atom depicted
was the model for helium, rather than that for uranium or plutonium,
didnt matter. It was still the bad atom, no matter what. Upstairs
in my office, later, the photographs of the Roskilde ship and the Gokstad
ship that I had pinned up over my desk and the open book about Christian
ship symbolism in patristic literature could not hold my attention.
I daydreamed of symbols of my own to add to the poster: a circle with
a slash through a neutronbetter yet, a quark. Really fundamental.
Best of all, a slash-circle of Niels Bohr, the great Danish physicist
who helped build the first atomic bombs during World War II.
But the embarrassment would not go away. I had been stumbling into endless
opportunities for embarrassment, it seemed, from the very beginning
of my fellowship. The Fulbright program was held in great esteem. As
one of that years Americans, I was on stage; the spotlight was
direct and, sometimes, harsh. The director of the Commission for Educational
Exchange told me that I was not only a visiting scholar; I was an ambassador
of good will. As a scholar I felt like a sham, a mere grad student trying
to write a dissertation. As an ambassador, I was a walking gaffe dispenser.
I made slips in Danish all the time, eliciting great mirth and condescension.
Sometimes I caused anger, as when I called a bus driver busmand instead
of buschauffør, the correct job title. He thought I was saying
bussemand, "bogey" or "booger," and didnt
like it one bit. I also dressed poorly to the Danish point of view and
had incorrect manners. I blew my nose too loudly and had an astonishingly
poor grasp of the best English-language writers. I didnt like
warm ale. I hummed at bus stops. Minor things, but they added up.
American, they said. Yeah, so? I said.
I told Kaja, my landlady, about the "rock for fred" incident
at dinner that night. I expected her to enjoy it. She often laughed
in a motherly way at my blunders in Danish.
It didnt amuse her at all. She stuck out her lower lip and wagged
her head, a gesture elderly Danes seemed to prefer above all others.
"But, Roger, war is not funny." She had experienced war during
the Nazi occupation of Denmark. War was personal to her, nothing to
It was just a silly mistake, I countered, a misconstruing, a bilingual
pun, but she wasnt having it. We both had had wine and akvavit
by then, and through the magic of alcohol, she decided with complete
assurance that I approved of President Reagans military buildup
and challenged me to defend it. I pointed out to her that Denmark bought
American fighter planes and belonged to NATO. She reminded me I came
from the only nation ever to use atomic weapons on an enemy. I reminded
her that Bohr had helped make them. Our voices began to rise. There
were now more Danish-Americans in the US than Danes in Denmark, I asserted.
Name them, she demanded. We had more akvavit.
The poster gave a date for the concert, a Friday afternoon late in October
at Copenhagens central square, Rådhusplads. I felt obliged
to go, an expiation of sorts.
It was a cold, clear fall day. Flags and banners snapped in the breeze
gusting in from the Baltic. The square was crowded, and people were
in happy motion. Slow, continuous bands of movement passed in front
of the stage, which was very wide and crammed with people. People clustering
around microphones. People playing guitars, many guitars, and people
sitting behind drums and keyboards. The music was British and American,
mostly New Wave, and so loud it pulsed through the square and echoed
down Frederiksberggade and vanished among the central districts
fashionable shops. Its amazing how foreign accents soften, even
disappear, when people sing. The air rang with English.
Occasionally, a band would break into a golden oldie of the "Where
Have All the Flowers Gone?" or "Just Give Peace a Chance"
type. That, in fact, was about the extent of the afternoons message,
give peace a chance; be decent, you superpower warmongers. Some of the
banners were a bit more strident: Peace Now or Never; Pull Out of NATO;
Nej Euroshima (I jotted that one down in case Kaja and I ever argued
again about word play and anti-war protests); and good-old Ban the Bomb.
But what ruled was bland symbolism and earnestness. There was a feeling
of community defined by a cozy "to hell with the US and USSR"
sentiment. Everywhere there was the peace symbolanother circle,
but this one with three bold lines in it and nothing in the background.
During the heyday of the anti-Vietnam War movement, military veterans
in my hometown liked to call it the track of the great American chicken.
I wondered how long it had been since Id seen it back home. A
decade, at least.
The atmosphere had a strong hippie flavor. Headbands, glad hairiness,
a profusion of flat hues, dreamy faces, except that the crowd was overwhelmingly
Scandinavian, physically more beautiful and homogenous than an American
gathering and smoking and drinking more intensely. That aside, it was
as if I were transported back to 1970. I wandered among them, an anonymous
cold warrior savoring a sweet nostalgia.
The afternoon grew chillier, the music and milling more aimless, as
if the concert had outrun its message. The Danes, who are never far
from thoughts of food, began thinking of food. Soon, the pølse
carts were doing a brisk trade selling Tuborg ale and the thin, dog-penis-colored
sausages that Danes so love, but I noticed a funny thing. The carts
customers were mostly the older, hippie-ish share of the crowd. The
high school- and college-age share was streaming across the boulevard
to a Burger King and returning with paper sacks of whoppers, French
fries, tater tots, apple pies, and onion rings, clutching shakes and
Cokes. Then they sat in loose clumps, many of them wearing jeans and
shirts bearing American product names, eating the American-style food,
listening to protest songs at a most American type of event, the peace
concert, which was convened, in large part, because of U.S. foreign
policy. While they rocked for fred.
Only the time was theirs.
© Roger Smith Feb 2004
"Something is rotten in the state of Denmark."
Smith on an impossible word
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