Happy St. Patrick’s Day from this American Mutt

I am going to go full American on you for a minute. Or two. Bear with me. But it’s Saint Patrick’s Day. And with 32.3 million¹ self-proclaimed Irish-Americans, myself included, it’s our day to do so. That’s 1 in 10 Americans people. But wait. Isn’t St. Patrick’s Day Irish? Like from IRELAND. Yes. Yes. It is. Did you see what I did there? Claimed it for my own? Pretty American eh? Hang on. Don’t be offended yet. Let me explain.

Saint Patrick’s Day is kind of a pretty big deal in the United States and my given name is Erin Kathleen. Kind of Irish. My brother is Michael Shannon and my other brother is Colin Patrick. We had an Irish Setter named “Paddy” growing up. And as cliche, groan-worthy or just downright confusing as it may sound to actual Irish people, every year on March 17th my mom made corned beef and cabbage, soda bread and a side of green jello salad. I now know how Irish-American that meal is. Especially the lime jello. There was nothing grown from the earth in that “salad,” just saying. My own children made leprechaun traps at school and my sister in law puts green food coloring in the toilet as “evidence” of their sneaky appearance overnight. Think of it like the “Elf on the Shelf” of March. Thanks Pinterest. March 17th is a big day. To us Irish-Americans. “Kiss me, I’m Irish.”

Where Irish Eyes are Smiling[Source: U.S. Census Bureau]

So when my husband was recently asked to fly to Ireland for a meeting, I jumped at the chance to join. With a day in Dublin to explore by myself, I set across the Ha’Penny bridge to Trinity College and on to St. Stephen’s Green and Grafton Street. It was sunny and blue-skied with birds chirping and daffodils poking open. Brilliant. I thought I’d found my pot of gold, sans the rainbow. Lunch with an Irish friend and her mother proved just the craic I was seeking. (That’s Irish for awesome.) It was quite a quick trip and by no means a tour of essential Ireland or even Dublin for that matter, but it whet my appetite (as well as my whistle) and kick-started a desire to dive into my family’s Irish past.

Walking past the National Library of Ireland with signs asking “What Will You Find Today?” I was pulled inside to discover the most beautiful green domed reading room. AND. The genealogy room. And Christina. The most knowledged and friendly and helpful librarian in all of Ireland. Ok. I’ve only met one. But she was fabulous. And when I told her my name was Erin and what I was searching for, she smiled and understood. She knows how to find your Irish relatives. If you have them, that is.

To start the process of mining the free databases of Ireland’s National Library, you do need to come armed with a few essential facts. Like names. That’s usually a good place to start. After a few quick direct messages to family members in the States, I soon had the full names of my Grandfather’s parents. This was where I had always believed our Irish family roots had relied. Christina helped me discover that I am from… where? Uh. Missouri. Yep. Oh. Ok. I mean, I knew we were from Kansas. But I now know that we go back further to Missouri. That’s. Like. Next to Kansas. Ok. So I’m Midwestern. Got it. Thanks to Ireland did I discover exactly what I already knew. Ok. But why then was St. Patrick’s Day such a big deal in our house every year?

I thanked Christina profusely and left the library still befuddled. My confusion was salved soon enough by an excellent meal with my husband at a lovely pub in Stoneybatter. If in Dublin, don’t miss L. Mulligan Grocer – so yummy (and not actually a grocery store). We returned home to Copenhagen the next day and I was determined to discover the basis for our annual familial obsession with corned beef. I mean my mom brought corned beef in her carry on bag for a spring break vacation in the Bahamas. The Bahamas people. She didn’t think she’d be able to find it down there. Talk about a confused customs agent. What is this? Um. Corned beef. You know. For St. Patrick’s Day. Ok. Keep moving.

For about two days straight I poured through scans of United States Federal census records from the early 1900’s and late 1800’s. It’s all online. It’s remarkable. And right there in the hand-written lists from 1880, the evidence I was seeking. My grandfather’s father’s father. He wasn’t from Missouri. He. He was from Ireland. And so was his wife. Where in Ireland I can’t confirm. Yet. Time to revisit with Christina! My husband was also quite pleased to have discovered that he is actually MORE Irish than me. His Grandfather’s father emigrated from Sweden with his Irish wife. Along with the Irish and Swedish, we uncovered evidence of English, German, Scottish and Swiss emigrants in the family. So as it turns out, we’re all mutts. American. In the words of Will Farrell reenacting his George W. Bush character in an opening monologue on Saturday Night Live,

“The way I see it, unless your name is Running Bear or Chief Two Rivers, we’re all anchor babies.”

– Will Farrell as George W. Bush, SNL

As an American living in Europe for the last 3.5 years, it has been made plainly clear to me that my claims of heritage are constant sources of amusement to the growing collection of International friends I spend time with. If I were to ever say I’m not just American, but “Irish-American” or that my husband is “Swedish-American,” it is cringeworthy and may even induce eye rolling. (PS – I don’t actually say that.) But I have learned, quite quickly, that where you are from in the International community is a truly complicated thing.

Where are you from? The answer, as it turns out, is relative. What are you asking me? Where was I born? What does my passport say? Where have I lived? Where did I move HERE from? What answer are you looking for? And why do you want to know?

Here is actually the crux of the question. Why do I want to know? Why do I care? Where people are “from?” I think this is the essentially American part of the question. We’re a relatively young country. And for me, as this is our first posting abroad, my answer is simple. I’m from America. Although I rarely have to tell anyone as my ubiquitous accent reveals it immediately whenever I speak. Ah. You’re American. Yep. Stamp on my forehead.

I live in Copenhagen. Denmark. Happiest country of hygge, Lego, beautiful lighting and a healthy bicycle lifestyle. But I’m not Danish. Can’t even claim the tiniest bit of Danish heritage. Because of my husband’s name, Gustafson, everyone assumes we are Swedish. We went to Stockholm, we saw Kong Gustav. It didn’t necessarily feel like home. But we do love Sweden. (And can claim a bit of heritage there per recent genealogy traces.)

Back here in Denmark, we have adopted and adapted lots of the Danish lifestyle and appreciate Danish approaches to life and living. We don’t have a car. We ride our bikes and the bus. Every day. Even on Saturday. And while we don’t speak fluent Danish (it’s really hard!) we can get around the grocery store without Google translate and always remember to put down the divider after our goods. That’s important here. We’re fitting in. Or trying to. We have an advantage we look like the locals. Until we speak, the assumption is that we’re local. I’m more than aware as a foreigner living here of the connotations that come with titles like “expat” or “immigrant” or “refugee.” They are just as pertinent and ultimately defining in Denmark as they are in the US.

Our ability to stay here in the seemingly delightful Denmark isn’t definitive. Every day, it seems, this little Scandi country is making it more difficult to gain access to all things Danish. Those specifically Scandinavian benefits of free universal healthcare and free higher education that come with residency, be it permanent or temporary – they are a challenge to secure. These are benefits that you want to hold on to when your job is based here.

We recently received a reminder that our carefree (gun-free) idyllic bicycled life here is not a given. Our residency permits are expiring. Soon. A dramatically worded letter addressed only to my youngest two children alerted us to the urgency of this fact. If we don’t apply for extensions, like yesterday, we can and will be forcibly removed from one of the happiest countries on earth. That doesn’t sound so happy. Or hyggeligt. Remind you of somewhere else you might know?

Don’t worry, we are submitting all of our paperwork and getting our Danish ducks in a row. We will be required to have our mugshots registered (again) and our fingerprints taken (again) and our signatures signed and sealed. Again. To be able to live here. It is a visceral process that enforces your NOT belonging. Not really. You are not us. It will be a very difficult process to be us. Remember that.

And maybe this is why I find the question of where you are from interesting and important. For me, it is less of an identifier or classifier or separator and more of a connector. Maybe it’s because I have moved so many times. Each time forced to make connections in the next “home.” The more we can identify with each other, the closer we can become.

So the next time you meet an American who claims Irish heritage or Dutch heritage or Scottish or Korean or Kenyan, even if they’ve never been to those places or spoken one word of the native tongue or even remember the names of those distant relatives, embrace it. You want Americans to connect outside their borders. I want Americans to connect outside our borders. I do not want walls. And I believe in bridges and love and acceptance.

Maybe give them a little gentle lesson in actual cultural heritage. Explain to them that you would never serve corned beef and cabbage at a real Irish celebration and you’ve never had green jello or colored your toilet water green. Or the milk for that matter. But you do drink Guinness. And you will wear green and possibly attend a parade today. 100,000 expected to line the streets of Dublin! And give them an opportunity to show you the diversity that makes up the melting pot called the USA.

We won’t be serving corned beef tonight in Denmark. My husband tried to find some and truly couldn’t. Darn it. But it’s ok because I will be raising a glass with women from around the world at my International Cooking Club dinner. We’re making Thai tonight. And while it may not be my traditional March 17th meal, it will be a celebration of culture and heritage and friendships. Beyond borders. With friends from Italy, The Netherlands, Belgium, Chile, Germany, Poland who have lived in as many more countries and have multiple answers to “where are you from?” and make my community in Denmark diverse. For them I am grateful.

So whatever your background, wherever you are from, however you celebrate, whatever you bring to the table – let’s make it a big table. In the words of my all-time favorite band, U2, who happen to be Irish, “It’s a beautiful day.” Build bridges not walls. Happy Saint Patrick’s Day. From Copenhagen.



Things I am Thankful for Living In Denmark

Thanksgiving is not a holiday in Denmark. There is no time off work. The kids get no break from school. We will not be traveling anywhere. Unless you count my husband’s day trip across Denmark to a meeting in Aarhus, delivering him back home late. My eldest son was busy delivering pizzas. The youngest had studies for a spelling test today. It was a regular day here in Denmark. It was Thursday. Torsdag to the Danes.

But that is ok. Full turkeys are hard to come by. If you do find one, it may cost you a pretty penny. Or plenty of kroner. Probably both. And good luck finding a Russet or a Yukon gold. There is some crazy nut tax that makes pecan use prohibitive or down right luxurious depending on your position and wallet. Canned pumpkin is equally overpriced and only found at the “American/British” aisle in certain grocers popular with expatriates. Maybe you have an inside source at the American Embassy. Or maybe you thought ahead and smuggled back a few cans of Libby’s and the requisite evaporated milk.

Most everything else you can find for your traditional recipes that you may or may not have printed, preserved and packed over the border with you when you passed. But, I didn’t make them yesterday. It’s ok. We’ll do it tomorrow. When we have time and can tune in some American college football via the old rabbit ears of streaming internet with VPN hiders. Yep. We may even head to the nearby park and toss the pigskin around. The football. Not the futbol. The football. It’s brown. And has laces. At least ours does. At Thanksgiving.

And while it may not be traditional or specifically timely, thankful we are. Grateful that we can. We miss family and friends celebrating afar, especially on days like Thanksgiving. But we are grateful that we have had this opportunity to explore this life across borders. Over here in Denmark. These are some of the things that I’m thankful for. Things that make this our Danish life.


Colorful buildings and cobblestone streets.

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Slik eller Ballade is Trick or Treat for Danes

Last night we celebrated an authentically Danish Halloween. That statement alone may seem controversial to some. Do Danes even do Halloween? Why yes. Yes they do. But Danes fall on two sides of the fence when it comes to the prevalence of what they see as a very American holiday. Some embrace it full on, while others ignore it, or worse, admonish the obvious escalation in adoption of the holiday here. We have witnessed an increase in participation, just in the two years that we have lived in Copenhagen. More jack-o-lanterns gleaming from windows and restaurant perches. Orange and black decorations in shops and on the street. Pumpkins for sale for the entire month of October.

And for what it is worth, last night’s Halloween was definitively Danish. How so? Let me share. First of all we took our daughter to a Danish neighborhood. One of the cutest neighborhoods in Copenhagen if you ask me. Trick or treating in apartment blocks where we live proves a challenge. What bell to ring and which floor to traipse to? Hard to know in a town that only partially celebrates. So we walked a little ways to the Kartofflerækkerne. The “potato rows.” Darling little row houses sit sandwiched along several blocks near the Lakes in Østerbro. You can find them running between Øster Søgade and Øster Farimagsgade. Each with a little fenced yard, on Halloween their gates and doors are open. Decorated with cobwebs, jack-o-lanterns and fog machines. Many sporting more haunting decor.

One of my favorite images of the Potato Row houses by photographer Henrik Schurmann

Continue reading “Slik eller Ballade is Trick or Treat for Danes”

Madrid | Spain via Oregon Girl Around the World

Make Madrid Mine

Madrid didn’t do it for me. Not the first time. Millions and millions of Madrileños can’t be wrong. But it didn’t make my heart sing. Not at first.

Maybe we missed the magic of Madrid. The first time.

Let’s rewind. For a minute. Two years ago. Having moved my family around the world to Copenhagen, Denmark. We took a flight leaving Portland, OR to Vancouver, Canada on to Frankfurt, Germany then finally landing in Copenhagen. Capital of Denmark. That alone was exhausting. We picked up a tiny (at the time) rental car and dropped seven HUGE overstuffed overweight bags at my husband’s office. What a great first impression that was. And then, after only two days in damp, dark Denmark, we took our very first European family trip.

Why? Why did you do that? Well. We had a few weeks before my husband’s job contract was to start and the children had open spots in their new school. We had to move out of our house in Oregon because we’d already rented it to incoming Aussies. What better way to spend those gap weeks than traveling. Immediately. I know it sounds intense. (As it turns out – it was.) But this was part of the reason we took the job in Denmark to begin with. All those amazing travel opportunities.

We decided on Spain. For a week. We planned to split the week between Barcelona and Madrid. That Renfe express train between the two cities is amazeballs. You should try it. It was November. It was definitely not peak season to visit Spain. Perfect timing we decided. The weather was pleasant. Not too hot. Not too cold. Definitely warmer and brighter and lighter than the dark, near December we encountered upon landing in Denmark.

Fall in Retiro Park, Madrid SPAIN

This was Spain. This was my first visit to Spain. My husband’s first trip to Spain. My childrens’ first visit to Spain. This is why I chose it. Why we chose it. I wanted our first familial foray into European exploits to be a FIRST for us all. Perhaps in retrospect, a wee bit of familiarity might have been preferable. Make our transition easier. Maybe.

Madrid is amazing. But Madrid is a metropolis. The third largest capital in Europe behind London and Berlin. Madrid is HUGE. And crowded and bustling and busy and loud and large. We were overwhelmed. Overstimulated. Exhausted. And because of this, I will admit, we were underwhelmed with the Spanish capital. Lo ciento España. I’m sorry Madrid.

Madrid is a METROPOLIS. It is mega huge.

We had a perfectly situated Airbnb apartment near Puerta del Sol. The epicenter of Madrid. Of Spain, really. This is kilometer zero. All mileage in Spain is calculated from this point. There is where first impressions are made. Ours ? A wary sense of outsider-ness. I don’t know how to explain it any other way.

It was different from Barcelona’s colorful, whimsical, mosaic’d and mercado’d  beach vibe. Madrid hit us like a Flamenco dancer – fast and loud – clapping and stomping to a beat we couldn’t hear. We couldn’t understand.

Maybe it was the somewhat intimidating costumed characters strolling around the plaza at Puerta del Sol looking for a little pocket change in exchange for a photo op from passing tourists. Chubby spider men busting the seams of their suits; slightly tarnished Mickey and Minnie Mouses taking breaks with their “head” under their arms. But the most disturbing and definitely creepiest – was the red headed giant butcher knife wielding Chucky looming atop the fountain mid plaza. THIS is what my daughter, then 8, remembers most about Madrid. Did you see him? He was creepy.

I have to jog her memory (and mine) about the delicious chocolate con churros at world famous Chocolatería San Ginés. OH YEAH! Those were good! Can we get those again? Maybe. We’ll see. And how about that stroll through Retiro Park, listening to the live music at that outdoor cafe while boats paddled in the nearby lake? Oh yeah! That was good too. Is THAT where we had the milkshake? Yes. Yes it was.

And how about renting bikes and riding along the canals down to Casa de Campo (a gorgeous green space/park five times the size of New York’s Central Park?) Remember we found the ropes course and climbing structure? That was MADRID? Yes. Yes it was. OH. That was cool! A little stressful I will admit as parents letting our 8 year old ride an adult sized bike in a not as bike-friendly town as our new home Copenhagen, but she did it. In spite of the hills!

And how about that kilo of bacon we bought at the Museo del Jamon? HAHAHAHA! Group chuckle inducing memory jog. Having just moved to Europe and not yet used to metric weight system, I ordered one kilo of bacon. It seemed reasonable at the time. There are five us and three are growing children. As we watched him slice and slice and slice….and SLICE. And. SLICE. And keep slicing. We soon realized we’d made a critical error. OH. Kilos. Got it. (For those of you – who like me – didn’t get the conversion immediately – one kilo of bacon is exactly 2.2 pounds of bacon.) Yep. I cooked that bacon for an hour. Couldn’t take raw bacon home to Denmark you know. I will admit – although I couldn’t shake that animal fat smell for days – it was delicious.


So many fun memories when we sit and think about it. So why then the ho-hum response when we look back at Madrid on our list of places visited? Timing. Bad timing. Unfortunately I think our collective familial state of shock that we had actually packed up all our earthly goods, sold off half, put some on a ship and stored the rest in my mother’s attic and shlepped ourselves AROUND THE WORLD – before even establishing ourselves in our new home just MIGHT have had a little to do with it.

When my husband had an opportunity to travel back to Madrid for work, at first I wasn’t interested. Too many other places to see. Don’t need a repeat. But I am SO GLAD I did. Two years later. This September. I will be happy to show you how I made Madrid mine. More intimate. More accessible. More approachable.

How do you make a huge city feel less intimidating? More like yours? I’ve got ways. Now. I’ve had to learn. Ways we have made it work in the past two years. I’m happy to share. I’d like to hear yours. Madrid is mine part II to follow. Stay tuned. Memories help – a place looks better in retrospect sometimes. Look at all those things we did. We are grateful. That matters. It helps make a place like Madrid ours.

Cheers from Copenhagen, xoxo Erin


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Sharing with Faraway Files Travel Blog Community – a link up hosted by Katy at Untold Morsels, Clare at Suitcases and Sandcastles and me – Oregon Girl Around the World. Click the badge to add your own post or come over and read where to travel next! Cheers, Erin


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