Descending from Vikings


“Where are you from?” I’ve brought it up before. It’s an interesting question and one that I am as tempted to ask as be asked. I’m not off put or bent out of shape or annoyed in any way when I am posed this query. We’re different here. As Americans living in Denmark. It’s ok. Where we have lived shapes us. The cultures, norms and lifestyles play into who we are and how we approach things. What I have noticed is that the foreign perception of heritage may be different than that of an American’s. How many of my American friends and readers did a “roots report” of sorts in grade school? How many of us celebrate holidays like St. Patrick’s Day and the like because of ancestral ties to the “old country?” My great-grandfather did emigrate from Ireland. We know this. Beyond that, we don’t know a ton about him because after moving to Kansas and marrying my great-grandmother, he left our family including my grandpa and his 3 siblings when they were quite young. But if I were to say I was “Irish American” here in Denmark – I would be met with smirks, scoffs and genuine looks of incredulity. (I am used to that.) “You are not Irish. I know Irish.” or “Why are Americans so obsessed with who their ancestors are?” “You’re American.” Yes. I am. But my ancestors were Irish. I never said

What I noticed fairly quickly moving here is that the foreign perception of heritage may be different than that of an American’s. How many of my American friends or readers did a “roots report” of sorts in grade school? How many of us celebrate holidays like St. Patrick’s Day and the like because of ancestral ties to a specific “old country?” My great-grandfather did emigrate from Ireland. We know this. Beyond that, we don’t know a ton about him because after moving to Kansas and marrying my great-grandmother, he left our family including my grandpa and his three siblings when they were quite young. But if I were to say I was “Irish American” here in Denmark – I would be met with smirks, scoffs and genuine looks of incredulity. (I am used to that.) “You are not Irish. I know Irish.” or “Why are Americans so obsessed with who their ancestors are?” “You’re American.” Yes. I am. But my ancestors were Irish. I never said

But if I were to say I was “Irish American” here in Denmark – I would be met with smirks, scoffs and genuine looks of incredulity. (I am used to that now living abroad.) “You are not Irish. I AM Irish.” or “Why are Americans so obsessed with who their ancestors are?” “You’re American.” Yes. YES, I am. But my ancestors were Irish. I never said was Irish. And I do like corned beef and Guinness. So sue me. (Please note: I never actually have uttered the words “I am an Irish American”, but the topic has been discussed with my local international friends. And I know how very American the saying “so sue me” is as well and living here in Denmark I do appreciate their non-litigious leanings.)

On the other side of the coin – my husband’s “heritage” has Swedish roots as evidenced by our last name – Gustafson. Having the last name Gustafson in Scandinavia instantly makes you a Swede. King Gustav was big there. We saw him in Stockholm. Somehow – we are his sons. Not really. But it’s fun to say. And having a Scandinavian name in Scandinavia is not actually a boon as it bestows higher expectations on your knowledge of local language and customs. Like my son who was taller than his peers from an early age – the expectations of his early development a grave disappointment when his size didn’t match his language maturation. But he is only 14 months old! Whew, that indignation came back quickly – sorry. Back to our story. When they hear our name, people ask us if we’re Swedish. I have been asked that more than one time in Denmark and in Norway. Weirdly, no one asked us in Sweden. 😉

King Gustaf the III
King Gustaf the III

Heritage it seems – where we are from – an important question. Not only historically, but a serious question in our modern societies. The issue of immigration a hot bed topic the world around. It was intruiging to bear witness to the question during the recent Danish elections. It will clearly be a popular topic in the upcoming American Presidential election. Where are you from and how are you different from us. It is so very interesting a topic to me as the one who is currently part of “the different.”

But apparently we aren’t all that different and ancestry is messy according to an evolutionary geneticist, Mark Thomas, who wrote a piece in the Guardian a few years back in response to pay-for-ancestry genetic tests that could determine your heritage. Thomas shows that the science can’t definitively say. He states that…

you don’t have to look very far back before you have more ancestors than sections of DNA, and that means you have ancestors from whom you have inherited no DNA. Added to this, humans have an undeniable fondness for moving and mating – in spite of ethnic, religious or national boundaries – so looking back through time your many ancestors will be spread out over an increasingly wide area. This means we don’t have to look back much more than around 3,500 years before somebody lived who is the common ancestor of everybody alive today.” ¹

So what does that mean to you and me? We’re all descended from Vikings! Or Celts. Or Jews. Or Masai. Or Zulu. Or… you decide. Anyway. Around here – I’m a Viking. It’s fun to say. Vikings are fierce. Snap. And we’ve learned a lot about them lately. They are very popular. We have been to three different Viking Ship museets in Denmark and Norway. Comparing and contrasting for your reading pleasure in the next post. Stay tuned. Cheers from Viking land wherever you are from! – Erin

Vikings in Barcelona
Vikings in Barcelona

Sharing a New Home with Family

We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming. Hej! I’m back! What? Didn’t realize that we were on break? Undskyld. Sorry. (A phrase I am hearing often lately out of my teen’s mouth. I guess I should be happy he is learning Danish? I digress.) But for the past three weeks, my mom and her husband have been visiting us here in Denmark and I haven’t been writing, just enjoying the time with them, sharing our new home and accumulating lots of great new experiences. We’ve been fjording in Norway and fishing in Fyn. I’ll share it all – don’t worry. There were brilliant glimpses of Danish sommer. It was hot! No really – for a couple of days – it was actually really very hot! (For Denmark. Everything is relative.) We’ve also had thunder storms and wind warnings and driving rain. It was a veritable cornucopia of Scandinavian meteorology and tourism.

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Six months an expat

Half a year. Expatriates for half a year. It has been six months since we stepped away from my mom’s driveway, kissing our family and dog goodbye. Handed over the keys of our home to renters the day before, after countless days culling and packing and separating and storing all our earthly belongings. Much of sold in an epic yard sale. Much of it in my mother’s attic. Some more of it cordoned off in our own garage. Boats sold, cars sold or given away or stored. Goodbye parties with friends for both the littles and the adults. All behind us. Getting on that plane, there was a collective familial exhale. The months and months of preparing, planning and processing before that moment now complete. Yes, it was bittersweet. Tears were shed. Hugs held longer than normal. But the anticipation and excitement and sheer utter exhaustion took over and flying around the world became surreal. Not on vacation. But flying 30 hours around the world to our new home. To Denmark.

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Tip on the tight rope

High above the chimney tops – that’s where you’ll find me. Haha! Definitely not me. Still relegated to a more grounded perspective due to recent surgical ankle relocation. But, rather, my wee peeps. Up in the trees. Swinging from the branches. Maneuvering obstacles. Crawling over old tires and logs and beer crates and shipping palettes and shopping carts – even through an old car – all strung up in the trees, way over my head behind the Carlsberg Brewery complex in the Vesterbro neighborhood of Copenhagen. Klatreskoven is a high ropes course for all ages, a playground in the trees.


We first found Klatreskoven in the winter time, on a weekendly family discovery drive around town. Everyone drives down the famous Elephanten Gate at the historic Carlsberg Brewery. Those cement larger than life elephants are something to behold, even if you don’t drink Carl’s beer. Hang the second right past the elephants and follow the huge red brick building with the gold circles down to the right. You can’t miss it. At first it looks like a possible art installation – upcycling sorted garbage in a criss-crossing web through the branches. Wait – what does that sign say? Google translating as fast as my thumbs can type, we realize that it is a playground, a climbing course. Holy cats. Seriously – they let people up there? THAT IS WAY UP THERE! The childrens’ collective eyes grew and excitement mounted – “Can we do it? Can we do it!?” Er. Uh. (EEK) Alas it doesn’t open until spring.

Spring forward. Maj Day weekend. We’ve already celebrated our Danish solidarity on our free Friday off. The following Søndag was a beautiful spring day – sunny skies, mild weather – you might say – a blue bird day. Klatreskoven has pushed itself into the forefront of our littles’ subconscious again. “Can we do the ropes course? Please?” Umm. Uh. Ask Dad? For me… two things. First – I can’t do it with them for obvious reasons. Second – it kind of terrifies me. I had done some research online and translated that participants do wear helmets and harnesses and must have a safety orientation before beginning. There are also varying “levels” depending on one’s age, ability and height (most importantly). The top, highest, most precariously terrifying course is the Black course. Egad. Please no. Not that one. Ok.

As it turns out – our eldest wasn’t interested in scaling the ropes – so we did the most teenager-y of things – he and I went shopping. Dad took the subsequent two littles on their bikes cross-town to Frederiksberg and Klatreskoven. It was perfect. By the time I crutched my way from the bus stop there – my son and daughter had confidently maneuvered the first path of the course and any insecurity on their part that I may have perceived as a safety issue had been worked through. They were having a ball. It was impressive watching them unhook and re-hook the double safety system between each obstacle. My husband reassured me that they are never unattached preventing any potential plummeting to the ground. Are you sure? Yes. I’m sure. Sure?! Sure.

At one point, my wee lass had followed big brother (of course, why wouldn’t she?) onto a course above her level. In the original orientation, she had been relegated to the “blue” course and suddenly realized while waiting on the platform about 20’ up that this was the harder “red” course from the red ties around the trees. Unfortunately the paths move in one consistent direction and people were continuing to progress behind her – there was no turning around. Dad assured her (and me) after a quick assessment where this new path would take her, that she could proceed forward. Her slow, calculated, determined progression was a sight to behold, especially for the nervous mother neck straining looking up from below. Watching her carefully work through where the next step would be, how she would not tangle herself from the harness, how to reach that slightly higher ring. I had to let go. She had to do it. I could not help. Neither could Dad. It was freedom. For her and for me. (I’m a little verklempt actually writing about it actually.)

Copenhagen has afforded my children much freedom. And I feel so very fortunate that for a city this large and this European and this cosmopolitan – it is so very ok to let them have it. It is safe here. Leave your babies sleeping outside in the enormous pram on the sidewalk while you sip, eat, shop. Yes. I am not naive that things can happen. Believe me. It has been a process to afford them the same opportunities allowed Danish children, the same freedom. I blame a little bit of it on my American bred fear-based conditioning. We put our children in bubbles for fear of what might happen. But when the nightly news shows you images of your worst fears occurring time and again, it is no wonder why we are all “nervous Nellies.” But why aren’t the Danes?

Yesterday was the 4th of Maj. In our house this date always conjures Star Wars references – May the 4th be with you and a possible showing of one of the franchise movies. Take him to you I will (Oh sorry, that’s my favorite.) But here in Denmark – this day has a much different connotation. It is a day of freedom – an end to the 5-year occupation of Nazi Germany during World War II. A day when blackout shades were torn down and thrown out and windows all over the city slowly lit up with candles showing the light again. It was over. They were free. Queen Margrethe celebrated the 70th anniversary of the occasion at Mindenlunden i Ryvangen (Ryvangen Memorial Park) – the historic site where Danish resistance members were executed and buried so many years ago. There were candle lit parades around town filled with generations of people who may not have even been alive in 1945, but the stories from FarMor and MorFar (grandparents) have had lasting impact. Never forget. Light your candles. Remember our freedom.

Maj 4th
Maj 4th

It made me wonder, as my daughter lit every candle we have in every window of our 5th floor flat (nearing fire-hazard levels, despite the excellent hygge up in there) how was it that Danes remember the light, but have been able to let go of the dark. They had to know fear. I cannot begin to pretend to know what it was like to live under an oppressive occupying force in my own country.

As an American, I know that our fear during that time was somewhat different – sending our young men into the fray and worrying about their safe return. My paternal Grandpa was one of those forces. A pilot, based in England, flying B-17 bombers over Germany. He did return. Thankfully for our family. My Grandma, in her inability to celebrate him as one of the “Greatest Generation,” passed on her fear – not directly expressed, but translated clearly. His experience was not to be discussed, talked about, lauded over. That was a terrible time and it was past. Maybe that is how the Danes have moved on. I can only guess.

What living in Denmark in 2015 has definitely taught me, in six short months, is that there is freedom in letting go. See the light. See it in your children’s faces as they confront their own challenges and have chances to succeed. Now I’m all verklempt again. It isn’t easy. It is pushing me as well – outside of my comfort zone. This is not the bubble. Being mobility impaired has proved an unlikely catalyst – I simply can’t do as much for them. But they were ready to step up. Ready to tip on the tightrope. Ready for the challenge. For this we are all expanding. Freedom.



Maj Dag – May Day!

May 1st or May Day, the world around, conjures images of flowers born from April showers. Placing cones bursting full of blossoms upon the front doors of unsuspecting loved ones and neighbors. May poles with colorful ribbons being woven round by dancing happy young girls in layered dresses skipping to live music being played and happy standersby clapping and welcoming sunny days and new green leaves on the trees. Is it just me? This version of May Day has roots in many cultures extending as far back as Ancient Rome. This was not exactly the 1st of May picture we encountered in our corner of Copenhagen this past Fredag.

May 1st is also – you may or may not know – known as Labor Day or International Worker’s Day in many parts of the world. Adopted in 1889 by socialized countries to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution as well as American labor union strikes of the late 19th century pushing for fairer working conditions, including the 8-hour work day. We now live in the socialized country of Denmark who takes their May 1st celebrating very seriously. It is somewhat of a sacred institution here. At least for some. Every year the large Fælledparken – in our neighborhood – turns into a enormous union rally and party on the lawn. Booths set up for each labor union. There are speeches by local illuminati including the Prime Minister and others, followed by live music, DJ’s, food, carnival rides, cheap white wine and Tuborg beer – all to celebrate the day of the worker. And no one works. Well – most people aren’t working. It is a school holiday and bank holiday, so we all had a free day off. And to celebrate – almost everyone drinks. A lot. Skål to the working man!

To be fair, maybe we did not truly celebrate May 1st as a festive Dane. I feel fairly confident that if I had two able feet to walk with and wasn’t concerned about the escalating level of intoxication coming to and fro the park out on our neighborhood streets, we would have cruised through Fælledparken and checked it out. When in Copenhagen, right? But having experienced just a fragment of its celebrants on their way to the celebration made me a wee bit wary in my crutching for my life current condition. Open containers? Underage drinking? Check and check. Oh – that’s right. Did you know that you can legally buy alcohol here at 16. Yes. 16. So maybe they weren’t actually underage. But alcohol was everywhere. And the cans, bottles, cheap white wine and emptied bubbly all left exactly where it was finished. On the sidewalk. On the corner. By the cafe door. By our door. I am not intending to lay judgement. To each his own I usually say. And to be honest not one of these boisterous young attendees was really doing anything inappropriate that I witnessed – just celebrating a free day communally. And festively. And drunkly. Unlike other Danish holidays that we have experienced when the city shuts down and feels cavernous and echo-ey – leaving us to wonder where have all the people gone? (And where are we supposed to get groceries?) In contrast, May 1st was PACKED. To the brim. At least in our neighborhood. We waited alongside the throngs and masses for the bus that was late due to being over capacity – so packed, and filling more at each stop, that our children were worried that they were to be boxed in at the back of the bus and would be unable to get off at the requisite stop. Fear not, dear reader, as all of us – even I with my crutches – were able to maneuver the burgeoning bus crowd and make it to our destination.

So what did we do on this 1st of May? We celebrated this most Danish of holidays with an invitation to join some Danish and American friends at the opening of an outdoor seating patio for two little cafes in our neighboring neighborhood, Nørrebro. Lækkerier på Nørrebro is known for its fabulous cakes, Danish rugbrød sandwiches and latina Pisco Sours. Next door is the Green Buddha offering delicious thai fare and Singha beer. Order up, bundle up (it was cold) and listen to the festive South American rhythms  of Trypical Cumbia – band members hailing from Chile, Columbia, England and Ecaudor singing in Spanish. Ai! Ai! Ai! All of this painted against the graffiti’d backdrop of Vedbæksgade (remember gade means street) made it a very colorful outing. How does this all fit together? Did it make sense? Not in a traditional sense. But as newly minted citizens of the world, sharing it with our new friends, throwing around an American football, it felt like a celebration indeed. We sat outside and enjoyed the music on this abnormally chilly May 1st (so I’m told by two Danes who would know) wrapped up in the cafe’s fleece blankets, and shared stories and talked of new plans and enjoyed excellent cake and a new sense of growing community. For this I will happily celebrate in solidarity.

Happy Maj to you and yours!