This story begins in 1968, so you’ll need to be a bit patient while I give you the back story. That year I was in 8th grade at John Marshall Junior High School in Seattle and as luck and good fortune would have it I had a teacher from Denmark, Steen Jørgensen, as my geography teacher. This was his second time teaching in the states, but my first introduction into the wider world. I had lived life to that point just in the Seattle area, with little exposure to other countries or cultures. Steen changed all that. What an eye opener it was to attend his class, to hear a different voice, to see the world through a completely different set of eyes. I was enthralled. At the end of the semester, he stated that if anyone was interested in living in Denmark, to stay in touch with him. That remark changed my life. I thought about that comment for a year and finally got the nerve to bring it up to my mom. Much to my surprise, she thought it was a great idea! After a year of correspondence, yes, the old fashioned letter variety, we arranged with Steen for me to travel to Denmark in August of 1970. I lived with Steen, his wife Inge and two sons, Peter, age 14 and Anders, age 7, for a year, attending school in what would have been my junior year of high school.
This was their house in Vejle, the lovely town on Vejle fiord, on the Jutland peninsula. It sat on the edge of the fiord, with their sailboat moored out front. Three days after I arrived I began attending school, knowing only a few words of Danish. While some of my ancestors were of Danish heritage (after all, my maiden name was Hansen), all I learned from my grandfather was a few swear words. After about 4 months of a perpetual headache I finally got a bit of a grasp on the rather difficult language and eventually only spoke Danish for the rest of the year.
This family and year changed everything for me. I was able to see a different family dynamic, a different culture, learned to think a bit in a different language, was able to travel through Europe experiencing even more. Steen was patient with helping me navigate through school as he taught where I attended. Peter also attended school there and never seemed to mind that this stray American girl ended up in his house and school and took over his room. Anders just thought I was rather pathetic, not being able to speak Danish. But we made a game of it and he taught me a great deal of vocabulary.
In December of 1970 I got to experience Christmas in a totally new way. This included going off to the countryside to pick out and cut a Christmas tree. This was Steen tying it onto the car with Peter and Anders looking on. Note the dead rabbit hanging from the side of the building! Once home we decorated the tree in traditional Danish fashion, with lots of red and white, which are not only Christmas colors, but the colors of the Danish flag. I was amazed to see real candles put on the tree, which were lit on Christmas Eve, when everyone joined hands and sang as we walked around the tree.
Here is the 16 year old me sitting next to that very tree, wearing the first sweater, in fact, the first thing I ever knit. That was thanks to Inge, patiently teaching me. She was a prodigious knitter – she’d sit in the evening and knit while we watched TV and had our evening coffee and dessert. Rarely did she even look at her work, doing it all by feel. I’ve never quite reached her amazing knitting talent, but I still enjoy knitting almost every day, thanks to her.
And speaking of evening coffee, this was what our routine looked like. Sorry, Peter, that you were cut out of the picture, except for your feet! Amazingly, I have very few pictures of the year that marked such significant changes in my life. Film and developing were expensive and I was there on a very tight budget. But in my mind! Oh, in my mind I still have such clear pictures of life that year. The Jørgensen family became my family and remains so to this day. Unfortunately, Inge passed away a number of years ago, but my Danish “family” has grown, nonetheless. Anders has married and with his lovely wife Charlotte they have two amazing daughters, Patricia and Filippa. And after my husband and I were married for several years and he heard story after story about this year, we decided we ought to try to pay it forward. Our inquiries to Steen about the possibility of finding a Danish student who might like to study in America brought us Henrik. He was a strapping 17 year old, smart as a whip, charming and good looking and won the hearts of many when he lived with us outside Philadelphia in 1986. He remains my Danish “son”, and now, together with Jane, they have two wonderful children, Silas and Josie, whom I consider my grandchildren. Henrik’s family, his mother Inger and sisters Susanne and Birgitte, Jane’s family and so many others have come into my life making it so much richer.
So that leads us to now, when it’s been four years since I was last in Denmark, celebrating Steen’s 90th birthday, that I decided it was time to head back and experience one more Danish Christmas. Luckily, everyone seemed to agree that it was a great idea, so off I head for one more Danish adventure. I hope to share a bit of it with you, so you can feel the same warmth and love that I do from my adopted family and country.