The plane is packed. The overhead bins are full. The woman next to me is coughing her lungs out. Great. I get to sit for nine hours next to someone with the flu or walking (flying) pneumonia. I snap on my seat belt, which is so ludicrous. That seat belt is really going to help when we're diving down 35,000 feet into the Atlantic. And it's difficult not to start laughing hysterically during the oxygen mask lecture and while reading the card in the seat pocket about inflating your little raft under the seat, yes, I can just see 250 passengers calmly inflating their seat rafts and carrying them serenely out of the plane into the icy waters roiling with shark teeth.
I think about love. How I'm doing this for love. For love's sake, I'm flying to Denmark, I'm risking my life to fly in this flying coffin, to catch the flu, to be eaten by sharks, to burn alive in the fuselage, to drown in the ocean, to be stranded on a desert island with only a seat raft, a Vogue magazine, and an oxygen mask. I decide to order two Coronas at once so I can keep one in my carry-on bag, which of course I will take with me when I depart the plane (calmly) to float in the Atlantic (serenely) on my seat raft.
All for love, this torture. My husband, Kenneth, is Danish, and I'm flying to Denmark to join him and celebrate his parents' 50th wedding anniversary. Kenneth went a week ahead of me because he could; he took his vacation time now in order to be with his parents for this event. I had to come later; I'm not supposed to be on vacation, I'm in the middle of the semester. But I figured it out so I could go for ten days. Still, I have 120 students on my mind, and trying hard not to have them on my mind. I want to be completely present for Kenneth's parents, for their big event, not thinking about school. All for love, this wrangling, this organizing so I could go, this facing of fears. The woman next to me sneezes and blows her nose. Oh, God, for nine hours I'll have to listen to her nose blowing. I glance at her. She has very blond hair and a red nose.
Sigh. I settle in, wrapping my scarf around the lower part of my face, trying to protect myself from the germs. Then I unwrap it. I suddenly feel so tired of myself trying to protect myself. I need a shot of tequila. I'm on a plane going to Europe for Christ's sake. For Love's sake. So ENJOY IT! I start reading my Vogue magazine. I brought a book, but don't want to read it now. It's called, Nothing To Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes, a memoir, focusing on death. A meditation on mortality and the fear of death. What was I thinking? I was thinking I wanted to read something brilliant, something non-fiction. But, hey, nail polish ads look good at the moment, and clothes and make-up. Because I don't want to think too much because the plane is about to take off and I hate take off almost as much as I hate landing. I grip the arm rest and bump the woman next to me. "Sorry," I say. "This part always scares me." (It all scares me.)
"Me, too," she says. She smiles and sneezes. She has a mischievous grin. She has an accent. Danish. We start talking about New York, but she has flown in from Toronto and before that, Spain. What were you doing in Toronto, I ask. She was performing. She is a performance artist. What kind? The explanation takes a long time. We talk and I forget I'm on a plane. She is not Cirque De Soleil, but something like that. More body to it than that. Dance? Yes, but more yoga to it. Instead of trying to explain it, I will summarize from her website (http://www.kittjohnson.dk/filer/e2/home.html):
Kitt Johnson is a former middle-distance runner, (800 meters), and since her first solo work in 1992, has worked consistently on researching the body and displaying it as an artistic medium. At festivals abroad, both in New York and Toronto, she and her group, X-act, are received by an unanimously enthusiastic public and press, and both the Opera of Lille, France and - as here - the Finnish National Opera's Ballet,have commissioned works by her. X-act is supported by the Danish Art's Council throughout the 2004 - 2009 seasons.
X-act operates with dance, sound, light and space. Using these ingredients Quinta Essentia is in search...the interior directed by a strict logic...the exterior allowing the individual spectators to be present with their own imagination.
Since 1999 the Theatre Council in Denmark has supported the company regularly, which also means that the company has been able to set up a more permanent management structure.
The performances of X-act have been shown in various contexts in Europe as well as North America, Australia, the Middle and Far East, and performances tour on a yearly basis.
Kitt Johnson's background is in elite athletics, modern and new dance, contact improvisation, martial arts and butoh. As a dancer, performer and choreographer she has worked with Mark Tompkins (F), Norbert Stockheim (D), Sacha Waltz (D), Anita Saij (DK) and Yumiko Yoshioka (D) among others.
Through her wide-ranging work with the language of choreography, a unique sense for space and stage effects plus her sublime body control, she has created a personal expression and sureness of style. This has placed her as one of the most respected Danish choreographers . Both in Denmark and internationally, there is great interest for her distinctive artistic universe.
Kitt and I talked for five hours. When she found out I was a writer/poet, that was it, we were off, talking about art and poetry and life and vision and philosophy and childhood and personal history, all of it. Her boyfriend is Greek and a poet in Denmark, writing in Greek and Danish. He has published two books of poetry.
It was amazing to meet Kitt on the plane. Out of all those people on the flight, the luck of sitting next to each other. I have never had such a wonderful plane ride. We talked so much we had to take a nap; it was four in the morning. So we closed our eyes and rested and then talked some more and voila! We were approaching the airport. We exchanged cell numbers and planned to meet in Copenhagen later on in the week. Which we did, at a bohemian café in Norreport. Norreport, a neighborhood of Copenhagen, is where the artists hang out. Kitt introduced me to her friends, a dancer and a screenwriter for Swedish television. It was great. Kitt had to go teach a workshop, so we left the café and walked with her bicycle in the rain toward Norreport Station. I had to get back to Espergaerde, the town where Kenneth's parents live. We hugged good-by, but I know we will meet again. Either in Copenhagen or Oakland. I can't wait to see her perform.
Observations from an American in Denmark:
The Danish people have a very good life. Truly, they are some of the happiest folk I have ever met. And why shouldn't they be? Their government is good to them. Their government is actually FOR the people. What a concept!
Kenneth has four cousins. One of his cousins, Bireth, has a Ph.D in science, bio-chemistry/nutrition. She went to the university for seven years. The government paid for her entire education. Can you imagine it? This happens for everyone who has earned the grades for that level of education. Everyone. When I was a young woman, I wanted to get a Ph.D, but I was absolutely exhausted by working and going to school and being poor. So after getting my Master's Degree, I searched and finally found a teaching job. Oh, yes, well, I could have gone back and gotten the Ph.D. But the thought of the government PAYING FOR IT. Wow. Denmark is such a small country, (five million people), so that makes it more possible. But still. The people are taken care of. The country is clean and beautiful everywhere. Recycling every minute of everything, nothing wasted, nothing grotesque or overdone. The architecture, whether residential or commericial, is art. Kenneth and I went to a museum of modern art called Louisiana to see an exhibit. The artist's work (Per Kirkeby) was great, but the museum itself and the grounds (looking out to the sea) were also stunning. I visited Danish family and friends in five different houses/apartments, and those dwellings were all gorgeous. Not expensive but full of space and light and clean lines and no clutter. And the fashion. On men, too. I gawked. I love fashion, and the Danes know how to dress. Bohemian Elegance, everyone! This was my second time in Denmark, but I noticed it so much this trip. Maybe because it was colder and so more clothes to see. Boots, scarves, coats, jackets, hats, fabulous. I couldn't keep my eyes off of everyone. And the food. Food food food. YOU SIT THERE FOR A LONG LONG TIME and you eat and you drink and you talk and talk and talk and laugh and honestly, the Danes should be in the Guinness Book of World Records for the Art of Conversation. And for the amount of hours sitting. Then they walk or bike everywhere so they are very fit, too.
I want to say something here about the way the Danes carry on a conversation. They really look at each other, they pay attention to the person who is talking. There is a quality to that attention that doesn't happen in America, at least in my experience. And it is a sustained attention. I found myself not day dreaming as I often do at dinner /lunch parties. I'm usually a one-on-oner, that's when I pay the most attention. My attention gets diffused the more people there are around. But the Danes don't do this. Someone talks and all the attention is right there, on that person. It is an art, I realized. And they learn it early, sitting for long hours with each other, talking over great meals. I found myself intensely awake during these conversations. This is a very important part of their culture, and I also realize that I was so attracted to Kenneth because of this: he paid such amazing attention to me, full on, and he does that with everyone. Just calm, complete attention to the conversation. It is kind, it is elegant, it is sincere, it is civilized, it is beautiful and makes you feel important and loved and warm and happy. Just being. Talking. Eating together. But it is an event, not a duty or something to get through. This is living, the essence of life's joy, this sharing of food and talk and always much laughter.
Candles. Always candles lit in the homes. Candles at the table. Candles in glasses, in little cups, in slim silver candle holders. Up in the window shelves, the light on the light. Light.
Here is a typical lunch: delicious, nutritious brown bread, that thick flaxseed rye dark bread, but thin slices with herring and a thin curls of red onion and cherry tomatoes and hard boiled egg and a beer and a tiny glass of Aquavit. Aquavit means "water of life."
It's like Vodka but better. Spicier. It goes perfectly with herring. Someone says, "Skol!" and we lift our glasses and drink. We talk, we eat, someone else says, "Skol!"
And this goes on throughout the meal. A tradition I heartily support. Skol!
Some salami, some veal pate. Sliced cheese. Perfectly sliced. Kenneth's mother would howl if she saw how I slice the cheese in my house. She would not have allowed me to marry her son if she knew I ate cheese straight out of the package. She uses a special cheese slicer, you know, the kind with the delicate wire. She sent us one from Denmark so she would have it here while visiting. Perfectly sliced cheese is a Danish must in the meal, both breakfast and lunch and sometimes for dessert after dinner.
The Danes do not worry about lots of cheese and butter. Or meat. Or coffee. Or chocolate. Or bread. They basically, as far as I can see, worry a lot less than Americans about everything. But then, remember: their government takes good care of them.
All small plates. Lunch is finished off with grapes, slices of pears, apples, chunks of chocolate (plain and with almonds) and coffee and tea.
The food in Denmark is exquisite. Like it has been grown in an organic meadow in Nordic Heaven.
Now, for Kenneth's parents' 50th wedding anniversary party: 57 people dressed up to the nines in incredibly tasteful fashion. I was overwhelmed by the gorgeous, well made shoes, walking into a beautiful open air room with high ceilings. Tables of white linen and eight people to a table. Married people do not sit together, but are seated next to someone they can CONVERSE with and enjoy OTHER than their spouse. This is planned out meticulously. I watched Kenneth's mother do it, make the seating arrangement. I put the tiny gold heart next to the person's name on the tag, in the lower left hand corner. Candles and flowers on each table, of course. And four wine glasses of various sizes: for white and red and dessert and...I can't remember why we had four, because actually there were five; we were each given a glass of champagne and elderberries as we walked into the room, a dark red glass of champagne. It was delicious. Not sweet, just right.
We gathered, we talked, the musician played the piano. The musician was a big part of this event. I met many of Kenneth's parents' friends; they have known each other for over fifty years. They were all so kind and lively toward me. Then we sat down at our tables. I was at the head table with Kenneth, his parents, his brother and sister-in-law. The musician walked around and played a song on the accordion. He had a lovely voice. He looked to be about sixty, but I found out later he was eighty! Music and doing what you love keeps you young!
Kenneth's mother gave the first speech. All the speeches were in Danish, but Kenneth translated and I'm learning the language somewhat. I can understand quite a bit now. She welcomed her guests, and we skoled. Then she wanted a few moments of silence for those who could not be with us. She cried and struggled to recover herself while saying this. Kenneth's grandmother had recently died, and I know she was also referring to her middle son who died when he was twenty-five.
Kenneth's mother is like an angel. A wild and kind of bawdy angel sometimes. Calling someone an angel is a cliché, I know, but she is such a loving, sensitive soul. So we had our time of silence, and then we sat down. The musician played the accordion, and we sang a wedding song, all of us together. We had the words (in Danish) on each table on a sheet of paper. Then we skoled with white wine, and the first course began.
It was incredible. A divine fish dish: perfectly cooked, delicate, beyond delicious: sole with a salmon top. Potatoes with parsely. Yum.
More songs, more skol, then a speech by Kenneth, the oldest son. He was nervous, but he did fine. His mother cried. His father kissed him. We all hugged. We skoled.
Throughout the evening, various friends stood and made speeches about their times with Kenneth's parents. One woman acted out a poem. Another woman, whose father had been a famous singer in Denmark, sang for them. Her voice nearly lifted the roof off the building.
The next course was a light and airy mint sorbet.
Then the veal, but I had chicken because I don't eat meat (except for ham, and salami in Denmark only). The red wine poured. We skoled.
Brussels sprouts, brown-buttery with little crisps of prosciutto. Ah.
Kenneth's father gave the next speech. He is a very tall man: six feet five. He stood like the Viking he is at the head of his ship. He is a master sailor, his wife, too; he and Kenneth's mother have sailed their boat, just the two of them, across the Atlantic to the Caribbean. He spoke of the great love-he used the word fantastic-the fantastic love for his wife, how when they first met, that was it. They had a baby, Kenneth, when they were eighteen and twenty-one. Kenneth's father was eighteen. He spoke in Danish, but I got it, the depth of it. I cried. Everyone cried. We cried, we kissed, we sang another song, the Danish National Anthem, we skoled. The musician played the accordion.
Then we ate dessert. A chocolate cake so chocolate it should be illegal, with vanilla ice cream. Then the dessert wine. We skoled. We sang a love song. The musician played the piano.
Then Metaxa or Cognac. (That was the fourth glass on the table.) We skoled. We finally got up from the table. We each needed a small Ikea crane. We talked and danced. It was one in the morning.
I went into the kitchen and skoled with Yasper. Yasper is Kenneth's best friend (for thirty years), and he cooked the meal. Yasper was now cooking onion soup. Big vats of it. The last course at 2am was onion soup!
It was a beautiful party.
But don't think we didn't eat well and skol the next day. Indeed, we did. After we got up at noon.
So it was a fine and marvelous trip. I admire the Danish culture, but I'm American and as Californian as they come. There are a few too many rules in Denmark, ways of decorum that would be hard for me to follow in a daily life. I don't want to sit and eat and talk that long all the time. The younger folks tell me it's more an older generation thing, but I wonder. We went to a few younger dinner parties and we sat for a long long time. The climate is cold, has many months of rainy weather. The Danes are used to being inside, being close together by the fire. I enjoy that, too, but I'm an outdoor gal and I like to move around; I do my sitting while writing. It's a different culture, that's all, not better or worse, just different. When Kenneth's parents first came to visit us, they stayed for two and a half months. Toward the end of the visit, I broke out in hives. I'm not used to having guests for that long a time. It may sound odd, but having his parents stay that long with us was one of the hardest things I've ever done in my life. Before I met Kenneth, I had lived alone for fourteen years. My mother died when I was thirty-five, and my father and I were estranged for many years. I had no idea how to live with parents as an adult or to even have parents. I had no idea how to live with more than one person. Myself was often too many people. One other person and a cat was a full house. The next time Kenneth's parents visited, they stayed a month. They did this for me, I know, staying such a "short" time. I'm sure they would have liked to stay longer, with their son who left his homeland twenty years ago and never returned. But they want him and his wife to be happy, so whatever it takes.
What we do for love's sake.
Kenneth and his father had their problems when he was younger. When I met Kenneth, he had not been close to his father for about ten years. Then, when his parents first visited us, I think they wanted to make it all up somehow, heal everything. I came home early one day from work, and his parents were folding Kenneth's clothes. His mother had asked if she could do the laundry. I didn't want her to, but said she could wash Kenneth's clothes. She washed and ironed them. Even his t-shirts. And there his parents were, in my kitchen, folding and ironing their 40-year-old son's laundry. His tall father, bent over the kitchen table, his big hands carefully stacking the t-shirts in a neat pile.
For love's sake.
When we left Denmark, Kenneth's father walked us to the train station. It was cold and rainy and dark. His mother's health is frail, so she said good-bye in the apartment.
I hugged and kissed Kenneth's father, said thank you for everything, especially the ring. Kenneth's parents gave me a ring that was Farmor's. Farmor means paternal grandmother. Farmor died, at age 92, last spring. During my first trip to Denmark, she and I had a strong connection, even though she didn't speak any English. Somehow, we understood each other completely, as if we recognized a kindred spirit.
Kenneth's father said he looked forward to coming to stay with us next year. For six months? I asked. We both laughed. Yes, he said. That's sounds good, he said. Can you do it? Skol, I said. He stroked my cheek with his finger. And then we heard the train coming down the tracks. Kenneth and his father hugged for as long as it took the train to arrive in the station, for the whistle to blow, for the doors to open, and off Kenneth went again, this Danish prodigal son, his father waving good-bye in the rain.
Causes Susan Browne Supports
Run Together, A Race to Raise Money for Leukemia and Lymphoma Society