On Christmas morning last year, I walked the reservoir track in New York’s Central Park, since the gym was, naturally, closed for you-know-who’s birthday. Hundreds of people, most of them armed with cameras, were strolling around the loop in the delicious sunshine. Few of them were speaking English. I stopped to chat with a family of Danes who were typically unaffected, friendly, and charming. Ten minutes after our conversation, I realized I had been using the wrong word for and.
Well, my Danish is admittedly rusty, but with a little application, I can retrieve it, such as it was at my personal best. The last time I needed to do so, I reread four volumes, translated into Danish, of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” series. The saga of an American pioneer family in which the author grew up has delighted several generations of youngsters world-wide. That’s my Danish reading level–a nine-to-twelve-year-old’s. I can also manage simple novels for adults–Tove Ditlevsen is an open book to me–as well as Hans Christian Andersen’s tales, albeit struggling desperately with the most complex ones. In conversation I’m pretty good–for an American. One-to-one and face-to-face conversation, that is; I make friends at parties but live in terror of round-table meetings and phone calls. I have a keen ear, and therefore a decent accent, so Danish listeners think I’m more capable of expressing myself in their language than I really am.
When I set out, in middle age, to learn Danish, I conveniently forgot that, in my early twenties, I had failed miserably at acquiring German, on which Danish is firmly based. Just a couple of years out of college and newly married, I tackled German only because I would have needed it to earn my Ph.D. in literature. You can understand why I and other American Jews of my generation may still retain uncomfortable associations with the German language. I also thought that it was an “ugly” tongue–harsh and guttural–but that was mostly because I experienced merely six weeks’ worth of it before I quit; I had never read (or heard) Germany’s great Romantic literature.
It helps to be in love with a language or at least in love with the people who speak it when you’re trying to make it part of yourself. At least that’s how it was with me, first with French (love of the language) and later with Danish (love of the people). Having neither motivation to sustain me with German, I abandoned the course I’d enrolled in after that ridiculously brief encounter. A few years, two children, and an M.A. later, I realized I didn’t want to earn a Ph.D. either. My bourgeois, pre-1960s upbringing had instructed me that a young woman in my position had two career choices–homemaking and teaching. And so I became a housewife (leaving professordom to my husband), a stay-at-home mother (which I’ll be glad of forever), and, a decade later, still an innocent, but widening my horizons a jot, a dance writer.
Whatever put it into my head to acquire Danish? Here are my reasons, in descending order of importance:
One: I first visited Denmark for the 1979 Bournonville Festival held on the 100th anniversary of the great choreographer’s death. Copenhagen is a balm to an overtaxed New Yorker, and I kept returning in the next few years for work and play. During those sojourns, forging many friendships, I came to know the Danish custom of intimate conversations by candlelight. (There was plenty of time for them, for sure; in winter, twilight sets in at 3:00 in the afternoon.) In these sheltered personal encounters, I discovered, one got to know one’s companions’ innermost thoughts and feelings–their “secrets”–and, once I’d mastered the rudiments of Danish, I in turn, at heart a reserved person, could confess mine, since I am of the belief that anything you say in a foreign language doesn’t count (just as anything you eat abroad will put no superfluous calories on your frame).
Two: At that unforgettable festival, I fell instantly in love–both with the choreography of August Bournonville and Copenhagen itself. The Royal Danish Ballet, given its unique profile by the nineteenth-century ballet master, was still producing dancers who were specialists in his buoyant, fleet-footed classical technique, where bravura feats are modestly veiled by the desire to express the joy of dancing. These performers also proved that one of Bournonville’s central achievements was to depict, always with enormous empathy, a wide range of human character and human relationships. As for the city of Copenhagen, it seemed to me an earthly incarnation of a fairytale kingdom.
Three: What’s more, I liked languages. At the blithe, visionary age of 20 I had planned to learn a half-dozen foreign languages before I died. I can still remember what they were: Japanese, Italian, ancient Greek, Latin, Yiddish, and American Sign. After an initial six-month struggle in junior high, I had found that I had an affinity with French. I had also been the star of my high school class in elementary Spanish, which isn’t saying much, but in those days you needed to have two foreign languages to get into the Seven Sisters colleges (the female equivalent of the Ivy League, which was where I was apparently heading). Recalling these easy successes, I assumed that acquiring Danish would be no problem.
Turns out that what I’m good at is Romance languages. When I embarked upon my Danish caper, I simply repressed the fact that I had, long before, precipitously abandoned German. I was also blissfully unaware of the fact that Danish was then spoken as a native language by a mere five million people, most of whom, these days, are fluent in English. From a practical point of view the acquisition of Danish would be entirely useless to me. But then I wasn’t–for that matter, am still not–practical.
To make sure I carried out my plan, I revealed my intention to a number of Royal Danish Ballet dancers who had become friends. That way, I figured, I wouldn’t dare cop out, for fear of embarrassment. I was so full of my own purpose that I neglected to understand their response. It was, to a one, “Oh, really?”
Deaf to the Danes’ implication that I’d proposed climbing Everest in flip-flops, I set about finding a course, a Danish 101. There weren’t any in my multilingual city, it turned out, except, as I discovered belatedly, a very simple introductory one at New York University, the content of which I’d already mastered by the time I discovered its existence.
“Would you like to learn Finnish?” asked the young woman with Valley Girl intonations, who answered the phone at Columbia U. when I was doing my initial search. I was so put off by her assumption that one language could substitute for another, as if it carried neither weight nor personal resonance, that I couldn’t resist informing her that Finnish was not a Scandinavian language like Danish, was not even in the huge Indo-European family, but in a more obscure group that contains Hungarian.
I’d just about given up when, discussing the upcoming oral history project I’d concocted on the Royal Danish Ballet and its Bournonville tradition, I mentioned to the Danish consul general in New York that I needed to find some way to learn his native tongue. (The interviews for my project were to be in English, but I thought that knowing some Danish would help with my research and, besides, be a friendly gesture.)
“Oh, you want Anita,” the consul general declared confidently.
Who was Anita? A lovely woman in her thirties, it turned out, as benign as mild summer sunshine, whose smile alone could vanquish depression. She worked in a high-end secretarial capacity at the consulate. She took pupils privately, at home. Her fee was entirely reasonable, but after some fifteen lessons from her, my budget for such ventures ran out. We remained fast friends, though, for a long time.
The textbook Anita used, all one could readily find at that time, was written in 1958 and began with several easy-to-read accounts of the lower-middle-class, lower-middlebrow Hansen family, where the Mrs. was firmly kept in her housewifely place. Being an obsessively conscientious student, I nearly memorized the brief texts, and they drove me nuts. “She deserves,” declares Mrs. Hansen’s spouse, deigning to escort her to a local dance, “to get out and enjoy herself once in a while, since she has so much to take care of at home.” He continues in a women-will-be-women tone about how his mate likes pretty clothes and craves an occasion to show herself off in a new dress. The combination of Mr. Hansen’s taken-for-granted male authority and unthinking condescension still rankles with me today.
Anita’s personality, however, was a boon. She had no actual teaching skills, unless you count–and I did–warmth, optimism, and a reasonable degree of patience. Still, early on, none of that mattered significantly; my problem was the language itself, which rebuffed me. The pronunciation is a killer; Danes themselves call their language “a disease of the throat.” I couldn’t hear the rhythm or song in the speech pattern and still suspect there is none. Many rules of the grammar seemed punitive and absurd, like the one that requires you to invert the natural order of noun and verb in a clause that follows an introductory subordinate clause. Got it? I didn’t, but I refused to give up. Eventually I told Anita I would like to meet some of the New Yorkers she’d taught because I couldn’t believe an American could master her language.
So Anita gave a party in her tiny apartment. The food was Danish and magnificent–the traditional three kinds of herring, paper-thin slices of rare roast beef, liver pâté et al., with pickled beets and cucumbers to accessorize them. Danish beers and Aquavit flowed freely, loosening people’s tongues. The former students, utterly congenial, constituted a rich assortment of types, but they had all learned Danish for one of two basic reasons–work or love.
A star among the group, Judith Thurman, who won a National Book Award for her biography of Isak Dinesen, told me breezily, “Oh, don’t bother about learning any of the genders for the nouns. You’ll understand what you need to know without them.” But she was already a whiz at languages, could find her way around in at least a handful, I gathered, and was, moreover, clearly an adventurous soul. There was one guy to whom Danish just seemed to have come naturally; he spoke it with the casual ease of a native. Anita told me later that when she gave him a new noun to learn he infallibly intuited its gender. She suspected he had, unbeknownst to himself, some Danish ancestors who’d magically passed on to him the echoes of their voices.
I think it was at this party that I first heard the old saying “The best way to learn a foreign language is on the pillow.” Not having a Danish lover at my disposal, I had to resort to more pedestrian arrangements.
Most of my methods for learning Danish were improvised. Even before Anita there was the Berlitz book–a pocket-size item a much-traveled cousin sent over the night before I left for Copenhagen for the first time. It contained practical information, a quartet of picturesque walking tours, and a list of useful vocabulary enhanced by an audiotape so that you could hear the words pronounced. For the rank beginner, the difference between written and spoken Danish was overwhelming. Nevertheless, between trips one and three to Copenhagen, I assiduously memorized everything but the section on cars. (I loathe being in a car and I don’t drive.)
Nothing one learns is useless. On that third trip I had an appointment to discuss my oral history project with the head of the Royal Theatre, in the hope of enlisting his support. He had specified the date and hour of our meeting and instructed me to identify myself at the stage door when I arrived, saying he was expecting me. Back then, however, the stage doormen, for reasons best known to themselves, pretended not to understand a word of English.
In vain, I tried to explain my presence and my purpose in English, my panic accelerating, because I had been told it is a grave offense in Denmark not to arrive exactly at the moment one is expected, whether it be for a business meeting or a dinner party. Finally my agitated brain retrieved an applicable sentence from the Berlitz book. It was the curtain line of a scene of escalating tourist discontent with hotel accommodations. Boldly, I declared in Danish, “I would like to see the manager.” Duly intimidated, one of the guards phoned upstairs. The head honcho’s secretary appeared immediately and delivered me to her boss, who was laughing.
Concurrent with and continuing long after my Anita period, there were the index cards. I never left my house without a 3″ x 5″ soft plastic box that held several dozen of them, each with a word I was trying to memorize, written in Danish on one side, English on the reverse. I worked these homemade flash cards on subway platforms, in the trains, during intermissions at the ballet, and waiting on line anywhere. I had, at last count, some 2,000 cards, and they each got their turn to be taken out into the great world. If people peered over my shoulder for too long as I used them, I’d turn to the ogler and quietly say “Danish,” which seemed to serve as sufficient explanation.
One man in a trench coat, who looked very CIA and watched me long enough to make me nervous, replied to my one-word elucidation by explaining in turn, “Actually, I wasn’t curious about what language it was. But I’m in a business that manufactures index cards, so I like to find out how people use them.”
During this stage of my studies, I paid Anita to make audio tapes of the words and expressions on the index cards. She’d say the word in Danish, leave a silent space in which I could repeat it aloud, then reiterate the word so I could see how my pronunciation matched hers (or failed to), then give the English translation. Making such a tape requires skill (in clarity, timing, and so forth), while it’s as brain-deadening as peeling a great many potatoes. The chore is worthy of listing on an application for sainthood. I listened–and responded–to the tapes while performing domestic tasks and, as the French call it, ma toilette. Since I detest earphones, I let the sound have the run of the house. My husband claimed he was picking up Danish by proxy.
Anita’s last effort in the tape department was a long dialogue on situations I expected to encounter when I stayed at the home of a generous colleague on one of my visits to Copenhagen to do the oral histories. I wrote the script; Anita translated and recorded it. The result worked like the bilingual vocabulary tapes with the relevant pauses. This tape allowed me to practice the Danish for: “What will you be doing today?” “I’m going to the theater tonight and will be home late.” “Shall I get some groceries for tomorrow? Will your friend be here for dinner?” “No, thank you, I don’t want any cognac. Don’t you remember what happened the last time?”
When I traveled to Copenhagen after some dozen lessons with Anita, she insisted that I visit her parents, who lived in a suburb of the city: the father from whom she’d obviously inherited her life-celebrating personality, and her mother, who managed a pleasant welcome, but was clearly suffering from chronic depression, and withdrawn because of that. Temperamentally, they were a Jack Spratt couple. But we had a wonderful afternoon.
We used their sparse English, my as yet pitifully limited Danish, primitive mime, and great good will. Fueled by copious amounts of delicious strong coffee with Demerara sugar and heavy cream and feather-light pastries galore, aided by the two-volume Danish-English, English-Danish dictionary we placed on the coffee table, Gyldendals Røde Ordbøger (Gyldendal’s Red Word Books), without which no respectable Danish home is complete, we spent hours in conversation although we essentially had no language in common.
Anita’s father showed me around his pride and joy, his magnificent garden and greenhouse (the latter lined with grape vines clinging to the glass ceiling, pendant with fruit). He insisted upon sending some of his tiny snowdrop bulbs to me in America (this is, I think, illegal), where they bloom annually to announce that spring is on its way, undeterred by the heavy snow that the sky may still drop on their delicate heads. Albert Rasmussen is dead now, but whenever those unquenchable flowers appear in my back yard, I think of him and his unquenchable spirit.
One of the rewards of learning Danish is the response of the native speakers once you can utter even a few Danish phrases. As my dance-writing colleague Jack Anderson put it, “They kiss the hem of your dungarees.” One evening in London I made one of my very rare trips backstage to congratulate the Danish dancer and ballet master Peter Schaufuss on the premiere of his revival–retrieval, really–of Frederick Ashton’s Romeo and Juliet for the London Festival Ballet. Created in 1955 for the Royal Danes, the work had long been considered lost, but Schaufuss’s mother, Mona Vangsaae, had been the original Juliet (with his father, Frank Schaufuss, as Mercutio and young Peter playing the Nurse’s mischievous page). The celebrated ballet master and character dancer Niels Bjørn Larsen had notated the choreography at the time of its creation using a method of his own invention, supplemented by his amateur film, and Ashton himself was drawn into coaching the ballet he’d created three decades earlier. Schaufuss had imported a number of Danish dancers to lend rich life to the senior character roles and to supervise the mime, an RDB specialty.
I had just enough Danish at that point to string together a couple of original sentences of enthusiasm and praise in the backstage hubbub on opening night. Schaufuss was gratifyingly astonished. Then, holding fast to my arm so I didn’t vanish into the crowd of well-wishers, he called out to his compatriots, “Kirsten, Niels Bjørn, Far (father), come over here.” When they complied, he turned to me once more: “Say it again, Tobi, say it again.”
Over the years, to further my conversational skills, my husband and I invited four young Danish women to live with us, sequentially, for a period of weeks or months. One of them even returned a second time, she enjoyed our household (or the excitements of New York) so much. The deal: They got a room of their own, board, warm attention, mothering when necessary, excursions to the theater, and introductions–with me as the happiest of guides–to New York’s small, quirky attractions that tourists don’t have time for. In turn, they were to lend a hand with a few minor household chores the way a daughter would and to give me an hour’s conversation in Danish–preferably with corrections–over an early breakfast. I came to feel simultaneously like their friend and a favorite aunt and have remained in touch with them ever since, as their lives have expanded into careers, lovers, husbands, and children, with the predictable joys and griefs of those attachments.
The first, Eva (pronounced like Gardner’s first name), was a beauty, something of a narcissist, and very effective on stage, where she made her career. She could be silly and fun, too. From her I learned the Danish words for ladybug (mariehøne) and nervous breakdown (nervesammenbrud)–which she uttered spontaneously in a single brief sentence as she, my daughter, and I lay in the sun-drenched grass at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, annoying the insects that look like Fabergé enamels by tickling them with blades of grass.
Her successor was Marchen, laid back but always game for adventure, who, after her time with us, traveled down the Amazon under ramshackle conditions to learn Portuguese simply because she found the language beautiful. She had the natural singing voice of an angel and a tolerance of her quixotic parents that I thought admirable. It was she who assigned to me as required reading two books by Astrid Lindgren that are not part of the justly beloved “Pippi Longstocking” series.
Brødrene Løvehjerte (The Brothers Lionheart) and Ronja Røverdatter (Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter) were harder, the former more spiritual, and both as singular as the Pippi books yet emotionally deeper. Always half asleep during our early-morning lessons, Marchen devised a simple, feeble hand signal instead of a voiced correction, which would be too much trouble, to indicate my persistent error of using the wrong order for certain constructions. To this day, when I hear myself making the mistake, I gesture with my own hand, feebly, in her honor.
Next came Anne (pronounced as we’d say “Anna”), shy enough to blush frequently when I first met her. She was the only child of unimpeachably bourgeois parents. I shouldn’t have been surprised “when she eventually rebelled by (or, if you will, matured into) taking on an extraordinarily risky marriage. Other aspects of her–she’s made a fine career in journalism–remain paragons of equanimity. Anne dutifully taught me a goodly amount of Danish, but the most important lesson she gave me was that people are far more complex than you might at first imagine.
The last, Gudrun, was my secret favorite and the deepest-feeling of them all. Towards others, she was empathy itself. Her personal life has been a litany of loss, beginning with the early death of her mother–just before she came to us–and going on to the decampment of her mate. Yet she tries to focus on life’s pleasures (her two daughters, for one thing) and still believes in love. By contrast to the events that have made her, as she puts it, en ekspert i hjertesorg (an expert in heartbreak), her professional success–as an editor–has been impressive, though no more than her talents deserve.
Another aspect of the barter system was the coincidence-laden arrangement I made with Jeannette. We met at a shared table in the dance division of the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center when she asked if she could briefly borrow the dictionary–the Danish-English volume of the Røde Ordbøger –I’d brought with me to aid my research.
“But it’s a Danish dictionary,” I replied, puzzled.
“I know,” she said.
It turned out that she was earning an M.A. in dance studies at the University of Copenhagen and that her mentor there was none other than the colleague who’d kindly let me board with him–Erik Aschengreen, the long-time dance critic for Berlingske Tidende, one of Copenhagen’s two chief newspapers.
During Jeannette’s subsequent six-year stay in New York, she and I often traded an hour of conversation in Danish for an hour of instruction in writing about dance. What amazed me was that I’d edited and taught dance writing for so many years, it didn’t much matter that the texts she submitted to my ministrations were in a language to which I had only a fragile claim. I was startled, too, the first time we shared my press pair of ballet tickets, to see that while I had scribbled my notes-in-the-dark in English, she’d of course made hers in Danish. I suppose that dance, a wordless language, is instinctively translated into one’s mother tongue. Jeannette and I are still fast friends and she has, indeed, published a good bit of writing on dance and other arts as well.
Occasionally I got my comeuppance for the pride I took in my progress, once from Erik Bruhn, whom I had gotten to know slightly way back when. He came to dinner at our house a couple of times and was wonderful with our two then half-grown children; I think he found dining at home with a bourgeois American family a novelty, almost a tourist attraction. Some years later, finding myself seated behind him at the New York State Theater one night, I leaned forward and addressed him in Danish. He turned and, concealing his surprise, said in English, in the deep, cool voice that had made many a heart beat faster: “Very nice. Your a‘s are a little flat, but then most Danes speak that way these days, even the radio announcers.” From this and other such encounters, I’ve concluded that though one may learn the language, one has to be born and raised in Denmark to master the irony.
Perhaps the high point of my pursuit of Danish was my little acceptance speech when I received a knighthood. Because of the extensive writing I’d done on Bournonville and the Royal Danish Ballet, as well as the oral history project, the government took a moment’s notice of me. I was given the choice of journeying to Copenhagen to have the honor presented by the Danish queen or receiving it from the Danish ambassador to the U.S. in Washington D.C. The first choice seemed overkill–time-wise, budget-wise, and keeping-it-modest-wise. I chose to go to D.C., without family or American friends to swell the audience for the event. I did invite a handful of friends from the Royal Danish Ballet, which was performing at Kennedy Center. I knew I would have to make a brief speech of thanks once the medal (which resembled the one I’d received in high school for excellence in French) had duly been pinned to my bosom. Recklessly, just as the ceremony began, I decided to attempt my response in Danish. After I’d done so and the assembled party had retreated to the refreshment table, I took a young Danish friend aside and asked her how I’d done. “B+,” she replied succinctly.
Try as one may to subdue them, one’s proclivities never vanish. Today, though brutally aware of the effort it takes to learn a language other than one’s mother tongue, I may be taking up Spanish again. Starting in September, one of my grands will spend the school year learning a little Spanish, French, and Latin in sequence and then pick the one she wants to continue with through middle school. She has already firmly announced that she will chose Spanish. I was disappointed to hear this; I’d rather hoped for French. I taught her quite a bit of French orally a while back and she was superb at it, with an uncanny memory (typical of children) and an excellent accent (rare). Nevertheless, she’s a gal who knows her own mind. Jokingly, I told her that, if she learned Spanish, I’d learn it with her.
Mischievously perhaps, she took that as a promise, so these days when I go to the gym, I stop to chat with the enchanting Ecuadorian woman in charge at the entrance to the women’s locker room. So far, Maria of the sweet smile and dancing eyes has taught me how to say things like “Good morning/afternoon/evening,” “See you on Wednesday,” and “I don’t have time to study.” (Buenos días, and so on; hasta el miércoles; no tengo el tiempo para estudiar.) It’s not much, granted, but it’s a start. Maria, by the way, mother of six, seems to have decided that I will be most encouraged if she refrains from correcting my mistakes. So I’m on my own remembering that the Spanish word for and is y.
Postscript: This essay was written in 2008. A year later, Lili announced that her language choice was, after all, Latin.
© 2008, 2010 Tobi Tobias