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Pia Hansen: More good than bad about old country

What’s the one thing you don’t want to do when you open a fridge in Denmark? Don’t look the fish in the eye. At least that’s what Rachel Anderson, 18, says, and she lived there for a year, so she must know a few things about my home country.

“It’s the herring, you know, in a glass jar, and it’s got the eyes right there looking at you,” she says. “I had to close the door, take a step back and kind of go in again with a plan.”

I just knew I had to talk to Anderson. Here was my opportunity to hear about my culture – no holds barred – from a full-blooded American who had been totally immersed.

You must be honest, I tell Anderson when we meet for coffee. After all, there are few things I have not heard people say about me or the country I grew up in, so I’m not likely to be offended.

“I couldn’t believe all the peeing in the streets (in Copenhagen),” she says, laughing. “I mean, you do get used to it a little bit when you are on your way home late in the evening, and the guys just kind of step aside and, well, you know.”

Yeah, I know. Danish women, thank goodness, don’t pee in the streets, and we agree that’s a good thing.

Anderson lived in the beautiful and decidedly upscale suburbs north of Copenhagen, and she went to high school – gymnasium – in Espergaerde.

“The first day, I mean, everybody looked like they just stepped out of a Vogue magazine,” she says. “The Danish look is more natural, not a lot of makeup, but then everyone is wearing Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana. You do not come to school in your sweat pants – then you’d just get the ‘death stare.’ ”

Danish women are really good at that.

So, what about the guys?

“Oh, the guys dress so much better than American men do. First you think everybody is gay, and then you’re like, oh, they are not,” she says – and I’m in stitches laughing so hard I almost knock over my coffee. “American men, I don’t know, get a haircut and clean up.”

Dressing well clearly makes the peeing thing easier to tolerate.

High school was different – duh! – mainly because you spend all day with the same group of 25 people, and that’s for all three years you are in high school.

“I really got to know my class well – they were so nice; I just went to New York City for a reunion with them,” she says. “I’ve taken mostly AP classes here, so I think the classes were perhaps a little easier. But there was so much self-responsibility – the expectations were high.”

Living with a host family wasn’t too difficult.

“The parents trusted me a lot, but then you have to carry that responsibility; that was big,” says Anderson. So, what struck her as really, um, odd?

Danes have barbecues outside all spring and summer – even when it is kind of cold.

“And you bring your own beer and the meat,” Anderson says, “so they say, we are having this party but the guests bring all the stuff.” She shrugs.

And there’s a lot of drinking going on during the holidays – even at breakfast. Yeah, that would be my old country.

She lived with three different host families through an exchange program sponsored by Rotary International.

When she arrived in Denmark she went through a couple of weeks of language school – six hours every day. Her Danish is very, very good. I mean, it’s not an easy language to learn what with three extra letters and individual words as long as short American sentences.

So – did she get used to the food? Not so much.

Danish coffee? “No,” Anderson says, slicing the air with her hand, “my mom sent me Starbucks.”

And the pickled herring? No.

What about the leverpostej, a liver pate that is to most Danish children’s sandwiches what peanut butter is to Americans? No. No way.

But she did like the hard, dark brown rye bread once she got used to it. I promise to share my recipe.

“Oh, and the ‘Fransk hot dog’?” Anderson groans. “You know that’s like 20 kroner worth of death. There’s nothing good for you in there, but you can smell them everywhere you are in Copenhagen and there is just no way you can’t eat one.” That would be a barbecued hot dog stuffed inside a piece of baguette, covered in ketchup or some sort of secret sauce. It’s divine and irresistible in all the wrong ways.

Anderson just finished a college admission essay on the Danish concept “hygge.” It’s a word that doesn’t translate – except to cozy, which we agree is just not right. Hygge is what Danes do when they sit for “endless hours” – Anderson’s word choice – at the dining table. Or when they stay in at night, lighting candles and watching TV.

“It kind of means comfort in every area of your life at the same time,” she says. “And you can do it with other people or by yourself.” Hygge, let me tell you, you can’t have too much of that – it lowers your blood pressure.

All in all, Anderson had a great time. The experience has given her a new perspective on the world and on herself.

“You know, when you are in Spokane it’s like you have to fit within this box,” Anderson explains. “But when you are not in Spokane, you fit in another box – and you really learn to be comfortable with yourself and who you are.”


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