Fish Slappin ‘ II: In this country, we have our own


Scandinavia includes three countries: Norway, Denmark and Sweden, which happen to be the three countries our ship has been visiting this past week. I always thought that Finland, the country of my mother’s ancestors, was part of Scandinavia, but I learned that it is not –it’s actually considered Lappland, with a different genetic derivation, closer to the Siberians. To me as an ignorant American, that doesn’t seem so logical. Looking on the map, it’s Finland which is a long skinny country very much like Norway and Sweden, and not much like Denmark. It may seem like you can’t draw conclusions based on the map, but after all it was the fact that South America and Africa  look like they could fit together that led to the development of the idea of plate tectonics and Pangaea, when all the world was once a giant continent.

Denmark, as well, feels as if its boundaries are fluid, since it comprises many large and small islands and multiple peninsulas. But now having traveled here, I understand that Denmark shares a sensibility with its neighbors in the North Sea, and not others. It is hard to describe. It’s not like the melting pot of the US but more of a bouilliabaise that has different kinds of seafood, all fighting for supremacy of being the most seafoody but imitative of each other, and each hardly caring if they are not the winners.

Consider, for example, that there are three Scandinavian currencies. There is the Norwegian krone, the Swedish krona, and the Danish kroner. The paper and metal currency look similar but are not identical. They have three slightly different exchange rates, with the Danish being distinct from the other two (.1243, .1246 and .154, respectively). The Finns use the Finnish Mark or the Euro. A local merchant can tell the coins apart easily, of course, and won’t necessarily accept those from the other country. The many coin operated public toilets don’t use the coins from the other countries. Which is, again, why travelers are wise to remember to look for the nearest library where toilets are clean and free.

By Any Other Name
“Library” throughout Scandinavia betrays the Latin roots of their common origin language since all are called some variation of “bibliotek.” Many of the words look very similar, though each country claims its own unique language. All three languages are derived from the Germanic family, which is the same language family that branched into English.  (Finland again stands alone since Finnish is itself is from the Uralic banch, not Germanic. The Finnish word for “library” is “kirjasto” nothing like “bibliotek.”)

At the same time, a friend in Norway told us that many of the restaurant workers come from Sweden, and as she ordered a coffee in Oslo, it taxed her knowledge of Norwegian since the waitress chose to answer her query in Swedish. So perhaps in Scandinavia, you wander into other countries knowing sort of what the signs say but not exactly. On the bus ride to the oldest town in Denmark, Ribe–they called it “Southern Denmark” while I would have said it was on the West Coast– the bus driver stressed their particular sense of independence.

Driver: Where were you visiting yesterday?
Us: Copenhagen. It was beautiful.
Driver: (shrugging) Oh well… it’s the capital. (Shrugs again, meaning, if you like that sort of thing). We’re in the Southern Skutland [sic, not Jutland] now. We have our own language.
Us: Own language?
Driver: Yes, it’s closer to German. 100 years ago, we were part of Germany. (Shrugs and gestures at the rolling hills, it’s beautiful here, too)

One of our stops was to see Kronborg Castle, whose fame is that Shakespeare used it as a backdrop for Hamlet.  There is a Shakespeare carving on the castle wall and in the summer, Shakespearean plays are performed. Shakespeare was never there. The story is that either a traveling theater group or some diplomats went to the city of Helsingore, which is where Kronborg castle is located, and returned with stories of what it looked like and maybe the Danish prince Amleth. Shakespeare decided to fictionalize it as Elsinore. (Helsingore should have one of those Danish slash marks “/” through the O but I can’t get that on the keyboard on my phone. If you speak Danish, I apologize. It might make this story clearer. Or not.)

imageThe large Swedish city across the river is called Helsingborg.  Slightly different spelling, much confusion.  This is where the ships dock and many tourists originate, as it’s a much bigger town. It also was established in 1085, while the Danish town was named in the 1400s, but the Danes collected taxes from merchants going up the Sound when they could, so the cities stand toe to toe with each other.  Signs are in Swedish, currency is the krona, not that kroner, the other one.

At the castle, the guide and a tourist got into an argument about whether it was Elsinore or Helsingore (with a /).  Both men insisting their way, and the American tourist demanding to know why Shakespeare changed it. (Probably in the Swedish version of Hamlet, it’s called Helsingborg. Or Helsingore. With /.) The American turned to his companions and said, “it’s like in Italy, if you say Venice, they say it’s Venezia, or if you’re in Naples, they say it’s Napoli.”

At which point, the Italian tourist next to him said to his wife in Italian, “blah blah blah blah Napoli…” which I am sure meant, “that’s because it is Napoli…”

A History (Abridged)
There were a lot of paintings in the castles and museums of Christians and Olafs, just as I’m sure others see a lot of US paintings of presidents named Johnson or Roosevelt. But honestly, the history is a little muddled. All three countries have a constitutional monarchy. At one point, they shared a Queen—Marguerite I—who was Danish. She was one of those power women, like Maud and Elizabeth I and Eleanor of the Aquitaine, who didn’t like the Swedish king trying to invade Denmark, so she took over everything.

She established the Kalmar Union, which was a union of the three countries at the time. Prior to that, Denmark and Sweden had been fighting, sometimes over Norway, which was treated as a province. Later, Marguerite’s wastrel son lost Sweden again but kept Norway.   The histories seem to me to blur between Harald Bluetooth (the Dane who decided to Christianize the land) and Harald Farhair (the Norwegian who unified those lands @880). Merchants, such as through the powerful Hanseatic League,  the Catholic church, and the Reformation priests all wove their stories throughout the fjords and the peninsulas. Plague hit all of the region hard, and local town stories are of the famous local fires and floods,  the buildings that date from “after that fire” or the “brick that was used after the road was built” or “the wood and metal from all the shipwrecks.”

The people here use what they have and go their own way, wherever they must. If the British take the Danish Navy because they sided with Napoleon… if the Norwegians try to stay neutral in WWII, and Hitler takes over…well, there’s not much they can do. During the Gulf War, said our Copenhagen guide, Denmark sent a submarine. Since it was a desert war it’s not clear how useful that would have been, but as she says, “You send what you have.”

Let’s Play Guess Where the Guide is Going
Comparing notes with other travelers, it seems the Copenhagen guides were the most cosmopolitan. Most were students, and or had traveled, so that they were lively, funny, garrulous and good hosts. In contrast in the other smaller cities, the guides were oddly taciturn, though that seemed less odd when it happened the third time. They had a tendency to just start going without stopping much or telling you where we were going. One even gave us an itinerary but when he had to go off the itinerary because one of the main attractions was unexpectedly closed, he didn’t tell us, but started randomly walking around the town telling us various random things. They didn’t build in time for shopping or restrooms, they would just go. The guides would get in arguments with other guides and with docents in the museums, or say they’d explain something later which wasn’t explained.

But this was Danish spring, as one said when we griped a bit about the iciness of the wind, as if it explained all. It was much colder during the day than we thought 40 degrees would feel. But those who live there want to be there. The guides seemed to be saying, “If you want to come for a visit, ok. Here it is. Take a look. Your reasons for looking are your own. My reasons for showing it to you are my own. We go now.”



There were tulips and daffodils starting to open in dozens of public gardens. Over half of the city of Copenhagen uses bicycles for commute and shopping. (Discouraging auto purchases with a 180% tax on the price of the car.) The environment is near and dear to them. There were whole parks full of statuary and public art. There were a lot of libraries. They are at home in the sea and love the land; they have festivals entirely devoted to children. They have their own reasons. They have their own.

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