The tower was one of the highest points in northern Denmark, bestriding a high hill on the edge of the city of Aalborg. For 10 kroner I rode the lift to the top. The view encompassed the breadth of Jutland: orange and russet roofs, chestnut canopies peppered with crows, baroque steeples, quilts of green and mustard-yellow fields, silos, shipyards, the shining water of the Lim Fjorden, open sea -- and an element of time.
Two years ago, I had encountered this part of Denmark for the first time, while traveling with a young Danish woman named Anne, who worked with me at the Politiken, Denmark's largest morning newspaper. We sailed on the Lim Fjorden. We swam in the North Sea and wandered around Jutland, as the part of Denmark connected to the European mainland is called.
Anne looked very Danish. She had short, blond hair, darker than the flaxen Swedes, and a limpid complexion. I was attracted to her: She was friendly, intelligent, and she possessed the glamor of the exotic. And ever since, Anne has stood in my memory as the personification of Denmark, and of my first encounter with American culture in myself, and also of that strange moment when we are enlarged by a sense of collective identity. Perhaps this is why people travel. Nothing becomes as clear at a distance as home.
So when I had the chance to make a short visit to Jutland not long ago, I set out to find Anne, albeit in a desultory fashion. For the sake of friendship, of course, but I wondered: How would she seem out from under the veil of a nature that had once struck me as so foreign?
Jutland is a picturesque region of substantial cities and pastoral landscapes. Tidy highways command views of farmhouses with whitewashed walls and thatched roofs. Fishing villages and harbors line the coasts and the inland Lim Fjorden, the arm of sea water that splits the peninsula from west to east. North Sea air spins windmills and bestirs the groves of chestnut trees. To the north the hills go flatter. The land tapers like a long stocking cap to a spit of sand. In the summer, twilight lingers into midnight -- the Light Nights they are called. It's bright enough to read without a lamp, and, like clockwork, the birds commence their morning songs at 3 a.m.
Aalborg, where I touched down this summer, is Denmark's fourth largest city. It lies at the eastern end of the Lim Fjorden and is best known for the potato-based Aquavit. A bottle of this fiercely alcoholic concoction is buried in the base of a statue of a bull in the town center. A few more rounds of Aquavit and the crowd at a dinner I attended would have begun to sing "Carry Me Back to Old Aalborg," the lyrics of which had been distributed with the evening's program:
Carry me back to old Aalborg
There's where the 'snaps from the Danish 'tatoes grow
There's where the girls waggle sweet in the springtime . . .
Aalborg, with its famous Jomfru Ane Street lined with pubs and restaurants, calls itself the Paris of the North. To plumb this mystery, I stopped by the tourist bureau. It was not yet noon, but Birthe Appl, in the Jomfru spirit, pressed a glass of cherry liqueur into my hand. "There will always be a warm welcome for you at the Aalborg Tourist Bureau," she said. Or maybe it was the narrator of the slide show who said that. So much for liqueur before lunch.
In the time I had in Aalborg, I took trips up to the sun-washed beaches of the eastern coast and inland to the Rebild National Park, Denmark's largest forest and the site of one of the largest Fourth of July celebrations outside the United States. (The celebration is a tribute to the chosen homeland of many emigrating Danes.) I tried without success to find a phone number for Anne. No one I had spoken to at the Politiken knew where she was. She was not listed in the Copenhagen directory, which notes occupations as well as phone numbers. I could not raise anyone by telephone in her home town of Holstebro, south and west of Aalborg. On my last day before heading back to Copenhagen, thinking about our trip to Jutland two years ago, I made my way to the spindly-legged Aalborg tower. It seemed a good place from which to look back over the past.
Anne and I had traveled to Jutland by train two years ago. She had extended an invitation because everyone I had met made fun of Jutland. Anne felt bound to defend the provinces against Copenhagen's mocking sophisticates.
"If you will come to Jutland, you will see how beautiful it is," she said.
Travel is similar to love in its susceptibilities. Most Europeans think Danish-speakers sound as if their mouths are full of porridge; in my American ears Anne's Danish accent transformed the most banal observations into poetry.
The night before we left, we had dinner at the house of her friends, Barbara and Teit, and discussed our upcoming trip. Toward the end of the evening, Teit presented me with a gift, a replica of Venus of Willendorf, which he said was the oldest art object ever found and dated to 21,000 B.C. Anne, in taking it in hand for closer inspection, managed to break the head off the body of Venus of Willendorf. Later that night as we were riding our bicycles back, she lost control of the handlebars and crashed onto the hood of a parked car. She was not hurt, but we walked the rest of the way.
In the morning we found seats across from each other in a small compartment. Holstebro, where her mother lived, was most of a day's journey from Copenhagen.
Several other passengers were seated in the compartment. A Dane at the Politiken had told me it was very American to strike up conversations with people on trains, so I read. The train rolled onto a ferry and we were tendered away from the island of Sjaelland, headed west toward Jutland.
"It . . . is very nice . . . by the sea," she said in her languid accent.
The train ate its way through cool corridors in deep green woods on the island of Fyn. Wayside towns flashed in the window. When we crossed onto the sunny open fields of Jutland, I lifted the window and stuck my head out.
"Jutland!" I said, braced by the air. "It . . . is . . . very nice."
The train arrived in Holstebro that evening. Anne's sister fetched us. We drove to a suburban development where all the streets were named for famous composers.
Anne said that her boyfriends sometimes forgot about her when they met her mother Ingrid. Years ago Ingrid had been famous in the Danish theater. Now in Jutland she had something of a country life, living with Torben, a bearded fiddle player, sea captain and artist whose portraits of Ingrid's ancestors hung on the wall -- sketches so vivid that the living room seemed crowded with people.
For most Danes the home is the center of society. They lavish attention on furniture and painting and food. To praise an evening they use a word that translates as "coziness." Not much in Denmark surpasses a cozy evening with friends, even with an American in attendance. Ingrid had fixed a delicious supper, and we fell to vigorously discussing our cultural differences. How was it possible for Americans to walk past people suffering on city streets? In our craving for freedom, did we cast social conscience aside? I felt defensive and lashed out at the busybody excesses of socialized governments, and what I -- newly annointed as a cultural critic -- saw as a sort of timorousness in Danish life. No one jaywalked in Copenhagen. What kind of spirit could there be in a country where people wouldn't cross against the traffic lights?
Mercifully Torben produced his fiddle. I sat at the piano, and he taught me a 300-year-old folk song from Denmark's Fano Island. He had recorded it with a Danish group called Sand on the Floor. It was an old and liltingly simple melody that cycled through joyful refrains and reminded me of the contredanse songs that are played on the village greens of Vermont. The rhymes wilt a bit in English, but the meaning is clear: "If you marry the baron's daughter, you will eat well." Torben sang in a booming voice. Though he scarcely spoke 10 words of English, we found ourselves in the exuberant rapport of music, sliding into choruses, sprinkling the main line with flourishes of harmony.
That was the first of three days combing Jutland. The next day we went to bathe in the North Sea, which we reached after a short car trip. It glittered beyond a high ridge of grassy dunes. I dropped my towel beside the concrete hulk of an old German bunker. I was in a quandary about what to wear into the water. In parks in Copenhagen, women sunbathed without tops. At Danish beaches people gamboled about naked. On Page 9 of each issue of the widely circulated Extra Bladet, the Politiken's sister paper, there was a picture of nude beauty who was known as that day's "Page 9 Girl."
Going into the North Sea without a bathing suit was hard enough. But pulling it off in the company of a striking young Danish journalist exhibited in Page 9 candor, and her mother who might well be nude too -- who had the sang-froid for that?
Not for nothing had I been breakfasting on flat bread and Danish cheese. I jumped out of my clothes and sprinted for the surf. The icy water was a shock.
Meanwhile Anne and her mother were ambling to the water in, of all things, bathing suits. What a cultural cross-up! In deference to my American sensibilities they'd gone against their Danish instincts and scrounged waterwear from some dusty trunk or obscure dresser drawer. At this rate I soon would be buying ergonomic furniture and paying more than half my salary in taxes to the state. They would be carrying handguns and jaywalking.
I scooted out of the water and shivered under a towel. Anne had decided to slip into something more comfortable and shucked her suit. It must have been 20 minutes before she emerged from the water. She strolled to the bunker, apparently no more in need of a towel than a polar bear, and stood about utterly unembarrassed. The wind raised a delicate granulation of goose bumps. My case against the repressiveness of Danish society suddenly seemed bankrupt.
On the last day, the romantic revery was dispelled. Anne, Ingrid, Torben and I drove north to the Lim Fjorden, where Torben moored his boat, the Daphne. The weather was gloomy. We pushed out of the harbor at midmorning and before long raised Veno Island. We anchored and rowed ashore in a small red dinghy. The beach was littered with mussel shells and strange wave-worn fragments of brick. Swallows twisted through the trees. There was a restaurant on the island, Veno Kro. The linen-covered tables were set with small vases of purple monkshood. Heading back after lunch, we walked along a road and cut down to the beach. The wind was up, the Daphne had turned to face it, straining against the anchor line.
I asked to row. The current was strong. With four people loaded in the dinghy, it was difficult to keep on course. Ten minutes and we were no closer. An oar caught a swell and splashed my passengers.
"Pull with both oars at once," Anne barked.
I glared at her. Had she distinquished herself handling bicycles and precious artwork? This damn Danish dinghy was as yare as a bathtub. The current swept us further from the Daphne. Apologetically Torben took over the oars. His stroke was strong and steady. In no time he pulled us abreast of the mother boat and we clambered aboard.
Red mainsail and jib hoisted, we cut through the whitecaps on a heading around the island. The weather worsened. Under motor now, we smashed through the sea. The hull threw cascades of spray. The rain slatted hard against the wheelhouse. The Daphne pitched and yawed. I felt sick. I realized that my view of Anne was rooted in illusion. I hadn't seen her clearly; she was embued with my notion of the exotic. And now she was only human. When we put in around 6 that evening, I was grateful to be ashore, and -- I must admit -- glad to be heading back to Copenhagen on the overnight train.
From the tower in Aalborg now the curve of the earth did not permit a glimpse of Veno Island, much less of Anne. I was not to find her this time -- not in any telephone book, bicycle swarm or train compartment. I thought of a remark a Danish woman had made the night before at dinner, lightly mocking me, herself, her country. "Have you had enough of the Danes?" she asked with a smile. I think by then I had. And in any case, my designs were sentimental. I didn't mean to retrace my footprints, or make a fetish of the past. And yet that Fano Island folk song still whirled in my head, and I could not help but see Jutland as Anne would have seen it, and hear her voice as she would have said, "It . . . is very nice . . . by the sea."
Sinking back to earth in the Aalborg tower lift, I remembered that the train to Copenhagen had departed near midnight. While waiting, we had watched a toy train run circles through a diorama laid out in the Holstebro station. The journey back that night two years ago had the same distilled and dream-like quality. Anne slept in the berth across from mine under a light sheet, and the night passed to the sound of travel over tracks. By the vibration of the ship engines below I knew we were aboard the ferry again, and then the compartment was jolted as locomotives were recoupled, and the racket of steel wheels on rail resumed. In the half-sleep of that night, the soft steady clacking of the train seemed to be the sound of the past receding and the future rushing in. My days as a Danish columnist were nearly over. We arrived in Copenhagen at 7 a.m. and crossed the girder-and-skylight gloom of the station to the main square. I thanked Anne for showing me the worthy side of Jutland. There was much else that I wanted to thank her for, and much I might have said, but at the moment it all seemed beyond my poor power to express.
We simply hugged goodbye.