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Nineteen Facts and One Lie about Denmark

  1. This past electoral year featured a remarkable first: the first candidate for Prime Minister ever to pose on his campaign poster wearing nothing but a cowboy hat, a holster and a six-shooter.
  2. The Danish media color codes political parties opposite to the now-conventional American coding. In Denmark, red represents the leftist parties, while blue represents the conservatives.
  3. Danish political parties are identified with a letter of the alphabet.
  4. The right wing Danish People’s Party (Dansk Folkeparti) is represented by O.
  5. The socialist party, Enhedslisten, is represented by Ø.
  6. Ø, a nonphthongal close-mid front rounded vowel, may be the most difficult letter for non-Scandinavian speakers to wrap their lips around.
  7. When I try to pronounce an ø, I sound like a Frenchman expressing disgust while mimicking an English accent.
  8. A Dane once described a Swede speaking Swedish as singing. He described a Dane speaking Danish as a Swede getting gut-punched.
  9. Written Danish is verbose. For instance, Christopher Paolini’s Eldest, which clocks in at 704 pages in English, in Danish run 935 pages in Danish and is split into two volumes.
  10. Correctly pronouncing the dessert rødgrød med fløde, a red berry compote atop a groat custard, marks one as an official Dane.
  11. The unofficial Danish national dish is smørrebrød, an open-faced sandwich on dense rye bread.
  12. Most smørrebrød shops in Denmark open at 7 in the morning and close just after lunch at 2.
  13. In Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens, one can have smørrebrød in several restaurants, including Kähler I Tivoli and Grøften.
  14. Tivoli Gardens, the second-oldest amusement park in the world, served as an inspiration for Disneyland.
  15. Adult admission to Tivoli Gardens is 99 DKK ($14.50); to Disneyland, it’s $99.
  16. Tivoli Gardens isn’t the oldest amusement part in Denmark. That honor goes to Dryehavsbakken in Klampenborg, just north of Copenhagen.
  17. In 1669, King Frederick III closed Dryehavsbakken and turned it into his private hunting ground.
  18. The Danish film The Hunt was nominated for the 2014 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film.
  19. The Hunt lost to the Italian The Great Beauty.
  20. That Oscar snub put the 1956 cultural agreement between Denmark and Italy in jeopardy.

This semester, I taught a section of the First Year Experience, a one-credit, pass/fail class that’s essentially a banner announcing, ‘Welcome to college.’  My students, for the most part, are good kids:  sometimes rowdy, sometimes apathetic, sometimes distracted and beyond my reach.

But, as I said, basically good kids.

Prompted by the recent spate of high-profile gay suicides, I thought that this would be a great opportunity to talk to my freshmen about anti-gay bullying and harassment.  In particular, the death of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers freshman who jumped off a bridge after an intimate encounter with another student was broadcast without his knowledge by his roommate, raised issues that went beyond the bullying — negotiating privacy, living with other people, controlling your on-line image.

The discussion went well, I thought.  When I told Clementi’s story (amazingly, some hadn’t heard about it, which I expected from the international students, but not the English-speaking ones), one of the guys in class (who looks familiar with the Jersey Shore) commented, “That’s fucking demented.”  Towards the end of the conversation, he glanced up at the clock repeatedly, but he got it, I thought.  He understood.

That night, when I watched The Passion of Joan of Arc, the first thing that popped into my head was:  Joan of Arc, gender warrior! Of course, she was persecuted for heresy, but when the warty, jowly judges press her about her preference for men’s clothing, it brings to mind Daphne Scholinski’s The Last Time I Wore a Dress.  When Joan is first asked, Renee Falconetti, wide-eyed, nervously fingers her collar, as if the clothes are tightening around her neck.  When another judge presses — “So God orders you to dress as a man?” — her eyes are half-closed, as if in resignation.  Her answer doesn’t receive an intertitle, but her whisper is unmistakable:  Oui.

Yesterday, I took my class to the student center on campus for a lecture.  On the front of a building were posters announcing an upcoming drag show.  The featured drag queen, Sahara Davenport, was plastered on every window, in every conceivable color Hammermill provides:  fuchsia, goldenrod, lime, taupe — a Warholian whirl of fabulousness.  As we entered, the Jersey Shorean student muttered, “Seven bucks for a fucking tranny?”

Fucking tranny.

What upsets me is not that he said what he said — but that I didn’t stop right there and say something.  I kept walking.  Students sat at tables, eating their lunches.  The smell of fried Chik-Fil-A sizzled in the air.  His words hung there, unconfronted, unaddressed.

I’m no Joan of Arc.  At best, I’m Jean Massieu, the monk (played by Antonin Artaud) who knows better but is cowed into silence.  He supports Joan in spirit, but when things get hot, he bows his head, and lets his tonsure reflect his shame.  We share cowardly silence.  As punishment for our sins, how many more martyrings will we be forced to witness?