Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Juttland Diaries, or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the Gammel Dansk

Seeing as this is the first time I've been in Zealand and sober since Wednesday, I figured I would blog about my short study tour to Western Denmark, otherwise known as Jutland to us and Jylland to them. Jutland is a mystical place, replete with planar landscapes, flat lands and hill-less countrysides. It took me a few days to really discover how without-height this part of Denmark is, mostly because of the oppressive fog that choked out the sun every hour of the day and night.

The drive, clear across the country, only took us something like 4 hours, which is ridiculous considering that you can practically drive any direction for that duration from my house and never see the end of anything (ok, maybe due East would take you to the shore by hour 4, but you get the point). I would use my school address as an example, but I feel like that's cheating -- everybody knows Iowa is 4 hours from everything, it's just a law of nature.

I'll take this time to note that after only 3 days without a computer, my hands have already forgotten where some of the keys lie. This marks about the 4th time that I've typed 5 instead of 4, and the third time that I've hit the = key instead of backspace. It's legitimately concerning, on two fronts: a) I would like to maintain my proficiency at computer use and b) WHAT HAVE I BECOME?!?!?

In Nordic Mythology we broke down the structure of pre-Viking poetry, called Scaldic poetry (epic). These poems were hundreds of lines long, written entirely in the heads of roving bands of poet-warriors, and had the most batshit insane rhyme scheme I've ever heard. The Germanic peoples hadn't hewn end-rhymes out of rocks and blood yet by this time, so everything was consonance and alliteration. Every line had to begin and end with words with the same beginning vowel sound, as did the middle word of the line, which had to be the same as every other middle word in the poem. I will reprint some more rules from an undisclosed online source:

"Each stanza has eight lines, and each line has six syllables. Three syllables in each line must be stressed, and the last syllable must be unstressed. The lines are linked in alliterating pairs, and the first line of each pair must have two alliterating syllables. All lines must have internal rhyme."

So ridiculous! Why would anybody bother making poetry like this, you ask? How would anybody even remember poetry like that? There are so many rules! Our teacher, Morten Warmind of the Bloodthirsty Blade, told us that to the contrary, these poems were hard to memorize at first but thereafter literally unforgettable. People in those times memorized all these crazy oral traditions and poems because they had nothing else to remember. Never was there a scene like

Mette: "Lars, did you remember to club the seal this morning?"
Lars: "D'oh!"

Because seal clubbing was literally all they did all the time, with some jewelry making or boar hunting in between. While this may be an especially narrow view of Viking life, the point still stands: they had more room in their brains back then.

The Jutland tour was a whirlwind of museum visits, delicious meals, attractive...monasteries and liquor. It was a great opportunity to both get to know other kids in the program and meet Danes, who are as a rule hilarious and awesome. We got a chance, on top of our excessive museum visits, to stay at the first folkehojskole ever created (by N. F. Grundtvig himself), furnished almost identically to my home hojskole and replete with same-aged Danes and a couple Czechs. We had a chance to sit down and mingle with them, which was really cool. I think that my conversation skills are really improving, and it's always fun to hear about people who had more or less a completely foreign upbringing (sans the absurd amount of Friends everybody in Europe grew up on). The only problem is that I'm now getting tired of asking the same questions over and over again, and you all know how much I hate repeating myself.

We got a chance to see the epic oldiocity of Ribe, the oldest sedentary town in all of Scandinavia (which is also, incidentally, the namesake of ScanTron automated answer cards from the Standardized Testing days of yore). It was cold, confusing and full of people who were probably holdovers from the town's first neighborhood, which is to say: ancient, crusty, territorial and completely non-English-speaking. I walked on a lot of lawns trying to get better looks at landmarks and buildings, and subsequently got yelled at in Danish quite a few times, presumably ushering me off of said lawns.

We went to a Viking museum in Jelling, ("Yelling," in keeping with my theory that everything can be made better by screaming things as loud as you can) the place where the first King of Denmark is buried and also home to the most epic runic stones in the world chronicling the spread of Christianity in the Viking kingdom.

Most importantly, though, we got to go out on a Friday night in a town with literally nothing to do but drink. We ended our "academics" on Friday with a tour of a local microbrewery, which I was reasonably excited about given that I spend a majority of my time drinking seasonal microbrews and discussing Proust (BRIGAND!). Now, most brewery tours you get a really long spiel about how it's made and then they give you a thimble full of their latest travesty and send you on your way. This brewery, owned by three ordinary schmucks who are probably brothers in a symbolic sense, began the tour with a tasting. In fact, the whole tour was a tasting, we never even moved. The distillery is in something like a 500 year old garage in the center of a 1300 year old town, and 35 of us crammed into this one room filled with beer and he just said "have at it." With that and the beer included in our dinner that night, I was drunk for easily 8 hours without paying a dime (50 ΓΈre). Not only that, but the beer was fan fucking tastic. Beer here is higher quality in general, but it's all the standard pale fare if you don't want to pay out the ears for it (incidentally, Vikings used to pay for beer with actual ears). Dark beer here is the closest thing to the godly nectar of (br-)Olympus that mankind has ever ventured, but comes at a correspondingly wallet-punishing price.

We then went to a bar that we heard was fun and reasonably priced, we being me and this guy AJ from Grinnell who I met here. As an aside, AJ tells me that he had an avocado tree on his street growing up as a kid in California. The fiery passion for jealous murder in cold blood burned brightly in my eyes. Anyway, needless to say there was karaoke, and also needless to say I have a throat cold, but I sang anyway much to my body's dismay. Karaoke is always a bucket of fun, but after a while I was utterly defeated by it. Walking outside, I saw a lot of Danes running around looking kind of odd. It didn't really strike me until I passed a guy and felt my mouth say "holy fuck, it's Ziggy Stardust." Apparently he didn't really expect me to say that as much as I didn't expect me to say that, and he whirled around and promptly hugged me for about 10 seconds. I was the only one who got that he was dressed up as David Bowie's alter ego that night, as this was a night that Danes in Ribe go around in costumes.

What I didn't know at the time, or did know but at the time forgot, is that this time of year Danes celebrate Fastelavns, which is pretty much a less eerily pagan Halloween where kids dress up and get drunk. Sorry, go from house to house and demand candy. Basically, Ziggy then invited me to go out with his friends, but some other people I was with were being difficult and much to my now dismay, I didn't follow him. Instead I went back to the hostel looking for ping pong tables, stumbled into the gym and cried "wtf, are they racing mini-horses in here or something?" What I meant to say was "My, there is a lot of equipment in here that would lead me to believe there's a dog show happening tomorrow." There were jumps, hoops, those crazy dog slalom post things, the whole shebang. Then I put dog and hoop together and realized that I had indeed seen an alarming number of well-groomed canines about the city that day. This would be confirmed the next morning when I awoke to frenzied yapping, surrounded by dogs. Not literally, but you get the point.

As usual, despite the highlights of this trip it was once again confusing and unsettling in some ways. I really don't like traveling and I get cranky if I have to stand for too long. Between walking everywhere, being on a cramped bus and the awful beds they had us on, my legs took a pounding this week. Keep in mind that this study tour was with 34 people I had never met before, so figuring out that dynamic was also a hassle. I got out-sarcasm'd many times over by some of the kids in the group, but I managed to keep myself socially engaged the whole time. Sometimes I felt a bit too much on the fringe for my liking, but I kept my chin up and had a really good trip. I also really like the guy who is teaching our class and led the whole tour, we had a number of really quality conversations that I would never expect to have with a teacher. The faculty-student dynamic here is completely different from that in the states, and it's really quite nice.

I'm not sure I have any major ontological conclusions to draw from any of this, and there's about a dozen more pages I could write about the study tour, but I think I'll leave it here for now. Today's adventure will be finding a place to watch the Super Bowl, and will probably involve me staying up all night until the trains start running again tomorrow morning. Details at 11 (a.m. tomorrow).



  1. I'm glad you had a good trip. I was...less inclined to like my brethren after the study tours. Though the fringe isn't a bad place to inhabit, so long as it's a friendly fringe.
    Take that video and imagine Queen Margrethe II in Simba's place.

  2. i'm sure they get tired of being asked the same questions over and over again...oh small talk.

    three cheers for good beer! americans just don't get it.