I was recently invited to Copenhagen, Denmark, to present a poster at the European Association of Urologists Congress. I gladly accepted. Not only was I excited to meet my Danish urology colleagues, but also delighted to visit the home of my ancestors.
Home away from Højme
In the early twentieth century, my great-grandparents left their family in Denmark and immigrated to America. They settled in Iowa and became successful farmers. My grandmother, born in America, tried her best to pass down the Old World, Danish traditions to her children and grandchildren.
On Christmas mornings, for example, my grandmother would serve Danish cookies and æbleskivers. These experiences were special, and I’ve tried to pass these same traditions down to my own children. In fact, I have two æbleskiver pans in my kitchen – my grandmother’s, made of cast iron, and a shiny new aluminum pan from Williams Sonoma.
After my presentation in Copenhagen, my wife and I took the train to my family’s ancestral village, Højme, near Odense. From my grandmother’s oral history, I had a mental image of what my great-grandfather’s home might have looked like. I half-expected to find a farm with ducks and chickens and an old man pulling a wooden plow by horse. I also somewhat expected to find an old woman making æbleskivers on a wood-fired stove.
When we arrived, however, we learned the family farm had been sold, and my great grandfather’s house had long since been torn down. Similarly, when we went to visit the churchyard, my ancestors remains were nowhere be found. In Denmark, if families do not maintain grave sites, they are reused after 30 years.
Although I didn’t meet any distant relatives while in Højme, I did meet new friends and experienced amazing hospitality.
Elk Horn and Denmark: A different kind of reality
What surprised me most was how much the Danes knew about Iowa – from taxi drivers to my colleagues in urology. Upon learning I was from Iowa, everyone wanted to talk about the documentary, Denmark on the Prairie. Apparently, it was a big hit in Denmark, and many had seen the show more than once.
When I returned home, I had an opportunity to watch the show myself. I also enjoyed watching the follow-up program, Spise med Price Jul I Elkhorn, with English subtitles.
Elk Horn is about a three-hour drive from where I grew up. It’s hard not to fall in love with these shows – much like it’s hard not to fall in love with Denmark. At their core, both Elk Horn and Denmark are about community and tradition.
Reconnecting with reality
Recently, I read that Lars Gert Lose, Ambassador from Denmark to the United States, visited Elk Horn, Iowa. He even took a selfie to mark the occasion!
“I love this,’’ he said. “The landscape reminds me of Denmark. The people remind me of Denmark. To be here and to have this piece of Denmark is a fantastic feeling. It makes me proud.”
There was really something special about our recent visit to Denmark, and, I think, there is something really special about the Ambassador’s visit to Iowa. In a culture where reality television has proven so divisive, Denmark on the Prairie reminds us that no matter where we come from, reality is what should be bringing us all together.
For those interested in making Æbleskiver, I found this traditional recipe where you can learn more about the Danish tradition.