May I tell you a story about a Danish girl? Come with me to Denmark, to its northernmost region called Vendsyssel. And come back in time with me to 1915 or so. A complicated time in the world, a simple time in the small town where we are headed. You are free to deploy all the stereotypes of Northern Europe: Brick houses, red tiled roofs, simple gardens. Nobody is rich, nobody is very poor.
Look! You see the little girl? Linda is her name. She comes running around the corner, past a hedge. She looks happy, but more determined than playful I would say. You see her, right? A young girl, barely ten years old, blond, with those deep set Danish eyes the color of the sea in the European North. Where is she going with such urgency? Home maybe? It’s before midday and a strange time to go home, but she is on a mission.
She disappears into one of the houses in the street. We were right. Come with me! Let’s look through one of the windows.
Linda is making bread. Kneading the dough, making it look easy. A chore for some, a mission for our Linda. Every movement is strong and measured. Five minutes and she is done, hands clean, out of the door. Then back the same way she came, running back around the corner. Back to school.
Hurry! Let’s catch her before she’s back in class!
Hey little one. What are you doing? You run home to make bread during school? She smiles a bit, a shy girl perhaps, but holding her head high and with an air of purpose. I like baking she says, and my family likes my bread. My teacher is a man so he doesn’t understand much. I run home, and do what I want. Baking and cooking for my family is important, and I do it well.
And she’s back in class. We smile. Here is a strong woman in the making, a daughter of the Danes in Vendsyssel, Vendelboerne. The original Vandals according to some.
Stay close. You and I have to make a big jump in time. We are still in Denmark, but it is now the 1930s. We are in Copenhagen, Berlin’s little sister in those days. Full of creative contrast between the world that was and the post-war world of functional design, architecture, literature, political activism. Cabaret and communism. Liva Weel and Poul Henningsen.
This is Linda’s new world. Now look at her in the kitchen of a patrician apartment in Copenhagen, the home of a prominent lawyer. His world is the old order of privilege and entitlement. Biedermeier, not Bauhaus. Linda’s world is change and movement. Can you hear her in the kitchen, planning her Sunday afternoon off with her sister? Can you hear her talk to one of the guys in the household, making fun of his feeble attempt to flirt with her? Can you hear her laughter? It is discreet, but can make a grown man shiver.
Where next? Come with me to the 1960s. Linda is the one telling stories now. Sitting with crossed legs on a kitchen counter, smoking a cigarette, taking a break. We are in a house full of children. You and I are now the little ones – listening to tales from her childhood in Vendsyssel and her youth in smart Copenhagen. She is funny and irreverent. I can hear her laugh when the stories turn to somebody who takes himself too seriously. Those light blue eyes look straight through pretence and posture.
Now follow me into the night in the big, old house. It’s dark; you and I can’t sleep; we can hear the older sisters chatting and giggling next door. So you want me to come with you downstairs? Tell Mom we can’t sleep? Am I the only one afraid of the long, steep staircase? You pull me along, and we stick our heads outside the small children’s bedroom. It’s dark in the hallway, but there is a sliver of light under the door at the end. Safety. It’s Linda’s room. Oh, I forgot to tell you: She has a new name now. One of us took her last name and gave it a twist ending up with something simple and deliciously ambiguous: Dans.
Can you see the tiny glass figurines on the shelf in her room? A rooster and a dove, I think. Which one do you prefer? The combination of her strong presence, the cigaret smoke and the curiosity shop items softens the darkness of the night. We stay a few minutes, we listen to our Dans. She tells us not to go downstairs to see Mom. We are calm, we can go back to the children’s room now. We go to sleep. Even if our dad is no longer, we have our Mom and we have our Dans, a partner to Mom, a co-parent to us. We are safe in the knowledge they work together caring for us, and striving to get this outsized litter ready for adult life. An old-fashioned sisterhood perhaps, but one founded on love and respect.
So now you know the little girl, Linda, our Dans. She baked, she laughed, she told stories, she was independent, she was a partner and a parent. Throughout her life she carried the banner of the sisterhood of strong, Danish women leading their pride with love, compassion, and solidarity.
So Linda, you go back to school now. The dough will have risen by the time you return home.
And you, can you smell the fresh bread?