BSHS grad shares lessons learned in ancestral land
As I stood in the sand with the sun shining down and the colossal waves rolling in one after another, I couldn’t have dreamed of a better way to start my summer.
Never mind the fact that I was bundled up from head to toe in a hat, gloves and all. Watching the wind surfers gracefully command the ocean (these people think it’s summer when it’s 50 degrees out), there was no spot in the world I would have rather been. I felt a tingle in my fingers as I snapped the shot with my camera and captured a stunning and clear image of what I had always imagined a perfect day to look like. I was in Denmark with my family, and I had been anticipating this 13-day trip for months, knowing my adventure in the land of the Vikings would be one of a kind.
Denmark might seem like an odd vacation spot, but this trip centered on family. My grandparents Tage and Else Mortensen came to the USA from Denmark in 1947 after my grandpa had been offered an engineering job in Kansas City. After the war was over, there weren’t many openings for engineers in Denmark, so when offered a position in the US, he decided to give it a shot. It was a difficult move and my grandparents had to leave behind nearly everything, including their families, but they had decided together that it was what had to be done at the time.
Coming back to Denmark was like revisiting the past and living the life my grandparents had growing up, which is why I saved up all of my money and left behind the daily grind of being a working college student. This trip would mark the first visit to Denmark my grandma had been on in nearly four years, and also the first trip she would take without my grandpa, who passed away last October.
Farfar and Farmor, which in Danish means father’s father and father’s mother, had been married more than 60 years, and I wanted to be there for Farmor since I knew the trip might be a little rough. It’s rare that you find a couple that has the privilege and power to share a life together for more than six decades. My grandparents lived with nothing but appreciation and love for each other and the life they had created and built from the ground up.
When I came home, most of my friends asked me if I had done all the touristy things like seeing the castles. Although I have, that’s not what this trip was about. This trip was about family — sitting with Farmor listening to her speak Danish to her sisters and cousins of mine. It was about the war stories I was finally old enough to ask about and the long evenings spent discussing family history around the dining room table of our little summerhouse. It was the look in my Farmor’s eyes when she told me about the two times Farfar had been captured by the Germans.
First, he was taken along with all the other members of the Danish army. No one knew why, but later it was clear they had been moved out so as not to put up a fight when the Germans raided the city. The second time was much worse. Farfar had joined the Resistance and had been caught and taken to the prison in Copenhagen, which the Germans were using as their POW camp. Once he escaped he quickly made his way to the country to lay low and returned when the war was ending.
I’ve walked on the trails along the coast that were used to smuggle Jews over to Sweden. My cousins and I grew up on those trails. It’s part of our family history.
The history of Denmark is part of what makes it such a fascinating and unique country. In Denmark, beer is a lifestyle, and two out of three Danes have a last name that ends in “sen.” Diesel is cheaper than gas, the Royal family is celebrated in high regard, and castles and palaces are scattered along the rolling hills and coastlines like raindrops in a thunderstorm.
Life there consisted of an infinite amount of picture taking, tea with every meal, and fresh pastries every morning. While walking along the ocean, the cool breeze blew and you could taste the salty ocean on your lips. As I gazed upon the stunning hues of the water, it was clear we weren’t in Kansas anymore.
This was my fifth trip, so I’d been a frequent visitor wandering through dungeons and mixing in with the sea of people in the bustling city of Copenhagen. I had had my picture taken with the little mermaid who sits in the harbor; rode all the rides worthy of attention in Tivoli, Denmark’s most famous amusement park; and earned my first unofficial driver’s license in Legoland’s prestigious driving school at age 12.
This trip was one of a kind because as a child you may not know all the intimate details of your family, but as a young adult you learn just exactly how things came to be.
The real treat was in imagining all the characters in my family growing up in this beautiful country and having the courage to ask about it all. Enjoying the sun set on the ocean every night and watching the pink skies fade away was simply an added bonus.
I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.
— Editor’s note: Riley Mortensen is a 2011 Bonner Springs High School graduate and student at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.