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Hello Garrison, Our 16-year-old daughter

November 15, 2004 |

Hello Garrison,
Our 16-year-old daughter Ellen finds herself in the Kingdom of Denmark, where she will spend the year as an exchange student. So far, it seems a strange paradise to her, where the kids at school can leave boom boxes and backpacks sitting undisturbed in the common area, the freest spirit in class has yet to wear shoes, and her host family has a seaside summer house with a thatched roof AND a DVD player. She is trying to learn Danish. Any advice for her? Have you written about your Danish experiences in any of your books?

Jennie and Steve Willams

Dear Jennie and Steve,
I am so glad for your daughter to have this experience. She'll remember it forever. And I'm sure she's well along on the road to Danish fluency. Sixteen is a fine age for that — I was 43, which is harder. She's discovered Danes' English fluency which is sort of an obstacle for her and she of course will have to insist that they quit practicing their English on her and let her soak up their Danish. Danes are not as accustomed to hearing badly spoken Danish as we are to hearing mangled English — we have more immigrants than they — so they tend to switch to English whenever the speaker trips on a vowel, but she has to refuse this courtesy and keep marching paa dansk.

She'll get a good accent simply by listening to other people, and she'll make painful progress through the vocabulary-building stage and then get a big burst of confidence and go zooming ahead. It's exhilarating to get into another language — you become a different person — and the Danish Ellen will be sweeter and more positive and polite (there's a dark caustic side to Danish but it takes longer to master). Little kids will be good teachers for her, and if she persists, by Christmas she'll be able to sit around the Julebord and eat the fleskestej and the risengrot and dance around the Juletrae and sing those gorgeous Danish Julesanger like "Det kimer nu til Julefest" and "Et barn er fodt i Bethlehem". She'll sit in church on Christmas Eve with those skeptical Danish Lutherans and her heart will melt and she'll become Danish. She'll pronounce her name in the Danish way — AY-len — and wear Danish clothes and get a Danish boyfriend. By May she will be heartsick at the thought of leaving Queen Margrethe and the Little Mermaid and coming back home. But she will, and she'll be better for it, though she may drive you crazy by criticizing American food, television, politics, mass transit, home decor, social policy, and beer, all of them inferior to Denmark's. It's a lovely land. Sometimes in my mind I go back there and sometimes it's Christmas and other times it's after a dinner party in our apartment on Trondhjemsgade in Copenhagen and I'm defending American foreign policy to my friend Lis in Danish as we wash dishes. A remarkable feat, like running a marathon or climbing an Alp, and you cherish the memory for years.

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