Swans Seen through Tears—Memories of Denmark
By Renée J Anderson
When my family first moved to Copenhagen in the summer of 2000, abruptly rendering me jobless and an ex-pat wife, I looked for ways to fill the time and better myself. This is what all ex-pat spouses do in their first year abroad. The employed spouse enjoys career and upward mobility, the adrift spouse copes with foreign words, navigating the grocery store, and the hiatus of career, and can be overheard at parties saying naïve things like “I’m thinking about taking a class—university is free here!”
Learning Danish as a hobby
With two small children, I didn’t have space for taking classes, but for the first time in my life I had time to write, a promise I had made in childhood. I also got myself a library card and learned a little Danish as a hobby. The first piece of Danish writing to make sense to me was a poem, and it looked like this:
Svaner set gennem tårer
—Simon Grotrian (1961– )
What does the rebus mean?
What a curiosity, this little numerical rebus. It seemed to be code for something. What did it mean? With help from my Danish–English dictionary, I managed to translate the title: “Swans seen through tears.”
An image snapped into focus. A setting, an emotion I could relate to: a recent walk around the city lakes in the rain, pushing the children in their barnevogn, swans and cormorants gliding along beside us, me drowning in homesickness.
Within a year, my marriage would begin to falter, yet we were not even halfway through our three-year overseas stint. Hobbies had to be put aside. By then I had learned the words skilsmisse (divorce), and read the handbook from the state called Når I går fra hinanden (when you separate).
I had also begun to discover the poems of Steen Steensen Blicher, Jeppe Aakjær, Tove Ditlevsen. But the very simple Svaner set gennem tårer stays with me more than twenty years later. I can recall it perfectly, its numerical lines, the emotions and memories it invites. It is also quintessentially Danish—H.C. Andersen’s own bottled elixir of the beautiful and bittersweet—unassuming as ugly ducklings, yet potent and timeless as Denmark’s lemon-yellow safflower fields, its churning windmills, its sleek white swans.
Now in California
The children are grown now, and still live in Denmark, the country in which they were raised. A divorce happened, a pair of remarriages, and the children had the benefit of four watchful parents to nurture their blossoming. And I find myself an ex-pat wife once again, in California’s Silicon Valley. I have had to leave behind another career, and homesickness is my trusted companion. And this time, I am honoring the promise to write. We have an unassuming apartment that overlooks a lagoon. No swans, but we have Canada geese, leafy-footed mudhens, cheeky ravens and seagulls, and patient gray herons to observe.
Yes, sometimes through tears.
Renée J Anderson is an amateur plane-spotter, editor, and writer from the American Midwest. She resides in California, where she is managing editor for the newsletter of the California Writers Club–South Bay branch. Her work has appeared in anthologies from Cleis Press.