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Nothing Rotten: Our Danish Exchange Student's Family Shares Their Denmark With Us

When my wife Beckie and I became empty nesters, we thought we were done with the exchange student experience. But in the summer of 2019, the American Field Service (AFS), which had worked with us to bring our second exchange student to Williamsburg in 2016, reached out to area families who had hosted students before: It seemed that the family that was scheduled to host 16-year-old Mikala Hess of Denmark was transferred due to a military assignment, and AFS was scrambling to find a family who could host her to ensure that she could have her exchange experience without being sent home.

Thus, Mikala began her year with us, for which her family was extremely grateful. Dodging the oncoming corona virus, she traveled to Florida with us on spring break, where we met up with our daughter Tara, who was by then attending Florida State University. But it wasn't long thereafter that AFS made the difficult decision to bring all its students home early to make sure they could get back to their countries before strict travel bans were put into place. Mikala left us in April, a full two months before she was scheduled to return. We vowed that as soon as the pandemic allowed us to do so, we would visit her and her family in Denmark.

Two years on, that visit occurred as we spent four days with Mikala and her parents, Martin and Tina Hess, in Copenhagen that can only be described, without a hint of hyperbole, as incredible.

As our visit drew nearer, Mikala contacted us to find out what we wanted to do and see. Aside from the famous Little Mermaid statue, which was the one must-see on my Denmark bucket list, we said we wanted to experience their Denmark: What they were most proud of, how they lived their daily lives, and go to places the average tourist wouldn't necessarily see.

Martin and Tina proceeded to put together a dream itinerary that we will remember for the rest of our lives. It began when Martin and Mikala picked us up at Copenhagen's Kastrup Airport and delivered us to where we would spend our four nights: A three-bedroom home with full kitchen and living area in central Copenhagen, generously offered by friends of theirs who were scheduled to be away that week. An hour later, we were seated at their dinner table with their whole family, including Mikala's older sister Sarah, about to be served a Danish dinner prepared by Martin, who is a professional chef.

The first course was an appetizer equally as sumptuous for the eyes as for the palate: A collection of Danish specialties including shrimp, smoked salmon, and trout caviar, topped with water cress and asparagus, with a special sauce on the side. This was followed by roasted vegetables and a chicken in cream sauce, followed by a baked apple dessert ... all accompanied by wine, of course.

The next day consisted of a guided walking tour of central Copenhagen, where we learned about key buildings and museums. Highlights included the Kastellet (citadel), first constructed in 1626 and now serves mostly as a public park; Amalienborg Castle, which is Denmark's royal palace, where we caught the changing of the guard at noon; and of course, the world famous statue of the Little Mermaid.

Denmark is rightfully proud of Hans Christian Andersen, its famous native son who apparently tried his hand as a tailor and an actor before someone suggested to him that he could become an author and poet. While he wrote numerous novels and plays, he is of course best remembered worldwide for his fairy tales, which include "The Princess and the Pea," "The Emperor's New Clothes," "Thumbelina," "The Snow Queen" (which inspired the Disney film "Frozen") and perhaps most famously, "The Little Mermaid."

The statue was the brainchild of a Danish brewer named Carl Jacobsen, who fell in love with the character when he saw a ballet based on the story at the Royal Danish Theater. To carve the statue, he commissioned sculptor Edvard Eriksen, who used his wife as a model. The statue was first unveiled in 1913 along the water's edge, and has been an iconic Copenhagen attraction ever since. Since 1984, Denmark's national bird has been the mute swan, undoubtedly in honor of another Hans Christian Andersen character: The Ugly Duckling, which is hatched by a mother duck and considered too ugly to be seen with them, until he grows up and sees from his reflection in the lake that he has matured into a magnificent swan.

Day two started with a walk through Copenhagen's biological gardens featuring plants from all corners of the world, capped with a visit to the butterfly house. We walked through the entrance to the quirky community of Christiania, immediately transporting back 50 years to an enclave that has been occupied by a motley assortment of individualists, artists, hippie wannabes and other non-conformists that the city has uneasily let exist for the last few decades. Lunch was a Danish hot dog personally recommended by chef Martin at Reffen, an outdoor collection of food stalls where if you can't find what nationality of food you want, it's your own fault.

We then visited perhaps Copenhagen's most famous church, the Church of Our Saviour, which has a gold-gilded spiral staircase winding around its steeple. Brave souls for whom heights are not an issue can climb the stairs to the top. There's a railing, but still ... I opted to hang at the first observation deck. The best moment for me was when Beckie met up with the church's organist, Lars Somod (arranged by Tina), who showed her the baroque-era organ and then allowed her play it as long as she wanted. Not your average tourist experience, to be sure -- and things were just getting started.

We ended the day at Tivoli Garden, Copenhagen's answer to Busch Gardens, with its outstanding landscaping, amusement rides and games, and food offerings. On the way in, we saw a ballet being performed that featured Hans Christian Andersen as its main character. If we rode on no other ride, Mikala made sure we experienced Den Flyvende Kuffert (The Flying Suitcase), which is equal parts Peter Pan ride and It's A Small World from Disney World, and featured only stories of Hans Christian Andersen. On the way out after dark, we encountered Hans in the form of a statue, his gaze permanently fixed on the lights of Tivoli Garden.

Could it get better than this? Oh, yes, it could. The following morning, a 45-minute drive into the Danish countryside brought us to the town of Hillerod, about 32 miles northwest of the city and home to Frederiksborg Castle. This royal residence was built in the early 17th century mostly as a way for Denmark's King Christian IV to show off his wealth and status. Having also seen Windsor Castle in England, I can say from my point of view that King Christian achieved his goal. It is every bit as magnificent, and also features a stunning chapel that contains two organs, one of which is the oldest surviving organ in Europe that contains all of its original parts and still functions.

Ensuring that Beckie would have an experience she would remember for a lifetime, Tina contacted her Aunt Margit Jorgensen, who is a member of the chapel's choir, to arrange for Beckie to be able to play this organ as well. After performing a short concert for gathered guests, chapel organist Ulla Handler warmly welcomed Beckie to the bench, where she provided her some short pieces to try out on the ivory-keyed instrument. As Mikala pulled the levers in the back of the organ that activated the bellows necessary to produce the sound, Beckie played about six short pieces.

Beckie profusely thanked Ulla for the opportunity. But Ulla wasn't done yet. "I'm scheduled to play the carillon now ... would you like to come see how that's done?" The chance to observe up close a carillon being played in a clock tower ... never mind one this old ... doesn't come along just every day. We followed Ulla up the narrow, winding staircase to the top of the tower where the carillon's "keyboard" was located. After playing a couple of pieces, Ulla turned to Beckie and said, "Would you like to try it?" Having never played a carillon before, Beckie was a bit hesitant. But Ulla brushed aside her concerns: "You can't be shy," she said with a knowing smile. "That's how I learned. I just came up here and did it. The tourists love it, and they don't know when you make mistakes." After Beckie had added yet another never-to-be-forgotten experience to this vacation's list, Ulla took her seat again and finished off her set with "Hedwig's Theme" from Harry Potter and "Hey Jude," proving once and for all that a sense of humor can be found anywhere.

Still giddy from our day so far, we headed out to Aunt Margit's nearby home, where we were treated to Danish tea and fruit tart on the back porch under a crystal blue summer sky. After bidding a fond farewell to Aunt Margit, Martin and Tina took us for a short visit to their summer home in the village of Udsholt, just a short walk from the shores of the Kattegat Sea, an inlet of the eastern side of the North Sea.

It would all come to a climax a couple of hours later when Tina and Martin applied the coup de grace: A dinner of Danish specialties at a restaurant in the fishing village of Gilleleje, where we cemented what we hope will become a lifelong friendship, and where we together watched a spectacular sunset along the shore of the Kattegat.

We headed to Reykjavik, Iceland, by jet early the following morning. We are so indebted to our friends who welcomed us into their lives and homes for a few wonderful days to show us what life was really like where they live. We are wondering how we'll ever top this summer vacation experience. We're already planning ways to try.


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