Thursday, February 27, 2014

Discovering my roots in Denmark!

It has been interesting traveling in Denmark and Germany over break, because I at least semi-look like a native, so I blend in better. Most of the time, I'm instantly the American girl, no matter how hard I try! Sometimes, people talk to me in Danish or German, and I just have to give them this look of confusion, and then, they start repeating it in English.

In each country that I have visited, I have always found places that resemble Iowa, but never have I felt more like I was at home than in Denmark! 

It may sound really exciting to everyone at home that I am in Denmark, 1/3 of the way around the world, but really it feels no different than home! Gently rolling hills, wind turbines, and pig f   arms! There are lots of tall people with blonde hair and blue eyes, too, so I fit right in! Only difference is it is warmer here and the grass is green because of Denmark's changing climate. Plus, I do not know a word of Danish, but navigating is not too difficult, because you can usually guess keywords and mostly everyone is fluent in English. 

So why did I choose to go to Germany and Denmark over my university's break? Well, as far back as we are able to trace it, my relatives on all four grandparents' sides originated from regions within Denmark and Germany. Many of these relatives immigrated to the United States in the Midwest region circa 1900. I wanted to take this time as an opportunity to see my roots and where I came from. My mom visited relatives in Denmark in 1984, and I was curious to do the same after looking at a card from the Danish relatives at Ruth Kephart's home in December. It took some maneuvering of tracking my family members down. I only had a couple of names, and Denmark is a big country. Their naming system is also different which made it challenging. After wrong phone numbers and email addresses that did not work, finally a handwritten letter to the right address did! I am so happy that I persisted!

I spent Sunday on the train trying to figure out all of the family relations with the help of a few scanned pages from old Jensen-Ericksen family directories. My great-grandfather was one of five children, four of whom immigrated to the United States (Jens, Anton, Signe, Carl). The family that I visited with are the descendants of Inger Kristine Jensen, the sister who remained in Denmark. On Sunday evening in Copenhagen, Lisbeth and her niece, Skinne, met me at the train station. For my family members, here's the relation: Inger Kristine Jensen > Martin Sorensen > Alvin Sorensen > Lisbeth Sorensen. We talked in a cute coffee shop for a couple of hours, and Lisbeth was able to fill me in on many aspects of the family history. Skinne was surprised to learn about how many family members she had in the United States! Skinne has spent six months between Kenya and Uganda and is also 21-year-old college student, so we had many aspects that we could connect on.

Skinne and I (above) and Lisbeth and I (below) in Copenhagen

Monday morning, I boarded a train from Copenhagen to Aarhus. Berit and Iben picked me up from the train station and drove me to their parents' home in Nykobing, on the island of Mors. Here's this relation: Inger Kristine Jensen > Martin Sorensen > Edward Sorensen > Berit and Iben Sorensen. It was so much fun to learn about their family and Danish customs on the drive. Edward, Anny (Edward's wife), and their "little boy," Robin (an adorable poodle!), live in a beautiful stone house right along the sea. Anny had an abundance of food ready for us over our stay in Nykobing. There are old photos of the relatives that immigrated from Denmark to the United States that unfortunately are in an unknown location, but they were able to show me pictures of when my mom visited in 1984 (I laughed so much!). There were also photos from the late 80s when Tillie Timmensen and Ann Decker visited and from when Edward and Anny visited the United States. Monday evening, Anny and I watched Extreme Makeover: Home Edition on TV together in English with Danish subtitles. It had been awhile since I had watched Ty Pennington, and it showed me truly how much American TV is broadcast around the world.

Anny and her little boy, Robin!

Myself, Berit, and Iben - daughters to Edward Sorensen

Beautiful view outside of Edward and Anny's home.

Tuesday morning, we drove around the island of Mors. While the buildings are no longer there, they were able to show me approximate areas where my family members farmed. We visited the church (it has 2-ft thick stone walls, I think it will be there in 1000 years!) and the cemetery where some relatives were buried. The land was incredibly interesting and pretty, because on one side there is land that looks exactly like Iowa and on the other, there is the sea. How cool!

Near the farmland of my ancestors 

Scenic overlook not far from where Berit and Iben grew up. They spent many summers swimming in the sea!

Oftentimes, we ask ourselves (like this winter), why did our ancestors choose to settle in Iowa of all places?! It only took about 20 minutes for me to realize why. It looks like home. The countryside in northern Germany and Denmark consist of flat farm fields with the occasional cows and haybales. Farming was what my relatives knew, and the Midwest, with a relatively similar climate and landscape, was familiar, which brought comfort in a land filled with struggles and opportunities. At least, that is what I am guessing! I am still amazed how they were able to come to America with little to no money to their names and survive. And how did they make it to the Midwest? By train? By covered wagon? In the very early 1900s, who knows! Through talking with Lisbeth, I mentioned the longevity of our family members, and she brought up that homesteading in America was a very difficult life, and only the strongest ones made it, passing these genes on to the next generation. Survival of the fittest - Darwin at its finest. I had never thought of it quite like that before.

I am grateful for my relatives who have kept many of our family's historical information. As most people know, I was born on Christmas Day. My parents gave me the middle name, Christine, because it had "Christ" in it, honoring the special day and our Savior. After doing some family genealogy, my great, great, great grandma had the middle name, "Kiristine." Since then, there have been many, many of my female relatives with a variation of the middle name, "Kristine." Even if it was not given to me for the intention of carrying on the family name, I am happy to be doing so!

From just my great-great-great grandparents on my mother's paternal side, there have been hundreds and hundreds of descendants. It is pretty incredible how quickly it all multiples when just two people fall in love! I am grateful for the opportunity to see the land of where this started and to connect with relatives still living in the region! Lisbeth, Skinne, Berit, Iben, Edward, Anny, and Robin, thanks for the great visit!

Carrying on the family tradition of waving until you are out of sight to say goodbye! Edward, Anny, and Robin

One random fun fact that I learned - Legos are actually Danish! I had no idea! I had just always assumed that they were American (my too-often American-centered mindset...).

Another reason why I love Denmark...their super eco-friendly practices! More to come in a later blog! 

I am planning to go to Hamburg, Germany, tomorrow. The towns north of Hamburg are where most of my father's relatives came from. While I do not have any contacts there, I will still be happy to see the area and walk where those before me have walked.


Wednesday, February 12, 2014

And then there was a day...

…that I accidently ordered raw meat, yes, raw meat! While traveling, silly things like this are bound to happen once in a while! I met Suzanne, one of my friends from UNI, in Strasbourg. She was visiting a family in Germany before her semester in Turkey. Strasbourg is a historical city located on the border of France and Germany. Down each street, I was like, “Wait, is this Germany or is this France?!” The family was very generous, and they treated us to lunch at a very nice restaurant. Unfortunately, none of us were able to understand the very selective, more upscale menu. I settled on ordering what I thought was steak and potatoes. But I was wrong! Very wrong! My plate came out as literally raw hamburger meat with seasonings mixed in! As a very well-done girl, my mind could not get over the uncooked meat, and one bite was enough for me! Not a situation that I hope to repeat, but I am glad that this very unexpected, memorable adventure happened! All in all, it was certainly a dining experience that I will remember for years!

My beautiful, unexpected lunch!

Piglet peering out on Strasbourg's skyline!

…that I walked into Switzerland. My skiing plans did not work out for last weekend, so I decided to go with my school on the weekend trip. It ended up being like a retreat, which is not quite what I expected, but it worked out well! I "traveled" back to Iowa, as we had typical Iowa snow and cold (...cold for here, not -20) this weekend! About 35 of us played games, made meals, and cleaned together at a camp-like place. The weekend also included trips to a fromagerie, a 500-year-old church, a farm, and le Saut du Doubs. Coming from a childhood with many hours spent in the outdoors, it was interesting to see the reactions of many of my international classmates who were raised in large cities throughout the weekend. For me, seeing cows, being in a church, and hiking are normal activities, but for millions of others, these are not! It was a good personal reminder of the diversified backgrounds that we all come from. We ended our weekend with a short hike to le Saut du Doubs, a waterfall located exactly on the border between France and Switzerland. Piglet and I took a trek across the bridge to spend a few minutes in Switzerland! It blows my mind to just be able to walk across a country’s borders like that! All thanks to the Schengen Agreement!

That's a lot of Comte cheese!

Des bonhommes de neige! Fun in the snow!

You can always find a piece of home, anywhere in the world!

Piglet in the middle of France and Switzerland!