DAILY BRIEFINGThe Saga of the Grill, Part II
Jun. 3 - [Today's briefing is the second part of a series that began yesterday.]
Like all good sagas, the Saga of the Grill has a sub-plot that mirrors the main action of the narrative while propelling the main action forward.
Like all poorly-crafted sub-plots, however, this one requires a brief digression.
The apartment we rented here in Frederiksberg—a kommune or borough within the boundaries of Copenhagen—came furnished, as I've already mentioned. As I told friends and family after our arrival, however, the word "furnished" seems inadequate to describe the apartment we moved into, unless the word can be used in contexts such as, "it was furnished to within an inch of its life." It would probably make more sense to say we had moved into a stuffed apartment—and that the owner who stuffed it hadn't gotten the memo about Danish design.
The first few weeks we lived here were spent rearranging the owner's belongings to make room for our own—which at that point included only four bags and two cats that we'd brought over on the plane. Then the fifty-nine boxes we'd shipped to ourselves (including the box containing my passport and birth certificate) arrived. There was no room for the boxes, let alone their contents, so we had to go through an elaborate process of emptying the incoming boxes one by one, loading them with some of the owner's possessions—including candle stubs, expired bus tickets, and Italian fashion magazines from the mid-1990s, as well as less useful stuff—and then setting the newly-reloaded boxes aside for later consideration.
With all of the work involved in all of this—protracted by the DMB's need to spend 8-10 hours a day at work and my own need to spend at least 3 hours per night acclimatizing myself to the local brews—it was well into May before we had a chance to talk to the building manager about little things like getting a key to the pool and sauna, getting a pass for the parking lot, and so on.
Part of the reason we'd put it off was because talking to the building manager isn't easy. The office is only open three hours a week: one hour on Monday mornings and one hour each on Wednesday and Thursday afternoons. Even in holiday-happy Denmark, these aren't normal office hours.
And so one day in the middle of May—several weeks after my episode with the Unhappy Person Who Became a Lunatic—I finally managed to get myself to the office during one of its open hours. There were three men in the office: a Seated Man, a Standing Man, and an Unseen Man Smoking a Cigarette.
By this time I knew enough Danish to announce that I didn't speak much Danish, that my name was Greg Nagan, that I lived in unit so-and-so with the DMB, and that we wanted to get a parking permit and some keys.
The Seated Man looked at the Standing Man, who looked back at me with curiosity. The Unseen Man coughed from his position behind the bookshelf.
"But who are you?" asked the Standing Man (in English).
"Jeg hedder Greg Nagan," I repeated. (Danes tend to enjoy a certain amount of repetition—or it may just be that they're so impressed by my own mastery of their language that they want to enjoy it over and over again.)
"Yes," the Standing Man said, nodding. "Yes, but who are you?"
I told him the apartment and building number I lived in.
He nodded and glanced down at the Seated Man, who opened a fat binder and flipped through it until he found my apartment number. He mumbled something in Danish to the Standing Man, who peered down into the binder then shook his head at me.
"Who did you say you lived with?" he asked.
I told him the DMB's full name.
"That is not correct," he said.
"I think it is," I said. "I mean, I've lived with her about five years now, and I've met her family, and—"
"No, I am sure you live with her, that is not the problem. The problem is, you do not exist."
I was pretty confident I existed and I said as much. I figured he'd crack a smile and apologize for busting my nuts or something. I remembered the episode with the drily humorous Dane whose humor I'd misunderstood (it's in the archives somewhere). Surely the Standing Man would bust into a grin eventually. After all, if I didn't exist, who was he talking to?
But he continued to insist that we didn't exist. Furthermore, he insisted that until the actual owner of the apartment registered certain papers in our names, we would continue not to exist.
This was frustrating because although non-existent tenants can apparently use the pool and sauna, and can even sign up for the tennis club and hobby room, they cannot get parking permits. I asked if there was some kind of semi-existent parking permit, and in fact there was: we could have a temporary monthly permit and renew it every month until we existed.
The DMB was a little upset to learn that we didn't exist, but not entirely surprised. Danish metaphysics has apparently been compromised by Danish real estate law, and every citizen has to become a kind of legal and philosophical contortionist to navigate the menacing gray area between existence and housing. It's sort of a second national sport, right behind tax evasion.
One night last week we were getting ready to cook dinner when we realized we our intended meal hadn't defrosted enough yet. (In our private language, "I don't think the chicken is defrosted" is code for "let's eat out.") We rode our bikes to a little schwarma place, had our meal, and came home. We decided to have some wine on the patio. We had been drinking for all of a minute or two when suddenly the Standing Man appeared before us, precisely where the Unhappy Person had been standing only a month or so before him.
With a lit cigarette in hand, he walked directly onto our patio and began blarging and yurgling at the DMB. She summarized the conversation as having gone something like this (anyone familiar with Gary Larson's rendition of "What Dogs Hear" can probably surmise my own translation):
"I am the president of the complex," the Standing Man had said. "We have had a complaint about some barbecuing this evening."
"We had dinner out," the DMB replied. "We just got home a moment ago."
"I see," the Standing Man said, with a glance at our grill.
"We haven't used the grill," the DMB said.
"Well, you shouldn't," the Standing Man replied.
"I notice other people have charcoal grills," the DMB said.
"Yes, but they should not."
"No. But maybe it was one of them."
"Maybe. But this was a formal complaint, so I have to ask that you not use your grill again."
"But we didn't use it tonight."
"Never the less."
"Do we really have to drag it down to the picnic area to use it? I mean, it takes fifteen minutes to cook something. It hardly generates any smoke. Can't we just pull it out there into the courtyard a little?"
"Possibly, if the wind is blowing in the correct direction. You must be careful. People object to the smells."
"But it smells if I'm cooking in the kitchen with the window open."
"Yes, of course."
"So what's the problem with fifteen minutes of meat being grilled?"
"It is just policy. There has been a complaint."
"Very well, then."
And with that the Standing Man departed. He never acknowledged my presence at all, even though the DMB isn't any more existent than me.
Last night was the first time we've used our grill since then. We rolled the grill out into the courtyard area, fired it up, grilled a kilo of turkey breast in about twenty minutes, then rolled the grill back onto our patio. The photograph you see here was actually taken while we were grilling. It was a little inconvenient, but there were no complaints and the turkey tasted fine.
Every Dane to whom we relate this story blames it all on Jenteloven: We were too good for a simple charcoal grill. We had to have our precious gas grill. And how perfectly American—how perfectly oil-depraved and selfish! How very like an American to burn up fossil fuels and ignore the cooking smells that float hither and yon, invading the nostrils of certain good and simple folk who are happy to have a little charcoal—unassuming people whose food never smells of anything.
What a perfect lesson in Jenteloven! We had violated four of the ten commandments:
(1) We thought we were someone—we actually thought we existed!
(2) We thought we were their equal—that if others could grill, so could we; that if others could get parking permits, so could we.
(3) We thought we were wiser than them—we thought fifteen or twenty minutes of grilling couldn't possibly generate enough smoke or smell to irritate anyone.
(4) We thought we were better than them—a fancy gas grill! Who deserves such a luxury? (Please ignore the tennis court in the background of the photo, and all my talk of pools and saunas. Luxury isn't about what everyone has; it's about what everyone else doesn't have.)
In my reaction, I suppose, I've violated another two commandments, bringing my final score to six out of ten:
(10) We thought we could teach them the advantages of clean-burning propane grills.
(8) We've been laughing at them.
* * *
What really burns me (heh) about the whole Saga of the Grill is that if I spoke Danish well enough, I would have had the opportunity to hit the Standing Man with the mother of all comebacks. Just imagine how the conversation could have gone:
"This was a formal complaint," says the Standing Man, "so I have to ask that you not use your grill again."
"Of course," I reply coolly, "But how can we use our grill, when we don't even exist?"
Sic transit gloria Jenteloven. . .
* * *
Okay, stuff about relations between the U.S. and Europe and a certain precious dark fluid tomorrow.
* * *
I'm not aware of any holidays today.
It's Colleen Dewhurst's birthday today. She was born in 1926—the very same date and year as Allen Ginsberg. They share their birth date with Tony Curtis (1925), Josephine Baker (1906), and Jefferson Davis (1808).
© 2003, The Moron's Almanac