An Accidental Mentor

Mar. 11 - I've mentioned before that I don't run into a lot of Americans in Copenhagen. This is partly natural—statistically speaking, there aren't a lot of Americans to bump into—and partly by design: I spent 38 years of my life surrounded by Americans. I was raised by Americans. Some of my best friends are Americans. Once upon a time I even married an American. But this particular phase of my life isn't about Americans. It's about everyone else.

Last fall I went to a touristy bar downtown every Sunday evening to watch the NFL football games I couldn't get on television. I ran into plenty of Americans and we got along fine, even if we hated one another's teams. But nobody pushed it. When the games were over we went our separate ways.

Interestingly, however, I've found that I have a very different reaction to Americans in other circumstances. I flee them.

I'm not sure why. It may be that I feel like I'm slowly acclimatizing myself to Danish culture and that a lapse into American conversation would somehow retard my progress. It may be that the few non-football-related conversations I've had with American strangers over here have been painfully dull or redundant. It may be that I'm just a terrible snob. (I've never been a snob, but I can't rule out the possibility that I've become one—it would be snobbish to discard the possibility.) Who knows?

More importantly: who cares? I'm not exploring myself, here: I'm exploring Denmark.

Yesterday afternoon, for example, I went to the kiosk around the corner for some potatoes. I grabbed a two-kilo bag from the stand on the street, brought it inside, and stood in line behind a vast asthmatic man rooting through a change purse. He looked up at the merchant apologetically.

"Two-eighty-four, you said?" he asked with a wheeze.

"Yes, sir, two-hundred and eighty-four crowns."

The American finally came up with the required money and struggled to load all his purchases into the flimsy plastic bags that the stores give out for free (as opposed to the nice ones that you have to pay for). Apparently he wasn't a tourist: he seemed to know the dodge.

"Having spent such an exorbitant sum in your establishment," he lisped gratuitously, "I assume you'll allow me a free bag?"

"Yes, sir," the merchant said, "of course."

The American chortled merrily and loaded his goods into the bigger, stronger, nicer bag that the merchant provided him.

I saw the merchant glance at me and icy terror gripped my heart: he was going to say something to me in English. He was probably thinking, "Hey, two Americans, they ought to get to know each another."

"Kun kartoffler!" I exclaimed, presumably incorrectly—just the potatoes!

There was a twinkle in the merchant's eyes as he corrected my Danish in an offhand way, is if he were merely repeating my statement for confirmation. He saw what I was doing and he didn't seem to approve, but to have come back at me in English after I'd opened the conversation in Danish would have been an egregious abuse of custom.

The saturnine American was still huffing and wheezing and cramming stuff into his bag, muttering the kinds of things we all mutter in that situation ("goddam box..." "c'mon, get in there..." "stupid thing..."). I was sending him telepathic messages to hurry out of the store: hurry, hurry, go, go, I thought toward him.

I knew the merchant was going to turn on me at any moment, and there was no doubt in my mind that this guy would be impossible to get rid of if he learned I was American.

Mercifully, the merchant addressed me over the American's shoulder—in Danish. He was telling me how much the potatoes cost.

"Blah blah kroner," he said.

My struggles with the awkward Danish numbering system have been well documented.

I had two kilos of potatoes and a handful of coins. If I handed him an inappropriate amount, he would surely rebuke me in English—without violating the unwritten rules I'd been making up in my head. I had to acknowledge that he'd be within his rights to say, "I said twelve kroner, yet you handed me a twenty and a ten. I only need the twenty." And my cover would be blown.

On the other hand, if I said "sorry" or "come again?" in Danish, he'd also be within his rights to reply in English. I mean, the guy knows me. He knows I'm an American. He knows I'm struggling with Danish.

I handed him a twenty-crown piece and held my breath.

"Blah blah blah," he said, handing me back some change.

"Tak skal du ha' (Thanks shall you have)," I said in what would hopefully sound to the American like perfectly ordinary Danish. I was so grateful I didn't even have the sense to hurry out of the store.

"You're quite welcome," the merchant said with a wry grin.

I froze. Everything else seemed to happen in slow motion. The pudgy little head of the American swiveled toward me on his lumpy shoulders—there was nothing you could call a neck—and he began to open his mouth to speak. The merchant leaned back as if to laugh maniacally.

I hit the panic button.

"Tusind tak for det—vi ses," I growled, and I hurried out of the store. (A thousand thanks for that—see ya.)

I hurried around the corner as fast as I could without running, then strode the rest of the way home without looking back—but trying not to look like I was in any particular hurry.

The whole episode was much too stressful. I've given some thought to how such episodes might be handled in the future. How can I be friendly and polite with my countrymen without getting myself dragged into long and useless conversations? How?

Then I realized the answer had been slumping in front of me all along. The pudgy little bastard! Be slow and annoying and lisp and use words like "exorbitant" and "establishment!" Brilliant!

"Hey, buddy! You American?"

"Res ipse loquitur, my delightful interlocutor! From what far-flung province of our magnificent experiment in democracy do you hail?" All of it hissed with the sibilance of a hose leak, or stuttered maniacally, or mumbled as with a tongue full of novocaine—who the hell would want to talk to me?

I tip my metaphorical hat to the man who taught me so much in spite of myself. I'm a wiser man than I was before I met him—and a better American.


John Chapman was born in Massachusetts in 1774. Growing up during the formative years of American history, Mr Chapman became a fervent patriot with a passion for the welfare of his country. It was a country he loved in every respect but one: it was, he felt, insufficiently appled.

As soon as he was old enough, Mr Chapman ran for congress on a platform of More Apples. The electorate, alas, was already divided between Hamiltonian Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans, leaving little room for Apple-Happy Chapmaniacs.

Being an American, Mr Chapman decided to take matters into his own hands. He kicked off his shoes, made himself new clothes from old sacks, and began wearing a tin pot for a hat (thereby becoming the spiritual founding father of the Reform Party). Instead of seeking office again, however, Mr Chapman began a grassroots campaign to spread his More Apples policy.

He changed his name to Johnny Appleseed and went to work.

He wandered the wilds of Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, seeding the earth with apple trees.

Eventually he got sick and died on this very day in 1845.

The Moron's Index
Bean Counter: 16 weeks + 5 days
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Dagens Ord (The Word of the Day)
Nul, en, to, tre, fire, fem, seks, syv, otte, ni, ti. Those are the numbers zero through ten (in order). Like it? Get more here.

Douglas Adams turns 52 today. He shares his birthday with Sam Donaldson (1934), Rupert Murdoch (1931), and Lawrence Welk (1903).

It's Moshoeshoe's Day in Lesotho. Give yourself twenty points if you know who Moshoeshoe was. (Give yourself thirty if you knew Lesotho was a country.)

Happy Thursday!

2004, The Moron's Almanac™

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