Read The Tsar's Dwarf (Hawthorne Books)

Read The Tsar's Dwarf (Hawthorne Books)
"A curious and wonderful work of great human value by a Danish master." Sebastian Barry, Man Booker finalist (Click on the picture to go to the book's Amazon page)

Friday, November 16, 2007

Cal State Fullerton: Crawling Down Memory Lane, Smog and All

The theatre department at Cal State Fulleron. When you're nostalgic even a hallway can become a temple of worship.


They're all dead.

All my professors have passed. One died in a bathroom, another moved to Utah. I'm not sure there's much of a difference.

I'm standing on the Cal State Fullerton campus. I graduated here twenty five years ago with a B.A. in play writing. Then I went back to Denmark for twenty two years. God, it's a strange feeling being back. Half the campus looks the same, the other half is new. Most of the smog has gone. In the early eighties the mountains were just a rumor. Now you can actually see them. Once a week, that is.

I walk through the theatre department. It looks the same, but the wrong people come out of the doors: Kids with cell phones, PCs, iPods. None of those things existed back then. The only thing we had was chlamydia.

I'm meeting up with the only professor who was around when I was at Fullerton. (Yes, I lied. One is still around). His name is Joe Arnold. A wonderful warm man who invites me to lunch at the Titan Union. They have a courtyard now. And Chinese food. Back in my days, the only food was grilled cheese.

Joe Arnold and I take a walk down memory lane. It's great hearing about the class of 82: Two alumni have had parts on Broadway, one started an acting studio, a few have become drug addicts. And worst of all, one works in an insurance company. God, life can be cruel.

We also badmouth a few people, or I do. Joe Arnold is way too nice to do a thing like that. He even shows me the new Performing Arts Building. What a gorgeous place. It must be great to be a theatre major at Cal State today, but then again it was great in the eighties. Everybody dreamed of Hollywood, sending off pretentious resumes to agents who didn't exist. Oh yes, those were the days when fame only was a blow job away.

Joe Arnold in his office, sweet and helpful as ever.


I walk through Nutwood Apartments on the other side of the street. I lived here from 1979 to 1982, probably in G-10 and G-21. I feel like knocking on the door and telling the tenants to get the hell out. But I have too much class. I just stare through the windows and go through their garbage.

Talking about garbage, I was International Student of The Year in 1982. I got the prize because I was the first student ever to have a full length play produced. It was called As Safe As Central Park. I received the prize from the president of the university during graduation. It was a great moment in my life. An even greater moment arrived when I discovered I had thrown out the prize. In the middle of the night, I went down to the trash container and spend an hour looking for my 200 dollar check. Luckily, money doesn't smell, but I sure did.

The Nutwood Apartments at sunset.


It's bittersweet being back in Fullerton. It's always bittersweet having a good memory. I knew so many great people. Actually, I should have forgotten them because I drank like a pig back then. But now memories grow out of campus - out of the lawns, the bowling alleys, and the Quad with its benches: Sweet love affairs, betrayal by a "friend", my three plays in the department. I remember I gave a cocky interview to The Daily Titan and when I read it, I thought: "My God, what a jerk."

When I walk through campus for the third time, I feel happy and sad. Those were great times but I'm much happier today. Life is better at 51 than it was at 25. I got the career I wanted, I have a pale girlfriend, I'm a nomad travelling the world. Who needs a 400 dollar haircut, anyway?

Adleane and your bloghead. I'm drinking ice tea.


My last evening in town I meet up with my best friend from my senior year, Adleane. Adleane is one of those rare women who look better at 57 than she did when she was 30. How does she do it? Diets? Power yoga? Plastic surgery? None of the above. Maybe it's just because she's a beautiful soul with good genes and a craving for Chicken Tikka Masala. The latter we definitely have in common.

"You look great," Adleane tells me after her first and only drink. I smile politely. Americans always say you look great, even if you have become as obese as Orson Welles. We spend the evening talking about this and that, finishing off a Palak Paneer and the last nanosecond of our youth.

Cal State Fullerton.


I was never a fan of Orange County. Who is? Fullerton is a dreary place with malls, drive-in Taco Bells, and highways that go on forever. It's America at its least charming, devoid of atmosphere and texture. But the theatre department was great, and I adore the weather and the palm trees. Couldn't someone move the climate to Oregon and Denmark? But then again, I'm a lucky man. I live in two great cities: Copenhagen and Portland. So you have to forgive me, but how could I be impressed by Disneyland and the Brea mall?

I kiss my past goodbye in the airport with the most hideous name in America: John Wayne. But when my plane takes to the skies, I can't wait to go back to Fullerton for my book tour next year. And for another crawl down my smoggy memory lane ...

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Is Florence the Most Overrated City in The World? (Go to Lucca, Perugia or Assisi Instead, Please)


This is the question I ask myself every time I'm in Firenze (Florence). Why do people love this city? Is it because they're snobs? Or is it simply because they don't know any better?

I mean, if you've really been to Italy, this city won't make your Top Ten list. Even in Tuscany, you have at least five cities that are more attractive. Of course, Firenze is full of great Art. You probably can't visit a place with better museums. But is the city worth visiting? Sure. For two hours, maybe even for three if you want to get a gelato. (Okay, okay, Ponte Vecchio is great. And Piazza della Signora ain't too bad, even though it doesn't hold a candle to the Campo in Siena). But that's not the point. The point is that Firenze is so tired.

Firenze is a city that wants you to get the hell out. Just ask its palazzi. Just talk to its streets and listen to the statues. They are worn out; they have been raped, they have been beaten to a bloody pulp by French invaders, American cannibals, and Scandinavian loud mouths. So show a little compassion. Go to Lucca, it's ten times prettier. Or visit crowded Siena. The Florence you want to see died four hundred years ago. May it rest in peace!

So much for Florence bashing, but somebody has to do the job ...

Luckily, my pale girlfriend and I spend most of our time in Perugia and Assisi. I lived in this region in 1997 and 1999. I even survived the earth quake that shook the basilica and killed thirteen people. But everything in Assisi has been rebuild. It's still a must for pilgrims who want to visit the grave of the holy Francis - my all time favorite Saint, the Saint to end all Saints.

Francesco d'Assisi was born in the 12th century. He was the son of a rich merchant, but he soon got tired of his lifestyle. Just like Buddha before him, he broke with his family and went out into the world to find his own truth. He became a beggar and slowly got a following. Francesco was kind to animals. He choose to be poor when he could have been rich. He choose to be kind when he could have been cruel. He choose to talk to Muslims when he could have cut their heads off. Francesco was the real deal. Just go and sit next to his grave. It's got to be the holiest place in Europe. You can sense that this man was divine. It's not his fault that he has become industrialized, that you can buy his image on key rings, coffee cups, and toilet bowls. In this world of psychopathic "saints" who slaughtered people of other faiths, we need a man who lived and breathed peace. Francesco, ti amo.


Perugia is another great love of mine. And I don't even care about chocolate - something this city is known for all over Italy. But God, Perugia is such a gem. Its streets have a medieval feel, Corso Vanucci is stylish without being ridiculous. The old town is full of surprising archways, murderous cliffs, and fantastic views of the hills and the countryside - it's a wonderful place without too many tourists. So luckily, God has blessed this city without a single must that art lovers have to see.

On our last night in Umbria, we had a drink in Corso Vanucci. It was hot, 84 degrees, the air was like silk against our skin. An ambulance drove up to a theater. A man was carried out on a stretcher. When the ambulance was gone, we discovered what film he had been watching. It was Michael Moore's Sicko.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

A Portuguese Book Launch And A Reindeer Melting In The Sun

November, 2006

Santa Claus looks out of place.

After all, he's strolling down a walking street in Lisbon in 75 degrees desperately looking for kids to fondle. He's probably a pedophile. He's definitely being treated like one. I mean, who needs Santa and Portuguese reindeers when the sun is shining and it's unseasonably warm?

I love Lisbon. I just walked into one of the biggest bookstores in the city. The first thing I saw was my novel A Anã do Czar (The Tsar's Dwarf) lying next to José Saramoga, the Nobel prize winner, and a new biography on Marie Antoinette. Now that's the kind of company I like to keep!

Like a total idiot I said to a lady browsing through my book: "I wrote that," pointing at my picture like a self absorbed madman. She looked at me with the kind of look you reserve for Danish novelists:

"Did you really?"

I walked away feeling like a total moron, but one minute later she came back with three other people who worked in the store. At first I thought they were going to kick me out, but they asked me to sign four more books and as the gentleman I am, I gave in to their unreasonable demand.

When I left the bookstore, I thought: Maybe these book people haven't met an author before?

Saturday night was the official book launch at FNAC in Colombo, the biggest mall in Portugal. It's lying next to Benfica soccer stadium. I must admit I'd hoped that Rui Costa would drop by, or a few TV-stations, but we had to live with about fifty people which definitely was fine.

My publisher Cláudia Peixoto (a woman with exquisite taste in literature) welcomed everybody. Then one of Portugal's best writers Sérgio Luis de Carvalho compared my novel to David Lynch's Elephant Man (my book has the same theme, something I've never thought of).

Sérgio gave a glowing review of my novel; he's a wonderful man. I should know because I stayed with his family for two days overlooking the hills of Sintra and the neighbor's laundry: T-shirts, underwear, over sized bras that unfurled like flags. I took over his son's room, I stole his strawberry yogurt, I made bad jokes about Benfica. But his dog Boris was crazy about me. I've never tried to be raped by a Labrador before but it was actually a lot of fun.

After Sergio's talk, it was my turn. Since my Portuguese is kind of appalling (I know three words), I spoke in English (which, come to think of it, is quite appalling as well). Afterwards, a well known poet and radio host, José Fanha, read aloud from my book. Portuguese is such a beautiful language. Danish, on the other hand, sounds like you're vomiting.

I signed about 18 books and talked to a few people who had liked my first novel O Paraiso de Hitler (The Whipped Cream War) that came out in Portuguese last year. Just the thought that I actually have fans in Portugal fills me with a wonderful sense of happiness, not to say arrogance.

Lisbon is a wet dream for anyone who enjoys a city full of hills, history, and hallucinations. There's something wonderfully old fashioned about this capital. People are courteous, the women are pretty, the port wine is cheap. And the city is full of street cars with huge Coca Cola ads. As I said, it's all very Portuguese.

I spend a lot of time in Alfama, a gorgeous part of the city. All houses are white as bedsheets. It has a feel of an Arab city. People greet you; you run into the odd goat. The locals don't seem as melancholic here as they do in the rest of Lisbon. The Portuguese are not your stereotypical Latins. They're not drama queens like the Italians or loud like the Spaniards - they suffer. Oh God, they suffer. Just listen to the music that comes out of them. Fado is like a love poem to a corpse. So if you're into blues, feel free to visit one of the fado restaurants in Barrio Alto. They're a total rip off. When I went, we ended up dancing on the tables as if we were in a bierstube in Gelsenkirchen.

By the way, I've promised my publisher I'll learn Portuguese when one of my books reach the best seller list. That should happen by 2086.

One other reason that my stay is so memorable is that I meet up with family - my mother's kid sister Hannah and her husband who are travelling around the world in a boat the size of a bathtub. The only problem is that Jan is bigger than the bathtub.

Hannah and Jan are people I truly admire. They both used to work in an insane asylum. Actually they met in the asylum - it was love at first psychosis. One day they looked at each other and said: "We're tired of working with crazies. We want to sail around the world." But instead of fantasizing about it, they went to work. First, they got hold of a wreck from 1933. Then they started to practice. They crossed a pond, then a lake, finally, a sound. They started to learn that there's a thing called a sail. And they got better at navigating - an advantage when you're crossing something as wet as an ocean.

And now, to make a long story short - we're meeting up in Lisbon. I show them Alfama. They are at my book reception, we enjoy each other's company. It's great. But isn't that the advantage of getting old? You actually enjoy your family instead of thinking that they are morons.

Believe it or not, I have more family in Portugal.
My third cousin Annett lives in Cascais. She has been in Portugal for a decade as a big cheese in a huge hotel chain. Now she has come up in the world: She's a yoga teacher. And more important, she has become a blond.

"Is that you, Annett?" I ask.

Annett nods. It's her under the hair. We start a sight seeing tour of Cascais - the La Jolla of Portugal. Our first stop is a pharmacy, the next is an Indian restaurant. We also visit a Chinese thrift store. Cascais is truly international. Hey, they even have an English pub.

Annett has actually lived here when she was a kid. Her father was a pilot for Scandinavian Airlines - the kind of job that has two advantages: You see a lot of UFOs and you get to live in Cascais. Today the locals can be divided into two groups: the rich and the filthy rich. But please don't tell the locals that their Portuguese Saint Tropez was a fishing village thirty years ago. That might hurt their feelings.

Back in Lisbon.

It's my last day. I've really grown to love this city that hasn't been destroyed by tourists. I eat espetada and shop around for a soccer shirt for my nephew. The sun is shining. All the vendors offer me cocaine or sun glasses - an odd combination, even for Portugal.

On my way out of an Internet cafe, I run into Santa Claus again. This time he has brought a snowman. The moment I pass him, fake snow falls from a balcony. For a short second it looks as if Santa is drowning in dandruff. Then he sees a cute kid and starts to chase him down the street ...