Tuesday, May 9, 2017
You smelled of night and white washed walls,
the donkeys chewing with sad teeth,
the empty suq with the mild-mannered ghosts
coming out to barter, coins on their breath,
always praying, smiling, welcoming you
with kindness in their hearts, a century of bargains,
apple juice, water pipes, hummus, jasmine,
Damascus was 1001 Nights and home to dictators,
staring at you from every shop, wall, shithole
fools with murderous moustaches,
father and son, both of them killers, assassins,
cold hearted clowns, listening in on your thoughts,
tearing through your dreams and emails
cutting out your hearts with their butcher knives,
Saint Paul used to walk down Straight street
hoping to make it into the Bible,
He had his vision outside a gift shop,
I wonder if he bought the same cheap gin
I picked up outside Bab Tuma,
I even took my breath into the Umayyad mosque
with its thick carpets, the courtyard prayed up
by thousand of saints, the eternal sound of God
keeping the murderers out for a dreamy minute,
gorgeous kids playing hide and seek on holy floors,
the hope and dreams still alive for Syria
because you can't keep them down,
hope was tattooed on our chests when we were born,
hope was sprayed from mosques, temples, synagogues
and emerald Buddhas, you'll never find love in weapons,
only in the dreamy scent that never dies.
Copyright Peter H. Fogtdal, Global Poetry Month, April 26, 2017
Wednesday, April 19, 2017
Denmark for Dummies 2017 (A Superficial Guide to the Greatest Country in Scandinavia and Possibly the Universe)
You're planning to go to the greatest of the Scandinavian countries.
Yes, admit it, you've always wanted to visit Denmark much more than Sweden and Norway because the Danes invented the atomic bomb and hygge. You tell yourself, "Why would I want to go to Lofoten or Ikea when I can go rock climbing on Saltholm? I'm trendy, I want to ride my bike with the Danes because they're the happiest people in the world."
Actually, that's not true any more. Our beloved Norwegians beat us this year, but unlike them the Danes always make the news for positive reasons, like killing healthy giraffes in Zoos, or harassing refugees at the border so they get so desperate they flee to Sweden.
Come and visit us, will you? And please bring your credit cards and your rain coat because God knows you're going to need them!
GUIDE TO DENMARK
A superficial introduction to the Scandinavian Paradise slightly left of Sweden.
Name in Danish: Danmark
Inhabitants: 5.6 million
Size: The 8th biggest country in the world if you count Greenland. (Always count Greenland)
Capital: Copenhagen (1.5 million)
Ranking: Most Livable City in the World (Monocle, British Magazine, 2008, 2013, 2014)
Other Top Rankings That We Take Pride In:
a) Most Trusting People in the World.
b) Average Consumption of Beer (Fourth highest in the world.)
c) Crime per Capita: Fourth lowest in the world.
d) Best Government in the World (2014)
e) Second Best Country for Women (beating Saudi Arabia)
f) Second Best Country for Singles Traveling Alone
g) Least Corrupt Country in the World (We bribed us to that)
Government: Constitutional monarchy.
Currency: Kroner. (7 DKK to a US dollar, 0.04 to the Angolan Kwanza)
Religion: No, thank you.
Name of Queen: Margrethe II.
Name of Prime Minister: Lars Løkke Rasmussen, or The Little Swindler as we like to call him.
Worst Cake Ever: Immigration minister Inger Støjberg celebrating the 50th amendment to keep foreigners out of our Aryan Heaven.
Most Important Thing You Should Know About Denmark: We have more pigs than people.
Second Most Important Thing You Should Know About Denmark: The best football player in the world isn't Messi. He is Danish.
Best Selfie of the Decade: Ex-Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt with her two secret lovers, Barack and David.
Famous Dead Danes You Should Mourn Now: Hans Christian Andersen (author), Søren Kierkegaard (philosopher), King Canute (conquered England), Tycho Brahe (conquered the universe), Isak Dinesen (conquered Africa), Karen Blixen (conquered Meryl Streep), Vitus Bering (explorer, had a strait named after him), Niels Bohr (physicist), Georg Jensen (design), Carl Nielsen (composer), Carl Dreyer (film director), Victor Borge (comedian), Bertel Thorvaldsen (sculpturer), Hamlet (Shakespeare's boy toy).
Famous Living Danes: Caroline Wozniacki (tennis player), Lukas Graham (singer), Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Mads Mikkelsen (actors) Lars von Trier, Susanne Bier (film directors), Margrethe Vestager (EU Commissioner and Google's worst nightmare), Lars Ulrich (founder of Metallica), Helena Christensen (model), Jussi Adler-Olsen (the Danish Stieg Larsson, just alive), Michael Laudrup, Christian Eriksen, Lord Bendtner, Schmeichel & Schmeichel (soccer players), René Redzepi, Carl Meyer (chefs), Bjarke Ingels (architect), Margrethe II (Queen of Denmark), Mary (Crown Princess of Tasmania)
Famous Half Danes: Viggo Mortensen, Scarlett Johansson, Tordenskjold.
Danes Who Ought to Be Dead: Jante.
Best Athlete & Heartthrob Who Happened to Win Gold and Bronze at the Olympics in Rio: Pernille Blume, swimmer.
Danish TV-Series That Have Conquered the World But Not Netflix: The Killing (Forbrydelsen), Borgen, The Protectors (Livvagterne), The Bridge (Broen, co-production with Sweden), 1864, The Legacy (Arvingerne).
Biggest Selling Danish Pop Song of All Time: 7 Years by Lukas Graham (Grammy nominated for Record of the Year and Song of the Year in 2017 but beaten by an unknown singer named Adele)
Most Famous Danish Building: The Opera House in Sydney (Jørn Utzon)
Danish Imperialism: Lego, Maersk, Ecco, Vesta, Bang and Olufsen, Carlsberg, Tuborg, Tiger.
Best Danish Word We Like to Shove Down Your Throat: Hygge.
Hygge almost always involves good food, akvavit, and spying on your neighbors the Danish way. Please don't embarrass yourself by trying to pronounce the word. We don't want to laugh at you.
Best Danish Word You Shouldn't Teach Your Children: Listepik
Most Important Cliche: Tak for sidst.
Worst Sin You Can Commit in Denmark: Not saying tak for sidst.
What Does 'Tak for Sidst' Mean? You wouldn't understand, anyway.
Denmark's Claim to Fame in Spain, Greece and Cyprus: Blond girls with herpes.
Denmark's Claim to Fame in the Far East: Badminton.
Denmark's Claim to Fame in the Middle East: Cartoons.
Denmark's Claim to Fame in the UK: Bacon and bikes.
Most Important Danish Invention of All Time: The atomic bomb (Niels Bohr)
Second Most Important Invention of All Time: Lego
Third Most Important Invention That Actually Wasn't Invented In Denmark But We Take Credit For It Anyway: Danish pastry (Thanks, Austria)
Best Tourist Attraction If You're Into Knights in Shining Armour: Frederiksborg castle (Hillerød)
Best Tourist Attraction If You're Eight Years Old: Legoland.
Best Tourist Attraction If You're Eighty Years Old: Tivoli.
Most Overrated Tourist Attraction: The Little Mermaid.
Time of Glory I: When the Danish vikings conquered England in the 11th century.
Time Of Glory II: When Denmark won the European Championship in football (soccer) in 1992 beating the Germans 2-0 in the finale, and the whole country behaved like a frat party.
Most Awesome Cities in Denmark: Helsingør (Elsinore), Ærøskøbing, Faaborg, Ebeltoft, Ribe, Skagen, Svaneke, Aarhus (European Capital of Culture, 2017), Copenhagen, Christiania (if you still think that Che Guevara and bean bag chairs are cool?)
Best Time to Visit the Land of the Danes: From late May to early September.
Best Month to Commit Suicide Because It's Dark, Dreary, and Everybody Wish They Were in Thailand: January.
Most Patriotic Sacrifice for the Motherland to Make Sure Our Superior Gene Pool Survives: Do It For Denmark
Best Danish Traits: Tolerance, sense of humor, informality.
Worst Danish Traits: Intolerance, sarcasm, disrespectful.
What You'll Miss the Most If You're an American Visiting Denmark: TV anchors with perfect teeth.
What You'll Miss the Most If You're Italian: Bread and Berlusconi.
What You'll Miss the Most If You're Norwegian: Norway
Most Beautiful Area of Denmark: The Silkeborg lake district in Jutland and the island of Bornholm.
Most Stupid Thing to Say to a Dane: Now, which part of Germany are you from again?
Second Most Stupid Thing to Say to a Dane: You used to be good at football. What the hell happened?
Third Most Stupid Thing to Say to a Dane: Sweden and Norway are my favorite Scandinavian countries.
Enjoy your stay. And tourists, please forgive Copenhagen for looking like Pompeii. We're building a Metro that we don't really need.
Winner of www.Denmark.net's International Contest, 2009. Updated April 2017.
Copyright, Peter H. Fogtdal, Danish Accent, 2008, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2016, 2017
The art work on the very top of Denmark and Sweden boxing was taken from businessinsider. com. The beautiful photo of the bikes at Sortedams dosseringen in Copenhagen was from VisitDenmark.
Thursday, March 9, 2017
Even though it's a while back my novel came out in America, I still find myself sandwiched in between Ken Follett and Jonathan Safran Foer at the odd indie book store. Not that I mind too much. Hopefully they don't either.
If you're curious, here is how my offbeat historical novel starts. The translation is by Tiina Nunnally and she did a great job capturing my voice. So far The Tsar's Dwarf has come out in Denmark, America, Canada, France, Portugal, and it will be out in Ukraine this fall.
THE TSAR'S DWARF (AN EXCERPT)
My name is Sørine Bentsdatter. I was born in 1684 in the village of Brønshøj. My father was a pastor, my mother died in childbirth.
When I turned six my body decided not to grow anymore.
I don’t care for the term “dwarf.”
As a rule, I don’t care for dwarves at all.
The fine gentlemen have brought me here to Copenhagen Castle. They’ve set me on a carpet that feels as if I’m treading on seaweed. Now they’re looking at me in that jovial manner they favor—their heads tilted, their lips twitching — but I stare right back at them. I always stare back, because they’re uglier than I am. The only difference is that they don’t know it.
“Do it again,” says the finest of those gentlemen.
His name is Callenberg. He’s a smug cavalier with red cheeks. His legs are bound with silk. I put my hands on my hips and stare at his multiple chins, which are quivering with mirth.
Callenberg spreads his legs and smiles. I move across the soft floor, duck my head, and walk between his legs. I do it four or five times, back and forth, like some sort of obsequious cur. And now they’re all applauding; now they’re cackling contentedly in their perfumed chicken yard. Of course I could have bumped my head into Callenberg’s nobler parts, but that would have been foolish. And you can say any number of things about a wench like me, but I’m no fool.
“Splendid.” Callenberg draws his legs together with a satisfied grunt.
The courtiers once again stare at me with a condescending expression — the same way that everyone looks at me, with a despicable mixture of contempt and joviality. But they could just as well have been staring out the window. They could just as well be gazing up and down the length of the Blue Tower, because they don’t see me, those people. How could they see me when they’re as blind as bats?
All at once I catch sight of my figure in the mirror. I’m small and withered, with deep furrows on my brow. My eyes are tiny and green, my lips thin and sardonic. My nose and my ears are a bit too big, my hair is long and graying. The veins dance up and down my bowed legs, but there is nothing ridiculous about me. That’s something they’re all going to learn.
Callenberg sits down on a scissors chair and snaps his fingers. A moment later a glass of clove wine is brought to him along with a plate of Flemish chocolates. His hands are fat and pink, his nails look like shiny seashells. That’s how a human being is. Loathsome and vain, with habits that increase in cruelty the more the person eats.
“Ask the dwarf what sort of tricks it can do.”
The First Secretary turns to me. When he speaks, he does so slowly, as if he were talking to an idiot. I choose to ignore him.
I’m familiar with the fine gentlemen. I have more experience with them than I would care to admit. I know how they think and how they behave. They can’t fool me with their vulgarities.
“Can the dwarf perform tricks or read fortunes in salt?” Callenberg asks.
“I can both read and write,” I tell him.
Callenberg tilts his head back and laughs. He would howl with laughter no matter what I said, because dwarves are so droll, dwarves are entertaining in the same way that parrots are entertaining. We are creatures who serve only one purpose: we exist so that human beings can feel superior.
Callenberg rubs his hand over his chins.
He is the Lord Steward at the castle. Not just the Lord Chamberlain but the Lord Steward. That’s the sort of thing that the nobility care about. Their whole raison d’être lies in titles. The higher the title, the greater the reason they have for existing.
“I can both read and write,” I repeat with annoyance. “I also know German, Latin, and a little French.”
“And where has the dwarf learned these things?”
I let my eyes survey the chamber. Exquisite portraits of Frederik IV hang on the walls. The drapes, which are a golden peach color, flutter in the breeze. There are chromium-plated mirrors with sullen looking angels. The strong scent of Hungarian cologne permeates the wallpaper. All very elegant,for those who have a taste for elegance.
“I suppose the dwarf is also knowledgeable in Russian?”
The Lord Steward looks at me with a condescending expression. Then he snaps his fingers and a chamberlain opens the lavishly embellished doors.
“Tell the dwarf to come back tomorrow.”
The First Secretary nods. He has a weak chin and a timid face — the sort of face that confirms the amount of time he has spent in submission to his master’s fury.
Callenberg disappears down a long passageway lined with Venetian mirrors. The last I see of him are his hands behind his back and his thin legs beneath his stout body. After that he is swallowed up by the castle — and by the specters of all the kings who refuse to let go of the past.
A few minutes later I’m escorted down several narrow staircases intended for the servants.The stairwell feels damp and clammy, and I very nearly slip on the high steps. Two dead bats are lying on the stairs. The archways are draped with cobwebs. The footman opens the door to the kitchen. In front of me is a vast room that goes on and on, as far as the eye can see. There are people everywhere: master cooks, footmen, errand boys, and pastry chefs. They’re rushing back and forth, armed with marzipan and mackerels and mulberries.
I stare at the wooden spoons that are almost as long as I am tall. And at the pots containing saffron, the tubs holding Iceland cod and whiting in brine.
We start walking.
The kitchen makes me uneasy. There’s a strange mood in there, as if the kitchen were waiting for something. I pass two assistants who are making a pigeon pâté. A royal taster is sampling a sour burgundy. They are all in their own meaningless world; they are all waiting.
The footman leads me over to a back door and opens it impatiently. When I turn around to ask him a question, he gives me a swift kick. Involuntarily I gasp with pain. Then the footman points to the moat and the high castle bridge. He points to the slum quarters, the flatbed wagons, and the flea market. When he slams the door, I angrily wipe my mouth and start walking.
It’s still a hot summer day. The towers of Copenhagen are sweltering in the sun, and the barges gleam like silver in the canal. I head across the High Bridge to Færgestræde. A horsedrawn
cart loaded with wine barrels almost forces me into the water. A moment later I vanish into the crowd among the coaches, soldiers, and loudly shouting fortune-tellers.
I live on Vintapperstræde in the middle of the king’s city. It’s a narrow lane where violence hangs in the air. Not even our watchman dares make his rounds in that section of town.
There are six distilleries, four taverns, and a few whorehouses. But I take pleasure in the atmosphere; it keeps me on my toes. The human being is an animal that fights to survive. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the part of town where I live.
I share a wretched cellar room with my poor scoundrel Terje. His path through life has taken him from pub to prison,with involuntary stays at Bremerholmen. We’ve been together for four years. Before that I lived with another scoundrel who was also fond of misshapen females. In a way I’m in charge of my own curiosity cabinet. Each morning I haul myself out of the cabinet, brush myself off with a damp cloth, which is enough to turn the stomachs of many goodfolk —and then I listen to their comments.
They say that I have an ancient face, that I’m descended from a demonic race. They think my head is deformed, that my fingers are stunted, that all the parts of my body are out of proportion. But who decides what is out of proportion?
According to other wise folk, I belong to a noble race that has lived on earth longer than human beings — a race that has mysterious powers and can see into the future. That may be true, but I don’t really care. I have the same problems as everyone else. I eat, I shit, and one day I will die.
When I step inside my cellar room, I find Terje curled up on the straw pallet. He is unwell, as usual, his body burrowed in day-old vomit. He is shaking with fever and a cold sweat. His face looks like mauve porridge speckled with yellow beard stubble. The Scoundrel looks up at me, his expression reproachful.
“Where the devil have you been?”
I ignore him and go over to one of my stools. I have three of them. The Scoundrel made them for me so that I could reach things in the larder. I don’t live in dwarf lodgings like other dwarves. I have no use for a dollhouse with sweet little dwarf doors. With a few objects to help me, I can manage to get by in the world — without extra assistance. There’s no reason to feel sorry for me.
Right now I open the larder, which once again is half-empty. A rat leaps out with a scrap of cheese in its mouth. A moment later it darts through the wood shavings on the floor.
I look at my scoundrel.
“I have work at the castle.”
Terje laughs scornfully and spits into the straw. He’s one of them —a human being. He’s tall and redhaired, with a chest like a Scanian rebel. He is usually quite handsome, but ever since Candlemas he has been sick with consumption. Now he looks shrunken and withered; his smell has taken over the whole room. I ought to be used to it. There are all sorts of different smells in the world when you live between the legs of goodfolk.
I go over to Terje and study his face. I see the dull look of his eyes and his hair, which sticks out in greasy tufts. Then I wipe the fever from his brow. Sickness is Our Lord’s way of rooting out His children. The Devil is more merciful. The Devil has always been more merciful.
“Don’t you want to hear anything about the fine people in the castle?” I ask.
“They have chairs made of gold in the offices,and there are mirrors on the walls—even on the inside of the doors.”
“So they’ll have a good view when they scratch themselves on the ass.”
Terje laughs hoarsely. I stretch out my hand to him, but he knocks it away. Then I go over to my little box. It’s filled with herbs and healing salves: amanita, swallowwort, and mustard plasters. There is also a secret compartment containing tinctures. I open the box using a rusty nail that hangs around my neck. Then I select the herbs for a miracle-working elixir. And as I work, the voices come to me. They’re like birds flying around my head, birds that demand to be heard.
I turn around to look at the Scoundrel.
“ You’ll be dead by tomorrow,” I say.
Terje nods, slowly and sadly. Outside the dogs are baying, and a drizzle settles over the city like a delicate silk coverlet. When Terje croaks, he’ll be the third scoundrel that I bury.Scoundrels don’t last very long, especially when they’ve been thrown in irons at Bremerholmen. But they’re needed in the house, particularly for a wench like me.
“What the hell did the king want with you?”
Terje has a malicious look on his face. I ignore him and pour beer into the birchwood tankards.
“He probably wants to use you for a footstool.”
I slap his face.Terje puts his hand to his cheek but is wise enough not to say anything more. He makes do with giving me a glare, but a glare that doesn’t seem to belong to him.
I go over to the fireplace. The elixir is brown and bubbling; a bittersweet scent spreads through the room. I light another candle. There is only a small peephole in the cellar, because who would want to look out at Vintapperstræde? And who would want Vintapperstræde to look in at us?
“ You’re a good sort.”
I smile sadly. A few minutes later Terje starts to snore. It’s a familiar sound. I don’t like to admit it, but I’m fond of the sound. Terje’s snoring makes me feel calm. I don’t know why.
The Tsar's Dwarf is translated by Tiina Nunnally (translator of Peter Hoeg's Smilla's Sense of Snow) and is published by Hawthorne Books in the US and Canada, Gaia Editions in France, and Mercado de Letras in Portugal.