"Do you know why there are so many SMILES on these Danish faces that you are seeing?"--she asked, at one point on our itinerary. Our tour-guide's question came up on one leg of my early 70's journey "retracing" Beowulf's journey from Sweden (another happy "top-tenner") to Denmark after Grendel's first lethal attack on King Hrothgar's mead-hall, Heorot. Subject of my Ph.D. dissertation, the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf is fictional, but the geography is fact. And fun. Bear with me. I shipped out from the English port of Hull, in East Anglia (where I contend the poem was written), on an overnight Swedish casino-boat, and landed across the cold North Sea (even in spring) at Goteborg--note first element Gote="Geat." Beowulf was a Geat/Swede. I was in the hero's tribal "home town" in the area still known as VesterGOTland.
Unable to procure a pre-Viking-age long-boat for the voyage to Denmark's Roskilde Fjord and Heorot, as Beowulf would have done, I enjoyed instead a Swedish holiday in what seemed to be the cleanest city on the planet, and took an overnight boat-train to Copenhagen. Touristic stuff ensued. Then the morning bus trip to the ancient town of Roskilde--first element Ros="Hrothgar's"--on Zeeland's west coast. It is still a "holy city"--all the later Danish kings are buried in the cathedral there. And the poem's Heorot Hall is still there too ... sort of. Only now, not far up the headlands from the fjord, an impregnable medieval-masonry castle occupies forever the hill-top site of the perishable wood-built long-gone dark-age long-building that Beowulf would have visited. Still exhilarating, however.
But back to our Danish tour-guide. Not a "melancholy Dane," by any means, she reminded me of an ebullient Kathleen Freeman, recently-deceased character-actress of hundreds of films, perhaps most familiarly to Myriad Readers as the "mission-from-God" sister/nun, aka The Penguin, in the Blues Brothers movie. Like the actress, our tour-guide was truly a "character." And like Freeman too, she was a stocky/Nordic/muscular type--no doubt from gripping those aisle-side seat hand-holds as she faced and lectured her seated passengers, and standing steady against the sway and jostle of the moving bus. She may have been on some sort of "mission" herself. A diplomatic one perhaps. Anyway, the somewhat stilted-English ANSWER to her own question about smiling Danes was actually quite smart, had a peculiar twist, and was eminently unforgettable. It went something like this:
You see the smiles on all the Danish faces because of two things. We are happy because our wonderful Danish pigs have an extra rib--Did you know that?--which makes the pig longer in the body, and having more meat makes our hams taste much better.
And what else? We are also smiling all the time because of our Danish Welfare State. We are happy that from the time we are born we are taken care of in our health and well-being. We don't have to worry about those things, so we are always having a smile on our face.
So help me. I remember the exact words, "Welfare State," above all because I thought to myself at the time: Whoa--did she mean to put it quite that way? That's got some pretty negative connotations in English and in the USA. Okay, maybe in Danish the equivalent is a little more euphemistic. On the other hand, so what? She was so proud of it. In whatever language, Can she teach us maybe that government looking out for the "welfare" of its citizens in this most important area is not such a bad thing? One thing you can't argue with her about, though: Danish hams.