On the Train

In Denmark this is the first day of Christmas. To get ready for Christmas back in the day you had to prepare many special foods, including rolled lamb sausage and pebernødder. On Christmas Eve there was rice pudding and goose with red cabbage. On Christmas Day there was an endless luncheon of pickles and things. On the first day of Christmas there were hens. Eventually there would be the best food item, gizzard soup (fowl carcasses, giblets, head, feet; the rest of the gravy, apples and prunes; vinegar, sugar, carrots, and leeks, simmer it all down).

Everyone had a bottle of Sandeman’s port in their cabinet except for a man named Stone (yes, Danes have names like Wolf, Bear, and Stone), who had rainwater madeira. The twentysomething crowd, born after the war, had secret stashes of Camembert. They spread butter very thickly on their bread. One Christmas OPEC was not selling us oil, so there was no driving and no heat. There were always real candles on the tree, which was otherwise decorated with cookies and garlands of nuts and raisins. Presents hung from its branches. “First we show the tree, then we eat it,” said the song. “Christmas lasts a long time, and costs a lot of money.”


Now there is a conference I could go to in Deutschland, which we call Tyskland in Danish. It is too expensive, but we must enjoy the fantasy while it lasts.
It is at the University of Bielefeld, in Westphalia, near Hannover. By train Hannover is the gateway to Denmark. But Bielefeld lies on the traditional train route Paris – Köln (Cologne) – Bielefeld – Hannover – Berlin – Warszawa – Kiew/Moskwa. Nowadays, if I had the cash, I could calmly buy a ticket and actually ride that route.

The USSR existed when I used to spend time in Europe. Going to Denmark from Spain, Hannover was a major interchange. Trains left in the evening, and German passport control officers would wake you up sometime before dawn and stare at your papers. Later in Hannover you could see the enormous Russian trains announcing their route: BERLIN – Киев – Москва. Even Berlin was deep in the forbidden lands then.


I never got on one of those trains, of course, but onto a German one. I would find a Danish speaking compartment to sit in. Danish customs officers would come on as we moved across the Dannevirke and into Jutland. They would stick their mild heads around our door and say, I see you are all Danish. Welcome home.


8 thoughts on “On the Train

  1. Hannover is still a major gateway city on the route you describe, though there is little examination of visas in Hannover, since you can now go all the way to Poland’s eastern border on that train route without showing a passport. Many people travel on the night train from Hannover eastward to get to Poland. It is advisable to lock all of your belongings and sleep with your passport in your underwear, as many thieves travel with the train.

    I hope you had a happy birthday. Do the Danes dance around the tree, as the Norwegians do?

  2. Yes, Danke! Yes, they dance around the tree! They sing about how the twinkling of the stars transports us up from the earth to the delightful blue heavens. (The Christmas star was as bright in Heaven’s arc “som en lille stjernesol”.) It is massively elfin and Scandinavian although they claim the traditions are largely German if one can face admitting it. And good, so the trip east is still exciting and not bland …

    Danish non Christmas song:
    Men vogt dig, vogt dig, o min pige,
    for Elverkongen ser dig.
    (Watch out, my child, for the Elf King sees you.)

  3. Mein Sohn, was birgst du so bang dein Gesicht?
    Siehst Vater, du den Erlkönig nicht!
    Den Erlenkönig mit Kron’ und Schweif?
    Mein Sohn, es ist ein Nebelstreif.

  4. This paints such a vivid picture in such a few words. OH that some of todays authors could be so economical and effective with their words.

  5. Alex, I’ll take classic eighteenth-century poetry for $400–but the elf fascination definitely reached further south that one thinks at first glance.

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