Saturday, November 27, 2010

giving thanks

After the whirlwind of a wonderful trip that was Denmark, I've come back to a sunny, warm Istanbul and a pile of work to catch up on. Essays to write, half-finished paintings and drawings, freelance pieces and Thanksgiving. This past Thursday was Thanksgiving, an American holiday with ties to harvest time, centred around giving thanks for what we have been given in life. Traditionally it is said that the day marks a time when the New England pilgrims were on the brink of starvation, and the resident Native Americans came to the pilgrim's aid with food, thus saving their lives.

Growing up, this holiday was perhaps the most important in our household. We were nomads, moving from country to country, culture to culture, rootless with no sense of home except where we decided upon the moment. My mother, an American, was adamant about keeping this one tradition alive— it was her favourite childhood holiday, and she insisted my sisters and I have the pleasure of this family feast as well. A typical American Thanksgiving meal is composed of a tender, stuffed roasted turkey, mashed potatoes, yams, cranberry sauce, gravy and pumpkin pie. No matter which country we were in, my mother would somehow track down a turkey, even if they were not traditionally farmed or eaten in that culture— which often meant visiting butcher shop after butcher shop and befriending expats who might have a turkey connection. There were times when my young mother, who had been raised in a land of pre-packaged poultry, had to learn how to pluck a bird, gut it and decapitate it. Most people would have stopped at plucking the feathers, but my mum was determined.
We would have a turkey.

Cranberries were hidden in cans and bags between layers of our clothes in our suitcases if we happened to visit a country were they were available, yams were hunted down, and somehow, it always all came together in the most elegant and delicious way. Our house would be fragrant with rosemary and roasted turkey, sweetened by baking pies— it was a magical time. Our little family would gather together, invite friends and dine on my mum's determination and thoughtfulness. This was the one thing that connected me with America, a land I barely knew.

This year my mum found a new butcher— believe it or not, a turkey is not always easy to acquire in Turkey, brought in yams and cranberries from Lebanon, and invited a full house of friends to share our feast. This has been the third Thanksgiving I've been able to spend at home since I left for college at seventeen. Every year this holiday passes, I am reminded of how truly magnificent this woman is, and how lucky I am to call her mother.

Friday, November 26, 2010


What was a week felt like two; I had met so many people and seen so many things in such a short time, sitting here on my sofa in Istanbul, it's hard to imagine. I would like to dedicate this post to the Clausen family for making me feel so welcome and happy in their home in Copenhagen. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for your warmth, kindness and generosity.

Thank you to Sue and Steen for your conversations and stories, your hospitality and laughter. Thank you Maria for so much more than you know, my kindred spirit.

mummies, vikings and medieval merchants

In what felt like a blink of an eye, I was back in Copenhagen. My time in Esbjerg far too short, I was soon lugging my suitcase down wet, grey pavements, umbrella in hand. I had taken the 7:41 train to Copenhagen so I could spend my last full day exploring the Nationalmuseet— and whatever else I could see. With one look out the window, I decided I'd much rather see if I could get lost in the museum than try to stay warm while wandering around outside.

The Danish Nationalmuseet is absolutely incredible— mummies, Viking utensils, national costumes and rich, glossy oil paintings— I actually did get lost somewhere between Early Christian Europe and Ancient Greece. The Nationalmuseet has easily become one of my favourite museums— the de Young in San Francisco and the Isabella Stuart Gardner in Boston taking number one and two (though it has been a while since I've visited the magnificent Smithsonian Natural History Museum in DC). I strongly suggest exploring this grand museum's impressive collections— it just might be the only thing in Denmark that's free! Located on Ny Vestergade, a stone's throw from Tivoli Gardens, the Nationalmuseet is open every day except Mondays.

danish delicious

Just your typical salty, buttery bakskuld and dark bread with carraway schnapps coffee on Fanø.

Luscious bacon-wrapped pork medallions with sautéed mushrooms and a potato soufflé, smothered in whiskey sauce in Esbjerg.

Some succulent Danish hotdogs that make you wonder whether you should be eating them in public.
Well, when in Copenhagen...

I admit I did feel a little naughty.

trains, pastries and cows

family history

I left the comfort and warmth of Sue's beautiful farmhouse to bump and sway down the rail road tracks to Esbjerg, my grandad's hometown. There I met Steen, a kind and generous archaeologist who offered his sofa to a cold and sleepy artist who still hadn't drawn much. Steen was my second Couchsurfing experience— Sue being my first, though we had previously met in Istanbul. Couchsurfing is a wonderful way to see the world and meet people, based fundamentally on trust and the goodness of strangers. You visit the website, search for someone with a couch or a bed to sleep on in the city you are travelling to, et voilà: somewhere to lay your wandering head and possibly, a new friend.

I asked Steen, knower of many, many things, if he had heard of my grandad's dad, John Tranum. With a tilt of his head he said he knew of a road with such a name, and almost simultaneously we both added, "by the airport." Since my great grandad was a famous parachutist, stuntman and daredevil, it was only fitting that the road to the airport be named John Tranum's Way. We spent the dark afternoon and evening discussing my adventurous relative, the history of Esbjerg, and what it's like to dig in the mud for ancient homes.

In the morning I met my grandad's cousin Maria, whom I had never met but felt an instant connection to. Maria took me to the place where John Tranum now rests, as he has ever since his final record-breaking jump attempt in 1935, which sadly, he never got to perform. His oxygen tank failed, and he never made it out of the plane.

Before Maria and I ran off to catch a ferry to the island of Fanø, just across the Esbjerg harbour, she showed me a veritable treasure-trove of old photos— pictures of my grinning grandad, of beautiful Maria as a Fanø calendar girl in traditional costume, of Chieftan, her legendary Alsatian, of our ancestors The Captain and his wife Anna, who had seven daughters named after the seven seas. Among these books of faded photos, a calendar of Esbjerg history contained one photo that captivated me and my child-like sense of wonder:

for the love of herring

Well I can't say I'm the most tolerant of cold weather, but the Dane in me has certainly revealed herself in my new-found love of pickled, salted and cured fish. Sue thought I should test my Danish roots with something very traditional but risky to my foreign tongue—  cured herring and dark bread with capers and a curry mayonnaise. We discussed at length whether I should order the herring or play it safe with a chicken salad, but I was in Denmark, and if the Danes eat pickled or marinated herring, then I too, would eat pickled or marinated herring.

"Are you sure?" She asked with a raised brow. "You might not like it!"
I was warned, but something inside me told me I would love it— so I ordered the mysterious fish dish anyway.

What can I say? I devoured every single bit with great joy, and began plotting ways of recreating it back in Istanbul. I couldn't wait to tell my grandad that I love herring too.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

outside the wall

boundless minds

The Middelfart Sindssygehospital was founded in 1888, and officially closed its doors to patients in 1999. I want to say the hospital reopened as a museum in 2008, but I could be wrong— the site is in Danish. I had thought of photographing the museum as it was displayed to visitors, but I decided I'd rather try to capture a sense of the minds that could not be contained within its walls, by showing you their artwork, which I found profoundly moving.