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Traveling Through Denmark With Laughter as a Guide

Patchy brown and white fields receded from view in a rhythmic motion; bare trees and an occasional snow-covered farmhouse rushed past. I shivered in my seat as the train rattled through remote, frozen countryside. I could not begin to pronounce the name of my destination, but was fairly confident that I was on the right train. How fascinating this all was, albeit much colder than I had anticipated.

I was totally unprepared for the local weather. I should not have been surprised to visit Denmark in the throes of springtime, only to find it in an advanced state of refrigeration, but somehow, with an optimism that betrayed my youth, I was. I coped by wearing literally all of the clothes I had packed, every day. My canvas shoes bulged with three socks and a foot in each; my thin wool coat accommodated a cardigan, a pullover, and four T-shirts. The unexpected but welcome side effect of this situation was the extra space in my small backpack, which enabled me to bring home a small viking doll (complete with horned helmet and fur coat) and a postcard.

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Two portly old women entered the car, greeted me, and sat facing me in the opposite seat. Dressed all in black, they appeared to be wearing as many layers of clothing as I was. They carried several large handbags and shopping bags and mounded them up casually about their feet.

This appeared to be a pleasure outing. They chatted amiably between themselves, joking and laughing, and soon addressed me in Danish. I told them I didn't understand a single word they said, but they apparently knew no English. One of them pawed through an ancient satchel and produced a tiny tin of hard candies. She opened it and held it out to me.

This I understood perfectly. I hungrily snatched up two teeny lemon balls, stuffing them in my mouth with a nod and a smile. Lunch had been a disaster, and I was grateful for even these minute contributions.

It seemed that few Danes, even of the younger generation, spoke English, and I knew not one word of Danish. Buying a train or bus ticket inevitably involved much pointing and gesticulating, and even the use of a little German or Spanish, in hopes that a common third language might facilitate matters. On the previous day I had managed not only to board the wrong train, but also must have gotten into the first-class area, judging by the manner in which I was bodily escorted back to the platform.

Shops and museums presented similar although less embarrassing difficulties, and I'd had to write off this day's lunch as a casualty of a drastic misunderstanding. On the other hand, I found the Danes themselves to be kind and helpful, even friendly in a reserved sort of way - tall, fair, and good-looking beneath their fur-lined hoods and red beards. Although I traveled alone, I never felt lonely. Denmark seemed such a pleasant, peaceful place.

I watched as the women regaled each other with what appeared to be a medley of highly amusing gossip peppered with a few spicy jokes. They repeated some of the punch lines very slowly (in Danish) for my benefit. I began to tell them again that it was no use and shook my head. I wanted to tell them how I yearned for a good joke. I wanted to tell them how I loved their country, despite feeling as though I was wandering around in a state of bewilderment. Yet they didn't give up on me, but persisted in including me in their conversation. The woman on the right addressed me frequently as if saying, "Get a load of this!" and the jocularity continued with hearty laughter and grand gestures.

Soon I found myself laughing along with them. The more they laughed, the more I let go. I had no idea what we were all laughing about, of course. For all I knew they could have been saying, "Can you believe this silly American traveled here on holiday in March? Ha ha ha! Look at all those pairs of socks!" But it didn't seem that way. It seemed as though I was a guest at a hilarious party.

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The train slowed as it approached the next village. I pulled out my ticket and compared the peculiar combination of letters and symbols with the sign visible through the train window. It was my stop. I tied my scarf snugly about my ears and rose to leave. My two friends spoke to me again and smiled warmly.

"Goodbye," I said.

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