Did you know that Hans Christian Andersen, Denmark’s most famous writer, was a terrible house guest? He spent many years of his life abroad, often receiving invitations to stay as the guest of many distinguished people and outstaying his welcome.
The bony bore
Following an invitation from England’s most famous writer, Charles Dickens, Andersen arrived unexpectedly and then would not leave. He treated Dickens’ children as his personal servants . Exasperated, Dickens escaped to London and left his family to entertain a guest who spoke no English and whom they described as a “bony bore”.
After this extended visit, the writers never spoke again. And I often wonder what would have happened if Dickens had come to visit Andersen in Denmark. Would he have received similar hospitality?
Free boarding abroad
Danes love to travel abroad and can be the best of travellers to meet on holiday, in a train or hotel bar. They return to Denmark with tales of how a Balinese taxi driver invited them to a family wedding, or how an Indian businessman insisted they stay with him and not in a hotel, or how a Greek backpacker offered the shared use of his hostel room in Peru.
But what happens when these foreigners take up a return invitation from the Danes? “If you ever come to my country, I will be happy to be your host,” says the Dane. The important word here is “if” because the Dane never believes that his foreign friend would ever come to Denmark.
Hospitality seldom returned
If the unthinkable should happen and the taxi driver, businessman or backpacker manages to find his way to our Nordic utopia, the phone conversation will go something like this: “This is your Greek friend, Georgios. I’ve arrived in wonderful Copenhagen!”
“Georgios! Let’s meet tonight for a beer in Nyhavn! There are some good hotels at that location for you.”
Georgios is neither invited to his Danish friend’s home for dinner nor given a bed for a night or two.
A matter of privacy
It is not that Danes are inhospitable or impolite, they are simply very private people. When they travel they allow themselves to become very outgoing. As their language skills are often excellent, they communicate easily everywhere. But back home in Denmark, they turn inwards and concentrate on their work, family and close friends. Danes rarely invite strangers to their homes.
If Dickens had taken up Andersen’s offer to visit him in Copenhagen, he probably would have only been invited to drink coffee in Nyhavn for an hour or two.
Glorious sun with Georgios
Of course, Dickens never came. To commemorate Andersen leaving his home in Kent, Dickens pinned a note to the door of the room. “Hans Andersen slept in this room for five weeks – which seemed to the family AGES!”
As for Georgios, the Greek backpacker, he met my son in a bar and ended up sleeping on our sofa in Frederiksberg. They became good friends and now our holidays on the Greek Islands at their family villa every year are delightful. We feel so much at home that we stay on and on and on …
An exhibition about Vivienne’s London Toast Theatre company entitled ‘An English Phenomenon in Danish Theatre’ continues at the Theatre Museum until January 31. For more details, see cphpost.dk.