Te Med Min Værtsmormor [Long Post]

I wrote this piece for my Travel Writing class and thought it had to be shared. I adored my time talking with my host Gramgram and I am certainly going to miss her as well as all of the wonderful friends and family I have met here.

A figurine of a woman wearing red boots and holding the hand of a young child sat in the window. According to Lisbeth, the woman in the sculpture represented herself, and the child could be interpreted as any of her grandchildren. Sometimes, it is hard for her to spend time with her little ones due to soreness or anything along those lines, however, she dons her metaphorical red boots and seizes the day.

The first time I met Lisbeth, we both kept our distance. My host mother, Marie, had invited her and her husband, Ole, to dinner and since the weather was nice, we all sat outside. Given that I had just come out of quarantine only two days prior, she wore her mask when she wasn’t eating, and Marie sat between us. However, we still exchanged polite conversations about my first impressions of Denmark and, of course, how lovely the weather was this time of year. Her voice was soft spoken and her words were carefully chosen when she spoke in English, but in Danish, her face lit up as she expressed her sentiments. Though their meanings were lost to me, her excitement and gentleness transcended our language barrier, and I admired her.

About two weeks later, Lisbeth and Ole invited the family to a dinner at their residence near the harbor. From their living room, I could watch the sea glisten in the sunlight. In little baskets around the room, unfinished knitting projects awaited completion. Olivia, my young host sister, insisted on giving me a tour of the place, from the upstairs where my host mother used to sleep, to where my host sister sleeps now, an attic turned into a nook in the highest point of the ceiling. My favorite room, however, was the sun room next to the yard where Lisbeth kept her projects. The hanging lights were cased with decorations woven from willow, and miniature projects lined the windowsill. In one corner of the room, a woven birdcage sat with a lonely, knitted bird inside. The goal, Lisbeth later informed me, was to fill the cage with knitted birds inspired from a photo book containing various species of birds. The room was filled with art, a handicrafter’s dream.

When I arrived at Lisbeth’s home for a chat, our first time meeting without the rest of the family, she greeted me with open arms and pulled me into a hug. Gesturing to the hooks, she helped me hang up my coat on wire hangers from the dry cleaners, which she decorated by sewing old embroidered pillowcases around them as covers, and offered me a pair of brownish-beige slippers from a basket by the door, which she knitted of course, to protect my stockings from snags. Unsure of the Danish custom for visiting someone’s home, I brought a mocha cake which she displayed on a porcelain cake dish next to a pot of mint tea brewed from herbs in her garden. In her dining room where we settled, the dining table was off-white with bright sky blue legs and chairs to match, and the windows facing the harbor flooded the room with light. Above the table hung a beautiful chandelier with elaborate designs and holders for candles, now replaced with led lights. 

We sipped our tea and chatted about our days and our weeks. She wore a teal dress with a green jacket and black nylons, which matched the leather accents of her jacket. An iridescent gem barrette held her hair in place. Every so often we sank into a silent lull as we processed our thoughts; I soaked in the room, from the flickering light from the tapers situated in the middle of the table and the delightful taste of the mocha cake to Lisbeth, who reminded me of my own late maternal grandmother whom I missed dearly.

At times, I stole glances at Lisbeth, and watched her as she sipped her tea, or sliced the cake, offering me a piece each time. We followed this ritual as I pieced together her story:

Born near Helsingør in 1951, Lisbeth’s parents, Holger and Ingrid, did not have much, but they at least had enough to get by. Her father worked as a gardener, sometimes in the cemetery and other times at the church to clean. Although her mother did not work outside the home, she assisted Lisbeth’s father whenever she could. 

At around age 16 or 17, Lisbeth worked as an assisting hand in a home for children who needed time away from their parents, and at age 18, she began her training to be a nurse at folk high school where she met her husband-to-be, Ole. When prompted to recount how they met, she gave a gentle smile. At the time, Ole had been studying to be an engineer and he was renting out a room at the folk high school and eventually they ran into one another and began going together. At age 21, Lisbeth finished her certification for nursing. Now, there was a Danish law which required all male citizens to perform civil service by either joining the military or serving in the Danish peace corps. Ole did not have any particular interest in serving in the military so he chose the peace corps instead. However, he could not bring Lisbeth along unless she was his spouse—thus, in December 1972. Or was it 1973? Lisbeth called to Ole who sat in the sunroom and the two worked out the years together. It was 1973, they confirmed, when the wedding bells rang for the young couple, and they left for Kenya in April 1974.

They spent two years in Kenya where they welcomed their first child, a bouncing baby girl who they named Marie, about a year before they returned to Denmark. Once Ole’s civil service was complete, he found a job in Viborg (at this moment, Lisbeth rose from the table to fetch a book of maps and pointed out Viborg to me), where the family settled down and had two more daughters named Christine and Lise in 1977 and 1980 respectively. During their time in Viborg, they lived in a farmhouse where they kept sheep, rabbits, and a dog. Lisbeth began working as a children’s nurse for the next twenty years, even after the family moved away from Viborg to Roskilde. 

Around the time she reached age 50, Lisbeth opted to become a community nurse, which she preferred the most since she no longer was required to work the night shift. As a community nurse, Lisbeth assisted new mothers with tasks such as breastfeeding, as well as visited a kindergarten about two to three times a week to teach the children about health and to make sure they were developing properly. Typically, the hospital would inform Lisbeth of a new mother in the area, and if the mother requested to receive the assistance, Lisbeth would bike to her home to meet her. In the kindergarten, in addition to monitoring the children’s growth, she would also check for signs of any mistreatment to ensure every child is safe, check in with parents whose child is overweight, and speak to children about drinking and smoking habits. However, she reflected, she found little success in the latter two tasks.

The crafting bug did not bite Lisbeth until after she retired from her nursing duties. At this point, her days were freed and open to new projects. One weekend, Lisbeth attended a course on basket weaving where she made her first basket and fell in love with the craft. From hobby to lifestyle, Lisbeth planted willows at her summerhouse in Langø, just outside of Nakskov, and with a little help from Ole, harvested them in the winter. Once they were nice and dry, after about nine months, they were soaked for a week and then ready for weaving. In order to further improve her craft, she set forth from her tutorial lessons to seek an instructor, and she discovered Ane Lyngsgaard. Insisting that I sit tight, one by one she brought her baskets into the reading room. Some were inspired by Ane Lyngsgaard, and others were a result of Ane’s advice for Lisbeth to find her own special style of weaving. Soon the reading room was full of baskets on the table, Lisbeth’s seat, and the floor. A few had handles and others sported lids, but each and every one was unique in its own way.

Lisbeth’s basket collection. And this isn’t even all of them!

Lisbeth’s talents do not stop at basket weaving. In a similar vein, Lisbeth learned to sew one weekend because a friend of a friend began to teach the craft. During those few days, Lisbeth made a dress from silk she bought while visiting Cambodia. From then on, she made her own skirts, blouses, and trousers. As she closed her list, she exclaimed, “Now, I am addicted!” 

When she begins a new garment, she makes an example of it and shows it to her friend, who then points out any flaws in the design. From there, she makes a paper pattern for the garment so that it fits her. Once she began making her own clothes, Lisbeth discovered how difficult it is for a person to try to label themselves as small, medium, or large, since each body is very unique. Although the process could be a bit arduous, she loved every minute of it. Despite her newfound passion, she sometimes ran into roadblocks. Once, she recalled, she wanted to make a jacket from some expensive fabric made of wool and silk, however the garment turned out to be too small, and thus ill-fitting, much to her disappointment. From then on, Lisbeth decided to use only cloth from old clothes found and second hand stores. 

As for her boutique, it was more of a collaborative project than a full on store. Down in Langø, near the harbor, a bricklayer and his wife, a social worker, decided to expand their miniature house where they made honey into a local shop, or “exhibition”, for local “hand workers” living in the area. Although her permanent residence was in Roskilde, they still asked if she would join, and she agreed. At the time of the idea’s conception, the COVID-19 pandemic had yet to rock the globe, however, they still set up shop, hoping that the Germans who usually sailed to the harbor would visit despite the virus. Much to their surprise as well as relief, a number of Germans did visit and the shop fared quite well.

Lisbeth rose from the table and knelt near the bookshelves which lined the walls. This time, we sat in the breakfast nook, which also doubled as a reading room, situated between the kitchen and mudroom. The walls were lined with bookshelves and filled with books, photo albums, and various pieces of memorabilia. Crouched in the corner where the photo albums were organized, she fingered through different years and locations seizing the one she wanted. We made room for the album on the table and she whisked me away from Roskilde to Langø. Before they acquired the summerhouse, it was actually a farmhouse with an attachment for the animals. At first it belonged to Ole’s uncle, and it was the last farmhouse on its street near Langøkirke. However, once they bought it from Ole’s cousin, they revamped it. 

About two weeks after Lisbeth shared her Langø photo album with me, I visited Langø for myself with my host family. The images from the eighties and nineties, where I also saw my host mother in her youth, did the area little justice. Although it wasn’t the wealthiest area in Denmark, its serene stillness was unmatched for me. During a walk around the village, guided by my host father, Henrik, I saw the bay and fjord which surround the peninsula. At harbor, I found a little black hut with a bird bath in which rubber ducks swam. A case full of honey invited one and all to take what they needed as well as a MobilePay number in order to pay for the purchase. I thought the shop was rather lovely, especially once Henrik informed me that the quaint little hut was where Lisbeth sold her wares! Overcome with awe, I snapped a few photos and peeked through the windows, though I couldn’t see much. It was one thing to hear Lisbeth talk about the shop, but it was another to see it with my own eyes. In that moment, I felt like I saw Lisbeth a little more, and her story came alive right before me.

Overall, the trip was refreshing. The sunlight lifted all of our spirits, since the week before in Copenhagen was dark and rainy. But in Lolland, the municipality in which Langø and Nakskov lie, I indulged in all of my favorite activities, from browsing second hand stores and eating delicious dinners to journaling, going on walks, crocheting, and playing with my host siblings. Dare I say, the entire experience was hyggeligt.

“What is hygge for you?” I asked Lisbeth. She paused, pensively collecting her thoughts. We sat in silence before she responded:

“Hygge is the opposite of busy life. You have time enough…” She trailed off, gesturing towards the spread of drinks and dessert.

 “This is hygge. A cup of coffee, cake, and if you have eye contact and you want to talk like you want to listen, then that for me is hygge. When I’m weaving with the willows, that is hygge. ‘Cause hygge, it is for me; hygge for me is time but you are not producing new thoughts, but you can also reflect, think.”

She stopped for a moment and continued, “I saw yesterday, or the day before, I saw a book about hygge. I don’t know what they have been writing but I saw hygge…hm!” She scoffed playfully as if to ask, “what does a book know about hygge?” After all, she noted that hygge for her was different from hygge for her husband, Ole. Similar to the love languages phenomenon overtaking relationship counselling sessions in the United States, in order for couples to share in hygge, they must understand what hygge is for their partner as well as themselves. Lisbeth remembered how she preferred quiet activities, such as knitting and reading, while Ole liked to travel. Yet, only by acknowledging this difference could they find a happy medium.

In addition to dialogue and taking tea, Lisbeth also classified spending time with her grandchildren as hygge, just as her figurine in the windowsill suggested. Further reflecting, Lisbeth recalled a moment where Konrad, the eldest son of her third-born daughter asked her, “Why are you so nice to us?”

To which Lisbeth replied, “It is because I enjoy seeing you and stay together with you.” At this moment, she reflected that both children and adults are so busy these days, but for that week, since it had been fall break for the schoolchildren, Lisbeth and her grandbabies were able to spend their time together however they wished. 

“Hygge is needed both for children and grown up people,” she concluded. “I am also happy about—that I like to read.” She started, breaking our reflective pause.

Twenty-five years ago, Lisbeth, along with some friends, created a book club which lasted the test of time. Although the members would change, some would come and others would go, the group still met once a month to discuss the book that they had decided to read together. Though there were times she did not care for the reading of the month, she noted, “even if you read a book which you do not like so much, when you hear the other people telling what they learned from the book, often you change your mind and think, ‘Oh, maybe I can also learn something about this and that.’” 

She continued, “you kind of travel into others’ life—and because if you only have your own life, you are so limited. If you are not very, very bright, you only have yourself and your own ideas.”

During a time like this, when travel is very limited and social interaction is limited even more, stories from books, magazines, and oral tradition act as the plane which flies its listeners to a new land with a unique culture and special inhabitants. Despite the restrictions, it is through stories that we meet new friends, both those that are written and those that are spoken. I knew I wanted to learn more about Lisbeth during a family dinner at Marie’s when she pointed out a sculpture on the freestanding cabinet depicting a woman holding a child, which is supposed to represent Marie and her four children. I was in shock, for I had seen the sculpture each day during my stay, but I never thought much about it, let alone whether it even had a story as to its meaning. I imagine sometime in the far future, long after we have all returned to dust, that these sculptures and baskets and trinkets will be unearthed and the historians of the future, whose life’s call it is to piece together such stories, will discover Lisbeth, the nurturer and the creator.

Published by K. Perry Ojoawo

I am a sprouting writer from Denver, Colorado in the USA. Currently, I reside in Roskilde, Denmark as I study food anthropology, European art and cinema, the Danish language, and improving my skills as a writer through travel writing. I am also a volunteer student blogger for DIS Copenhagen.

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