When I travel I try to blend in with the natives. My success is limited. I’m taller than most women, taller than the average man in many cultures. I’m white, wear glasses and sport short hair. Like the majority of Americans I don’t speak a second language, but I’m always disappointed when, before I open my mouth, people in other countries address me in English. I would be insulted if anyone described me as a “typical American.” However, a summer trip to a quaint island in the quiet Baltic Sea transformed my view of my American self.
The Danish isle of Bornholm is an idyllic land of rolling fields, sheltered harbors and picturesque towns. At its northwest corner stand the remains of Hammershus Slot, a medieval castle, and along its southeast coast an unblemished beach stretches for mile after white sand mile. The people are gracious, the bus system efficient and the island’s paved bike paths make it a favorite destination for European cyclists.
As I meandered the cobblestone streets of Bornholm’s small towns I found much to appreciate. Accomplished artisans sold exquisite pottery, blown glass and handcrafted textiles from delightful workshops. Trim boats bobbed in debris-free harbors that smelled of salt air rather than marine dreck. Half-timber houses, home to islanders for more centuries than the United States has been a nation, were gaily painted white, mustard or paprika. Everywhere I looked windows sparkled, hollyhocks bloomed in profusion, and lavender grew in lushly scented, arrow-straight rows. The pace of life was slow and gentle. Quiet prevailed, unbroken by squawking televisions, thumping music or shouted conversations.
Very admirable, I thought, and found myself enumerating all the things I don’t like about Americans. We consume voraciously but fail to treasure what we possess. We bulldoze rather than preserve. We love cars too much and public transportation too little. We are loud and arrogant; we abhor silence and solitude.
I repeatedly reminded myself of these American faults, but I could not dispel an inexplicable but growing sense of disquiet. In Rønne, Bornholm’s largest town, I searched for houses that needed paint and found only one. In the village of Allinge I cheered when I spotted a tangled, overgrown garden. In Gudhjem, a seaside town whose name means God’s home, I stood on a granite outcrop overlooking the gentle Baltic. Below me a tidy neighborhood of brick houses with red tile roofs, immaculate gardens and somnolent streets stretched to the sea. Not a rusting car on cinder blocks in sight, I sighed with as much disappointment as appreciation.
Suddenly I was overwhelmed by an almost irresistible urge to break rules. The desire caught me unaware. Although liberal in ideology, I am reserved in action and conservative in dress. Yet in tranquil Gudhjem I wanted to steal roses from private gardens and press my sweaty palm against spotless windows. I wanted to talk loudly and sing obnoxious songs. I wanted to be wild; I wanted to get in someone’s face. I wanted everyone to know that I am a demanding, belligerent, upstart American.
I restrained the impulse, but that afternoon as I dined on a smorgasbord of herring—herring that had been pickled, or fried and pickled, or pickled and dressed with sour cream; herring that was smoked, or peppered and smoked, or curried and smoked—I thought of the countless generations of Bornholmers who had eaten meal after meal of fish taken from the sea and preserved in traditional Danish smokehouses. The røgeri, with their distinctive wide bases, vast fireboxes and tall chimneys, still prevail on the island. As I ate, I watched young men and women dressed in black rubber aprons and boots hang mackerel and herring, so fresh they smelled more of brine than of fish, on wooden racks in preparation for smoking. These workers, I realized, were the latest in an unbroken line of islanders who, for generations, had repeated this same chore at this same smokehouse by this same gray sea.
What would it be like to live here? I wondered. More important, what would it have been like to live on Bornholm a century or two ago? What would life have been like when the world ended where the scoured granite of Bornholm met the cold water of the Baltic? When every child’s fate was written in the worn paths of a stone farmyard or told by the ageless creak of boats passed from fisherman father to fisherman son?
I thought of my own ancestors and of the afternoon my mother and I collated the diverse records of our family genealogy. We had laughed over the successive German Johannes who had married generation after generation of Marys in their tiny village in rural Schleswig. We cried over the record of one couple sailing from London to New Orleans with a toddler and baby in tow. “Imagine,” my mother said, blinking back tears, “that grandmother in England knowing she would never see her grandchildren again.” We were awed by our ancestors’ courage and humbled by their desperation.
As a schoolgirl I had been taught that immigrants came to our country because they longed to worship according to their own consciences, to live without political persecution. They fled famine and poverty. They gambled everything on unplowed frontier land. That afternoon, sitting in a Bornholm røgeri with a centuries-old reputation for smoked herring, I saw my predecessors in a vastly different light.
They may have been part of the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” but perhaps they were also impatient dreamers who wanted to live in ways not prescribed by parent, grandparent, great-grandparent. In rural villages where little changed from generation to generation, my forefathers and -mothers may have been troublemakers who defied tradition, upstarts who questioned authority. They may have felt smothered by the very customs that gave others comfort. When my ancestors left Europe, their friends and families probably wept, but perhaps behind the tears those who stayed at home sighed with relief. The vast land of the New World could deal with my restless forebears, their unsettling distrust of the status quo and their impetuous embrace of everything new.
We Americans continue to seek the new. We are stimulated by frontiers, whether they exist in the West, in outer space or on the World Wide Web. We are constantly on the move, chasing the better job, the bigger house, the latest opportunity, the hottest destination. We jump on ships, planes and trains; we buy RVs. We indulge in 5-star hotels and trek to remote mountain hostels. We bungee jump at Victoria Falls, dive the coral reefs of Bora Bora and walk the hills of Provence. We are always going somewhere; we are always dreaming of being someplace else.
While on Bornholm I refrained from becoming an obnoxious American. I didn’t break rules or make mischief; I didn’t sing vulgar songs or pilfer prized roses. Instead, I walked the immaculate streets of quaint towns with newfound pride. I am descended from a long line of travelers and rovers, seekers and questioners. My ancestors dared to leave familiar fields, islands and villages, and they passed on to me their restless desire for the new and the undiscovered. I relish foreign lands, diverse cultures, exotic food and ancient sites.
I am tall; I am bold. I am a wanderer.
It is in my genes.
Kay Jordan is an Arizona-based freelance writer.