If you didn’t guess by my last name already—Jensen is one of the most common Danish family names around—I am part-Scandinavian as the paternal side of my family hails from Denmark. For my first ever Christmas, my dad’s parents sent me a big red book with gold gilt pages. I hadn’t yet left the hospital where I’d been born and they knew I’d be too young to read it for many, many years, but they sent it to me all the same. I still have their postcard note that had been tucked inside. Like the book, it is written in Danish:
Kære lille Rebecca, Du ønskes en rigtig god jul...
We hope that you will soon be big and strong so you can come home to mommy and daddy to read the wonderful stories of Hans Christian Andersen. We hope that one day you will be able to read it for yourself.
I’ve had the book sitting on my shelf at home for years, rarely opening it, rarely taking it down for fear of ruining the spine when I thought there was no way I’d ever be able to read it anyway. The Danish I know is scattered and basic; I can speak a little, but for the longest time I’d been scared to try to read it. And then, I took Dr. Becka McKay’s Translation workshop in the spring of 2016 and I decided, after almost 25 years, that it was time I made a better effort to read the thing myself. With my dad as my co-translator, I worked with the Old Danish to bring the lost stories of my childhood, Andersen’s lesser known tales, into modern English.
As the spring semester came to a close, my interest in translation had only begun to blossom, and I hopped on to a plane from sunny Florida to the great windy plains of North Dakota. Although not a popular vacation destination—especially not for us living in perpetual summer here—I was beyond excited to get out and to see what the Midwest had to offer. I’d been to the Dakotas before, but I’d never considered them as places where I could learn; the times I’d been before were to visit family and only that.
My plane landed in Fargo (yes, like that movie) and I spent the week getting lost in all things Scandinavian. From the early 19th century, many Scandinavian people began to cross over the seas and settle in locations across the Upper Midwest in the states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and North and South Dakota. Because of this movement, North Dakota today is still rich in Scandinavian heritage and the state is dotted with centers and sites where tourists and descendants (mainly Norwegian, but Danish, Finnish, Swedish, Icelandic, too) alike can gather to learn of the Nordic history and culture in the area.
Fargo sits on the eastern state line between North Dakota and Minnesota. A skip across the Red River took me to Moorhead, MN, where—conveniently—there is a Scandinavian heritage site, complete with Viking ship and Norwegian stave church. Each and every part of the church and surrounding buildings had been dismantled, numbered and inventoried, shipped from Norway to Minnesota, and reassembled exactly and precisely as they had been originally built in Norway. On just the second day of my trip, I had found a home from home.
Of course, I wanted more. With a bit of research, I had discovered that my beloved Hans Christian Andersen lives on in North Dakota. A memorial and tribute to him sits with pride of place at the center of a Scandinavian Heritage Center in Minot, ND, only a five-hour drive from Fargo.
I made the trip with no idea whether the place would live up to my expectations. It seems silly to say it, but my worries vanished when I stepped out of the car and laid eyes on the statue in the middle of the park. Set to the backdrop of an even bigger and more majestic stave church than the one I’d seen previously at the Hjemkomst Center (hjemkomst: homecoming) in Moorhead, beside a replica Danish windmill, a cluster of authentic Norwegian homes, and a Finnish sauna, and flanked by the flags of each of the five Scandinavian countries, Hans Christian Andersen perched with one hand on his hip, the other extended out to hold a little bronze bird. I sidled up to him and had my picture taken sitting on his knee. Later, inside the church, as I looked up at the intricate carvings around the beams in the ceiling, an elderly woman struck a conversation with me in Danish. It was the first Danish I’d spoken in years but it came freely without too much second-guessing myself. It felt natural and, after, I felt giddy and proud of myself for making this happen.
But none of this would have happened without the help of the Swann Travel Grant. Every summer, MFA students at FAU are offered the opportunity to apply for this scholarship of $500 to travel—anywhere!—to pursue a project that will help/encourage/enlighten/enhance/develop our writing. And every summer only a small number of students apply. The application is simple:
1. A proposed project/travel plan. Where do you want to go? Why do you want to go there? How will a trip to this place help you with your writing?
2. Cost of travel. How will you get there? How much will this cost?
3. Accommodation plans. Where will you stay? Again, how much will this cost.
Altogether, it was a short summary (mine was maybe 350-400 words) of the intentions of the trip and that’s it. I put mine together over a few days, hit ‘send’ on the email to the department, and waited for their decision.
The best piece of advice I’ve received since starting the program here at FAU is this: get involved and do anything that seems even slightly interesting to you. If you don’t apply, you won’t know. If I hadn’t taken a small chance on sending in that application for the Swann, I don’t know if I’d still feel the desire and urge to keep translating the big red book whose spine is now creased and whose pages are loved.
Rebecca Jensen is a third-year MFA candidate in nonfiction. She has served as fiction editor for Driftwood Press and as Managing Editor for FAU’s Coastlines. She was recently a nominee for the 2016 AWP Intro Journals Project in nonfiction, and her poetry appears in Eunoia Review, Firefly Magazine, and FishFood Magazine.