Tracing My Roots in Denmark: Thompson-Thomsen Traits, a Bit of Heritage, Vikings, the North Sea & a Bonfire
23.06.2004 - 23.06.2004 66 °F
THERE CAN NEVER BE TOO MANY THOMSENS… OR COUSINS NAMED EVA!
Wednesday, June 23, 2004. Day two, our first full day in Denmark, we woke up at 7:30am to the delicious smell of coffee; breakfast consisted of cold cuts, cheeses, breads, jams and more coffee… I am full just writing about the delicious food we tried there! Anette had to work, so we were on our own with translations; but it was never a problem (my Danish blood finally having kicked in); then people started arriving to wonder at the New Thomsen From Afar. The first arrivals were more cousins, including Merete’s sister Eva… I must add here that I have about 1 million five hundred and seventy-three thousand six hundred and forty-eight cousins named Eva on my Mom’s side, so what was one more cousin Eva to this gal? Shortly after, cousin Otto arrived with his sweet wife Nancy, who loved to talk to us but did not speak a word of English. Otto however did speak a bit of English; he was to be our official tour guide, and better yet- our family historian.
15 MINUTES OF DANISH FAME
Eva, Otto and Nancy were followed by the Press conference at 9:30am. What? Yes, the Press got wind of another Thomsen/Thompson in town with her Mexican hubby and an interview, with photographer and all, was to be held over coffee. The truth, Merete had called the press to put in an ad to inquire about any relatives on my non-Thomsen great grandmother’s side, but none had responded; the reporter however thought it would be a great addition to his CV and we interviewed away. Looking back, either he spoke great English or my Danish blood had kicked in (maybe it was the awesomely strong coffee?). I do not recall the name of the newspaper, but certainly it was something like the Danish coverage of Time Magazine…
WE ARE DEFINITELY RELATED
After our famous journalist left (to later win fame and a Pulitzer Prize on his Thomsen article), the cousins gathered around the dining room table to look over photo albums and the huge family tree that took up the entire dining room table - twice over- that Otto had done for a family reunion a few years back. I felt special there because of my dad; they all knew who Jack Thompson was, the one who filled in the ‘Rest of the Thomsen Story’ from across the Atlantic, and our misspelled surname was forgiven. As I looked on with my cousins at the photo albums filled with photos over a hundred years old and seeing how they were presented, a familiarity came over me; Vidal sensed it, too. It was not hard to see where I got so many of my traits from; I may not speak the same language as these Thomsens, I may spell our surname differently, but I saw in my cousins- especially Otto- so many of the same traits I remembered of my grandfather, my dad and my Uncle Fred. None of them had ever met; my grandfather, Dad and my uncle had grown up in Chicago and had never been to Denmark, so nothing could point to environmental learning. It was in certain mannerisms, humor, and most definitely in the photo albums and journaling that were so much a part of me as they were to them. Otto pulled out a clipping of the passing of my great-great grandfather; as we looked on (Vidal videotaped this as documented proof), I decided I would translate it; did a pretty decent job at figuring it out, I must say. That Danish blood thing really works, you know!
WHAT DID THEY SAY?
The Danish language-had really thrown me off. I had fully expected a guttural German sound, but what I heard took me by surprise; it was a beautiful language, sounding a bit like Scottish to me (Japanese to Vidal’s more untrained ear), other times like a Southerner speaking backwards. There had been moments when I understood, others when I got totally lost by focusing on certain unusual sounds made (i.e.: a gasp at the end of a sentence) and nothing on the words themselves.
TO DENMARK, WITH LOVE
There were many photos and letters sent by the American Thompsons, two of such stuck out; Cousin Tom from Nebraska (which was how I had always heard him called), and Lily - my great aunt; my most favorite person growing up. Lily had passed away about 8 years back; she had still communicated with Merete’s mother until not long before that. They had lots of photos of Lily and Cousin Tom from Nebraska; it was a thrill for me to be able to tell them who was who in some of the photos and see once again photos of my grandparent’s old house, which had once been that of my great grandparents.
WHO ARE WE? THE DANISH THOMSEN FAMILY TREE
We studied more in-depth Otto’s Danish family tree, the starting point of which was the first generation of Thomsens. Prior to that, the last names meant 'the son or daughter of the first name of their father' (i.e.: Grave’s son would have the last name Gravesen and his daughter would have the last name Gravesdatter). Otto told us that he himself had changed his name to Møller (Miller), as there were so many Thomsens in Denmark, and it was a way of keeping the Thomsen Miller tradition as part of the family. Interesting, my grandfather had pretty much done the same; although his name was never legally changed, he was known more as Harry Miller than Harry Thompson. My great grandfather, Peter Thomsen (son of Thom) was one of 7 siblings; that was how we were all connected, as Lois, as were the Denmark cousins, were descendents of my great grandfather’s siblings. In the family tree was a photo of a farm; the house that my great-great grandmother built; named ‘Søvang’, which interestingly enough, translated to ‘seawater’. Otto told us the story of how my great-great grandfather bought the land in Sjørring which included a lake, then he drained the lake, but nobody knew why. He then started to build a farmhouse, but fell in, then later died of pneumonia (I may have lost something in my translation); my great-grandmother then took up the task of building the family home (on an different part of the land). It no longer belonged to the family; Otto was the last to have owned it. He sold it in the seventies; but he was on friendly terms with the current owners who were more than happy to have us come by to have a look around! So, after a 12:30pm break for coffee and cake, we headed off by 1:00pm in the rain in a parade of 2 cars, not far away to see the former Thomsen land.
UPON US ALL, A LITTLE RAIN MUST FALL
Vidal and I went with Otto and Merete; his wife Mary followed with Eva. There were the typical Danish (as opposed to Chinese) windmills all around, and it was quite windy. It was unfortunately raining heavily, and my photos turned out very poor as a reflection of that (and possibly a bad roll of film). However, we had the good sense to borrow a friend’s camcorder for the trip, and have those lovely memories on film… but as we had not had the good sense to inquire of our friends how to operate said camcorder, most of our footage has the lovely title ‘NUESTRO NUEVO BEBE’ -our new baby imprinted on it, as it was not until the second month of our trip that I figured to how to remove it!
MY GREAT-GREAT GRANDMOTHER WAS A BUILDER, WHAT DID YOURS DO?
We met the ‘new’ owner (very nice lady) who welcomed us with open arms and allowed us to wander the grounds.
It was strange yet comforting, as cold and windy as it was, to walk the grounds of where my ancestors came. Otto, who doubled as our tour guide, pointed out where the lake had once been- there had been an island in it; it was now just an open rolling field of green which seemed to go on for miles.
My great-great grandfather had started to build (or at least dig) a foundation for the house he was to build 100 meters from where the house my great-great grandmother actually built, but he was not sure exactly where that original foundation was.
He pointed out the two original milling wheels near the barn, then we walked to the rear of the house to see the garden, at which pointed Otto pointed out that the rear of the house was completely unchanged since my great-great grandmother had built it in 1880… I stood there shocked, his words echoing in my head; the realization of what he said sinking in: The original house still stood. I was shocked, as I had heard it had burned down in the 1950’s. No, I was told, only the barn had burned down, the house was still there, and we were looking at it.
The house was long; white painted brick; 2 stories high. I have no idea how many rooms, but I did count 10 windows across, whatever that tells us. While the new owner was very sweet and by no means did she make us feel anything but comfortable, I did not feel right imposing on her to see the inside. As it was, I had felt as if I were intruding by stepping into the huge barn with its doors wide open. So, I have no idea what the inside of the house looked like, and there was no sane reason to think it would be anywhere near the way my great-great grandmother had it, so best to leave it to my imagination. As t was, the rain was pouring down so hard we were drowning and it would not be proper to ask to be invited inside to drip upon their floor; the fact that I was able at all to walk the land once owned by my great-great grandparents and gaze upon their work was a thrill in itself.
SJØRRING VOLDE: ONCE UPON A TIME, THERE WAS A VIKING CASTLE HERE
We got in the cars and a mile or so down, stopped off the road to take a look at a mound. A sign in front of it claimed it was Sjørring Volde, the former grounds of an old Viking castle with a moat. Basically we were looking at a clearing with a large mound in the middle; it looked as if someone had dug a ditch all around it. The castle was now nonexistent (wood castles were not built to last long a thousand years ago), but what looked like a picnic bench sat on top where the castle once stood- or maybe it was the Vikings’ table- just made out of more sturdy wood? With a good imagination (which yes, I have been blessed with), one could visualize the moat where the ditch was (did my ancestors drain that, as well?) and a small but fearsome castle on the mound itself.
There was a sign in both Danish (imagine that) and English (for my benefit, thank you) which explained what we were looking at. Otto pointed out that the sign had a map of the immediate area showing 2 lakes, although both had been drained by 1878; one of which was the one my great-great grandfather drained. Guess they hadn’t updated the sign in 100 years or so? In the interest of time, I took a photo of it to study later, not knowing my film was bad; my internet research came up with a handful of sites in Danish, but my Danish language skills had sadly disappeared once I returned to the other side of the Atlantic…
SJØRRING KIRKE: THE CHURCH ON THE HILL
Our next stop was the Sjørring kirke (church) dating from 1100AD with its small graveyard; perched upon a hill. I saw no town around it (although the pouring rain may have blotted it out on my glasses and I missed it); Otto pointed out where we could see our old family land from above (through the sheets of rain, that is). Amongst the famous people married in that quaint church were Merete and Peter, Otto and Mary, and my great grandparents.
Otto and Merete pointed out family grave markers such as their mutual grandfather Johannes; but the oldest ones such as that of my great-great-grandparents had been removed, and only more recent ones remained. The church itself was very simple but beautiful with wooden beams, painted pews and chandeliers.
To the rear of the church graveyard was an ancient Roman granite grave marker, supposedly of a Roman bishop.
TINGSTRUP & THISTED: EARLIER THOMSEN STOMPING GROUNDS
We made a quick stop at the very tiny village of Tingstrup (through the pouring rain, it seemed to have a grand total of something like 8 houses), where my great grandfather was born, and an old school that Otto said possibly my great grandfather attended. When Otto had heard I was coming to visit, he had researched to find out more about my great grandfather; our first stop in Thisted was to see the building which had been my great grandfather’s last residence before sailing to the USA.
It looked like an old building one might see in Chicago; I hoped that would have made my great-grandparents feel more at home when they arrived there.
We then walked over to the 12th century church, where many of our Thomsen ancestors had been baptized and married. The church was larger than the one in Sjørring, but similar in that its beauty was its simplicity.
We passed the 1st house Otto and Nancy had built. I did ask the favor of stopping at the local tourist board so I could personally meet and thank Anke, the kind lady who had helped track down my newly found family. Sadly, the rain was coming down too hard for us to truly see Thisted, so we said goodbye to the town of my ancestors and headed to our next stop…
HEY, DOESN’T THAT FISH LOOK LIKE…?
Amazingly, on the street near my great-grandfather’s old apartment, I found a Mexican connection… In the window of a gift shop was a green clay Mexican pottery fish; the exact same type that Vidal and I had sold in the store we had owned and ran in Ixtapa a few years prior; we were well acquainted with the design. We of course went to inquire about it, the show owner had no idea it even came from Mexico, said she bought it at some market; she was happy to have new information for her purchase.
NØRRE VORUPØR: THE WINDY BEACH
We headed to the North Sea for the last stop of the tour, Nørre Vorupør, famous for windsurfing now and previously for its boat building yard. There were beautiful dunes nearby; we parked in front of what looked like a cute pub. The shore was dotted with beached fishing boats, and we watched a huge boat make its way in. The rain was heavy, the wind was relentless. Even so, once we reached the beach I had to go touch the sea; not just to say I did it, but to see how cold the water was. Slowly, I made my way down the steep beach (only fell once!) and clumsily bent over to put my hand in. Cold, but not ice cold as it had been in Switzerland. The beach had big crab shells scattered here and there; the wind was so strong that I had a hard time walking back up from the beach, all the while wondering, “Did my Viking ancestors sail by or sail off from here? Did they adjust easier to the Windy City winters because of this climate?”
SANKT HANS AFTEN: HOW TO BUILD A BONFIRE AND SEND THAT WITCH HOME!
Back to Merete’s house by 5:00pm for coffee and cake and to get ready for the midsummer bonfire that would commence at 9:00pm… Two more of Merete and Eva’s sisters and their husbands were there to meet us and to join in the bonfire fun.
Anette had explained the bonfire to us the day before; but Otto refreshed our memory on the way over. If I got it right: ‘Sankt Hans Aften’, or St. John’s Eve, is an ancient tradition that has changed over the centuries. Since the time of the Vikings, each town built a great bonfire, put a witch made of straw on the top, and then burned the bonfire and the witch, sending her soul to her mountain in Bloksbjerg, Germany to bother them no more. So we went to see the local Snedsted bonfire. Lots of people had already gathered in the nonstop rain; the pile they were about to burn was about 12 feet high with the “witch” sticking out from the top. Mind you, it had been raining hard, nonstop all day long, and the pile had been there since the previous night. Vidal and I wondered - how on earth they planned to get the fire going? Minor detail; we Danes do not give up, we give no quarter; we push on. The crowds gathered; there were children running around; I thought to myself that if that had been in the USA, cops would be all over the place to shut it down for safety issues and people would be sued, skinned alive and thrown in a cell for letting kids get that close to a fire with no safety fence around them or fireproof clothing on their backs. A handful of kids of various ages had their own campfire going and were busy baking some sort of bread on a stick over their fire, a safe 30 yards from the Big Bonfire.
Otto did explain to me what they were doing and told me the name of the bread, but unfortunately by the time I wrote in my journal later that night, it had escaped me, as did the name of the beautiful bushes with lovely white flowers near the bonfire grounds which Otto told us were used to make tea and wine.
SNAP CRACKLE AND POP THE DANISH WAY
The adults tried to start the fire ‘normally’, but it just wouldn’t take. Someone went off on a motorcycle, came back with a couple jugs of gasoline, and poured it onto the pile. They tried to light it again, but it just smoked. Someone else came up with another idea… When all else fails, bring out the blow torch! We are a DETERMINED people; we WILL get this fire going, we WILL send that witch away, she will NOT bother our town! The blow torch blew, the fire started with a WHOOSH and the pile started to snap, crackle and pop, but it was not enough to blow that witch back to Germany. So, out came a second blowtorch and with the Power of Two, the bonfire was ablaze and so was the witch, hissing and cracking and eerily whistling away with green smoke.
The deed was done; mission accomplished. We headed back to the house; Peter surprised Vidal there by bringing home some oysters he caught that day. Vidal put on a show for the family as he spent about 30 minutes trying to figure out how to open the oysters.
No one in the family liked oysters, so he was on his own; but all thoroughly enjoyed being amused by him trying to figure out how to open them!
THIRTEEN COUSINS AND A BOTTLE OF AKVAVIT
We, all thirteen of us, gathered around the dining room table for a lovely candlelit family dinner. After dinner, we had our choices of coffee, local Thisted beer, wine, or akvavit, which could be best described as dill flavored gasoline. Vidal offered the oysters to everyone, I was the only taker; they were delicious. Merete’s sister Eva spoke a spattering of English, but the others did not; Anette, Otto and Nancy had left right after dinner, so we were about to entertain each other with really only Merete to translate. The cousins convinced Vidal to try the akvavit (the smell of which knocked my socks off), which made him sweat, giggle and start speaking Spanish to everyone. This got great laughs, as I reminded him that if they didn’t understand English, let alone Spanish... He threw in a few phrases in French as well, which just added to the laughter. Then the game was to teach Vidal Danish, as his Mexican accent was just fuel for the laughter fire… Eva taught us a cute little line from a Danish comic strip, something about Marmaduke, Logeluke and a dog named Ratatat, although I am quite sure my phonetical spelling made a mess of that translation! It was a very enjoyable, very memorable Thomsen evening… I recalled as a child listening to the sounds of laughter at family gatherings with my grandfather’s generation; this was all so familiar to me. After a last round of coffee and cake, we finally went to bed at 1:00am, thoroughly spent after such a wonderful day!
For more information:
Sjørring Volde Viking ruins: http://www.visitdenmark.com/danmark/da-dk/menu/turist/oplevelser/attraktioner/Oldtidsminderogruiner/produktside/gdk002587/en-gb/sjoerring-volde.htm
Nørre Vorupør: http://www.sologstrand.com/holiday-denmark/north-west-jutland/vorupoer.htm