Bound to a Place, Despite Life’s Thorns
Updated: Jan 30, 2020
I owned the cottage right from the beginning. Or it owned me.
For one thing, it was so old. Later we found it on maps dating back to the mid-1700s — it was in a small farming village about an hour from Copenhagen — but the oldest part of the half-timbered farmhouse was probably much older. One of the boulders in the garden had markings from the Iron Age. There was an aura of authority that only a house that has endured centuries of awful weather can have: Take care of me and I’ll take care of you.
And it needed plenty of care. My wife, Lone, who is Danish, had flown over and bought it before I had a chance to see it. That was fine; I trusted her. But it was run-down and had been mistreated. The previous owners had bought it from Mor Karen, or Mother Karen, who lived there her whole life, cooking on the open hearth and covering the windows with old newspapers, until she moved into an old people’s home in the next village. The new owners replaced the thatched roof with asbestos tiles and left the garden full of weeds and stumps, before skipping town a breath ahead of the bank.
My father had been a passionate gardener; I helped him only grudgingly. But the moment I saw this place, his genes kicked in. We planted 40 kinds of roses — Denmark’s climate is among the best in the world for them — mostly old roses, vigorous bushes that bloom in a single ecstatic burst. The house owned us already.
We bonded with it so quickly that we forgot it didn’t make much sense to have a summer cottage in Denmark when our lives were 5,000 miles away, in Manhattan. As a professor at the City University of New York, I had the summers off, but even so, this was a long commute. And although we had spent a sabbatical year in Copenhagen a couple of years before, Denmark was still a foreign country to us — even to Lone, who had left when she was 19.
Then, just a few years later, we split up. That made things even stranger. The children were not an issue (there was no question that they were ours together), but what about the cottage? Expatriate or not, Lone belonged to the country more than I did. But owning and being owned by a place doesn’t have to do with country of origin or who gets the house in a divorce settlement. It runs much deeper. I couldn’t bear the thought of never going back. To her credit, Lone recognized that I was as bound to the cottage as she was.
For the first several years I was her tenant, living there alone for a month in the summer and paying rent. To me, the cottage had become a metaphor for the ruins of our marriage, abandoned and sad.
Houses, of course, don’t care about metaphors. They need caretaking, and we both provided it. Eventually Lone invited me to become half-owner (our agreement was more emotional than legal, since only Danes are allowed to own property in Denmark), and we did a good deal of renovation, cheering up the house. Nowadays, we split the summer down the middle in what may be as warm a postmarital relationship as one could hope for.
Yet our breakup shifted things around for me in another, unexpected way. Our neighbors had been respectful of our privacy, but now that I was alone, I realized that it wasn’t just the house that owned me. They owned me, too. My neighbors thought about me, had ideas about who I was; it behooved me to own them as well.
Since the village is close to a big city, the community is mixed. Lawyers commuting to the city live next to farmers who have been there for generations. But it is definitely rural: people are shy, and an outsider has to approach them gently. Bonding takes time.
Every summer, the village holds a town dinner at the prettiest farm. A neighbor with a voice as seductive as Garrison Keillor’s does a Lake Wobegon-type monologue about the past year’s events. One year, he ended his speech by saying, “Despite all our squabbles, there’s peace in the little town. Peter’s bees are still making honey, Annie’s lost weight jogging down to the fjord every day, the American is still growing his roses ... .”
So that was who I was in their eyes — the American who grows roses.
I now have a ritual of arrival. When I get within a few miles of the cottage, instead of driving directly to it, I let the car go wherever it wants to. In the long, still twilight I feel like Adam making sure everything in the Garden is in order: I look to see which crops were planted in the spring, who is sitting around having a beer in the harbor of the nearby fishing village, if anybody I know has ended up in the graveyard of the 13th-century church. By the time I make it to the cottage gate, some of the anxiety I have brought with me has leached out.
It has been two decades now that we have owned the cottage. One of the stumps in the garden has grown into a horse chestnut tree more than 30 feet high; a cutting that my son planted from a neighbor’s willow is even taller. Lone and I consult each other before making any changes to the house or the garden, and one of us leaves the car at the airport for the other to pick up. Though I can’t be certain, I get the feeling that we live rather different lives in the village. We both belong to the place, but in complicated, individual ways.
Last summer, I read a story at a benefit for a movie theater and concert hall nearby. It was the first fiction I had written with a Danish setting, a little fable about a man who turns off a highway and heads for a place he hasn’t been to in a long time and isn’t sure will welcome him back. I used the details of the drive to the cottage: the man who sells mushrooms and birdhouses along the road, the house with the linden trees trimmed into perfect globes, the neglected cottage with the caved-in roof. As I read in what a dear friend calls my “clown” accent (because Danish clowns tend to overenunciate the difficult vowels), people in the audience began to smile. I hoped it wasn’t in response to my pronunciation, but because they could picture the landscape I was describing. All of us have driven that road hundreds of times.
After the reading, a well-dressed elderly woman approached me. She was black and spoke Danish with an American accent. She explained that although she had grown up in the United States, she left in the 1960s because of the racial situation and had never been back. At a certain point I started to slip into English, but she looked at me as if I had crossed a line I had no business crossing. Did it feel like false intimacy to her, or had I revived bad memories? I wasn’t sure, but I nodded and went back to my clown Danish.
Then it struck me: There we were, two strangers in what was no longer a strange land. We had arrived at the same unlikely place for very different reasons, but now we were both owned by it.