Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - June 7, 2013

"To travel is to live!"

After several enjoyable days in Copenhagen, we were ready to explore more of Denmark. We traveled west into the Danish countryside, passing brilliant yellow fields of canola and bright purple and white lilac bushes. Husband Art, daughter Mariya, daughter-in-law Lacey and I were on our way to Odense, the hometown of famous fairy-tale writer Hans Christian Andersen. As we drove along, Art commented that the views reminded him of his native Wisconsin, with its gently rolling fields, sandy soil and bodies of water.

It did seem familiar - until we approached the toll bridge that spans the 11 miles of water separating the Danish islands of Zealand and Funen. The bridge was impressive, as were the huge wind turbines "planted" in the water nearby.

Mariya, Art's navigator on such adventures, led us directly to a public parking lot in mid-town Odense near the house where Andersen was born into a poor family more than 200 years ago. His father was a cobbler and his mother was a washer woman. In an attempt to better the family's circumstances, his father joined the army. But he became ill and died not long after his discharge, making the situation at home even worse.

The buildings have been preserved so they are much as they would have appeared at Andersen's birth, albeit a bit more tidy. The roadway was narrow and the cobblestone street was not nearly as easy on the feet as a modern paved walkway.

As was common then, their small home was connected to the ones next door. Today, the entrance to the house was through an attached museum. Sometimes such additions appear to be added simply to encourage visitors to linger longer than they normally would. But despite Andersen's fame, none of us knew much about the man behind the well-known fairy tales, and we welcomed the insights the museum provided.

We learned that Andersen was six feet tall - about 10 inches above the national average at the time. His long limbs, deep-set eyes, heavy eyelids and large nose meant that many people considered him clumsy and comical. But those who got to know him "found his face full of life and wit, his figure stately and his bearing elegant."

When still a lad of 14, Andersen moved to Copenhagen to seek employment as an actor. He was accepted into the Royal Danish Theatre, but people suggested he might do better as a writer. One benefactor sent him to grammar school, covering all his expenses. Throughout his life, he had several such patrons and friends who helped him, including some who gave travel grants that took him to Spain, Britain, Italy, Portugal, Switzerland and other European nations. He chronicled these excursions, and they inspired his creativity and his belief that "to travel is to live!"

In addition to writing, he enjoyed sketching scenes that caught his eye. While he never illustrated his works, he apparently used these sketches as a way to recall his experiences that were sometimes later used in his writing.

Andersen was also accomplished at making paper-cut figures. He often entertained children and adults with his ability to create whimsical dancers, faces, animals and other objects with a piece of paper and a long pair of scissors that he carried everywhere in his pants pocket. On one occasion, the scissors fell from his pocket onto the seat. When he returned and sat down, the sharp end penetrated his leg almost an inch. He recorded in his journal that he had to treat the wound with vinegar and that the whole affair created quite a display.

But there is no doubt that Andersen is best remembered for his fairy tales. His stories include themes that go beyond age and nationality and provide lessons of resilience in the face of hardship - probably inspired from his own life of rising from humble beginnings. His works have inspired movies, plays, ballets and animated films.

One of my favorite childhood stories - and I have a hunch, one that many young girls empathized with - was Andersen's "The Ugly Duckling," the tale of a homely little bird born in a barnyard who is bullied by others around him until, to his surprise and delight, he matures into a beautiful swan.

Our daughters also know and love his works. The first movie I took Mariya to was Disney's "The Little Mermaid," based on Andersen's tale of a mermaid who longs to be human. And youngest daughter Katherine is familiar with Andersen's "The Princess and the Pea" because she played the role of the queen in her high school's production of "Once Upon a Mattress," a musical based on the fairy tale.

Art, too, is familiar with Andersen. But his connection is largely because of tunes written by Frank Loesser for the 1952 Hollywood film, "Hans Christian Andersen." The movie, with Danny Kaye in the title role, was an international success. The movie wasn't a biography and was even billed as "not the story of his life, but a fairy tale about this great spinner of fairy tales." Much of it is told through song and includes many of Andersen's most famous stories. I doubt there was a day that passed while we were in Denmark that Art didn't sing Loesser's "Wonderful Copenhagen" at least once. On the way to Odense, he serenaded us with "The Ugly Duckling." Other Loesser scores in the movie included "The King's New Clothes," "Thumbelina" and "Inchworm."

In his later years, the Danish government paid Andersen an annual stipend as he was regarded as a "national treasure." His fairy tales laid the groundwork for other children's stories, such as "Wind in the Willows" by Kenneth Grahame and "Winnie the Pooh" by A.A. Milne.

Andersen was born on April 2, 1805. His birthday is celebrated annually as International Children's Book Day. He died from liver cancer in 1875 at age 70. But more than 135 years after his passing, this man, who was born in humble circumstances, continues to transport young and old alike into enchanting fairy-tale worlds with works that have been translated into more than 150 languages.

As we headed back for Copenhagen, the sun was setting behind us. We all agreed it had been a good trip. The museum had made Hans Christian Andersen come alive, and he seemed like someone we would have liked to have known.

For the four of us that day, to travel WAS to live!

Left: one of the windmills between Zealand and Funen islands; middle: Andersen's birth home; right: Andersen.

Left: left-to-right, Lacey, Mariya, Gloria, Nadja - our German exchange student in 2005 - and her boyfriend Tim next to the sculpture of Andersen's "The Little Mermaid," Denmark's number one tourist attraction. One of the many Copenhagen tour boats is arriving at the top; right: Mariya and Lacey beneath a mounted reproduction of one of Andersen's paper cuts.

Comments? [email protected].
Earlier columns from 2013 may be found at: 2013 Index.
Links to previous years are on the home page: Home