Visiting my Danish grandmother (‘Mormor’) in her flat – the portrait on the right is of my Uncle Herman
The arrival of a new scion of the Tofte clan – me – needed celebration in true Danish style. But in the early years of my life I wasn’t well enough to travel. That came a little later – by which time I had already started to speak a little Danish.
My first books were in both languages – Struwelpeter, for example. (A book that most modern mothers probably wouldn’t show their child. Their loss…!) And in December we’d celebrate Danish Christmas on the 24th and English Christmas on the 25th – with carols in both English and Danish. I can just about remember my mother patiently teaching me the words as we sang together. With the result that, in due course, I could speak Danish well enough that many Danes couldn’t place my accent.
Which came in handy when our regular visits to Denmark began.
It may seem strange to some, but every summer my parents would go their separate ways. My father would take a holiday in his beloved Mediterranean, while my mother and I would take the ferry from Harwich to Esbjerg to visit the Danish family. My holidays with my mother were, inevitably, longer, but it I loved visiting my uncles and aunts and playing with my cousins – in particular Birte and Agnes, the youngest daughters of my mother’s younger sister, Grethe. I was a little in awe of their father, Willy Nyberg – a skilled engineer with a gruff manner that concealed a soft heart – and his other children were older than us (though I’m very friendly with them now!)
Probably everyone’s favourite uncle was Finn, my mother’s youngest brother. His two sons, Bent and Jorgen, were also close to my age. Finn was full of fun and laughter, and it was always a joy to stay with him. Sadly the fun and laughter didn’t last – he lost both his sons, one to drugs and one to drink, after years of struggle.
My much-loved Uncle Herman welcomed his new nephew with open arms, and I often saw him when we were visiting Sofie Tofte, my Danish grandmother (Mormor). Also in Copenhagen were my Uncle Hans Henrik and his family – my cousins Berit and Bo were also regular playmates.
My mother’s older sister, Ena, had two older children whom I rarely saw – but I remember the beautiful wooden toys in her cellar, and especially a little wooden train which became a favourite of mine when we visited.
Other visits were memorable for other reasons, notably the incident of Uncle Per and the strawberries…
That day I was perfecting the art of being an Awkward Child. I clearly didn’t want to go anywhere, and when I did was as badly behaved as I could manage. In an attempt to pacify me I was shown a large bowl of strawberries and invited to have some. I ate all of them, and they went pretty much straight through me – with predictably messy results. My poor mother…!
Sometimes – even on summer holiday in Denmark – my illnesses would catch up with me. There’s a record of my complaining that everyone else had had something to eat except me (because if I had eaten anything, I’d probably have been sick). But my abiding memories of those visits are of sunshine, joyful play with my cousins and – in particular – raiding the fruit and vegetables growing in Willy’s garden at Solsortevej in Esbjerg with Birte and Agnes.
I would return to Denmark many times – and it was always a joy.