Thresholds & Bridges – Norma Fay Green – Denmark 2000

Our school is an island in the sea of time, and on this occasion the winds have blown our way.” Peter Hoeg in The History of Danish Dreams

In August 2000, after a summer of graduate teaching in Chicago and just three days after a week-long intensive journalism educators conference in Phoenix, Arizona where construction workers outside my hotel toiled noisily all night to avoid 110 degree daylight temperatures, I arrived in Denmark exhausted but excited by the prospects of my semester- long Fulbright Senior Scholar award where I was to teach and do research at a new journalism department of Southern Denmark University in Odense on the island of Funen.

Despite my sleep-deprived stupor I tried to quickly acclimate and gird for the challenge of a new academic year that every professor faces as well as the unique opportunity of teaching outside my homeland. After a night’s stay at a Copenhagen hotel where I first encountered six to twelve inch high door sills, I was blessed to be greeted by a young Danish law lecturer and faculty escort, Henriette Schjøth. Even before crossing the newly-erected Storebælt suspension bridge which set a world record for fixed length, she became my bridge to Denmark. She offered companionship and safe passage on the train from Zealand to our school across the Great Belt waterway, past a lighthouse on the tiny island of Sprogø (which she patiently explained meant “words” in Danish) and along the coast lined with giant turbine blades spinning one of Denmark’s greatest exports—wind.

As a newcomer, I continued to trip over countless thresholds, both architectural and cultural. Those high steps at entrances and sometimes from room to room in older buildings were a challenge to overcome. I was told thresholds dated from drafty days of Danish sailors who tried to keep the wind out of their homes with airtight entrances like those crafted for the holds of ships. Soon I learned to carefully watch where I walked before plunging ahead.

Then I began to appreciate another Danish architectural wonder—spectacular bridges that connected my temporary island to Zealand and Jutland and bridges that connected us all at the Institute (now Centre for Journalism) to a common cause—teaching journalism to the next generation. I couldn’t help but reflect on the bridges of dependency and selfsufficiency I crossed when I temporarily sacrificed the comforts and familiarities of husband and home to go overseas and offer my training skills. I tried to build bridges of understanding within my host department, university and community, always cognizant that I was representing my nation and yet an individual mapping her own path in the world.

Eventually I grew accustomed to the thresholds and learned to climb over them. I went on to work on spanning cultural divides including trying to be speak Danish. Though I listened to language tapes before leaving home, I got Io lecture in English which the students understood and even used American colloquialisms, I struggled to be understood in my neighborhood and off campus. It was a high threshold of breathy pronunciation and not until the final week of my stay was I able to be understood when ordering a taxi. I never really learned much Danish but I listened intently and kept my office door open so I could detect different regional accents among the students. Years later I was able to startle a bunch of Danish physicians I encountered in Chicago by discerning which island in the Danish archipelago each of them was from. I didn’t understand much of what they said but knew where they grew up.

On the first day of a Media Sociology class of some 40 students, I walked around, introduced myself and shook hands with every student in the room, much to their amusement and surprise. Some asked me if I knew Oprah Winfrey or basketball’s Michael Jordan. I had to confess I did not as metropolitan Chicago had almost as many people as all of Denmark and I did not travel in those celebrity circles.

Being in Denmark at the darkest part of the northern year cured me of the notion I might have Seasonal Affective Disorder. Instead of depression I learned to embrace the rain in an ankle-length hooded raincoat. I began to understand the Danish emphasis on interior design and why there were so many candle shops per capita. I loved to watch the TV weather report as it was consistently rainy with an audible cue of a rain drop plop introducing the segment each evening. I always knew there were high winds when the TV meteorologist Henrik Voldborg wore his Storebælt Bridge sweater, one of many knitted by his adoring viewers.

Early in my stay, I made an impulse purchase to symbolize the alliances I hoped to forge as a Fulbrighter – the first in SDU’s journalism department, the first in recent memory from my Chicago college and, I was told by the U.S. Embassy, the first journalism practitioner-turned-professor in the history of the Danish-American Fulbright Commission which is one of the oldest bilateral relationships of the program. I was honored and humbled by what that pioneering responsibility might entail. For the remainder of my stay as a “temporary local,” I wore a silver necklace festooned with a simple charm of two clasped hands, a replica of one found on Jutland in the 1500s. Ironically, the chain of my “friendship necklace” broke on my last evening in Denmark. Nevertheless, I tried to continue Danish connections upon my return even though it became more hectic when I was elected Acting Chairperson of my department and Campus Fulbright Representative ultimately helping to promote and recruit more than 20 faculty and staff for international exchanges. I soon became a Lifetime Fulbright Association member and joined the board of the local chapter. In 2018 I received its service award for “significant impact on the development of internationalism for the Fulbright Assn.-Chicago Chapter and the Chicagoland community.”

Faculty members invited me to their homes where I got to experience Hygge up close.

By nature, I am a restless sort accustomed to being overworked with a four course per semester teaching load, registration and advising responsibilities for 50 students (each with different course schedules), administrative duties as graduate program director, collegewide curricular committee work and international research activities. Given my U.S. pace, it was difficult adjusting as a gæstprofessor with so much “free time” after 12 years of nonstop year-round academic tasks. I came with an open heart and mind but I didn’t fully appreciate that Funen was my spa until I was preparing to leave. I arrived in a fatigued state and departed the country refreshed with new insights on journalism reaching beyond borders and my life’s work.

Norma Fay Green – Fulbright to Denmark 2000

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