I’m waiting for my sister to hit Roskilde at the end of the month. She has never been to the Copenhagen area, so I’m trying to make a plan for what to see. She’ll only be here two days, alas. While I go through the tourist sites: Amalienborg, The Round Tower (my favorite), The Little Mermaid (you have to tell people you’ve seen it), Carlsberg. I stop here, as a painful memory intercedes. Almost 20 years ago, I went to visit the Carlsberg factories as part of a sightseeing plan for refugees in need to learn about Danish culture while waiting for their cases to clear for a permanent residence permit. While waiting in the camp, where nothing much happened during the week, such weekend excursions were much appreciated.

After the Carlsberg brewery tour – and back then the ‘tourists’ were a bunch of Palestinians, Somalis, Iraqis, and a few Eastern Europeans – we were shown a slide show featuring the best of a Carlsberg selection of drinks. When the pictorial trip ended, the guide posed a question. She turned to us enthusiastically and said: "so, what was the purpose of showing you this film?" As it turned out, that was a bad idea. There was total silence in the room. The kind of silence that everyone feels is not only embarrassing but also painfully hard to endure. I felt a major frustration building up. I instantly imagined all sorts of scenarios but I could also tell that the answer could not have been that complicated. Yet, however, I was as clueless as the rest.

As far as I was concerned, not being able to answer a simple question was terribly traumatic, as this was something familiar to me. As a child I had a number of moments in my life when I clearly remember that while I was very good at answering complex questions, answering simple questions always caused me a lot of problems. At Carlsberg my own deeply-felt and deeply-rooted frustration was seconded by the guide, who also had to give up and provide an answer herself. In a tone of exasperation she said: “the point of showing you all these drinks was to make you thirsty.” What a revelation! I’m quite sure that a few of the others also felt it was a relief that the quiz didn’t involve anything else. I’m also quite sure that I went, “God, how obvious, and true, and how stupid of me not to be able to make that connection faster.”

To this day, I associate Carlsberg with my unfulfilled desire to become a famous mathematician, who is very good at encrypting codes and that kind of thing. For such Carlsberg moments always make me wonder why as a kid, whenever I had to solve a problem, I would take so long to think about tiny and insignificant little words or letters that would populate my pages and equations at the expense of just getting on with it. I would often go, “oh, look at this X, how pretty, and how symmetrical in its leg arrangement, and look at the point of its convergence, how perfect”; and then I would wonder for ages if convergence meant anything, and whether it had anything to do with the effect of the X in terms of suggesting a graphic repetition of its axes, as it were, not to mention that X and Ax almost sound alike, and why Y - which also superimposes sounds (Y over Y, why over Y, and vice versa) - while having a converging point in the middle, would also have its point create an optical illusion, so that the point of the Y would be, if not besides then above the point, and so on. You get the picture. Such philosophical inclination usually ended up putting my arithmetical skill off its track.

My sister will want to keep her Copenhagen and Roskilde memories. She is one of the few people I know who is able to reproduce everything she reads and sees almost ad literam. It’s lucky that she only reads what she has to. I, on the contrary spend a lot of time reading all the time – all sorts of things, and from all sorts of angles. Yet I can safely also say that I remember very little of everything afterwards. I have a synthesizing reading ability, which is very intense in its thrust. Interconnecting ideas are superimposed in a palimpsest that spreads horizontally on a plane, and I have discovered over the years that if there’s anything that keeps it all together, then it’s certainly not memory. It’s more of a gut feeling that makes me navigate from word to word without thinking that punctuation, which marks gaps in texts, is there for a reason. In my reading experience there are never any gaps of any sorts. Words float and are often 3 inches above the page ground. And yet again, while writing this, words get fixed on hammering an idea that counts – here both meanings are intended. Thus, now, instead of enumerating tourist sites, I count how many slates there are in my newly acquired, and insanely beautiful, colonial style wood shutters. The sun streams in, and it hammers my iron with laser-like rays rather than an ax. Symmetry on the floor created by high tech energy. Oh, so many Xes. Fe--nomenal. No wonder I never made it as a hacker. I’m too busy agonizing.


Anonymous said…
Some nine year ago I visited sønderborg castle together with a bunch of fellow mathematicians from all over Europe. We were at a summer school or something like that. The female guide was very proud when she told us that some Danish general preferred to surrender an entire regiment without firing a single shot, than to let his troops being slaughtered by a superior German army.

So she said kind of rhetorically "do you know anything worse than death?", making a tiny pause in order to give us time to grasp this great truth. But well, the pause was not small enough. One of us immediately replied "try marriage". Everybody grinned but in a sort of polite way. Nobody really cared about her story.

She got really upset. Something was obviously wrong with us.
Camelia said…

That's a good story. Though I wonder whether the quick repartee served to your guide doesn't have something to do with you as an established group - professionally, and perhaps otherwise. You answered because you could afford it, we didn't because we couldn't. In my case, I fear that we said nothing because we felt like nothing - displaced persons, indeed, they called people like us - and that's exactely what we were. All of us then had this feeling that whatever we did, we by no means must come close to transgressing the natioanl boundaries with our ethnic rhetoric - god forbid that we should have been besides the point. I vouched then to not ever be botherd with what others think - also at the risk of missing the point. By God, now I do it all the time, miss the point, that is, but now transgressive acts that elicit misunderstanding have merely become entertaining.

What I mean to say is that, if I had been part of your group, I would have clearly implied to your guide that her assumption that death is something bad is rather more than stupid. I'm pretty sure that I'm not the only one who thinks that when all is said and done, death is by far the most wonderful thing that we get to experience: it's the most democratic act, no one escapes it, and it makes no distinction between foreigners and nationalists, educated and ignorant, rich and poor. What more can we ask for? Everlasting marriages, perhaps...
Bent said…
Let's try some easy questions:

Q: Is there life after death?
God: Are you asking me in my professional capacity?

Q: Is there marriage after death?
Edgar A. Poe: You bet! That's when the real poetry begins...

Q: Is there death after marriage?
EAP: Every single time!!

Q: Is there life after birth?
Me: Yeah - carpe diem! (Just remember that no-one gets out of here alive...)
Anonymous said…
Hehehe, this is something I would call a mathematically correct statement :))

Popular Posts