My junior year in college, I somehow wangled my way into doing a semester abroad. It wasn’t easy. I had to convince the authorities at the University of Texas that — since they had a relationship with the study abroad program — it was 100% appropriate and customary that I could apply my scholarship funds toward this semester at an entirely different university in an entirely different country.
Once that hurdle was overcome, my parents’ objections weren’t nearly as strong as they would have been if they’d been paying out of their pockets. Plus, all of the classes I took abroad would apply toward my degree program, so I could still graduate on time or a semester early, it turned out.
England or some English-speaking country was a natural choice, given that I could actually understand the classes I’d be taking. But I wanted the experience of being immersed in another language, even if that language was the oh-so-very-useful Danish.
Yes, I chose to go to Denmark because, thankfully, they offered classes in English taught by Danish professors. So I’d get the language exposure and the cultural immersion, while still continuing to accrue college credits. Bonus! Plus, who wouldn’t want to go to Scandinavia in January?
Seriously, though, as a native Texan, I’d never been exposed to a real winter, save on occasional ski vacations in Colorado and Wyoming. So, my idea of winter apparel was colored by this sporting experience and, of course, before the Internet, it was absolutely impossible to buy true winter clothing in Texas, except through a catalog.
It probably goes without saying that I was a true fashion victim during the Danish winter when, surrounded by well-off college kids from the Ivy League with their fashionable boots and coats, I appeared in an LL Bean parka, aprés ski boots and other equally successful fashion statements.
Still, I managed to (mostly) love it. I lived with a family, to which I was a complete mystery, in a Copenhagen suburb named for the nearby forest that we’d pass through on our way to the train station. It was beautiful and amazing, so different from my lifestyle in Texas. We walked, took the bus, or took the train. My host family hung a painting of a sprawling nude female figure over the couch in their living room — a decorative touch that would have shocked my mother and many of the other folks I grew up with.
A girl I knew from a previous trip to Denmark lived in a tiny one-room apartment in which, to take a shower, you went into what looked like a half bath, closed the door, hid the toilet paper and the towels, and showered right there — sitting on the toilet seat if you liked. When you were done, you dried off the walls and made the shower back into a half bath by unearthing the toilet paper and the towels. There was a drain in the floor, of course. I’d never spent time anywhere where space was so precious, growing up in the wide open spaces of the American Southwest.
The other precious commodity was sun. My Danish hosts couldn’t understand why I didn’t shoot outside immediately on a sunny day, even though it was nothing special where I grew up. In Denmark, you’d see people sunbathing topless in the parks while on their lunch breaks from jobs in the center of the city. In Texas, not so much.
Still, even for me, the coming of spring was exciting in this northern clime — I was ready to get rid of the parka and ski boots. The house I lived in — little did I know all bare-treed winter — had a cherry tree in its front yard and, as these trees do, it budded with the coming of spring and seemed to suddenly erupt in gorgeous pink flowers. I’ve always remembered that cherry tree and when I lived in NYC and had a terrace, I grew three different kinds of cherry trees — I think I got a couple of cherries, in total. But, wow, it was exciting.
But when we decided to move to Texas, I thought I was leaving cherry trees behind. They need a certain number of chilling hours (number of hours below 45 degrees during their dormant period) to flower and bear fruit — more chilling hours than we usually experience here.
So imagine my surprise when, in the side yard of the house we moved into, a tree broke out in beautiful white blossoms in spring — blossoms eerily similar to those of my long-ago NYC cherry trees.
Of course, cherries are in the genus Prunus, which also includes plums, peaches, nectarines, apricots and almonds, so could this be one of those? A friend suggested a dogwood, but I’ve since learned that dogwoods, of the genus Cornus, have four-petaled flowers, which have been said to resemble the cross of Jesus.
Whatever this mystery tree is, it makes me inconceivably happy every year when it bursts into bloom, reminding me of Denmark and New York, and all my time in places with more chilling hours. Early bloomer that it is, I am always thrilled when it’s not cut off in its prime by a late freeze. This year we seem to be lucky, and the bees are very very happy. (Make sure you have the audio up when you watch the video below and you’ll hear evidence of their abundance.)