How do you learn what a town is really about? I guess you can look at the architecture and buildings, or observe the attitude of the people, or learn about the role of the place in history.
While all those activities will certainly give you important information about the place, you won’t be able to really understand the spirit of a town until you hear its tales and start to see the town through the same lens as the locals.
About a year ago I had the pleasure of staying at the local inn in Hundested, a small Danish fishing village, where I heard a few memorable stories about the village filled with healthy doses of folksy charm and small-town values.
Back in 17th century, Hundested did not exist yet and the area was covered with a wild forest that was only stopped by the sea. The area was a favorite place for the King of Denmark to go and hunt seals out on a reef. However, the lack of proper roads and the slow speed of horse-powered transportation meant it took him many, many hours to travel up there from Copenhagen, the capital.
So the king thought it would be convenient to be able to overnight in the area, so he could go hunting for many days in a row. And he simply commanded that there should be built an inn in the middle of this wilderness — despite the lack of roads or a local community to patronize it. The good thing about being king is that you can command such a thing even if it makes no commercial sense whatsoever.
So the inn was built as per the king’s order, and then a road was built to access it, and then a few houses started to appear around it, and then a harbor was built, and due to the excellent fishing conditions in the sea, the village started to grow and prosper. In other words, the village originates from an inn that was built in the middle of nowhere. The inn still stands there today, it serves the best seafood in the area, caught by the local fishermen, and still looks like it did when it was built.
Knud Rasmussen (1879-1933) is the most famous of the Danish artic explorers and a childhood hero of mine. He traveled among the Eskimo tribes that are scattered across the northern part of Greenland, which is an incredible cold part of the world, but the Eskimos lived there in harmony with the nature. He scribbled down the myths of the tribes to facilitate a better understanding of their culture. He also established the world’s most northern trading post at Cape York, Greenland, and the trading of furs and other goods with the Eskimos turned him into a famous and affluent man.
Between his expeditions to Greenland, he settled in a comfortable house in Hundested that overlooks the sea. The locals grew very fond of him, because despite his wealth and fame, he dressed like a local, talked like a local and enjoyed having a beer with the local fishermen on the harbor where tales of adventures from the far north were well-received.
One day as Knud was walking on the harbor with his wheelbarrow, an elegantly dressed merchant from Copenhagen asked if he’d like to earn a few bucks by transporting some boxes of herrings from the harbor and to the inn.
The merchant didn’t recognize that it was the famous Knud Rasmussen, as it was unthinkable to him that such a famous man would walk around the harbor in simple clothes and push a heavy wheelbarrow, when you could just hire someone to do the hard work. But Knud was an arctic explorer, which is a profession that values self-reliance and men who are not shying away from work because it’s physically demanding.
So Knud smiled at the situation, said he’d be happy to help and then he started transporting the boxes up to the inn. After he had transported all the boxes, he learned that it was Copenhagen’s Merchant Society that was having a luncheon there, so he opened the door to the private room where they were having their lunch and told that the boxes had been transported. The merchant said, “Very well, thank you, here’s your money,” and feeling generous he added, “Please go have yourself a beer out in the public bar, you can just say that merchant Olsen has sent you”.
So Knud went into the bar, had a beer and chatted with the inn keeper. He then returned to the merchant’s private room, and said, “Please go to the next room where champagne will be served for you and your company”. The merchant and his company looked at him in disbelief, but Knud continued: “You can just say that Knud Rasmussen sent you”.
In the 1960s motorcycle gangs started to appear in Denmark. These tough guys would cruise around the roads, looking for troubles, and eventually they also arrived in Hundested.
The locals in this small fishing village were worried about these loud and aggressive men that suddenly came to town, but decided to welcome them in a live-and-let-live manner. In the local dancing club, the bikers continued their rude behavior, but when one of them hit a local girl, the local fishermen had had enough.
It’s important to note that while these bikers were a fearsome group of men, these fishermen were direct descendants of the Vikings. They lived of a protein rich fish-based diet and pulled heavy fishing nets day in and day out without engines to ease their hard manual labor. In short, they were huge men by nature, their heavy work made them exceptionally strong, and the hardiness of the sea had made them immune to pain.
Back in the club, the fishermen were outraged at the biker’s behavior. They were sitting behind a heavy wooden table at one end of the club, and they pushed the table across the dance floor, with people jumping to the side, and the table smashed into the wooden table at the other end of the room where the bikers were sitting. The clash of heavy tables jammed the bikers between their table and the wall, which was undoubtedly an unpleasant experience.
A short fight followed where the bikers were severely beaten. The fishermen threw the bikers and their motorcycles up onto the back of a truck, drove them to the town limit and dumped them there.
The next summer another motorcycle gang arrived to restore the glory to the biker community, but the exact same thing happened. The locals let them in and said they could stay as long as they behaved, but the bikers eventually behaved badly, and then they were beaten and thrown out of town. So in the end the bikers decided that it wasn’t worth it and decided to go to another seashore town in the northern Zealand. That is why you don’t see bikers in Hundested, because the ghosts of their ancestors are still agonizing in pain about this place.
These are just three stories from a small village without any historical significance in the great scheme of things, but it has its own authentic history which is captured in the stories that the locals pass on through generations, and these stories give this little village a soul, which is missing in many newer and bigger cities.
If you know a great folksy story about another small village, please share it in the comments below.
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