“See,” she says, sighing, “it’s like being in a fairytale!” I look around at the row of half-timbered facades, the miniature windmills propped up by metal stands, the glum looking bust of Hans Christian Anderson.
“This is not my idea of a fairytale,” I tell her. From the expression on the Danish writer’s face I’m guessing it’s not his, either.
“You don’t think it’s charming?” she asks, taking me by the arm and leading me down Mission Drive in Solvang, California.
“What’s charming about it?”
“It’s so different, so adorable. There’s no Starbucks or McDonalds or Walmart in town, just boutiques and restaurants. I wish I lived here.” We stroll down the empty road. The European hanging signs of this self-proclaimed Danish capital of America advertise sushi, bagels, tacos, and the pizza chain Domino’s. The incongruities escape her. She drags me into a pastry shop. “Ooh! Look at those…and these…and this! Doesn’t it make you want to go crazy?” I watch in mild consternation as she orders two cream cheese croissants, a slice of almond butter ring, a half-dozen Napoleon hats, and a cinnamon roll. We sit at a diner table in a tawny flushed room filled with shabby framed posters.
“Who’s eating all these sweets?” I ask her, eyeing the sticky collection. She looks at me in surprise.
“We are! Dig in…try the custard, it’s my favorite. I take a bite, close my eyes, and imagine I’m sitting at a café on a cobblestone lane.” I obligingly break off a morsel and try to envision the same while I chew. The cloying filling stifles my inspiration; all I hear is the dreary teenage conversations of the cashiers. She senses my ennui and says, “let’s go check out some history.” Leaving the eatery we head south two blocks on foot to the Elverhøj Museum.
“Solvang’s architecture was remodeled to attract tourists not to preserve culture,” I announce inside our destination, pointing out to her archival photos of the inhabitants’ mission style houses.
“Not this cottage,” she counters, “it says here he hand-built the homestead because he wanted to live in an eighteenth-century Jutland farmhouse.” The former residence of artists Viggo Brandt-Erichsen and Martha Mott now hosts a hodgepodge exhibition which includes Viking artifacts, modern American painters, and community memorabilia. We examine newspaper clippings chronicling the hamlet’s history. Little tokens of their heritage stand out from these images: girls folk dancing in costume, a stork positioned on a pretend thatched roof for luck, a feast after a roof-raising…. Otherwise, the accounts could be those of any California territory: arrival of immigrants, eventual acculturation, war, industrialization.
“What sets this suburb apart from the various ethnic enclaves elsewhere? Besides,” I add, “It also says only ten percent of Solvang’s population now claims Danish ancestry.”
“It has a unique appearance. Other neighborhoods don’t look like their customary homes. I mean Chinatowns don’t have Chinese accommodations. Italian quarters don’t imitate Rome or Tuscany,” she answers. “Here I think they’ve managed to transplant a little bit of Denmark.”
“So the replicated buildings make it genuine?”
“They give me the feeling, which is what I want.”
“Having a certain exterior doesn’t classify as cultural though,” I reply. “If they put a miniature Eiffel Tower here it wouldn’t be another Paris.”
“If you want culture, you should come back for their Danish Days festival,” she says, “they put on a huge show with a torchlight parade, an æbleskiver breakfast, Viking reenactments, a dinner folk dance.”
“That’s exactly my point — they put on a spectacle for outsiders. When you explore Japantown in San Francisco for example, you experience their layered existence, the tensions between survival in a modern metropolis and the desire to retain their traditions. They’re not displaying themselves for someone else’s benefit.”
“How else am I going to learn about another culture? This is educational for me. I’ll never make it to Denmark, so this is the closest I can get to being there.”
“You’re claiming you’ve learned about a country you’ve never been to by coming to Solvang?”
“Yes, I have…and look they have genuine Scandinavian things…like this,” she argues, holding up an imported Swedish tablecloth inside the gift store for me to inspect. She buys it as a memento. “You really should see these streets on one of their annual events,” she claims as we circle Petersen Village Square later on, “That’s when everything becomes magical. I drive down each year for the event.”
“Isn’t it the same every time?”
“Yeah, that’s what I love about it. I know what I’m getting.”
“Why don’t you travel to Copenhagen this year instead? You can experience midsummer celebrations, taste frikadeller, see a Nordic battleship,” I suggest.
“Oh no, what a nightmare! Can you imagine me trying to stumble around out there? I wouldn’t understand a word they said, I’d get completely lost, and probably end up with food poisoning. No, I like that I can encounter a little Danish flavor not far from home.”
“But this is a theater production, it isn’t how the Danes live,” I insist. “Cities are more than a few famous dishes, a pageant, or a postcard landmark. They don’t have a single theme, or ethnicity, or veneer that defines them. They are complicated, evolving personas — not static.”
She shakes her head vigorously. “I don’t care for any of that…who wants to see the grimy, muddle with skyscrapers and factories and ugly stuff? It’s the romance I come for, the good bits….Speaking of which you’ve got to get your hands on one of these æbleskivers,” she states, pulling me into a café. “They’re supposed to be as good as from the old country.” We take our puffed pancakes to the Little Mermaid statue sitting atop a leaky fountain. Red jelly oozes from the top of my popover and runs down my sleeve. “Isn’t it delicious? Doesn’t it take you back to your European jaunts?” she inquires.
“No it doesn’t,” I retort sopping up the mess with a wad of paper napkins.
Turning to the green-tinged bronze, she shoves her cake into her mouth in one enthusiastic gesture. “She’s so lovely,” she sighs, “I wonder if the other one is as beautiful as her?”
“Why don’t we find out?” I ask. “Let’s go to Copenhagen together!” Fear widens her pupils. Nevertheless, I press on. “Don’t you want to taste what æbleskivers are like over there?”
“What if I don’t like those ones?” she mutters.
“At least you’ll know. We’ll eat cream-filled desserts, we’ll sit in actual cafés by the canal, we’ll get lost together which won’t be as scary. It’ll be an adventure!” She contemplates my invitation.
“You’ll take me to visit the other mermaid?”
“We’ll eat every type of danish sweet?”
“I’m making a list,” she warns.
“You’ll really travel to Denmark with me?”
“Why not? Then we can compare notes on æbleskivers.” I give her my uneaten one to enjoy. She munches on it, nodding as we return towards her car.
“Okay, let’s do it,” she replies, adding, “Gosh, I really hope they’ve got windmills as cute as these….”
Since the debut of the award-winning American movie “Sideways,” which was filmed in the surrounding Santa Ynez valley, Solvang has courted a new type of tourist, the wine-lover. Tasting rooms and bars of Solvang cater to the area’s grape varietals.
Have you been to a themed town like Solvang? Let me know about it in the comments below.