A couple years ago I fell in love with a woman who doesn’t know the words to The Star-Spangled Banner and married her, and since then I’ve forgotten the words myself sometimes. She is Danish, born and raised in Copenhagen, and along with her I got three bonus children, including a daughter, my first. As we tried to explain to them:
Love has surprised us. It descended One day when we had other plans And we canceled them for this splendid, Passionate and innocent romance.
The poem left out a lot. For one thing I learned that marrying a foreigner means you are obliged to defend American foreign policy (which makes more sense in America than it does overseas, so we understand it better than they do) more often than you want to. It means you have to explain why Americans eat so fast and work so hard and why they ask “How are you?” even if they don’t want to know; it means you have to be ready to define gerund, quixotic, impugn and earned run, and explain who Vanna White is.
After the end of A Prairie Home Companion we went to Denmark for the summer so I could be the foreigner in the family. We bought a flat near the American Embassy, not far from the Anglican church, close to a park with a basketball hoop. Our living room had high windows facing east; it filled up with sunlight in the morning; we bought a bright red sofa, and I sat down and read books morning and night. It was a good summer and difficult. I never lived outside of Minnesota before, and I learned that no matter how smart or tolerant we think we are, down deep we find it strange and unpleasant that other people are not like us.
Strange to sit and listen to Danish, a string of sounds like someone trying to get a hair out of his mouth. I looked under my love’s chair for subtitles, I jiggled the kids to get the needle back in the groove. Finally I went to language school so I could say, in Danish, “My esteemed potato, it is for many pleasure of my heart in which now I make acquaintance of your suitcase.” And they said, in English, “You speak Danish well. What part of America are you from?”
Since a month ago, we’ve been from New York, a city so full of foreign people that my true love feels at home here. On Columbus Day we walked down Fifth Avenue watching the Italian parade march by, me with the daughter on my shoulders and the mother holding my hand, past St. Patrick’s toward the New Yorker where I work, a magazine whose beauty and class first burst on my head when I was 17, riding the school bus home from Anoka, Minn., writing poems about the exchange student from Denmark who eventually married me. A golden fall day in New York. To have dreamed such lovely dreams when I was no older than the kids are now and to be true to that breathless view of life and now to live it here, with an 18-year-old son upstairs who plays in a rock ‘n’ roll band and an 18-year-old daughter who wants to be a writer—I carried her on my shoulders for a few blocks, and when she climbed down I almost rose up off the sidewalk and floated over the park.