On my first night in Denmark, my seven year old host brother plays a game with me that he calls, “Balloon,” which is one of the only English cognates in his strictly Danish vocabulary. We stand in the living room tossing colorful balloons back and forth, back and forth, watching them float effortlessly through the air, trying to make as many passes in a row as possible. I count in English and he counts in Danish. We toss the balloon for at least 45 minutes before my host parents say, “You can tell him to stop whenever you want, Maggie.”
I don’t want to stop quite yet, though. I don’t know what else to do with myself in this strange house in this strange country with these strange people. But the way that my host parents tell me that I can go upstairs to my little room with the American flag blanket that Julius picked out makes me think that I am supposed to do it. Go back upstairs and look at maps of the city so that I can figure out how to get to my orientation the following morning. I tell my host family that this is what I’m going to do. My host mother, whose large belly is emphasized by her shirt tucked tightly into her pregnancy pants, goes to her own bedroom to nap. My host father, whose left arm sits in a sling, a reminder of the collarbone he broke from falling off his bed while doing stretches to help his scoliosis, goes to the back living room, where he lays on a spare mattress on the brown tiled floor. My host brother is instructed to watch cartoons in the living room, but only with his headphones plugged in so no one else can hear his show.
Instead of sleeping, I lay quietly in my bed and shiver and sweat and try my best to sleep. I don’t tell anyone that I’ve vomited four times since arriving in the airport hours earlier, that I hadn’t been able to sleep on the eight hour plane ride, that my legs are still cramped up from sitting for so long, that my head feels funny and my whole body aches. The only other time I remember feeling this way was in seventh grade when my parents sent me to summer camp for the first time. I think I want to go home so that I can stop feeling this way. But where would I go, if I returned to America? Not to Vermont, where none of my friends or family still lived; not to my university, where housing and classes were already full; and surely not to my parents’ house in North Carolina, where my mother would scoff about “those people” I was supposed to live with, or tell me she knew I wouldn’t be able to do it, that I should have listened to her, that she always knows best. I cannot tell anyone of my homesickness. I cannot tell anyone about my secrets. But this is nothing new to me.
* * * *
I came to Denmark expecting my host family to become the family I never had. I expected them to prove to me that I am capable of being part of a family. Instead, I found myself sitting at the kitchen table during dinner time each night and realizing that I had very little to say. My host parents wanted to know about my real family. About America. About the best foods my mother can cook. About what my family did for spring break every year. About when I’ll see them again. All I can think to tell that is that my favorite kind of food to eat is Mexican, but that my mother rarely cooks it. Rarely cooks anything. That I spent every spring break of my childhood wishing vacation was over already so I could go back to school. That I love school. That I have to go do some studying for my own courses. Because I want to do well in school. Because school is all I know how to do. Because school is the only thing that has ever made me feel at home.
* * * *
I try to sit on Julius’s rug with him, where he created a mini Lego town. Julius makes sound effects for the police cars he built as they zoom around the rug city, taking sharp turns with their imaginary sirens wailing. I pick up the Lego helicopter and make sound effects as it flies above the rug city, following the police cars in a hunt to catch the Bad Guys. Neither of us know who the Bad Guys are, but we vroom through the rug city, determined, wordless.
“Maggie, stop.” My host mother says this nonchalantly and suddenly, glancing briefly over her shoulder from the computer where she sorts through photos she took of a snowstorm in 2011. Julius and I glance up from our game.
“Don’t you have schoolwork to do right now?”
“Oh…yes…I do have some work, but—” I am always unsure of what to say. I never have that much homework. I can do homework later, when it’s dark outside, in the nighttime, when Julius is asleep and my host dad is snoring in his bedroom next to mine and my host mother is playing games on her iPhone, sprawled and pregnantly bloated in her own room down the hall. I am trying to be part of a family for once. It’s not me, it’s you. I’m trying.
“If you keep treating him like a child, Julius will never learn how to be an adult.” My host mother turns back to her computer and speaks emotionlessly to Julius in Danish. I hear my name and hjemmearbejde—homework. I haven’t told my host parents that I have started to understand bits of their conversations. Julius groans and packs up his Legos, placing them back in their color coded cupboards. He sits next to me on his rug again. No one speaks. Finally, I announce that I’m going upstairs to do some homework. I hear Julius open his Lego cupboard again as soon as my footsteps echo from the stairs.
* * * *
Heidi teaches my Child Development class in Copenhagen. She gives us a lunch break halfway through our three hour class each Monday and lets us stay in the classroom to start our homework afterwards, slowly stealing free cups of coffee from the teacher’s lounge to give to us. She makes her way around the classroom to check in with everyone: “How are you today, darling?” “How did you like class?” “Is there anything you want me to do differently?”
Sometimes during her instructions, Heidi says “fuck” or “shit” and then apologizes for being unprofessional, even though we all laugh about it or forget to acknowledge the vulgarity. My friend Lizzy and I take Heidi out to lunch a few times, where Heidi tells us that she is not sure who her father is and that she can’t wait to have her own children one day; she hasn’t had a boyfriend in ten years. She asks about our own fathers, our own boyfriends, our own futures.
One night, on a class field trip to Stockholm, Heidi surprises everyone with a glass of champagne, then she orders a bottle of sparkling water to pour into a champagne glass for me because, without prompting, she remembers that I don’t drink. She teaches us Danish swear words and we teach her that a “dog child” is actually called a puppy in English, and that there’s a difference between a “fire hoe” and a “fire hose.” None of us give up learning or teaching each other about our past, our language, our culture.
I find myself wishing, during dinners with my host family, to be back in the city, back in Heidi’s classroom. Sometimes she will put her hand on my shoulder and I will feel calm, grounded. She makes me want to talk about my family. About how my mother doesn’t cook but that I think I like Mexican food the best. That I am scared to go back to America. That my host family makes me feel like I’m doing something wrong. That my real family makes me feel like I am something wrong.
A few times, Heidi and I will hug. This, I think, is what home is supposed to feel like.
* * * *
Towards the end of my semester in Denmark, Julius and I continue playing “Balloons” once every few weeks. He still counts how many times we can hit them back and forth in Danish and I still count in English. My host parents tell me they are disappointed that I wasn’t able to teach Julius any of my language. Julius does not understand this conversation, only looks back and forth at the faces that are speaking and tries to get my attention again.
“Maggie? Maggie! Balloon!” He holds up a balloon, red like the Danish flag and the Christmas hearts that decorate the city and every single house in Denmark besides my host family’s because they decided they weren’t going to celebrate Christmas this year because it was too much work to decorate, even though Julius begged for the fake tree to be set up, just like he begged, months earlier, to go trick-or-treating.
My host parents go downstairs to hang laundry in the basement. Julius and I are left in the living room—the only place in the house where we have been allowed to interact, he speaking only Danish and me speaking only English.
“Balloons!” Julius says. We toss back and forth again until Julius snatches the balloon out of midair. “Maggie, stop!” He holds a small finger to his mouth before whispering, “Shhh.” He drops to the wooden floor and presses his warm cheek against the coolness where I still stand.
“Maggie, listen!” Julius beckons for me to join him on the floor. I lay down next to him and put my cheek against the wood. With our ears suctioning the floor, we can hear my host parents’ voices in the laundry room below us. I don’t know if they’re speaking Danish and Julius doesn’t know if they’re speaking English, but we quietly listen together, assuming the other one understands the conversation, and hoping one day we will be able to translate the confusions of this household into a recognizable language for both of us, for others.
Julius throws the red balloon so it bounces off my face. We giggle and listen for a few more minutes to the adults in the room below us. They are parents whose voices remain garbled by the infinite distance between us. We are still in childhood, yearning.