Growing Up in Greenland: The Rumpus Interview with Jeanne Tost

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Aarhus, Denmark, is the second largest city in that nation after Copenhagen, and a center of the arts and education. I was recently there for a literary festival, and in the process I made the acquaintance of some students of English literature. They were all brilliant, well read, highly engaged, fun to be around. Among them was Jeanne Tost, a student of theory and continental philosophy, who had the added bonus of having grown up in one of the world’s remotest nations, Greenland. Actually, Greenland is only recently its own sovereign nation, having suffered under the yoke of Denmark’s imperial ambitions for a very long time (more on this subject below). Lately Denmark is trying to right some of its discriminations past, and to help the Greenlandic, or native populations, who are now ruling the independent state of Greenland. As a person interested in Scandinavian culture and the Arctic, I thought it would be interesting to get a detailed account of life in Greenland, and Jeanne, who lived there until she traveled to university in Aarhus, was happy to talk. Also featured in this interview is her boyfriend Martin Graae Joergensen, who worked as a tour guide for a summer on the extremely remote east coast of Greenland, in a town called Tasiilaq. The Danish experience in Greenland—part of the Viking legacy, if you will—seems to touch the lives of many Danes. Here are a couple of examples of that legacy.

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The Rumpus: When you were growing up did you know you lived in a very unusual place?

Jeanne Tost: Every summer holiday we took a vacation to Denmark, and then to Spain, because my grandparents lived in Spain. I knew there were places other than Greenland.

Rumpus: What was your experience of European civilization?

Tost: Europe had so much. Europe had trees and they had warm weather. I’m not so used to warm. I can’t cope well in warm. So when we were in Spain, it was really, really hot.

Rumpus: How hot is hot? Do you mean twenty degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit)? What do you do when it’s thirty degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit)?

Tost: Then I just can’t deal. I think twenty degrees is really hot for me. In Greenland, you don’t walk around in tee shirts and stuff like that. Shorts. I always felt kind of naked if I had to dress for the warm weather. I’m always hot.

Rumpus: How brutal were the winters back home?

Tost: Well, there’s a lot of snow, and if there’s too much snow, you can’t go to work. In Denmark, as soon as there’s five centimeters of snow, everything stops, because people aren’t used to driving around in the snow. But up in Greenland it would be really wild before anything closed. They had bulldozers driving around. What’s it called when the wind comes, and then the snow piles up?

Rumpus: Drifting.

Tost: Drifts. Often, my dad had to get out and shovel the snow, and he could easily make a tunnel. It was easily two meters. And that was really nice, when you were a kid, that you could just go out and make caves, snow caves, because it was that deep. That’s one of the things I really miss.

Rumpus: Snow caves?

Tost: Snow caves.

Rumpus: What’s the name of the town you lived in?

Tost: Nuuk. It’s the capital city. When I lived there it was about thirteen thousand in population, and I think now they’re up to about fifteen thousand.

Rumpus: What portion of that is Greenlandic?

Tost: I think maybe seventy-five percent? There always have been Danes, and I think a lot of the Greenlandic up there have partial Danish in them. Or German. Almost all the Greenlandic can talk Danish, so. It’s not that hard to live there. Not too long ago, I actually applied for a job up there as a communications worker, but I . . . (she speaks in Danish to Martin, her boyfriend).

Martin Graae Joergensen: Luckily, she didn’t get it. Because both of us kind of, uh, had second thoughts.

Tost: It would be a little bit scary for me to be an adult in Greenland.

Rumpus: Did you ever find it boring?

Tost: Living up there? No. I don’t think so. We looked forward to vacation in Denmark, because in Greenland, movies and clothes are like a year back. When you came to Denmark, you got all the newest clothes. But I never wanted to live in Denmark as such. I was happy there.

Rumpus: And how do you feel about it now?

Tost: Now I’ve lived in Denmark almost as long as I lived in Greenland, and it’s almost like another part of my life, because everything’s changed, and there’s so much more to do in Denmark. Sometimes I actually forget that I grew up in Greenland.

Rumpus: Is Greenland like how Americans think of Alaska? You guys are all driving around in snowmobiles shooting at wolves?

Tost: Maybe.

Martin: Well, they aren’t snowmobiling—well, they are, but mainly, they’re riding dog sleds. They don’t shoot wolves, but they shoot a lot of other animals.

Tost: They shoot reindeer. But in Nuuk, you’re not allowed to drive on a dog sled.

Rumpus:You have to do it out of town?

Tost: It has to be more north. I don’t know why, maybe it’s because of the population, because the dogs are really dangerous.

Rumpus: The dog sleds?

Tost: Yes.

Martin: There’s not enough room in the city where you can have your twelve dogs. Because they are extremely dangerous, the dogs.

Tost: They are really cute as puppies, but they aren’t treated as pets. They are working. The owners, of course, respect them and love them. But you don’t go out and pet them. Small children can get killed if they come too close.

Rumpus: Did you guys have actual sled dogs in your family?

Tost: We actually had a Bichon Frise. And when we walked with it, old people always had to stop and pet it, because it was cute. But in Nuuk, they didn’t really have the dogs, the Huskies. Big dogs, but inbreeds.

Rumpus: Did you go riding on dog sleds owned by your high school friends?

Tost: No. No, I never tried it. In Nuuk, it’s kind of like, it’s something the tourists do. But not a lot of us did it, because we had to go to another city. And to go to another city, you had to take a helicopter—.

Rumpus: No roads?

Tost: No roads.

Rumpus: Any roads along the coast at all?

Tost: No.

Rumpus: You fly into Nuuk, and then you’re in Nuuk unless you fly somewhere else? Or you take a ship.

Tost: And that’s something I enjoyed in Denmark. You could travel from town to town.

Rumpus: Was there a hospital in Nuuk? What would you do—.

Tost: There’s a big hospital, actually. With the latest equipment.

Rumpus: Because they have to, because there’s nowhere else for you to go?

Tost: Emergencies are flown into Denmark, but it’s a four-hour flight. So it has to be really bad for them to come down here. But actually, in Greenland, doctors and nurses are often Danish. Because, I don’t know, they don’t seem to educate enough doctors.

Martin: That’s part of the internship system, one of the places where the Danish doctor—.

Rumpus: Right, Denmark export medical interns to Greenland.

Martin: There’s teachers that go there, too.

Tost: And also, I think that when you come up there as a Dane, it pays really well.

Martin: And there are not as many places to spend the money.

Tost: But it’s also a bit expensive to live in Greenland, if you want to get fresh vegetables. A cucumber could easily cost five or six dollars?

Rumpus: What did you do at night for fun?

Tost: Well, we had a youth club. But in Greenland it was all pretty much about bicycling.

Rumpus: Bicycling?

Tost: You had mountain bikes. And the cool kids, they took them out, in the mountains, and drove them all over. Also, sometimes you met in the center of the city. And then you just—

Rumpus: Walked around?

Tost: Yes.

Rumpus: What about the troubled kids who just wanted to get drunk and smoke pot, where would they go?

Tost: They often had homes to do it in, I have to say, I wasn’t one of the bad kids, but my sister was. In Nuuk, there was a newer part of the city called Nuussuaq. And it was often there that they got drunk. But also usually in private homes because the parents weren’t home, and then they had freedom to do it.

Rumpus: And how about relations between Greenlandic people and Danish people? Did they mix?

Tost: It was maybe pretty separated. A year before I left for Denmark for studying, the Greenlandic people really wanted to be self-sufficient, so in the papers, they actually said, Danes go home. They really wanted their freedom. And I can relate to that because some of the Danes who went to Greenland couldn’t really function there.

Rumpus: They failed out of Danish society.

Tost: Maybe they are little kings up there. But I’m really glad to see, actually, because of Facebook, I can see my classmates, and my sister’s classmates, and what they’re doing. And a lot of them have gotten good educations, and they go back to try and—.

Rumpus: Give back?

Tost: Yeah. To try and help the people of Greenland.

Rumpus: Do the Greenlanders still take money from the Danish government?

Tost: Martin knows a lot more. Because I grew up there, I don’t know a lot of facts. It was just my home. I think they still get some money. But they govern themselves.

Rumpus: They’re officially independent. I think that’s right.

Tost: Yes. And I think there’s something about that if Greenland finds oil, then Denmark wants to be a part of it, and if Greenland doesn’t want to, then Denmark cuts off the aid. I miss the nature very much, you know. But as I’ve gotten older I wonder how it would be to live up there as an adult. I think that I couldn’t do it. When I grew up, there wasn’t even . . . what do you call it? A pool. But now there’s a public pool, and it’s really nice, and the Greenlandic people are learning how to swim, because before we couldn’t learn anywhere. Other than when we got on vacation.

Rumpus: What’s the strangest thing that you thought was normal, when you were growing up in Greenland, which has since been revealed to you as strange?

Tost: The mannerisms? When you thought something was cute, if it was a little child, you took your nose to the little child, and you sniffed. And said, Iggu, igg’ (a throaty, wet sound).

Rumpus: What does it mean?

Tost: It means, yeah, Yum, cute.

Rumpus: You smelled the kid. What else? Any other examples of that? Mannerisms?

Martin: I’m surprised every year on my birthday, when she wakes me up by telling me I stink.

Tost: No, it’s the day before your birthday that you stink. For birthdays, then you kind of, you have a lot of spare change, and then you throw them up in the air, and you yell, Bagga. And then all the little children get to collect the change. Like if you had a piñata and candy, but in Greenland, it’s money. I don’t know why. The kids are really loved there. Especially the boys. The boy is king. But sadly enough it’s also the boys who commit suicide most often. Because they are used to getting really praised at home, and then if they get their heart broken or something, they can’t handle it.

Rumpus: More boy suicides than girl suicides?

Tost: A lot of girls too.

Martin: It’s the highest suicide rate in Europe.

Rumpus: What was the most dangerous wildlife situation you ever got into?

Tost: I’ve had some incidents with dogs, loose dogs, where it could have gone bad, but it didn’t. But also, when we were out sailing sometimes the ice would come, and then you had to be really careful. And also, one time, we weren’t in danger, but there was a whale pretty close to our boat. If it wanted to play, right then, it could have been bad for us.

Rumpus: You couldn’t last ten seconds in the water, right?

Martin: It’s zero degrees. That’s why the icebergs don’t melt.

Rumpus: You never saw a polar bear?

Tost: No. It’s only by mistake they come down. One time, a bear came near on an iceberg, and then it got shot, of course, before it got into land. But that’s the closest.

Rumpus: Do the Greenlanders eat a lot of seal?

Tost: I never got to like the taste. I never liked it. They eat a lot of seal and, you know, the whale skin. I tried it, but I didn’t like it. It’s called Greenlandic gum. The Greenlandic word is Mattak

Rumpus: It’s raw?

Tost: Yeah, it’s raw. And it’s a delicacy.

Martin: There’s another dish in Greenland, where you take a seal and you open it and you catch a lot of boobies, the birds, and stuff them in there, really stuff them in there, and then they bury the whole thing in the summer and dig it up in the winter or at Christmas, or probably in the spring, and it would be a mush of the birds and the meat of the seal and everything . . . And there was actually a Danish explorer, Knud Rasmussen—not just a Danish explorer, but the Danish explorer—who went up there, who had this dish, got a stomach infection and died. After all he’d done that was how he died.

Rumpus: I still feel like you guys are holding out on me, you’re not telling me what it’s really like there. The dark truths.

Martin: Well, there is the alcoholism problem. And it’s also definitely understood there that it’s okay to beat your wife or your kids, for example. Not all Greenlandics, sure, but the number people who do these things is pretty high. I was only up there for two months, as I told you, and there were two murders and, I think, seven or eight suicides, and this was a town where 1,800 people lived.

Rumpus: Alcoholism often creates an environment where that kind of stuff becomes . . . routine.

Martin: There aren’t more alcoholics there than there are in Denmark, but when they do drink, it’s to the extreme, and basically, part of that is they don’t have a gene that allows them to drink. One beer, and they go crazy. And I experienced this several times up there, there would be people screaming at each other in the streets, and it was generally accepted. I was also told that it was generally accepted that if you were drunk, you weren’t capable of making decisions, so you couldn’t be held responsible for what you did. You didn’t need to apologize the next day.

Tost: I could also really see that I was used to it, because when I was a kid we walked around in the daylight, but also at night, that people would be screaming and fighting. And when I came down here, I thought the silence was kind of strange. I thought, They don’t do that in Denmark a lot.

Martin: You also told me once that there were these men in the town who, well, it was known they were child molesters, so you just knew that so you wouldn’t go near them, really.

Tost: You knew where they lived. When you’re up there, that’s just the way it is.

Martin: Like one of the guys who played Santa Claus up there. You know Santa Claus lives in Greenland, or that’s what we think in Denmark, anyway. But he was an alcoholic, right?

Tost: In my time, there were several different Santas. He was one of them. It was down in the harbor, and he had his post office with a giant letter box, and then you could come and visit him in winter. And when it was summer, he didn’t have the beard, and he was just himself, but you knew he was Santa Claus.

Rumpus: Drunk Santa Claus.

Martin: Where I was, when I was working there, there were a lot of young people there who just didn’t feel like they had any future to speak of, because hunting and fishing are more and more eliminated from the economy. You can’t really make a living from it. So despair is widespread in some layers of the society. I mean, still it’s a great place and there are a lot of great people, but there’s just a lot of crime and probably things are a lot more bleak—.

Tost: But it’s really strange, because the Greenlandic people are really shy, but they’re really welcoming. And really happy. They smile and laugh a lot. So it’s only when the alcohol gets involved. But when I grew up, they had, in the schools, they had Greenlandic classes and they had Danish classes, and I went into a Danish one, so I wasn’t that well integrated because I never really got to talk Greenlandic. And I could understand it more than I could talk it, and if you were a Dane and you couldn’t talk Greenlandic without a Danish accent, you shouldn’t talk at all, it was bad to say anything at all, because it was embarrassing. If you couldn’t talk with the right kind of accent. So I was always really aware that I was Danish, but I also still felt like I was Greenlandic.

Rumpus: Not like a regular Dane, because you lived in Greenland? Not a Dane from Denmark?

Tost: I’m not a Dane from Denmark, and I’m not Greenlandic from Greenland either.

In Greenland I always felt more like a Dane, and in Denmark I felt more Greenlandic – especially in the beginning, where I came down to go to school. But I never really have felt like belonging to one nation/country, and that’s not necessarily because of my upbringing – maybe that´s just me as a person. I’m just Jeanne.

Rumpus: Last recollections?

Tost: In the winter when we played outside there would often be Northern Lights. I remember we always took the time to look up and watch the Northern Lights move in the sky. Which was both beautiful and frightening because it really made you feel so tiny, and also because we couldn’t help ourselves to test the ‘spirits’ by whistling. A local myth says that the northern lights are deceased spirits who are playing a kind of soccer with a severed head–if you whistle while they play, they will come for you.


Rick Moody is the author of five novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and a recently released collection of essays, ON CELESTIAL MUSIC. Moody's band, The Wingdale Community Singers, just released their third album, NIGHT, SLEEP, DEATH, on Blue Chopsticks Recordings. It's available at iTunes and Amazon.com. More from this author →