Once Upon a Time in Denmark

I was going through my email a couple of days ago, trying to file some of it to keep it from crashing, when I found an announcement of an event over at Haverford. Hubert Dreyfus is giving a talk there on October 29th entitled “Rationality and Embodied Coping.”

I’m going to have to go to that one even though there’s another important philosophy event, The Greater Philadelphia Philosophy Consortium Public Issues Forum on Philosophy for Children, that same day. The GPPC event starts at 1:00 though and Dreyfus’s talk isn’t until 4:00, so maybe I can catch both. I want to go to Dreyfus’s talk because not only do I like him, but because it’s been a long time since I’ve seen him and I want to see if he remembers me.

I met Dreyfus years ago when I was living in Denmark. He and his brother Stuart came to Denmark to lead a seminar on their book Mind Over Machine. The seminar took place on a property owned by Aarhus University and extended over a period of several days. The conditions at our camp were so Spartan that one of the other participants joked that it was a “skjult overlevelseskursus” (thinly veiled survival course). I don’t remember what all the problems were, but I think among them was the fact that we didn’t have hot water.

It was a fun course though and since we all lived in close quarters and took all our meals together for several days we got to know one another pretty well. I was sad when it ended, but happy when about a year later, I learned that Dreyfus was coming back to Denmark to give a talk at the Philosophy Faculty at the University of Copenhagen. I wrote to Dreyfus to arrange to have dinner with him. He told me he thought the Philosophy Faculty was arranging a dinner for him, but that I should contact them to make sure. I wrote to them and they confirmed that they were indeed planning a dinner for him on the Friday of his lecture, but that there was nothing planned for the following evening. I’d hoped they would invite me to the Friday dinner, but they didn’t so I made arrangements to have dinner with Dreyfus the following evening.

The talk that Friday was great. I went up to talk to Dreyfus at the break and he greeted me warmly. “We’re going to dinner this evening,” he said, “you should come along.” I explained that I hadn’t been invited, by Dreyfus ignored my protestations and escorted me over to the woman whom he said was making the arrangements. I knew they didn’t really want me along that evening, but I didn’t want to be rude to Dreyfus, who seemed convinced that the extension of an invitation to me simply hadn’t occurred to them. Dreyfus introduced me and explained that he thought I should come to dinner with them. The woman looked at me skeptically and then responded. “Well,” she said slowly, “the arrangements have already been made. It would be difficult to add another person at this point. You would have to pay for yourself,” she added with an air of finality. The Danes are nothing if not polite. I knew they could not come right out and tell me that they didn’t want me along and I was suddenly annoyed that I’d been excluded and decided that I’d exploit what I had learned about the Danish character and use it to my advantage.

“Oh that’s all right,” I responded cheerfully, “I don’t mind doing that. I don’t mind at all!” and then I slipped quickly back into the reception crowd before she had time to think of a retort.

There was wine and cheese at the reception so it went on for a while. I’d brought my boyfriend and I began to feel guilty about the fact that I was going to go off to dinner without him. I didn’t really relish returning to my stunned hostess and asking if I could bring a guest, but I felt like I had no choice.

“Can my boyfriend come to dinner too?” I asked when I finally found her again. The look of horror on her face was quickly replaced by thinly concealed rage.

“I thought,” she said slowly through clenched teeth, “that you weren’t coming because you had to pay for yourself.” I’m sure she assumed that I’d get the hint that time, even if I hadn’t before.

“Oh no,” I replied smiling, “I don’t mind paying.”

There were actually some advantages, I realized, to hailing from a country so uncivilized as the U.S. I could pretend I didn’t understand that she was trying make it clear to me that they didn’t want me coming along to dinner and she would have to accept that I was incorrigibly uncultured and hence incapable of taking a hint. She, on the other hand, as a good, upper-class Dane, could not allow any chink in her own breeding to show, she would just have to accept my presence and the presence of my equally backward boyfriend at their exclusive soirée.

The evening took an unexpected turn, however, when we found our wine was corked (for readers who are unfamiliar with this term, it means the wine has taken on a mildewed flavor and nose from a bad cork). My boyfriend, who knew something about wine, discovered this at once and insisted we be brought new wine. The company could not have been more impressed and entreated him to pick a new wine himself. I don’t remember what he picked, but he picked well and charmed everyone with both his choice of the wine and his excellent command of Danish. It was a lovely evening. He was the star. I think they may even have liked me by the end.

I’m hoping that’s the how Dreyfus remembers it, anyway, as I have no dinner plans for the 29th!