A touch of Æro
Æro is one of those little islands that you would never know about unless an acquaintance had mentioned it in passing or it had made headlines because of some major event. You know…like and asteroid landing on it or if it were to be towed away by aliens. That sort of thing. To be fair, there are 406 islands belonging to Denmark, so one could be forgiven for lacking knowledge about their names and locations. The island was brought to my attention through a natural progression of events. My partner, Frank, kindly consented to marry me before his Schengen visa expired, so I was looking for a ‘quickie-style’ marriage ceremony such as one would find in an Elvis themed wedding chapel in Las Vegas. I found just such an arrangement on the island of Æro, although with three Danish officials presiding instead of the obligatory Elvis impersonator.
I stumbled across a web site advertising Danish island weddings and was particularly interested in the ‘express’ option, as time was limited. Having come to an agreement with the organiser, I set about finding out all I could about the little island. I say ‘little’, but it is, in fact, one of the bigger islands in the cluster, sporting a width of 3km and a coastline of 167km. It seems that the economy of the island was in the doldrums before some clever entrepreneur hit on the idea of hosting marriage ceremonies on the island and began a boom in the marriage industry. Sweethearts flock from all over Europe to get married in this unlikely venue. Couples are obliged to stay at least one night on the island for legal reasons, but most stay longer because of the charm of the place. This makes the prospect of marriage on Æro very attractive for couples who don’t want to wait three months for the same ceremony to take place in a major center such as Copenhagen.
We ordered some rings from a small Danish jeweler in Copenhagen. The shop was small, but so was the jeweler. Communicating in broken Danish and he in broken English, we managed to close the sale with the understanding that the jeweler would send the rings to a workshop for re-sizing and engraving. Since the Easter weekend was coming up and, as at Christmas, Denmark shuts down for a week before and a week after Easter, he doubted that we would get the rings back before the wedding. So we went in search of substitute rings that we could use at the ceremony. We found a silver ring at a female accessories store, but the shop assistant told us the didn’t have anything in ‘my size’. Her expression made me expect the word ‘fatty’ to be added to her sentence. I wandered the streets of Copenhagen, refusing to pay another €80 for a ring that would be a temporary measure. I finally found a silver ring for €5 that fitted me. It was a washing machine pipe adapter, but if one ignored the thread around the outside and discarded the accompanying rubber washer, it was perfect.
Having driven 2 hours from Copenhagen to Svendborg, we parked the car and headed to the ferry terminal. Once again I was struck by the lack of refreshment establishments near such an obvious tourist hot spot. The hotel nearby looked uninviting. There was, however, a nice little waiting room in a detached building that also housed public toilets. We ducked inside out of the chilly wind only to find a derelict Dane in an overcoat sitting to one side of the room chain-smoking himself to death. By the look of him he was close to it, but perhaps at his age he didn’t care. The air inside the room was saturated with smoke, so we opted to stand outside in the chilly wind while we waited for the ferry, the logic being that a dose of influenza would be more easily cured than a case of lung cancer.
As happens many times with transport in Denmark, there was no facility to purchase tickets at the ferry port. The idea is to board the boat and wait for the conductor to catch you….errr….. collect the money. Grabbing reclining seats facing the floor-to-ceiling windows at the stern of the vessel was a good move. The gentle throb of the big diesel engines lulled us into a state of extreme relaxation for an hour as the many small islands slid by and we watched the sea being churned up in the wake of the ferry. The ferry journey alone was, for me, justification enough for all the accumulated stress up to that point.
On disembarking at the town of Æroskøbing, we were greeted by the wedding organiser. His English gentleman persona was juxtaposed to the man I was expecting to meet, but it was nevertheless a pleasant surprise. For once I wouldn’t have to feel guilty about forcing a Dane to speak English. He directed us up the hill toward the guest house and told us he would meet us there. We declined his offer of a lift, thinking it would be jolly good exercise, but were soon regretting the decision as the narrow cobbled road punished the wheels on our suitcases and made the short trek more difficult than it ought to have been. Old villages with cobbled streets are OK if you don’t superimpose a modern lifestyle upon them.
The guest house itself was introduced to us as ‘the pink house on the right at the top of the hill’. Our mistake was looking for a sign that actually announced the name of the establishment. There wasn’t one. It turned out to be a refurbished period house dating back to 1768 with a history as boring as Denmark itself, but very picturesque. The quintessentially British landlady had managed to make the place feel like a quintessentially British house what with the furnishings and pictures strewn about the house. Well they weren’t strewn about the house as in ‘thrown on the ground’. That would be silly, but I’m sure you know what I mean. Our room was up in the eaves on the second floor. A boxed-off heated room with a view of the cobbled street and harbour through a small dormer window. Stepping out of our room to go to the bathroom across the landing, we were able to look up at the old wooden beams and red roof tiles, which created a sense of awe at the 350 or so years of history and the people throughout that time who would have looked up at the same beams.
The first order of business was to visit a notary in an office up the road so that I could swear that I was not married at the time. Having been threatened with two years in a Danish prison if I lied, I signed on the dotted line and we took the document to the administrative building even further up the road. The place was like a cattle market with various flustered wedding planners shepherding their couples about the place in readiness for the ceremony. Some were taking place as we waited, but most were scheduled for the following day. We were given a time of 11:40, which turned out to be the last wedding that Friday. Having completed our business for the day, we were given the name of a restaurant where we could have dinner. As it turned out, it was the only restaurant on the island that was open for dinner. Everything else is closed for most of the year with the exception of two months in summer.
We found the restaurant on the town square. It turned out to be a curious mixture of part souvenir shop and part restaurant. We stood around for a while waiting to be seated, but the restaurant appeared to be operated by one female senior citizen with the customary severe grey bob hairstyle and severe glasses. This gave her a severe manner which we found to be a little intimidating. We found a table and sat down, not knowing what to expect. It took a while for the matronly woman to pass by our table between playing waitress, cashier and head chef. I had to admire her stamina, which I attributed to the bracing sea air on the island. There was no menu, which was confusing when she asked us what we would like to drink.
“Coca Cola please”, said Frank.
“We don’t have that!” she snapped.
“What do you have?”, I asked gently so as not to upset her already frazzled demeanour.
“Apple juice!” she retorted, pronouncing it as ‘abble juice’ in keeping with the Danish ‘æble juice’.
“We’ll have some of that then”, I replied.
“What would you like to eat?” she asked, more sympathetically this time.
“What do you have?” I asked. I wasn’t going to be caught with that trick again.
“Caviar on toast with crème fraîche, but it’s not the expensive caviar. Then there’s salmon with spinach.”
We opted for the salmon and spinach which turned out to be a wholesome and hearty meal, if lacking in salt, as a mother would prepare for her children. Dessert was a rhubarb crumble, topped with cream, that was so sour it made my toes curl up inside my shoes. However, we were simply grateful to find a restaurant that was open, so took the experience in our stride while admiring all the local produce on sale around the sides of the restaurant.
The wedding took place the following day at the appointed time. We were next up after a large dark-haired German woman, in a meringue-like wedding dress, and her diminutive husband-to-be. He looked terrified going in, but happier coming out 15 minutes later. We had requested witnesses, as none of our family could make it to the remote island. Two Danish officials were present as the witnesses and the service was conducted by a fresh-faced young woman who performed the justice of the peace duties. The ceremony itself was short, but with much mirth at the exchanging of the rings as Frank slid the washing machine fitting onto my finger. All’s well that ends well.
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