Interview with writer Niklas Press
“Home is where your friends are. I can feel at home with good people around me, no matter where that is. I can feel lost with the wrong people around me or alone sometimes, but if I’m in good company – it can be anywhere.”
Niklas Press is a poet and writer born and raised in Copenhagen. A dual citizen of Denmark and the USA, his life has been a journey of overcoming severe shyness and looking for (and finding) his tribe. Explore his poetry at tændt.dk.
The following is a conversation we had at a bar in Copenhagen’s Vesterbro neighborhood in May 2021. It has been edited for clarity and coherence. I had asked Niklas to send me a few photos of what makes him think of home, which you will find farther down below, accompanied by his own commentary. We also met for a photo shoot in May 2023 where I took analog portraits of him, again in Vesterbro where Niklas lives.
KELU: Tell me about yourself. I’ve seen you on Instagram first. Your book of poetry in Danish – that drew me in. And then I heard you speak English. I was like, “Huh, he’s also American! He sounds completely American”. Immediately, my radar beeped: “Ok, what’s his story?”.
PRESS: So my story is, I was born and raised in Denmark, but my dad was American. [pausing] My friends always kid me, they say I’m such a diva. I was born at Rigshospitalet (Copenhagen University Hospital). Doesn’t get any more Danish, right? And yet, for legal reasons…
I was born in December, and in January the following year the laws were changed. When I was born, the nationality of a child would be inherited from the father. That was changed less than a month after my arrival on planet Earth. So I grew up as a foreigner in Denmark. Officially, I was a US citizen.
When I turned 18, I had to apply for a residence permit. And the people I had to apply with, you know… I spoke better Danish, I wrote better Danish than them. “Hello, would you mind letting me into your club?” Of course, me being me, when I was growing up, I held on to that identity for dear life. I was American. I was not Danish. “I’m not one of you, people!”
KELU: Why was that?
PRESS: I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this. In retrospect, it is silly but… I was intensely shy as a child. The boy in the bubble – that was me. And I felt… I think most kids feel… They try to find their place in the world. For some, it’s difficult. And I think I was looking for a rational explanation to an irrational experience. I never felt at home on planet Earth. I never felt that I belonged anywhere. I never felt that I was part of anything. And obviously, I was born in the wrong place. “My passport is blue! Of course! I’m displaced!”
You’ve asked me to send you pictures that signify home to me, and the first one, instantly I knew which one it was. It would have to be my American family. Because I remember the moment, in the arrivals hall… it was night, I was jetlagged, super-tired… It was the women in my family – my grandmother and my great-grandmother swept me up, hugged me and held me. I could feel their tears warm against my cheek.
And I didn’t understand the language they were speaking but I knew what they were saying, “You’re home”. So, having experienced that when I was 9, I always felt I was sent into exile when I had to leave the US.
Today I think I was struggling, and that became my cross to bear. Later in life, I posed the question to myself, “Suppose your dad had been Bulgarian, would you have been, “No way, dudes, I’m BULGARIAN!” [laughing].” Maybe not. But the idea of America is so loaded. It’s the land of hope and dreams. It’s the promised land. You go there and you can be anybody, can do anything. You make your own luck. Did I like that? Hell, yes!
My dad, bless him, was an artist. And I always say that there are no poor people in Denmark, but if there were, we would have been it. [laughing] We had nooo money. And then we went to see the American family. My grandpa was an advertising man. He drove a Cadillac. They had a pool. I was like, “Yeah, man! See where I come from!” [laughing] I was a hippie child. Grew up in a commune with my dad and went through a Marxist-Leninist private school. So I was like, “I’m not one of you, guys”.
So, when people ask me, “Where are you from?” I try to moderate it, try to be reasonable, you know, to be grown-up about it. This is my home town. I have children. They live here. I’m divorced, but my children live here. Ahem, “Come on, have some roots, will you! Show some balls”.
But even today I will say, “I’m based in Copenhagen”. And I would not even say “I’m Danish” or “I’m American” because by now I feel neither.
I have both passports today, but when I go to the US I feel in-tensely European. I feel like, “Who are these people?! What is wrong with them?! Have they no sense of wonder, no curiosity? The world is a big place. Are they all just in-bred and fucking stupid?” And when I’m here, sometimes it feels like a very narrow-minded nation. We’re very lucky, very privileged, very fortunate. My Danish grandparents, they were social democrats, both of them, very active in the union, and they took the first steps toward the benefits that we enjoy today. They fought for them. So I understand that it didn’t just come out of nothing, but I feel almost claustrophobic here sometimes.
When I was growing up, there was this book in the school library, Hvad kan jeg blive [What can I be when I grow up]. “You wanna be a dentist? Here’s how you do it.” Back then, the list of the things I couldn’t become was long. As a non-citizen, I couldn’t get a job as a postal worker because as a postal worker you might handle sensitive documents. I couldn’t go into real estate (not that I ever wanted to) because as a foreigner you couldn’t own and trade land. It was just insane. And I felt like, in its most extreme sense, “What happens when the bloodline is cut off? When you’re not allowed fresh blood? People become in-bred. They become literally retarded.” And sometimes I felt that’s where this nation was headed.
So today I still feel like a misfit, I feel like an outsider, but I’ve come to learn that I’m not the only one. I have a tribe. There are many of us. You can find them in the strangest places. And that’s what I’ve resolved myself to do. I am in Copenhagen. I do love Copenhagen. It is my home. I’m happy to call it home. But I have other homes, as well.
I went to Buenos Aires, and I met people who instantly felt like family. I met a barber who spoke no English, and my Spanish was rusty, and we had this weird, very deep connection. I met his son; I met his wife. And it all just started with, “I need a haircut”. I haven’t seen him since, I haven’t been back since. But I still would regard him as a brother. [pausing]
KELU: Would that ever happen to you here?
PRESS: With a Dane? I think so, I mean… I hope so. Because I hope that my discovery that I do have a tribe, that we’re all nomads, we’re all in emotional exile, we wander this earth – that means that some of us occasionally are lucky enough to run into each other and recognize each other. And if that can happen, if I can meet somebody, a former East German in Berlin, and feel, “Hey, I know you!”, why shouldn’t I be able to meet somebody just around the block where I live who happens to be from Jylland or whatever? I would hope so!
KELU: The reason I’m asking is because many foreigners describe Scandinavian countries as cold, that people are not as outgoing, not as forthcoming, and that it is therefore more difficult to just strike up a conversation.
PRESS: It certainly is more difficult, yes. It’s far more difficult here than in most other places in the world. But I want to believe that it is possible. Again, maybe it’s my American background. And the silly thing about me being all American – my mom and dad divorced when I was little, 2 years old, and I went to live with my dad. And I grew up in a commune, like in a house full of hippies.
My dad was an artist, and he had come here as… basically he considered himself a refugee. He ran off from the US army at the height of the Vietnam war and happened to get on the plane to Denmark more or less by chance.
When he came here, there was no flygtningehjælp [refugee program], no sprogskole [language school for foreigners], there was none of that. And so he had to learn by doing. I think the poor man had no ear for language. Yet, he did well. We have friends who were astounded to find out that he wasn’t Danish, like, after knowing him for a decade. He struggled with learning Danish, but he was so intent on doing it. It’s very easy to get by with English here, so he was like, “No, I have to cut that off; I have to only speak Danish”, so he and I never spoke English.
After that revelation when I met my American family, the only thing I cared about was that I wanted to be able to speak the language. I could only say, “Wan, too, tree, hands up!”, and they could say, “Tak for mad” [in an exaggerated accent]. It was intensely frustrating that here I was with my family, yet I had no way of talking to them. I was 9, and back then we didn’t start studying English at school until 5th grade, so there was a long wait. I was like, “Fuck this shit, I can’t wait!”. I stole my dad’s dictionaries and basically just ate them up. And I started writing short stories on his typewriter. The first story I wrote was a detective story, Private Eye. I just went word for word, I didn’t know any grammar, I didn’t conjugate, I didn’t do anything with the verbs. This is the word in Danish, poof – this is the word in English! Like Google translate in ancient times. And I remember one of the epic lines of that story was fellow that car! I don’t know how I got fellow and follow mixed up.
Anyway, so, ahem… I’m sure there was a point to all of this. That made it all the more ludicrous.
In school, when I had to learn English, same as everybody else, I sounded as horrible as everybody else. My classmates were like, “What?!” They were laughing their heads off, “Oh, you’re the American, right?”. I could die on the spot, I could just evaporate. You know, poof, gone.
KELU: But that’s fascinating! Here you are, feeling American, yet you don’t speak the language. And you meet your family and you can’t speak to them. And they’re American. That can mess you up!
PRESS: Absolutely, totally. I’m living proof! [laughing]
KELU: I am fascinated by language both in terms of learning languages but also by language as a phenomenon. I read about languages a lot. I don’t necessarily study all of them deeply but I’ve dabbled in quite a few just to get a feel of what they’re all about. I love phonetics. I love the way languages sound. I randomly go online, sometimes around midnight, to listen to Namibian or to Sami radio just to hear what languages they speak and how they sound. I get all these mental images… It’s like traveling through sounds.
PRESS: That’s very apt.
KELU: So language is a big part of me. I speak about 5 languages and consider myself bilingual. My two primary languages – English and Russian – they’re so intertwined. I can’t say which one of them I relate to more. I can’t talk about many things in Russian because I don’t have the vocabulary. When I went to the States, English gave me a voice. It gave me the courage to approach people just because of the whole cultural vibe there, but also because… like, I’m a completely different person in English. I’m more confident. My voice sounds different. I’ve noticed a similar thing with you now when you spoke Danish – you sounded different.
PRESS: That’s an interesting thing. Ahem, I grew up in the commune and much, much later in life, as an adult, I met with one of the grownups from there. She was so happy to see me as a real human being, a functioning person that could speak and stuff. I’ve no question that she always loved me, that’s why I was ok with meeting her. We talked, and I mentioned my shyness. She said to me that it did happen that when the world became too much for me, I’d just go in hiding under a table and sit there anywhere from three to seven hours until things quieted down and I came back out.
I went to a Marxist-Lenininst private school, which is correct. It’s an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms [both laughing]… Anyway, only in Denmark! But my first encounter with the school system was in a public school near the commune where I lived. And I must have had bad luck. I’m sure it was one of the last remaining statues of, like, stone people in terms of teachers ‘cause whenever I opened my mouth, they would scold me.
PRESS: I’m guessing because I spoke the way we did at home. And I grew up in a house full of hippies, and it was like fucking, pik, kusse, tissemand, whatever. I know that I only wanted to be a good boy. I wanted nothing better than for people to pat me on the head and say, “Dygtig” [lit. capable]. So as much as a part of me wanted to be bad-ass, that part was smaller than the other part that wanted to be a good boy. So, I’m positively sure that I did not try to rebel or anything. And so I didn’t understand.
She (the teacher) would scold me, “I’m going to wash your mouth with soap”. And finally, I stopped talking. I was so good at not talking that they decided I was retarded.
I remember this. At the time I didn’t know what it was. I was taken aside from the other kids in class and I was with a woman in this white smock and my teacher. The lady was making lots of notes, asking me questions. I was given a small mirror and was supposed to go balublubalublau to show that I could make sounds. My tongue did move and stuff. I was like, “This is odd”.
KELU: What age are we talking about?
PRESS: Preschool, so 6, I think. [pausing] Also at age 6 one day in school I had the most brutal stomach ache. I felt, “This is bad. I should raise my hand. I should say I am suffering”. I didn’t. It was only at the end of that day when I couldn’t stand up that my classmates ran to the kindergarten, got some grownups from there, and I was diagnosed with appendicitis. I was sitting for a full day, 6 years old, not daring to say I was in pain… Why am I talking about this?
Ah, what I wanted to say was that you were saying that your experiences when you speak English, that you are different, more confident. And what I found… again, this is the backdrop that I come from, the shyness…
I was intensely shy as a kid. And I found that when I spoke English I stood up straight. I spoke without hesitation. I could look people in the eye. I could tell them what I wanted and what I did not want. I could even talk to girls (at least in my imagination).
Ahem, it’s weird. And even today, part of what I do is I work as a copywriter. I write, basically, for other people. And even if the finished text is going to be in Danish, what I do is I will channel my inner American. I’ll be like, “Ok, suppose this is not in Danish, if this were in English, what would I do?” Then I’ll go boom-ba-boom-ba-doompa-poof-this-is-it! Take it or leave it. And then I translate it back to Danish, and then people are like, “Whoa, yourwritingissopowerful youreallyhavethistoneofvoice ohman!” [laughing].
KELU: I want to know more about your childhood. Let me explain. I don’t want to say that we’re all defined by our childhood. At some point when you grow up you have to own up to your present and stop throwing everything back to your childhood. Of course, it’s a big source of who we are. To me, childhood is more about the lived experiences – smells, sounds, things like that. My dream places… or how I imagine them, they’re filled with the smells and the sounds from when I felt happiest as a kid. And I can’t get around that.
When I go to Greece (I have family there), I do relate to nature there as nature, but it has the wrong sounds, the wrong color of the water. It’s beautiful and majestic, and I love it, but it doesn’t give me the feeling that I can just wrap myself in it and feel safe. Which, when I go around the Gulf of Finland – the granite, the birches and the pines, the light in the summer, the low-hanging clouds – there’s something about it all that envelops me whole. The berries and the mushrooms in the forest. All those smells that I can’t describe. I can’t get away from that. I’ve learned to embrace it and use it as a source of inspiration. That’s why I’m curious. For example, when you got to the States first, do you remember the physical experiences? What was new to you? Do you still carry it with you?
PRESS: Ahem, well. One thing that I remember vividly – I never experienced humidity like that, a kind of dense heat. My family is from Ohio, and we went in the summer. So that was new. And it was weird. You could almost cut air ‘cause it was so thick and still. I remember that outside my grandparents’ home there was this huge motor that was always running, and that was the AC, the airconditioner. Even my dad was flabbergasted. He told us they spent more money cooling their home in the summer than they did heating it in the winter. I was like, “How is that even possible? This is upside down”. And I remember the asphalt in the parking lot outside their home was burning. I went out, barefoot, and I would almost be, like, tap dancing. So the smell of warm asphalt, the heat that is humid and sticky…
And crickets! I love crickets! And I have no reason to love crickets except they take me back. They remind me of when we were sitting on the back porch, and the grownups – my dad, my grand-parents – were talking in a language I did not understand. I would sit there and take it all in. And I would hear this little backdrop, almost like a soundtrack of crickets. And to me it’s still the most mystifying, wonderful sound. If I can have crickets, I’ll take ‘em!
And I know a lot of other people find them annoying ‘cause it’s a noise that is pretty much constant. But to me, it’s… music. I love crickets. It’s a blanket of sound – soft and comfortable. I can relax in it. And I’m sure it’s because it reminds me of home.
KELU: What would you say were the sounds of home here in Denmark, or smells, for that matter?
PRESS: Sounds I can’t… I draw a blank. But smells – garlic! My dad was an excellent chef. I’m not aware if he ever phrased it like this but when I look back, that was his mindfulness, that’s when he was able to relax. He was a beautiful human but a flawed one, and so he was struggling with many things. But when cooking, I think he was at peace. So I was always hanging out in the kitchen with him because it was nice to see him like that. He would always sample things. He never put anything in the pot without tasting it or touching it. He was so free in that sense. Like, I’m a perfectionist. If you give me a recipe, and I don’t follow it to the letter, I’m dead. But to him, it was jazz. He was improvising.
Occasionally when I had a meal at his place (as an adult), I thought, “This is reasonably simple; I could do this; give me the recipe”. He would say, “Alright!”. But he was always like, “A dish of this, and a dash of that”. And I’d go home, and I would try it, and it would taste nothing like it… I always liked seeing him like a painter or like a musician, in his element. And he rarely had the lid on the pot whatever he was cooking. So there would be smells everywhere. Of course, he would encourage me, “Does it need more salt, pepper, sugar?” That was a continual process. If you hung out in the kitchen with him you’d be full by the time the dinner was ready ‘cause you’d be sampling so much.
So, to me, garlic is a warm smell.
KELU: How was it for you, how were you treated by other kids here in Denmark? Did they see you as different? Did they treat you differently?
PRESS: I can tell you what happened.
Thankfully, my dad realized (that was around the time of the appendicitis incident) that, “Hang on, this is not right”. So he changed schools. He took me to this Marxist-Leninist private school.
It was three things. One, some kids went there because their parents were ardent communists. Others came there because their parents were into arts and creativity. Painting, for example. We painted with real oil paints, which nobody does. It takes forever to dry. We had some actual musicians teaching music. It was very artsy. We did ceramics with real equipment. So, some people sent their children there because they wanted them to be creative. And then there was the rest of us, which was the city dump – all the kids that the public schools could not handle. We were a mixed bunch.
Looking back at it today, I have to say that that school saved me. I was still shy, but for some reason people there didn’t think much of it. I remember some teacher was like, “Let’s leave him alone, he’s probably thinking”, as if I was hatching some great philosophical thesis or something.
I’m not aware that I was but just to know that it was okay to be weird, and to be shy, and really not want to say much… They were like, “Yeah, let him be”. Eventually, I came out of my shell, and it’s ironic that today I spend my life writing. Had I stayed in the public school where they were convinced I was retarded, the scenario of me being locked up in an institution somewhere unable to write my own name, that could’ve been an option.
And I think part of what saved me also was my classmates because a lot of them were WAY weirder than me. By comparison I was almost normal. So nobody thought much of me. I was easy to overlook. There was somebody who was the class clown, somebody who was the class hunk, the class whatever. I was more or less invisible but over time, I did make friends. I still have friends from that time. So I was treated well, better than I could have hoped for. I still felt different and miserable, but that was on me. I wasn’t bullied or anything. I was reasonably smart. That also helped me. I was very lucky.
A lot of my classmates, if you look at it from an academic point of view, that school didn’t do much good for. Like, they moved two hundred meters down the road; they still live in the same concrete project-style block, still on welfare or whatever, smoking too much pot… But for me, that was my sanctuary, and I was able to come out on my own time.
KELU: As someone who always hated school… I don’t think I’ll ever make peace with my school time, especially the last couple of years. I always liked learning, and yes, you had to fit into a box… but that’s not always bad. So it wasn’t about that. It was the kids. I think kids are very cruel (and that’s why they need guidance). Especially when puberty hits. I had tons of friends until age eleven or so. Then all of a sudden, after one summer, everybody comes back from the holidays, and I’m the outcast. I didn’t understand why. Now I see that they just sensed that I wasn’t interested in girls, and I was all of a sudden alone. At the time though, I had no idea why. Then, in high school there was bullying – being beaten up, calculating the safer path to school, timing your moves a certain way, going from the classroom into the changing room constantly fearing that they would get you – that kind of bullying. So I was so happy to graduate and never think back to it.
And then I was so happy to get into university. I had this almost Renaissance ideal – this scholastic union of people wanting to learn. And I didn’t find it. I was so disappointed. I thought we were going to become study buddies exchanging ideas and reading books together. None of that was my university life, at least not in Russia. In the States, it got better. So, school is just something that…
PRESS: [interjecting] Something just dawned on me. At the beginning of our conversation, I said that I’m always looking for my tribe, and my tribe is Misfits and Outcasts. And I think I never really thought much about it, but describing my school to you – that was it. And that’s why I think I felt normal. I was nothing special. There were people way weirder than me. And there were people waaay smarter than me. I was average, you know. So I didn’t fit in, but in a way I did. You know, I didn’t stand out like a retard. It’s funny, I never thought about that. That also was, maybe, a sense of being home.
I hated growing up. I probably also hated school because I hated things. But I think it was all me. I was miserable, and the misery was in me. And because that was strange, I was looking for external, rational explanations, as in “Hey, I am not Danish, I am American”. I can kind of pin everything on that. I didn’t feel at home on planet Earth, and so I didn’t like school. I was good at it but I didn’t like it. I didn’t like anything!
In retrospect, I’ve been well aware that the school saved me, that particular school. And I will forever be in debt to them and grateful. But I was less conscious of the fact that this mixed bag of freaks that we were was very good for me.
KELU: Do you feel at home on Earth now? The reason I’m asking is that when I was growing up and still through my twenties I was fascinated with space, so I also felt like, “Oh, I’m not of this Earth”. And now that I got older, I completely flipped. I feel very much connected to Earth. That’s why I’m asking.
PRESS: It’s funny. In kindergarten, we used to do linoleum cutting, and my design – it would always be the same – was UFOs with the insignia USA.
“Take me home!” But of course, when you do linoleum cuts, everything comes out backwards, so USA became ASU. Maybe that’s why they couldn’t find me.
I’ve resigned myself to, “Yes, I’m here”. I’m bound by gravity. I may not always agree with gravity, but it’s a law of nature and whether I like it or not, I’m subjected to it. Also, when I was a teenager, I remember this was on a school trip, we were in what was then Yugoslavia to see how peaceful nations could coexist. We were in what must have been Croatia, and I was standing on a balcony way up high, and I was feeling miserable, still very, very shy. I was an ugly kid also.
KELU: Is that how you experienced yourself?
PRESS: It’s a fact! I can give you a description! Anyway, my best friend at the time was charming, tall, he started lifting weights, handsome, and he knew that there was this one girl that I was just madly in love with. And he was curious, “What is so fascinating about her?” And he went and grabbed her, and they started dating. He was all the man, [in a puffed up voice] “Oh honey, let me do this, let me hold the door”. And I was like, “You, fucker!” And at that point, I remember standing on the balcony thinking, “I could end this, right now”. I kind of did the pros and cons. And I was like, “It’s been 14 years of struggle, I’ve come this far”. So I made a very conscious decision not to take my own life. And now I have two children. Now it’s not an option. So I kind of decided, “Like it or not, I’m here. I may as well make the best of it.” So I’ve tried to move away from the idea of good and bad. Oh, that’s interesting! instead of oh, that’s horrible! I still regard myself as a visitor on planet Earth. So why not make it an interesting visit. Explore the damn place. Seeing as they put me here anyway.
KELU: If you’re still a visitor, do you have any recollection of that real home planet? Like, why not here?
PRESS: Again, I blame it all on my dad [laughing]. Growing up, I told you, I didn’t feel at home in Denmark. I struggled with it. And I felt out of place.
I remember cornering him one night in the kitchen and asking him, like, “What were you thinking? You had the whole world to choose from – what made you come here? Have you seen the weather? Why?” And he said, “Well, it was a bit of a fluke, actually”. He wanted to go to Paris, but the flight was sold out. I was like, “NO, my name could have been Francois! I could have two world languages. And I’m here, stuck in this place where it fucking always rains and the language sounds like a throat disease.”
So again, had things just been a little different, my life would have been a whole lot different. And I see that pattern, alternative history, I can play that scenario in my life a million times over. Like, with the school, with my dad getting on a different plane, whatever.
When I was growing up, I always spoke Danish with him. And I grew up with him. I didn’t grow up with my mom. To me he’d always been there. Then, when I started school, I would hear comments, “Oh, but your dad is…” And sometimes they weren’t actually at me, they were about me. And it was always intriguing. Because it was never His dad is American. It was Oh, his father is not from around here. So I started wondering.
Again, my dad was an artist. He worked in theater, he made puppets. And one of the things he designed (I’m sorry to have lost it), it was a contraption, a little black box that had knobs and dials, lights and buttons. You flipped one, and something happened. Something spun around, a light came on or a sound. It was like a mystery box. I don’t think even he knew what happened when you did what. Some kind of a random system built into it.
To me, that’s my dad. My dad was building robots. As a child, when he’d come to pick me up from kindergarten, I would have to explain words to him in Danish. So I knew when I started hearing that he was not from around here that it kind of made sense now. But to me, my image of him was not that he was from another country but from another planet! So of course, if he’s from another planet, then it makes sense that I immigrated with my dad from Planet Wubaduku… Still, here I am.
“I still vividly remember meeting my American family for the first time. I was nine years old, dog tired and jet-lagged from crossing the Atlantic when all of a sudden these people hugged me and held me close and showered me with love. Never before had I had such a feeling of belonging. Of being home.
This is the only remaining photo of my American family. From left to right: My grandma, my grandpa, my dad, and my uncle. It used to be a regular color photo. As all but one in it have died, it has taken on a ghostly quality that seems strangely fitting.”
This small painting was given to me by my oldest son while I was living out of a suitcase in a rented room, going through a divorce. He told me: “This is you and me swimming. We’re going for the golden treasure.”
“I’m not sure exactly where this was taken — which perfectly sums up my idea of home. I am always searching for it. And I suppose I always will be.”
KELU: Of the three photos that you sent me, guess which one moved me the most?
PRESS: The painting?
KELU: Yes, and I can’t even explain why. Of course, there’s the family portrait – that’s understandable. The travel photo, as well. But the painting and the way you described it; so simple. You described what happened but you didn’t really describe why you chose it, and this is what really moved me. And the reaction of your son. It was so simple. That projection of emotion and understanding and empathy, it really moved me. And the painting itself is based on an activity that is so intimate. I guess that’s what it is. The intimacy of that whole setting.
I’m curious. I’m not a big children person. I’m not even trying to hide it…
PRESS: Me, neither! [laughing]
KELU: But I am curious, and maybe it’s a cliche question, but I’m genuinely curious about how your view of the world and your place in it changed. How did having children change that?
PRESS: First of all, one of my biggest regrets is that I’m not more of a father. I have two sons, they live with their mother. She’s a great mom. I never felt comfortable. I took parental leave (from work) twice, so on paper it looks good. I was the one who started both of the kids off into daycare. I was the one who was with them when they took their first steps. So all these boxes are checked. But I feel like I’m beyond failure. I feel like, “Did I even try?”. Now they’re taller than me, both of them. I know I was scared, but everything is scary. Why didn’t I just suffer through it?
So there are two ways that having children changed me. One is, I cannot die (or at least, I cannot die by my own hand). And the other is, I can’t move too far away. As I told you, when I was in Buenos Aires, I had this feeling that if I didn’t have a return flight, if I didn’t have kids, I’m not sure I would have come back.
And still today… I mean, I love Copenhagen, it’s a beautiful city. I’m proud to call it my city, and I brag about it to people from all over the world. But I like joking that I’m only part viking. I would like to see the sun occasionally. Maybe go out and not need an umbrella or a sweater. My plan is that one day I will find a shed, anywhere in Latin America, along the coast, where the food is good and the women are beautiful, and the people are friendly despite being way worse off than most people here. I’ll split my time. I’ll spend winter there, summer here. In my mind, that works. Of course, I’m not going to do that now because my kids are 13 and 15. Of course, I’m gonna stick around. No blame is attached to that but that is a factual consequence of having kids. I can’t pursue that dream.
KELU: Not the same but I understand. Being in a relationship is similar, in a way. You can’t just go off on an expedition for months, for example.
PRESS: One thing that I have to say or I won’t have been honest. I understand, or, I’m not sure I understand, but I’m fascinated by your love of nature. And the way that you describe that you do feel rooted in it. And that it also can give you a sense of home.
Growing up, because I didn’t want to have anything to do with the world, even just leaving the house, it was like torture sometimes. People would say that I hated nature. It became like a shtick, and I played along.
You know, I don’t like the wind, I don’t like, whatever [laughing]… I hate rain. Or it’s too sunny, you know. Mosquitoes or ants or… And still, I live right around the corner from where we’re now sitting, so I live right smack in the middle of the city. I love it. I like it because you’re never alone, there’s always people, there’s always sounds. I live in an old apartment, I can hear the neighbors all the fucking time.
KELU: My nightmare!
PRESS: Mine, too, but I’d rather hear somebody than nobody.
KELU: I’ve heard that before, which is very new to me. I literally heard this twice in the last month for the first time.
PRESS: So, if you take me out in the countryside, hopefully today I will be mature enough to appreciate it, but I will want to know for sure that there is a way out! If I come for a visit and I know that, “Chill, it’s two days” – then, “Oh, this is nice, the breeze and the birds, lovely. Now, let me get out of here”. So, when you said nature, if that had been your pitch when you approached me, you would have picked the wrong guy. It’s funny, though, because I am a sun chaser. I’ve learned that later in life. Down at the end of my street there’s a bench, and I have a whole bag of cushions and blankets. When the sun is out, I go and I sit and work from that bench. Or sometimes I’ll fix my breakfast and go have it there just to get out and feel the sun on my skin. So when I found out that being outdoors could do that kind of thing, make me feel alive in a good way, I was like, “Whoa, maybe I should have been going out when they kept nagging me all those years”.
Again, my images of home, I was surprised that only one of them had people in it. ‘Cause when you first asked for them, I thought I’d find a picture of the barber in Buenos Aires. I have a brother, a Venezuelan brother that I adopted on the streets of Copenhagen and I consider him a brother. When he was still relatively new here, I took him sightseeing, and we took photos. I thought, “Maybe one of those”. Because there is Copenhagen in the background, and there’s him who’s from another place but has struggled very deliberately to come to Denmark because at that time it was the happiest nation on Earth. And then he stumbled on me and we happened to make a connection.
I’m a people person. I’m still, at heart, quite shy, but in a weird way that makes it even stronger because when I find my tribe… [pausing] I don’t connect with everybody. By profession I’m a journalist. I’m a horrible journalist. Because I can’t just be professional and talk to people. If I don’t feel a connection, it’s murder. If I do feel a connection, it’s a blessing. What I was trying to say is that I wouldn’t think of places in terms of home – I would think of people.
It’s a funny thing because when I was growing up, I was practicing English with the intention of leaving Denmark, permanently. From the age of 9. And I felt so sorry for my dad because the poor guy came here utterly unprepared. And I don’t think he had much of an ear for any language. That’s one thing I know I do have. So I thought it was gonna be so much easier for me. And I tried several times. Each time I was stunned, I was in shock at how difficult it was.
I never felt particularly Danish. When I went to do an internship in Britain as a young journalist, I felt incredibly homesick. At that time, I had a girlfriend. Before I met her, I thought I’d die a virgin because nobody would ever want to touch me. And I had a very sweet and very beautiful girlfriend. So the longing for home was probably being intensified by being away from her. But it’s beyond that. I tried again just moving across the bridge to Sweden! That nearly killed me. So I’ve had to get my head around the fact that, for all my man-of-the-world, for all my international-citizen-I-pack-my-suitcase self-image, I cannot leave home. And home is here.
I can do long spells of travel. Everybody likes to think that, you know, “I work for myself, so all I need is wifi, and I can work from Beirut, Berlin, Buenos Aires… I can work from anywhere.” And I took the liberty to do that. I have two sons, but they have a very good mom, and they often go stay in Jylland. So occasionally, I would leave. And that worked. I would meet, sometimes, digital nomads who had literally packed up everything, sold their belongings, traveled and not had a home, not even a bookshelf, for 4 years. And I was like, “I wish I could do that, man, you’re tough”. But I know now that I can’t. I need to have a base. I need to have an apartment here. My books, you know. And then I can strike out. I can’t cut all the ties, I can’t leave. That’s never gonna happen. We talked about it with my ex-wife sometimes, cause she also is a dual national. We have the whole world. We literally can live and work in almost all the world. But now I’m not sure. I could do the 6-month thing, but I would have to know where my home is here.
KELU: So what happened with Sweden? I’m so curious!
PRESS: Sweden was brutal!
KELU: I can just see the headlines [laughing].
PRESS: It’s funny because on the face of it, did I even move abroad? It’s a 30-minute ride. So what happened is I moved there to set up a business with two friends who happened to be crazy Swedish brothers. And it wasn’t Stockholm, it wasn’t even Lund, it was Malmö! I’m embarrassed by the pain it inflicted on me… because it’s like a suburb of Copenhagen, more or less. It’s clean, there is no graffiti, lots of good restaurants, all the buildings are well-kept. Living there, though… I have one thing going for me – language. And what I normally do, I parrot. I try to pick up bits and pieces, phrases. I try to blend in. What happened with Swedish is that, because it’s so similar yet not identical, it corrupted my Danish. Once, I came back home for a weekend and used a Swedish turn of phrase – Danish words but the Swedish sentence structure. And I was like, “No, this cannot be happening!”.
I used to tease my dad by saying that he was a man who spoke two languages, neither of them very well ‘cause he’d forgotten his English and never properly learned Danish. And for someone like me, like, I can’t build anything with my hands. I book flights for the wrong dates because numbers don’t make sense to me. So language is the one thing I can do, and if that starts to slip, who am I?
I would have preferred moving to Bulgaria ‘cause you’d have to start from scratch a completely separate language that you could delve into and absorb. Swedish is just like everybody will always know I’m Danish – I will never make it. And what happened, because I tried so hard to be a good student, a good boy, I completely ignored my Danish, so I had two half-languages.
KELU: I can totally relate to that. When I came back from the States to Russia, and because now I had a tribe all of a sudden – other people who’d lived in the States – we all spoke English to each other. But what it did was that we sort of slipped into a pidgin – not Russian, not English. At some point I and a couple of my friends had to make a conscious decision, “Ok, we separate these two languages and we either speak good Russian or good English”.
A final thought for you. You know the phrase “Home is where the heart is”, so how would you complete the “Home is…” phrase?
PRESS: Let me think [pausing for a few minutes]. I have two versions, and I can’t decide. The first one is “Home is a state of mind”. The second one is “Home is where your friends are”. Again, I’m a people person. I can feel at home with good people around me, no matter where that is. I can feel lost with the wrong people around me or alone sometimes, but if I’m in good company – it can be anywhere.