"You don't have to swallow it," my friend Carly told me, wincing as though she could feel my pain.
"When I start something, I finish it," I replied, though I'm sure my face was full of regret. And my mouth was full of -- what else? -- salty licorice, a favorite snack of the Danes. But this was the strongest, most powerful salty licorice I have tasted in all of my days.
How did I get in this position? Let's rewind several hours and I'll explain.
I woke up early on Saturday. Carly and I had been invited by our visiting family to a lunch and birthday party that afternoon. At DIS, a visiting family is a Danish family that the school matches you up with to spend time with throughout the semester. It is for students who are not in a homestay -- a chance to get a taste of everyday life for a Danish family, to practice your language skills, and to meet new people.
Our visiting family lives about a 20 minute drive from Copenhagen in a nice house in the Danish suburbs. They have a sweet dog and a teenage son. We arrived round noon and found an incredible lunch spread laid out for us: seared duck slices; homemade rye bread; brie and fresh jam; lumpfish roe and blinis with creme fraiche; salmon and cucumber roulades; Danish meatballs with red cabbage on the side. We feasted and talked about the day's plans. A nephew was having a birthday -- he was very young. It would be a chance to see how the Danes celebrate. In Danish class we learned that there is usually singing and some sort of cake and a lot of Danish flags. I was excited to learn more.
We arrived at the birthday party, where about 30 adults and children were busily moving about a small house. It was cramped but the mood was happy. Our hosts greeted us and even though we were full from lunch we were encouraged to eat more -- this time a pork goulash with rice, a kale salad, and garlic bread. I used as much Danish as I could remember: tak (thank you), undskuld (excuse me), nej (no), plus several longer phrases. The family seemed impressed, but when they tried to ask me more complicated questions I had to switch over to English.
When dessert rolled around, we were already stuffed but we made room to sample the ice cream, meringue cake and cream puffs that were laid out on the counter. On the tables were big bowls of licorice gummies. Here is where I messed up -- I took a licorice candy and put it on Carly's plate, daring her to eat it. She refused, throwing the dare back at me. Of course I ate it.
"Ashlyn ate a licorice!" said my visiting dad, impressed. "One of the strong ones!"
"That one wasn't very strong," said my visiting mother. It was going to take more to impress her. I asked which gummy was strongest. "Hold on," she said, and disappeared into the back of the house.
A few moments later, she came back with several jars of frightening-looking licorice candies. "These are the really strong ones!" she said, while the rest of the family cheered. All eyes were on me. Was the American going to eat the strong salted licorice, or was she going to back out at the last second? Of course I was going to eat it. I couldn't get out of this now.
I began with a smaller piece of the salted. The puckery taste of the candy stuck to my teeth but wasn't too bad. It went down okay. I moved onto a larger piece that was a bit less appetizing. It was difficult to finish but I did it. The Danes encouraged me, collecting around the table as they watched the scene unfold. The final piece was a licorice candy dusted in salty licorice powder and with an extra-strong licorice core at the center. The moment I placed it in my mouth I was filled with regret. This had not been my best idea.
"You don't have to swallow it," Carly said, which brings us back full circle. But I did. I probably shouldn't have, but I did. And afterwards I had to lie down for a bit to let the nausea subside. Let me just say that nothing can prepare you for the awfulness that is salted licorice. Nothing.
My visiting dad leaned in to me. "That was very impressive! You have our respect!" Score -- it was worth it after all. Meanwhile, I watched the school-age children dip their hands into the jar eagerly, snatching up the strongest licorice they could get and eating it like it was... well, like it was candy. I suppose that's one thing I'll never understand.