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Rikke Helms: Building Bridges, Spanning Cultures

Published: December 18, 2013 (Issue # 1791)

  • Rikke Helms on the balcony of the Danish Cultural Institute in St. Petersburg.
    Photo: for SPT

On Dec. 18, “Listening to Architecture: Composing Spaces,” a conference at the State Hermitage Museum, comes to an end. The Danish–Finnish–Russian project was created to introduce the best practices in the fields of environmentally friendly architecture and energy-saving building construction, the design of accessible public spaces for disabled people and architecture for children to Russia. For Rikke Helms, the head of the Danish Cultural Institute, the event brings to an end two years of work on the project, and is also her final activity as the leader of the Institute’s office in St. Petersburg. After ten years, Rikke is leaving her post at the institute and returning to Denmark.

Helms recently sat down with The St. Petersburg Times in the Danish Cultural Institute’s office overlooking the Moika River. In spite of the cold, she went to the balcony to raise the Danish flag, laughing as she did since it is both part of her daily routine and an opportunity to enjoy an amazing view of the city center. Helms has had a long relationship with Russia. She lived here during the Brezhnev era, the Perestroika years and modern times. The holder of Danish and Latvian distinctions of honor, she talked about her childhood in Greenland, revealed the origin of her love of Russia, shared the experience of being an expat in the Soviet Union and her plans for the future.

Q: You spent your childhood in Greenland. What was your life there like?

A: My mother spent her youth in Greenland. My father even had to agree to go to Greenland if he wanted to marry her. He did. They were both doctors. When I was small, we lived in the eastern part of Greenland. Greenland was a Danish colony at that time. I grew up with a Greenlandic nurse who taught me Greenlandic, so my two first languages were Greenlandic and Danish. But unfortunately we went back to Denmark when I was three and a half, and I forgot all my Greenlandic. Then my parents returned to the west coast, to Nuuk, the capital of Greenland. This was from age five to seven, so I started going to school there. Greenland is a big part of my life because it has meant so much for my parents for their entire lives. Our home in Denmark was always open to any Greenlanders.

Q: What memories do you have from your childhood there?

A: The east coast could only be reached by ship at that time. When the ice covered the water, there was no interaction with the outside world. Winter was an isolated time. In my very early childhood there, I remember the dogs that were kept for the sleds. They lived outside and were not like pets, but rather working animals. I remember my fascination with these dogs, especially with the small ones. I also remember the taste of raw seal and whale meat. I remember wild sheep and sometimes I was afraid to leave the house because they were around. There were sea eagles flying overhead and once we were afraid that one would catch my younger brother. I remember mostly visions and tastes. It was a happy time. All my life has been a happy time.

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Sunday, Apr. 27

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Monday, Apr. 28

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