'A landscape that suits me': Fargo native finds new home — and love — in Europe

The sixth installment of photographer Murray Lemley’s “Tales From Afar” series focuses on Treacy Ann Shafer, a Fargo native now living in Denmark.

On the way to Treacy Shafer's daily swim in Rørvig, Denmark. Murray Lemley / Special to The Forum

RØRVIG, Denmark — Some people are very good at developing a sense of place. Not only making it their home, but to make it their own.

Some people have a knack for being "there," as if wearing a place like a piece of clothing, in a sense they come to fully occupy it.

Treacy Ann Shafer is like that. We can see, perhaps, some premonition of the future as a child growing up on River Road in south Fargo.

“I was always a Fargo girl, born and raised. But the wanderlust may have started unconsciously at an early age because my mother would read 'Peter Rabbit' to me in French. I think I was about 4. She didn’t speak French and I have no idea why she did it, but did it she did. ‘Trotsaut, et Queue-de-Coton.’


Treacy Shafer in front of the Kronborg Castle in Denmark, where "Hamlet" was performed. Since 1937, many of the top British stage actors have appeared here as Hamlet: Laurence Olivier, Kenneth Branagh, Christopher Plummer, Richard Burton, Derek Jacobi, Michael Caine and Jude Law. Even Vivien Leigh appeared once as Ophelia! Murray Lemley / Special to The Forum

The approach to Kronborg Castle along the coast north of Copenhagen where Treacy Shafer and I saw an outdoor production of Shakespeare’s "Hamlet" over the summer. Kronborg was the castle that supplied the setting used by Shakespeare when he wrote "Hamlet." Murray Lemley / Special to The Forum

"Another book I loved, 'Ragman of Paris,' had a talking green-whiskered cat, and some ragamuffins who get locked in the Luxembourg Gardens overnight and need to be rescued... giving way to a certain poetry when many years later I got locked in the Paris metro overnight,” Treacy recalls. “Even though I still can’t really speak French, I was always aware of this other place, this other world. And just as naturally I always had the feeling that I would live in Europe someday. And Europe meant Paris.”

Is reading to your daughter in French, when she is 4, weird? In Fargo?

Maybe calling it weird is a little brutal. Unusual is kinder, or the neutral-sounding "singular," which makes sense considering how Treacy turned out.

Treacy Shafer on the links near her home in Rorvig, Denmark. Murray Lemley / Special to The Forum


Post-golf coffee at the Odsherred Golf Club in Højby, Denmark, in the summer of 2019. Murray Lemley / Special to The Forum

Early years

The place where she grew up was stable. The home, the family, the neighborhood. And it was the time of stability, not only in Fargo but in America as a whole.

“I grew up in south Fargo, on the river, in what was then known as 'Fargo’s famous 1st' precinct, with a father (E. Maine) who dabbled in politics, and a stay-at-home mom (Geraldine) who was often not. All the mothers then volunteered for every possible thing. 'Community service.' They were readers, skiers, dancers (you should have seen how elegant my mother looked when she dressed to go to Qui Vive), jazz-lovers, bridge-players, golfers.

"Although I lived in the same house until I went off to university, I managed to change schools all the time. So in a way I was always a bit on the edge, I guess, because I was always being shunted from one place to another, but I could mingle well... which comes in handy in a foreign country,” she relates.

The photo used on Treacy Shafer's Christmas card in 1992. Special to The Forum

She studied history at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, spent a year in Key West, Fla., for marine biology, and in a side job she sometimes is embarrassed to admit (considering her politics) she worked on the advance team for President George Bush (the first one). She thought he was quite a decent, duty-driven man and remembers being at the Minneapolis airport and the powers that be asked her where to put Air Force 2 and without batting an eyelid she ordered them to “put it where you usually put it!”

But the work she kept coming back to was at Prairie Public Television.


“It would just be me and an engineer (one of whom was Harry Bergquist, Dewey’s brother), manning the machines and making sure the right program got on in the right order at the right second. I also did the voiceovers... 'This is Prairie Public Television…,' and directed UND hockey broadcasts with the irrepressible Boyd Christenson, rest his soul.”

Treacy reading in the backyard at her house in Rørvig, Denmark, with Smilla the cat. Photo courtesy of Kaare Schmidt / Special to The Forum

And it was there her life fatefully intersected with Daniel Hart, then-program director at the station, who left to start a distribution company in Amsterdam and offered her a job.

“So in 1986, at the grand old age of 36, the year of Chernobyl, I moved to Amsterdam. My mother said I acted like I was moving across the street. I thought the worst that could happen was that I would just move back home, so no big deal. But everything about Amsterdam just suited me. It turned out that my Paris was Amsterdam,” Treacy says.

“It took me awhile to get used to the Dutch directness. They are raised to have an opinion and not to be shy about it. One Dutchman is a religion, two a schism. North Dakota nice does not apply,” she continues.


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She ended up living there for nearly 10 years, mostly in one of “those great crooked gabled buildings“ where you have to move your belongings through the front window with ropes and pulleys. Discovering, contrary to how she was brought up in America, a place that doesn’t claim to be better than everybody else, while it all works in a low-key, peaceful, happily capitalistic way. Amsterdam has big-city amenities, like a world class symphony orchestra, opera, and world renowned art museums but feels like a village.
“I used to love to ride my bike under/through the Rijksmuseum and spend my lunch hour at the Van Gogh. I joined a rowing club and would scull on the Amstel. And the feeling of those canals and streets still tugs at me. If I felt depressed, I would look around me and feel so lucky to be sad in such a fantastic place,” she says.


On a spectacular (but hair-raising) road on the Faroe Islands in November 2015. Photo courtesy of Kaare Schmidt / Special to The Forum

She had made the place her own. Her next job was at NOS (Dutch Broadcast Foundation), selling Dutch public TV shows to foreign markets, something of a Sisyphean task.

“Odd lengths, odd subjects, odd language. But it helped me to establish quite a network across Europe. Most of the buyers were liberal arts types — people with broad knowledge and interests that coincided with mine, and many are still friends,” she says.

Treacy Shafer on a trek to Vik, Iceland, in March 2015 with her old friend Amy Hilleboe, who took the photograph. Special to The Forum

'Love had a hand'

Despite the steep odds, she managed to make possibly the first sale ever to British TV and certainly the first one to American television markets. And another milestone was selling not one, but two, programs to Danish TV.

“But here, I must admit, love had a hand," she says. "Among the people I had met was a certain Danish buyer, known for taking chances where others might play it safe. He took a chance on a Dutch TV series, and in the end on me as well. We fell in love at the TV markets in Cannes and Monte Carlo, over ice cream cones in Antibes, and alfresco dinners with the Mediterranean Sea as a backdrop. Oh so cinematic. In 1994, wrapped in the fairy tale wedding room of Copenhagen’s Town Hall, I married this man whose name, to this very day, I cannot pronounce. We had a fabulous after-marriage party arranged by friends on Lake Melissa in Minnesota.”


Treacy Shafer and her husband, Kaare Schmidt, at the Rørvig windmill in June 2015. Photo courtesy of Terttu Lahtinen / Special to the Forum

The move to Copenhagen was soon followed by another move, this time to Stockholm. Kaare, her Danish husband, became a movie buyer for the main Swedish broadcaster. Living by the Stockholm archipelago, on the Tuna Fjord of all places, she settled in for another five years, making this place her own as well.

Now tackling the Swedish language, on top of Dutch and Danish, her head was spinning. But the Nordic effect saved the day: nearly everyone speaks very good English. In Treacy’s experience, the Swedes were much more bottled up than the easy-going Danes and the outgoing Dutch.

“There is a saying that a Swede is like a bottle of ketchup: You hit it and hit it, and hit it. Nothing. Then, all of a sudden, it all comes out at once and you have a friend for life. The harsher climate plays a part. Just look at a map — it is so far north. Stockholm is even with the southern tip of Greenland. So those Swedish winters are more psychically demanding than North Dakota winters. The extra hours of darkness take their toll," she says.

"But the summers are simply magical. Around Midsommar (Midsummer), we used to take drives through the countryside at 2 in the morning because it was completely light. It was bewitching. It’s funny that a country of such extremes has a word, ‘lagom,’ for the concept of ‘just right.’"

Eysturoy, Faroe Islands, in November 2018. According to legend, the rocks facing westward (we see them on the horizon next to the cliff and are called Risin & Kellingin) are longing for home. They are a giant and a witch turned to stone by the gods when they tried to steal the Faroe Islands and take them back home to Iceland. Photo courtesy of Kaare Schmidt / Special to The Forum


While in Sweden, it seemed there could be a whole new career. An American movie producer challenged her extremely movie-literate husband, with a critical eye for writing, to stop complaining about all the bad movies out there and instead write a script himself. She and Kaare ended up writing two, one sold, and twice the production got axed just before the cameras were set to roll, but it was nice while it lasted.

The Swedish idyll did end when they moved back to Denmark in 2001 to the little seaside and former fishing village of Rørvig (Pipe Cove), now buzzing with vacationers from Copenhagen an hour away and from Germany, Norway, England, all over.

This may be her "Last Best Place," to borrow the title of a great book about Montana some years ago. She appears to be here to stay; it fits like a glove.

Snorkeling through the tectonic plates at Silfra Gap, Iceland, in March 2015. Photo courtesy of Louis Kotze / Special to The Forum

“I love the gentleness of the landscape, the sea," Treacy says. "I love it that my voice is lodged in the walls of The Royal Theatre. I love the Danish way of consensus living and trusting one another. And I love my village where the grocery store is a five-minute bike ride away, and the fjord where I swim nearly every day of the year. My neighbor to the south picks me up on his bike to swim in the sea. He doesn’t speak English. My neighbor to the north, who does, is my golf partner. I have a beautiful life in a place and a landscape that suits me. It lifts me up.”

Seen from a distance, the northern European countries may seem identical. But not when you live there.

There are all kinds of cultural disparities, some of which may mirror the differences of nature. Pancake-flat Netherlands, lake-dotted, wood-covered Finland, the barren ice-clad island of Iceland, the endless fir tree forests of Sweden, steep mountains intercut by deep fjords in Norway — and the sweet rolling hills of island-dotted Denmark where you’re always close to the sea.

“All these countries are my backyard. And I feel such an affinity for each of them. I am a northerner by birth and by temperament. I go diving in deep fissures along the great continental divide in Iceland, celebrate Christmas with friends at minus-30 high up in Sweden, enjoy midsummer’s 24-hours daylight with Finnish friends by the Gulf of Bothnia, swim with killer whales in Norway’s Barents Sea in the middle of winter, relax long into the light summer nights in our own backyard five minutes from the sea,” she says.

Treacy Shafer (third from left) poses for a photo in the fall of 2013 at Nyhavn in Copenhagen with the Neal Dudgeon (second from left), the lead actor of British TV series "Midsomer Murders," to commemorate the show's 100th episode. The episode was instigated by Kaare Schmidt (right), Treacy’s husband. Producer Jo Wright also is in this picture. Photo courtesy of Jo Wright / Special to The Forum

Treacy has made this place in Denmark her own as well as her home, just like the others, beginning with the Red River in south Fargo with her mother reading to her in French when she was 4. In the end she didn’t need to speak that language, but the experience planted a seed that has grown through a lifetime.

“I have been a bit of a gypsy, but it has opened up a world to me — even though my brother says I moved a long way away just to land somewhere that reminds me in so many ways of home," she says. "We’ve now been back in Denmark for 20 years and it may have been my destiny from the outset. I remember long before I planned my move to Europe, I went to a psychic. As I was leaving and almost to the door, she stopped me. Giving me a curious look, she said simply, 'Denmark.'"

Treacy Shafer getting into her car on the ferry leaving Rørvig, Denmark, on our way to see "Hamlet" at Kronborg Castle. Murray Lemley / Special to The Forum


Tales From Afar is an occasional series of profiles and portraits by photographer Murray Lemley of folks with ties to North Dakota and Minnesota now living abroad. Look for more installments in The Forum’s Life section in the coming months, and contact Lemley at

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