Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Sometimes you don't realize what you have...

I had a long conversation with a pregnant Danish woman this week. She worked at a spa near my apartment and I had gone in for a pedicure. It was my first pedicure in Denmark - very nice, she did a good job making my feet smooth, but she didn't paint my toe nails. Isn't that kind of the point of a pedicure?

Anyways, the woman was in her late 20s and about 6 months pregnant. She was nervous about having her baby, about labor and what life would be like after the baby, etc. I am now an expert on all these things, having gone through them exactly once. So, because I can't help myself, I started offering my expert advice. I told her labor would be fine, we're built to do this, etc. etc.

Then I said how lucky Danish women are because of all the services for new moms here, including home health visitors who come to check on new babies instead of parents having to get out of the house and to the pediatrician. My pedicurist looked at me kind of funny and said, "I thought they did that everywhere." I told her about getting home from the hospital in the U.S., not sleeping all night and then packing up our tiny baby the next morning and going to the pediatrician where we had to wait in the waiting area with sick kids.

"Wow," she said. " I had no idea. I guess I need to appreciate things more here."

It occurred to me that many parents in Denmark might not realize all the things that make being a parent here so fantastic:

Things like the mother's group all women who have babies here are placed in. The hospitals put you in a group of moms from your neighborhood who had babies in the same month as you. Then the moms meet up weekly. Many mother's groups last for years.

Things like paid maternity leave that lasts up to a year.

Things like the abundance of changing tables and high chairs in public places and restaurants.

Things like stroller space on city buses.

Things like playgrounds in every park.

Things like super-affordable and really outstanding daycare.

Things like the annual passes to Tivoli and the Zoo and the Experimentarium that make them very affordable.

Things like the free teboller (soft and delicious roll) you get at my favorite bakery just for showing up with a little kid or the free piece of fruit kids get at some supermarkets upon checkout.

Things like the free carousel at the toy level of Magazin and the big play area in the toy area at Illum where you can take your kids on a rainy day and let them play without any pressure to buy things.

Copenhagen is a pretty fantastic place to be a kid (and a parent, too.) It's not like this everywhere.

I am glad I got to talk to the woman at the salon, maybe she will have a new appreciation for her home country as she brings up her child.

Saturday, July 28, 2012


Embarrassing story below:

It took me a year and a half, but I am finally biking around Copenhagen.

When we moved here, I was eager to adopt the local means of transportation. I did lots of research on how to transport Riley by bike and settled on a Chariot carrier (it's fantastic).

Then, I rushed out to a big Wal Mart-esque store called Bilka and picked out a cheap bike that came home in a box and Neil had to put it together. Not only was it extremely difficult to assemble, but once we had it together we realized the bike was actually too big for me. Even with the seat lowered all the way, I could not sit on the seat and touch the ground with my feet, which made starting once stopped extremely difficult.

I am really not sure what I was thinking. In my defense, I thought I needed to buy an inexpensive bike and that Bilka was the place to do it and I had not really ever purchased my own bike before. I had bikes growing up and then the one bike I had as an adult was a gift. (A gift that was later stolen from our apartment parking garage in Washington, D.C. - but that's a different story.) It really didn't occur to me that bikes came in sizes other than child and adult. I picked out a women's bike and that was that.

Neil tried to dissuade me, but I was not going to be talked out of it. The bike was purple and had a big basket on the handle bars and I liked it. I loved it up until I tried to ride it and realized it was not very fun. Not only was it too big, but it was also heavy and the pedals braked when you pedaled backward instead of freely spinning around. I hadn't had a bike with pedal breaks since elementary school. When we went on family rides, Neil kept wondering why I was biking so slowly while I struggled at every intersection to get back on my massive bike and pedaling again. Not to mention the fact that we had me towing Riley all the time because we didn't realize we only needed a $20 bolt for Neil's bike so he could tow Riley, too. I was slow and miserable.

We went on a few summertime rides, I locked the bike up and we hardly looked at it until this spring when Neil started using it to take Riley to school. It had become a sore point in our relationship, Neil was always wondering why I wasn't riding my bike and I was constantly feeling guilty for buying a bike that was too big for me. And then, one miraculous day a few weeks ago, my bike was stolen.

Don't misunderstand. Having the bike stolen made me feel sad and violated the way any theft is apt to do. Even worse, we hadn't written down the bicycle frame number and so we can't get insurance money for the bike. My perception of Denmark as the safest place on earth is a bit tarnished, etc. But, BUT... with the too-big, too-heavy bike out of the way, I got to purchase a new bike.

My bike at the store before I bought it
 I went to three stores, had them measure bikes to fit me and adjust the seats to my height. I compared prices. I knew what I wanted - a bike, with hand breaks and pedals that can go backwards and forwards that was my size and that I can use when we return to the US (i.e. has more than two gears).
I went for test rides. I was not messing around. And I ended up with a perfect bike. I actually look forward to riding it. I love picking Riley up from school with the bike and I have ridden it every day since I bought it two weeks ago (aside for a weekend when we had friends in town).

My bike on a sunny day ride

I am not yet totally proficient in riding bikes in Denmark. I'm a little unsure about how to hand signal and I can't multitask on my bike, like the many Danes I have seen texting and driving or chatting on their cell phones while biking. (not that I should aspire to this) I have no idea how to wear a skirt while riding my bike, but I realize I just have to give it a shot and see what happens.

It feels great to finally embrace this part of Copenhagen life. Apparently, now that we finally have the city wired and we know what we're doing, it's time to start thinking about moving home... but I'm going to enjoy biking around town a bit more first.

Cold Swimming

It's no secret that it's not often warm in Copenhagen. At a latitude of 55° North, there are lots of cold days here, or perhaps more importantly, not a lot of truly hot or warm days. The Baltic Sea that gives the Copenhagen area so many lovely beaches is almost always too cold to swim in around here as are the harbors and canals throughout the city. 

Yet, somehow this doesn't stop the Danes from swimming. I remember last Fall on a particularly cold day being in a coastal town near Copenhagen (I forget where) and seeing a woman in a swimsuit and bathing cap casually entering the water in the harbor and swimming several laps while her dog waited on the dock. When she got out, Neil asked her if it was warm in the water. The woman said something like, "No, it is very cold, but I train my body for this all year. You get used to it."

Since meeting this woman, I have had an assumption that many Danes do some sort of cold water swim training wherein they build endurance to tolerating incredibly cold water. I think it's probably not true, but I like to think it is anyways. 

Today was a pretty warm day at the end of a very warm week. It was, perhaps the warmest week since we moved here in January of 2011. And so, it is with that background that we decided to try swimming in the harbor baths (ie swimming pools in the harbor) at Islands Brygge. 

We'd seen people out there all week and Neil and Riley had even gone by one day and watched the people jumping off the high high dive. The pools are really cool looking and inviting - it seemed like the perfect thing to do on a warm afternoon.

Islands Brygge Harbor Baths on a sunny day.
In spite of a ton of people swimming in the pools, and a kiddie pool that was packed with kids, the water was absolutely freezing. We played for a little while. Neil went in up to the top of his calfs, I could barely force myself to go in up to my ankles. Riley was the bravest and went in up to his upper thighs. As we were "drying off" or, since we didn't get very wet, sitting on the warm dock and putting our clothes and shoes back on, Neil remarked that it seemed odd that everyone else there was unfazed by the cold water. "Everyone is acting so normal," he said. "It's like nobody notices." 

Indeed, we were the only strange family who didn't actually do what we came to do. Are we just weak Americans? Is there really tough Viking blood still running through the veins of most Danes? We have no idea. I probably won't return to the harbor pools with the intention of swimming, but it is a fantastic place to soak up some sun and watch people. Heck, maybe I will even return wearing my swimming suit, but don't look for me in the water.

Monday, July 23, 2012


The Danish flag or Dannebrog is one of the oldest flags in the world. It's a simple red flag with a white cross on it. Legend has it that the flag came down to the Danes in a battle in Estonia way back in 1219. The Danes went on to win the battle and the flag has been the Danish flag ever since.

There is not much historical evidence supporting this unique origin story, but the legend persists. Last summer, on our vacation to Tallin, we visited the spot where the flag is said to have come down.  Riley was asleep in his stroller and Neil and I posed for a photo. It felt important to visit the site, like it made us better expats living in Denmark. Now we can say, "Oh yes, we've been to the battle field where the Dannebrog came down." (If only we could pronounce Dannebrog.)

The Dannebrog descended right around here.
A friend of ours told us that a common theory is that rather than the flag actually being delivered by God, it was actually someone's family crest that they became separated from in the battle and then it came down by the Danes, thus leading to the legend. Others say it's just made up. Wherever it came from, the Danes love their flag.

As I have mentioned before on this blog, the use of the Danish flag in regular Danish life is very impressive to me. Danes use the flag for all celebrations - birthdays especially, but other celebrations as well. The Dannebrog is used in advertising to connote a sale, it is on kids stickers sold at the post office, it's just very popular.

Post office viking stickers
For Riley's second birthday, we ate on the pirate ship at Tivoli for dinner. It was the first time since living here that we'd been out to eat for a birthday and when we told the restaurant staff, they delivered a Danish flag for the table. Sure, the typical Danish wind knocked the flag over more times than I would like to remember, but it still made me feel like we are doing something right, we're getting the hang of this living in Denmark business.

The Pirate Ship

The birthday boy on the ship with his birthday flag
 Perhaps when we move away from here, our little American boy will look at photos from his first and second birthdays and wonder why there are Danish flags all over the place and think it a bit odd. I will be prepared for this. It will give me the opportunity to tell him about the time he slept in his stroller at the spot where the Dannebrog was delivered to the Danes from the sky.

The Dannebrog flying near Frederiksborg Slot in Hillerød, Denmark

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Peter Pedal, Holger and Unusual Children's Book Covers

Danish children grow up with many of the same storybook characters that children in the U.S. know and love. However, because names are different here, it is common practice to rename characters for the Danish versions. My favorite, because it is so incredibly different from Waldo, is Holger.

To me, calling my red and white striped friend Waldo by the name Holger seems so wrong. And yet, kind of hilarious.

Another good one is the name for Curious George which is Peter Pedal. For those of you who are curious, Pedal does not mean curious in Danish. Nysgerrig is, apparently the Danish word for curious.

 During a trip to the children's section at the library I came across the following children's books that both represent how progressive Danish culture is and how not politically correct it is in other ways. Have a look:

The above book is called "Littlered Has Two Mothers". I saw this and thought, "How fantastic that this book is boldly on display in the public library, we need more books like this in the United States."

And then, the decidedly less PC "The Day Mother Was an Indian":

As someone who grew up in the American Southwest, I immediately feel sensitive when people dress up as Native Americans. I have heard that in the schools here, they have "Dress as an Indian Day" and people paint their faces red. This is strange and I think it stems from a fascination with Native American culture and a lot of exposure to American movies and culture, not from anything malicious or intentionally racist. In my search for answers about the Danish fascination with Native Americans, I found a website addressing mock Native American pow wows held in Denmark that makes me feel a bit more ok about the above book... maybe? Read it and decide for yourself. The Danes who put on pow wows are very interesting and clearly not ill-intended. But as a native New Mexican, the whole thing seems bizarre.

Not being able to sit down and really read these books with much comprehension gives me a narrow cultural lens to view them through. It has been a challenge during my time here, for sure. Not knowing the language allows me to read things into book covers, or newspaper covers that might not be there at all. I have enjoyed realizing how many of my assumptions about things come from my cultural background and how often these assumptions are completely inaccurate since I am not in my own culture. I still have lots to learn and continue to grow in new ways through my time living abroad.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Gone So Long

When we began our Danish adventure, I had visions of free time and writing wistful blog entries in cafes. I imagined moving back to the US with a complete book about my zany time living abroad, it would become a bestseller because all Americans would want to know about my adventures.

Turns out, parenting is all-consuming. Parenting in a foreign country with no family or close friends around for support completely engulfed me. I was submerged.

And now, here we are, with a mere six months left in our two years in Denmark. It has been wonderful, horizon-expanding, challenging and occasionally zany. It has also been incredibly tough.

We have assimilated. But we are still different.

I am completely used to understanding about 2% of the conversations I hear when I am out in public. I no longer notice the massive size of baby strollers here nor do I think that the number of strollers is astounding. (But it is) Riley even has a nice "Scandanavian-built" stroller since our beloved American stroller got damaged on an airplane flight. His new stroller is only a mid-sized stroller here, but it would be one of the biggest at home, for sure.

I have an embarrassing number of scarves and have deluded myself into believing that if I wear one, no matter what else I am wearing - even if it is a baggy t-shirt and leggings or a sweatsuit*, I am at best dressed up and at least I look put together.

Some of the scarves I have acquired since moving to Denmark
I became somewhat painfully aware of my "scarfs make me look classy no matter the rest of my outfit" delusion when I threw one on for an early morning flight to Dublin and then arrived and did not receive my bag for the entire trip. Maybe it was ok for the early flight, but by the time we were at the pub that night, the scarf was really not helping to dress up my black t-shirt and sneakers.

I expect my rye bread to come chock-full of seeds.

Recently, when a friend was visiting and we were at a TIGER store (a cool Danish store, similar to dollar stores, but better) and we came across the bizarrely large section of things with the Danish flag on them she asked me sarcastically if I needed any Danish flags. (This is exactly the kind of thing I would have done when we first got here.) But since it was nearly Riley's birthday and Danes use the Danish flag to mark celebrations, I didn't even register her question as sarcastic. I just said "Yes!" and started scooping the flags up and tossing them in my shopping bag. Whoah...

Flags from Riley's birthday party
After a trip to Monaco last week where the temperature was in the 80's with added humidity, I was thrilled to return to Copenhagen and find cool temperatures and rain. What has happened to me?

Most of all, Riley is assimilating. He is attending Danish vuggestue (day care), speaking some Danish, "Nej Tak!"(No thank you), and eating the food at vuggestue. He has a love affair with Tivoli Gardens, likes throwing bread to baby swans in Copenhagen's canals and lakes and expects that every park has a playground someplace inside it.

I am sure we won't even know some of the other ways we have become a bit Danish until we return to the US and realize all the ways in which we have changed. After all, that is why we are here, to have our minds opened, our worlds expanded and to allow ourselves to be changed by our experience.

Here's to the next six months and to becoming a little bit more Danish before we go home.

*This is an exaggeration, I don't dress this terribly. Close, but not quite.