Monday, 28 February 2011

Saying thank you!

One of the first things I learned about Denmark is that in the Danish language there is no word for 'please'! Not that the Danish are rude, its just that they don't ask permission for things in the same way. Apparently, when asking, they will say, 'might I?'.

There is a Danish word for 'thank you' and it is tak. When said confidently and quickly, it sounds like 'tag'. This is my first word of Danish and like a child I have been trying it out over and over again, rolling it around on my tongue and then showing off when I get a reaction!

Likewise, the Danes on whom I am practising, giggle in recognition of my effort (and likely mispronunciation) and like long suffering parents encouragingly smile with only a hint of mockery. Can't blame them really - its comical! I now start most conversations with, 'Do you speak English?' and end them with 'tak'.

Linguistic nuances to one side, what I really wanted to post about was these cards that have been my first creative endeavour for a while. There were a couple of thank yous that were outstanding from the move - so many friends helped out in so many ways - that I wanted something personal to send back home.

A couple of years ago, my new year resolution was to make all my greeting cards for a year and it was lots of fun. When time permits, its still something I love to do. As soon as my stationery and craft boxes were unpacked, I set about one morning stamping and glueing.

The papers are origami folding paper from Muji and the prints are so delicate, I love them. Of course, the colour choice is maybe a bit obvious. Red and white feature so regularly these days being the colours of Denmark's national flag. Still, I enjoyed being creative.

In hindsight, the cards should have been in Danish. Maybe next time...

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Danish life: Copenhagen's SUVs

As a young family living in Copenhagen and needing to transport children around we have succumb to  the inevitable draw of a cargo bike. In England, I think we called them 'butcher bikes' although they are/were a much rarer sight. Cargo bikes are Denmark's answer to the SUV and in our neighbourhood (Østerbro), I would wager they account for around 10% of the cycling traffic.

There are many variations but in essence they are bikes (or trikes) with a 'bucket' at the front for transporting small people (or shopping/christmas trees/pets etc). They look boxy and lack any attempt at aero-dynamism but they do the job and they are so much fun!!

Whilst living in London we were a car-free family - this wasn't for any ethical or ecological reasons - we simply lived near the tube station and relied on public transport. We were members of a car club and if ever we needed to use four wheels, we would pay by the hour. We were also a family of cyclists. Both my husband and I regularly biked to work and when my son turned 9 months he rode in the seat on the back of my bike. At the time I thought it was fun, great exercise and I was (inadvertently) doing something for the planet.  Since I have now had the pleasure of cycling in designated cycle lanes, separated from the traffic by a kerb, with separate traffic signals and car drivers who don't appear to be in a race to get in front of me, I've realised what a nervous (and sometimes dangerous) experience London cycling was.

Cycling here is an experience to be enjoyed. Copenhagen is flat and no-one races along - its very much more about the journey not just the destination. It is also incredibly stylish and hardly anyone wears a helmet. Perhaps another reason that cycling in this city is infinitely more pleasurable is being able to see my two children sitting in front of me instead of relying on over the shoulder glances. The children seem to love it too and whilst my baby daughter sleeps soundly, my son enjoys keeping a running commentary of the status of traffic lights.... 'straight ahead mummy'....'slow down now, its red'!!

Although there are many models of cargo bike on the market, when we were deciding which to buy, our choices were limited. As my daughter is not yet a year old and she would need to be able to sleep comfortably (and safely), we looked for a 'bucket' with reclining seats rather than a simple wooden bench. In fact, the Kangaroo (the bike we bought) actually has two seats that not only recline but they can be turned so that the children can face me, if preferred. But when there is so much to see on the road and our bike rides are all part of our exploration of the city - having the children facing out to the world is the way to go.

And so, Copenhagen here we come: en famille, en vélo.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Danish life: child's play

If there is one word synonymous with Denmark, it has to be 'Lego'. And if there is one toy that most children play with at some point in their childhood, whatever the country, class or gender, it must also be the brightly coloured plastic bricks that inspire creative play like nothing else.

And here in Copenhagen, Lego is everywhere. Not only are the shops full of it, it is at the airports (for sale and for play whilst weary parents collect the baggage from the conveyor belts) and in the schools and public buildings, there is also a room of plastic building bricks at our local community run indoor play area. My children love the stuff; not just my 3½ year old son (who has amassed a considerable collection of rescue vehicles, police vehicles, aeroplanes, motorbikes and the like all put together by carefully following instructions and honing his fine motor skills) even my 10 month old daughter is happy to pull apart the Duplo bricks and to make 'music' banging them together.

My 'Xenophobe's guide to the Danes' says that the word 'lego' derives from the Danish words leg godt, which mean 'play well'. From what I witnessed this weekend, this is something of which the children (and adults) of this country should be proud.

The pictures I am posting here were taken at 'Lego world'. Not to be confused with 'Legoland', the former was a four day exhibition/festival that took place at the Copenhagen equivalent of London's Olympia. The festival was less about rides and thrill seeking and more about bringing together people who love to play and build using the simple medium of primary coloured plastic bricks.

There were endless displays of carefully constructed models, intricately and meticulously pieced together: animals, cities, dinosaurs, cars, fire engines. I didn't see the full extent of it (given that my kids were most impressed with the piles of Duplo provided for free play!!) but from what I heard the creativity of the lego enthusiasts knew no limits...

This exhibition wasn't just about lego builders showing off the fruits of their play, it was also about letting children (and bigger kids!) join in. There were numerous areas carpeted off and strewn (ankle deep it seemed) in building blocks; from the big chunky Duplo bricks for the youngest visitors to the more sophisticated motorised and computerised elements for the more discerning pros. But in each area inadvertently on display was the 'play well': children focusing, sharing and giving expression to their imagination.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Valentine cookies....

Apparently the Danes do not, traditionally, celebrate Valentine's day. The Danish goddess of love and fertility, Freyja, indulged less in romance or dreams of being swept off her feet and was instead covetous of material possessions and as a liberal and determined woman used the lustful desires of men for her own ends. The legend is a long story but I think you get the idea...

That being said, the florists on the streets of Copenhagen are still cashing in and red roses are in abundance. Say what you like, I am a romantic at heart and I love the thrill of receiving Valentine's day flowers.

I couldn't resist a bit of Valentines' day baking either and my son and I made heart shaped cookies (together with a few dinosaurs that somehow made their way onto the baking sheet).

These were very simple to make: softened butter mixed with caster sugar and orange zest, add a beaten egg and gradually mix in the flour and cornflour. Mix to a dough and then place in the fridge in cling film for 30 minutes.

Whilst they were baking, I wondered how I could make them more appealing to my valentine. Anybody who knows him will tell you that in his eyes baking that doesn't include chocolate doesn't count...

While the cookies were still hot I reached for the chocolate chips and sandwiched them between the biscuits. The chocolate melted and spread sealing the cookies together. Yummy.

After dinner I told my son about Valentine's day and gave him a cookie and a kiss. He decided to give his little sister a dinosaur biscuit and then told me that he was going to marry her when he grew up. I think he gets it....!?

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Banana muffins inspired by emmerys

Well, there was a down moment last week when I was unpacking the kitchen and I came across a box that had obviously been dropped during the move. Though marked 'fragile' and with the contents wrapped in paper, a couple of my favourite kitchen items are damaged beyond repair. This is what's left of the glass cookie jar...

And I was particularly sad when I unwrapped a beautiful coffee pot that my mother gave me

For a couple of days I was a bit reluctant to continue with the unpacking and everything remained in boxes. Then I decided to reclaim the territory with some positive and creative energy and I set out to christen the kitchen and do some baking. What to bake?

On my wanderings around the neighbourhood, I couldn't help but notice the striking absence of the usual 'coffee' shops. There's no Starbucks, Pret, Costa, Coffee Republic, EAT, AMT etc. I was therefore wondering what I would do for my daily shot (given that my Nespresso machine needs a plug adaptor and that just detracts from the whole convenience of the experience!!).

Then I stumbled upon emmerys. I'm no coffee aficionado but I know a good cup of coffee when I taste one and the cups I have enjoyed at emmerys have been the best ever. I'm beginning to believe what I have been told about Copenhagen being a coffee paradise And now I make a daily pilgrimage (across the street) to get my single shot sublime cappuccino. As an aside, this jaunt costs the staggering sum of 35 DKK (£3.50+) - ouch!!

What has this got to do with banana muffins? Well, whilst I sip my coffee the little ones share a banana muffin. The joy of these muffins is that they have chocolate drops at the bottom and so we set about to recreate them at home.

I used a basic banana and raisin muffin recipe, which calls for mashing together ripe bananas using an electric mixer. My 3 year old sous chef had other ideas and he was only too happy to get his hands dirty and so we 'squished' the bananas (no plug adaptor required either!!).

We substituted chocolate chips for the raisins and placed a few at the bottom of each muffin case.

And when they were in the oven and the kitchen filled with the warm and homely smells that only an afternoon of baking can produce, all was well again. The muffins tasted delicious and have served well as snacks on the go. I have found the courage to do the rest of the unpacking (in the kitchen, at least) and am pleased to report that there are no more breakages!

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Danish life: pram culture

On the day I first made my way from the hotel to our new flat in Copenhagen, I was pushing my 10 month old baby in the buggy and I was surprised to encounter this scene...

An apparently 'abandoned' buggy (with baby inside, I should add) outside a vintage clothing store on the main street. I looked around for anybody who might lay claim to the sleeping infant but none was immediately obvious. As I walked past the store, I saw two women inside; one trying on clothes and engrossed in conversation. Had the carer really left a sleeping baby on the street whilst going into a store to try on clothes? This made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.

My mother tells the story of how, on one of her first outings with a new born baby (nearly 40 years ago),  she parked me in the pram outside the chemist and when her business was done walked home only to realise that she had left me in the pram at the shops. Whenever this story is re-told it is generally met with laughter but also a chorus of tutting and the consensus that 'you couldn't do that these days'.

In Copenhagen, it seems that there is either an epidemic of post-natal forgetfulness or things 'these days' are different here.

On the same day last week, I went out shopping for a couple of household items (actually, then began the holy grail of UK to Danish plug adaptors!!) and I struggled to manoeuvre my buggy up the steps and through the door of a hardware store. Waiting until I had accomplished this not insubstantial feat, the shopkeeper came across and pointed to a sign on the door....

No prams allowed!!! What? Is this some kind of prejudice against shopping mums (or dads, for that matter, this is Denmark after all!)? Here in Denmark, it seems to be perfectly acceptable to leave an occupied pram parked outside on the pavement. And since that first day, the sight of a buggy left on its own has become a regular feature of my new landscape.

I have struggled to adopt this local custom and I continue to prefer to overcome the physical challenge of getting my buggy and kids into a store with me (provided there are no signs on the doors prohibiting them) than the huge leap in internal wiring it would take for me to park my children alone outside.

A quick google on the subject of 'pram snatching' in Copenhagen and wondering whether such a thing is a threat led me to an article on tips for travelling with kids in this city and it reports that 'to date, no baby has ever been snatched from its pram here' and that was written in November 2010. In fact, on further reading, it seems that leaving babies outside to sleep is believed by the Danes to be good for their health, ie they get fresh air.

Now that is something I can understand. How many of us mothers have taken a restless baby out for a walk to have them fall asleep in the buggy and the minute we cross the threshold of the coffee shop, the little eyes open and the tranquility dissolves?! Sleep in the fresh air is much healthier and so maybe I will come around to the native way of doing things.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Our new home...

And so, we have arrived in Copenhagen. What a week; at times it felt like England was holding on to us - didn't want to let go and let us leave (one of us lost a boarding pass at the airport and there were a couple of tense moments when we thought we wouldn't be leaving together!) but the stunning sunset that greeted us when we got off the plane last weekend was like a warm embrace welcoming us to our new home.

Where to start with the highlights of the past seven days? As a family we are reunited and no more flying backwards and forwards for my husband - a huge relief. How wonderful to be together at the end of each day exchanging tales of adventure. Seeking out the familiar but also enjoying the cultural differences, every day we venture into our new neighbourhood. The children have adapted well to the new surroundings, sleeping well and charming and disarming the natives!! I haven't managed anything too creative yet and am instead rising to the challenge of food shopping in Danish - there's good selection but sometimes the language barrier leaves me slightly flummoxed (why is England the only country to categorise milk in degrees of 'skimmed-ness' whilst others refer to 1%, 1.5%, 2% etc?? Semi-skimmed suggests 50% but that can't be right!!!).

Anyway, our new flat is absolutely beautiful. Given that we have moved from a home with 3 bathrooms and a kitchen with 2 ovens, 2 fridges and 2 freezers, it was always going to be hard to compete on the sheer square footage devoted to space for food preparation and grooming but the living space is stunning. The children have a playroom and we have a study (this is as well as bedrooms and living and dining rooms). So much space and high ceilings that in London would be chopped up and divided into 'mezzanines'. I have to admire the Danes for preserving a building that is obviously a relic from a bygone era.

I've been struck by a number of things that are done differently over here - things that are taken for granted as part of Danish life but that are a surprise to me and I'll share one of them before I sign off. Here in Denmark tenants provide their own lighting fixtures in a property and so here we are in our new home and when the sun set on the first night we were plunged into darkness. We didn't pack any light fittings and didn't expect to need them!!! With only one plug adaptor between all our various electrical appliances, its been a challenge to say the least. We've had to prioritise between sound and light but we have enjoyed some wonderful candlelit dinners....