Thursday, 28 April 2011

The company of books...

I love books and when I get time to myself I love reading. One of the joys of living in London was the number of independent bookshops and we were lucky enough to live near a couple of the best: Daunt and England’s Lane Books. They were more than bookshops, they were shrines to the written word with beautiful books temptingly displayed. Even my toddler son appreciated the pleasure of stopping by to browse on our way home from nursery or shopping.
When we moved to Copenhagen, I wondered where I would wander to find reading inspiration. Scouring the English section of the big Danish bookstores didn’t compare to losing oneself in a nook or cranny of a small independent bookshop. I was therefore curious to hear about the English bookstore in Hellerup, Books & Company.

It was while we were still deliberating over school options for my son that I first called by at Books & Company for the Tuesday morning story telling session. My son loved it and I bought a coffee and browsed the bookshelves with my baby daughter. It was everything I looked for in a bookshop and immediately felt like a home away from home: the familiarity of English book covers, the company of the other expat mums, the taste of a warm cappuccino on a winter’s morning and the welcoming smile of the storeowner, Isabella.
In those initial weeks in Denmark when I was still in shock from the ‘foreignness’ of it all and weary from the daily onslaught of the unfathomable language, the bookshop was like a refuge giving respite from the battles of settling into life in an alien land. I was intrigued by the store and arranged to meet with Isabella to find out more.

No strangers to expat life themselves, Isabella and her husband lived in Holland, New York, Hong Kong and San Francisco before returning to Denmark to settle with their young family. It was her experience of overseas bookshops that made her consider starting up a bookstore business. She was a lawyer specialising in human rights and refugee law with no retail, commerce or accounting experience but a vision and a desire to recreate something that she had enjoyed abroad; an environment where people could meet, linger and browse and relish the experience of buying books.

Back in Denmark, Isabella missed the sense of community that a bookshop (usually incorporating a cafe) can inspire. Her time abroad had shown her that book shopping was different in Denmark. As books here are expensive, the Danes don’t tend to go into a bookshop and browse or buy on impulse. Instead they are more specific in their shopping - have a book in mind, locate it and buy it. Isabella set about to offer expats something more familiar.

Nearly two years ago, at the height of the financial crisis, Books & Company opened its doors in Hellerup. Picking the right location was crucial and the leafy suburb north of Copenhagen is the city’s largest English-speaking expat neighbourhood and home to most of the international schools. It is also a wealthy suburb and the rent of retail space doesn’t come cheap.

Notwithstanding this daunting beginning, the bookstore has gone from strength to strength. It now has a full calendar of events (weekly story telling for pre-schoolers, book launches, workshops, book club meetings, talks by authors), a Facebook page, a mailing list of 700+ and as Isabella and I sat in the window chatting and sipping coffee, the bell above the door rang with a busy stream of customers and passers by calling in to ‘say hello’ and wish Isabella and her staff a Happy Easter.
There is no doubt that Isabella’s dream is now a reality and there is no better testament to that than the ladies of Hellerup who call the store ‘the living room’. While the focus of the shop is the sale of books, and to this end there is a careful selection of titles and their presentation on dark wooden tables and shelves is immaculate, the piece de la resistance is the comfortable seating area by large windows at the back of the store and the fact that customers are encouraged to linger by the lure of competitively priced coffee.

To get here Isabella has worked incredibly hard. With no prior relevant work experience but combining a new business and motherhood, she has risen to every challenge - from the first draft of the business plan when a McKinsey consultant friend asked pointedly, ‘Is this going to be a hobby or a business?’, to the tricky task of how to price an English paperback novel so as to trigger the all important impulse buy and the thorny question of whether she could or should be competing with Amazon (Isabella decided from the outset that she couldn’t and that dedicated Amazon customers may not help her pay the rent through book sales but might still stop to browse and buy her coffee!).

She has been both creative and resourceful, for example the mural painting of Eloise in the children’s section is by an American expat friend and when she needed a long list of titles on which to build up her stock, she emailed 60 of her friends asking for their lists of favourite authors and must-reads. Involving the people around her from the start was all part of building the community and the environment that would be the essence of the bookshop.

The irony of this story is that it is not the expats but the Danes who now make up the majority of Isabella’s customers. The reason for this is simple: more English books are printed and therefore they are cheaper than the limited number of titles that are translated into Danish. But the Danes are well travelled and they like to read in English and so, it turns out, they are prepared to buy the original rather than wait for the translation. This is something that Isabella admits she underestimated. However, it can only be a good thing for her that the natives too are making Books & Company their own.

And I’m lucky that Copenhagen’s one English bookstore is on my bike ride to school so that I can call by for a coffee, a book browse and inspiration, whenever the mood catches me.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Taking my camera for a walk in Klampenborg

Expat women in Copenhagen have at their disposal a fantastic social network: LINK. Standing for Ladies International Network Københaven, LINK is an organisation of volunteers that brings together women of all nationalities. There are lots of regular events; mum and toddler groups, music groups, cookery evenings, book club, tours of Copenhagen's landmarks, children's parties etc etc. and no matter what your interest, there is something for everyone. In my short time here I have met so many other women who have, like me, followed their husbands to Denmark. 

One of the lovely friends I have met through the LINK mother and toddler group is Heather Davidson-Meyn, a professional photographer from Canada who specialises in art portraiture. Heather leads the LINK monthly photowalk where keen amateurs meet up and spend a couple of hours exploring a corner of Copenhagen, taking photos and chatting along the way. This photowalk is just what I've needed for a long time - an opportunity to get to know my camera!

On the morning that we arrived at Klampenborg station on the coastline known as the Danish Riviera, there was a blanket of white cloud. The sea landscape looked washed out and monochrome. As it was a Monday morning, the beach was empty and had an eerie quietness about it.

I tried to capture the washed out landscape in my photos - although the pictures are in colour, I tried to use the silhouettes to black and white effect. The jetty leading into the water seemed particularly haunting. In the pictures, I love how the steps from the jetty lead nowhere as the sea is over exposed from pointing the camera into the light. So often, I only take pictures when the sun is shining but now I've learned to experiment even when the weather seems dull.

Heather encouraged us to use the photowalk to try something different and as I love to take close up pictures this time I concentrated on taking landscape shots. After some time on the beach we wandered further inland to the deer park. I didn't have a powerful enough zoom to take photos of the deer but as we wandered through the woodland I was struck by the beauty of the trees.

I experimented with different angles and soon saw the patterns made by the trees trunks, branches and roots. It was a truly enjoyable morning and a treat to take a couple of hours to go exploring and snap away.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Cupcakes, cupcakes everywhere...

This has been the week (or two!) of the cupcake. It all began with my daughter's birthday and what better way to introduce a little one to the concept of a birthday cake and the ritual of blowing out a candle, than with a single cupcake?! She loved it but of course no one ever makes just one cupcake, they're baked in batches of 12 and so there were lots for the adults to enjoy too.

These were made with a very simple classic sponge recipe although I have struggled to find self-raising flour over here and so I'm becoming quite adept at adding baking powder to plain flour. Of course, for these I also added cocoa powder and, having run out when it came to the icing, I used melted chocolate drops, butter and icing sugar. Yum!

Last weekend we went to a children's easter party and as we were asked to take along something sweet, I couldn't resist making another batch of cupcakes. This time they were baby cupcakes and to avoid making them too fiddly for little fingers, I used my mini silicone muffin moulds rather than paper cases. So as not to incur the wrath of the other mothers, I restricted the icing to a single butter icing rosette. Topped off with a bright coloured chocolate button. Festive and fun, the perfect recipe for a party in the April sunshine.

And then I got the email about International Cake Day!! This was an event put on by UN House here in Copenhagen to raise money for the Japan Emergency Relief Fund. I couldn't resist making more cupcakes and going along to taste the fruits of other labours all for a good cause.

I've never made anything for public consumption before and I have to admit being quite nervous as I baked and iced late into Tuesday evening. The creative process was both tiring and enjoyable but there was immense pleasure in seeing people tasting the cupcakes and clearly happy with the results. The cake day was a huge success and there was an incredible turnout, lots of cake consumed and money raised for a very worthy cause.

It's always fun to get together with people who share one's passions and I was truly inspired by the other cakes on display. I was like a child in a sweet shop - literally!!

Friday, 8 April 2011

Danish life: swapping the Guardian for Politiken

Thirteen years ago I was awarded a scholarship to live and work in Toronto, Canada, for a year. I had just qualified for the English bar and it was a great chance to take time away from the hard slog that would be pupillage and finding tenancy as a barrister. It was also an amazing opportunity to experience another culture. I still have wonderful friends from that chapter of my life and Toronto will always have a special place in my heart. Notwithstanding all that was positive about being so far away from home, there were two things that I missed deeply; BBC Radio 4 and the Guardian newspaper.

Of course, those were the days before everyone had internet access at home and before the BBC's wonderful iPlayer. iPlayer is a lifesaver for expats and the licence fee that BBC viewers in the UK pay is money well spent. You never know where in the world you might end up and when you might need to hear the familiar voices of John Humphreys, James Naughtie, Sue MacGregor and Libby Purves. I now listen to Woman's Hour as I potter in my Danish kitchen.

Since becoming a mother, one of my Saturday morning rituals in London was to make a coffee and steal 5 minutes to myself with the Family section of the Guardian. It's my favourite weekend supplement. On our first weekend in Copenhagen, the lack of rumpled newsprint on the breakfast table almost made me weep. I jumped on my bike and cycled to Østerport station (near the British, US and Canadian embassies) and found, buried amongst the weekend Sport and Business, my beloved Family section!!!!

Like everything else, the newspapers here are expensive. The International edition of the Guardian cost me a princely 35 DKK (£4.12). Since that first weekend and because my husband has a train journey to work and for a myriad of other reasons, we have bought an iPad. Its not the paper edition and the romance of holding newsprint (and the inky finger tips!) has been traded in, but at least my indulgence has been restored.

The Guardian has a fantastic website that is, in my opinion, second to none for up to date news and analysis and so living abroad this time I can still keep abreast of world affairs and follow my favourite writers. The last 3 months haven't exactly been without incident on the global stage either: revolution in Egypt, earthquake and tsunami in Japan, Nato action over Libya.

But what of local news? Unsurprisingly, the Guardian doesn't report much about Denmark, its internal affairs or the Danish position on global issues.

The only newspaper published entirely in English is the Copenhagen Post. This is aimed at the expat community, published weekly and although it is sold at the newstands it is free at the airport and some hotel lobbies. There is an online version too and whilst it does not really give depth or breadth in its news reporting there is an interesting comment column which provides analysis of some expat issues. It also comes with a good guide to what is going on in Copenhagen.

Of the Danish press, there are three main daily broadsheets: Politiken (daily circulation 369,000), Jyllands-Posten (the newspaper of the notorious offending cartoon incident with a daily circulation of 120,000) and the Berlingske (daily circulation of 103,00). All have online editions but only Politiken has its own section which publishes the news in English. Jyllands-Posten posts English articles from the Copenhagen Post.

Having arrived only a couple of months ago, my Danish language skills, whilst they will help me find a tin of chopped tomatoes in the supermarket, do not extend to reading the newspaper. I have however sat down with the Politiken and a Danish-English dictionary and tried to understand the headlines. For example, I did learn that taxes and rising fuel prices are putting pressure on Danish households, plus ça change!

I was interested to see the front page of Politiken (both the main section and the culture section) reporting on Tony Blair's visit to Copenhagen this week - no doubt promoting his biography and giving air to his views on events in Libya. Unsurprisingly, this news didn't make it to the Guardian. I am due to start Danish language classes soon and I hope that I will become proficient enough to start reading the Danish press. Like the Guardian, Politiken has won many press awards and I am excited to hopefully one day enjoy its writing and analysis.

Until then, I will share with you one story that has gripped Denmark recently (in both the Danish and English news) and apparently had the most hits online. For anyone reading this from afar it may not have made it to a broadsheet near you although I think it has been picked up by some parenting websites.

The little boy in this picture is 3 year old toddler Holger Kragh. One day last week he went out walking with his family but had a bit of a tantrum because he didn't want to wear his coat. His mother put his coat on back to front and zipped it up so that little Holger couldn't take it off. Then Holger went off crying and wandering on his own into some woodland. I don't know but I imagine it might have been one of those stand-offs that all parents have with toddlers at some point only this time Holger called his parents' bluff. Unable to find Holger and as the day drew to a close, he was reported missing.

The police were called in and police dogs, helicopters and locals joined the search. During the night the temperature dropped to freezing. Holger was nowhere to be found until the next day when he was spotted - still wandering around and still wearing his coat zipped up back to front! I'm not sure what we're supposed to take away from a story like that - except for a huge sigh of relief.

Its in times like these when global news is dominated by stories of loss and devastation, warfare and destruction that we look for good news and this week it was the tale of how a mother's discipline probably saved a little boy's life!

Friday, 1 April 2011

Celebrating my daughter on her first birthday

Today we celebrate your first birthday and the first wonderful year of your life. Your birth was everything I dreamed it would be - a miracle and so precious. The birth itself was a joy and from that first day you have been too. You sleep so well and because of you I have rested well in these early days. I've been able to do so much because you have let me; even a triathlon when you were only a couple of months old. Thank you for being such a good baby.

And here you are, a year old. How did that happen? I know its a cliché but the last 12 months have flown by - it truly has felt like the blink of an eye. At times I have been so busy with house moves and the relocation abroad that I barely noticed you - happy and content in the background; you were getting on with getting bigger and thriving. Like me, you're a happy eater - you love your food - and are happy in your own company. You engross yourself in your toys keeping a watchful eye on what is happening around you. Happy to watch but social too.

Right now its all about those little feet and being mobile. I'm fascinated to watch you crawling and cruising. Its the first step towards independence and I love to see the choices you make; you love to hang out in your brother's bedroom when he is at school as if you miss him and I like to think that you sometimes miss me too when you come crawling into the kitchen when I'm cooking.

You are an excellent communicator - efficient with the noises you make and using your hands to say goodbye, to ask 'where is it?' and to clap and your arms to hug. I take it as a sign that you are generally contented so that when you do holler, I know it means something and you want me to sit up and listen. I respect that!

Out of all of us you have most easily embraced the massive changes of the last 6 months. At only a year old you are now sleeping in your third bedroom. This ability to adapt will serve you well in life.

I know that you adore your brother and your little face lights up when he comes into your bedroom first thing in the morning. The way you watch him and listen to his (long) stories - laughing when he does and always concerned when you hear him cry. Already you care for him so deeply.

Although you can barely walk - you practically run to your daddy when he comes home from work in the evening. Your excitement is so raw, physical and contagious. I love it.

I was doing some housework when I caught you 'trying on' one of my tops - it made me laugh so hard I nearly cried. You're so clever to know that the cloth you were holding was an item of clothing and to try to put it on. Sometimes, when I watch you I get the feeling that you just 'get it'.

Embrace life, enjoy it and rise to its challenges. This is my wish for you, my darling, on your first birthday. It is a privilege to be your mother.