Sunday, 29 May 2011

Danish life: jeg kan forstå lidt dansk!

Jeg kan ikke tale dansk men nu jeg kan forstå lidt.

This week I started my Danish language classes and it was quite intense; each lesson lasts nearly three hours and with two evening lessons a week, its not for the faint hearted. But it has been incredibly enjoyable and I have learned lots. I feel a bit like Eliza Doolittle from My Fair Lady when the poor flower girl turned linguistic experiment is taken out in public for the first time under strict instructions to stick to the weather and her health: I can tell you in almost comprehensible Danish where I and the members of my family come from, what languages we speak, I can count to a hundred and spell my name. Ask me anything else and I'm stuck.

I deliberately chose this Danish course because it is aimed at students who already have some foreign language ability. I did study French, German and Latin at school and although I barely use any of what I learned, I figured that having some experience at language acquisition must help. And then I met the other fifteen members of my class...

For a start, only three of us have English as our mother tongue. This means that the great majority of the class are learning Danish in their second or third language. Maybe it is for this reason that the teacher announced on the first evening that going forward she would only be speaking Danish. This soon became a very frightening prospect but, on reflection, this approach is likely to be the most effective; if the learning process in our brains operates in a 'language' then how does a teacher set about to teach a foreign language to a room full of people all processing what they are learning differently? Some are 'thinking' in German, some in Italian, Hindi, Chinese. The only guaranteed common denominator between us is therefore Danish, the new language we are learning.

And so we are each coming into this exercise from different perspectives. For those with experience and knowledge of germanic languages, there are apparently many similarities with Danish grammar. One of our class is from Germany and he is picking up familiar quirks of sentence structure that are passing the rest of us by. For the student from France, the strange Danish numbers strike a cord. Unfortunately, having English as a mother tongue is considered a potential hindrance to learning Danish phonetics. One of the other Brits in the class apparently had to sit a spoken English test so that his pronunciation could be assessed.

What fun those phonetics are proving to be. To begin with the Danish alphabet has three extra letters: æ, ø and å. Then there are many letters with multiple pronunciations, can be silent or can sound like a different letter entirely. So far as I can tell there appears to be little correlation between how many of the words are written and how they are pronounced. Some words are practically swallowed whole; for example, the very useful word selvfølgelig which means 'of course', six of the twelve letters are silent so that all you hear is seføli (which also happens be the texting equivalent of the word - maybe I should just have signed up for a course on how to text in Danish instead!!).

If you also bear in mind that, like with many languages, there are differences between geographical dialects and between generations; apparently older people pronounce things differently to the young as the muscles in the mouth weaken with age, I wonder if I will ever be able to understand the man on the Copenhagen omnibus.

We have so far been encouraged to lytte og huske (listen (repeat) and remember). I fondly recall the hours spent in the language labs at school where the voices in the heavy and ill fitting headphones would instruct us to écoute et répète and here I am again, nearly 30 years later (dare I say it) trying to grasp how to intone and place emphasis in simple sentences; jeg kommer fra England men jeg er halvt englander og halvt egypter translates as 'I come from england but I am half english and half egyptian' (underlining shows the emphasis). At least this time around I can see the sense of learning how a language sounds and now that I am very slowly starting to develop an ear for the rhythm and lilt of Danish, it isn't quite as alien.

Of course, coming to a new language at an 'older' age is quite daunting. Unlike when I was at school, my days are no longer filled with learning and study (at least, not at a conscious level) but I must now have an overwhelming advantage given that I am actually living in the country whose language I am striving to master.

Without confirming my spot amongst the oldies, I would also like to note that the advances in modern technology since I was at school are a wonder and an asset too. I can download recordings of alphabet pronunciation and play them on my iPod at my leisure, I no longer have to rely on the old language lab. However, I might be seen looking slightly distracted whilst cycling around as I try to contort my mouth into the shapes of the words on street signs and bill board advertising.

Well, the first tentative steps have been fascinating but I'm not naive and I know that there is a hard slog ahead if I am ever to fulfil my dream of one day writing a whole blog post in Danish.

I have again taken the liberty of sharing pictures that are slightly tangential to the subject of the post. These photos were taken at the flea market in Kongens Nytorv this weekend. This has to be one of the markets more popular with tourists than with the locals given its location so close to Nyhavn but I passed through on Saturday and picked through some of the wares - the language might take a while but it hasn't taken long for me to acquire the Danish love of rummaging!!

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Copenhagen Marathon: the agony and the humility

This weekend one event dominated our neighbourhood - the 2011 Copenhagen Marathon. On Saturday the children ran a 'mini marathon' and were seen all around Fælledparken with their sporting medals dazzling in the spring sunshine. This morning the road blocks were put in place, the politi stood at the junctions re-directing the traffic and when I took my toddler out for our Sunday morning pastry 'run' (perhaps, given the day, I exaggerate slightly), there was an air of excitement and anticipation as spectators began to gather.

We decided to stop and watch the first of the athletes as they crossed from Strandboulevarden along to Østerbrogade. I completely misread the route map that had been handed to me and thought that the runners looked a little worse for wear after only having run 8 km. Didn't want to sound too judgmental but many of them didn't look like they were going to make it. Then I realised, we were actually standing at the 33 km mark. Oops - looking good...

I recently read a blog of a girl who ran the London marathon and she talked about how she enjoyed the cheers of people in the crowd who called out her name, which she must have had on her race number or her t-shirt. With this in mind and because the anticipation and the race atmosphere before a big run is so infectious, I decided to stay at the sidelines and do some cheering on. But first, I stood by in awe as some of the elite runners sprinted past. I'm not exaggerating when I say that at 33 km, they looked like they were out for a walk in the park - it was humbling indeed.

Maybe because they made it look so easy, it didn't look like they needed our cheers. They were clearly 'in the zone' and simply clocking up the miles. I'm ashamed to say that my son's hunger and the fact that the weather turned, it started to rain and we were totally unprepared for a downpour meant that we headed back indoors for lunch. I clearly wasn't committed to the cause and the pangs of guilt gave me indigestion. These runners had trained hard for months, were pushing their bodies to physical limits and I had bailed at the first drops of a spring rain shower. An hour later, I headed back out (without toddler) to cheer on the runners that I anticipated would need it most - the masses...

I started to reflect on what this day of running might mean to them. What was it that had driven these people to spend months in training, putting miles and miles on their legs preparing them for a day of yet more mileage pounding the streets. When you watch a marathon on the TV you see the highlights; the enthusiastic start line, interviews with spirited and determined individuals and then the raised arms and collapsed bodies at the finish. Watching the highlights doesn't give a clue as to what the reality must be like - the agonising mile after mile of hard slog.

Is the challenge of a marathon keeping going for 40 km when, quite frankly, although its race day and there's a buzz in the air, no-one is really looking? Is it about taking your body to the edge and waiting to see what will 'break down' first; the hips, the knees, the shins or the feet? Or is the challenge of a marathon more about what it takes to have the self belief and discipline to make it to the start line? As I watched, I was humbled and to all the runners who are soaking in baths (hot or cold!) tonight, I salute you.

 From the old...

... to the young (yes, that is a pregnant lady with 'løb baby' written on her belly!)

...those 'running' together and the guy who thought running shoes are for wimps (!)...

... well done! And by the way, nobody did have their name on their t-shirt or race number - that must be a London marathon thing.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

'Psssst...a word in your ear, Tiger Mother'

I try very hard not to judge the parenting styles of others. Someone I respect once said that when you see a parent acting in a disapproving way, before you react, remember that you don't know what they've been through to get there. Sometimes, battle weary, we pick our fights and no judgment should be made when you don't know the whole story. In keeping with this, I will try not to unleash the full extent of my spitting fury upon reading 'Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother' by Amy Chua.

For those who don't know, Ms Chua is a Yale law professor and a second generation Chinese immigrant. She has two daughters and her book is about how she parented them from birth to their tender teenage years focussing mainly on how she turned them into musical virtuosi on their respective instruments, the piano and the violin, by employing the strict Chinese parenting methods of her ancestors. To describe her as driven is an understatement, she is, putting it politely, 'a mother possessed'. Ms Chua demonises the laissez faire parenting of the West and hails (herself) as the Chinese mother who knows best and who alone can raise her children to their full potential (her husband, the girls' father, barely features). The catch is that her daughters' full potential has to be musical excellence that will take them to Carnegie Hall and top grade school marks - there is no allowance or opportunity for achievement in anything else. The following now famous extract from the book appeared in the Wall Street Journal and summarises how the Chinese way of parenting looks to Western outsiders as Ms Chua describes:

'Here are some things my daughters, Sophia and Louisa, were never allowed to do:

- attend a sleepover
- have a playdate
- be in a school play
- complain about not being in a school play
- watch TV or play computer games
- choose their own extracurricular activities
- get any grade less than an A
- not be the no 1 student in every subject except gym and drama
- play any instrument other than the piano or violin
- not play the piano or violin'

The detail, however, is much more extreme and the chapters of Ms Chua's book unfold into episode upon episode of the Tiger Mother in battle.

There is no doubt it is very provocative and a compelling read for it. However, for the most part, reading it was not an enjoyable experience. I faced the same dilemma as when watching a pivotal but disturbingly gruesome scene in a horror film - I feel compelled to watch but can only peek through squinting eyes from behind my hands held up to my face. It was a stressful read and I do pity the family for having its dirty laundry hung out in public.

I am left asking three main questions: Why did Ms Chua have children? What did she really hope to achieve by parenting them in 'the Chinese way'? Why did she write the book?

Her life's work, in having children, appears to have been to protect them from the inevitable decline of the third immigrant generation and to that end, I assume, she prized above all else academic and musical excellence. She seems to have been determined to take the hardest route possible to get her children there - whatever it took - nothing would be spared. If anything, the more that was sacrificed, the better. Ms Chua's parenting method seemed to depend upon her ability to reach the limits of her daughters' capacity for hard work and then push them even further, employing all manner of coercion along the way.

Within this unrelenting pursuit, there were glaring hypocrisies: for example, she accepted to keep her girls awake through the night to practise their musical instruments through tears and heartache but then scorned Western mothers for allowing children to have sleepovers because it meant letting them stay up late so that they were tired the next day!

From the outset she drew her battle lines: the Chinese mother vs the Western one. She fought apparently believing that any way but the Western way was the right way. Why I wonder were these labels so important? Why could she not define what it is that characterises a 'Chinese mother'; what does she believe in rather than what does she do? I wonder if Ms Chua ever appreciated the higher goal that she was trying to achieve in adopting the parenting style that she did? It doesn't appear so or, if she did, this isn't made clear. Ultimately, her first daughter, Sophia, was both musically gifted and compliant and her rise to excellence comes across as effortless. Yes, she practised for long hours but I can't help but wonder if she would have risen to the same dizzy heights without the extra hours but complied simply to keep her mother happy.

Louisa (or 'Lulu') on the other hand would be politely described as a 'spirited child'. She fought her mother every step of the way and how the sparks flew; threats, bribes, the lot. The Tiger Mother had to use her full arsenal of trickery seemingly on a daily basis until her daughter reached the age of 13 and declared enough to be enough.

The most surprising twist of it all is that when Louisa calls time on the Chinese mother's battle regime, the Tiger mother surrenders, admits defeat and the game is over. Did the Chinese method of parenting not have a gameplan for a 'spirited child'? Is it in fact accurate to call it 'parenting' at all?
One thing is consistent and that is Ms Chua's need for public recognition. It was important for her that her children could win public prizes on their musical instruments and the Chinese way bestows the glory for good performance upon the parents. Their public performances were lavish affairs with no expense spared and long guest lists. Was it not all in the end, an exercise in vanity?

Finally, why write a book about it all? Did she set out to write a parenting manual? But her own daughter at 13 years old stood up for herself and everything unravelled so that the Tiger Mother was left looking like a kitten playing with a ball of wool. Did Ms Chua simply want to write a memoir? But, as I hinted above, is it really fair to make public mockery of those you hold dear? Although the book has sparked debate in the US where it is reported that Asian American children, coached in the Chinese way à la Ms Chua, are snapping up coveted places in the Ivy League institutions (see Caitlin Flannagan in The Atlantic Monthly), in the UK the book is described as 'blissfully funny' (India Knight quoted on the cover!).

But there is something about the Tiger Mother that rings true for me:

I too am the daughter of an immigrant. My father moved to England from Egypt in the 60s to study for his PhD and eventually settle with his English wife. He left his country and family and sacrificed a lot so that his children could have a good education and opportunities that weren't available to his generation. My father worked hard and was frugal, we were brought up with strict discipline and academic and musical achievement were prized. My father set us homework before it was given to us at school. I was top of my class in maths and I remember asking my teacher for a new workbook one Friday morning and being told, 'No, your father will only make you fill it over the weekend'!

Like Ms Chua's daughters, my sister and I are different; she is musically gifted and practised when she was supposed to and is an accomplished cellist. I, on the other hand, am not and I hated practising and had to be coerced to play my violin. Again, like Ms Chua, I studied law and I reaped the rewards of my father's sacrifice and his hard work pushing me to do well.

Now a parent myself, I face the same dilemma as Ms Chua. How do I want my children to grow up in the privileged life that they have been born into? I am not as frugal as my parents and my children will have many opportunities that I didn't. But nothing rattles my cage more than a child with a sense of entitlement.

I hope to give my children a good work ethic and to teach them the value of money so that they take nothing for granted. I too want them to grow up believing in themselves and to reach their full potential. Yes, like the Tiger Mother, I believe in respect for authority but I don't want my children to obey me out of fear or because of bribery or threats. Ultimately, I want my children to do what I ask of them because I hope never to ask of them anything that I have not asked of myself.

Ms Chua, I must ask, isn't it both our burden and our privilege to be parents to the third immigrant generation? Can't we take the best of the two worlds that we have known: the experiences of our childhood and our pushy parents but also the opportunities of the contrasting world we find ourselves enjoying as adults? Carving out your own path as a parent is not a betrayal of your heritage - its evolution. Shouldn't we embrace progress and hope that one day our own children will too?

Monday, 9 May 2011

Going away to go home

This weekend we went on our first trip back to the UK since arriving in Copenhagen 3 months ago. We had a wonderful time but I couldn't help feeling a bit 'displaced'. We spent four days in Edinburgh celebrating my brother's wedding and if seeing your youngest sibling getting married isn't enough to make things feel a little surreal then being in a country that was at once familiar and yet foreign sealed it.

When preparing for the trip, I was so excited to be seeing my parents and family again and to be going shopping in my favourite shops (oh, how I have missed the Gap) that I overlooked how it would feel to be 'abroad in the UK'. From the moment we landed at Edinburgh airport, things started to feel different.

For a start, everyone spoke English (or at least a version of it!!). For the last 3 months, I have been wandering around Copenhagen in a language vacuum. I have no comprehension of what is being said around me and tune out. Sometimes I might pick up on intonation or volume of speech but I have enjoyed being immune to the detail of other people's conversations, especially those on the mobile phone of the person next to me on the bus or train.

Back in Blighty I found it (quite frankly!) intrusive to be amongst English-speakers again so that walking through the streets of a busy city, my thoughts were interrupted by snippets of stranger's conversations.

It was like seeing an old friend again when I stumbled across a Prêt-à-Manger and decided to take a pit stop for a cappuccino and an almond croissant. That was a regular part of my morning routine when I worked in London and I relished every minute of it. As I sat in the window watching Edinburgh open up for the day, I still had a niggling feeling that something fundamental in the landscape was amiss.

And then it dawned on me - there were no cycle lanes and hardly a bicycle in sight. In 3 short months, I have become accustomed to the whirring and clanking of the Copenhagen bike culture. The cyclists of my newly adopted city are the third dimension of its traffic scene that give it a very unique vibe. Its not just the fact that people are on their bikes, its their sheer number, their stylish bikes and cycling attire and the mutual respect between the different road users. I have to admit though that the topography of Edinburgh does not necessarily lend itself to two wheeled ambling.

On any view, Edinburgh is a beautiful city and the hilly walks up the cobbled streets led to spectacular views up to the castle and back to the surrounding lowlands.

By the end of the trip, when I had celebrated with my family and had my fill of shopping, I was looking forward to coming 'home'. Obviously, it was hard to say good bye to loved ones and I had the slightly unnerving feeling that we weren't going 'home' but rather we were going away again. In any event, I needn't have worried, a very sunny and clear Copenhagen evening welcomed us and, give or take a few pangs of homesickness, we're back on our bikes.

But what does all this have to do with pictures of a tea cup, saucer and side plate? Well, these beautiful and delicate pieces of antique china were the 'favours' given to the lady guests at this weekend's wedding. My new sister-in-law sourced probably close to fifty of these unique sets and placed the bundles of sugared almonds in the tea cups. Apparently she collaborated with my mother to choose this set for me and I think it is one of the most original and beautiful personal touches I have seen at a wedding. It was inspired and I hope these photos do it some justice...