Sunday, 28 August 2011

Danish life: Its the campaign season

My Danish language lessons have started up again and I'm back at the grindstone. The introduction stage is over and now there is no mercy - the teacher speaks only Danish and we're even expected to ask questions in Danish. Needless to say, class is much quieter now.
On Friday morning I decided that to improve my Danish listening I would watch 15 minutes of television every day. Real television, not the Jeremy Kyle show with sub-titles. After all, I'm finding the Elle magazine in Danish much easier to understand than the chit-chat with parents I meet at the play ground. I made this decision at 10.50 on Friday morning, found the remote control and sat down with a steely determination to conquer the unfathomable mumbo-jumbo. The timing would not have been so important if I had not then switched on the television to find all the Danish channels ablaze with the 'breaking news' that the Prime Minister was to make an important announcement at 11.00 am.
Sure enough, 10 minutes later, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, statsminister and leader of the Venstre party, appeared and called a national election on 15 September 2011. Now, I have to confess that I have not been following Danish politics and until that point would not have known the name of the prime minister, that there is a coalition government (between Venstre and the Conservative People's Party) in power or that an election had to be called by 12 November 2011 (being 4 years after the last election).
And so, by happy coincidence, it was a very profitable 15 minutes of TV viewing: I practised my Danish listening and managed to learn about national politics. Its going to be a feverish few weeks of campaigning I expect. By the time I left the flat on Friday afternoon to go and collect my son from school, the faces of the various election candidates were already beaming down from every lamp post,  tree trunk and railing.
The economy is at the heart of the election as Denmark has, apparently, fared worse than its Scandinavian neighbours in the global recession. I'm a loooong way from knowing the manifestoes or the party positions on the main issues but one of things that has struck me from all the posters is the number of female candidates. The leader of the opposition party (the Social Democrats) is the very formidable looking Helle Thorning-Schmidt. If she wins, she will be Denmark's first female prime minister.
In the meantime there is another poster campaign vying for attention. Its the start of another school year and so there are many more children cycling in the bike lanes and crossing the major roads. These posters are a reminder to roadusers to look out, literally, for the 'small people' in the traffic.
Let's hope that drivers and cyclists will keep their eyes on the road and not be distracted by the charming smiles of the election hopefuls...

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Red shoes on a rainy day...

I saw this couple from my balcony as I watched people in the street running for cover in the rain. Her red flowers and red shoes caught my eye - maybe they had just come from a wedding in the nearby church. Wish I'd had a pair of red shoes to wear today. I got caught in two downpours. Second time around, I did remember my red rain poncho and added my own splash of colour to an otherwise dreary and grey day.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

The writing on the wall (...and the fence..and the postbox)

One of the first things I noticed about Copenhagen was the graffiti. My first impression of the city was that there appeared to be no 'nice' neighbourhoods as nowhere seemed immune from the mark of a can of spraypaint.
This weekend I took my children to one of our local playgrounds (I should add that we do live in a very nice part of town!) but maybe the light was different or I was being particularly observant as I again noticed the graffiti and was reminded of those first impressions. I think that over the time we've been here I have become 'de-sensitised' to its prevalence. 
I returned to the questions that first seeing this 'street art' had raised: why is there more graffiti here than in London? Is it legal or is there at least a greater tolerance? Is this a sign of a more liberal approach to the freedom of expression? Are there less funds set aside for graffiti removal? Or are there more people with spray paint, spare time and something to say?
I'm afraid I am no closer to finding the answers. When I ask around, no-one seems to know. I've always understood graffiti to be either a form of art lacking a socially acceptable medium of expression, an act of social rebellion, a mark of territory or a combination of all three. The Danes seem to be a nation who take seriously all things aesthetic - for the most part, they dress well, have beautiful homes and are renowned for their contribution to the world of design. I cannot therefore imagine that taking a can of spray paint to property (public or private) is socially acceptable. However, I stand to be corrected and if anyone reading this knows otherwise, please let me know...
I notice, in the above picture for example, the white letters appear to have been sprayed over darker marks that are perhaps the evidence of an attempt to remove or cover earlier graffiti. Of course, in London Banksy has made graffiti a satirical art form and here in Copenhagen too there are examples of street painting that catch the eye for the right reasons; they are striking and artistic. I saw this on a fence in Christiania (a free state within Copenhagen).
Not only do I fail to understand the motivation behind graffiti or why it might be tolerated, being in a country where I don't yet speak the language, means that any message in the street art completely passes me by. I must add that I cannot yet swear in Danish either and so if any of the pictures I have posted contain offensive language, I apologise, I had no idea! Maybe this one was done for the likes of me:
And so I'm left none the wiser but occasionally struck by the obvious talent being wasted.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Six months in Denmark...

June and July were slow months for me on the blogging front. It turns out that neither photo challenges nor the school summer holidays are conducive to thoughtful reflection let alone formulating thoughts that are worthy of sharing. I could have written about how we made it through a long week of non-stop rain in July with all the indoor play areas 'closed for the summer' or how my trip to IKEA armed with two children and a klippekort panned out. As the title of a very helpful book about blogging rightly states, 'No one cares what you had for lunch!'.
And all this to say that I have been quiet lately but now there is light at the end of the tunnel. A new school year dawns, my thoughts will soon be my own again and I hope to turn them to the pursuit of the sublime. Now that I have paused and looked up from the craziness that is a summer of children at home, overseas travel and the aftermath of trans-atlantic induced jet lag, I realise that we have been living our new life in Denmark for six whole months. Wow, how did that happen?
It seems like only yesterday that we were unpacking boxes, grappling with the plug adaptor situation and finding light fittings. We've faced so many changes over our time here and there have been challenges a plenty but we've also made great strides in adapting to our new surroundings. Its funny how quickly one can become accustomed to a different landscape; when we were in London recently, it seemed incredibly busy, much more so than I remembered it from my 18 years living there! I've simply become used to there being less people around, less queues and more space.
It was while we were travelling that I noticed small changes in my outlook too that have been born of our relatively short time seeing things done the Danish way. Things that I have, subconsciously in some cases, adopted as my own. For example, I was walking through the streets of Ottawa with my children in a double stroller I had borrowed from relatives and caught myself parking the stroller outside a shop fully intending to venture inside unencumbered (by either the oversize stroller or its passengers)!! I remembered in time and checked myself, 'This isn't Denmark'.
There are some things that six months ago seemed foreign but that I now accept as the norm. Whilst we're already on a theme of 'sixes', here is my numbered list:
(1) Riding my bike in a skirt and heels
Everybody does it (well, mainly Danish women) and riding in style is a big part of the cycling culture. And so, I've exchanged my fluorescent waterproof cycling jacket for a very stylish red hooded waterproof poncho and on the few occasions that I have ventured out for cocktails at Rubys, I've ridden my bike in a skirt and heels.
(2) Shopping at a loppedmarked
The loppedmarked is very popular here. The word translates as 'flea market' but it is more than that and encompasses jumble sale, yard sale and car boot sale too. Selling things that you no longer want or need is a national past time and there are many bargains to be had. At the weekends, children stand on street corners selling their old toys, dealers set up stalls of antiques and nick-nacks at more organised sales and many ex pat families take a pitch to sell their purged belongings before moving on. I love stumbling upon a loppedmarked and have bought some great things (mainly second hand toys and English children's books). It would seem that I have acquired the Danish talent for rummaging!

(3) Candlelight
Walking around our neighbourhood in the evening, there are always candles burning in the windows. This is all part of the Danish concept of hygge, which translates as 'cosiness' but is, as I understand it, the warm and fuzzy feeling you have when you are spending time with loved ones over a shared meal in the home. These occasions are usually candlelit and the glowing flames symbolise the warmth. Our use of candles came about in rather more practical circumstances (when we moved into our flat, there were no light fittings) but we do still have a tray of white church candles that we light from time to time for cosiness.
(4) Letting my son play out in the shared courtyard unaccompanied
When we moved here we swapped our garden flat for a third floor apartment and sacrificed our private outdoor space. This was a conscious decision as we thought that living downtown would be less isolating. Rather than a private garden we have access to a shared courtyard with a common play area. This is proving to be a wonderful space to meet our Danish neighbours and their children. And the day came to pass during the recent school summer holidays when my son (who just turned 4) could hear his friends playing downstairs and asked me if he could go out to join them in the courtyard. I took a deep breath, weighed up the risks and decided that I could give him a small taste of independence. I watched from the kitchen window on the third floor as he and his friends rode around on their bikes. I can't imagine the same scenario back in London and I think this has more to do with the access to outdoor space being different. Having said that if anyone had told me that I would be letting my son play out on his own at this age, I would have struggled to believe it!
(5) Having my hair blow dried and straightened with straighteners to within an inch of its life before it's cut
Yes, this is the way it is done here. On that first trip to the hairdressers it puzzled me and I did wonder if perhaps when I had made the appointment I had been booked for a wash and style but when every kink and curl had been obliterated, the scissors finally came out. I have been happy with the results and now I know the procedure, I know not to panic when the straighteners appear!
(6) The weather
Now, coming from an English girl, you might think it sounds a little rich that I have had to acclimatise to the Danish weather. I don't really have an issue with it and for the most part it is what I expected but what took some getting used to was the fact that at any time on any given day it can change (sometimes quite dramatically) without much warning. One minute you might be sitting on the beach feeling pleasantly warmed by the sun and perhaps even contemplating a dip in the sea - the next minute the wind will have picked up, the clouds gathered and its a race to get home before the rain sets in. At least I've learned never to give up hope on the weather - when I wake up in the morning and the sky is grey, I always remind myself that by the end of the day the sun might be shining!
Whilst these are some of the things that I am getting used to, there are many things that I continue to struggle with. I still can't get my head around not saying 'please' before I ask for something in a shop and I am also still to learn not to offer an older Danish lady my seat on the bus; on the couple of occasions I have tried this, it has only provoked enraged looks, tutting and a heated rant channelled in my direction. The Danish mindset is very much one of 'can do'.

My photos in this post are from the various crafts on display at this weekend's Kunsthåndværkermarkedet. It was Scandinavia's largest collection of crafters and designers from the Danish Arts and Crafts Association. The beautiful work included textiles, jewellery, ceramics and glass. For further information on the fair visit 

Friday, 5 August 2011

Cucumber slices and carrot sticks

Here we are again
home from our summer of fun
two weeks, three cities
four flights, one tram ride
lots of smiles in the sun

Kids, you were great
and took all we threw at you
in your stride
Missed naps, long flights
and jet lag
Barely complaining
rather you enjoyed the ride

London, it was good to see you
however brief was our stay
you're still crazy and busy
I guess you'll always be that way

How lovely it was
to see old faces
and hear familiar voices
These are things I miss
the most, they made me homesick
questioning our choices

But the clock didn't stop
only time for quick hellos
and catching up with news
Telling stories, having hugs
How the precious
short days flew

All too soon
it was goodbye again
and we were back in the air
The stopover making way
for the adventure
that awaited way over there

A long flight to Ottawa
but the kids were fine
I even managed
to watch TV and read
the paper
to unwind

Landing in
sweltering heat and
a body clock that
was all askew
We rested and
wallowed in warm hospitality
good food, good wine
and 'what's new?'

A walking tour
to see the sights
and the landmarks
of Ottawa's history
In the midday sun
what mad dogs and Englishmen
we had become

Lakes and beaches
were our refuge
keeping the stifling heat at bay
We picnicked
on gourmet bread
hams and cheeses,
while the little ones
played and played

Cousins got to
know each other
Giggling and laughing
and up to their tricks
Snacking and munching
on cucumber slices
and crunchy carrot sticks

The water is its own
and each took their turn
to enjoy
Splashing and kicking
bobbing and swimming
as we let our
tired minds uncoil

Two boys together
turned four
Just a couple of days apart
Living so far away
shared days are scarce
A highlight to warm the heart

Playing Jedi warriors
and sword fights a plenty
Their imaginations
on fire
light sabres held high
and Spiderman pyjamas
while the big sister of six stood by

But the attention was hers
a tooth started to wobble
Wiggled and jiggled
til it hung loose
'Co-ol' said the boys
and all were in awe
when it popped out, 'You brave, Sally Goose'!

These days too
came to an end
and the journey
beckoned us on
A final stopover
cool and hip:
Porter airlines to the Island
and the Chocolate Factory loft
on Queen Street W to end our trip

More quick hellos
and fleeting visits
to old haunts and favourite places
And for a four year old
a tram ride for a treat
Toronto, I hardly recognise your new faces

A long plane ride home
and back to where we started
Summer, you are fading again
we will soon be waving good bye
A new school year is upon us
more change, a new chapter,
A long sigh......