Monday, February 28, 2011

Spotted: More Americans Embarassing Themselves

The shame continues...

My American gut tells me Jennifer Lopez's legs haven't seen a manual, bladed razor since she was "Jenny on the Block".

Oh, Patrick Dempsey! Say it ain't so! You may be "Hydra-Sensitive" but please save some of the sensitive cheese for your pained looks of concern on Grey's!

Random Nature Shot of the Week

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,
to front only the essential facts of life,
and see if I could not learn what it had to teach,
and not, when I came to die,
discover that I had not lived. 
- H. D. Thoreau

Friday, February 25, 2011

#11 Toilet Brushes

At the mall...
At the Nature Center...
Sometimes I am struck by things that aren't so un-American as they are just out of place. It happens like this. I am out in the world. My mind is gradually accepting the fact that I live in a foreign country so it has let its guard down a bit and doesn't react to every wacky hairdo that walks by. Okay, that's a stretch. I did stare at the girl with the bubble gum pink 'do on the Metro today. But otherwise I'm unfased. And then I do something ordinary, like pay for a latte or go to the bathroom, and afterwards I am left with this unsettled feeling. Like something just happened that's a little out of sync. Some element was out of place. A tune pops into my head - "One of these things is not like the other" a la Sesame Street - as I try to rewind the last few minutes to find this mental pebble in my shoe.

That's how I came across toilet brushes. I know, I know. You were probably hoping fo some witty, sophisticated follow-up to my post on Euro-sports and then you got F-bombs so I'll try not to devolve into bad bathroom humor. Bear with me.

At school - you get the picture
I go to the bathroom as much as the next person, without fanfare or really much thought. I don't buy patterned toilet paper (it's not even sold in Denmark). I've never been tempted to try out those blue things you hang from the bowl. I don't use the time to do crosswords or read the paper. All in all it's a pretty unremarkable event. Most days I'm greeted by my now-familiar hospital-white-meets-brushed-steel-Danish minimalist bathroom.

But as my world has gradually expanded beyond my own apartment I've come across other bathrooms. At other peoples' houses. In malls. In cafes. In hotels. In museums. And I am now 98% convinced that 99% of them had a toilet brush sitting next to the toilet.

I know, I know. Not a stunning revelation and certainly not as satisfying as when they pulled all those Chilean guys out of the mine but consider this: When's the last time you were in a public restroom and looked down to find a toilet brush? Once you start wracking your brain, you'll come to the same conclusion I did - never! Who would put a toilet brush in an American truck stop or mall bathroom stall?

First of all, there's the grossness factor. I have a hard enough time squatting to pee and trying to avoid physical contact with the doorknobs after washing so the thought of a picking up a brush that's been used by God knows how many people after they've just wiped their behinds is asking more than this American is willing to give.

Second, you'd have to bolt them to the toilets. I know this is in stark contradiction to my previous thought but I've found that there's really nothing Americans won't do for free stuff as evidenced by Costco sample tables on the weekends. So a toilet brush in a public bathroom? If there are people out there willing to take the bathrobes, the remote controls, and the silverware from their hotel rooms, we can safely assume someone will eventually take the brush.

So that leaves me here in Denmark at the crossroads of civility (they leave the brushes) and dubious bathroom hygiene, pondering why they are even there in the first place. It could have something to do with the low-flow, water-saving toilets but I'm going to go a step further and place more of the blame on the Danish diet, which takes meat-and-potatoes to new heights of literalism. Ronald Reagan must have consulted with some Danes when he tried to reclassify ketchup and pickle relish as "vegetables". Those that do make it into regular dietary rotation here - cabbage, leeks, and lots and lots of root veggies - probably aren't doing Denmark's plumbing systems any favors.

I've developed a second working theory though and it goes something like this: I can't fathom how a country that only does business between 10:00 and 3:00, has a ridiculously complicated method of basic counting and telling time, and requires residents (namely me) to travel five Metro stops to find an open store that sells toilet paper on a Sunday can become or remain a modern, industrialized nation. I have determined that the way Denmark holds its place in the world is by creating its own little bubble of consumer demand for random items which are deemed culturally "necessary" but really just serve to keep Danes employed producing, importing or selling things the rest of the world larely ingnores. I will conclude this post by taking Eurostats into my own hands and doing a comparative analysis of the Danish and American economies.


Monday, February 21, 2011

Random Nature Shot of the Week

This is the grass that grows wherever the land is and the water is,
This the common air that bathes the globe.

- W. Whitman

Friday, February 18, 2011

#10 Dropping Bombs

M.C. Escher's Tower of Babel
On Monday I start taking my free government-subsidized Danish classes. All "I-can't-believe-they're-paying-for-this" absurdity aside, I expect this to be a life-changing experience in many ways. Perhaps one element of my new life I admit I might miss a little is the other-worldiness of being surrounded by and immersed in a language that is completely foreign to my ear. Before moving to Denmark I had never traveled to a place where I was not at least somewhat familiar with the language.

Sure, I felt decidedly American when I spent a few weeks as an exchange student in France, but I was never completely out of touch with those around me. I could understand snippets of conversation here and there and make appropriate apologies for my American gaffes (is there a plural of faux pas?). My grade school French was passable enough for me to ask for directions and buy Nutella crepes and came in super-handy when my host family accidentally ran over my foot with their Audi.

Denmark, on the other hand, is like a linguistic broken refrigerator. There is this constant humming, droning noise that probably means something but I haven't yet figured it out. For the first week or so it gave me a slight headache but my brain has become comfortably numb  to it by now. Which makes the English that creeps into my auditory stupor that much more startling. Sometimes it's a conversation between a couple of university students or an expat parent speaking to their kids.

But more often it's Danes dropping bombs. And boy do they drop them. Mostly of the F-bomb variety. I don't think I would notice it as much if I were back in the States however here it's like linguistic Tourette's. Blah blah blah F*#!ing blah blah blah S!@$ blah blah F%#$!.

Let me qualify this a little by saying it is mostly young Danes. That said, American curses appear more frequently than I would expect in public instances so I can only assume it is culturally accepted on some level. Which, when I stop to think about it, makes sense. I don't think I would even recognize a Danish swear word if I saw one right now so of course I can't be offended if I don't even know what I'm looking at. Even if I did, it loses some of its taboo in translation. Here's an example. Raise your hand if you're offended by, "Ma voiture est foutu!" See, I told you. So much funnier when your car is f-ed up in French.

 Jimmy Kimmel illustrating that context is everything 

So I guess I shouldn't have really been suprised when I came across the cover of this month's Eurowoman magazine on the Danish newstands.

Holy s--t!
Is this just another example of me being an American prude? Am I the only one trying to cover my son's ears as they play the full, unedited versions of American rap tunes in the mall's stores? [Answer: yes] 

And yet, I find myself more homesick than offended. It's a sad state of affairs when you're so starved for English conversation that even an overheard curse on the street feels a little like home. With any luck, in a few more weeks, the droning will give way to conversation and meaning. And who knows, maybe the average Dane swears like a Danish sailor? Maybe I'll find the linguistic oasis I imagined is saltier than I expected?

Monday, February 14, 2011

#9 Un-American Sports

No, I'm not referring to flag burning or reigning in consumer choice. I mean things like handball, cycling (which is only an American sport in Boulder, CO) and soccer (which is only an American sport if you're still in school).

I became aware of this about a week ago when I was trying to figure out if I would be able to watch the Super Bowl. After some frantic Google searches for a website that would beam this American ritual to me here in Denmark, (thank you very much new neighbors!) I eventually gave up when I realized I would have to stay up well into the wee hours of the morning just to catch the halftime show. For anyone with an active toddler in the house, this is akin to x-ing out the next two days in your calendar and writing, "This is going to suck." Super Bummer...

So I have resolved to try to become a fan of some local Danish sports. I opened up the newspaper the morning after the not-so-Super-in-Copenhagen Bowl (it went so late they couldn't even publish the winner) to peruse and contemplate my new options. Ummmmmmm..... huh? The bulk of the coverage seemed to be devoted to handball. I say "seemed" becuase I have not yet learned to quickly identify the various jerseys and uniforms of different sports and, with my complete lack of Danish, there might have been some soccer coverage thrown in there as well.

Ooops, I mean football coverage. European football that is. Man, this is going to be rough.

To avoid further confusing my poor American mind, I've decided to devote myself to handball for now. It's a seven-on-seven, contact sport whose object is to throw a ball into the opponent's net which was easier to figure out than the rules for ice polo and more palatable than acknowledging poker as a "sport". In my initial reading, I'm finding quite a lot to like.

Here are a few of my favorite bits so far:
  • Fun descriptive plays, like a "player sandwich", which is the contact/block made when a defensive player is fully in front of an offensive player while also blocking the goal.
  • Modern handball was actually invented by two Danish teachers.
  • You can get thrown out of a game for purposely hitting the goalkeeper in the head with the ball.
  • Handball is an Olympic sport, which means the U.S. actually does have a national team
As for super-stars, they do exist. Denmark's Olympic golden boy Mikkel Hansen (featured in the clip below) recently returned from the lucrative Liga Asobal in Spain to play for local team AG København. This wasn't even an older-and-wiser move - the kid's only 23! Take that Lebron!

My new sport is even causing me some spontaneous statistical tics like this dorky nugget which I just wasted five minutes of my life calculating - there are 14 professional handball teams for Denmark's roughly 5.5 million people. That's just under 400,000 citizens per team. I can't think of a major professional American team sport that can even begin to approach that kind of representation. Plus, in a kind of satisfying every-man math equation, I find that making 10% of what top handball players earn makes me 10% more likely to enjoy this sport whereas making less than 1% of the salaries of top American football, baseball, and basketball players makes me... well, mad. Which is probably un-American.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Hair - A Cross-Border Affair

After a brief hiatus due to a much-needed visit from my mother, I have returned from a daytrip to Sweden with this observation. Hair is apparently a cross-border affair. This Swedish newspaper had an article of various men's hairstyles to try depending on length, texture and how much time you wish the world to percieve you spent grooming yourself.

Seeing this article did give me a little pause and a moment of concern. What if the things I am noticing and commenting on aren't so Danish as they are more European? What if they are just a function of my so far measly mall-based existance and not so representative of the population at-large?

Something I heard the other day at an English-speaking mom's playgroup also highlighted this newcomer syndrome, though in a funnier light. (Many thanks to "L" for borrowing your tale...) We were all talking about being a new foreigner in this country and one mom, who is married to a Dane and has lived here for a few years now, said that at first she thought all Danish people were a bit odd but then later realized it was mostly just her in-laws. Her story continued as she related an incident involving a certain "salad" whose components were so bizarre that to this day she continues to search in vain for a recipe that would justify its existance in any country.

I welcome the day when I am fully "integrated" enough - more on Danish integration later - to come back and make revisions or reassessments. For now, I am excited about going to a Danish church spaghetti dinner tonight with some new American friends. I feel like a cross between a CIA-operative infiltrating a new network and a naturalist about to embark on a survey of a new species, which is to say I am excited for this opportunity to interact with Danes in a normal setting that doesn't involve me trying to take their picture without them noticing.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

#8 Their Hair

So far, every Dane I've seen seems to be in the throes of a passionate love affair... with their hair. Hair salons are like the Starbucks of Copenhagen - they're everywhere in such ridiculous abundance you wonder how they're not running each other out of business. Even more so since they are pretty much all independent stores and not some corporate conglomerate that can afford such profit margin nonsense. 

Hair salons in Copenhagen versus Starbucks in NYC
The other day I was looking around online to try to find a place to take my toddler son for a haircut. I was astounded to find places charging upwards of $60 for a children's haircut! I am tempted to take him just to see what justifies charging such exorbitant rates - does he get a hot towel and a shave? A mani-pedi? It's so bad a local international school even warns expat parents to get their kids' hair cut in their home countries rather than shell out for a cut in Copenhagen.

With this kind of luxuriating over one's hair ingrained from a young age, it's no wonder Danes of both genders gratuitously partake of hair products and services. A 2007 study of the European cosmetics industry, which included hair care products, found Denmark tied with Sweden for the highest EU consumption levels, outspending even U.S. shopaholics in currency-adjusted comparison.

These people aren't messing around!

Maybe I wouldn't find this fixation so odd except that, unlike Americans with their pursuit of natural, non-grey perfection, Danes seem bent on purposely standing out in a crowd. I imagine many conversations taking place in locals salons where the customer says, "I'd like an avant-garde, asymetrical cut and the most glaringly unnatural color you have please." No need to wonder whether a woman's hair color belies her age when you're transfixed and distracted by her neon orange mane. In a country where it seems practically taboo to wear a winter coat in anything other than black, gray or navy, is hair some kind of personal rebellion or form of Danish self-expression?

Not a natural color in the bunch.
Spiky mohawks, painstakingly pin-curled waves, crimped hair, highlights, lowlights, half-shaven heads, blunt bangs, long bangs, side buns, top buns, French braids, and yes, even a mullet or two. This blog on Copenhagen street styles shows just how out of my Euro-hip league I am. It makes me wonder if I should I start worrying about being deported for my lame, no-effort ponytail and boring brown hair?

* Note: This phenomenon was particularly difficult to document given my unwilliness to test the operating theory that people of most countries don't appreciate strangers photographing them and my greater goal of trying to make friends here in Denmark, not creeping people out or getting arrested.