Friday, April 29, 2011

Random Nature Shot of the Week

Observe always that everything is the result of change,
and get used to thinking that there is nothing Nature loves so well
as to change existing forms and make new ones like them.
- Marcus Aurelius

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Highlights from the Frilandsmuseet

Over the long, long Easter vacation, I ventured to the northern 'burbs of Copenhagen to the town of Kongens Lyngby to visit the Frilandsmuseet, or Open Air Museum, with my son and some of his toddler buddies. The Frilandsmuseet is part of the Nationalmuseet system and is an open air museum displaying three hundreds of years worth of Danish farms. The cool thing about the buildings is that they are actually real homes, mills, barns and outbuildings from around the country, taken apart brick by brick and rebuilt instead of replicas. They even contain period furnishings, tools and farm implements. There are of course the requisite docents in period dress and bucolic meadows full of farm animals for the children to chase.

Stepping back in time
The museum covers 86 acres and, needless to say, given the attention span and endurance of our pint sized companions, we saw only a small portion of all there was to see. A horse-drawn carriage ride helped us cover more ground and was also a great way to convince our reluctant children to stop throwing stones in the millpond.

The most terrorized chickens in all of Denmark
The museum was founded in 1897, making it one of the oldest of its kind, with some buildings dating back to 1650. Represented are dwellings from all around the country, as well as the Faroe Islands, and the former territories in northern Germany and southern Sweden.

For those of you who just went "Faroe-wha??" they are a group of islands situated halfway in between Great Britain and Iceland in the middle of essentially nowhere. With a population of only about 50,000 people, this autonomous province of the Kingdom of Denmark is another country within a country. If you're into expat reads and want to learn more about the Faroes, check out the fictional novel Far Afield.

An early Vestas prototype

Apparently Danes of yore were a hungry bunch, leading to an interesting, but unrelated, commentary on trends in Danish height. As evidenced by the picture below and reported by Good Morning America, modern Danes are quite tall, with the average male standing 6 feet and the women not far behind. I've been told I'm tall for a Korean, but in Denmark that makes me a little taller than really short. Americans used to tower over the free world, but we have slipped in recent decades and now can only lord over residents of malnourished countries like North Korea.

All in all, the museum was a beautiful place to visit on a warm spring day to learn a little more about the history of the country I'm calling home for a while.

A great time was had by all. Well, everyone except maybe these poor geese running for the cover of the bushes...

You may be fast, little one,
but we are faster...


Sunday, April 24, 2011

#14: Extreme Automation

Americans do many things to extreme - home makeovers, plastic surgery, fast food consumption, multi-tasking while driving. One thing though that Danes have us beat at is automation. Sometimes it seems like Danes automate just for the sake of automating. Other times they automate with irony. Their slogan would be: "This isn't actually saving you any time but it sure is neat to watch/do/ride."

Not a meat packing plant,
just the library's book return
Some examples.
The recently renovated main branch of Copenhagen's library features one of the biggest displays of over-automation I have ever seen. The system for returning books involves machines that scan the books back into the system (not so novel), then suck them onto a giant conveyor belt system that whisks the book off into the bowels of the library to either be consumed as fuel to heat the building or to be reshelved. It's hard to tell. It's also a strangely futuristic leap from the library's other branches where you scan your book back in and then un-futuristicly drop it into a basket for the librarians to deal with later.

In many Danish businesses with counter service (or long lines), like bakeries, the post office or the bank, it is a common practice for customers to take a number. I will admit I enjoy being able to wander aimlessly around the pharmacy knowing my place in line is secure. It allows for ample time to ponder why one cannot buy rubbing alcohol or over-the counter-cold medication in Denmark. And while some stores still employ the old method of hanging a roll of paper numbers, many establishments do not trust the average Dane's paper ripping skills and have installed fancy touch screen machines to dispense paper numbers lest you disrupt the order of the entire universe by accidentally taking two.

There are a fabulously large number of elevators in places where it might have made more sense to just put in a ramp. The mall across from my apartment building has an elevator that saves you from walking up exactly six large steps. Same goes for the entrance to Magasin department store from inside the Kongens Nytorv metro station. I suppose the builders could have been trying to save overburdened shoppers from toppling down a small flight of stairs with their bags. But then how to explain the lifts that bring you five steps up to the library entrance or down three giant steps at the art museum? As an everday stroller user I really can't complain but it all seems a bit overdone when maybe a simple ramp would have sufficed.

Automatic doors are also everywhere, though some of them require you to wave your hand or press a button to actually make work. When you have to go through all that trouble to figure out how to get the door to open, it makes it seem like they installed the auto- but forgot the -matic. And then how else to explain the popularity of Nespresso machines in Denmark? Nowhere in the States has the concept of a machine that automatically brews a single cup of coffee at a time caught on like it has here. And it's not like Americans don't know how to waste money on coffee but man, do we hate doing things for ourselves. Why make your own coffee at home with the press of a button when you could sit in line at the Starbucks drive-through for half an hour every morning?

Again, I wonder if this could be some subtle cultural tendency towards helping other Danes stay employed. Like the Danish bubble of economic demand generated for toilet brushes, over-automation creates whole industries out of installing and invariably fixing all these things with moveable parts, sensors and buttons. I feel another pie chart coming on...

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Class Notes: Acceptable Accessories

The real deal
A large portion of the world's adult population uses pencil cases. I don't know why I find this trivial detail of class life so fascinating except that most Americans give them up somewhere around the middle school years when anything remotely academic starts to be really un-cool. The pencil cases in my class tend to be sober affairs - in other words, no Hello Kitty fetishes - and lo and behold, they're actually full of pencils! One of my classmates asked me the other day where Americans keep their pens and pencils if they don't use cases and I said we just let them float around in our bags and pockets... in hindsight, that seems like a lame answer and doesn't do any real justice to how superior we Americans believe ourselves to be despite our lack of organized writing implements...

Maybe we should bring them back? After all, we probably stopped using them Stateside in the '50's give or take a decade and haven't we really just been in decline since then? Look at what's happened to us. Watergate happened. Shag carpets happened. The 'burbs happened. Dirty flannel-as-fashion happened. Milli Vanilli happened. I'm-hiking-the-Appalachin-Trail-as-cover-story-for-a-trip-to-my-South-American-mistress happened.

Could pencil cases save us from ourselves? Could they return us to a golden age where politicians are so old and ugly they are incapable of sordid personal lives? Could they bring back an era where Wal-mart is a place you go when you're building a twelve-sided house and need a lot of sheetrock? Could they erase from our collective cultural memory some spectacutarly misguided ideas, like wearing all of your clothing backwards or teaching your hair to do business in the front and party out back. 

Maybe not. But I think I'll buy one and find out for myself.

Highlights from the Round Tower

Copenhagen's Round Tower, or Rundetaarn, was built by King Christian IV between 1637 and 1642. In a spectacular piece of gifted forsight, the tower was designed without steps, so as to encourage this lazy American to walk up to the top. Danish efficiency at its finest - it's even easier to write about: "I walked to the top of the tower" versus "I climbed three-hundred-seventy steps to the top of the tower."

Imposing on the outside...
...a gently climbing stroll on the inside.
Once at the top, you are treated to a wonderful view of the city of Copenhagen. The "skyline," if you can call it that as there are no skyscrapers, is quite different from anything you're likely to see in the States in height, shape, and even color, thanks to the many tiled rooftops.

Copenhagen from above...
...or a view from the Wonka-vator.
The Tower is actually part of a complex which includes a church, a library and Europe's oldest functioning observatory. Interesting bit of trivia which is glossed over on the Tower's website: the observatory was actually built as a result of Christian IV's fued with Denmark's most famous astronomer Tycho Brahe over scientific methodologies and alchemy. After Brahe's death, the king had his observatories demolished, leaving Copenhagen's university students and scholars without a place to practice astronomy. Under the guidance of his own astronomer and one of Brahe's former colleagues, Christian IV established what is, today, one of Denmark's top tourist attractions. [Official version: "He got into trouble with the new king, Christian IV, in 1597, and left Denmark. In 1599 he became court astronomer in Prague, but in 1601 he died."]

More interesting trivia: A piece of Tycho Brahe's burial cloth from his final resting place in Prague is displayed among the Round Tower's artifacts. A modern day apology? An "I told you so" from the grave?

Be thankful for modern convenience.
At the top of the Round Tower, I encountered yet another instance of Danish loveliness and a reminder of the loss of niceties conducted without a second thought in America. While I was on my tourist expedition, a group of school children shared the view from the top of the Tower with me. It was a rather chilly, dreary, rainy day to be visiting and I felt a little sorry for the kids. That is until their teacher lined them up and procured a large thermos of hot chocolate which he proceeded to dole out. Then I just felt sorry for myself!

Monday, April 18, 2011

Random Nature Shot of the Week

Joy in looking and comprehending
is nature's most beautiful gift.
-A. Einstein

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Class Notes: Germany

A toddler who rejects sleep, a husband with a double ear infection and a tempermental internet connection are all horrible blogging assistants... I know it's been a while. These are my excuses. I have been meaning to write about so much - the transition into a new season, the adorable shaggy dog-sized ponies we saw at the Vestamager Naturecenter this past weekend, an amazingly beautiful stumbled-upon cemetary in the middle of Østerbro. All these things seem to go out the window when it's 10 o'clock at night and my spawn, I mean son, is still screaming bloody murder at the injustice of being put into his bed. So instead of writing about things that take real mental power, I will take this opportunity to begin a new segment of my blog - Class Notes.

I grew up on Long Island, about an hour and a half east of New York City. It is what's considered "downstate" New York, although we hardly ever refer to ourselves as that. In fact, we often forget there's a whole lot more of New York north of Westchester County. It's all lumped together as "upstate" which might as well be another state as far as we're concerned. We hardly bother to learn much about the rest of the state, don't follow what goes on very closesly or seem to understand the concerns of our fellow New Yorkers. [Author's note: I've since tried to make amends by attending college in Ithaca and marrying a guy from Buffalo.]

A similar sentiment could be applied to my understanding and attentiveness, as an American, to the rest of the world. (To be fair, there's a whole lot of America to slog through before you even attempt to broaden your worldly horizons.) A big chunk of what I know about the rest of the world comes from grade school assignments. The Ghats are mountains in India. Building a scale model of Machu Pichu out of sugar cubes takes a heck of a lot of sugar. The rest comes mainly from current events like the earthquake, tsunami and resulting nuclear crisis in Japan.

But when it comes to the actual cultures, the people, the stuff that makes a Dane a Dane or a Nicaraguan a Nicaraguan, well, they might as well all be "upstaters". So I'm trying to make amends by querying my classmates from my Danish for Foreigners class and sharing with you the amusing, fascinating, and funny anecdotes I've picked up from this goldmine of intercultural exchange.

Germany, you're up first.

Germans love their zoo animals and a number of them have become über-celebrities of sorts. The one I had heard of was Knut, the polar bear who was raised by human keepers after his mother rejected him. What I hadn't heard though was that he recently passed away - whether Knut will be stuffed and put on display in a musem in Berlin remains to be seen. Then there's Heidi, the cross-eyed opossum who has her own website, a Facebook page with a couple hundred thousand fans as well as her own YouTube channel. And perhaps the funniest, but also coolest, German animal star has to be Paul the Octopus, who correctly predicted all of Germany's matches in the 2010 FIFA World Cup, as well as the final match, by selecting food from one of two boxes marked with the flags of the competing teams. Poor Paul has also passed away but you can visit his shrine and cremated remains at Sea Life in Oberhausen.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

What's in a Name?

I slipped up in Danish class yesterday and pronounced my own name Danish-ly. Some embarassment ensued as well as a discussion of whether my name could even be considered Danish. I was pretty sure it constituted a "foreign" name but thanks to those geniuses in Disney's marketing department I have achieved a sort of quasi-fame in Denmark as a cartoon character.

Enter "Nora Malkeko".

That's right folks - literal translation: Nora Milk Cow.

If you're thinking she looks familiar, it's because she is. In the States she goes by the suitably hickish name Clarabelle Cow. She's an original Disney cast member, best friend of Minnie and Daisy, and former girlfriend of Horace Horsecollar but more recently linked to Goofy.

Now I knew that with names like Margrethe, Isabella, and Benedikte, I had no chance of styling myself after Danish royalty but come on people, a milk cow, seriously?!?!

While we're on the subject, names are a funny thing here in Denmark. You may have heard or read about the rules and regulations around naming your child in Denmark. It's true, you can only name your child from an approved government list. If you want to name your child Chiquita Banana, you'll have to apply for a special dispensation from your local civil registrar (and likely be denied). Some interesting facts gleaned from an enormous report on the handling of names in Denmark:
  • Most first names are considered gender-specific. It is not allowed to give your child a name that suggests the gender opposite of theirs.
  • You may, however, combine two approved names. Suprisingly, it's okay to do so by doubling the name or adding a hyphen.
  • Once there are 25 individuals of the same sex registered with a given first name, it is automatically added to the list of approved names. You may also change your last name but only if there are 2,000 or more individuals with the same name in Denmark.
  • If you do want to get creative, you will have to show evidence that your name may be used as a first name in other cultures. For example, generally titles such as Baron and Count are not allowed as first names. For us Americans, it means we can thank the artist currently known as Prince for opening up that option for us.
  • Danes do accept the popularity of certain word types, like foods, and nicknames commonly used in other cultures, when they are appropriate. Hence, Paprika is an approved name. Potty is not.
Like the American Social Security lists, Danes keep tabs on trends and popularity in naming.

Top five names for Danes of all ages:
  • Males: Jens, Peter, Lars, Michael, Henry
  • Females: Anne, Kirsten, Hanne, Mette, Anna
Danes too are not immune to the influence of popular culture, though with somewhat different references. See if you can spot the monarchs and/or minor European celebs among the top five names given to children born in the first half of last year:
  • Boys: William, Noah, Lucas, Magnus, Mikkel
  • Girls: Ida, Isabella, Anna, Mathilde, Freya
Glancing at Denmark's entire list of most popular children's names from last year, it seems that, for better or worse, American culture is also making some inroads. Classic names like Emma, Laura, Victoria, Jonathan, and Philip all cracked the top fifty. Sadly, so too did Storm, which was given to 161 unfortunate boys who should pray their parents keep them in Denmark at least through their grade school years.

Search to see if your name makes the cut.
Find out how many people share your name in Denmark.

Nice to know that while there are 2,150 men named Jens Hansen and 1,330 women named Anne Pedersen in Denmark, there's only one me!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

I Passed!

A funny video in honor of passing my Level 1 Danish for Foreigners exam. Only four more levels to go...