Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Neighbors Have a Birthday

Springtime in Copenhagen is turning out to be a wonderful time to practice my ever-growing Danish vocabulary on the various crowds I seem to stumble across. Just the other day - May 17th to be exact - I was walking around my friend's neighborhood on Amager (a smaller island suburb of the city that I also happen to live on - think the Staten Island of Copenhagen) and I came across this:

Questions that instantly came to mind:
  • Why are all these Norwegians standing around this building where someone is giving a speech and a band is playing oompah music?
  • Why are a lot of them dressed up like they just got off of work from Norway's version of Colonial Williamsburg?
  • And more importantly, what's with all the beer?!?!

Now to attempt to answer as best an expat can. Thanks to some friendly Norwegians who kindly answered some of my questions (and let me photograph them in their finery), and the always helpful resource that is Wikipedia, I think I may be able to do it some justice.

Let's start with the day itself. Unbeknownst to me, Syttende mai which literally means May 17th, is Norway's national holiday. It's a day that celebrates the signing of their constitution, in which they officially declared their sovereignty from Sweden back in 1814. It has a similar significance to July 4th in the US but with some distinct differences:

  • Americans have no national dress and so you will never see a picture like the one on the right, which is a traditional Norwegian women's bunad. More on them later.
  • Norway's national holiday has evolved to focus on children, with childrens' parades taking place across the country and abroad. Ours focuses on blowing stuff up.
  • It is also an a-political, non-militaristic holiday. Like a pacifist version of July 4th. No fireworks. No elected leaders giving regurgitated propaganda speeches that no one ever pays attention to. In Norway, elected officials, including the prime minister, have no official duties related to this holiday. Instead they give thanks for their monarchy.
  • If you are disappointed in a lack of any similarities, rest assured. While nothing explodes on this holiday, many people get fabulously drunk, hence the enormous mountain of beer waiting to be consumed. 
Now for some interesting facts about the building itself. What I inadvertently stumbled across was Copenhagen's Norwegian Church Abroad, or Seaman's Church. It's a really amazing concept - it was founded in 1864 as a religious as well as cultural resource for Norwegians, and other Scandinavians, traveling or living abroad. They're community centers sponsored by the state church and government where homesick Norwegians can go to buy a newspaper, eat some rakfisk (fermented trout) and make some guttural throat sounds. They can be found in obvious places, like New York City, Paris, London and Singapore, but also in some surprising places, like Miami, Pattaya (Thailand) and one apiece on three of the four largest Canary Islands.

And finally, the clothing! They are called bunad, which broadly refers to both rural, historical Norwegian garments as well as modern folk costumes, as I saw on Syttende mai. They have always been used as proper formal attire but are becoming more and more common as celebratory dress, for example at weddings, festivals and other religious holidays. They are often elaborate affairs, with intricate embroidery, matching shawls and handmade silver or gold pins and jewelry. The women's costumes are generally more colorful, with the different patterns indicating a regional affiliation, much the same as a Scottish tartan.

So, from one expat to a whole bunch of others, "Tillykke med fødselsdagen Norge!"

Monday, May 16, 2011

Random (Non)Nature Shot(s) of the Week

Happy Monday

Much Ado About (Almost) Nothing

Just the other day I was walking along Strøget, Copenhagen's pedestrian shopping street, when I came across a large crowd of people. Curious foreigner that I am, I moved in closer to investigate and see what was going on. A large, fancy car, with an even larger escort of vehicles and motorcycles was parked outside the Georg Jensen shop. I noticed the South Korean flag flying from the fancy car and had heard that some dignitaries from there were in town. I was curious though why so many people had gathered. Could one small country's residents be so interested in another small country's semi-famous politicians?

I started asking around to see what people thought was going on (the fancy car being empty of its passengers who were presumably inside the shop browsing at Denmark's most famous purveyors of fine silver). I got some pretty interesting answers. Most people were hanging around with their cameras hoping to catch a glimpse of Queen Margarethe. But as to who she might be with, the jury was out. Here were some possibilities, as told to me by people in the crowd:
  • The Prime Minister of Bulgaria
  • A princess from Japan (this woman even told me she knew this because the news had reported it)
  • And finally, the queen of South Korea
Another commentary on safety - look
how close we are to the Queen's own car!
Somewhat mystified, I asked a police officer who was really inside and he told me it was the visiting First Lady of South Korea. I told him that most people I had asked thought it was the queen of Denmark, to which he explained that it was indeed the queen's car which she had loaned for this shopping trip. I decided not to stick around, as there were about to be some pretty disappointed Danes, and kept walking along.

On my stroll, I thought about all the Danes I'd just encountered who either were unable to identify a South Korean flag or didn't know that modern South Korea is a monarch-less democracy. The other day in Danish class, one of my studiekammerater was giving me crap about Americans thinking Spain is located in South America. I don't know where this perception comes from, other than some Americans who mistakenly (or ignorantly) call Central and South Americans "Spanish" after their language and not their origin. But who knows, maybe he's right.

It is true that young Americans may be particularly geographically illiterate. A 2006 poll sponsored by National Geographic found that 6 in 10 Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 could not locate Iraq on a map of the Middle East despite its regular appearance in news coverage. But are we any worse than Europeans?

 Sadly, yes.

In 2002, a similar study comparing geographic literacy among citizens from nine countries found the US second to last in knowledge, with only Mexico faring worse, and then, only slightly. Swedes came out on top. (Note: Denmark was not part of the study but, given proximity to and competitiveness with Sweden, would have likely beaten the US as well.) The study also found that Americans don't "get off the farm" much. Only 20 percent of Americans had traveled internationally in the previous three years compared to almost 70 percent in countries with the highest geographic literacy.

So I will have to chalk up my experience to not having queried enough crowd members. Perhaps only one in five or seven Danes are that familiar with South Korea. Which is probably higher than the Americans statistic. Or I should follow my Danish friend Per's advice and just stay off Strøget to begin with...

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Look Up!

Don't forget to look up sometimes, or you'll miss some interesting, strange, and beautiful sights.

Friday, May 13, 2011

#15: Risky Business

"... if there were any logic to our
language, trust would be 
a four letter word. "
Another new book came out recently about how a lawsuit-happy generation of Americans is breeding a culture of fear and distrust. Needless to say, I won't be running out to a Borders or Barnes & Noble any time soon to pick it up so I'll have to come to my own conclusions as to what this might entail. But I have some ideas. And living in Denmark for these last six months has definitely given me new insight into assessing and taking risks and the cultural impact of our perceptions of risk.

To the average American (okay, me), Danes seem to engage in an awful lot of risky behavior. I'm not sure if I notice this more because I am the mother of a toddler or because things are so shockingly different from the U.S. but I will point out that more than a few non-parental, non-Americans have at times echoed my sentiments.

True exchange between me and my single, childless, Spanish classmate.
So deceptively steep I almost
broke my coccyx

Me: I have to keep my son home today because he fell on the playground today at daycare and has a huge bump on his head and scratched his face up.
Classmate: Danish playgrounds, made of concrete... crazy people.

And that's also true. Many of the playgrounds in Copenhagen, even the newer ones, are built over concrete. A few are built over sand and today I found the first playground with rubbery cushioning underfoot hidden away in a small neighborhood of summer houses.

Which is good, because it also had the world's steepest slide. This "kiddie slide" had the kind of pitch you'd associate with water park rides named "Kamikaze Flume" or "Max Velocity". When not flinging themselves down killer slides, Danish children can also be seen around the city's plentiful playgrounds climbing cargo nets, riding zip lines, getting loads of splinters from all the untreated, natural wood play features, and lots of other things that, in the U.S., we'd categorize as "a lawsuit waiting to happen".

But it's not just the playground antics that have set my mothering "danger radar" abuzz. I come across something nearly every day that would make the average American's heart skip a beat. I'll begin with some hypotheses and try to illustrate with some of these examples.

To start off, here are some of my theories as to why Danes take different risks than Americans:
  1. The activity they are engaging in is actually safer in Denmark, either by its method of execution or by a matter of being.
  2. They perceive less risk (or correctly assess the level of risk) in engaging in an activity.
  3. They have a much higher level of cultural trust in one another to do the "right" thing and therefore have a much different expectation of negative consequences.
There are some examples where the activity itself is actually safer and so Danes behave accordingly due to an understandable lack of fear. For example, it is much more difficult to kill yourself while casually riding a 25-pound bicycle than while driving a 2-ton car. It's even more difficult when, as in Copenhagen, you are given your own lane that's on a separate level in between the sidewalk and the street, your own set of traffic lights and drivers who are always on alert for you.

That said, Danes do some amazingly dangerous (to me) things while cycling. I haven't yet seen a Dane cycling while applying makeup, as I once saw in another car while on my regular American morning commute, but I think I've seen just about everything else. Bikes are also used to transport pretty much everything. Literally. Like a three children, or a houseplant, or a mattress. I also understand that this feeling of perceived (and actual) safety is a contributing factor to the Danish drinking age being set at a shockingly low 16 years old. Interestingly enough, the rates of drunk driving in the U.S. and drunk cycling in Denmark are somewhat similar so take note, all you policy makers. You can't change the drinkers, only their method of transportation.

In addition to the oddly un-American sight of intoxicated cycling, another shockingly fascinating thing to see in Denmark is unaccompanied children. They walk alone down city streets, ride the Metro without a parent in sight, and play in courtyards or on street corners. I was watching an old episode of Sesame Street from 1989 on YouTube the other day and there was a scene with a bunch of grade schoolers playing jacks on the street outside an urban apartment building while a young teen babysitter watched from an upstairs window. I think these days in most American cities that would get you arrested for child neglect.

Actually, that did happen not too long ago to a Danish mother visiting New York City. In Copenhagen, it is nearly ubiquitous to leave your sleeping infant or toddler outside a store or restaurant while you are inside. NYC authorities were upset because the child was left unattended for over an hour. Here in Copenhagen I think most Danes would be upset that a perfectly good nap was ruined. Many Danish parents put a small baby monitor inside their strollers, in case the child starts to cry or wake up, but most of my Copenhagen mom friends would be more worried about their iPhones getting stolen from their diaper bag than their children from their strollers.

Two factors contribute to this behavior - first, it is statistically safer in Denmark and second, you can generally rely on your fellow Danes to do the right thing (i.e. not take your child). Denmark does have a relatively low rate of kidnapping and abduction. The U.S. has a much higher rate of missing children but then it depends on how you interpret "missing" and in turn read the statistics, which tend to skew our view towards a more hostile, dangerous world than it may actually be. Though most Americans have been conditioned and admonished by shows like America's Most Wanted and Inside Edition to guard their children vigilantly, the majority of "kidnappings" are actually family abductions. So you'd be safer trusting Junior to the folks on the street than your mother-in-law... at least statistically.

Still, there are some situations and behaviors that defy all three of my theories and so must be categorized as:

     4. They are f-ing crazy!!

Shocking - literally!
My American friend has what I have dubbed an "elevator of death". It's this ancient contraption that has more in common with a dumbwaiter than an elevator. It only holds three people, though really only two can comfortably fit. So what makes it so "deathly"? First, there are the massive doors - a metal exterior one and a double, tightly strung interior door that are like the jaws of a Venus fly trap. Second, you can open the double interior doors at any point during your upward or downward travel and stop the elevator. Theoretically, a good move, except that it can stop mid-floor, leaving a huge gaping hole for a small child or dog to leap from. And I saved the best for last. There's an exposed metal plate that is the "sensor" for when the elevator has reached a floor. If you happen to accidentally touch that plate (or do it on purpose just to see what happens), you'll be shocked with a cattle prod's worth of electricity for your trouble!

 Here are a couple more of Copenhagen's finest risky scenarios.

Front-facing child car seat in front
passenger seat of SUV
Woodworking tools for kids
at the local Nature Center