Thursday, December 22, 2005

To the sweet sunny south take me home

In the past two days I've said goodbye to Ricky's host family (hard) and to Jørgen (easy) and finally to Ricky. I wrote my love letter to Denmark the night before I left and leaned out the window to read it aloud to the cold sky. On the plane I cried as we flew over Jutland, the yellow farmhouses and windmills hidden by the clouds.

The US feels familiar and strange at once - the position of the lightswitches on the wall, the clothes in my closet, the penny dropped on the floor, the way strangers say "bless you" when you sneeze all surprise me. The house is sweetly cedar-scented and still. Everyone else is asleep, but I've been up for hours. All is as it should be.

Here at the year's end, at the feast
Of birth, let us bring to each other
The gifts brought once west through deserts—
The precious metal of our mingled hair,
The frankincense of enraptured arms and legs,
The myrrh of desperate, invincible kisses—
Let us celebrate the daily
Recurrent nativity of love,
The endless epiphany of our fluent selves,
While the earth rolls away under us
Into unknown snows and summers,
Into untraveled spaces of the stars.

- from "Lute Music" by Kenneth Rexroth

Thursday, December 15, 2005

I think I'll read instead

There are some things I can do better after a glass of wine, like touching my thumbs to the ground.

Juggling, it turns out, is not one of those things.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005


I think I'm at just the right balance between loving my time here and being ready to go home. I'm excited about Ellwood Thompson's and cooking and my Christmas tree and NPR and my mother's blue ceramic teapot that she says I can take with me to school next semester.

I want to write a thank-you letter to Denmark. A love letter, really. I toyed with the idea of sending it to Queen Margrethe (the embodiment of Denmark, as evidenced by Ricky's habit of muttering "Forgive me, Queen, for I have sinned" whenever he crosses a street without waiting for the green man), but I don't expect she would get it. Other options were writing it on sand or a foggy window so it would be dispersed into the sea or air. My current plan is to do it on paper and either burn or recycle it - both very Danish ways of destroying a sheet of paper.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

What words say

It's funny what words say about a society. In Russia the word "state" shows up everywhere - Moscow State University, etc. In Denmark the word you see everywhere is folke - "people." Denmark has people's highschools and Copenhagen People's University and the Danish People's Party. But the word doesn't mean "a collection of individuals" like you could use "people" in English - you can't say there were a lot of folke at the party. It's the nation, the community. In Russia you only have individuals and the state. In Denmark the state is the people's.

The other night I was at Ricky's house during bathtime for the youngest son, who was squeezing his bar of soap to make it shoot up in the air. I began counting backwards in Danish as if for a rocket launch, but when I got to what should have been "blastoff", I realized I had no idea how to say that in Danish. I asked Ricky, who didn't know, and we asked his mother. "What do you say at a rocket launch after 'three, two, one'?" Dorte looked puzzled: "Zero?" Only then did I realize that of course they wouldn't know - Denmark has no space program. There is no word for "blastoff" in Danish.

Monday, December 05, 2005


When I was maybe nine years old, I went to the park with my friend Britton and his brother and my sister and our mothers. I was running down the path through the woods, and he ran after and caught me in a hug at the bottom of the hill. I was surprised because we'd always done that sort of thing (there are some very cute photos of 12-month-old me climbing on 5-month-old him) but now we were too old for it. People would think (oh fate worse than death!) that we liked each other. Britton was just being the same spacy, nice kid he had always been, and I was sorry there was a barrier between us there hadn't been before.

Being friends with Ricky is like going back to life before that barrier. It's like life when what you wanted most in the world was to spend the night at your best friend's house and eat cookies and watch movies and talk and giggle until you fall asleep next to each other. Except now there aren't any parents to tell you it's a school night and you can't. And he's somehow made it well past childhood with his hugging instincts still intact.

People need more friendships without barriers. It used to be common and acceptable for women to have intense, intimate friendships - to spend lots of time together and hug and write each other passionate letters. The tendency now is to label those relationships as sexual, and probably some of them were, but I think most of them were probably just because people want to be close to other people and this was a way they could do it. Half of Bryn Mawr thinks M. Carey Thomas was a lesbian, but if you read her diaries and letters it's obvious that she wasn't sexually into anybody at all. But she gets labeled as such because she lived with her best friend, who was a woman.

Of course people leap to the same conclusion even more when the friend in question is of a different gender. I've got the "No, just friends" practically down to a single word by now (although what I can't explain is that "just" doesn't seem to belong in that sentence.) Yesterday when we went to a Quaker meeting someone inquired if I were Ricky's wife. I was good and waited until we made it to the elevator to burst out laughing.

Thursday, December 01, 2005


Last night I did yoga for the first time in about seven years. This morning I felt pretty stellar, but now I feel stellar in the sense that if this were a cartoon you would see little stars and exclamation marks coming from my body when I go up stairs. I kind of enjoy it, though.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Life is good because:

- The sun is shining. The sun is not up when I get up, and it's down by the time I'm out of class, but right now it is 1:10 and sunny.
- Yesterday when I got home (in the dark) Jørgen had left Advent calendars outside my and Tina's doors. The kind with chocolate inside the windows. I haven't had one of those in years, and then I had to share with Allison. Whoah.
- Yesterday Ricky said that my making a chemise by hand for the Elizabethan Rout out of a sheet in 45 minutes was as impressive as him building a house in three days. I disagree, not least because I only wore the chemise twice whereas he still lives in the house, but it was nice to hear.
- I have a roommate with whom I can refer to P&P and know that she will understand what I'm talking about.

Friday, November 25, 2005

A bodkin is some kind of pointy object, apparently

I had never really considered how great English is as a first language. This week in the high school class I volunteer in, the kids were translating Shakespeare from Danish into English. There's nothing like trying to explain the bit about making his quietus with a bare bodkin to a couple of highly suspicious Danish teenagers to make you realize that you have no idea what a quietus or a bodkin is. The Danish translation just rewrote the meaning of any bits that were too hard to understand, which made me appreciate being able to read so much of the world's best literature in the original language just by virtue of speaking English. It also makes me wonder what kind of garbling all the translated texts I read have gone through.

I'm starting to plan next summer. The international internship emails from Bryn Mawr were looking tasty, but I'm thinking no because if I'm going to go to a foreign country for two months, I'll barely have gotten trained and figured out what to do before I'll have to go home.

Option number two is the leadership program at Pendle Hill. I'd be living there (it's a Quaker center near Swarthmore) doing cooking, gardening, manual labor, etc plus 20 hours a week interning in some kind of social service agency in Philadelphia. It sounds just about perfect, and hopefully they won't mind that I'm agnostic. Co-founding a very short-lived Quaker student group last year should count for something, right?

Monday, November 21, 2005

In which I am a nerd

The problem with studying Nordic mythology is that the assumption is that anyone who's studying it at all has devoted their life's work to it and therefore speaks Icelandic, ancient Norse, etc. Half the sources I'm finding for my paper don't even bother translating the things they quote, though I can read a few words. It's just cruel to note that speaking the words ragr, strodinn, and sordinn were punishable by death in Iceland and then not telling you what they mean. Actually, they do translate sordinn, but unfortunately it's not a word I can bring myself to include in a paper, even in quotation.

On the plus side, one Dr. Carol Clover just made my day with her paper on masculinity in ancient Norse society by stating that "When not only one's sword and one's penis go limp but also one's tongue, life is pretty much over." I have never written a fan letter to a professor before, but I think this woman needs to get one as soon as I'm done with this paper.

Also, at my host sister's dinner party Saturday night I tried to explain the Protestant work ethic when one of the other girls asked me why our welfare system was so bad compared to Denmark's. Remind me never to try to explain Weber at a dinner party ever again, especially not with a language barrier and Britney Spears going loudly in the background.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

A haiku

Though there's no traffic
I stand, wait for the green man,
and feel so Danish

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Of course, if all the unhappy people kill themselves, your happiness level goes up!

Morton's explanation for why Denmark has such a high happiness index but such a high suicide rate. I think this is his best line since "I advise you to die in childbirth - all the best women do."

Know what made me ridiculously happy? Yesterday over dinner Ricky's host mother asked him what the ASL sign for ketchup is, and I answered first. It's my favorite sign. I had already had a rather somber dinner at my own house, but then I walked to Ricky's and his family was having a very happy noisy one, so I had another dinner. I really ought to have been writing a politics paper, but when you have the chance to go over and play with Legos and and watch a Danish movie while a kitten sits on you instead, are you really going to pass it by? I certainly wasn't.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Changing my tune

Going abroad has truly altered my loyalties. I read an article by a Wellesley professor and my first thought was not the usual "Darn Wellesley, being all snooty and more famous than us" but "Ah, one of the Seven Sisters!" I never thought I´d see the day.

Thursday, November 10, 2005


This morning I saw a middle-aged couple kissing as the woman got onto her train. "That's odd," I thought, "I saw that kind of thing more in France than here." Then they started saying goodbye in French. I really liked that about France - after being so prepared for snootiness, people were more open and friendly than I expected. One afternoon I was sitting on a curb by the Opera Garnier making a sandwich, and a man in a suit walked up to me. I fully expected him to tell me this was a national monument and I couldn't sit on the curb eating a sandwich like some bum, but at the last second he gave me a smile and a "Bon appetit!"

I got the best possible welcome back to Denmark: I went to Ricky's host family's house. He, his host mother, his host sister and I spent a good hour and a half at the dinner table talking and eating, and then there was tea and gingersnaps and a fire in the woodstove and three cats. It was practically hygge incarnate.

Morton is always talking about how being with other people was so important in ancient Nordic society, largely because the world outside was so harsh and dangerous. In Iceland sitting outside by yourself was synonymous with doing magic, because there was no other reason a person would sit outside alone. You could be executed for doing it. On a fieldtrip he took us to a reconstructed Danish dwelling that would have housed 30 people and their animals, everyone cooking, eating, sleeping, procreating, etc in the same space. After two months in a rather cheerless home with Tina, Jørgen and I cloistered in our own rooms with our own books and televisions, that kind of human contact sounded surprisingly good to me. A bit of the attitude seems to have survived in Ricky's host family - even though everyone has their own bedroom, the three children generally end up sleeping in each other's beds or with their mother or Ricky. So after tea and cookies Camilla probably went to sleep in Dorte's room, Ricky and I in his. Human contact = good.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

England, where my heart lies

I had forgotten until I got off the plane how much I love England. Is there a word for this kind of love of a place? It's the same feeling I have for Denmark - last night when I saw a Danish artichoke lamp in a window I felt the same kind of sudden lift you get when you're in love and you see some reminder of whoever it is. Can you call it nationalism when it's not your own nation?

It feels like coming home in a way that I can't attribute to having been here before. Part of it is the folk tradition, the feeling of finally whistling tunes in their native habitat. Another part has to be the literature - in Paris one can hardly help imagining the characters of Victor Hugo and Gaston Leroux and so on as one passes their various locations, but in London it's so much stronger because a disproportionate amount of my reading material has come from this little patch of earth. When I walk down the streets I feel they're peopled with everyone from John Donne to Eleanor Dashwood to Bertie Wooster to Bridget Jones. Since I was little I've been conditioned by C.S. Lewis and Roald Dahl respectively to believe that Turkish delight and steak and kidney pie were the two best foods in the world.

The folk pilgrimage is proceeding nicely. Last night I went to a Morris practice and then a folk club (people sitting around drinking and singing.) The guy teaching Morris addressed me as "good lass," and the very cute bespectacled Polish bartender tried to give me more shandies for free after my first half pint but failed and had to ply me with lemonade instead.

Also contributing to my happiness is the fact that I'm undivided for once. There's nothing else I need to be doing, nowhere else I would rather be. After so long of feeling pulled towards Boston or Richmond or Bryn Mawr or wherever I wasn't, I feel completely present here.

Monday, October 31, 2005


Spain has been a lesson in the variety of human nature. People are right to warn you to be careful on the streets here - the hand slinking off with Lauren´s purse that luckily even my atrocious peripheral vision could catch, the barefoot beggar who takes shoes out of her backpack and walks off in them when she´s done for the day. Last night we saw the other side as well.

After dinner one of the girls I´m travelling with had a two-hour long seizure. We were in the metro station when it started, just her teeth chattering as if cold, and she insisted we go on. By the time we had decided to get her back to the hotel an hour away and made it onto our train, she couldn´t walk or talk. We took turns carrying her through the station and holding her like some kind of live-action Pietà, except Jesus wasn´t shaking and insisting he didn´t want to go to a hospital. Eventually a crowd of Spaniards condensed around us and took over the action - the train station security guard who radioed his colleage to have a taxi waiting at the next stop, the undercover police agent who called an ambulance instead, the man who carried her out of the train, the bald man who covered her with his jacket, his mother who kept patting her shoulder and saying comforting things in Spanish, the very attractive ambulance driver who took off his sweater to cover her, the woman and her boyfriend who drove the rest of us to the hospital and later back to our hotel in the next town.

In the end she was fine, and my faith in people has been recharged.

Sunday, October 30, 2005


Things I love about Europe:
men in velvet jackets
14 cent oranges in Spain
the sadistic pleasure of watching women in heels navigate cobblestones and boardwalks
small children with cute accents
random French men who tell you you´re charmante
random Spanish men who address you as "guapa"
clubs with free entry and white couches and a lack of grinding, so you don´t have to spend the evening expecting at any moment a skeezy man to insinuate himself against your thigh
women in black tulle skirts
the way Spanish people walk you to your destination if you ask them for directions even if they´re not going there themselves, and if they don´t know the way hail other people until there are three or four people peering at your map and discussing how to get you there

Things I don´t love about Europe:
random Spanish men who try to walk off with your purse
pay toilets (particularly when they charge more for women than men. I understand, but it´s still irksome.)
feeling like a tourist for wearing sunglasses because I´m one of fourteen people in Barcelona without brown eyes, and eleven of those are tourists too

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Je mendierai ma vie sur les routes de France

After having spent the last six months talking more to boys than girls - mostly Simon and Andrew, and now Ricky - it's funny being around three girls of my own age suddenly. I admit it was fun trying on clothes in fancy-schmancy stores and discussing anorexia qnd gynecology over dinner, things which just don't happen much with guys. That said, the past days have made me truly apppreciate the beauty that is travelling by yourself.

Paris with Ricky was the anti-tourist experience - refusing to take photos of landmarks and speaking an atrocious Danish-French hybrid on the street to avoid sounding like Americans ("Det regner." "Oui, un peu, men det er ok.") Being with the three girls from DIS is the ultimate tourist experience. If I have to appear in one more photo or go into one more souvenir shop while they exclaim over light-up plastic replicas of the Eiffel Tower, I'm going to run away. This morning I made my excuses and have had one last day blissfully free of playing tour guide, not having to carry anyone else's lunch or speak English. I wandered the Quartier Latin all morning whistling and feeling very French in my wool skirt and giant black scarf. Men smiled and an old lady told me I was a good whistler. I love being able to pass, just love it.

Sunday evening on the metro I sat opposite an woman wearing a wedding band, ugly black shoes, and a scarf tied over her head. She looked old, but it was the kind of look that comes from a hard life more than actual years. She was holding two bouquets of beautiful white lilies that looked expensive. I was trying to copme up with a scenario in which someone had given her the flowers, but I just couldn't imagine it. I think she was on her way to church to leave them, probably for the Virgin - if I had been alone I would have followed her to find out. The striking thing was that she looked as if no one had ever given her flowers, or at least not in decades. Why did she choose that way to show her faith? Why the lilies?

One could tell a lot about Bryn Mawr students just from looking at the offerings we leave for our statue of Athena - chocolate, condoms (ironic gift to a virgin godess,) the first orange maple leaves, lipstick, cherry blossoms, bubble gum, pennies, tampons, origami. Things we have in our pockets, things we like and use. When I came upon the statue of St. Joan of Arc in Notre Dame, my childhood hero, my brave girl, my first reaction was to burst into tears and my second was to light her a candle. As Ricky pointed out, fire was probably the last thing she wanted, but people like light and warmth so they offer lights to their gods and saints. I think that woman loved the lilies, so that's what she chose to give away.

As we go marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient cry of bread
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew
Yes, it is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses too.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

The road

Europe has been wonderful but all flavored and brightened by one factor: I've finally found a friend. I had decided weeks ago in Nordic mythology that Ricky was worth knowing because he sat in front and talked to Morton about the readings, but I never dreamed we would end up spending almost every waking moment of this past week together. While the other kids were smoking up in Asterdam, we were sharing felafel by its canals, playing on its playgrounds, trading parlor tricks with a Morrocan-Dutch 12-year-old we met in the street, and generally spending as little money as possible. At night we would go back to the hotel and tell each other fairy tales.

We were probably the only ones on the trip who knew we were just friends, but the fact that he has a girlfriend at home makes things simpler and nicer in a lot of ways. It's also proved a theory of mine, but that one can wait until another city and another internet cafe.

I can't describe how super the kid is, but I think I can illustrate it. I like asking friends what they would do with their lives if they weren't going to do whatever they're planning to do. (Answers from my favorite people generally involve living in the woods.) I was going to ask Ricky, but I couldn't imagine what he would want to do that he's not already doing or planning to do - he can read and write Nordic runes, cook, juggle fire, amuse children, tell wonderful stories, walk in high heels, catch arrows in flight. He's studying in Copenhagen now and next semester he'll be in India. Right now he's about to hitchhike to Brussells and across Britain. I can only think of a few people with such a strong forward drive, a sense that they can do and be anything. His next ambition is to learn to swim in a chainmail shirt, so hopefully the drive won't lead to a watery death induced by overconfidence.

Thinking about all this made me vow to do more with myself, to really learn the things like bellydancing and massage that I feel I ought to be able to do. I resolved to track down the woman who does occasional bellydance workshops at Bryn Mawr and find out how to join her troupe. This evening as I was wandering the streets of Montmartes alone I happened upon the street where the exotic dancers of Paris apparently buy their gear. I've never seen even one shop that sold hip scarves, let alone a whole street of them. The one I've got is made from aluminum pieplates and sounds terrible, and I've wanted a real one for years. This was like a sign. (I don't believe in signs, so it wasn't a sign, but it sure was like one.) I now have a blue hip scarf with gold jangly coins. We'll see where life takes me from here.

Friday, October 14, 2005

All I trust I leave my heart to

For a while I couldn't decide if I was less happy about the idea of bringing a third pair of shoes or going to the Paris opera in flats, but in the end packing light won out. Yes, gearing up for my three-week jaunt around this continent - Amsterdam, Paris, Barcelona, London. I feel like singing out of bus windows and swinging my suitcase around like Maria von Trapp.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

And still more education

When I came home tonight, Jørgen and a red-haired woman were in front of the computer talking and laughing. My theory that she had to be his girlfriend is confirmed twenty minutes later when he asks me to come have a glass of wine with them and she says she had heard "so much about me." I´ve never heard anything about her, but she must be somebody because I am never asked to come meet the rest of his friends who come through the house to play pool or sit on the patio with him.

While we drink the wine we watch Crocodile Dundee on TV, and I wonder what kind of a person would date Jørgen and spend her time looking at the computer and watching TV with him, just like he does alone. After I excuse myself to work on my history paper, I realize that the TV is no longer on and noises are coming from his bedroom. I had never heard people having sex before. Tina's boyfriend spends the weekend sometimes, but they're always quiet. I suppose when you're 62 you don't have to be quiet anymore.

Now he's snoring. Has she gone home? I didn't hear her leave. They didn't even go to the bathroom. How can she sleep with him snoring? Will she be at breakfast tomorrow, and why is this all on a Thursday night? I suppose when you're retired it doesn't matter if it's Thursday.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

The times they are a-changing

We have a fall break for the next three weeks, and since the cheapest way to get from one city to another is to fly through London, I'm stopping there on the way back for something of a folk dance and music pilgrimmage. The Cecil Sharp House is the hub of the anglophonic folk world, so I hoped to catch a dance there like Mom did when she went, maybe visit some folk clubs. As for who to see, I thought, who do I know in London? Morris dancers, of course. I don't actually know any, but I sent off an email to the local teams asking if they were performing during the first week of November. I was a bit nervous about this, since in England Morris is done much more traditionally than in the US - meaning that there are those who would rather not see women doing dances traditionally done by men. I understand their point of view, and I admit that I hate seeing women do the Abbots Bromley horn dance, but I think it's a bit extreme. In the 1970s when my mother visited London she wasn't even allowed to watch a men's team practice, let alone dance in with them.

This morning I got an email inviting me to a dance in at a practice of an (all-male) Morris side in the Cecil Sharp House. I feel like Virginia Woolf being allowed to walk on the grass.

Monday, October 10, 2005

The lure of the perfect teatowel and toy train

I've heard from several people that Copenhagen makes them want to be domestic for the first time because there are just so many beautiful dishes and linens and kitchen gadgets. My father's cousin actually decided that she needed to get married after visiting a Copenhagen department store because it made her want to set up house.

I've had the setting-up-house urge in full swing for years, but Denmark makes me want to have children and raise them here. The toyshops are amazing. Not like Toys R' Us, not full of plastic soldier figurines and emaciated dolls. Toyshops here are full of brightly painted wooden train sets, castles, cloth dolls, Legos, wooden swords and shields. When I walk by the bakery windows with the really fancy pastries on display, the big heart-shaped ones with chocolate and strawberry stuff, it makes me want to have kids so I can take them there on their birthdays and get them the biggest, most beautiful pastry in the window. (Unless we live in the country, in which case we'll go to the iron age burial mounds, of course.)

You can barely get on a train during the day without running into a class of schoolchildren with their teachers - they must go on an amazing number of field trips. And their teachers aren't the aged disciplinarians with the pumpkin sweater for October and the snowman sweater for January, either. Last week I saw a young elementary school teacher leading her class across Town Hall Square wearing cowboy boots, a denim miniskirt, and a white shawl. Their manner with the kids is so much more like that of an equal than what you see in the US. It's the one place I know of where I would feel ok about putting my kids into the public schools.

I won't, of course. If the US doesn't need me as much as Mexico, Denmark needs me even less. But it's a lovely fantasy.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Vor Frue Kirke

Today I went to my first-ever Lutheran service at Vor Frue Kirke, Copenhagen's cathedral. Understanding Danish hymns is a lot like understanding salsa music: you can get the gist of all the songs if you know the basic vocab. In salsa it's "heart", "bandit", "blood", "heat", "love," and "pain." The hymns also have lots of "love" and some "blood", but also lots of "heaven", "earth", "Lord", "law", and "word." Both got lucky with some rhymes: in Danish "blood" and "bread" rhyme, which is handy for communion hymns, and in Spanish "beer" and "headache" rhyme, which is just handy.

On Sunday nights there's a night church, where the place is all lit with candles and you can wander in and sit down for as long as you want in silence. I sort of like it better than the actual service because listening to a sermon in Danish is dead boring (in Denmark they say ass-boring), although I do like the singing. Church and football matches are about the only opportunities for group singing here.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

I mean, seriously, Ronald Reagan?

Today my Nordic mythology class had a day-long field trip seeing Viking ships and burial mounds and things. You wouldn't have thought burial mounds would be particularly cozy places, but 20 people huddled in a stone chamber holding tea candles for light is surprisingly friendly. Danish families go there on children's birthdays to enjoy the hygge. It was a lovely day despite the rain, and it reinforced my liking of the professor. Morten's a big tall man with a grey beard who's equally likely to quote Old Norse verse or The Far Side, and we all love him. On the bus ride we clustered at the front of the bus to talk to him instead of in the back like in fifth grade, and he brought us Danish licorice and a bottle of mead.

We somehow got to talking about how strange it is that Jørgan likes Ronald Reagan, which led to how strange it is that I feel like a stranger in their house because we talk so little. Morten said the same thing as Sandy, that assumptions about other cultures are fallible and that it was a learning experience. But he also said what perhaps I've been wanting to hear, that it was sad that I'm isolated like that and very strange that Danes would barely talk to a guest at their own dinner table.

He also thought some of my culture shock was from the fact that my family is "a microcosm of Danishness" because we eat dinner and talk together and rarely watch TV and turn out lights when we're not using them. Not so here. It's strange to leave home and find what you think of as unpleasantly American traits in your Danish family.

It's a silly thing to feel sorry for myself about, because some people live their whole lives like this. I am making an effort to meet people and make friends, and I am making an effort to bond with Tina and Jørgen. This weekend (like most weekends) they're out of town, so I'm going to go make pasta and put on my Irish music and read Tolkien's Book of Lost Tales. It's possible to make hygge by yourself.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Good advice on research

"The only reason a reference book won't be on the shelf is if someone is using it at that moment. And if so, the person is still in the reading room, so you can kill them and take the book." I love my Nordic mythology professor.

Know what I don't love? The fact that at the beginning of last night's potluck dessert, the one boy I picked out as the most obnoxious human being I've met in this country is the one who asks for my number by the end of the night. I'd forgotten how unpleasant this whole game can be. Is it crueller to say no from the get-go or wait until later? I didn't really have to decide at the moment, since I didn't remember Jørgen's phone number anyway. Now I get to rehearse my "Nooooo still hung up on someone else good luck elsewhere" speech in case Mr. Loud Marketing Major looks me up in the directory.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Further education

Lest it seem that I spent my entire trip in cowpastures, I should note that Thursday was my first proper night on the town in Denmark (or almost at all, really.) Ålborg is a university town, so it has a walking street with bar after restaraunt after bar after discotheque after bar. The tour leaders took us out at 8 to buy us all a round and Line, true Dane that she is, managed to find a beer I didn't mind.

The adventure started when four DIS kids were leaving with two Danes they had met in the bar and asked if I wanted to come. I tagged along with them, and Henrik and Daniel (his mother was Irish) led us down the street to a second bar with a jazz quartet where Daniel was the bartender. He proceeded to buy all manner of alcohol - our theory was later that he had a thing for Emily or Dan or both. After a while the band announced that anyone who wanted to play in with them was welcome to, so we made Willow join them on the drum set. Willow, a vegetarian theater major from Oberlin with orange leg warmers and a nose ring (could we get any more Oberlin?) was telling me that since I'd never done any of this before she'd walk me home if I had too much to drink and wanted to leave, but I did surprisingly well. It seems that multiple drinks don't make me much fuzzier than one if spaced out enough.

After that we went to a discotheque, where Daniel said some magic words to the bouncer, got us in free, and then produced yet another round. We danced for hours and had a good time laughing at the Danish boys' very enthusiastic dancing. Still more educational was the stripper, whom we certainly weren't expecting. After it became clear who she was and what she was doing a circle of men formed around the front of the room, slack-jawed, while the (shorter) women had to stand on the stairs in the back to see over their heads, wondering how she ever got her pants off over those shoes. At two in the morning we'd had enough and walked the 45 minutes back to the hostel. It was a terrific night.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Danmark, du har mit hjerte

During our first week here we were warned not to fall into the common patterns of reacting to a foreign country, one of which was to abandon one's own nationality and want to become as Danish as possible. I'm struggling with that one right now.

This weekend I was on a school trip around Denmark, which was my first real sight of the countryside. Copenhagen is a beautiful city and I love it, but if you really want me to latch on to a place show me the farmland. Something about it gets to me no matter where it is. Driving past the farmsteads like gold and white islands in their fields of dark plowed earth, sitting on a rock by the harbor in Ålborg watching the sun set, standing by the sea at night with the wind whipping the waves up onto the rocks, it all would have inspired a love of whatever country it was in. But the fact that it was all in Denmark was like the difference between a parent seeing a picture a random 5-year-old drew and seeing a picture their own child drew. The farmhouse in the middle of the green fields under the sun would be beautiful enough on its own, but it gets at me even more with a solar panel on the thatched roof. The cows in the fields make me smile even more with the wind turbines wheeling in the background. The fact that it's all in this sweetly egalitarian place makes it shine.

It made me want to sing patriotic songs, but I don't know any Danish ones. The closest I could come was this, which is the closest Quakers come to patriotic songs. I can't ever be anything but an American, so I won't try to change it, but it made me wish I had been born here instead.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Daughters of feminists

The last 24 hours have been full of luxury: I bought some yarn, found a thrift store, and got the registration number I needed to get a library card. I now have all the books I can read, purple fuzzy yarn, two wool skirts, and a copy of Marie Claire (to practice my French, but more fun than a textbook.) I hadn't realized how poorly I function without access to thrift stores.

In the library I witnessed a rather pathetic sight: a Danish guy was giving a blues performance with his guitar in the main lobby. I assume he had written the lyrics himself, because they were pretty stupid. I felt bad for him, since he was writing in a language that obviously wasn't his own, but you just can't sing the blues in Danish. What would it be about, anyway? "My heart's aching but at least we have free healthcare"? "My woman left me because the kids are in state-funded daycare so she doesn't need my income, and Lutheranism isn't that strong here anymore"? "It rains a lot here"?

My pre-library card reading was Michael Crichton's A Case of Need, which I think was intended to raise issues, but not the ones it raised for me. Without any other factors, you can tell it was written around 1970 because it's clearly after the civil rights movement but the women's movement. Crichton makes a point of having one of the characters be a black lawyer, just like he makes a big point of having female doctors or something in his later books (but a maximum of one main female character per book.) Here, the secretaries are all female and are referred to as girls. The doctors are all men. Their wives are all housewives who apologise for not keeping the kids out of their husbands' hair enough.

The thing that made me think was that a couple of years ago I wouldn't have noticed this at all. He's not making some point about "This is the natural order, and all women should be in the background supporting their husbands." He just doesn't notice or challenge it. It seems so stupid that for 18 years I held most of the assumptions about gender that people started questioning decades before I was born. It makes me want to raise my kids in a vaccuum so they're not raised surrounded by images of people in the traditional roles while they're still too young to question it all. I don't want them to have to go through the miniature revolutions in their heads when US society had this revolution long ago.

Of course, this doesn't work because a) doing this would mean forbidding them most of the world's books, art, etc. because a truly feminist culture has never existed, and b)the scraps of Disney movies that make it into the house would be prized because they're forbidden and rare. It's like that rather clever song:

Daughters of feminists think they'll get married
To some wealthy guy who'll support them forever
Daughters of feminists don't bother voting at all.
Daughters of feminists beg to wear lipstick
Each day from the age of three.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

But mom, I don't want to wear a kirtle

Today Jørgen and I went to Tivoli, the Victorian-era amusement park. It's small by American standards but much nicer, with rose gardens and a lake and some of the city's best restaraunts. On Sundays girls dressed as princesses get in free, so the place was teeming with small blonde girls in floofy pink dresses and plastic tiaras. If I'd had a daughter, I totally would have sent her in historically accurate dress. She probably would have hated me. Good thing I don't have a daughter.

Another thing that's really different here is freedom of speech/expression. The definition of hate speech must be a lot lower here, because people have gotten into legal trouble for saying things that wouldn't be as big a deal here. And you're not allowed to get tattoos on your face, neck, or hands. But other things aren't as big a deal - in Tivoli there was a big sign outside an arcade with a painting of a bare-breasted woman on it, which would probably get torn down by outraged parents if it appeared in Disneyland. And I don't know any Danish swearwords yet, but the newspapers print some English ones that would never fly in the US.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Idle hands

After all the warnings from the program that this is not a semester to goof off and that the workload is atrocious, I've decided they left out the caveat "...if you're a giant slacker to begin with." My lack of a social life or a job here means that for the first time I can remember, I have too much spare time. I'm not partying in bars like most people, but I'm not swamped with work either. I'm not even reading because the DIS library has no fiction.

This dilemma may be alleviated by my discovery of the only thing that's cheaper here than in the US: fabric. I figure not having a sewing machine will actually be an advantage, because I can buy a yard or two of something cheap, and then making a skirt or something by hand will eat up time.

Also yarn. There are three yarn stores I've found so far, and at the moment I can't think of any more sensual bliss than standing in the embroidery floss section of a yarn store. The color, the feel . . . I can't stay too long or I start wanting to buy some and embroider things.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

De Rød-Grønne

I'm supposed to be researching the Red-Green Party's welfare policy (Communist and environmental, get it?) but they're so small and new that there's nothing in English about it on the web. I can read enough Danish to know which pages have everything I need to know, but not enough to get through it in less than three hours. And of course the Danish language isn't important enough to be on online translation sites. The party headquarters are only a block away, so I ended up calling them and asking if I could come over tomorrow morning before my presentation so they could tell me about it.

The political machine is a lot smaller and more accessible in general here - if you call your representative, you actually speak to them instead of getting a secretary who will tally you as being pro or con on some measure. Until recently government ministers didn't even have their own secretaries - they shared. And no political ads are allowed on TV, so Danish politicians spend a fraction of what ours do on campaigning. My politics professor used to be an MP and the minister of transportation, so it's weird hearing him discuss something like how many seats the Social Democrats lost to the Liberals in the last election and then throw in "One of them was mine."

I'm enjoying the constant "Wait...wha?" factor of a different governmental system. Like reading an analysis of why taxes are so high: politicians are afraid to cut spending, because people here would rather pay more in taxes and get better programs. So if you raise taxes and offer, say, better care for the elderly, the voters are more likely to keep you in office. This made my head spin. Also, after two weeks I think I finally understand the electoral system: parliament seats are given out proportionately to the number of people who vote for each party. So in US you could have 49% of the electorate vote for third-party candidates for congress, but if they were spread out enough they might never get a majority in any district and thus not get a single third-party congress member. Over here if 49% of the votes go to candidates of a certain party, that party gets 49% of the seats. (There's a complicated system for making sure that you get the right proportions but still have politicians representing their own districts, but that took me two weeks to figure out so I won't go into it.) My one reservation on this is that I don't like equating individual politicians with their party, but I guess when you have 7 parties you can find one that represents you better than a politician could in the US.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

In which Denmark confuses me

Whoah, Danish political parties have logos. Logos are so much cooler than donkies and elephants. I guess you need them more when you have more than two parties.

If you ever want people to look at you like you've got to be joking, become a professor of Danish Politics and Society and draw a scale of the seven main political parties on the board, explaining that the parties called "the Left" and "the Conservatives" are both rightwing, while "the Radical Left" is centrist. Or, if you prefer, you could become a professor of the Danish language and explain to equally incredulous students that Danish has two genders, neither of which is masculine or feminine. Your choice.

Friday, September 09, 2005

The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls

There's a lot of graffiti here - more than in the US. Yesterday a new one appeared on the floor at my train stop: "Playfield of Satan - Vladimir Nabokov." I have to respect any culture that quotes Nabokov in its graffiti.

I have a horror of feeling like a tourist, which means I don't really take photos of the images that interest me most - the shop windows, the amazing combinations of clothes and shoes, the preschoolers in the playgrounds, the espresso cups, the people and their bicycles. I've finally realized I need to be keeping a sketchbook instead of just trying to remember it all.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

I'm such a lightweight it's sad

I'm trying to think of a polite way to tell Jørgen that three-quarters of a glass of wine makes my head swim and a glass and a half renders me incapable of focusing my eyes properly and to please, please not pour me a second glass. Also, one of the cacti in my window put out a big pink flower over the weekend, and Jørgen's been cooing over it and taking pictures ever since. (I wish I had pictures of this burly sunburnt greyhaired Danish beer-truck driver admiring his cactus flower.) The cacti get a little more of my regard now.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Left behind

My host family keeps bringing up Hurricane Katrina, which is in the headlines every day even here. I don't know how to react except to nod. What I really want to say is:

A few months ago the images of the homeless, helpless people stranded in New Orleans would have seemed foreign to me, the kind of people I only see in newspaper photos or through the window of a car while driving through the inner city. Now they look to me like the women in the shelter from this summer. Storms and domestic violence both strike people from all parts of society who are in the wrong place or the wrong relationship, but you can probably guess the kind of people who hit rock-bottom enough to have to live in an overcrowded shelter without even a bedroom to themselves. (To be honest, this is not even rock-bottom. Rock-bottom is the women who leave an abuser only to wind up living on the streets because they have nowhere else to go, and we have to turn them away because they're not technically in a crisis situation.) It's the same kind of people you see in the photos of the Superdome: poor, black products of poor education, poor nutrition, and bad jobs. And when the rest have some way out, they're the ones left behind. It infuriates me.

Thursday, September 01, 2005


The biggest culture shock I've met with so far hasn't been with the Danes but with the other students. In the airport in Iceland it dawned on me with horror that the crowd of young people with popped collars waiting for the flight to Copenhagen were to be my classmates. I don't think I've ever gone to school with people who popped their collars before. There's scarcely a nerd in this whole crowd (except a few of us who are in hiding, I guess.) I'm trying to work on the concept that we're all in a strange place together and I can be friends with people with expensive highlighting jobs and Louis Vuitton handbags, really I can. It's just coming very hard.

I think one of the reasons I wanted to come here was the idea of hygge. The short translation is "cosiness", and we've had several lectures on it so far: Hot chocolate or tea around the fireplace is hygge, but having the TV or radio on is not. Beer in a cafe with lit candles on the table is hygge, but waiting for your train in the rain is not. Cats are always hygge. (I have to disagree with one part of this - I really think watching the Red Green Show as a family and making comments has to count as hygge, as does making bread and listening to Thistle & Shamrock on a Sunday afternoon or putting dinner on the table and listening to Prairie Home Companion on a Saturday night.)

I don't think my host family really holds much stock in this concept. During breakfast the radio is on playing the Backstreet Boys or Shania Twain. Dinner is a twenty-minute affair with little conversation. After dinner they both go to watch TV in the living room or in their bedrooms. Maybe it would be easier with more people in the family, but they can't really help that. What if when I'm 63 I'm like Jørgen with a dead wife and most of my kids moved out and a family life that consists of watching TV in seperate rooms in a house without hygge? It's a scary thought.

I think I'm going to buy a plant to put on the windowsill in my bedroom. I miss having something to take care of. The sill currently houses about five cacti. Surely cacti aren't very cozy? I wonder what I can get that will have flowers on it for the longest.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The Danes

During orientation several of the staff have alluded to "the statistic", which is that since the DIS program started in 1959 something like two DIS and four DIS-Dane couples get married every year. When some of us were recounting this at lunch yesterday, you could see the eyes bug out on one of the guys at the table. "Are you serious? I hope it's me! I mean, look at the women on the street. Not that I have marriage on the mind, but I sure wouldn't mind marrying most of them. And the people in this program, too - I've never been in a place with so many beautiful people."

This is possibly the most common comment by students this week - how beautiful the Danes are. I had heard it, but I didn't really understand until I got here. The people you see - I mostly notice the women, but I guess it applies somewhat to men - have these wonderful stylish clothes. Not trendy-trendy, but just really good-looking. At home a twenty-year-old blonde gets some kind of attention walking down a street: in the suburbs random men honk their horns or yell or whatever, and in most parts of the city I look out of place because I'm white. Here I've realized that it's the first place I've been where I can walk around and go completely unnoticed because the streets are full of beautiful people, most of them blond.

Simon and I used to debate whether people whose hobby/obsession was clothes, shoes, etc. were inspirational or just made other people feel bad. While I'm here as long as I know I don't look awful I don't feel the need to live up to the image of the women on the street. (Of course, this is a good thing because you've never seen so many tall willowy people with flaxen hair. They, unlike me, would look good if they were wearing a burlap sack.) It's not like being a losing competitor - it's like being in a work of art every time I'm on the street or in a store.

The problem is that it seems kind of useless for foreigners to put much effort into becoming part of it. A woman wearing red high heeled sandals and a gorgeous print dress while riding her bicycle down the street from work is part of the work of art - she's just an average mom on her way home from work. And she's a joy to look at. But if she did the same thing in Richmond she would look out of place, as if she were making too much of an effort. Men would yell at her (aside from nearly running her over with their pickups because her bike lane wouldn't exist in Richmond.) As Mandi from my Russian class, the most stylish girl I know, said, she just can't go into academia because what would the point be? Her students wouldn't appreciate how fabulous she is.

Monday, August 29, 2005


Here I am, settled in on my second day in Copenhagen. My host family has had 25 or 26 host students before, so I figure nothing I do can be the worst thing they've ever seen. Last night my host sister Tina told me, "We've had some real nutcases. We had one guy from Japan who wanted to eat noodles for breakfast!" I decided not to mention to her that my normal breakfast is whatever I find in the fridge, which could be noodles or salad or cold pizza. When Jørgen asked me what I wanted for breakfast, I panicked but took a guess that oatmeal would sound sufficiently normal. We worked out what oatmeal was and affirmed that they did indeed have a box, and this morning Tina cooked me a huge pot of oatmeal. After the massive amounts of dinner Jørgen gave me to eat last night I really couldn't handle three bowls of oatmeal, so I waited until he left the room and threw out the rest.

If I passed breakfast, though, I failed at lunch. Jørgen brought out a loaf of white bread for me to make a sandwich with, but I decided to attempt a more traditional Danish sandwich of rye bread and layers of stuff that makes no sense to Americans. I did all right with a layer of butter and a layer of ham (I'm eating meat this semester because trying to be a vegetarian here is like trying to be a penguin in Bermuda) but ran into trouble when he brought out a cucumber and a tin of Italian spread that looked like it was made from mayonaise, carrots, and peas. I attempted to put cucumber slices on the ham and the spread on the other slice of bread, but this was very upsetting to Jørgen. "No, no! It all goes on one slice of bread. And you don't put that with cucumber - it doesn't go!" Since peas and carrots with ham made at least as much sense to me as cucumbers and ham, I'll have to learn the art of Danish sandwich-making as I go.

I think the drinking thing is also going to be more problematic than I had thought. Last night at dinner I was determined to drink the glass of red wine Jørgen gave me, but it tasted so awful I didn't finish it. Sandy's remark when I don't like the taste of whatever other people are drinking is usually, "Well, it's cheap champagne anyway - you should try the good stuff." Without her around I don't even know whether this was bad wine or whether I just have a lot more getting used to the taste than I thought I would.

The city is lovely. I was thinking a few weeks ago about how I would lay out a city if I could, and this is pretty darn close - good public transporatation, no skyscrapers, lots of parks and plazas, green everywhere (even sunflowers growing in front of government buildings,) and lots of bike lanes. Biking here isn't just for twenty-something liberals - you see businessmen, women in stilettos, little kids in baskets on their parents' bikes.

I'm at school now, but it's time to head for the train station and go home. Hopefully the walking will help stave off the 15 pounds Jørgen vows his food will put on me.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Whichever it is, it's all gone

Are the therapeutic effects of the traditional recovering-from-distress chocolate lessened or enhanced by the fact that the chocolate is truffles you made with him in his kitchen?

Walk me to the corner, our steps will always rhyme

It's been quite the summer.

The first notable event is the reappearance of my friend Andrew from high school. As I told him, it sounds like a script for a romantic comedy: Girl, age 13, meets Boy on her first day visiting her new high school. For the next two years of school Girl adores Boy from afar, learns to play chess, and generally pours herself into a nonexistent relationship, but is too scared to say anything. She eventually moves on.

Four years later, Boy is on his way to grad school on the other side of the country but first phones Girl out of the blue. Why? He wants to pursue Girl #2, who happens to enjoy the same hobby that occupies our heroine's Saturday evenings: swing dancing. After she is done laughing, Girl agrees to teach him. Boy and Girl proceed to spend the rest of the summer swing dancing on Saturdays and then going to his house to talk about everything from religion to nitrogen-fixing bacteria while watching the parenting behavior of the fish he rescued from the biology lab. Also, insert humorous scene in which giant swing dancing man who's fond of Girl wants to pummel Boy for bringing another friend to the swing dance when Girl is out of town.

Now, if this were a movie script, it would end with Boy and Girl #2 enrapturedly swing dancing in some notable place like Boston Common or the airport and then closing credits to something like “Sing Sing Sing.” Unfortunately it didn't work out that way, but now Andrew has another hobby to keep him even busier at Stanford and we both have a friend.

It's been the most wonderful closure. After spending two years working up my nerve to touch his hand on the last day of Spanish class sophomore year, the idea that I would ever teach him to swing and waltz and salsa would have made my jaw drop. After spending two years formulating theories about what he must be like, I finally got to know him. I finally get what I once wanted more than anything in the world: to see him happy, or at least happy enough to dispel the impression I once had that he really hated his life. Eli once said I had bad taste for liking him, but I now have enough information to strongly disagree.

Andrew, once in Spanish class you made some joke about Guy Noir, and I thought, “If he listens to Prairie Home Companion, when I listen to it I'll think of him, and then we'll be listening together even after he's far away.” I'll still do that.

Now comes the second, less happy closure of the summer. Today I see Simon for the last time in the foreseeable future.

He makes me wish there were a system where people could review other people they know, so I could leave him about the best review ever. My parents used to ask me how I could care so much about hungry people in Africa and still be mean to my sister. He is what they wanted me to be. I wouldn't have thought it possible to date someone for more than two years and never speak a single unkind word to her, but he's done it. When I'm in a low spot I always know in the back of my head that I love him, and if I brought that to the front of my mind I wouldn't take out my crabbiness on him. But he somehow never takes anything out on me, although I undoubtedly deserve it at times.

Me going to Denmark is a fairly natural breaking-off point, and at least we get to stay friends this way. They say that of your occupation, your home, and your family/significant other you should never change more than one at a time. I'm breaking that rule, but hopefully it will be easier to miss him as a friend than it would have been otherwise.

I feel I should have a set of spectacular goals for the semester, but at the moment I can only think of a few:
Learn Danish enough to converse
Get along with my host family
Don't start crying anywhere embarrassing, such as the plane

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Jeg er en heldig kartoffel

I've finally heard from my host family: my Danish host father is a widower named Jørgen Jørgensen (I am not making that name up.) He used to work at the Faxe beer company and says I will not be allowed to drink any other brand of beer while in his house. He informs me that his daughter works as a senior assistant at a hospital and her one-year-old son works as a brat at the local nursery. He closes the email with "By the way; there are no icebears walking on our streets in Denmark." Good to know.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Everything free in America

After a week and a half without air conditioning, I'm very ready to head to the frozen North in twelve days (well, Denmark's not frozen yet, but at least it's closer.) I'm trying to convince my sister that her habit of leaving the computer and lots of incandescent lights on is not helping the situation.

On Saturday my parents and I went to the annual party at Dad's cousin's farm in the mountains. It was everything a family party should be, with babies and dogs and lots of corn on the cob and pie and a bluegrass band playing in the barn. I fell asleep looking up at the metal roof through the rafters, listening to the firecrackers and hoping the guys setting them off hadn't been drinking too much.

Arianna says Irish men get their conception of American girls from TV and therefore think we're all from California and have sex on the beach all the time and will therefore wish to do the same with them. Mom says people in England thought we all had swimming pools in our backyards and lots of money. I keep wondering what assumptions my Danish host family will have about me as an American and about the country in general. I wish the parts of US culture that were broadcast to the rest of the world weren't McDonalds and imperialism and Baywatch and Sex in the City. If I could, I would like the world to see this farm in Nelson County, stumble through a square dance with us, have some cheese grits, laugh at the kittens licking butter off people's corncobs. Surely this would improve international relations.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

In which I wonder about priorities

I've been reading Mountains Beyond Mountains, about a doctor from the US working in Haiti to revamp healthcare for the poor there. The man is ridiculously inspiring - probably every highschooler who dreams of going into social justice work wants to found their own program and influence policymaking and win the adoration of whatever group they're serving. Later we realize that a lot of boring, unglamorous work is needed to keep any kind of program running and that this is what we'll probably do a lot of. But this man has actually done it - singlehandedly put so much in motion that has been really useful.

Of course, the natural response while reading about this kind of thing is to wonder what one is doing with one's life that's so great compared to fighting multidrug-resistant TB. I'm at least in the position of doing unglamorous work at an organization that does improve and sometimes save people's lives, so I don't feel as bad as I would if I were still at the posh suburban daycare. The book does make me question the rightness of doing useful work in the US that would undoubtedly be more useful somewhere else, though.

It irks me that Dr. Paul Farmer can have a wife and daughter stowed away in Paris while he trots from Haiti to Peru to Siberia, but that it's impossible to imagine some sort of Dr. Paula Farmer doing the same with a husband and child. The only reasons I want to live in the US when I grow up are so I can see my family regularly and so my kids won't grow up with dirty water and one-room schools and tapeworms. But if I do the whole leaving house and brothers and sisters and father and mother and fields thing, none of that will be a problem. (It doesn't say anything about spouses or kids, but presumably the the apostles weren't supposed to have those.) So maybe after I do Peace Corps I'll just stay in Venezuela or whereever and see where life takes me from there. I know you're supposed to be sure you don't burn out and become useless to everyone, but hopefully by then I'll be able to tell the difference between what I really need and what I only think I need. I'm pretty sure some sort of family is on the first list, but I could be wrong.

Saturday, July 30, 2005


While listening to an NPR story on Dove's "Campaign for real beauty" ad campaign yesterday, for the first time ever I had the urge to reach out and smash my radio. This was during the part when they read an excerpt from Lucio Guerrero's Chicago Sun-Times editorial: "Really, the only time I want to see a thigh that big is in a bucket with bread crumbs on it." The other men Guerrero interviews for the column have similarly low opinions.

At the swimming pool where my daycare class gets swim lessons, in between watching lifeguards with two-year-olds I've been noticing the other swimmers. They are all male. Sometimes teenagers come with their dads, but usually it is middle-aged or old men. Why? a) Because the work it takes to appear in a bathing suit consists of putting on the bathing suit if you're a man, and b) Because they're probably less scared than women of going into a public place wearing very little. These guys look, by almost any standard, awful. There is no comparison between these guys and the women in the Dove ads. But I don't see any disgusted editorials about having to see these much lumpier, hairier, more wrinkled individuals in a public place. They're just part of the scenery.

Nearly all the analyses I've seen or heard of the ads comment on the irony of using a message that it's ok to be bigger than a drinking straw to sell cellulite-reducing cream. First, I'd like to point out that the tagline "Let's face it, firming the thighs of a size 2 supermodel is no challenge" is a statement on the efficacy of the product on women who will actually use it, rather than on the usual size 2 women pictured in control-top hose ads and the 25-year-old women pictured in wrinkle cream ads. Second, the ad is not saying that their products aren't needed or wanted because everyone's perfect just the way they are. It's merely reducing the standards for women appearing in ads from nearly impossibly beautiful to just good-looking. And if you look at these women compared to what the average woman you see in the supermarket would look like in her skivvies, (I would say at the swimming pool, except there are no women there) they measure up quite well by conventional standards. There's no one over the age of thirty, no one with c-section scars, no one very bulgy, no one with glasses or irregular features or even tan lines. The black women have straightened their hair. Everyone has shaved about half her surface area and is undoubtedly wearing makeup. The campaign is not suggesting that it's ok for women to appear in their natural states: wrinkly, nappy, bony, bulgy, hairy, stretchmarked, flatchested, 5'1", veined, and whatever else we may happen to look like if we don't try to transform ourselves into something else. It's merely making the beauty regime less totalitarian. Is it so unreasonable to change the standards of who can appear in ads from superhumanly gorgeous to just, say, conventionally beautiful?

Friday, July 29, 2005

What is it about men with babies?

I've been going through family photos to find some to bring to Denmark, since host families apparently like seeing who raised the kids they're adopting for a semester. Instead of making it to the more recent pictures, though, I keep looking through the ones from the summer of 1985. For some reason my favorite pictures of my dad are from this era, mostly pictures of him holding the unattractive infant that was me in various places around our house and the surrounding fields. The pictures of Mom with me don't interest me nearly as much, although this is probably due in part to her horrible 80s hair and giant glasses.

I think my favorite part of working in daycares during the summer is watching male lifeguards in the pool with toddlers. It's not a sexual thing (or if it is, it's wrapped up with enough other stuff that I don't classify it as such.) There's something wonderful about the contrast: the muscly 20-something swishing the pudgy-limbed child through the water, her tiny body held in the circumference of his big hands. The child is usually laughing, and the lifeguard inevitably smiles too. Some of these men are not terribly nice people in hours when they're not lifeguarding - their method of relating to the kids is a high-decibel one, usually on the topic of what the kids are doing wrong. But place a tiny creature that will cling to him in complete dependence in his hands, and someone so rough and tough is turned infinitely gentle. It's beautiful to watch.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Go ahead, laugh

I've made progress from the days when I would run out the door for the school bus after chucking, say, a baked potato into my backpack as my lunch. I was really quite proud of today's lunch: fettucini with white sauce and seitan, cherries, and a slice of vegan chocolate cheesecake. (Add enough cocoa powder and even tofu can be made dessert-like.) Unfortunately my epicurean dreams fizzled just now when I microwaved the tupperware box containing not the pasta but the cheesecake, which is now a puddle of molten brown goo in the bottom of the box. Oh well, it still tastes good.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Like a fish needs a bicycle

Part of working at the shelter is accepting that a lot of the women who live there will go back to their abusers, and that some are back at the shelter after living there before and moving back in with the same abusers they were running from the first time. We take them back as many times as they need it. Women leave their abusers an average of something like nine times before they leave for good. This boggles my mind. I could see leaving and coming back a once or twice when you had no place to go or in a moment of loneliness, but how do it over and over?

I think my mind just works on a different frame from most people's here. I've known almost forever I wanted kids, but I could more easily do without a man. I'd rather be a single mother than a childless wife, though I don't plan on being either. I just can't fathom the kind of need that would drive a person to go back to their abuser nine times. Bridget used to be annoyed with Ann Landers for advising women to leave men who'd done them wrong - "Hello? She loves him! You can't just expect her to leave." To me the two things never seemed to have much to do with each other.

Sunday, July 17, 2005


Realizing that the Danes (and Europe, I guess) dress more formally than we do here has been a lovely excuse to go out looking for new clothes. I needed some warmer clothes anyway, but this provided the final push to spend most of Saturday in thrift stores. Trying on sweaters in a 95 degree store is punishing, but the rest of the thrifting adventures have been enjoyable. After this week I have a giant coat, black pants, two sweaters, a red skirt, brown shoes, and measuring cups and spoons so I don't have to convert recipes to pounds and ounces of ingredients. Life is good.

Friday, July 15, 2005

On the trail

Although the low point of my day was one of my four-year-olds trying to bite me, it was more than made up for by the high point, which was my mother reading today's "Mark Trail" aloud from the comics section. My family has a hobby of finding the strips where animals have speech bubbles coming from their heads - this happens surprisingly often. Today's was a gem, including a talking St. Bernard, two wood ducks, and a leaf. Mom's leaf voice is impressive.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

And stop calling me "babe"

Sometimes I feel that no matter what bizarre situations life may throw at me, years of contra, swing and ballroom dancing will have prepared me. For some reason, men (especially old men) at dances consider it their godgiven right to make overtures at any female they please. Of all the strange men who gravitate towards the dance scene, over the past weeks I've met the strangest yet: Howard. His shirts are so thin you can see the liver spots on his chest through the cloth. He has absolutely the worst sense of rhythm I have ever encountered, which makes it impossible at times to even tell which dance he's trying to do. Among his charming lines to me have been: "You can eat later. You're getting fat, anyway," "Can I squeeze your hand?" "I'm drunk," and "You're my favorite babe." I'm almost certain he meant "You're my favorite, babe," but he didn't pronounce the comma.

I consider it the right thing to do to be nice to strange old men and generally clueless people at dances, provided they're not being creepy. Whitehaired men with kneebraces and the like are often there because they've been doing it forever and really love dancing, and it's nice to see some of the clueless ones develop into good dancers. The problem is that once someone has crossed the line into creepiness I find it impossible to say, "Shove off, you weirdo! You're old enough to be my grandfather! And no, you can't squeeze my hand!"

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Mirror, mirror

Having read The Beauty Myth, I'm rather proud that I came up with most of the main ideas after reading The Feminine Mystique last summer. The theory is that after women's worth no longer depended on their housekeeping abilities, society made appearance more important to continue keeping them down. I don't buy the conspiracy theory thing, but I think the net result is the same. On the one hand, I'm convinced it's natural to want to decorate yourself - every little kid is proud of their hairbow or Spiderman underpants or whatever. On the other, when it becomes mandatory and expensive/painful/dangerous, that's bad. I think the other teacher in my preschool class was a little weirded out a few weeks ago when she put out a box of dressups that included those little purple plastic high heels for little girls to prance around in. When three-year-old Ainslie learned the hard way that they have no tread by crashing to the floor in midstride, the other teacher must have found it strange to see me hugging the sobbing Ainslie with one arm and chucking the shoe back into the box with the other, yelling at nobody in particular, "Isn't it enough that they have to have foot surgery from these things when they're older? Can't we at least give her a decade? Do we have to start on the high heels at age three?"

A few weeks ago I made the happy discovery of a Peggy Seeger tape in the library. The most thought-provoking lines to me in the whole thing came in "Little Girl Child," a song for her daughter: "Your mammy wants you dressed up fine / Not cause you're mine - cause you're yours. / Nothing wrong with looking good / Care for yourself and you'll care for others." It seemed strange on such a feminist album to totally ignore that the girl probably won't dress up for herself at all, but because she wants to be someone else's (and that someone certainly isn't her mother.) The very good logic behind the advice is a few lines later - "Nobody lives alone." I really think the primary motivator behind a decent amount of the effort people put into their appearance is fear that they won't be able to compete and will die alone with cats.

I'm probably not the only girl out there who's learned to associate a certain lack of attention to appearance in guys with geekiness and thus intelligence, although this formula obviously isn't always applicable. But I don't really see the same thing working for girls. A boy could probably rest assured that there will always be girls like me out there who find a degree of social ineptitude attractive, but I'd probably be sorely out of luck if I relied on the same thing.

Simon and I have debates on the topic fairly often, and although after two years I finally believe I really could look like a sack of potatoes without any negative reaction from him, we still don't fully agree on some points. For one thing, I think he doesn't quite realize how super he is (in general, but specifically regarding appearance.) If I could trust that everyone had their priorities in the right place as much as he does, I'd stop worrying about this whole thing. But given lovely statements like this, that won't happen anytime soon. I realize that's an extreme example, but when there's exactly one male in the world telling me it doesn't matter what I look like, I can't really believe him even though at present he's the only one who matters.

Monday, July 04, 2005

How is the weather?

Yesterday I had background music in a dream for the first time I can remember. Unfortunately, it was a bad jazz version of "So Happy Together" (not that there could ever be a good version of that song) playing from the radio in my dream. I hope I get cooler music next time.

Monday, June 27, 2005

What's wrong with this picture?

I haven't even started working with domestic violence or sexual assault survivors, and already it's difficult. Tonight at the volunteer training we talked about legal issues surrounding domestic violence. One pamphlet we got dealt specifically with immigrant and refugee women and had a section on women who would lose their legal status if they left their husbands or if their husbands reported them to the INS. The consolation we're supposed to give them is "deportation may not follow, would not be immediate, and, in most cases, you would have the opportunity to present your cases to a judge." Great. Also, the mantra of all domestic violence workers seems to be "Leave!", but at the same time women are more likely to be murdered after leaving a domestic partner than at any other time in their lives. I'll be advising them to leave for the sake of their own safety, yet increasing their chance of being murdered.

At one point the woman leading the training asked how many of us had experienced stalking or domestic violence, and she and about a quarter of the room raised their hands. My first reaction was surprise that they seemed so comfortable admitting this, and then I had to give myself a mental whack for even thinking it was something they should be embarassed about. If we didn't think these things were something to be secretive about, to be ashamed of, maybe the problems wouldn't happen as often or be as horrible.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Summer in the city

This week I officially started my YWCA internship, and I have to say the most exciting part so far is just being downtown. My bus got me there half an hour early the first day, so I just walked around the streets for a while (which, along with being more interesting, seemed like a better idea than standing still on the street for half an hour.) Driving to the Carpenter Center I had always wanted to get out of the car and look at the shops, and now I finally get my wish. I left workaround nine that evening, and it was a pleasure to wait for my bus with the warm air and the sun setting pink and gold behind a hotel.

I like the way strangers strike up conversations at bus stops. Back in the suburbs the only communication I have with my fellow travellers is when some guy honks his horn as he drives by as I'm walking home from work or the library. The center of the city is a place of contrasts - beautiful old government buildings and law offices next door to dilapidated hair-braiding and clothing shops with metal grates that are lowered in front of the storefront at closing time. The people match. The white people with suits and briefcases won't even look at you when you pass on the sidewalk, but the blacks usually offer at least a nod and often an actual exchange of pleasantries. It makes me kind of ashamed to look like the people with briefcases.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

I wish I were in Copenhagen this week. Midsummer's Eve in Scandinavia sounds fabulous - fireworks, dancing, bonfires in people's backyards. We need more holidays that involve bonfires. I've decided I should have solstice parties when I grow up.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Wild Land, Wild Love

In the "for sale" aisle of the Richmond Public Library I realized why the covers of romance novels creep me out: the people are never smiling. Some of the more modern ones feature couples with at least mildly pleasant expressions, but not the bodice-ripper types with the grotesquely muscled man and the women with very historically inaccurate eyeshadow, usually posed in front of a waterfall or prairie or herd of kangaroos or other scenic feature. Do they have to look so grim about it? I would think that the very act of appearing on a novel cover in a state of undress with a herd of kangaroos would be enough to make one laugh.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Things that make me happy

My sister's infatuation with Rufus Wainwright
Chocolate-maple sauce
My triennial post-Star Wars visit to costuming sites to ooh and ah over Amidala's costumes

Things that make me unhappy:
Rufus Wainwright mispronouncing "agnus dei"

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Why white men can't dance

I think I’ve figured out a big part of why that is, at least stereotypically. Revelation came in the form of two three-year-old girls telling me excitedly that their dance recital was that evening and that their mommies were going to come watch them. I have no idea what kind of dance one teaches three-year-olds, but the point is that it’s only taught to girls. In the suburbs, small boys are carted to martial arts studios where they wear little white uniforms, and small girls are carted to dance studios where they learn some semblance of ballet and tap but mostly enjoy wearing pink leotards and twirling a lot. Whether or not we actually go to the lessons, we’re trained from birth to believe that girls dance and boys kick things and yell.

Fast forward twenty years or so to a college party. A crowd of girls is in the middle of the room dancing, some awkwardly, some not. A ring of guys is sitting or standing around, just watching. It's creepy even when the guys don't mean it that way.

Now fast forward another twenty years. A ballroom studio is packed with women, but men are in short supply. The man leading the class is a svelte Latino who wiggles better than the women. I would read his dress and mannerisms as gay if I didn’t know they were the height of masculinity in some countries. If only the white middle-class US concept of masculinity had more room in it for hip-wiggling.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Where you found her

Two words of advice to any single men out there looking for (middle-aged and up) women: ballroom dancing. I went last night for the first time, and the demographics were very curious. Lots of old people, almost no young. A couple of English men but no English women that I noticed. A good number of Asian women but no Asian men. Not quite two girls for every boy, but boys could definitely manage a good 1.3 girls each.

A very nice Englishman named Alistair showed me how to rhumba, then took my arm and escorted me very formally back to the chair where I'd been sitting. He said his mother told him to always put a girl back where he found her. I can just picture him bringing dates home decades ago as a teenager and his mother shouting, "Alistair! I don't know where you picked up that hussy, but you put her back where you found her right now!"

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

In which I am frustrated by news reports

Why is it that criminals' gender is never specified in news reports unless the criminal is female? "Mr. so-and-so was murdered by a female assailant. She was arrested the next day." The murderer's gender has nothing to do with the story. Even if you want to include it for the man-bites-dog factor, you already have "she" in there, so why do you need to specify "female"? Same with "Bob Smith is a male nurse."

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

What to do? Who to be?

There seem to be two models of people I admire, the artist and the activist. The first are the kind who have weaving studios in their attics, play music, go to contra dances, write novels in their spare time. I’ve sort of been resisting this model because I felt it precludes the second model – the type who are active in politics or social movements or what have you. The problem is that while I’d love to live the first lifestyle, to live life for the sake of its own beauty, I can’t justify that in a world where so much is so bad and needs to be changed. Ideally one could do both, but I’ve almost never heard of people who take time and money for beautiful houses and clothes and music and art and still have time and money enough to make the world a better place (in some way more significant than making it prettier.) This month my compromise has been putting up a Pre-Raphaelite poster Ellen gave me on my wall and going to the contra dance in Shepherdstown last Saturday.

Lately I find myself looking for role models – for people who’ve done what I want to do, just to convince myself it’s possible. I can find people who have done each of the things I want to do with my life, but I haven’t found anyone who’s done it all. I hear an NPR story on a white woman who adopts a black baby – but it’s a baby, not a child from foster care, and the woman isn’t doing anything else noteworthy for the world. Or I read the book of interviews with second-wave feminists and their grown daughters that Eli gave me, but most of those women are living in posh suburban homes and sending their children to private schools. Or I read about women community organizers in low-income urban neighborhoods, but their children were stuck going to the worst schools in the country. Or I read about parents home-schooling their children but giving up their own lives and work to do so and ceasing to make much difference to anybody but their own family. (And by “parents” I mean “usually mothers.”)

Probably this means it’s impossible. Probably I can’t have a life’s work that makes a difference in the world and keep only a bare minimum of my income and not turn my kids over to the monster that is inner-city public schools and not go crazy from it all. But I’m sure going to try until I find out for sure.