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.