Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Happiest Place on Earth

As every good story should have a happy ending, this blog is going to end with a post on happiness.

When Denmark was named the 'happiest nation' almost exactly a year ago, I was intrigued, but almost immediately dismissed it as some kind of publicity ploy.  After all, that happiness title resulted from a study that purported to measure that elusive emotion, quantify the collective happiness of entire nations, and rank those nations by their happiness levels.  I'm no expert in psychology, but it seemed a laughable task.

Then Suresh got the invitation to spend his sabbatical in Denmark, and the happiness ratings rattled around in my mind again.  What would Denmark be like?  Was it really full of friendly, smiley, eternally jolly people who had unlocked the secret to everlasting happiness? Would I be able to share in this happiness? Would I feel waves of it wash over me as soon as I stepped off the plane?

I've become more of a cynic than to believe that would be possible, but I was intrigued nonetheless. I wanted to see, if I lived in this country for a significant period of time and gave learning all I could about life there a good shot, whether I would be able to see the workings and underpinnings of this study's results:  Would I actually understand how and why Denmark is the happiest -- or would it all evaporate into the ether as much of hokey science does?  So as to not bias myself, I didn't read the documentation for the 156-nation study upon which Denmark's happiness rating was based. I didn't want to be constantly comparing my on-the-ground experiences in Denmark against benchmarks of what I had read.  I know the feeling of happiness. I wanted to feel it reverbrating throughout the country, and I wanted to see if I saw it in Danes.

In preparation for the move, I did read Patrick Kingley's excellent attempt to capture current Danish culture,  How to Be Danish.  This book provided an excellent historical framework for what I was about to experience:  from the lack of imaginative Danish cuisine which the New Nordic cooking style is attempting to change, to the nation's pride in the Arne Jacobsen chair, to an entire nation on bikes, to the country's thrust for green energy and windmill power. It even alluded several times to the culture's inherent affection for the taciturn:  in Denmark, you don't chit-chat at bus stops, in grocery stores, or in other public places, and certainly not with complete strangers. Danes believe in their God-given right to silence. (Incidentally, this suited me just fine, as I am not really that naturally talkative myself.).

What's more, the book outlined the history of two key cultural themes I was going to experience over and over again in various ways: Grundtvig and the philosophical beginnings of Danish social welfare, and Jante Law.

Nikolai Grundtvig (1783 - 1872) is a revered figure in Danish history.  As a pastor, poet, and philosopher, he deeply influenced Danish culture and thinking in ways that still reverberate today. He believed in forming an articulate, educated population fully ready to participate in democracy. He believed that teaching community-mindedness and cooperation were key to the country's success, at a time when the country had just suffered the loss of a good portion of land (Schleswig and Holstein) to Prussia, and was in deep identity crisis.

One of the most tangible examples of how his philosophy survives today is the folk high school, which is a partially state-subsidized school for adults of any age to attend, to live and learn and work together. Back in Grundtvig's day, they were an important step in unification. They, in turn, spawned the country's first co-ops, in which groups of local farmers banded together to purchase expensive farming equipment so that it could be used and shared. Today in the same way, many windmills are co-op-owned by local citizens, who power their homes with them, then sell excess electricity back to the power companies at a small profit.

Grundtvig's philosophy laid the groundwork for the society I experienced:  one in which all citizens pay up to 50% of their salaries in taxes that go toward a number of social programs, including health care, retirement benefits, unemployment benefits, college education, and the like.  It also paved the way for the country's receptivity of Jante Law.

Jante Law actually arose from a work of fiction published in 1933, but when you ask Danes about it, they speak of it as a philosophy embraced by Danish society.  It is usually explained thus: "We are all the same. [As in, we should all be treated the same by the governement, and by each other.] We are all equal. No one is better than anyone else." In practice, in means that salaries are not widely disparate: a doctor, a school teacher, a bus driver, a plumber all make close to the same amount of money. They receive the same healthcare (which is free to all citizens), and their children are be able to go to any Danish college or university for free (in fact, college student are given a stipend to go to school).

All of these social programs, combined with this underlying philosophy that begins with education in community spirit from a young age, lead to several things:  First and foremost, they lead to a stable society.  People from all walks of life live in the same communities, shop at the same stores. There is little opportunity to covet thy neighbor's belongings, because whatever they have, you can have too. There is no feeling, as I went from neighborhood to neighborhood, of disparity, of a class of haves and have-nots.  I never once encountered a person on the streets begging for food or money. And the nation enjoys low crime rates, low theft. It is a society built on trust, and true egalitarian practices.

The programs lead to the relief of life-stressors:  Imagine what our lives in the US would be like if we knew that the cost of our healthcare would be taken care of, or that our income would be covered for two years if we lost our jobs, or that our kids could go to college for free. Perhaps we'd breathe every day a bit easier. Perhaps as a nation, we'd commit fewer acts of violence against ourselves and others, or do drugs less, or require fewer sessions with our therapists. Perhaps a lift from all those stressors would open a window to a national happiness.

Of course, Denmark is no utopia. Many people, not just Americans, would balk at giving up such a huge chunk of their salaries to social programs. And Denmark has its own problems with its treatment of immigrant populations, and rising costs that threaten to cripple much of the government's infrastructure.  And its people don't go around slapping each other on the back in euphoria as the happiest nation.  I would call it, instead, a contentment.

The Danes have formed the most content society I have ever had the good fortune to experience. Their democratic values have a shifted focus.  In contrast to the United States' embracing of fierce independence and limitless freedoms in hopes of achieving the American Dream, the Danes have focused instead on stability, community and coziness. There is far less emphasis here in Denmark on personal achievement to beget wealth. There is not as much focus on the accumulation of more and more material goods as a life goal. There is, instead, talk of going to the beach. Or spending a day at Tivoli with the kids. Or biking out to Silkeborg. There are, of course, complaints about the weather. There is never having to say "please" (there is no Danish word for "please"), or make smalltalk when you don't want to. There is subsidized childcare, a year of paid maternity leave, free education and healthcare for all. Every Dane I interacted with had achieved a quiet dignity, a personal knowledge that, no matter who they were, what their job title was, or how much yearly income they made, they mattered: they mattered to themselves, to their families, to society, and to their government.  Treating everyone as though they matter: maybe, just maybe, that is indeed a recipe for happiness.

This is the last post of this blog.  I'd like to take a moment to thank my friends, family, and other readers whom I have never met for coming along with us on this once-in-a-lifetime experience. Your company, your comments, your insights, and your support have all been greatly appreciated as we bumbled along, first in a new state, and then in a new country.  I thank my children, who make every day an adventure no matter what continent we find ourselves on.  And most of all, I thank my husband Suresh, who was brave enough to dream the big adventure and shepherd us into a whole new world of experiences while I was still cowering under the covers, complaining loudly, and going simply batty.

Monday, August 11, 2014

A Letter to Our Son on His Ninth Birthday

Dear Aditya,

As you know, your birth nine years ago today (August 7, 2005) made us parents. You shocked us with your arrival, early by six weeks, just as we were about to go shopping to get baby stuff for you. Your arrival changed our world.

I could go on and on about how you changed us, about how looking into that sweet face of yours made me want to change the world for you, about how your presence in our lives made ours a far richer, more expansive, and more generous world than anything we had ever experienced before. But, I suppose, that will have to wait for another day, for what I want to talk about now is how you yourself have changed over the last year, and what I've learned from you.

Your birthday last year kicked off our Great Sabbatical Adventure. We partied in Salt Lake last year not really knowing what was in store for us, and what we were really asking you and your brother to do.  We moved away from the place you'd lived in, the home you knew, and the friends you'd made, and whisked you off to a totally new place, then asked that you adjust to homeschooling and, when that didn't work out, to attending a new public school.  Just as you were adjusting and making good friends, we asked you to move again, this time to a new country, where you knew no one and didn't even speak the language. And each time we asked you to change, to adjust, to grow, you did: you did with a grace and ease and flexibility that surprised me, and captured my admiration.  You see, I'll let you in on a little secret: I don't like change. I don't adjust easily. I'll make a move, but I will long for what I once had. I cling. I howl at change. And I learned from you, and your brother, that change doesn't have to be an all-consuming, traumatic event.  It just happens, and you can roll with it: gracefully, even.

This year, you did a lot of new things: you decided to let your hair grow long so it can someday be worn in a pony tail (don't forget you agreed to wash your hair whenever your father or I ask you to as part of this deal!), you learned - and mastered - the schoolyard game wall-ball, you performed well in a very formal piano recital, you learned pottery, you bicycled on a road, with traffic, for kilometers and kilometers, you did a ropes climbing course, you started to write poetry (ok, so your Muse is strangely fixated on poop, but still ...), you learned to ride a Segway, you sat in on an hour-long lecture on sharks delivered almost completely in Danish, and nevertheless came away knowing several new facts about sharks, you learned to handle your very own Swiss army knife.  You invented all kinds of strange, remarkable creatures with incredible powers and came up with a couple of new worlds you named Pineappolia and Glostaakia. You also continued to pursue your past loves: swimming and writing stories and most of all, sketching and drawing.  You continue to be a great big brother:  My heart swelled when your brother was having trouble on the Banana Boat ride at Tivoli and you instinctively scootched over and put your arm protectively around him.  He hid his head in your lap until the ride stopped.

The achievement of yours of which I am most proud, however, has got to be how you handled the unpleasantness at school.  You were a new kid, and vulnerable to attack as many new kids are. Coming from a public school not known for much bullying, you were wholly unprepared for the gritty atmosphere in Berkeley.  Several words and taunts were unfamiliar to you, and my heart lurched each day when you'd come home asking me to explain the meaning of yet another crass word or phrase which had been directed against you or one of your friends. There was one particular child at school, who had posed as a good friend at first, and whose later betrayal really stung. Once he realized your skills at drawing and humor were winning you friends, he made your life miserable for several weeks with his taunts and jeers and mean little tricks. It got to the point where you told me in a small voice you no longer wanted to go to school.  But when I told you to fight back, you said sadly, "It's hard letting go of a friend."  My heart broke.

Just as with adjusting to change, you and I reacted completely differently to this new challenge.  I went on the warpath, all the time wanting to throttle this school for allowing this to happen, and screaming for blood. I spoke to the teachers, the playground coach, the boy's parent. I did everything I could think to do from my end. I exhorted you to do the same: fight back. But you didn't want to fight.  You wanted to be left alone. You wanted to make friends, to be seen as the nice guy, to make people laugh. Ultimately, your strategy won out.  You gently told this kid to stop it. You made other friends, who loved to hang out with you, and who shared your love for art. Eventually, you formed the "Pixar Club" -- a bunch of your friends who decided, thanks to your initial enthusiasm, to all work for Pixar together some day.  Now instead of sitting alone and being ignored or taunted by this so-called friend, you'd spend your lunch times with the Club, talking about Pixar and making up comics. And you were having so much fun that one day, that kid asked if he, too, could be part of the Club. And you let him in.

Every time I see your generosity of spirit, your father and I are so happy and humbled and proud to call you our son.  From starting the family's Shishu Mandir Project (which ended in your visiting and contributing to a school for impoverished children in Bangalore) on your own, to handling the meanness of a peer, I am amazed and awed by the young person you have become.

Thank you for changing our world. Thank you for making it better, brighter, and filled with more laughter and wonder than we ever thought possible.  Thank you for being who you are: one remarkable, creative, thoughtful, intelligent, generous individual.  Happy Birthday, dear Aditya.

With so much love,

Mama and Papa

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Moesgård Viking Moot

In keeping with our efforts to immerse ourselves in all things Danish, we ventured forth to the Viking Moot, the "oldest and largest Viking Market in Scandinavia" (as described here).

As with Civil War reenactments and Renaissance Festivals in the States, the event is a complete attempt to recapture the days of old: people come wearing Viking garb, carrying period weapons, riding Icelandic ponies.  Suresh and I got to sample several different flavors of Viking mead at one stall, while a whole pig was roasted at another on a spit set up right on the beach.

The event attracts over 800 participants from around the world (in fact, this year there was one brave Viking from Texas). They come, sell their wares, ride their ponies, and compete in the great Viking fight, which is of course the main attraction.

We could tell this event was going to be well-attended due to the relative size of the ice cream stand: This one was about twice the size of a normal one. (Ice cream stands are ubiquitous in Denmark, and they very conveniently mark the spot of a tourist attraction or other crowd generating event. If an attraction is set back from the road and hard to see initially, for example, look for the highly visible ice cream stand. It marks the spot.)

While we waited for the great Viking battle to start, we browsed tents filled with Viking wares: handicrafts made of wool, amber, glass, iron, gold, antlers, horns, and wood.

The boys each made an iron pendant in the form of Thor's Hammer starting with a large nail and proceeding to form it by hammering it with a whole lot of satisfying clanging. I got in on the act by offering to manage the bellows when the Viking on duty left for a break of mead and roasted pig.

The great Viking battle consisted of two sword-and-shield-wielding teams duking it out in front of the thousands gathered.  The weapons were replicas of actual Viking weapons with their tips blunted for safety, and the rules of combat were simple: if you touch your opponent anywhere between the shoulder and the hips with your weapon, (s)he went down, but if you touch your opponent's head with your weapon, you went down.

To be honest, the battle looked quite slow and laborious from the sidelines, with much of the action consisting of one team pushing another back.  "What a mess!" I kept thinking. "What a complete mess!" as people jabbed ineffectually at one another with heavy spears and lumbered about the field, some in metal armor, in the summer heat. It was, however, quite heartening to see that the fallen, once slain, would roll away from the site of the main action so as to not get trampled or hurt in the proceedings.  This resulted in a ring of rolling fallen surrounding the actual battle.  In the end, the Moesgard team managed to drive away the other team and send them running. They were then declared the winners and everyone dusted themselves off and got up from the battlefield.

There was also a "Last Man Standing" event in which Vikings paired off with one another until there was one left.

It was quite an event to attend, thankfully no one hurt themselves, and we all enjoyed it. The boys reported that they liked learning some archery and making Thor's Hammer necklaces the best.

But sometimes, the most wonderful and memorable part of a day is something unplanned, some unexpected surprise or delight that ... just happens.  For Suresh and me, it was the bike ride to the Viking Festival and back that was unforgettable:  It consisted of a shady, tree-lined, dedicated path that wove its way along, first beside the coast of Aarhus Bay, and then through Thorskov and Fløjstrupskov, over narrow wooden bridges and around little ponds, away from any roads. The cool breeze buffeted our faces as we whipped along the curving path, spirits soaring.  There were a few people here and there, but for the most part, we were alone on our bikes in the lush, green forest. It was a magical ride, one that I will always remember.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Our Town

View of Aarhus from the ARoS Museum

I am pleased to report that we are beginning to lose our sparkly tourist sheen. When we first arrived at the start of the summer, speaking only English, making our way around Aarhus by staring at a map, toting our big Canon Rebel around our neck, we sparkled cluelessly like any self-respecting tourist should. Danes looked at us, smiled warmly, started off conversations with us in English, offered assistance when they could. We got the tourist treatment.

But now we know about remoulade. And bright red hot dogs (rød pølse) that fit perfectly into drilled cylindrical buns. We bike around or carry a klippekort (bus pass) and eat smørrebrød and order our scoops of italiensk is (gelato) in Danish. We say "Hej!" and "Hvordan går det?" ("Hello! How are you?") and we get Danish in response. We've even tasted (gasp!) chewy licorice candy in several different flavors (alas, sadly on this front I cannot report that we love it as the Danes do.). We even know the secret now of rød grød med fløde: it's not really something Danes eat, just a fun tongue twister they throw at non-native speakers. We're losing our tourist sheen.

The first time we recognized we had achieved this minor accomplishment was when we were returning to Aarhus from Athens and we stood outside Billund airport at the bus stop, waiting for our bus to Veilje. One by one, three or four different individuals at different times approached us with questions: "Is this where we wait for the bus to Veilje?" one person wanted to know. "What time does the bus come?" asked another. "How much will the fare be?" a traveler from Argentina wondered.  And we answered their questions, each time correctly and without hesitation. Suresh and I looked at one another and high-fived each other with our eyes.  We were being treated like the natives. For the first time, we were the people-in-the-know.  It was a delicious feeling.

And, coming back to Aarhus after so much travel felt like coming home. Aarhus had to us become our place of familiarity and comfort, of hyggeligt (the deeply valued Danish concept of "coziness"), even. And it was good to know that after feeling like we were floating about for so many weeks in Denmark, we were settling in.

The real test, however, came when we were given the opportunity to play the roles of host and hostess in "our" town. My friend Blaze came to visit Aarhus for the first time, and we had two days to show him some highlights.  He had just come from visiting Copenhagen, so we decided on two things that Aarhus specifically had to offer:  a bike ride in the Danish countryside, and a visit to the ARoS Museum.

The bike ride was conducted in much the same way I used to go on bike rides in the English countryside as a student at Cambridge. I'd just fill my water bottle, check my tires, pick a country road, hop on my bike and go!  We were a little more directed for this bike trip, in that we chose the town of Braband, situated by a lake about 9.5 km outside of Aarhus, as our final destination, and we made a stop at our neighborhood bike shop to fill up on air.  Then we were off, to see where Silkeborgvej would take us.

The lake was beautiful, and the bike path encircling it was very fun to ride.

Braband Sø

The bike path around the lake, Brabandstein

After a quick lunch of packed sandwiches, the boys went scouting on their bikes and quickly found a playground.

But the pleasant surprise of the entire trip came when we circled around the east side of the lake, and found a cow ...

a horse ...
 ... and goats.

Our hope for a bucolic Aarhusian experience was now complete.  The boys were pleased because they had broken their record for longest bike ride ever, now at 20 km. We headed back to central Aarhus to have some celebratory gelato at our favorite gelateria, Manu.

The next day, we engaged in a completely different experience at the ARoS. I've blogged about the ARoS once before here, but at the time I was still in recovery from having to explain to both boys why there were so many nude women in the Wes Lang exhibit to have reflected upon it properly.  And, encountering the museum for the second time brought fresh appreciation to the whole collection. So here are some additional highlights from our visit with Blaze.

ARoS's crown:  Olafur Eliasson's "Your Rainbow Panorama"
Inside the ARoS (Banner advertises American Painter Wes Lang's Exhibit)

"One for Quintus Teal" by Ian Monroe.
I photograph this one every time I come. I think I love its geometric patterns.

The boys brought their cameras this time
to take photos of Olafur Eliasson's
"Your atmospheric Color Atlas"
I like how Rohan's tie-dye shirt glowed in the fog

A warning about the fog exhibit that I hadn't noticed last time:
"Enter at Your Own Risk." I love dangerous art.

One of the Nine Rooms in the "Nine Rooms of Hell" 

Another of the Nine Rooms

Aditya enjoys the strange red glow in one of the Nine Rooms

An entire wing of Danish art that I'd missed the last time

From "Out of Darkness" exhibit: "In the same way today, many look upon the world in hope and despair. But the consequences of this ferment are far greater than was the case 200 years ago. In many respects, our age is defined by the fact that for the first time in the history of the world we are standing in the face of a global challenge and a collective fate; a potential abyss or a potential new way of living." -Director/Curator Erlend G. Høyersten

Our two days of touring Aarhus with Blaze ended far too quickly.  We thoroughly enjoyed our time with him (especially since our friendship extends back to elementary school!). In addition, despite a few minor setbacks (a cafe that we wanted to visit by the Braband Lake was closed by the time we biked there) and a few moments of desperate map-reading for re-orientation (I still have a terrible sense of direction, some things never change), I was able to claim a familiarity with 'our town' that had not been there a couple of months before.  It is heartening to realize that we aren't tourists any more. Some Danes even hopefully strike up an exchange with us using Danish first, before realizing we still don't understand much and switching back to English.  And I do often reply to such an exchange in Danish: "Desværre, jeg forstå lit Dansk. (Unfortunately, I only understand a little Danish.)"  It is only a little, but it's something. 

This Fair City of Copenhagen

We couldn't really say we lived in Denmark for an entire summer and didn't even make time to pay a visit to the nation's capitol, so after a few days of resting up from our visit to Greece, we took a bus/ferry combo from Aarhus over to the island of Zealand, where Copenhagen perches on the eastern coast.  While Suresh gave a talk and visited colleagues at the university on our first day, I took the kids to the hands-on science museum, the Experimentarium. Finding the place was a little difficult at first, because the Experiementarium is currently situated in temporary housing while its actual home is being rebuilt, and no local Danes seemed to know quite where it was. Google maps was equally confused due to the museum's recent move. Finally, we managed to find the place and we were very glad we did.  This kids had a marvelous time.  There were several participatoruy exhibits featuring many Olympic sports in which Scandanavian countries traditionally excel, such as skiing, bobsled racing, and curling. They had a petting pool in which some crabs and flounder that had been pulled out of the Øresund that day could be touched. We also enjoyed all the physics experiments, gigantic bubbles and optical illusions they had to offer.

He managed to encase Rohan in one of these
Aditya becomes New Nordic cuisine

Pineapple cherries and rips
On our second day, we took advantage of the fact that our hotel was dangerously close (dangerous to our waistlines, of course!) to the market and eateries of Torvehallerne, a square full of farmers' market stalls and homemade goodies. A cafe with delicious, crispy croissants and an adjoining bakery featuring extra large kanelsnegl (cinnamon rolls, literally "cinnamon snails") served us well for breakfast, but the smørrebrød we had for lunch the following day really stole the show. YUM!
Fresh pasta sample, handed to the boys to see and feel
So many smørrebrød, so little time *sigh*

We then explored to botanical gardens on our way to the Rosenberg Slot, to check out the royal treasury.

At the Rosenborg Slot, were amazed at how close a view of the royal crowns we could get. They are accessible by entering an underground vault using steps outside the castle, which is carefully guarded by a security guard and cameras.

Rosenberg Slot, no longer serving as a residence for the royal family,
now serves as a museum for royal treasures

Inlaid dresser drawer

System of weights, an example of how science was also treasured

The nifty Crown of Christian IV weighs a cool 6.4 lbs

They didn't let us try these on for size. Dang.

The following day, we climbed the 400 steps of the spiral stairs of Vor Frelsers Kirke in the south quarter of Copenhagen. It was dizzying near the top, since the spiral winds tighter and tighter as you near the pinnacle, but the views of the city are most rewarding.


Since we were in the area, we also visited Christiania, a "free state," started by squatters in 1971. Residents proudly showed us their flag (a yellow rectangle with three red dots across its length) and homemade crafts which they sell in numerous stalls and shops. No photographs were allowed in the place's Green Light District, because "sale of marijuana is still illegal." Did we see anything of the sort going on?  All I can say is what goes on in Christiania, stays in Christiania.

To round off our visit, we took a canal tour of the city and got to see the back of the Little Mermaid, as well as landmark buildings that mark this city for what it is: the pulse and pacesetter for this country we've been lucky enough to call home for the past three months.

Opera House

Sculptures along the canal

Amalienborg Slot

Skuespilhuset, Royal Danish Playhouse

Lovely architecture along the canal

Thordvaldsens Museum

Twisted dragon tails form the tower of the Chamber of Commerce

Windmills attest to Copenhagen's plans to be the world's first carbon neutral capital in 2025, and with these turbines
 and its bicycling culture, it is well on its way to this goal.  GO COPENHAGEN!
(source: How to be Danish by Patrick Kingsley)

Hej, Lille Havfrue!