Monday, June 14, 2010
An American Momma in Copenhagen (10.13.09)
When I found out that Dear Husband might be going to Copenhagen to work on the videos for Chicago's Olympic bid presentation, I insisted we make it a family trip. We returned from Copenhagen, Denmark this week after a thirteen day visit.
Well, we didn't get the Olympics, despite Randy's fantastic work (at least to my proud eyes.) But this post isn't going to be Monday morning quarterbacking about how great/tragic it is that Chicago dodged a bullet/lost the bid.
While I was explored the city with my two daughters, I experienced a bit of culture shock. Perhaps the word "shock" may be too harsh a work in a land of soft skies and kindly Danes - perhaps I should call my reaction to the Danish parenting attitudes a cultural surprise.
I won't claim to have taken the pulse of a country in a week, but as I bumbled through Copenhagen's strange but beautiful cityscape, I did notice very different expectations and customs from what I see in the midwestern United States. The kind of parenting I encountered was mostly that of relaxed attitudes, tolerance and patience. Parenting in the age of anxiety? Not so much in Northern Europe.
I'll give you some examples from the days I spent with my girls in Copenhagen, the island-nation's capital city of 1.8 million. My husband was working long hours for the first four days after our arrival so I rented a bike and a kid trailer to tool around the city.
Biking is huge in this city. Nearly all streets have designated bike lanes with curbs on both sides that separate the stream of cyclists from car traffic and from the sidewalks. You'll see all sorts of bikers and all sorts of biking activity on the roads - eating, drinking from straws in bottles, smoking, talking on cell phones, bikers carrying packages with one hand, waving to friends, bikers holding hands. I even saw a very pregnant woman riding by, holding her belly with one hand. She wore a helmet. Few other adults do.
The children on their small bikes and the mothers that accompany them do usually wear sleek German-soldier style helmets. When I asked the rental guy for headgear for the three of us, he said they were all out, and commented with confidence that my kids would be safe. "There are seat belts," he said.
You know what? I believed him. The stoplights have separate signals for bikers and glory be! instead of competing for the road space like American drivers, the Danish drivers yield patiently to the two wheelers. There's no aggressive nudging or impatient horn honks from a car making a right turn. No one pretends to wear blinders as they cut you off; the bike lanes are sacred. Bikers are deferred to rather than competed against. The cars are lighter and smaller than those you see on American roads - and did I mention all the respectful yielding?
Our trailer was a Burley-type pulled behind my bike, an anomaly in Copenhagen. Danish children are usually carted around in a compartment attached to the front of the bike. Some jazzy modern carriers have tinted windscreens and an aerodynamic shape. The simpler version is basically a wooden box on two wheels. The children sit unencumbered and happy, often wrapped in blankets for the chill.
The typical stroller here likewise eschews the five point harness. Babies and toddlers, often wearing cute cotton aviator caps, are pushed in flat bottomed prams which allow the child to sit up if he chooses. It does look healthier for back muscle development than the American space cockpit-style stroller that straps down and immobilizes the kid. Although some children do wear safety straps, I was startled the first time I saw a kid climb to his knees to peek over the side of his pram. The nearby hands of his parent gently held him back.
I had heard about the Danish way of leaving sleeping children bundled in their prams outside for the health benefits of the fresh air. (With all the bikes on the road and ten percent of the city's power supplied by wind farms, the air does smell amazingly clean.) A Danish woman who tried this in New York City in 1997 was arrested, excoriated by the American press and had her child placed in protective custody for four days.
I witnessed this custom first hand as I passed a coffee shop in the Latin Quarter. A woman watched the pram with a calm smile from her window-side seat. The baby seemed perfectly safe and the attentive mom looked happy. The whole scene had a peaceful and commonsensical air.
There is a lot of social support behind that woman. Danish parents are entitled to fifty-two weeks of paid maternity leave. Public employees receive full salary during the leave while private employees are guaranteed a "benefit" rate and allowed to negotiate for more. Health care is universal, whether a citizen is employed or not. Even with the international financial crisis, Denmark's unemployment rate, as of November, is less than two percent. The division between rich and poor in this country is one of the smallest in the world. To pay for the extensive social services, Danes pay income taxes that can rise as high as 63% for those earning over 360,000 Kroner (about $70,000) per year.
When I try to understand the Scandinavia acceptance of a greater burden to support the social system, I can't help thinking of the metaphor of the bike bell.
After four days of riding on busy Copenhagen streets, you become attuned to the tiny ding! sound from behind you that signals another rider is passing on your left. It's a necessary perception change, a new focus on a tiny sound in the din around you. The city drivers, and by extension, the Danes in general, also seem to have a different, and more responsible, perception of the vulnerable people around them than your typical American behind the tinted windows of an SUV, jockeying for position on the highway, other drivers be damned.
I feel a considerate attitude in face-to-face interactions with Danes too - the typical Copenhagen citizen speaks immpecable English, makes direct eye contact and offers help nearly before you ask. When I suddenly realized I'd misplaced my wallet, the woman at the takeout restaurant told me to take the food and bring the money back later. A coffee vender who didn't have water for my thirsty daughter ran after us with a plastic cup and instructions how to use a foreign water fountain we never would have noticed without him. "We take care of each other," said the woman on the bus who had offered help when she saw my map.
There's a nearly untranslatable word for all this friendliness: "hygge" which is pronounced, as far as I can tell, as hoo-glee. It often refers to an atmosphere of comfort and coziness, as in a warm and homey restaurant, lit with candles and a fire, where the staff goes out of their way to be kind. But the term is even broader than that; you can sense this national philosophy in the way the Danes treat strangers and each other.
I experienced hygge one day at the National Gallery (Statens Museum for Kunst) where I took the girls after reading they had a special Children's Museum.
We stopped first at a gorgeous light-filled museum cafe with views of a lake and park. I had to laugh when I read the two offerings on the menu for "borne" (children): brown bread with pate or fish cakes with remoulade. I asked for the bread with just butter for my picky children and ordered brunch for myself.
When our food was ready, the man at the counter handed us a tray of chic asymmetrical plates and small glass dishes for the jam and butter. On the girls' plate he had constructed a little man of bread slices with cucumber limbs and carrot hair and a face fashioned of cucumber bits.
The man began to explain the food in rapid Danish, pointing to each plate as he spoke.
I can understand about two words of Danish so "Cheese?" is the only thing I could think of to say.
"Oh, sorry," replied the man and began again, this time in excellent British-accented English.
Where on Earth do they apologize for not recognizing you don't speak their language? Denmark, that's where.
After lunch we found a children's room where groovy shaped chalkboards on the floor and walls, huge baskets of chalk and giant foam shapes invited my kids into free-form play.
A friendly Danish dad made small talk with me while his one-year-old son mouthed big handfuls of the chalk and climbed on my delighted six-year-old, Mia.
Tucked into an alcove in the room was a bouncy platform covered in a cool striped patterned fabric dotted with giant fabric "buttons." Kids jumped happily on the giant pad that resembled a giant's feather bed. There are no padded walls, no restraining mesh, no release forms to sign, no museum supervision. Just a bunch of shoeless kids with smiling parents nearby, jumping around and flipping and sliding off and laughing.
For about a minute I worried about the sharp corners of two alcove walls that were inches from the edge of the bed. Then I went back to playing "Owl School" with my girls.
Upstairs we found an art workshop where children and their parents puttered and created happily at a table littered with paper, beads, matchsticks, cardboard and pastel crayons. The electric cords for hot glue guns snaked across the table. Mia, who had never seen these guns before, picked one up and went right to work. I showed her how the waxy stick of glue inserts into one end of the gun, then comes out hot and liquid the other. She touched the melted goo once, of course, to satisfy her curiosity.
As Mia and little Nora and I left the museum, I faced a different kind of safety dilemma. We stopped in a special gallery "for children ages 6 to 12." Nora is four, but she goes where her big sister goes. "The Bird and the Bee" was the title of this particular exhibit and love, in many of its forms, was the theme.
Classic marble sculpture of Psyche and Cupid embracing, an oil painting of The Judgement of Paris -- we were all good. We had a discussion about a modern art piece - how is a white stone lump chained to a smaller rainbow-tiled lump an example of love?
The paintings were hung low and guarded with short fences. One piece, entitled "That Flower is a F*%king Lawnmower" included a detail of a bee and a flower engaged in, ahem, explicit union while other fruits and vegetables watched with excited eyes.
My girls stood in front of this painting for a moment or two. A grimacing sun and moon at the top of the canvas seemed to hold their attention more than the X-rated detail. I tried to whisk Mia and Nora away without drawing attention to my rush, with a bright "Time to go!" I was not going to cover their eyes to something they would not understand anyway.
I felt safe in Copenhagen. The citizens were patient and indulgent of my kids. Playgrounds are often supervised by a no-nonsense blond woman who passes out rubber swords and shields to the kids and calls out instructions when it is time to clean up.
Do Danes love their children less than Americans? It's a ridiculous question. Are Danish parents protective and cautious? Of course. Around the children's places we visited, I sensed an atmosphere of good sense without excessive vigilance, relaxation without guilt.
After experiencing a different safety zeitgeist, I suddenly feel like I have been raising my kids in a culture that considers good parenting a series of blared warnings and safety alerts. I know I've spent a great deal of my mental energy worrying about my kids: BPA in the water bottles! Arsenic in the wood deck! Faulty car seats! Lead on the windowsills! Swine flu! Do most American moms view the world through a lens of fear? The typical Danish parent seems to look at the world through a lens of joy.