hygge ⟨n⟩ cosy atmosphere

I feel a bit remiss in not having written about hygge yet, that most quintessential value of the Danish experience, or at least the most cliché. It is almost impossible to overestimate the enthusiastic use of this word in Denmark. Hygge is not just a noun, it is a verb and adjective, as well as being used in many compound nouns. We have received Danish party invitations using no less than four different conjugations of the word hygge. Hygge is having a bit of a moment in the English speaking world, with a proliferation of publications extolling its virtues. We may have finally reached peak hygge, with Slate’s bizarre headlinescreenshot-4Hmm, I wouldn’t exactly translate hygge as “candlelit uterus’. Literally hygge is a cosy, convivial atmosphere. Generally hygge is something you create with other people, although some will say it is possible to be hygge on your own, curled up by a fire with a good book for example.  So while Danes love candles, and mood lighting, and while we in English talk about a ‘womblike atmosphere’ as being somewhere comforting and cosy, I have to say I find the idea of a candlelit uterus quite far from hygge. In fact I would say I find the idea quite the opposite – uhygge.

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Halloween decorations are hygge

Uhygge is the much less well known word. While u is a prefix akin to “un”, uhygge doesn’t mean uncomfortable, or uncosy, it means creepy or scary. So ghosts are uhygge. Haunted castles are uhygge. Halloween is uhygge.

Halloween has been embraced enthusiastically by Danes, going from something that happens in America, to taking over the shops for the month of October, in roughly a decade. The non-American English speaking world seems to have controversies every year over the proliferation of Halloween celebrations and paraphernalia. I’m sure plenty of Danes feel the same. Yet, there is something about Halloween that seems to mesh well with the social character of Danes. They love to dress up. Why not have another reason to party dressed as a skeleton? Despite the sugar taxes, they love to eat sweets. They also already have one holiday based around burning witches – Sankt Hans Aften.

I’ve never really been into Halloween. It seems out of place in the New Zealand and Australian spring. Here, though, the days are getting shorter, the nights longer, and the leaves are falling off the trees. It is the only time of year pumpkins (a relative newcomer here too) are readily available in supermarkets. It is the time of year that people start to hunker down inside, light candles, sip drinks and do what they call hygge sig: have hygge with each other.

My children have a favourite TV character Hr. Skæg, whose shows teach the basics of arithmetic and literacy in a light-handed way. We have his ABC book and CD, and one of our favourite pastimes is to sing along. You could say, it’s a very hyggelig way to spend time. One of his songs is about a ghost who haunts his friend, ultimately scaring him to death so that they can haunt together, because
‘det hyggeligste er/ at være uhyggelig med sin ven’
The most hygge thing is to be uhygge with your friend.

I think that lyric says more about Danish culture than is immediately apparent, beyond the assumption that it is perfectly appropriate for preschoolers to sing about wanting friends to die. The Danish winter can be very depressing. It is dark and cold. Historically Danes were very poor. The coming together of people inside, in warmth and light, with music and hyggespise (comfort food) was the antidote to this. They even have a word for Christmas atmosphere: Julehygge. But they also have a sense of humour that leans towards the dark side. Two of my favourite Danish films are great examples of this: Adam’s Apples, and In China They Eat Dogs. So Halloween with its uhyggelig decorations – the witches, the ghosts, the candlelit pumpkins – slots right in.

My son’s daycare have had a whole week of Halloween celebrations. They ate a Halloween themed menu, serving up dragon’s teeth (rice), kitten brains (meat), even vomit (porridge). They made decorations. They dressed up on Friday. They even led the children on a haunted house style tour of their building, with one of the staff dressed up as a witch. MJ definitely found the tour a bit uhyggelig; he has emphasised that the witch was ‘only Connie, and she doesn’t eat children’. Which makes me wonder exactly what he was told at the time…

I’m what I would call craft-challenged. It’s alright, nobody’s perfect. MJ is really interested in craft at the moment though, so I am trying to give him the opportunities he desires to explore creativity. Halloween has been a great excuse. The kids loved the cornflour slime I made last week. One day we spent his sister’s nap making uhyggelig monsters from fluffy pompoms and glue. I thought we might do more, but the next day he chose to build a rocket ship, which was fine. It is rare for the stars to align the way they have, but we’ve had a few really good, fun, creative, hours together.

The last few weeks have been challenging. The temperatures are dropping. We’ve had doctors’ appointments and our first winter colds. We really have had some particularly challenging behaviour, with AJ discovering the word ‘No’ and even worse, MJ going through a more stubborn than usual phase. We’ve had more tears and yelling than anyone likes. This makes all the good stuff even more important. Sometimes parenting can be like a compliment sandwich; you’ve got to fit some fun on either side of doing terrible things like dressing and washing your children.

Joking about eating vomit for lunch is not really my cup of tea. Playing with cornflour slime with two kids might make an enormous mess. Making gluey monsters is even worse. But these are all things that make my son happy. That Hr. Skæg is right. Sometimes the most hygge thing really is to be uhyggelig together.

Nobody is taught language.

The perils of raising a bi-lingual child (when you are not)

Your child will engage adults in conversations you are not capable of following.
This is especially fun when the adults then turn to you and you just have to leave them hanging, or mumble something you hope makes sense, but judging from their reactions usually doesn’t. But don’t worry…

Your bi-lingual child will explain things
They will learn to carry on the conversation by explaining ‘my Mum doesn’t speak good Danish’. They will also occasionally pass on this factoid to other children at their daycare. As for the woman who said hi to them in the supermarket, why not tell her too? How about that guy who just happens to be sitting in the bus stop at the same time as you, it’s probably good information to pass on to him.

Auto-correction is always at hand
No need to go look at phonetics in a dictionary. Your three year old will be ready and willing to correct your pronunciation at any time.

Don’t forget they are only three
But don’t take their word for it. This can lead to embarrassing errors. After mixing up fro and frø, my son told us he had eaten bread with frogs in it. Seeds, he meant seeds.

Reading is a great way to learn
Reading together will boost both your vocabularies. It is great bonding and snuggling time. Just don’t forget the auto-correcting. Reading will suddenly turn stressful as you are unable to produce the desired level of fluency.
‘Kan du finde kurven?’
‘No. Kurven.’
‘Kurven.’
‘No. K-Uurven.’
‘Whatever.’

Enjoy children’s TV together
There is no better boost to your ego than being able to follow the plot of Postman Pat/Per. You can almost convince yourself you have the language skills of a three year old. As long as you are only listening and not trying to join in the conversation that is. And if you get a bit lost by the intricacies of why exactly he misdelivered the post (again), and why he is still considered a local hero just for sorting out the mess he started, don’t worry. I’m sure if you watch it often enough you’ll understand the complexities of Greendale society eventually.

Worry about children’s TV
But beware, if you leave the TV on for something you don’t know well, you may find yourself sitting there wondering if this show really is age appropriate? It can be hard to tell sometimes. If this happens, don’t panic, just switch it off abruptly, and deal with the following tantrum in a calm and respectful manner.

Sometimes you will have to explain things to them
They won’t understand everything, so they may still call on you for help. Leaving you with the conundrum of whether or not to translate ‘lort’ so they can keep up with the other pre-schoolers. Hint: it involves bodily, uh, excretion.

Pass the buck
When your child calls names at daycare, be sure to disapprove. But secretly console yourself that they definitely only learnt that word in one place. And it wasn’t at home!

Dance. Dance. Dancing your sorrows away.

Last weekend two really magical things happened.

On Friday night A slept from 9ish to 6am. That’s like all night! Not only was that her longest sleep by a reasonably long shot, it coincided with her brother’s best night’s sleep in a long time. It is amazing how different the world seems when you have some sleep in your system.

Saturday was kinda drizzly, but we got some chores done, and I made pizza for tea. We fed the kids first and put them to bed. We do usually eat as a family, but it is nice, every now and again, to have some time that is just my husband and me. We drank wine and watched TV and it was lovely. It ended up being a late meal, and a late night. Of course the kids didn’t repeat the sleep of the night before. But two nights sleep in a row would just be greedy, wouldn’t it? (Would it?)

But that wasn’t the second magical thing. The second magical thing was we took my son to his first concert, featuring his favourite TV host, Rosa, from the Danish children’s channel Ramasjang. Rosa hosts a show about baking cakes; M Loves it. So we thought it would be special for him to see her show.  Also M is quite obsessed with asking if things are real or not. So seeing his hero Rosa in real life, for real, on a real stage, singing real songs, was quite exciting. Really.
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We approached it with a small amount of trepidation. M is quite sensitive (for lack of a better word) and doesn’t always cope well with large crowds and loud noises. But the thrill of the occasion was enough to compensate. Sure he spent some of the show with hands over his ears. Sure he was only brave enough to get off my lap towards the end. But I don’t think that mattered to him.

This is what mattered to him: M and I watched the show together – just the two of us. My husband sat far off down the back with A, who ended up falling asleep. And just like parents need time to ourselves, it was a reminder he needs time with just me as well. Lately we’ve spent a lot of time together, while he has been too sick for børnehaven, but always with his sister present. It was good for him, and good for me, to be able to devote my attention to him. To have me to himself. And Rosa. And cuski, his cuddly, because it was a cuddly animal themed concert. And cuski is not really an animal, but cuski is very loved and an integral part of our family. He sits with us at breakfast, so there was never any question of ‘who’ would go with us.

As we waited, my son giggling and bouncing with anticipation, a teddy polar bear wandered through the crowd. The band arrived on stage, but where was Rosa? To pass time they invited the bear up to dance. Then, the mask came off – the bear was Rosa! A gag as old as time. My son’s genuine surprise and delight was magical to watch.

There are no cliches in childhood. They haven’t learnt them yet.

And that is one of the joys of being a parent. Seeing everything through their unjaded eyes.
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It has been hard lately. When it is hard, it is easy to question yourself. To wonder if you are doing the best for your children. The world is full of articles about the perils of modern childhood inflicted by inadequate/over-bearing/distracted/lazy/busy parents. Sometimes you just have to tune out the world, and look at what is in front of you.

And so for forty-five minutes, while the sun shone in Aarhus and we could believe it was summer, while the band played and the teddy bears danced, while Rosa sang and we waved our hands and sang along to tunes we didn’t know, in a language I don’t actually speak, while all the sleepless nights and battles and stress faded away, while we laughed and listened, we found it.

The magic of childhood.

We’re going where the sea is blue

It has been a stressful time recently, so we decided what could be more relaxing than a holiday with kids? We decided to take advantage of a long weekend and traveled to Ebeltoft for a night. For the most part it was fabulous. Fabulous. But it was also testing and tiring.
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We don’t have a car, so travelled by bus from Aarhus. On the way there it worked perfectly. But on the way home, tired after new exciting experiences, M decided to be – difficult. I’ll take some responsibility; we did briefly lose track of time, and then we realised we needed to rush to make the bus home. They are only hourly, and waiting for the next one was getting too late. Have you ever tried to rush our son? After working hard to keep the holiday calm and relaxing it suddenly turned into GET YOUR CLOTHES ON! GET YOUR SHOES ON! While he yelled NO! NO! And then we really only had 15min until the bus, with a 10min walk to the bus stop. So I said WE JUST HAVE TO GO EVEN THOUGH YOU DON’T HAVE SHOES ON!!

He went from uncooperative to hysterical. It was awful. I realised that he hadn’t seen me shove his shoes under the pram, and so thought I meant we would leave his shoes behind. Hysterical, but also cooperative. Shoes on, M dumped down on the buggy board, and I raced off; my husband grabbed the bags and locked the door. We made it. But my son spent almost the entire walk crying. It was not the end to our holiday we had hoped for.

* * *

Nobody has asked why I chose the name I did for this blog. Perhaps some vague assumptions about Scandinavian design, and innovation. The behemoth of furniture shopping that shall remain nameless. Of course that was on my mind. But it is also how I feel about this nomadic-expat lifestyle my husband and I have fallen into. This year will be our tenth wedding anniversary, and we have lived in four countries during those ten years. Not by design, or even strong desire. Life just kinda worked out that way.

Every time we move we have to dismantle our lives. Pack the boxes. Choose what to take, and what to sell. Say goodbye to friends and places and routines. And then arrive somewhere new. Reassemble our lives. Unpack the boxes. Fit our old belongings into a new house. Try to make new friends, find new places, make new routines.

And like flatpack furniture, things don’t always fit together the same as they did before. It is always a little different, the angles have shifted slightly.

The folk-wisdom of expats is something like this: the first year is either exciting or depressing. Then you know your way around, but you don’t really feel like you belong. Three years feels like maybe you could stay. Five years to feel like you really belong. We’ve never managed the five years.

We have gained a lot, and had such wonderful experiences with this life we’ve led. But I also know that every time we leave somewhere we lose something too. There is a part of me that will always call Wellington, Cambridge, Canberra ‘home’. And my childhood homes too – Lower Hutt, and Germany. Some parts of me will never be at home again.

If there is one thing I’ve learned it is that even when you know you are leaving eventually, you can’t live in a state of impermanence for long. You have to make yourself a home. Dig your heels in and build a new life. Make new friends, find new places, make new routines.

* * *

Ebeltoft is situated on the Djursland peninsula which juts out in to the Kattegat; the strait between Denmark and Sweden, that eventually opens out into the Baltic Sea.  The Kattegat – around here at least – can seem strangely calm to a New Zealander, who has grown up near coasts where winds blow straight from Antarctica. Ebeltoft was particularly idyllic. Nestled into a bay, the opening of which is tucked in under the peninsula, the seas were very calm. It would be spectacular in summer. We’ve had a couple of cold weeks, sleet and hail, wind and rain. They say in Denmark you always need to be prepared for any kind of weather. Well, we were not prepared for the amount of sunshine we got.
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On that stunning Saturday afternoon we walked out to the end of the harbour pier, where in this peaceful place the cannons are still fired weekly. Ahead of us was blue sky and blue sea, green hills curving in to mark the entrance to the bay. Somewhere behind those hills, further down the coast lies our home, Aarhus.

Our home. Hjem. It feels like that to me. And certainly to my son.

I stood at the edge of the sea, feeling these northern winds blowing gently on my skin, the hush of a calm northern sea. The Dannebrog waving above us. And I knew, then, one day we will leave a piece of ourselves behind. One day we’ll ask our son to lose something much bigger, much more important than his shoes. Maybe a different child would take it easily, but we have to deal with the child we have; he is not going to find it easy.

We have a good life here. We are able to give him some wonderful experiences. But we also have to teach him how to uproot himself. This isn’t something that can be done in a rush. It is going to be hard to say goodbye to our life here. To start again, somewhere else. But wherever we end up, we’ll do it. Make new friends, find new places, make new routines.

I also know, we’ll carry a little piece of Denmark with us when we go.

You’ll always be a kiwi if you love our Watties sauce

When my son was born we were pretty sure we would only live in Canberra another year or so. We used to joke about where we would move to. What accent should we pick? Should we stay in Australia? How about the UK: possible work opportunities in Leicester – bit Midlands: back to Cambridge – so he could pronounce ‘th’ as ‘f’? What aboot Canada?

It is actually a serious question for us. Where will our children belong? Where will they find turangawaewae?

Will it be Denmark? Hard to say, probably not. Not forever. And being an immigrant in Denmark is not the same thing as being an immigrant in NZ. Or the child of immigrants.

I know I’m not particularly qualified to write about that experience. But I’m also not entirely unqualified. I was born in NZ, but actually lived the first four years of my life in Germany. We can tell you about turning up in a school environment where the only thing children know about Germany is WWI and WWII. So I know NZ is not perfect. (This is an excellent article on life as a Chinese New Zealander)

It’s hard to deny though that NZ isn’t better at dealing with immigrants than many countries. During my language classes I was the only person in the class surprised to learn that there is a specific term used for the child born in Denmark to immigrants, even if the immigrants have become Danish citizens. It seemed bizarre to me, that the country of birth of your parents can determine your place in society. I sat there, pregnant, and realised that even if we stay, in the eyes of Danes my children will never really belong. My daughter, born here, will always be called ‘efterkommer’. That, even stranger, my son’s children would be ‘efterkommer’. That only a child who was born in Denmark to a parent born in Denmark, can call themselves a Dane.

Sometimes I can feel that we spend so much time trying to assimilate to life here, trying to fit in, trying to just get by outside our doors, that we can forget who we are. My children are New Zealanders. Officially. Even if one of them has never actually been there. Sometimes it can be sad, and even slightly daunting to think that if we don’t take them back, take them home, they will not be New Zealanders in the sense that R and I are.

I miss home. I miss watching the light fall on the Orongorongo ranges. I miss the noisy tui and the darting fantails, the kererū whomping as they land heavily in trees. I miss fish and chips, and lamb chops. I miss walking down a street and seeing foods from a multitudes of cultures, skins in a multitude of colours in this country which is white, white, white. I miss all the intangible things. A love for a place that I cannot put in a box and give to my children. It is a love that grows from familiarity. I miss familiarity.

One thing, I haven’t had to miss is the Rugby World Cup. We have managed to watch nearly every game via (legal) streaming. M was at first baffled, as we hardly watch TV with him around. Suddenly there was this ‘rugby’ on all weekend. It’s been lovely to introduce him to what was such a mainstay of my childhood. Just listening to the on-field play takes me back to watching the Hutt Old Boys with my father. M got the hang of the game pretty quickly

‘The men and women jump into piles, and then the referee blows the whistle.’

He is quite taken with the referees. I’m not buying him a whistle.

He does have an All Blacks t-shirt that he loves to wear now he knows what the All Blacks are. He likes to check what the women’s rugby team is called (Black Ferns). He liked seeing some games played in Gloucester, as we have a book about the Tailor of Gloucester. He likes to watch the Haka, he asks every game if they will do one, even though we try to explain only the Pacific Island teams have them. He likes to haka with his father, but ‘only the bit I know…He!’. He likes to watch goal kicking, as he can understand that bit. He likes to eat his tea watching a game, yup television dinners have entered his world. Rather sweetly, he cannot comprehend what ‘winning’ means.

On Saturday night the All Blacks played early enough for M to watch. I made my Grans signature ‘toasties’. M put on his shirt. I tried not to rage as the game was being played, while A slept on me. If you knew my father, you’d understand how hard I found it. At 72min I sobbed ‘we’re going to lose.’ At 76min I woke the baby. At 80min R and I were on our feet. There are New Zealanders who don’t want their country to be defined purely by our ‘rugger thugs’ as they are wont to say. But when a stadium and a nation come together, that collective holding of breath, then the joy of victory, I find that to be a beautiful thing. Watching the cup has bought us pleasure, a sense of home to our life here.

Now, if only they played ads for Cydectin at half time.