You’re my water, you’re my wine/ You’re my whiskey from time to time.

I’ve wondered for a long time whether I should write this post or not. I enjoyed starting this blog, as a way to share my life with family and friends so far away. Without having a wide readership you all know how my life has changed in the last few months. And yet, it felt impossible to come back to writing without acknowledging events; that, at the end of June, my mother died. Perhaps some people will read it who didn’t know, perhaps not. But I’ve realised that the worst thing for me would be to pretend this hadn’t happened. To allow my mother to disappear quietly. My Mum is not an awkward topic. She was my Mum, and I want to talk about her, and about our loss.

Mum had cancer, for a time we thought she was in remission, but that turned out to not be the case. We knew for 23 months that there would be no remission this time. Mum would not get better, and that cancer would be the cause of her death. 23 months. Long enough for Mum to see my son grow from a spewy, cuddly newborn into a boisterous, chatty toddler. To see two more grandchildren arrive, and even both take their first steps. Two more birthdays. Two more Christmases. 23 months of intravenous chemotherapy, radiotherapy, daily chemo pills, bone strengthening drugs, surgery, scans. Mum hated the word ‘battle’. I understand why; battle implies winners and losers. When people declare they won the battle with cancer what does that say about those for whom there can be no victory? The truth is Mum worked for every day she got.

After we moved to Denmark Mum was given the go-ahead by her doctors to travel to Europe with Dad. We were so much looking forward to seeing her here, and showing her where we lived. They started in the warmer south of Europe, visiting Rome where they lived for four years. They only got as far as Nice before it became clear that Mum wasn’t going to be able to continue her travel. Flights were rebooked, but they couldn’t get flights immediately. So the three of us hopped on a plane and joined them in France. I’m pleased to say we had a fabulous time. Mum was so determined to enjoy her time with us. Dad was hard at work pushing her wheelchair over bumpy cobblestones, while Mum tried not to complain. We wandered on the promenade. Ate some lovely food. Saw the Chagall museum. My son loved the wheelchair, occasionally he got rides on Gran’s lap, but best of all was to sit in his pram behind her shouting ‘whoo, whoo’ circulating his arms like wheels.

They got home, Mum was taken straight to hospital. Not long after it became clear her life expectancy was now only months. Then months suddenly became only weeks, and I booked flights for M and I to fly home. Mum died within 36 hours of my arrival in Wellington. She had been ill a long time, but in the end her death was so sudden we were left reeling. I’d absolutely expected when I said good-bye that night to see her in the morning. The loss of that one last day with Mum, in lieu of all the years, has hit all of us hard. But I knew for a long time that however long it was, it would never be enough. I realise, now that the initial shock has dissipated, that even though we knew what was coming, it would always be a shock. That nothing can prepare you for the hard truth of that moment. We’d all grieved a thousand times already, but now we had to begin again.

The last time I spoke to Mum alone, the day before she died, we talked about our holiday in Nice, and how much we all enjoyed ourselves, despite the obvious difficulties. Mum told me that making good memories was what was important in life. I love that M still remembers her, and talks about her. It makes me smile that when he sees a wheelchair he shouts ‘like Gran. Whoo, whoo’. But I know that, at only two, those memories won’t stick around long. So it is important to me, that we talk about her, about who she was, because we are the only way he can know her now.

So here we are. Struggling to get through the day to day in a world without Mum in it. I know that in time it will get easier. It is what Mum would have wanted for us. It doesn’t mean we forget. I know I’ll miss her every day ahead. But Mum raised us well, she taught us to keep going when life was tough. She taught us how to enjoy the small moments, even when life is at its worst. The old clichés are right, the people you love the most never truly leave you. My mother is still with me in ways that are very meaningful to me. And this will give us the strength to do what seems so difficult right now. We’ll make a lifetime’s worth of good memories, even though my mother won’t be there.

Lemon juice and sugar

I’ve been having one of those weeks where I really miss my family and wish I could be closer to them. Many of you readers will understand why. You will also know that we are a family that enjoys food; not so much as a solitary pleasure, but as a communal gathering, cooking and eating together. So I have taken some comfort in making and eating one of my earliest food loves, my Gran Joy’s Lemon Honey.

I used to love going to stay in Auckland, although the long drive from Wellington to Auckland was not so great. I have so many lovely memories of their home. Hot Auckland nights tossing and turning in the back bedroom I shared with my middle sister. Star-gazing on their balcony with my Dad. Hours spent at the beach, and hours spent trying to wash off the sticky sand. The year my sister got roller-blades for Christmas and we rushed outside to try them out on the hills of St Heliers. Gran’s clashing pink and apricot kitchen with its old fashioned bean slicer. Grandad’s bread, Gran’s preserved fruit, meringues, and always, always, jars of lemon honey. I suspect Gran made a big batch in advance of our arrival, as I at least slathered my bread with it.

Tasting the same food I ate all those years ago isn’t just about my memories. It gives me a sense of my place in the world. Lemon honey, Gran Kath’s apricot slice or toasties, my mum’s fish pie, and scones. These aren’t just recipes to me, they are stories. They tell me the story of the women who came before me: the tastes they enjoyed, the ingredients available to them, and the kind of cooking they could do with eyes on whoever was scampering at their feet. Once I was the child coming hungry to the table. Now I am the provider. I watched my son lick the lemon honey off the top of his crumpet and knew the next generation of lemon honey lovers had arrived.

Gran’s recipe is a simple, economical, homely recipe, perfect for someone with an army of kids to feed on a budget. I’ve seen lemon curd recipes in fancy cookbooks, they all use four or five egg yolks. I’m sure they taste delicious, but it’s just more bother. She always made it one jar at a time, straight into the fridge, so no messing around with sterilising equipment either. It’s super simple, as long as you don’t let the temperature get too high and ‘scramble’ the eggs. But it wouldn’t be Gran’s lemon honey if you didn’t find at least one string of egg white somewhere. Lucky you whoever finds it. I always used to love that bit.

Joy’s Lemon Honey
Juice and rind of two lemon
2oz butter
1 teacup sugar (a scant ¾ cup, but I like the old-fashioned name)
1 egg

All ingredients into a double boiler over barely simmering water. Stir over low temperature until it boils and thickens. Pour into clean jar and keep in the fridge.

When they move their lips, just a bunch of gibberish

Walking down the street with a toddler is a sure-fire way to get attention. People love kids, and the Danes are a particularly child-friendly people. The English language is very widely spoken here, but the biggest exception to this rule appears to be elderly women (not the men, which tells me the much praised gender equalities here are quite recent). It leads to many awkward ‘conversations’ where someone begins talking to me, or my son M, and I then have to attempt to say ‘Jeg forstår ikke Dansk’ or ‘taler du Engelsk?’ and hope we get somewhere, or not, in which case we usually both smile awkwardly and move on. Although, yesterday I had a nice encounter on a bus, where the woman continued to talk to M about his ‘blomst’ (the dandelion he was clutching); both M and I could at least understand what she was talking about, and he was quite happy to have his flower admired.

The strangest thing is getting used to not understanding the general hubbub of conversation around me. I sometimes worry that the person shouting in the street is actually trying to get my attention while I wander by obliviously. I wonder whether I’ve mistakenly called people rude in the past, when really they just had no idea what I was saying. M’s presence is often a sneaky lifeline. It isn’t hard to find an excuse to say something to a toddler. Loudly. In English. Passing by the awkward conversation when I finally get to the front of the queue, or need to get past people on the bus.

Next week my husband, R, begins his Danish lessons. I’m missing out as we need M in vuggestue (day-care, see I’m learning) first. Once M does start in July he’ll pick up Danish pretty quickly. We’ll struggle to understand the events of his day if we don’t make the effort. Many migrants on short-term contracts don’t learn Danish, but I think having children necessitates more contact with authorities and services. So far the health services have been great about speaking English. But it would be advantageous if I could speak some Danish. When we needed to see an emergency doctor after M fell off a chair (he’s fine, if slightly more wonky toothed) I had to ask a stranger to read his CPR (Social Security) number over the phone for me, as they expect this before you arrive.

We did online lessons before we came, but that only taught us just enough to get through until someone replies in English. Our written comprehension has definitely improved since we arrived. The trouble is actually trying to say anything. Being surrounded by Danish language doesn’t help either, it just reinforces how far off our attempts at pronunciation are. The other night I flipped the TV over to the Norwegian news. I don’t think I could’ve told the two languages apart when I first arrived, but now it definitely sounds different. We’ve come a long way since we’ve arrived, but holding a conversation in Danish still feels a long way off.

Snowflakes coldly fall

Our first day in Copenhagen, fresh off the 32 hour flights, we stepped out into the freezing Danish winter. For some reason, our sleep deprived brains thought our son would benefit from seeing daylight. Wrapped up in his pram, rain cover pulled over to keep the freshest air off him, he howled. Presumably wondering what misery his parents were going to inflict on him next. It was cold. Really cold. It has been a mild winter, but those few days around when we arrived were typical winter days. We beat a fairly hasty retreat to our hotel. There we huddled in the warmth, and our son fell into a deep sleep that we couldn’t even wake him from to eat his tea.

 The next morning we ventured out again, and walked from our hotel down to the harbour to visit Copenhagen’s most famous tourist attraction – The Little Mermaid. So how cold was it? Well, what looked like waves cresting at a distance, was actually frozen sea. That’s something I’d only seen on Attenborough documentaries about polar bears.

 Within a few days of our arrival in Aarhus a thaw had set in. We haven’t seen any snow since those first few days. It has been cold. It has been grey. It has been wet. The ground has been alternatively frozen, puddled, and muddy. Admittedly the last two have been popular with my son. The other week though, a wonderful thing happened. Flowers. Tiny crocuses and snowdrops are popping up under trees, and along the verges. My son has had a long fascination with flowers, and loved few things more than gathering handfuls of dandelions and daisies (two flowers he has been allowed to pick, rather than just smell). For him, pram trips are once again accompanied by hands reaching over the side, imploring us for a flower to admire.

 Spring in northern Europe is such a relief after a long cold winter. Easter also belongs at this time of year. The other weekend was the Danish festival ‘fastelavn’, essentially the beginning of Lent. It seems appropriate to be celebrating the turning of the seasons. It’s a reminder to me how much our idea of seasons is an imported idea to New Zealand. We even follow traditions that conform to a northern calendar. Margaret Mahy has a wonderful poem Christmas in New Zealand, in which she describes exactly this juxtaposition.

And yet around my wall,
On Christmas cards the holly gleams,
And snowflakes coldly fall,
And Robins I have never seen,
Pipe out a Christmas call.

I always miss the evergreen NZ forests when I’m away. I know we won’t get a sweltering summer. After living in Australia for the last three years, I can do with a lack of sweltering to be honest. I don’t know how I’ll manage a full winter here next year. But now, with the days growing longer, and the flowers blooming, Aarhus is growing on me.

An (Un)expected Journey

My husband rang while I was sitting in a bar with old school friends. It was my first real night out since having our (then) 13 month old son; opportunities are rare when you live in a foreign country away from all your family.
‘Would we be interested in a job in Denmark?’
The bouncer was watching me, I’d gone out onto the street to take the call, coming in from Turin where my husband was at a conference.
‘Ahhh. Yeah. I guess’
I went back upstairs, drunk some beer, went to a karaoke bar. All the time ‘Denmark’ knocking around in my head.

And that is how it started. And how I found myself, five months later, in Aarhus. It’s Denmark’s second biggest city. Heard of it before? I hadn’t either.

It may seem like a slightly nuts decision, but an international move had been on the cards for some time. That’s just life when you marry an academic. With a rapidly approaching end of contract deadline we had to make some big decisions. New Zealand and Australia were, sadly, not going to happen. If we were going to be the other side of the world then Denmark has some things going for it. No, not the weather and the extremely short days in winter. I’m not sure if I’ll get paid work here, but even if I don’t, day-care is affordable enough we could consider part time. Compare that to the UK, where we would probably be making a loss on my wages compared to child care. Or Australia, where I could join the scramble for a place; harassing centres until they final cave just so the phone calls stop. Immigration has been a smooth process. ‘You’re a New Zealander, married to a British citizen. Here, have a residence card’. No ‘12 letters over two years, from at least four different sources, addressed to both of you and forms signed in your own blood’ à la UK Home Office. (NB. I made the bit about blood up – it just felt that way at the time).

 The biggest reason to say ‘yes’, was this. If we don’t like it here, we can leave. But if we said ‘No’ we might spend the rest of our life wondering – what if? Maybe the two years here will be pretty average. Maybe we’ll regret it. But maybe it’ll be a time of our life that we’ll look back on and be glad we came here. We’ll meet some friends, get to know a new city, and hopefully manage to learn a wee bit of Danish too. Since i don’t have many friends here (yet?), and I do have friends around the world I’ll try and do a bit of blogging to keep you in the loop.