Preschool in Denmark

FeaturedPreschool in Denmark

 

 

 

This year my daughter Charlotte has been attending the local public preschool, or “børnehus” (children house), which is a kind of combined daycare/preschool. Most kids attend fulltime, with the cost subsidized 75% by the government.   The børnehus is attended by children ages 3 to 6.  (Younger toddlers and babies attend a separate institution: daypleje or vuggestue).

The last year that a child is in the børnehus (aged 5-6) they will spend about an hour a day in a classroom, learning letters, numbers, and writing.  Before this age, it is believed that children are not developmentally ready for structured academic learning . The philosophy in Denmark is that the time is better spent developing creativity, imagination, motor skills, social skills, and an interest in learning.

That is not to say that no learning is going on at the børnehus.  Lots of learning is happening,  it is just kept very informal–most of the learning is through play, and a lot of the play happens outdoors.

Comparable to the famed “forest preschools” of  Finland, preschools in Denmark believe that children benefit a lot from being outdoors and spending time in nature.  Twice a week, my daughter’s børnehus spends almost the entire day outdoors.  The other days they spend a good portion of the day outside as well.

The children spend most of their outdoor time participating in unstructured playtime.  The play ground is filled with fun,interesting stuff including swings, an obstacle course, moon cars, strider bikes, play houses, sandboxes, slides, and seesaws.

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**Photos courtesy of Højmark Børneverden

 

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The trees are also popular:

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In addition to plenty of unstructured playtime, regular activities and field trips are also planned, such as:

Helping with the gardening,

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going for a walk,

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visiting the nearby fjord,

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or the local lake,

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learning about and finding insects,

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making apple juice,

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and enjoying arts and crafts.

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They maintain this schedule with loads of outdoor time regardless of the weather.  And this is saying something because the weather in Denmark is often gray, wet, and windy.

**Of course, in the case of extreme inclement weather, the situation will be judged on a case by case basis, but suffice it to say that days were the kids are not outside for a considerable amount of time are few and far between.

 

Because of this, appropriate outerwear is very important at the bornehus.  There is a popular saying in Denmark: There is no bad weather, only bad clothes. They take their outerware seriously, and there is an option appropriate for every weather forecast.

 

Last fall, I made sure to (obviously) send Charlotte to school with a jacket, since it was chilly.  If the weather was wet, I also sent her in rainboots; so I thought I was doing pretty good, raingear wise, since rainboots are something we typically wouldn’t bother with in Colorado.

So it was that I was quite surprised when she came home and told me, “My teacher says I need rain pants.”

 

Rain pants? What are rainpants?

 

Well, they’re exactly what they sound like.  They’re pants that go over the kiddos’ regular pants–like snow pants, but for rain.

 

Here’s what the fashionable young Danish girl might wear out for a rainy day:

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I was able to eventually see why full-bodied raingear was important, because on the many wet days, the kids are still outdoors, splashing in puddles and digging in the mud.

 

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Here are the kids out for a walk on a damp, windy fall day.  Charlotte is in purple and you might notice she is the only one not wearing rainpants:

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I caught on slowly, but here she is in her rainpants that I finally got around to getting her:

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hunting for crabs at the fjord

Equally important to the rain pants for children in Denmark are the specially prescribed hats.  There is a particular kind of hat that is required for the preschool kids:  It is a “balaclava” style hat that covers the head, ears, and neck, with a hole cut out for the face.  If the kids don’t bring one to school, one will be provided for them (Once the kids hit about 6 years old, evidently they are allowed to graduate to regular knit hats).

 

Charlotte wearing the appropriate headwear, known as an elefanthue (elephant hat):

charlotte hat

 

 

The younger daycare babies are also required to wear the ear–and–neck covering hats–the difference being that the younger the kid, the pointier the hat.

 

From my research into hat pointiness progression:

 

********Child Elefanthue*******Toddler Elefanthue*******Baby Elefanthue****

 

 

But really, could they be any cuter?

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In the fall, as the weather cools down, the children transition from rain pants and rain coats to “warm suits”.  These are  “cool weather” pieces that also go over the clothing, consisting of a quilted water repellant jacket and matching pants.

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When winter arrives, the Danish children, without exception, don a flyverdragt. This is a one piece snow suit.  I love seeing the little kids out and about in these, because these thick suits, combined with the special Scandinavian hats, make them look like little lego figures running around.

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Rowan at the beach in his flyverdragt.

 

 

As on rainy days, the børnehus kids will still be found out and about on snowy days.  (Actually they might go outside more when it snows.)

 

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On the days when the preschool kids are outdoors all day, they eat their lunch outdoors.  This continues during the winter.

A primitive wooden structure stands in the corner of the school grounds, and here the children eat lunch on wooden picnic tables.

On especially cold days, a fire might be made.

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The walls provide protection from the wind, and the fire provides enough warmth that the little ones can take off their gloves to eat.

 

Sometimes they will even make a soup over the blaze.

 

 

 

 

The children help with the preparations for the soup. Sometimes they go into the forest to identify and collect edible plants to add to it:

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Charlotte helping cut up carrots for the soup:

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And here’s an outdoor “frugtpause”–fruit break:

 

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Well, some of you parents or teachers might be thinking, rolling around in snow, stomping in puddles, and making mud pies is all well and good, but what about the mess?!

 

Well, the Danes have developed a few tricks to handle the inevitable mess.

 

Mudrooms–foyers and mud rooms are very important in Denmark, in homes as well as in schools.  The børnehus has a mudroom with cubbies for each of the children.  As you might expect, these cubbies are stuffed to overflowing with the myriad outerwear options for all weather conditions.

Clothes Dryer Thing–Just inside of the door of the børnehus is a special clothes dryer thing.  It looks kind of like a stand up freezer. Coats, snowsuits, rainpants,etc can be hung inside it or draped over racks in the interior.  This way, if coats are wet after the morning outing, they can be dry and ready to be worn again in the afternoon, and wet clothes don’t need to be hung in cubbies alongside dry clothes.

Get ready for this one.  Children always take off their shoes indoors.  Everyday (even in good weather).  This also applies to the elementary school kids.  This was quite surprising to me at first.  I was informed that the kids were allowed to bring a pair of “indoor” shoes to leave at the school, but it was confided in me that actually most kids just run around inside the school in their socks.  So that is what my kids have been doing.  I’d say the system works quite well, with the exception that holes are constantly being worn in socks.

 

And yes, there is some extra mess to clean up as a result of all the outdoor time, including muddy footprints on the entryway floor and a constant invasion of sand in the mud room that needs to be swept up.  There’s also the hassle of getting the smallest children in and out of all their outerwear (the kids eventually get quite good at doing it themselves).

 

So while it does come at a bit of a cost, in Denmark they have decided that this is a small price to pay for a childhood spent outdoors.

 

 

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Below is a link to an awesome video about forest preschools in Denmark–well worth the ten minutes.  There are a couple of different levels of the amount of time that preschools in Denmark spend outdoors, and Charlotte’s is not quite as extreme as the one described below.   (For example, Charlotte’s preschool play yard is fenced), and it sounds like this preschool spends even more time outdoors.

To view in full screen mode, click the “youtube” button at the bottom of the screen below:

 

 

 

******A note to my Danish readers:  In the U.S., preschool kids spend much more time indoors.

The current trend in the United States is that kids should be exposed to academics younger and younger.  There is pressure for the kids to be reading by age 5 or 6.  They are expected to know a long list of things before even entering U.S. Kindergarten (Grade 0).  During preschool (ages 3 to 5), kids spend a good portion of their time learning letters, numbers, writing, and pre-reading skills.  Teachers do try to make the learning fun with songs, art, and stories, but there is little time available to go outdoors because the teachers feel pressure to make sure the kids are “learning enough”.

There might be one or two 15 minute outdoor breaks, if the weather is good.  If it is raining or too cold, they will usually stay inside.  This may be because we don’t tend to dress as well for the weather as the Danes do.  I had never heard of rain pants before coming here (even growing up in rainy Mississippi), and in Colorado, although it gets very cold, the kids would generally only wear their snowsuits if it was snowing.  The only time I had seen the baclava style hats on kids in the U.S. was for skiing.

 

Danish

Danish

Here’s a joke to start us off:

 

 

What do you call a person that speaks two languages?

 

Bilingual.

 

What do you call a person that speaks three languages?

 

Trilingual.

 

What do you call a person that speaks one language?

 

An American.

 

Like most Americans, my first exposure to a foreign language was in high school–a couple of years of Spanish, consisting mainly of worksheets and a piñata or two.

In college I decided I might actually like to learn to speak Spanish, so I started over with Spanish 101, completed a semester in Mexico at the Universidad Autónoma de Guadalajara, and then continued taking Spanish courses up through 300 level Literature.  I would say that at my prime I was certainly conversational, if not fluent.

Likewise my husband took a few courses of Spanish in high school (Spanish is a popular second language for Americans what with all the nearby Spanish-speaking countries, as well as the influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants). Later on John served as a missionary in El Salvador for two years, so he is fluent in Spanish.

And as it happens, it is Spanish that brought John and I together:  We met at a Spanish language film that we were both attending for extra credit while at university.

With a love of Spanish in common, John and I had grand plans for raising a bilingual family.  Sadly, grand plans almost never don’t always pan out.  Our first child ended up having a language delay (in English), so we decided we’d better just focus on the English with him.  By the time he was speaking well, we had a second child and I was now too tired for grand plans and had basically given up on the idea of cute bilingual children (Well they would still always be cute, just not speaking two languages…).

Which brings us to….our move to Denmark.   John and I had always wanted to experience living abroad, and we kinda assumed it would be somewhere Spanish-speaking.

But when the opportunity finally arose–the country was Denmark.

 

And the language was Danish.

 

I feel that Danish is a difficult language for several reasons.  First of all, sounds of letters do not behave as they do in English.  In order to learn Danish, one must clear one’s mind of all preconceived notions of how letters should sound, or words should be spelled.

There are a ton of extra vowel sounds, including some extra letters to attempt to represent said additional sounds.  Here they are in all their foreign-looking glory:

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And here’s a nice (evidently Danish) man with a Scandinavian-looking haircut who can teach us about them:

 

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Last summer, a few weeks before we were to depart for Denmark, John invited a few visiting Danish work colleagues over to our house for a barbecue.   Hearing that we were moving to Denmark soon, they were eager to challenge us with a Danish tongue twister: “rødgrød med fløde.”   Meaning “red porridge with cream,” the combination “ød” sound does not occur in English, and is notoriously difficult to pronounce. (I was to learn later that this is standard treatment for newcomers to the Danish language because Danes find it unceasingly hilarious hearing foreigners make a fool of themselves butchering the Danish language).

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Fun fact:  Rødgrød med fløde is a mixed strawberry and raspberry pudding with cream on top.

John and I each made a few concerted efforts to correctly pronounce “rødgrød med fløde.”  Each time, our efforts were met with laughs and shaking heads.  At this point I decided that rather than attempt the impossible, I should just go for the laughs.  I gathered myself and pronounced the words in the silliest, most guttural, most throat-contorting, most swedish-chef-sounding manner that I could.  Expecting guffawing laughs, I was surprised to be met with silence.  The two Danes just looked at each other.

Then a look of shock crossed both their faces.  “That was actually quite good.”

Our other guest nodded in agreement, still looking surprised.

 

 

In addition to having way too many vowels, Danish also has several different dialects, or accents.  As a beginner, even if you understand Danish in one part of the country, you might have a difficult time understanding it in another part.  For example, in our corner of rural Denmark, many people speak a dialect known as “Jysk.”

The thing that’s currently causing me the most difficulty is that Danes tend to speak fast and slur words together.   This is why, even though I might be able to understand or read the words separately, it may still be difficult for me to understand sentences as they are spoken.

 

Fortunately for us, most Danes speak very good English.

Danish kids’ exposure to English as a second language starts early.  My daughter’s first grade class has begun learning English this year, starting with the basics.  They like to practice with me: When I arrive at the school I am often greeted with a chorus of, “Good morning!”s.

Sometimes followed by a, “What is your name?”

I find it super cute.

Staveundervisning, Teacher trains the children to spell
Photo via http://www.howtoliveindenmark.com

 

However (and I think this part is important) Danish kids’ exposure to English begins much before the age of 7 or 8 when their formal language training begins.  Many, if not most, of the songs on the radio here are in English.  Much of the packaging at stores is in English.  Many young children watch movies and television shows in English.  So probably from infancy, these kids are being exposed to the second language.  And it shows.

By third grade, where my son Jeffrey is, they can say and understand quite a bit in English.

When the school here in Denmark learned that our children would be enrolling, one of the teachers told the students they could say, “Hi” to the American kids, because “Hi” sounds the same in Danish and English (although in Danish it is spelled, “Hej”…of course).

One of the third graders replied to the teacher, “Oh no, we will say, ‘Hello, and how are you doing today?'”

By junior high, the Danish kids are conversational in English, and by high school, fluent.  The classes they take in school teach them a lot, but I have been told that they owe much of their vocabulary and fluency to another source:  American movies and television. (This explains their extensive knowledge [and prolific use] of American swear words). Since Denmark is a tiny country with a language spoken by only a few million people, it is not surprising that there are not too many movies produced in the Danish language. From a young age, Danes are used to watching movies and television in English with Danish subtitles.

 

Three years ago, the Danes were rated the world’s best non-native English speakers by the English Proficiency Index (EPI) from global language training company Education First.  Recently, they have been knocked to #3 (behind the Netherlands and Sweden).

In fact, many Danes’ English is so good that tourists and immigrants attempting to learn Danish find themselves in this situation:

https://satwcomic.com/language-barrier

 

Interesting to note is that the Danes learn “British English” in the schools here.  It makes sense since the U.K. is much closer than is the U.S.  I have to laugh, though, because my kids have been informed that they speak “American,” not English.  (Danes think of “English” as being what is spoken in Britain, not in the U.S.).  I have never considered myself a speaker of “American,” but I guess I am.  It is fun listening to the Danes speak with kind of a hybrid Danish/British accent.  Occasionally I run into someone that has spent a considerable amount of time in the U.S. (usually as an exchange student–the Danes are big on exchange student-ing) and I can always recognize the American-ness of their accent.

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Not only do most Danes speak English, but most speak conversational German, can get by in Swedish and Norwegian (mostly due to the similarity of these tongues to Danish), and may learn an additional language–like Spanish or French–“just for fun.”

 

And then there’s us Americans.

Unless we are purposefully looking for the exposure, chances are we come across very little foreign language–not on packaging, not on the radio, not on TV.

The thing is, the U.S. is a huge country.  You have to travel pretty far to find a place that speaks another language (Mexico being the closest).  It’s not like Europe where you drive a couple hours and bam they’re speaking a completely different language.

Generally American high school kids get two years of a language–typically Spanish, German, or French. Some may continue on in college or university.

 

And so there we were, ready to move to a foreign country, with absolutely no knowledge of the language.  What were we to do?  Like so many other points in our lives, the answer lay in Amazon.com.   We headed to our friend Amazon and purchased the all audio Pimsleur language course, completing some of it last summer during our cross-country road trip to see family in Mississippi.  I think it worked out well starting with all audio in Danish.  If you try to start off reading it, not only will your mind be blown, but your pronunciation will be horrible.

When we arrived, John and I spoke no Danish beyond the rote phrases that we had memorized from Pimsleur.  Things like, “I would like something to eat.”  and “Where is Western Bridge Street?” and most importantly, “I speak very little Danish.  I speak English.”  We used that awkward last one quite a bit during our first trip here. 🙂

 

John is working for Vestas–It is a multinational company and the official language is English, so it works in his favor that the official memos and meetings are in English. However, most of the general chatting is in Danish, so he still wants to learn.

The Danish government would like all immigrants to integrate and assimilate, and part of this is learning the local language, so Danish classes are offered free of charge to all immigrants.

 

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John is taking the first round of Danish courses, and I will probably start this fall.

 

Although I have yet to attend any formal lanugage classes, I have nevertheless continued my studies at home, using Pimsleur, Duolingo, television and talking to random Danish children at my kids’ school.

(Duolingo is a free website or app that offers many languages and I would  recommend if you’re wishing to learn a new language, or simply brush up on your skills.)

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John and I often watch one television show at night after the kids go to bed.  We have the subtitles set to Danish and make a point to read them–this has really helped with our ability to read Danish.

 

In spite of all our efforts, we continue to struggle.   We can read simple things fairly well.  If people speak slowly to us, in a context that we understand and expect, we can understand pretty well.  Beyond that, it is all gibberish–and we have been here nearly nine months now.  At least we’re not alone.  I have spoken with numerous expats that have been here for much longer than we have and are still not comfortable with the language.

keep-calm.pngI will say it is frustrating.  However, I must remind myself that we arrived speaking no Danish beyond a couple lines we had memorized.  We could read literally nothing.  What is important is the trajectory, and it is most certainly going upward.  How steep this trajectory will continue upward–that is up to us and our level of dedication :).

 

And how are our kids doing?  When we first arrived, everyone kept telling me that young children are basically language sponges that will learn a new language with virtually no effort (or at least that’s how people made it sound).

The truth is it has not been without difficulty for the little language sponges either.

My nine-year-old reads and writes Danish okay, but seems to have a mental block against  actually speaking it.  He feels awkward and is stubborn and has been refusing to really give it a try.  He’s able to get away with it because his friends are already speaking a little English.  It’s kind of impossible to tell how much he is actually understanding.

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My five-year-old speaks only a little Danish.  I had thought she would learn the fastest of all of us, but she has been struggling a bit with some anxiety going to her new school, so the teachers have been speaking to her mostly in English.  Also, I think a lot of it has to do with personality: she, like my nine-year-old, is stubborn and doesn’t want to try out the new words that feel strange in her mouth and that require an effort for no purpose that she can really understand.  I have discovered that she understands more than she lets on.

My seven-year-old is putting the rest of us to shame.  I am told she speaks with almost no accent.  She understands her friends and they understand her.  She reads Danish at or above grade level and is learning the vocabulary as she goes along.

As mentioned above, I like to practice my Danish on the kids at Jeffrey and Arabelle’s school.  They don’t seem to mind too much :).  It is funny, though, because oftentimes when I think I’m speaking perfectly good, clear Danish, they just look back at me, confused. Usually then I say, “Arabelle, tell them what I said.”  Arabelle proceeds to say exactly what I did, and the kids are like, “Oh, of course,” nodding their heads in understanding.

 

So, while probably only my seven-year-old is “fluent” in Danish as of this moment, we have all learned a lot in the past nine months, and I’m proud of that.

John and I both enjoy the process of learning a new language, and there is a certain satisfaction that comes with each validation of progress, no matter how small: finally being able to understand the cashier at checkout when she tells us our total, for the first time being able to read a sign that we have passed every day, suddenly understanding an ad on the radio.  And we’re not giving up yet.

In the meantime, I’ll remain grateful for the Danes’ excellent English skills.

Letting Kids be Kids: Suggestions from a Danish Elementary School

Letting Kids be Kids: Suggestions from a Danish Elementary School

I know I’ve mentioned some of these points before, but I have more information (and more pictures) now :).  ***Photos courtesy of Højmark Børneverden.

I will also note that the school my children are attending here in Denmark is a small public school (Folkeskole) located in the countryside, comprising grades 0-6 with approximately 77 students.  I am including a bit of general information about U.S. elementary schools so that my Danish readers can understand some of the comparisons.  No doubt there are variations among schools in Denmark (as there certainly are among schools in the U.S.) so I am simply making my comparisons based on my own knowledge and experience.

 

 

 

1. Focus on Social Skills

During the elementary years in Denmark, there is a heavy emphasis on developing social skills.  Rather than focusing so much time and energy on the incremental progress of academic subjects, teachers and school leaders closely observe the children’s social interactions to make sure they are well-adjusted at school and are making friends.  The theory behind this is that if the children are happy at school, this will lead to them performing better academically.  As a parent, I can empathize with this philosphy–I believe most of us parents would agree that our #1 priority for our kids would be for them to not be miserable at school, and hopefully even happy 🙂 .

 

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2. Less Testing

The testing of elementary school children in the United States has gotten out of control.  Like waaay out of control.  And I get the reasoning behind it: teacher accountability, school accountability, pinpointing the kids who need extra help.  Those things are important, but the system seems to be continuously adding additional testing without ever weeding anything out. Before we left, my eight year old was already developing test anxiety.  Additionally, so much time spent on testing severely reduces the amount of time that the teachers have left for actual instruction.

 

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In Denmark there is no official testing until 9th grade, and no grades given until 9th grade. I did attend a Parent Teacher Conference here, and was told how my children were doing and given examples of their work, but there were no grades, no pie charts, no graphs. The teachers and I spent as much time talking about my kids’ emotional well-being as we did their academic performance.

 

3. Including Life Skills

These life skills are  generally integrated into the curriculum.  For example, my kids participated in gardening,

 

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then learned about the foods,

helped cook them,

 

 

 

 

 

and joined the other students for a “banquet”.

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There was also of course the infamous “chicken incident” which I’ve detailed elsewhere on this blog :).

 

Additionally, the students help with the general grounds maintenance: dragging branches, planting, and even helping cut down trees.

 

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There is also a “shop” where the kids can learn to use various tools and make random doo-dads.

 

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It is also common for the students to use the shop to help build things the school needs–like props for a play or frames for an art project.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The school provides homemade rolls for snack every Friday, and the students help make them.  .

 

Each class also has a chore chart where the kids are expected to help with simple classroom chores, like sweeping after lunch or taking out the trash.

 

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Another important life skill that is taught is “scouting” or outdoor survival skills.

These life skills are a fun and useful addition to the academic curriculum.  (Perhaps the availability of time to incorporate these skills and other extracurriculars is made possible because the classes are not spending so much time testing.)

The scouting activities include sawing down limbs to build shelters, making forts, and even building fires to cook on.  They may not know what S’mores are here, but they do have “snobrød” or, “campfire bread”.  This is a stiff bread dough that is twisted around a stick and then baked over the fire–it’s quite good and is super fun to make!

 

 

Snobrød:

 

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(Can also be made with a hotdog inside.  Here is a link with a recipe, in case you want to try!  http://thefamilydinnerbook.com/recipes/2011/06/09/snobr%C3%B8d-campfire-bread/ )

 

 

4. Less Homework

Beyond some supplemental review of Danish (which my kids are still trying to learn), my children are not assigned any work that they are expected to complete at home.  There is some “homework” that is assigned but it is expected to be completed during the “homework” period during school hours.  I’m sure my kids appreciate this, but to be honest, I probably appreciate it even more than they do!  Not having to remind my kids of homework every night and then stand over them while they complete it.  Not having to organize folders, sign logs, make sure each kid makes it to school with their completed sheaf of papers…truly it’s as much a gift for the parent as it is for the child.

(That being said, I really do understand the pressures on both the teachers and the students in the U.S. that lead to the assignment of large amounts of homework.  I also can see that it’s important that parents be aware and involved in their kids’ education; I just wish there was less pressure, particularly in the younger years.  And I should also confess that I must not be that anti-homework because I am currently making my kids do the Common Core mathbook with me at home to make sure they are staying on track with their peers in the U.S.  My 9-year-old of course whines, “Mom, why are you making me do extra homework.”  And I’m like, “Come on, this is pretty much the only homework you have here, I’d say you’ve got it pretty good!”)

 

 

5. More Recess

One of the first things my kids noticed was the increased frequency and  duration of recess time.  During these breaks, students are free to run around the school grounds, ride scooters or skate boards, or even sled during recess–if they’re lucky enough to have snow.

 

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If you’re from a State with a lot of snow, like we are, you too might find it humorous that they’re sledding on like 1.5 inches of snow 🙂

 

Sidenote:  One of the breaks is called, “Frugt Pause“–“Fruit Break”, because the kids are given fresh fruit daily.  Pretty awesome.

 

 

 

6. More Physical Activity

In addition to the extra recess time, the Danish schools allocate a significant amount of time to physical activity.  My son has a 2 hour regular P.E. session every week.  In addition he was able to choose an elective, and he chose “sports”, so this gives him another 2 hour block of active time.

For some reason everyone in Denmark is really into gymnastics.  I’d say it’s pretty much the national sport, but then maybe that would actually be “Hand Ball” (look it up, it’s a thing 🙂 ).  Possibly gymnastics is so popular here because it is easy to do indoors, and the weather is often grim, but the Danes also believe it is just really good for kids’ coordination.  The school gyms here all have gymnastics equipment that can be pulled out, and gymnastics is often done during school hours:

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Sometimes there is even spontaneous physical activity and outdoor excursions.  For example, at one point this school year there was a two week period when it rained every day, pretty much all day.  When one day it had finally cleared up, the teachers made the call to take the entire student body out for a brisk walk.

 

 

Biking is an important part of the culture in Denmark, so it is not so surprising that it is incorporated into the school curiculum.

Children learn bike safety and maintenance at school, and all students (even the kindergarteners!)  have been on a couple of biking fieldtrips this year where they have biked upwards of 5 miles.

 

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During one outing, the older grades (3-6), biked about 6 miles, went swimming, and then biked another 6 miles home.

 

 

As far as I could tell, every child is expected to participate in these activities regardless of “athletic” ability.  It would appear that kids tend to rise to the challenge.

To compare to the U.S. system:  kids generally have a Physical Education (P.E.) class once or twice a week for an hour, and then that’s really it.  Biking at school is not a thing.  Sledding or using scooters or skate boards at schools is generally not allowed.   My nephew’s school even recently outlawed “all balls” because “there had been some injuries”.  I think it is safe to say that the flexibility and breadth of physical activity is not nearly so great in U.S schools. as it is at schools here in DK.

 

7. Time for Art 

My daughter Arabelle has an insatiable zeal for art and crafting, and the Danish school system has served her well.  There is a lot of coloring in the classroom and regular art periods, but there are also major, school-wide art projects from time to time: making props for the school play, decorating the hallway with glow in the dark stars, or creating a largea tile mosaic to decorate the bike shed.

 

 

It has been joked among my fellow American Expats here that the Danish schools spend the entire month of December only doing Christmas crafts.

This is only a minor exaggeration 🙂 .   Really the Christmas Craft Enthusiasm is too big a topic for me to get into here; I will have to dedicate an entire post to it next December–it will be epic, you can count on it :).

In the United States, the inclusion of arts in the curriculum has recently come under fire.  With the perceived need to push subjects like Math and Science, the arts have in many locations been seen as expendable.  In most elementary schools, if you get an hour a week to do art, you’re pretty lucky.

 

8. Shorter School Day

In spite of all these additions to the school curriculum, my kids are going to school an hour less each day, compared to their school day back in the U.S.   And for such little minds and hearts, I think that’s a good thing 🙂 .  So the school day here is shorter than in the U.S. even though, a couple of years ago, the Danish government actually added an hour or two to the length of their previous school day.  I am curious whether this change has been popular, or if they would consider shortening it again.

 

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Although the school days are shorter in Denmark, the students do attend school more days each year as compared to U.S. schools.  There are no “Staff Development” or “Teacher Comp” days.  I’ve done some thinking on the subject, and what I have worked out is this:  The teachers still meet regularly (the Danes like a good meeting), but this is done either during school hours, or perhaps after school (since the school day is shorter).  These additional days of school attendance (as compared to the U.S. school year) I would wager are pretty much eaten up by all of the aforementioned extra curriculars.  For example, my kids had an entire week last fall that was completely devoted to biking, sports, art, and music.  I would say that approximately every month there are a couple of days alotted as “irregular school days” which are planned to be spent solely on extracurriculars.

 

 

9. Starting School Older

In Denmark, children generally do not start formal education until they are at least 6 years old.  They should be 6 years old by January 1st to enter the Folkeskole (public school system).  This is later than they would start in the  United States. For example, my daughter turns 5 next week, so in the U.S. she would be starting kindergarten next year.  Here in Denmark, she will have an additional year before she starts “real” school.  I have also been told that it’s quite common for Danish parents to make the decision to hold their children back a year and start school even one year later.  If the parents think they would benefit from it (and I have been told this happens most often with boys), there is no compunction against having the kids start school a year later.

 

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So, looking back at these “suggestions” from Danish elementary schools (Start school older; Limit testing, grading, and homework; Focus on social skills, extracurriculars, art, and physical activity.), I think it can all be summed up pretty succinctly:

 

Let kids be kids.

 

field trip 2

 

*This post is about things I believe the Danish elementary schools tend to do well.  It should be noted that there are also things that I think the American schools tend to do well.

**I am curious to hear what my teacher-readers think of these observations.    I realize that in some ways it is hard to compare the United States to Denmark.  Denmark is a tiny nation of ~5.5 million people, compared to the U.S. which is vast with a population of ~320 million people.  The U.S. population is also much more diverse, and I know there are different needs in different areas.  Could any of these conceptss be incorporated into the U.S. system, and what do you think would be the results?

 

 

 

***Further Reading:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2015/09/01/the-decline-of-play-in-preschoolers-and-the-rise-in-sensory-issues/?utm_term=.4a16b27abb48

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2015/02/04/how-schools-ruined-recess-and-four-things-needed-to-fix-it/?utm_term=.6a151e542d6d

¡Viva España!

¡Viva España!

Disclaimer: The pithy expressions and humble bragging below are intended to prove a point–while I can’t say that I always refrain from such things, I do generally attempt to avoid  them in such quantity and proximity 🙂 .

 

 

So here’s how a person might normally document/advertise a family trip:

 

 

Hubby had a work trip to Spain, so we decided to tag along.  We flew into Madrid, drove down to Granada to see the Alhambra, spent five days in the quaint town of Daimiel, and ended our visit with a day touring Toledo.  Such a great opportunity–here are a few pics from the vacay:

 

 

“Little girl, big world”

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“You haven’t tasted an orange until you’ve tasted an orange fresh off the tree in Andalusia.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“The kids were loving the cobblestone streets and alleyways of Granada.”

 

 

“While we’re here we might as well check out the big orange building on the hill…”

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(psss…it’s the Alhambra)

 

 

 

She was mostly there for the map:

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“So glad we can expose our kids to all this culture at such a young age!”

 

 

 

“Soaking it all in”

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*****************************

 

Which leads me to my purpose in this particular post:  to relate an experience that, while unfortunate, can’t be too uncommon when traveling with children, and also to juxtapose perceptions vs. reality.  So much of what we see on social media is “picture perfect”.  The reality is, however, that although a picture may be “worth a thousand words”, it generally does not tell the entire story, and may actually not be very representative of the true story at all.

 

In spite of the cheery and exotic pictures above (actual photos from our trip to Spain, of course), here’s the “true story” of the same visit:

 

 

 

Our trip began okay.  We drove four hours to Copenhagen (there were closer airports, but when you have four kids ya gotta get those budget tickets), then flew from Copenhagen to Madrid.  The plane ride and car trip were only as horrible as I had expected them to be, which was pretty horrible.  Spent the night in Madrid, then drove four hours down to Granada in the South of Spain.  Sunday morning we toured the Alhambra–this is a site that I have dreamed of seeing for many years, and it didn’t disappointment.   The only disappointment was that, due to tired, hungry, and ornery children, we had to leave after about three hours, leaving all but a small section of the historic hilltop sites unseen.  Without little kids I easily could have spent the whole day there, or even the whole weekend.

 

 

Next we headed back north to Daimiel where we would be spending the week.  The idea was that my husband would be working while I took the kids out and about to visit some sites, parks, markets, etc.  The weather in Spain was sunny and warm, in pleasant contrast to the gray, cold wetness that was still the norm in Denmark.  We arrived at our hotel room in Daimiel and that’s where, in the middle of the night, things took a turn for the worse.   I woke up to the encouraging sounds of Child #3 throwing up all over the pullout sofa bed.  John and I got up and rinsed out the sheets the best we could in the bathroom sink,  covered the bed with a towel, and crossed our fingers that it was a “one time thing.”

Child #3 continued throwing up all the next day, but at some point I couldn’t bear being stuck in the dimly lit hotel room any longer–not when sunny warmth (that I hadn’t experienced in months) was right outside  the window!  I was determined to get outside, if only to sit for a few minutes in the nearby park.  I got all the kids ready.  Child #3 seemed to be doing okay for the moment, so we got into the elevator and Sick Child immediately threw up.

I was determined not to let this stop me–we were in Spain!   Also, I rationalized, if she’d just thrown up, she should be good for another 20 minutes, right?  So I cleaned up Sick Child in the bathroom downstairs and then we escaped into the warm sunlight.

 

As we walked to the park next door, we noticed that a traveling market had sprung up a short distance down the street.  I pulled the kids along, eager to see what such a Spanish market might entail.  We browsed the market stalls for maybe two minutes before Child #3 begain crying and moaning.  I decided this was my sign that we’d probably better head back to the hotel room.

I turned everyone around and suddenly I heard a chorus of elderly Spanish ladies exclaiming, “Ahh!  La niña esta vomitando!!!”  (Said ladies apparently frequent the Spanish markets in hordes and stand around serving the purpose of pointing out sick little girls).  I looked down at Child #3 who was holding my hand, and sure enough, she was indeed “vomitando”.   This was not the ideal “outdoor market day excursion” I had envisioned.   I quickly picked up the sick child, ran her to the nearest trash can, and then it was back to the dimly lit hotel room for us.

 

At this point I was still looking forward to the next day.  Child #3  would probably be better, and the forecast was still sunny.  And then, as I was putting Child #4 to bed, suddenly he started coughing and gagging.  Sure enough, we were in for another 24 hours stuck in the hotel room.

The illness proceeded to course through the other kids, and just to keep things interesting, another illness specializing in fever and malaise also decided to make the rounds.  The entire five days in Daimiel were spent more or less inside a single hotel room, or the “den of sickness” as I began to refer to it.

 

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And so, to juxtapose with my former “upbeat, fun” pictures above,  here’s my “honest” photo book of the bulk of our time in Spain:

 

“Taken right before she threw up that juice and I had to wipe it up with a hotel towel and then throw the towel in the corner of the bathroom.”

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“How many miserable kids can you fit on a sofa bed?”

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And how much TV can miserable kids watch in a language they don’t understand?

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(The answer is a lot, as long as it’s Spongebob).

 

 

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Being quarantined to the hotel room for 5 entire days with little to no diversions, I decided to buy each of the kids a quiet toy they could enjoy within the room.  C picked a Minnie Mouse art kit–as  you can see, she’s thrilled.  (She really was thrilled, she’s just too sick to show it).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Shortly before he threw up all over the stroller at the beginning of our walk.”

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Gross, but we continued our walk anyway. (I was hoping the Spanish ladies wouldn’t notice 🙂 )

 

 

 

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Poor C lucked out and got sick with both of the terrible illnesses that were circulating among the children:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

C was still weak and couldn’t walk during most of our sightseeing in Toledo, and since R was in the stroller, this was her mode of transportation:

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(Better Dad than me though, ammiright?)

 

Arabelle and Charlotte hate the Plaza de Zocodover in historic Toledo.

 

 

 

 

To end on a positive note, however, I really did enjoy seeing Spain.  During our drives we really enjoyed the scenic countryside and we also had a couple of (and by couple I mean two) good sightseeing days with most people in good (enough) health.  Through my superior skill, I managed to only get a minor version of the fever/malaise illness and avoid the throwing up one all together, so I’ll call that a success.

 

Oh, and I also learned this important life lesson:

“‘Tis better to have seen Spain with sick children than never to have seen Spain at all.”

 

 

So there’s that  : )

 

Six Months in Denmark

Six Months in Denmark

Today marks six months that our family has been here in Denmark.  Kind of crazy really.  As it has often been acknowledged, the older one gets, the faster time seems to go by–now I know this phenomenon to be as true in the Old World as it is in the New.

And so, in honor of this monumental six month milestone, and as a summation of our experiences, I will list some of our best and worst moments from the past half-year.

 

Best:

  • Attending the Midsommer “Witch Burning” Festival in Søndervig.  Yes, a witch was burned.  (Pssst!–it was fake.)

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  • Attending the Højmark Sommerfest and watching all the usually composed and formal Danes get “turnt up” dancing to the traditional folk songs.

 

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Perhaps the most traditional of all Danish cakes, the “Dream Cake”
  • Trying new foods and learning about the Danish love of cake.  One of the most important things that one can learn about Denmark is that there is a cake for every occasion, and every occasion deserves a cake!

 

 

 

  • Having four of my siblings come visit back in September.  Want your brothers and sisters to come visit you?  Simple, just move to a really cool place!

 

  • Taking my kids to birthday parties–I love how they do birthday parties here, more on this later.

 

  • Legoland, because Legoland.

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  • Enjoying the Nisser, Hygge, and Craft Hysteria that permeates the Danish Christmas season.

 

  • Sitting in the historic local church and watching the St. Lucia celebration shortly before Christmas, complete with girls in long white dresses and wreaths with candles–just as I had seen in pictures!  (And in the American Girl catalog for my Swedish “Kirsten” doll).

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  • Attending church in Denmark–we are attending a church of the same denomination that we attended in Colorado (LDS church).   The members here have been kind and wonderful and very accepting of our rowdy children.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say that they dote on our rowdy children :).  It has been nice to attend the familiar services and to get to meet all the young American missionaries that pass through–they are definitely a nice reminder of home.

 

  • Also potlucks at the church–that’s some good cookin’ right there.

 

  • Cool biking field trips at the kids’ elementary school:

 

  • Seeing how much the kids at Højmark Skole love my almost-2-year-old.  I’m not sure exactly why they love him so much, but they shower him with attention, and he obligingly hams it up for them.

 

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  • Visiting the local beaches.  As a peninsular and island nation, Denmark has a ton of coastline.  It’s quite cold and windy, and not great for swimming, but it is ethereally beautiful and shockingly uncrowded.

 

 

  • Listening to my 7 year old read a grade level appropriate book, in Danish, and  understand it :).

 

  • Watching my 9 year old (who has a bit of a hard time making friends) interact and play with his new Danish best friend–J really lucked out to find such a good friend in his class of 12 students.   J’s Danish is coming along okay, but his friend’s English has improved dramatically over the past six months.  🙂

 

  • Learning about the small differences in schools, cuisine, culture–this might be my favorite thing, mostly because it’s funny how excited I get about it:  You mean you do this (insert mundane daily thing) differently than we do in the U.S?!  Why how can that be???  And what difference in history, culture, DNA, or group psychology could cause such a trivial, yet profound difference to exist!?!

 

 

Worst: 

  • Packing up the house in Colorado–we didn’t know for sure we were going until like  a month before we needed to leave, so we were really cutting it short.  Packing up, getting rid of stuff, selling our cars, and attempting to get our house ready for renting was a massive and unpleasant job.

 

  • The Journey–just physically traveling from our old home in Colorado to our new home in Denmark with our four children and piles of unwieldy luggage was a traumatic and exhausting experience that I wish never to repeat.

 

kids with dvd

 

 

 

  • Getting Settled In–Getting utilities, internet set up.  Finding beds, bedding, dishes and basic furniture.  Not an easy task in a country where you don’t know your way around, you don’t own your own truck or trailer, and you’re trying to purchase things economically–fortunately we had lots of help from the locals.

 

 

 

 

 

  • Paperwork–There is a ton of paperwork required to get permanent residence cards for everyone in the family, driver’s licenses, etc. And then there’s figuring out how to pay bills–Bleck.  And no, I don’t mean just the part about coming up with the money to pay them, I mean physically figuring out how to send the money to the required parties, and reading and understanding the bills that are, of course, all written completely in Danish.

Lest you forget:

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  • Holidays without family–we have been very fortunate to live near John’s family in Colorado, so if we weren’t off visiting my family, we were always able to spend the Holidays with them.  This was the first year we were on our own and it was a little sad explaining this to the kids when they asked who would be celebrating with us.

 

  • Gaining weight due to the aforementioned cakes (and breads, and “Danishes”, and cheeses, and chocolates…all soooo good)–fortunately I am currently rectifying the situation.      #NewYearsResolutions          #Europehasthebestchocolate  #Denmarkhasthebestpastriesobviously              #Itsalifestylenotadiet

 

  • Getting left behind when John goes on business trips–this happened some in Colorado as well, but not as often.  I don’t enjoy having to deal with the kids all by myself, and nor do I like the feeling of being left out when John goes somewhere cool, but mostly I think it’s an anxiety about some emergency happening while he’s gone and me not knowing what to do.  But traveling around to the different Vestas factories is an important part of John’s new job, so I guess I just gotta suck it up and be a grownup.

 

  • And lastly, there’s the constant nagging worry that I’ve irrevocably damaged my children somehow by uprooting them from the known comfort of their lives in “Mayberry”, Colorado, and bringing them to this unknown land, this strange nation of windmills, bikes, rain, and smørrebrøds, where the children sometimes shout at them (nicely) in a language they can’t understand, and literally almost everything is new.  They are expected to make new friends, learn a new language, participate and…adjust.  I worry that they will be traumatized for life somehow, or at the very least, that they will suffer similar stress adjusting back to life in Colorado when we return.

 

 

But overall?

I think we can call our experience–our experiment–a success.  The near constant sense of adventure as well as the cool high points have been fun, rewarding, and will no doubt create life-long memories.  The low points, while difficult in the moment, have thus far been surmountable.  And, regarding the struggles inherent to this sort of move, as John put it, “Well, we’re not dead, so I guess we’re stronger.” (He was kidding,  we actually haven’t even come close to being dead 🙂 ).

It has been a genuine pleasure experiencing the culture and meeting the people of Denmark.  But the language of Denmark, Dansk?  Now that’s a horse of a different color :).  (Our progress, or lack there of, will be the subject of my next post 🙂 )

 

arabelle

 

 

Eating as an Expat

Eating as an Expat

I have had a few requests for a post about what we’re eating here in Denmark:  Is the food available much different than what we have in the U.S.?  What are our regular meals like? How do I navigate the grocery stores?  Has our ridiculously picky 4-year-old managed to find things she will eat?

When we arrived back in Denmark back in August, priority #1 was finding food (we do have 4 children, after all).  The tiny hamlet where we live has no grocery store, but nearby Ringkøbing has like 7, so we headed to one, chosen at random.  And that’s where the Grocery Store Saga begins.

 

So what’s it like for an American to shop at a European grocery store?

First thing you will discover is that you can’t just grab a cart. They are all chained neatly together beneath a pavilion of sorts.  To unlock one, you must insert a 10 or 20 kronor coin (equivalent of a couple USD).  The good news is, you get your coin back once you’ve returned it to the corall and sufficiently re-chained it.

You want proof of this alien practice?

Exhibit A:

aldi

Of course for those of you with experience in Canada or Europe, this cart “rental” practice comes as no surprise.  Now that I think about it, I’ve never been to a grocery store in Asia or Africa, so maybe it’s actually the American grocery stores that are the strange ones with their “free range” grocery carts and their “paid-cart-retrievers”.

I have thus far discovered exactly one grocery store in Denmark that does not have the coin-cart practice, and that’s the Dagli Brugsen in Lem.  Now I’m sure for Danes that mindfully-keeping-a-coin-handy-at-all-times-for-just-such-a-purpose-as-grocery-cart-rental is second nature, but since I myself am not quite so evolved yet, this is me when I go to the Dagli Brugsen:

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And at this particular grocery store does the conspicuous lack of chains and locks lead to sudden mayhem?  Are the carts strewn half-way across the town and haphazardly blowing in the wind endangering small children and livestock alike?

Nope, they are neatly and perfectly corralled, as always.  Even without the coin as incentive, the Danes are much better trained than Americans when it comes to consistent cart returning–no doubt there’s some Pavlovian-esque explanation for this.

 

Okay, so once you’ve inserted your coin and retrieved your cart, you walk inside to “Generic European Grocery Store”.  At first glance, it looks like a regular grocery store.  But then arises a certain unsettling feeling. As your eyes settle on any particular item, you realize that something is not quite right.

Everything is slightly unfamiliar to you, as if the whole place and everything in it has somehow rotated 15 degrees.  Whether it be the foreign-language labeling, or simply the strange packaging, you realize you’re not quite sure what anything is.  My first attempt at a major shopping trip I quickly became so overwhelmed that I just started throwing stuff into the cart: mysterious lunch meats, myriad white cheeses, random breads and strangely packaged milks.  I figured we may as well try all this stuff anyway–it’s part of the Expat experience, right?

As the months have progressed, I have been able to begin to hone in on which things our family likes.  Which of the random breads, the mysterious lunch meats, and the myriad white cheeses.

By and large, we have been able to find most of the regular ingredients that we like (which is actually pretty amazing, and says a lot about how global our society has become), and I would say overall, in a general sense, we eat similarly to before, although when you get down to the specifics, it’s really quite different.

Some major differences in availability of products:

  • Danes don’t seem to eat nearly as much cheddar cheese as Americans do.  Cheddar is more of an “exotic” cheese here.  So it’s only found in small packages and at certain stores, almost like the equivalent of some fancy, smelly French cheese in the U.S.

 

  • What they have is lots and lots of white cheese.  I still don’t quite understand it.  They don’t even have a name for it, because it’s just “cheese”.  Each store will have a wide selection of white cheeses, distinguished by how mild or strong they are, and how much fat content is in them.

 

  • The most common bread is rye bread.  As I’ve discussed before, rye bread has been popular in Denmark for hundreds of years.  If I were to pick “the” quintessential Danish food, it would be rye bread.  Sliced wheat and white bread are also available, but in far fewer quantities than in the U.S., and often in packaging that says, “American Style”.  Yes, I generally hang my head and buy several loaves of “American Style” bread every week.  John and I have developed a taste for rye bread, but so far the kids have not.

rye-bread

 

  • The milk here comes in tiny 1 liter cartons.  This is the only size you can buy.  The weird thing is that the Danes drink a lot of milk, they just prefer to buy tons of the 1 liter cartons. Charlotte’s preschool/day care even uses these tiny cartons because it’s literally all that is available.  The milk is delivered there by the crate load and they go through like 30 to 40 1-liter cartons each week.  I was told that the milk manufacturers experimented with a 2-liter version a few years back, and it was so unpopular that it was discontinued.

 

  • In keeping with the smørrebrød (open-faced sandwich) phenomenon, there is a plethora of lunchmeats…sliced ham and salami are the most common.  A million variations on those.

 

  • Frikadellers–my kids love these, they’re basically pork meatballs.  A very common “kid food” here:frikadellers

 

  • Lots and lots of pork…Danes eat the most pork per capita in the world and pork is the most common ingredient in hot dishes.  Pig farming is also a big deal here with pork being one of Denmark’s major exports.

Fun fact: there are more pigs than humans in Denmark.

 

  • leverpostej–(remember this?  It’s the pork liver pate that’s popular on the smørrebrød).  There’s also a lot of other spreads, mostly seafood-based,  i.e.  pickled  herring.   These come in various mysterious jars and containers located near the lunch meats in the refrigerator section of the grocery store.  I have never bought any, so I can’t tell you anything about them–I guess we here see the limits of my adventurous nature :).

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  • Considerably fewer canned and boxed dry goods (like breakfast cereal).  The Danes seem to have a distaste for canned goods, but there is a pretty large variety of frozen foods.

 

  • sugary foods are particularly expensive, as they are subject to an extra “sugar tax.”  Ice cream especially is sold like it’s creamy, sugary gold. It only comes in small containers, and is probably quadruple the cost of it in the U.S.

 

  • Domestically produced foods are quite inexpensive, most foods cost fairly similar to what they would in the U.S., maybe a little more.  Food imported from the U.S. or other far-off lands is expensive, as are foods that have received the “sugar tax”, like ice cream, or the “luxury tax”, like nuts.  Yes, there’s a tax for that.  This is Denmark, after all ;).

danish-food

 

Back to the Grocery Store Saga

So  you’ve made it through the grocery store…well nearly.  Your selections (for better or for worse) are in the shopping cart.  Anxiety grips your chest as you realize that the hardest part is still to come: the checkout.

First of all, Danes,  like many Europeans, tend to shop several times a week, if not almost daily.  I like to do one major shopping trip a week, and then usually another smaller one for the stuff I forgot :).  So when I go through the checkout at the grocery store, it’s usually me with a cart piled high with groceries (not to mention a couple of barely-contained small children), and then a line of orderly Danes with their liter of milk and block of cheese.  So I start unloading everything onto the checkout.  The cashier rings everything up. This happens mostly as it does in the U.S., with the one difference that the cashiers all sit down here rather than stand up. Not sure why there is this difference, but it somehow throws me strangely off guard.

Next, though, is the tough part, the part that causes the anxiety.  This is, as I think of to myself, “game time.”  As you are still unloading your cart-load of groceries, the cashier is busily ringing them all up, but there is no bagger, and the cashier does not help bag.  As you get about halfway through unloading your cart, the groceries on the other end of the checkout are beginning to pile up.  Now they are hitting the end of the beltway reservoir area.  And the cashier just keeps on keepin’ on.  Now your items are beginning to topple and your bread is getting squished.  You try to unload faster, faster, as fast as you can.  Finally you’re done unloading, you run to the end of the checkout–your bread is already squished but maybe you can save your produce.  You quickly begin unloading everything back into your cart or bags By the way, you bring your bags.  Grocery stores here don’t provide free bags.  They do have bags available for sale, but they are not all that cheap, so most everyone tends to bring their own re-usable bags.  (I suppose the idea is to be eco-friendly, but the irony is that then everyone buys their own packages of new bags to use in trash cans, etc.  In the U.S. it was always my practice to re-use all my free shopping bags that I received at grocery stores.  Now I buy such bags…same amount of bags being used.)

Okay so you’re only a quarter way through unloading and bagging your purchased groceries, but the cashier is done checking you out.  You hurry and pay to avoid holding up the line.  As you load a few more items into your re-usable bag, the next Dane in line finishes purchasing their bag of apples and single liter of milk.  There is exactly one partition that allows for the cashier to send groceries to a separate reservoir on the belt.  You’re still unloading and the next Dane checks out with one block of butter, a single cube of yeast, and a bag of flour.  Now there is nowhere for their groceries to go–you are officially Holding Up The Line.  You turn into a drill sergeant ordering your children, “Bag!  Bag Faster!”  You feel increasingly conspicuous as you haphazardly throw your groceries into bags in any random order and try to get out of there as fast as humanly possible.

Now I have spoken to other American Expats about this “grocery store checkout anxiety” situation, and it is a very common feeling.  I have received the advice to just take my time and not worry about it.  I know that’s what I should do, but I can’t help but feel like the weird American that’s buying an inconceivable amount of groceries and holding everybody else up.  So you Americans, feel grateful to those cashiers that are helping you bag, say “thank you” to that spunky young bagger.

And to American Grocery Stores:  “Never Change.  I love you just the way you are.” 🙂

***I do know that there are lots of ways for me to avoid all this difficulty at the checkout, I just at this point haven’t quite pulled myself together enough to implement anything.

 

Continuing Grocery Store Saga…

 

You’re finally home, you unload your groceries from the car.  You select something to eat.  You open it up, aaaaand you’re like, “What did I just buy!?!”

Weird things I’ve bought:

Not once, but twice I have bought large boxes of rock salt, thinking I was buying regular “eating/cooking” salt.  Even when I try really hard to distinguish the packaging, I seem to be incapable of doing so.  And why is there so much rock salt in the baking aisles here?  Now that I don’t know.

Licorice flavored stuff–I kept accidentally buying licorice flavored stuff: licorice flavored gum, licorice flavored  ice cream sandwiches, a chocolate bar with licorice bits.  The Danes loooove licorice.  They have licorice flavored everything, and every variety of licorice candy imaginable.  They particularly like “salty” licorice, which is quite a strange combination. Once I (finally) figured out that the Danish word for licorice is “lakrids”, I began to be able to avoid the problem of surprise licorice.

Saft–our extremely picky 4-year-old happens to love juice, and this is pretty much her only source of fruit, so it was important that we find something she liked.  The apple juice here is quite a bit more tart than what we are used to in the States–John and I like this, but the kids are disturbed by it.  So I have purchased several other kinds of juice for C to try.  One of them was called “Saft”.  It was a reddish color and had various grapes and apples and such on the carton.  I poured some into C’s sippy cup.  She tried it and immediately said, “Yuck!”

saft

So I gave some to A to try.  (After all, no reason for it to go to waste). Her response?  “Ewww, it tastes like medicine!”

John grabbed the cup, and,”She’s right, it does taste like medicine!”

Oh it can’t be that bad, I thought, taking a small drink.  It was pretty bad–syrupy sweet, thick and strong…much like cough medicine, in fact.  I dumped the full carton into the trash.

 

This episode occurred 5 months ago, and it wasn’t until recently that the mystery was solved.

 

We were invited to a brunch at a friend’s house.  She had a couple of juices, one of them being “saft”.  The friend asked me what saft called in English.  I told her I thought we just called it juice.  She said, “Yes, but it’s different, it’s far more concentrated.”

I decided to try some to see if I could think of the American equivalent.  I poured a bit into my cup, took a sip, and quickly recognized it as the same syrupy stuff we had all sampled several months prior.

And then something my hostess had said earlier came back to me:

“It’s very concentrated…”

A light turned on, “Wait,”  I said turning to the group, “Am I supposed to add water to this?”

“Oh yes, yes!  Of course!” everyone said, laughing.  “You’re supposed to add a lot of water, and just a bit of saft.”

 

Okay.  That explains so  much.

 

But why would they make and sell juice like that, in a carton that looks like it’s ready to be consumed, and yet it’s not ready to be consumed?  the American in me wonders.

Well, as it was explained by a Dane, “Why would we pay for the water?”

 

I guess they have a point.

 

And, in case anyone was concerned, the 4 year old did find a juice she liked…strangely it is the “exotic tropical” blend…pineapple, oranges, and bananas.   I for one consider it an improvement.  In the U.S. she only got one fruit (apples in her apple juice), and now she’s getting 3!

 

To wrap it up:

So more or less we eat fairly similarly to before… being that I am “mostly vegetarian,” I don’t cook meat for dinner all that often, but I buy lunch meats because Jeffrey and John like them.  We eat a lot of Mexican, a lot of soup, a lot of pasta, potatoes, homemade pizza, chili, oatmeal, fruits and vegetables.    We don’t eat as much cereal or ice cream as we did back in the U.S., and that is probably not a bad thing.  We’ve also added in a few new things, like frikadellers, rye bread, remoulade, and Danish meats, cheese, and salamis.

And the ridiculously picky 4 year old, has she found things to eat?  Well, a few.  I still worry constantly about her getting adequate nutrition, but that is no different than it was in the United States.

One of the interesting things that I’ve noticed is that even the food I am buying (even on purpose), and the supposedly familiar foods that I am making generally have some slight way that they are different, some little twist that reminds us that we are in a foreign country.

For example, the brown sugar…totally different thing…different flavor, different texture, much more…moist.  The apple juice, as I’ve said, is more tart.  The bread in general more dense.  The milk comes in tiny cartons but the yogurt comes in huge ones.

Another random thing we’ve noticed, as a family that loves Mexican food: the small amounts of salsas, Mexican sauces, etc that are available here all have a distinctive “chili” flavor.  And although this flavor is not like anything I’ve tasted in the U.S., it is evidently quite popular to the Danish palate.   Not once but but twice I have accidentally bought “Chili” tortilla chips,  thinking I was buying regular tortilla chips.  (It was easy to accidentally buy them because the packaging featured the words “tortilla chips” in large letters, with a picture of regular-looking tortilla chips,  and then, as an apparent insignificant afterthought, the word “chili” at the bottom in small letters.)

But, as it happened, after buying them (accidentally) two times, and eating them (on purpose) two times, I developed a taste for them.

 

And now, I buy them on purpose.

 

Nisse on the Shelf

It took me a while to write this post, because I didn’t feel I should write about Christmas until after it had actually happened.  Christmas is a bit of a strange holiday in that sense–the anticipation starting the day after Thanksgiving and heightening madly throughout the month of December until the final wrapping-paper-rapture of Christmas morning.

 

At least that’s how Americans celebrate Christmas.

 

I’d say there’s a bit of a different feel here in Denmark.

 

It would seem that in Denmark there’s an effort to make Christmas into a month-long “December Holiday”.  This is done quite purposefully with the use of advent wreaths, advent calendars, calendar gifts, and calendar shows.  Since I am not an expert on Danish Christmas (yet), I will probably get some things wrong here, but my Danish friends can feel free to laugh at my ignorance, and can correct me when they see me :).

 

Advent Wreaths 

Per capita Danes use way more candles than any other people.  It’s a huge part of “hygge” (more on hygge later, but if you haven’t heard of it, it’s the Danish concept of “cozy” that is currently taking the world by storm).  In Denmark I have seen candles routinely used inside the school and the preschool/daycare in order to create a hygge atmosphere.

candle-1

 

During December a special wreath is created with four large candles–one to be lit each Sunday in the four weeks leading up to Christmas.  The wreaths are often hung from the ceiling with red ribbon.

To the right and below is my kids’ school’s Advent Wreath.

Yes this is in the school, yes those are real candles, yes they are actually lit, and yes they are suspended from the ceiling.  Awesome.

candle-2

 

Advent Calendars

Advent Calendars are hugely popular here.  Advent calendars of various types are quite common in the U.S. as well, but in Denmark there is a specific, hugely popular kind that looks like this:  advent

Cardboard with little perforated doors that can be opened, one for each day leading up to Christmas.  Behind the door is a small molded chocolate in varying holiday-themed shapes. A very thoughtful and kind lady at church gave each of my kids one, and they were much appreciated.  Surprisingly, my children even held off and ate each chocolate one at a time on the appropriate day–just when I’ve resolved myself to the seeming reality that my offspring have no capabilities of self-restraint or delayed gratification, they go and do something like this.  🙂

 

Calendar Shows

Another time hallowed tradition here are the “calendar shows”.  I am no expert on these shows, mind you.  We haven’t actually figured out how to watch local television here and have thus far been relying entirely on Netflix, so I am going to have to sheepishly admit that I never watched an actual entire episode–besides which our Danish is not yet to the point where we would understand a whole of it, anyway.  Even so, based on all the references to these shows popping up everywhere, they are clearly a major part of Danish Christmas Season. My understanding is that at least a couple of the major TV networks do special series with 24 episodes, one for each day  starting December 1st and ending on the 24th.  The Danish government sponsors one of the series, and I believe it is this one that features “Nisser,” (Danish elves)–or maybe they all feature elves, I really don’t know.  From the part of the one old episode that I watched, I know that adults in elf costumes are involved, but that’s about the extent of my knowledge.  Reruns from previous years are also re-broadcast, and most people seem to be familiar with all the major characters and story lines:  “Oh that crazy elf that’s fat from eating so much Risengrød!”  (Risengrød is a rice pudding that the Nisser love and the Danes leave out for them to enjoy, see below).

risengrod

 

Calendar Gifts

Many children hang a stocking beside their door, and each night of December, a small gift is delivered into the stocking.  I’m not sure if it’s Juleman (ChristmasMan a.k.a. Santa) or Nisser that are delivering these–note to self to check up on this factoid.

The tradition of the Danish Nisser today is descended from the tales of the farm elves from hundreds of years ago that would treat you bad or good, depending on how you treated them.  So it is a natural evolution (and consistent with Santa Claus mythology) for parents/Nisser to use these calendar gifts as child-bribery-motivation tools.  If the kids are particularly good one day, the  Nisser will deliver a particularly nice toy.  If the child is naughty, they will receive a nominal small gift, like perhaps a piece of candy.   I asked one parent if her child was upset when he received an extra small gift, and she said, “Yes, he’s sad, but he understands.”  Consequences, hmmm.

 

Nisse on the Shelf

Which brings me to the Elf on the Shelf tradition that has spread far and wide in the
U.S. in recent years.  The Elf on the Shelf, whose modern incarnation appeared on the scene about 10 years ago, watches children to observe their behavior during the day, and then flies back to the North Pole each night to report back to Santa.  Each morning he reappears in a new position around the house–the re-positioning serving as evidence that he must have magically left during the night.  Children are warned not to touch the Elf on the Shelf, lest he should lose his magic.

And like any good trend, criticism has arisen in like fashion–mostly parents pointing out that it’s creepy to have someone watching your kids all day and then reporting their behavior to a judgy man.

Grandma sent us an Elf on the Shelf a few years back, and I was excited to see what all the fuss was about.  Turns out the kids really did love having the elf visit, and it was a fun addition to our holiday traditions.

He’s not really that creepy, is he?

elf-shelf-4

 

Is he?

elf-shelf-3

 

 

Really though, although somehow strangely reminiscent, (which is why it was brought to mind), the Elf on the Shelf is not anywhere near as creepy as this ventriloquist doll that my mom kept on the top of our toy shelf in our play room all the years I was growing up:

 

mortimer-4

 

Seriously, though, why is this a thing?

mortimer-5

 

 

 

 

It’s okay.  We all have our scars.

 

 

 

Back to Elf on the Shelf.  In spite of the possible creepiness factor of being watched, kids in the U.S. have really taken to this new tradition.  “What happens if I touch an elf?” has become a top google search.  911 famously reported a call from a panicked little girl who had accidentally knocked over the family elf.

 

Parents have joined in on the fun.  Entire websites are devoted to chronicling and sharing how you, too, can become a master elf-stager.  Elves involved in elaborate snowball fights using mini marshmallows, elves in epic battle with pre-historic animals, elves participating in gunny sack races or held hostage by rogue army men.

 

 

It just so happens that I have heard of similar elf behavior happening here in DK.   One mom’s kindergarten has a resident nisse (elf), that goes home with a different child each day.  This mom, in a manner that would make any devoted American-mom-Elf-on the Shelf-stager proud, created various scenes of mischief for the nisse to participate in and bring a smile to her little boy’s face.  Truly our cultures must not be so different!

 

A key difference between Danish Nisser and American Elves?  Cuteness.  My six year old, Arabelle, came home and told me that the Danish elves she’d seen at school looked “weird,” and she confided in me that she was a bit scared of them.   A teacher told me that Danes make fun of America’s version of elves and say that Hollywood has made them Disney-ized. The word Nisse can actually also be translated as “gnome”.

 

 

Months ago when I was putting together our few boxes and suitcases that we would be bringing here to Denmark with us, I neglected to pack our Elf on the Shelf. Possibly it would have been worth bringing, especially had I known that one of my children would be “scared” of the Danish nisser.  Had I brought “our” elf, the kids could have enjoyed the familiarity and feeling of consistency:  Look kids, even though we’re in Denmark, our elf was able to find us–must be magic!    But no, the elf is somewhere in the disorganized boxes of Christmas decorations wedged in the back of our basement.

 

And so it was that a few weeks ago I set out to find a replacement elf.  The elves I found in the stores pretty much all looked like this:

weird-elf-1

 

I feared that Arabelle would not like it, or worse be afraid of it–thus perpetuating another trauma like unto the ventriloquist dummy trauma of my youth.  She is a great believer in Santa and elves (As she is six years old, I assume this may be her last year for such amusements…I admit, it makes me a little sad), and of all four of my kids, the elf is the most important to her.   Unable to find an appropriate replacement in the retail stores, I began scouring the local second hand shops in the hopes of finding the perfect elf.  When I saw this one, I had a feeling my daughter would approve.

little-elf-2

 

This little guy appeared one morning sitting on the windowsill, and Arabelle adored him immediately.  As far as I know, this little guy is 100% Danish–our perfect Nisse on the Shelf!

 

And so it was that our Nisse, dubbed “Little Elf,” watched over us (in an un-creepy way) for the month of December, watching as we enjoyed new Danish Christmas traditions, standard  American ones, and even ones that can only be described as uniquely “ours”.