This story begins some time ago. About a year ago, in fact.
It was an afternoon in early December and I saw a flyer posted at the school saying that if I wanted to come by that afternoon, I could “make an ornament with my child”. Sounds good, I thought, seems like some low-key Christmas fun.
So I arrived back at the school a couple of hours later with two children in tow, walked down to the lower level, and was immediately met with what can only be described as a Christmas Crafting Extravaganza.
A long table sat against one wall, heaped with felt, paper, sequins, glitter, cloth, ribbons, googly eyes, and random Christmassy bobbles galore.
Paper garlands swathed the ceiling, and a glue gun center swarmed with busy children.
The whole place was bustling with activity.
I soon realized we were late, noticing that many of the small, elf-hat-wearing-children rushing by were already carrying elaborate, finished-looking crafts.
We found ourselves a seat, and I begin the struggle of trying to help my kids figure out what they wanted to make. At long last, one child finally agreed on a Santa. We collected a few white Styrofoam balls and some red cloth for a coat. I awkwardly tried to guide my son in hot gluing these items into an orientation that would somehow resemble a Santa Claus.
Meanwhile, sitting to my left, an eight-year-old Danish child with bright blonde hair expertly applied the finishing touches to a realistic-looking furry gray mouse, complete with skis, sweater, scarf, and hat.
“What is going on here?” I began to wonder.
As I walked back to our table, I noticed a 9-year-old girl finishing up an elaborate, 3-dimensional origami star. “Wow,” I thought, then watched as she tossed it into a substantial pile of already-completed-elaborate-3-dimensional origami stars.
Another child nearby grabbed a couple red pipe-cleaners, and I watched, mesmerized, as she deftly twisted them into a cute little elf, topped with a wooden head, scarf, and of course, pointy red hat.
My son eventually finished up the Santa, and, although it wasn’t pretty, my child was happy. We all had a good time, and even had a few crafts and ornaments to show for it, but as I left the activity, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Why are the Danish kids so uncannily good at Christmas crafts?”
A short time later I brought this question up in an Expat group, and was met with the following response:”Well, they should be good at it, it’s pretty much all they do in school during the month of December.”
This, of course, was an exaggeration, but there was as bit of truth to it: Christmas crafts are an important part of Danish tradition, and the schools generally devote some time for this, getting everyone into the Christmas spirit.
For example, my kids’ school has one day devoted to decorating the classrooms. Parents and grandparents are invited to come and join the children in making the decorations.
A few days ago, I attended this event for the second year in a row. I arrived at the school and was, as usual, met by a flurry of activity–small children running back and forth, cutting, taping, gluing. They were in their element, and knew exactly what they were doing. Many were wearing red nisse (elf) hats. (My fave are the super long ones that trail down the back–so cute!) Within a couple of hours, the young students had transformed their classrooms.
Paper chains criss-cross the ceiling. Traditional Danish hearts and paper baskets hang from lines draped overhead. More crafts decorate tables, walls, and doors. Jeffrey’s 4th grade class even made an elaborate nisse scene with bits of moss and greenery.
Basically it was like that scene from the movie “Elf” where Buddy (Will Ferrell), with his his special elf-skills, decorates and transforms the toy store in a seemingly impossibly short amount of time.
Finishing up the day, a small child wearing a red nisse hat stands on tiptoe to clip a glittery star to the line, prompting me to think, “These children are literally little elves.”
Clearly, Christmas decorations in Denmark are a big deal. Many are traditional and homemade.
Here are a few that I have noticed:
These are typically used to decorate a Christmas tree.
Here’s a tutorial if you want to give them a try!
Paper Cone Baskets (there’s probably a “real” name for these, but I don’t know what it is).
These are also used to decorate the tree, and at some point are filled with small candies and sweets.
What I gather is that these are sprinkled liberally around the house.
The wreath contains four candles. One is lit each Sunday in December, leading up to Christmas.
The candle is numbered with the days leading up to Christmas. Each day, the candle is burned just enough to mark off the days.
As in many parts of the world, the Christmas tree, Juletræ, is popular in Denmark.
Here you can see the traditional Danish hearts and cone baskets:
Real, “lit” candles with actual fire are popular for the traditional Danish Christmas tree, although some opt for artificial.
These trees that aren’t actually trees but are made of tree parts are also popular, and I think quite cute. These are some the kids helped make to decorate the school:
And some little guys:
Creating Christmas decorations out of natural materials is very popular in Denmark. Some people may go out into their yard or a nearby forest to gather materials, but these materials can also be purchased at the local grocery store. Around November of each year, bits of moss, evergreen branches, and random pieces of greenery appear outside the supermarkets, reminding everyone that it is time to get crafting. With a little creativity and a bit of know-how, the Danes show us that random stuff from your yard can be transformed into elegant holiday decor:
I can’t say I know what this is, but it sure is pretty:
And some cute decorations the kids helped make at the børnehus (preschool):
Personally, I still have no clue how to actually create most of the Danish Christmas crafts, but there’s hope for the future because I think that maybe my seven-year-old daughter has cracked the code: A couple of days ago, I brought home a bare wreath for our calendar light. I set it down on the table without saying anything, and began dinner preparations. Literally five minutes later, I walked back by, and Arabelle had flawlessly decorated the wreath–all with little things she had run out and found in the yard.
A couple months ago, I experienced a vacation that it had never really occurred to me to even dream about.
But due to life’s strange twists of fate (as well as the combination of means, opportunity, hard work, and choice that landed us here in Denmark), we were able to take the trip of a lifetime to visit Bergen, Norway.
Our journey began with a three hour drive to Hirtshals near the northern tip of Denmark. There (after waiting in a long line) we drove our car onto a massive ferry.
The ferry ride was about 17 hours, which included overnight. After purchasing your ticket, you had the option to buy a “chair” to spend the night in–basically like an airpline seat–or you could cough up a little more cash and secure a cabin. Now, this was to be the trip of a lifetime for us, so we did actually purchase a cabin, and we even paid an extra $15 USD for one with an ocean view :O!!! But since we’re not actually Rockefellers, we did hold off on the super deluxe cabins that had normal beds and looked like a posh hotel room. Besides, it was part of the ship experience to have the tiny ship’s cabin with the pull-down “bunks” and the weird airplane-like bathroom.
One deck of the ferry had a ridiculously expensive buffet, a cafeteria that reminded me of one you might find at a hospital, a “24hr night club”, a small gambling den, and an even smaller ballpit/slide room for kids. The top deck had an outdoor area where you could go outside for the brief periods that you could handle the intense wind and cold.
Done being Rockefellers after splurging on the cabin, we opted not to pay for inflated ferry meals, and instead enjoyed our meager rations of fruit and bread out of a cooler that we had packed. All in all, fun–kind of like a short, budget cruise (not that I’ve ever been on a cruise).
The ferry was certainly an experience in and of itself, and something that the kids will always remember. We even had the opportunity to visit the bridge of the ship, where the kids got to meet the captain and see all the cool gadgets and equipment, as well as enjoy the stellar view.
We docked in the incomparable city of Bergen on Norway’s west coast.
The big mountain overlooking the city of Bergen, known as “Mount Floyen”, as well as something called a “Funicular” were listed on Trip Advisor as Bergen’s top attraction, so we decided to check them out. The “Funicular” turned out to be a trolley that carries you at a steep incline up the mountainside to the top of Mount Floyen.
I kind of thought “funicular” was a made-up word, but turns out it’s an actual word–
(of a railway, especially one on a mountainside) operating by cable with ascending and descending cars counterbalanced.
–and in spite of now having the word “funicular” stocked away in my vocabulary, I have my doubts as to whether I’ll ever have the opportunity to use it again…
At the top we enjoyed a breathtaking view that showed the many harbors and inlets that make up the entry way to the fjord.
We spent several hours on Mount Floyen, and easily could have spent the entire day there. There are places to eat, a very nice playground, a zipline, an obstacle course, lots of random troll statues (We watched the movie “Trolls” right before leaving for Norway, and I was quite elated to realize that the bad trolls in the movie are named “Bergens”–me thinks I know why). There was also free canoeing in a picturesque little lake, and several hikes, including one that goes all the way down to the city of Bergen.
We, however, opted to take the lazy way back down in the Funicular to begin our trek to our first overnight location–a place a bit off the beaten path, but directly overlooking Hardanger Fjord.
It took about an hour and a half to get there, but we didn’t mind the drive because of the everpresent jawdropping views. We literally had to stop a few times just to take in the gorgeous scenes, such as a thousand-foot waterfall cascading down the mountain into an idyllic green valley occupied by a single quaint little farmhouse.
Which leads me to my new-found obsession: Airbnb. If you have read my HGTV post, you might remember that I have a thing for houses, real estate, what-have-you. Combined with a fascination with travel and exotic locales, Airbnb is a dangerously good fit. (Airbnb.com is a website allowing hosts and travelers to lease and rent short-term lodging). Through this website, I was able to book a luxurious vacation house directly on the Hardanger Fjord, including a private beach as well as access to a motor boat and canoe, for only $150 USD/night. We spent three glorious days boating about the scenic fjord, visiting the pebble beach, and hiking the small mountain immediately behind the house.
We weren’t ready to leave, but we had to. Next, we drove the two hours from Hardanger to Voss. It was probably the scariest–but most beautiful–drive of my lifetime.
This route is evidently not traveled frequently enough to justify the expenditure on wide highways and tunnels, so the freakishly narrow road winds steeply around the mountains. Most frightening, however, is the fact that–without warning–the two lane (already narrow), road would suddenly turn into a ONE LANE road for a short distance. At first I thought, Are we just supposed to intuit when another car might be coming and stop and wait for them? And yes, that is part of it, but I did eventually realize that if you see a narrow pulloff, that is a good time to crane your neck and watch for anything that might be coming your way, and if think you may see something, you best wait at the pull off
In Voss, we stayed in a cabin perched on a mountainside. We had to take some intensely steep switchbacks to get there, and the Airbnb ad warned that during the winter, guests must park 400 meters down the mountain because cars wouldn’t be able to make it up. Evidently sleds and snowmobiles are the vehicles of choice for the area.
Since we were there in summer it wasn’t a problem. This was an older cabin from the 50s or 60s, very quaint with awesome mountain views that we could enjoy from the hot tub on the deck (Another Airbnb steal at only about $120/night). A bonus fun perk of this particular cabin were the two, equally strange but different toilet options.
Toilet Option #1 was the outhouse. I was a little scared as I turned the key before entering for the first time, but I needn’t have been. It was honestly the Rolls Royce of outhouses. Appropriately decorated with tacky cartoon pictures captioned with off-color jokes, it was lined with cedar wood, had a nice window with its own mountain view, and an electric vent that ran constantly. Although the toilet looked reasonably normal, I guess it was just a fancy port-a-potty with a hole that went straight down. The outhouse also came equipped with a wonderful invention called “hygiene bark” which is a fragrant bark that is to be scooped down the toilet after each use. Although it was a bit uncomfortably reminiscent of cat litter, it really did seem to do wonders at masking the smell.
Toilet Option #2
The second toilet option was an indoor incineration toilet. Didn’t know an incineration toilet was a thing? Neither did I, until I had the pleasure of seeing one with my own eyes. As you might guess from the name, the toilet actually burns the waste, turning it into ash which empties into a tray that must be emptied from time to time. To use this toilet, you put a paper thing that looks kind of like a coffee filter inside the weird metal toilet bowl. After using the toilet, you close it up and press a button, after which the toilet makes some weird noises and gets quite hot as it does its thing. Provided by the cabin’s owners was a several page, laminated, instruction booklet on how to correctly use the incineration toilet, as well as a reminder that we were liable should it become broken. Having googled the humorously named “Cinderella” incineration toilet (who could resist?), and having discovered that they cost a whopping $3500 USD, I informed the kids that they would be using the outhouse for the duration of our visit.
There are several benefits to Airbnb-ing it: you get to see how the locals live (or vacation), you have the option for an entire house, with yard, which is nice for children, and it’s economical. Generally you can get all this for as much (or less) than a single hotel room would cost. You can also save money on meals, because, when renting a house or an apartment with an actual kitchen–a kitchen stocked with cooking utensils, and sometimes even spices etc that you are welcome to use–you can cook for yourself and avoid the expense of eating out. We actually packed and brought most of the week’s groceries with us from Denmark since we had been warned about the food prices in Norway. We only ate out once during our weeklong visit to Norway, and it was, as well as being very overpriced, quite possibly the worst-tasting food that we have ever bought at a restaurant. Since I’m going to assume it wasn’t indicative of all food in Norway, I guess it was just bad luck on our part.
Since I’ve been kind of promoting Airbnb, I suppose I should mention a few posisble downsides. One is that often you are expected to clean up after yourselves (sometimes you have the option to clean up and prepare for the next guest, or choose to pay a cleaning fee). During our Norway trip, we did end up spending a few hours cleaning up each place, but we decided it was worth it to keep the costs down. Additionally, some places might require you to bring your own linens, others ask that you wash them after use. Another way that the experience can be a little different from a hotel is that there’s not a customer service/front desk person handy to deal with any issues, but generally the house owners are available via phone or text. ***Also, John wanted me to add that the fancy home entertainment systems never work–he usually spends an hour at each house replacing batteries, hooking up cables, and locating passwords.
During our two days in Voss, we visited the scenic town, and saw this beautiful medieval church.
As we walked through the charming streets, we also came to the conclusion that Norwegians look similar to Danes, except more mountain man-y. Which makes sense.
The drive from Voss back to Bergen, where we would board our return ferry to Denmark, was, once again, gorgeous. The entire route was along the fjord, with achingly beautiful vistas at every turn. I couldn’t resist pointing out all the scenic views to John, only to have him remind me that he was actually driving and trying to navagate winding mountain roads. Too bad for him 🙂
As we drove down the steep mountain roads and through the many, many, tunnels (some of them up to 3-4 miles long), observing the hazardous positioning of the Norwegian fishing cabins perched right on the fjords, and the farmhouses clinging to the mountainsides, I couldn’t help but consider that this terrain and this people are a visible testament to man’s indomitable nature.
In the face of this mountainous and fjord-y terrain, the Norwegians of yonder year figured out a way to make it work. They built houses, they dug tunnels, they fished and traversed the fjords.
Today, with our modern technology, this may not seem like such a big deal, but the Norwegians have lived on–and off of–this land for hundreds (if not thousands) of years.
I read an article once that had a unique perspective on the causation behind the “Scandinavian Utopia” concept. The author argued that perhaps harsh climates and landscapes actually CAUSE the people to develop–out of necessity–a strong and productive work ethic. That is to say that the Scandinavians of today are not productive in spite of their harsh climate, but because of it. The hard work and perseverane of the people living on this land, across the centuries and decades, has lead to the prosperous and happy society of today–the much lauded Scandinavian Utopia.
And seeing the unlikely farms stretching across mountainsides, the sheep picking their way down steep mountain paths, and the houses clinging precariously to the rocky banks of the fjords, I can believe that this is possible–these are a people that worked hard to surmount their environs and carve out a life for themselves. And their reward? A view of unsurpassable beauty.
We have now been residents in Denmark for a full year. Unlike John, who has had two business trips back to Colorado (to the area we lived previous), I have not stepped foot back in the U.S. in all that time. It’s a strange feeling.
At this point, I feel prepared to make a couple of lists.
Ten Things I Miss About the U.S.:
My mini-van–I resisted getting a van for years, but once I gave in, I was fully converted. At least I am now comfortable driving my manual transmission French vehicle.
Having a garbage disposal–While seemingly minor, the lack thereof still affects everyday life. In-sink garbage disposals are not a thing in Denmark, nor are they in other European countries–or else where in the world, for that matter. They are a peculiarly American, and, might I add, superb, kitchen device. According to Wikipedia, “Garbage disposal units are used extensively in United States households, but are far less common elsewhere.” –But why?!!
Choice in grocery stores–You can get some version of most types of food items in Danish grocery stores, but there is not nearly the selection we’re spoiled with in larger U.S. stores. For example, it’s not uncommon for a Danish grocery store to have only 2 types of apples or 2 types of salad dressing. And of course there are some things, like ranch dressing, that just are not available.
Cheap consumer goods–most Expats I know in Denmark still buy a lot of their toiletry items/clothing/electronics in the U.S., because it’s considerably cheaper there. This is due in part to the 25% sales tax on everything you buy in DK.
Ease of doing stuff–I know this is a vague category, but as an Expat, every little thing you try to do becomes much more complicated, from filing taxes to making a doctor’s appointment. There is still a lot I don’t know how to do in Denmark–things that I was well acquainted with in the U.S.–like signing up my kids for soccer and dance. These are things I’m committed to figuring out in the coming year!
Feeling like things are familiar--This includes surroundings, procedures, people, businesses, etc. So much new stuff is exciting, but sometimes you start to miss having things in your life that are familiar.
Speaking the language–This is a big one, and goes along with ease of doing stuff. It honestly makes me understand better the plight of immigrants in America. I get now why most paperwork in the U.S. is available in Spanish as well as English, and I don’t think I’ll ever complain about having to press 1 for English again 🙂 because not speaking the language can be crippling. Fortunately most Danes speak English and are willing to help. In spite of making a lot of progress over the course of the last year, I still feel woefully unproficient in Danish. (For example, I don’t know how to say “woefully unproficient” in Danish.)
Food–Based on discussion with many Expats, when asked what one misses most about their home country, one of the first things that will come to mind is food. For me, MEXICAN food comes in first in all caps. Then there’s chocolate peanut butter ice cream, bagels, cheese sticks from Pizza Hut, salad from Cafe Rio….whoa I need to stop with this list, because who knows when I will be able to satisfy the cravings…
American People–I miss Americans. Many of them exude a certain friendliness, exuberance, maybe even “loudness”. Americans literally smile more than people in other countries. (And there’s a “scientific” reason why: https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/05/why-americans-smile-so-much/524967/ ) While I’m actually kind of glad not to be around for all the devisiveness going on right now in the U.S., let me just say that people better not mess it up for me for when I get back! I expect to return to the same friendly, happy Americans I remember :).
Family/Friends— This is the big one. Living on a new continent it is easy to feel a sense of isolation like you are a “stranger in a strange land”. And of course, it’s hard to go a year without seeing friends and family. We’ve actually lucked out and had a few visitors, which has been awesome, but we miss everyone we haven’t been able to see. Being 8+ hours difference in time zone doesn’t help communication either, and we’re all busy. It’s hard to keep in touch as well as I would like.
What don’t I miss that surprises me?
Most of our stuff. We arrived with just a few boxes and suitcases with clothes. We got rid of a bunch of stuff in Colorado, and the rest we put in storage. There are a few of Jeffrey’s old toys that I now wish that I had for Rowan (mostly his train sets and huge collection of duplos), but for the most part, the kids have enough–although not too much–and that’s kind of nice. Same goes for furniture and clothes.
Top 10 Things I’m Enjoying in Denmark:
Playgrounds–I have a lot of kids, and playgrounds are free entertainment, thus we’ve spent a good deal of time exploring the nearby playgrounds. I’d say that Denmark is “kid-friendly” in general, and particularly into playgrounds. Fun fact: The world’s most popular playground supplier, Kompan, is Danish.
Bike culture–Copenhagen is the bike capitol of the world, and we have enjoyed participating in the bike culture here. The kids ride their bikes to school, John rides his bike to work (in the next town), and we go on family bike rides together, exploring the countryside.
Beaches–As a peninsular and island nation, Denmark has more than its fair share of beaches. And although the weather and strong currents don’t make them all well suited for swimming, they’re all still beautiful to look at and fun to visit.
Mild Weather–I know lots of people complain about the weather in Denmark because it’s gray and rainy (myself included sometimes), but last winter I appreciated not having to scrape ice off my car constantly in the winter, or get stuck in the snow, and I have even found myself enjoying the refreshingly cool summers. I do have a feeling though that pretty soon I will start missing the mounds of fresh snow in Colorado, as well as the bright summer sun :).
Adventure –At least for the first year of living abroad, there is a constant sense of adventure. We’ve been able to add to this by visiting a few other countries as well, which you can do with relative ease in Europe since they are all so close together.
Discovering a culture--Really experiencing a new culture–and noting the differences and similarities–is fascinating.
Food–There’s a reason that in the U.S. they call that flaky pastry a “Danish”: Denmark has awesome pastries! They also have delicious cakes that are served at every opportunity. You got an activity? There’s a cake for that. While I can’t say I’ve come around to leverpostej yet, I do love many of the rolls, breads, and cheeses here. I also enjoy some of the ethnic foods we have access to. For example, vegetarian falafel dürüm=delicious!
The schools–I’m really enjoying learning about the schools here, and am glad that my kids can experience them. I won’t rehash the details here, but I’ve written at length elsewhere in my blog.
Danish People–The Danes have been kind and welcoming and friendly to us. They have gone above and beyond to help us settle into our surroundings here. and have taken the time to explain some of their culture and traditions–for such a small nation, Denmark has a lot of traditions 🙂 (and a rich and lengthy history to go with them).
Making Memories— All of the above have contributed to unique and unforgettable memories for us as a family. The past year has been difficult in many ways, but I know that we have made memories that will last a lifetime.
As I write these lists, it’s pretty obvious that so many of them are related, as in, “I miss the food in the United States, but I am enjoying the food in Denmark”. And this is how many Expats constantly feel–it’s a state of living between two countries. I have heard from those that are “live-long Expats” (or immigrants), that there is a constant feeling of never being completely “at home” in either country, there’s always something to miss.
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. Theplay ground is filled with fun,interesting stuff including swings, an obstacle course, moon cars, strider bikes, play houses, sandboxes, slides, and seesaws.
The trees are also popular:
In addition to plenty of unstructured playtime, regular activities and field trips are also planned, such as:
Helping with the gardening,
going for a walk,
visiting the nearby fjord,
or the local lake,
learning about and finding insects,
making apple juice,
and enjoying arts and crafts.
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:
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.
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:
I caught on slowly, but here she is in her rainpants that I finally got around to getting her:
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):
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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:
Charlotte helping cut up carrots for the soup:
And here’s an outdoor “frugtpause”–fruit break:
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.
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.
What do you call a person that speaks two languages?
What do you call a person that speaks three languages?
What do you call a person that speaks one language?
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:
And here’s a nice (evidently Danish) man with a Scandinavian-looking haircut who can teach us about them:
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).
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.)
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.
I 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.
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.
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 🙂 .
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.
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,
then learned about the foods,
helped cook them,
and joined the other students for a “banquet”.
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.
There is also a “shop” where the kids can learn to use various tools and make random doo-dads.
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.
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!
(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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
*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?
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”
“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…”
(psss…it’s the Alhambra)
She was mostly there for the map:
“So glad we can expose our kids to all this culture at such a young age!”
“Soaking it all in”
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.
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.”
“How many miserable kids can you fit on a sofa bed?”
And how much TV can miserable kids watch in a language they don’t understand?
(The answer is a lot, as long as it’s Spongebob).
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.”
Gross, but we continued our walk anyway. (I was hoping the Spanish ladies wouldn’t notice 🙂 )
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:
(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.”