Tuesday, January 20, 2015

"Jan, do you have ten thumbs?" Or, My First Days in Hadsten...

Soccer balls and lattes in the teachers lounge. A viking section in the library, and an English textbook titled "Happy." A dentist at the health office. Children racing down the hallway in socks; hallway paintings depicting evolution and the big bang theory, while other hallways let newcomers know that students are at home at school. Colorful hand-drawn signs by students adorn the walls and rafters: 

...and, my personal favorite:

Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore.

I've been in Hadsten, Denmark for two weeks now. Time constraints and reluctance to pull away from people to write in solitude have kept me from writing this post. Moreover, I often avoid writing on matters I fear I cannot thoroughly capture and convey in words. I have never felt more at home in a place that wasn't.

How can I relate this experience without sounding like a braggart or an asshole? I'm afraid I can't. Because, sincerely, everything about this experience has been a dream. I have zero complaints...OK, I have one complaint. I wish it would snow more. Even that is on the mend as of early this morning.

How can I do my host family justice? My host family is magic, what with my sensitive, save-the-world mor (mother) and sensible, smile-at-the-world far (father). My host family is adorable, what with the six-year-old who is a constant reminder of the enchantment of the everyday (after dinner we leave the table candles burning and make shadow puppets; at breakfast he throws his legs in the air to show me his "magic trick" -- pulling off a laundry basket's worth of socks, one chromatic layer by kaleidoscopic layer by cartoon character layer at a time, until the final reveal...which I tickle, of course); what with the eight-year-old who is a "girly girl" through and through, despite being flanked by two brothers, a feat to which I have the utmost respect (for many years I was less myself than a spitting, bike racing, comic book-collecting shadow to my older brother; Nikoline, on the other hand, makes me bracelets and rings out of colorful rubber bands, draws me pictures of hearts, flowers, and candles, has a cosmetic and accessory repertoire that eclipses my own, and sings loud and proud to her favorite pop heartthrob with zero apology.

On the day my host family picked me up from the train station, the two kiddos stared at me in wonder the whole way home, the way you might transfix your gaze at a newborn coming home from the hospital. The novelty has since given way to comfort, through many rounds of hide-and-seek and meals around the dinner table. The ten-year-old, on the other hand, wanted little to do with me. While video games and friends shot off in his room, his mom had him sit and chat with me at the kitchen table. I was the worst thing to happen on a Sunday. But apathy has since given way to enthusiasm and interest. He really enjoys practicing his English with me, sharing adolescent tales of secret club houses in abandoned factories and saving up for a racer bike next summer. He asks me all manner of burning questions like, "Do you know where Ray Charles lives?" (he read about him once in school) and, "How much is the most expensive car in U.S. dollars?"

And how can I praise the school where I work, the Danish philosophies driving education, and the Danish approach to citizen welfare, in general -- without sounding blasphemous, ungrateful, or unpatriotic? Suffice it to say that Danes are so progressive and well-prioritized that my brain sometimes seemingly refuses outright to think about it. Sometimes I feel like we're living in the Dark Ages. But I'll save my thoughts on education and politics for another time.

What does a typical day look like? On weekday mornings I participate in the riotous flurry that is getting a family of six ready for school/work. There is something really wonderful about the whole family standing by the entrance way, pulling on their boots and caps, wrapping 'round their scarves, and searching for their mittens before filing out door to take on the day. At school I co-teach English 7, English 8, and Social Studies 8 with two of my UCSB colleagues, Marisa and Charlie. I should mention that "English" here in Denmark is of course not English as we know it (literature, language arts, reading/writing, etc.). Danes have Danish for that. We are teaching English as a second language. Danes begin having English lessons in the first grade. In fifth grade they start taking German. In effect, Danes are trilingual by the time they graduate high school.

So there you have it. In short, my host family is wonderful, as are the school where I teach and the country as a whole. If you'd like to hear more, in the most condensed manner I am able, press play and keep reading...

(The song, by the way, is a Danish club favorite. Everyone sings jovially along to it, like we would to Journey. It's the best way I can encapsulate how I feel as I float through my days here.)

Learning the language
I'm trying to pick up as much Danish as I can, which is considerably more fun because the kids in my host family love to teach me. Just this morning the six-year-old taught me "det sner!" I have the urge to yell it as I prance around the family car -- it means "it's snowing!" Other words I've learned are:
  • hallo/hej, farvel/hej hej = hello (formal/informal), goodbye (formal/informal)
  • undskyld (mig) = excuse me (one means 'beg pardon' and the other is to get someone's attention)
  • tak = thank you 
  • ja, nej = yes, no
  • en, to, tre, fire, fem, seks, syv, otte, ni, ti... = numbers 1-10 (Hide and seek really helps with learning numbers)
  • venstre, højre = left, right (The ten-year-old taught me these when he walked me home on the first day of school. Yep, finding my way by way of a fourth-grader. No shame in that.)
  • skinke, ananas, ost = ham, pineapple, cheese (Can you guess what this is for? Yep, hawaiian pizza. The host kids wanted to make pizzas my first night in town. They said it was to make me feel at home, but I have a sneaking suspicion it has something to do with the fact that they can have soda on nights the family has pizza or burgers for dinner...ha.)

My very first full transaction in Danish was for "en hotdog med det hele!" (one hot dog with everything) from a food truck in Aarhus. Danes have chocolate milk with their street hot dogs. Maybe it sounds strange but I can assure you it's fantastic. 

On the topic of food...have you ever heard the (ridiculous) quote "nothing tastes as good as skinny feels"? Well, I maintain that everything in Denmark tastes better than skinny could ever feel (OK, with the exception of one thing I have not liked in Denmark: pickled herring in curry sauce. My colleagues tell me my distaste for this sandwich topping has gotten 'round to the host families, however my host-mom assures me that most Danes don't like it, so I feel a bit less blasphemous). 

My new favorite food is a tie between frikadeller (Danish meatballs) and cheese and jam on toast for breakfast. The only thing that makes the latter better is that the first thing my host-dad does on weekend mornings is to go to the bakery for fresh rolls. 

Seemingly everything my host-mom makes is appetizing. I've not refused seconds once, and it isn't out of nicety. 

On Fridays, the school provides free lunch for teachers. I'm not just talking sandwiches -- I'm talking salmon, roast beef, lasagna, quinoa salad, frikadeller, potatoes...

As I mentioned in a previous post, we spent a lot of the first two weeks visiting classrooms in three different schools in town, introducing ourselves and sharing about life in America. Some of my favorite questions to come out of those presentations were:
  • "Charlie, how much of a cowboy are you?" (As if you can quantify cowboy.)
  • "Have you ever seen a shark?" (A question to Marisa after she shared her experiences competing in outrigger canoe.)
  • "Jan, is you always this happy?" (To which my colleagues answered for me: "Yes.")
  • "Jan, have you got ten thumbs?" (It didn't take long for my Danish colleagues to notice how clumsy I am. This comment came after I dropped my electric converter three times in one minute in the teacher's lounge.) 
I'll mention quickly here that Danish adolescents curse quite a bit -- or are at least more open with their cursing. Then again, I'm sure I've used words like "shizer" plenty of times without consciousness to the weight it carries. I bet it's the same for Danish kids. Still, it was a bit disconcerting to hear, "Fuck Chelsea!" from an eighth grader, fifth grader, and third grader during my introductory presentation, all in the same week.

Danes will tell you that all Danes do is complain and talk about the weather (I imagine that sometimes one leads to the other). Fortunately, my experience can't confirm the stereotype. Everyone I have met has been warm, welcoming, curious, and open. I am in awe sometimes at how comfortable I feel here, at how lucky I am to be here.

Mikkel, my ten-year-old host brother recently asked, "Jan, will you come to Denmark next year?"

"I hope so," I responded, in the airy manner one does when they've been asked a question they hadn't yet considered.

Mikkel closed his fist and thrust his elbow by his waist side. "Yesss!" he drew out the "sss" for dramatic effect. Maybe the thinly veiled non-committal was lost in translation. 

I'm not sure if life will take me back to Denmark next year, or ever. But I do know that I love it here, that somehow it feels like the warmth of home and the electricity of travel all at once. Some people never find either; somehow I've found both here in Denmark. 

On that note, it's time I leave the writing to join my family in some boardgames or television (the World Cup for handball is on), perhaps both. 

Sending love,

"The Old City." Aarhus, Denmark.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Somewhere Out There...

Today my host family took me all 'round Jutland, including a long drive (by Danish standards) to their summer house by the beach.

Two things I learned: 

1. The ocean is soothing no matter the ocean.

Tilde, Frederik, Molly, and Flemming -
My host mom, brother, dog, and dad.

2. All kids love to skip rocks (even, or especially, kids who happen to be dads).

Frederik, 6. 

Frederik and Flemming, 6 at heart. 

I haven't been homesick yet this trip (in the sense of being upset), though I always miss my family and friends (especially my six-year-old nephew; the youngest child in my host family is six and his utter joy and love of whimsy always reminds me of Elijah). Even so, there was something powerfully comforting about sweeping my fingers through the ocean...frigid as it was. Because, no matter where on earth I am, the ocean waters will meet the waters on whatever coast my family is by; it's the same sun, moon, and sky we're under. The sentiment reminds me of one of my favorite childhood songs, from the movie "Fievel Goes West." I've put the link underneath for you, in case you've never heard the heartfelt song, or if you'd like to take a walk down memory lane. 

Sending you love by way of the winds that blow here in Denmark...


Thursday, January 15, 2015

Balance is an Action, Not an Object

To put it another way: "Balance is a verb, not a noun."

However you want to put it, I’ve been traveling for almost three weeks and have been struggling to maintain a daily practice in the midst of wanting to spend all my waking moments soaking in all that is Denmark. Admittedly, I’ve never been good at practicing independently, and the only gym in town has limited yoga classes and is a bit expensive. If you have any videos you enjoy practicing along to, please share in the comments below. An hour or so is ideal, and I am open to any style of yoga/meditation that makes you happy. :)

I’ll start: I like this “power yoga” flow, though the movements and cues are not well-synced if you’re watching (I just listen and close my eyes to avoid distraction). 

Thanks in advance! xo 

P.S. This is my host family’s dog, Molly. She often will lap circles around me the entire time I practice. Perhaps she wants to keep me company in the laundry room; maybe she is wondering what the strange foreigner is up to now. In any case, she’s my down dog muse. 

Molly standing guard. Or questioning the side crow I just fell out of.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

This Land Was Made for You and Me

For the past week and a half, we (UCSB international teacher candidates) have been visiting different classrooms/schools in Hadsten, Denmark to introduce ourselves and to share a bit about life in America. Of the many rooms we were assigned to visit, we presented in the classes of two of the three children in my host family. I wanted to give a special thanks to my colleague Charlie who trudged to my house in the cold, electric guitar in hand, to help me do a mini presentation for the youngest kiddo so that he wouldn't feel like he was missing out. We even deemed it "A Special Show for Frederik." Nikoline, who has just started English lessons this year at the age of 8, joined us for our closing song. I'm still working on learning the Danish translation my host mom wrote out...

(I realize that the song is a critical response to "God Bless America", but the kiddos don't need to know that. Besides, I've really enjoyed singing the verse "Nobody living can ever stop me/As I go walking that freedom highway/Nobody living can make me turn back now/This land was made for you and me." Especially the last line. Yeah, especially that last line.)

Sunday, January 11, 2015

"Uhm...what is the nice word for 'slut'?" Or, Kicking Off the New Year in Hamburg...

I spent the first half the of the four-hour train ride to Hamburg trying to sleep away the hurt. Hurt from pouring rosé, chardonnay, beer, screwdrivers, champagne, and licorice shots on a delightful but dainty bed of fish and salad; hurt from going to bed past sunrise and waking up before high noon (long story short if you didn't read the last post). In days past I might follow such traipsing with a morning brew (coffee or otherwise), or my classic hangover cure: a blue Gatorade (I like to pretend I'm ingesting a glacier) and an egg/bacon/cheddar/cream cheese galaxy bagel, followed promptly by going back to bed. I have even followed such traipsing with a midterm or final.

But that was in the past.

That day, the day I traveled to Hamburg, was January 1st. I had just turned 27. And 27 meant going into hibernation to allow for my old, decrepit body to make attempts to repair itself. Except that I had made train and homestay arrangements to make my way into a brand new country.

It's funny. The summer after college I had no idea what to do with my life. Among applying for a(n ungodly) number of other positions, I made a profile on a website for international au pairs. I was in contact for a long time with a German family who interviewed me several times over Skype. They had liked me quite a bit but were in a state of conflict because a family friend had just recommended their au pair whose services were no longer needed, given their children's ages. To this day, I can remember stepping out of the Las Vegas hotel room I was sharing with my best friends, sitting on the painfully patterned carpet of the hallway, and rereading the short but loaded e-mail I had opened within the riotous room. The family had decided to go with the sure bet. Who could blame them. But I had already envisioned it, and had grown attached to that vision: living with three blonde-haired, blue-eyed kiddos; taking language classes at the university; weekend and holiday trips to surrounding areas. It wasn't just that I had lost out on a job opportunity; at the time, I really felt as though an entire life had been taken away. It was a life I had really wanted and, given the stalemate of job prospects, it was one I really needed.

But that was in the past.

That day, the day I traveled to Hamburg, was January 1st. On January 4th I would be meeting my host family in Hadsten, back in Denmark. On January 5th I would start teaching at the local school.

So that's what's funny: how things work out anyway. I cannot say what would have happened had I gotten the au pair job in Germany, but I can say with absolute certainty that I am incredibly thankful and beyond content with what came from not getting the job: a year in Park City, Utah; a three-month trip to my home country and the countries surrounding that sparked what is likely a lifelong love affair with travel; other various short, but invaluable employment positions and trips abroad; almost two years working with children with autism as a behavior therapist; and, of course, the life-altering friendships maintained and created during the years in between.

It was my work as a behavior therapist that ultimately led me to pursue a career in teaching. The teaching credential and Master's program I am in now is the reason I am in Europe this month, for an international student-teacher exchange. And, go figure, the exchange means living with three blonde-haired, blue-eyed kiddos; not taking, but teaching, (English) language classes; weekend and holiday trips to surrounding areas. So, everything in due time.

I finally woke from my New Year's Eve stupor to find a lovely young woman sitting next to me on the train. I motioned to ask if I could get out to use the restroom and, as I tried to squeeze between her and the table on the way back to my seat, I caught the cord of her head phones and pulled her phone off the table. "I'm sorry," I offered apologetically.

"No, it's no problem. It's just good they weren't on," she joked.

Local scribblings...the best words money can't buy. 
After we had gotten resettled in our seats, I asked her where she was heading. She was going to Hamburg. She had come up to Denmark to spend time in her boyfriend's family's vacation home. But, after four days trying to study for her upcoming exams with a house full of people during the holidays, she finally had to admit it wasn't working. She decided to head home a couple days early to have some quiet time to work. I was happy to hear that she was going to get off at the same stop; I had no idea where we were going, so I was thankful for the surefire indicator.

But it got better. My new German train friend, Tuula (a Finnish name), had lived in Hamburg her entire life and offered to write down some tips. Like a true student, she titled the page in my journal and even divided the tips into daytime and nighttime activities.

After a lull in the conversation and some quiet to stare out the window of the moving train, Tuula sat up quickly. Something had just occurred to her.

"Oh! You must got to the Reeperbahn."

"OK. What's the Reeperbahn?" I said, open to the idea but unsure of what the idea even was.

"Uhm...what is the nice word for 'slut'?"

The question caught me off guard. I looked upward and outward, trying to conjure a polite word from my memory bank. "Uhm...prostitute?" I suggested, unconvinced that that was very "nice."

"Yes! Prostitute. I'm a Hamburger so I don't really find it all that shocking, but some tourists..."

I'd stopped listening. I had heard of the city's infamous Red Light District. It's not that I was disinterested; I was just too amused that she'd referred to herself as a Hamburger. (Hey, I said I was getting older, but never claimed to be more mature.)

As the train pulled into the city, she pointed out the window, indicating areas to explore. When we arrived at the train station, she went as far as to take us to the exact platform we needed to catch the next railway to our home stay, and even showed us exactly how to buy a multi-person day pass for the subway (a good thing, since all of the machine screen prompts were written in German).

As we rode the subway to the home stay, Marisa commented on how lucky we were to meet Tuula. "Yeah, absolutely," I replied, altogether grateful and relieved at how easy Tuula had made it for us to find our way "home," and how generous she was with her advice. But, despite my absolute agreement that it was a fortuitous meeting (especially since Tuula had related her surprise that we were going to stay with a German family, citing that many Germans are generally more closed off and reserved), my response was only half-hearted. Because in that moment, I was reflecting on how many lucky breaks I've encountered during travel. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I am not at all unique in my good fortune. While I don't mean to dismiss how favorable my travels have been, what I am starting to wrap my head around is that the world is just altogether generous and kind. People want to reach out. People want to help, to connect, to make any small contribution to making others' lives more positive. While I never want to take a helping hand for granted, I also need to recognize it as basic human nature. I shouldn't be surprised by kindness, because it is absolutely, wholeheartedly out there. Sure, I often luck out in my travels, but it's also simply that the world is inviting and the people in it are good.

We checked into our home stay, a quaint five bedroom home run by a sweet old Syrian woman. She spoke very little English (German is her second language), but was very helpful nonetheless. Her bedroom was on the first floor, along with the kitchen and a bathroom. The second floor had one bathroom and four rooms, all rented to international travelers and labeled "Piano" (our room), "Boogie," "Blues," and another I can't recall now.
I had never used a "real" (traditional) key before. It made me rather happy.

After getting settled and getting ready, Marisa and I headed back into the city. Tuula had recommended a bar called 20 Up for a celebratory birthday drink. It was on the 20th floor of a fancy hotel and was where she always went on her birthday. I figured that was fitting. We arrived to loud bumping music cascading out of the speakers, men doused with too much cologne and women with too little clothing on, given the outside temperature. But, as Tuula had raved, the view of the city was incredible. Or at least what you could peek of it through the hordes of swanky patrons. Neither Marisa nor I were ready for anything even resembling an alcoholic beverage, given the Molotov cocktail I had mixed for myself on NYE, so we opted to order frilly virgin drinks from the bar menu. Right before Marisa went to order, I changed my mind. The beautiful thing about getting older is that you begin to realize that you don't have to do things just because you're "supposed" to. If I had been home in Santa Barbara, I would never have chosen such a flashy venue. And just because I was there now, didn't mean I had to pay $12 for a juice drink. Who says you have to order a cocktail on your birthday? I wanted dessert. 

Tuula's first suggestion might have been a bust, but the view really was grand (just not the atmosphere I was looking for). Her daytime suggestions, however, were money. The next day was perfect. 

First, we had brunch at Cafe May -- a charming little breakfast spot that offered coffee drinks and pastries to order. But we were there for the all-you-can-eat brunch. Best 5 euro you could spend. In addition to typical brunch staples, there was a wide selection of fresh cheese, none of which were less than amazing, as well as all the just-out-of-the-oven rolls you could dream of. 

Then it was off to Tuula's "biggest recommendation," the city ferry. She had even sent us a schedule by e-mail when she got home. Tuula had advised that a commercial ferry would cost 25 euro but that a public transport ferry was only 3 euro, and free with the day pass for the railways. Thank goodness for that tip; more money for silly souvenirs. 

The harbor.

Love on land for all to "sea."

After taking in the city for an hour-or so on the ferry, we hopped off to explore the fish market. Unfortunately, we missed it by a couple hours, but there was plenty more to see. Marisa and I walked by the water back to the harbor and marveled at our new locale, dubbed Germany's "Gateway to the World."

Hamburg had no shortage of fantastic street art.

Home(less) for the holidays, But you have to applaud the effort and attitude.

My favorite building in Hamburg, designed to look like a wave.

We got a bit turned around when making our way to the next destination, the Speicherstadt, or the largest warehouse district in the world, located in the city port. But getting lost led to stumbling upon an artist's studio. A while back I finally decided what souvenir I would look for in my travels 'round the world: a bookmark -- something inexpensive, conveniently light, and easily found or made, often from postcards. The female artist printed postcards of her pieces, which were far more subtle and beautiful than the ones in the tourist shops. It was a great find.

"Take it at any time. I won't even look. I'm a photographer, so I know what you're doing." I had asked to take a photo of her working; she seemed to know exactly what I was looking for. 

I wanted every single one of her pieces.
In the end, I left with two postcards, featuring layers of words and sights from Hamburg.

There was plenty to see at the Speicherstadt, including a dungeon from the 1800s and the largest model railway exhibition in the world. Marisa and I opted to go to the Speicherstadt Museum, an authentic warehouse dating back to 1888, where imported goods and tools display the work carried out by warehouse staff (storekeepers). Hamburg is Germany's biggest port and is the second-busiest in Europe. I learned about the historical goings-on of the very important port, as well as a lot about the coffee and tea imports. 

The numbered boxes to the left helped determine quality for coffee grounds. Grounds were poured in at the top and would move through smaller and small sifting holes as they made their way to the bottom.  Large "foreign bodies" would get caught in each  layer, resulting in the very finest coffee at the end. 

Relatively speaking, tea is not a big commodity in Germany. Still, 70% of the tea
consumed in Germany goes through the port in Hamburg. 

When I turned one of the corners of the museum, I walked past an unassuming stack of crates. One of the crates has a small window cut into it. There are no signs or markings over the crates, so I almost kept walking without bothering to pause. At the last moment, I decided to look inside. For no observable reason, there is a miniature room nestled in the crate. I'm not sure why it's there, but it made me inexplicably happy. Maybe that's the point. Who doesn't love a little reasonless whimsy?

Ahh! The curtains!

Mini knots, a seashell headboard...I die.

Little keys, little stein, little telephone...happy happy.

After a full day of sightseeing, we found our way to the Hofbräuhaus. I had heard really enthusiastic urgings to go there from friends who had been to the one in Munich -- stories of two stories of beer clinking patrons and lederhosen-clad waitresses carrying four steins in each hand. The one in Hamburg is considerably less grand. But the food was good.


The best wurst that could happen.

Wish no one had to "put on the red light."
After walking around the city a while and stopping into a cafe for fresh mint tea, apple strudel and ice cream, and journal writing (read: my heaven), we headed to the infamous Reeperbahn. I'm not quite sure what I was expecting to find, but I left the boulevard feeling low. Sure, the sex shops were funny to meander in. And the pastries of nipples and lady parts were entertaining. But seeing the fresh-faced and pretty, impossibly young girls standing en masse on the street corners, freezing in their down jackets and moon boots, in want and waiting, just made me sad.

OK, Willy Warmers are kinda hilarious.

Vodka and nipple pastries. A winning combination.

The next day, we had one morning left in Hamburg before returning to Denmark, so we bid our matronly home stay hostess goodbye. But not before putting a pin on for Santa Barbara on the world map for guests (the U.S. is sorely underrepresented).

One small pin for Santa Barbara, a giant leap across the pond for me!

Before we left, we ate breakfast at the Mutterland Deli, a solid recommendation by my friend Brenda. It is easily the cutest cafe I've ever been to. I really had to fight myself from buying all of the pastries and knick-knacks. 

We even had time to squeeze in a quick jaunt to Alster Lake. 

Then it was back to where we started, the Hamburg train station. 

I love that the train stations here always feature a bright flower shop atop the stairs,
especially on these cold gray days. 

I'm off to bed but will leave with a quote my friend Matt recently posted. Matt and his wife, Alicia, both dear friends from my Deer Valley days, have always been really supportive of my writing, and of my endeavors in general. Since Hamburg is a bustling port town, I really loved coming across these words:

"A ship is safe in harbor, but that's not what ships are for.”

How fitting for my current travels, and life in general. Cheers (or "prost") to that. 

I'll write again soon. Hope you're all well.

xo Jan 

Thursday, January 8, 2015

"Jan, we have a problem." Or, New Year's Eve in Aarhus...

"Jan, we have a problem."

I slowed my pace. As I looked up and over at Sara, the hood of my jacket shifted then slid, exposing my cheek to the chill of Denmark in December. Actually, it was technically January now. (Sara is an Aarhus local; I became friends with her when she came to Santa Barbara in September for a two-month international student-teacher exchange, which is what I am participating in now.) 

"Yes?" I asked, without really wanting to know the answer. It was almost five in the morning. I'd been drinking for the past eleven hours. I was in no state to face "a problem."

"...the bars close at six."

Germans have their beer houses, Irishmen their whiskey. And I had heard all about the wild nights in Spain and Italy from friends who had studied abroad in college. But I had no idea how hard the Danes party. I chose quite the evening to find out. 

Marisa and I had debated for weeks where to spend New Year's Eve. Munich and Berlin were south, Copenhagen was east. We had our Eurail passes delivered to Sara's in Aarhus so that we could leave our decision open until we arrived in Denmark. I normally don't mind long or multiple travel days, but I was learning that multiple long travels days were far from appealing. After a 30 hour travel day to Aarhus, I was in no rush to leave. 

We decided to ditch the hypnotic lure of ringing in the new year in a novel international city. After an evening of catching up with Sara, and finding out that her friends had extended an invitation to their New Year's Eve dinner, the attraction to the bright lights of a big city suddenly felt hollow. Or maybe it was the jet lag. But why party with strangers when you could spend it with friends, and friends of friends? 

In any case, I couldn't be happier with the decision. 

For one, I woke up to this. The snow had stuck for our first morning in Denmark (January 30th). Waking up for the first time in a new city can be really disorienting. Sometimes you're awoken by bustling street traffic, or in the silent dead of night because of the time change. Sometimes you feel the unfamiliar ceilings closing in, or the budget mosquito nets swinging open. But this was serene. This was lovely. 

View from Sara's apartment.

After a deliciously slow morning (and lots of coffee to remedy the 9-hour time change), we spent the day exploring Aarhus. My favorite part was the rooftop of the Aarhus Art Museum, called "Your Rainbow Panorama." And it is just that -- a walkway with a 360 view of the city through all of the colors of the spectrum of light. The underlying concept is based on Dante's Divine Comedy. You are encouraged to explore how your senses change as you move from warm to cool, and vice versa. It's also meant to act as a visual compass for the city -- when viewed from a distance, the work presents different colors that inform your location. 

Me and Marisa. In the distance is Sara's apartment and the church she was baptized in.

Excuse me while I kiss the sky. This is our most wonderful Danish friend/hostess extraordinaire, Sara.

Sara and Marisa taking in the blue. I mean, view.

View from the inside.

View from the outside.

We closed our rounds in the city by stopping into a shopping center for the next day's essentials. Read: drinks and decorations. And cake. Can't forget the cake. We stopped into a bakery and (willingly) paid far too much money for the traditional Danish pastry eaten at midnight, kransekage. Kransekage is made of marzipan, and it is magic. Well worth the dough (ha?). It can be sold as a stack of rings adorned with Danish flags (often the chosen shape for weddings), but the bakery had just one kransekage left, in the shape of a heart with loose mini cakes in the center. We were lucky to be left with the one. Given that all of the seven dinner guests were female, the heart was kind of fitting.

That night Sara made Marisa and me our first homemade Danish dish, frikadeller, or Danish meatballs. She served them with a red cabbage and clementine salad, potatoes, and "brown sauce" (gravy). It was one of those meals where I willingly took seconds (OK, thirds) knowing full well I would hate myself afterwards. It was well worth the post-dinner resentment.

My mouth waters just thinking about this meal.

We spent the next day preparing for the evening. First, a trip to the grocery store to get everything we hadn't bothered to get the day before...all of the ingredients for our contribution to dinner. As I mentioned, Sara, Marisa, and I were going to join Sara's friend, Nana, and three of her friends, Line, Anna, and Sidsel. An all-girls dinner party. The menu took a little more thought since some of the guests were gluten-free, lactose free, and/or pescetarian, but we managed. In fact, dinner was really delicious. And fish is traditionally served on New Year's anyway, so it worked out. 

The table was already set and decorated when we arrived but we were tasked with adding even more flair to the room. I had never had a sit down dinner for New Year's Eve before. My family usually throws a big party for my little sister's birthday (New Year's Eve) and my birthday (New Year's Day) combined. We have trays of food and treats set out and guests spend the entire evening picking and eating throughout. So this was different, but I was all the more excited for it. 

But first, in Danish tradition, we watched the Queen of Denmark deliver the annual speech at 6 PM. It was, of course, in Danish, so I didn't catch much but I did note that she spoke of welcoming all Syrian refugees. We gathered around the ottoman and ate our gorgeous appetizers -- heart shaped rye bread topped with salmon, roe, and a yogurt based sauce, among other things I forget. 

Then it was onto dinner. We had a perfectly cooked halibut topped with chopped, roasted peanuts and a banana based sauce. We also had cheese and three different salads: a green salad, a potato salad, and a quinoa salad. Dessert was a gluten-free brownie and lactose-free ice cream. The best part? The food was so light (while still somehow tasting delectably rich) that I didn't feel bloated or bogged down. More room for celebratory drinking. 


We spent the rest of the evening playing drinking games, exchanging stories about Danish and American culture, and laughing. A lot. Aside from spending it with my family, it was the perfect way to spend New Year's Eve. I was incredibly thankful for how easy it was to meet their company. The girls all had such different personalities -- one was an artist, another had gotten one Master's in Venice and was getting another in Beijing (after a hiatus in Nepal); one was a mother to two young boys and another was studying gemology and working as a product demonstrator at a toy store -- but everyone was immensely agreeable and fun. I spent whole minutes in laughter. I learned two new drinking games, "Hi, Jack" and "Whoosh, Smash, Bush" that I look forward to teaching my friends back home. 

Line spends her work day wearing tutus. She is the most adorable adult I've ever met. 
Before long it was close to midnight. Another Danish tradition is to watch "The 90th Birthday" (also known as "Dinner for One") broadcast on TV about 15 minutes to midnight. It's a short black-and-white comedy sketch from the 1960s. I had heard of it before from my boyfriend in college whose family watched it every year. I thought then that maybe it was unique to his family, or maybe to Germans, but apparently it is a cult classic in many parts of the world, including Denmark. The Danes love it; everyone I spoke to has watched it every year since they can remember, and never tire of it. We turned it into a drinking game. 

Right before midnight we all climbed onto a chair, couch, or other surface and "jumped into the New Year" when the clock struck twelve. That may be my favorite new tradition. 

Then it was onto champagne and kransekagre. And (at least) 45 straight minutes of fireworks. It seems the Danes love their fireworks. Rather than an establishment like a theme park or local agency putting on one spectacle, many Danish families buy their own arsenal of fireworks and set them off all over the city. The night sky screamed with bright proclamations of excitement, amusement, and wonder. 

Marzipan and magic. 

My mama says that the way you spend your New Year's is the way you spend your year. In that case, 2015 is utter awe, joy, and promise. 

I stood outside a while to watch the fireworks,
until the chill came over me. One last cheers to 2014.

We couldn't leave the apartment without another typical Danish practice, shots of thick licorice liquor. I forget the name. Or maybe I never remembered. Then it was off to the bars downtown. First up, an Irish bar. My eyes are feeling heavy so I'll skip over those events. I doubt I'd tell them accurately anyhow. Then we walked over to a German bar called Heidi's, known for dancing. It was at that point that Sara flagged me down to share "the problem."

After a night of gleeful revelry (and a customary belligerent meal of, go figure, a burger and fries), we caught the 6:30 AM bus home. By 7:15 AM I wiped off (what was left of) my red lipstick and mascara, drank as many glasses of water as I could keep down, and crawled into bed. Five hours later I squeezed my eyes tighter, as if that would make my alarm (or the need for it) go away. I had a train to catch.

I dragged my feet to the bathroom, weighed down heavy with self-pity and loathing. I felt every drop of wine, beer, screwdriver, champagne, licorice shot...ugh.

That all melted away when I walked by the living room to see sweet Sara standing in the middle of Danish flags and blowing up a red balloon. She had gone to bed later than me and woken up earlier. She decorated for my birthday. (Danes really love their flag -- my host mom tells me they put it up any chance they get -- birthdays, neighbor's birthdays, weddings, holidays, even funerals)

Birthday celebration for 3.
Also, Happy International Hangover Day!

While I made my best attempt to pack a weekend bag, Sara whipped up the birthday omelet I had reluctantly requested the day before. When I had asked her once if there were any traditional Danish birthday practices, she answered, "Only that you get whatever you want."

Sara is a saint. Saved my life with this omelet. 

Somehow, someway my sorry behind made it on the 2:30 PM train with 12 minutes to spare. It was off to Hamburg, Germany to spend a few days exploring before the start of teaching.

But that's a whole 'nother story.

Thanks for reading this one.

Happy New Year to you and yours. Thanks again for the birthday wishes. Seven days in, 27 looks good yet.

xo Jan