Friday, June 24, 2011

Midsummer/Sankt Hans celebrations

Last night's Midsummer/"Sankt Hans aften" (St. John's eve) celebrations landed me walking back to the house at around 11:30pm, but was well worth it, b.Denmark's northern latitude yieds more extreme lengths of day, on the freakishly long side of the spectrum in the summer (so it was still relatively light when we left at 11), and c.the town - and country as a whole, apparently - is certainly safe enough to walk without danger of serious mishaps beyond accidentaly stepping on a snail or one of the absurdly large slugs often spotted crossing a pathway in the 'burbs.

The day was spent researching the latest push towards the Unified English Braille Code (UEB or UEBC) - which, by the by, is yet another example of Americans stubbornly sticking with our own system, and almost reminds one of the League of Nations in terms of its being an American suggestion accepted by many others before we actually join the bunch. After this reminder of American stubbornness, I made my way over to Lars' and, joined by his family and one of the other fellows from the office, Saju, we enjoyed the excellent weather with a barbecue and delicious dinner, followed by fresh strawberries in cream and sugar (score!) as the kids struck out to socialize downtown and Saju and I joined Lars and his wife Annemette in continued top-notch conversation until it was time for us all to wander down to the castle lake, where we met with a large, talkative crowd, a live band, and a bonfire in the middle of the lake. 

Sadly, we missed the lighting of the fire, as it sounds like it's been quite the production in the past- one year the duty of local archers, who unfortunately (but hilariously) failed to sufficiently strike the thing with their flaming arrows, forcing someone to hop in a boat and do it the easy way. So, while I hope it wasn't left to the archers once again, the bonfire was already in the prime of its life by the time we arrived, followed soon after by fireworks set off near the gardens on the opposite side of the lake. After applauding their appreciation, the audience wended its way back to the main square around 11, where we parted ways in the directions of our respective homes.

This afternoon brought further noise out of local youths as they held their own celebration: last day of school. At last, the kids who have been walking around town with odd little white hats, which mark them as gymnasium (high school) graduates, can continue the tradition by riding around town, blaring music and horns joining their voices in assuring Hillerød that they have, in fact, been unleashed.

Tomorrow morning, Lars and I will drive into central Copenhagen, where he'll drop me at the train station with backpack and sleeping bag in hand in preparation for a week of camping at Synscenter Refsnæs. ...Which means I'll more than likely be incommunicado until my return on July 2, so until then, hasta luego!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

A pink bike, bonfires, and other such dazzling things

Yesterday, after walking back from work (picking up some gelato on the way- thank you, Italy, for producing such excellent food and such friendly, smiling expats)... but as I was saying, after work, I grabbed my bike and rode down to the castle to wander around for a bit and read in the gardens. It's quite impressive, really, that anyone can walk (or jog, as the case may be) through the castle grounds whenever they'd like, around the fountain and through the castle courtyards, etc, free of charge and wonderfully quiet. Amazing.

Really, though, I just thought I'd show you all my bike, as I know you'll be terribly jealous of it's sheer snazziness- and you probably can't make it out, but that curvy lettering on the main bar, amidst the flowers, says "Stay Away." ...ahem. ...So points to Lars for procuring a bike for me to use for the summer (and he apologized for the color before I even saw it), and points to the bike for assisting me in attempting to drag a smile out of random Danes.

The internship is going well, of course, though I'm rather jealous of co-workers Lars and Helene (and Jacob, whom I have yet to meet), who are currently in Ghana training some of the excellent folks I worked with at Smartline last summer. In addition to passing on my good wishes, I've requested the bringing pack of much-missed favorite Ghanaian food like sugar bread, kelewele, and jollof. Had to ask. ...Back in Denmark, though, I've been going through the English version of Sensus's website and making a few edits here and there, writing up RoboBraille instructions, becoming more familiar with the basics of Braille, etc. Mikkel, one of the guys in the office, has sent me an impressively large list of American universities and colleges he'd gathered, complete with contact information for their respective disability offices; my biggest project for the summer will likely be working out with Lars how he'd like to tackle reeling them in to the excellence of RoboBraille services.

This coming Saturday, I'll be leaving for Kalundborg to help with the summer program at the National Centre for Visual Impairment, Synscenter Refsnæs, and will be there until the following Saturday, July 2. Volunteers get to know each other on Saturday and set up, kids come on Sunday, then camping (tents, fires, the whole shebang) and activities through the following Saturday, clean up, and hop the train back to Hillerød. 

...Sooo, as tomorrow evening is the traditional celebration of midsummer here in Denmark (summer solstice was last night, of course), I'll likely post another quick update Friday evening, then be MIA until the first full week of July. Midsummer celebrations means, naturally, local partying, fireworks over the castle lake, bonfires, and, traditionally, topping the bonfire with a witch. ...These days, of course, they're doing without the witch- the second Lars at the office remarked that instead Denmark now sends its witches to Sweden. ...ahem. Nothing like some good Scandinavian rivalry and neighbor bashing, even in terms of regional celebrations. In any case, looking forward to my first European midsummer celebration.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Being foreign in Denmark: first week impressions

Since I did just post recently, I'll actually keep this short, but I do feel the need to warn anyone considering a visit to this beautiful country: it seems incredibly easy for a foreigner to feel alone in Denmark. Be prepared.

Ok, now that sounded foreboding and rather sad, I know, and I'm going to emphasize that it isn't because Danes aren't friendly people- they just don't come off as all that friendly when they don't know you, or if they haven't been made aware of some connection they have to you to validate your relevance, frankly. For instance, my co-workers, landlady, landlady's daughter, etc, are all wonderful, friendly, smiling people; people I see on the street, not so much. Take, for example, my first afternoon in Denmark: while I was walking around town with Karolina, we bumped into a friend of hers and I was quickly introduced, so I smiled, said the typical "nice to meet you," etc. The response? The girl actually looked at me for a second, waited until I stopped talking, and turned back to Karolina without a word, smile, or second glance in my direction... and that's just one example. As much as I hate to say it, the xenophobic reputation (gained for themselves especially following that Muhammad cartoon debacle) is, thus far, coming off as rather more true than I'd hoped. 

...So I continue to battle it not simply by vaguely smiling as I pass someone (whether they like it or not, darn it all, I will smile at them. ha), but also by more markedly seeking out fellow non-Danes- not Americans, but non-Danes. heh... success today in the form of a little Italian pizzeria, where the food was great and relatively cheap and the guy behind the counter actually made a habit of smiling at me; I was on the verge of sighing a grateful "Finally!" and thanking him just for smiling, but that will have to wait until I return at a later point for gelato. In any case, I repeat: the Danes I've had the pleasure of getting to know thus far are wonderfully intelligent, friendly, and welcoming. If, however, you are not Danish and have no obvious connection to them, just be ready to fend for yourself, and don't be afraid to do some solo wandering. In the longer run, it's good for ya.

Ah, yes, and in the process of that solo wandering, this afternoon I officially got the castle out of my system by spending a few hours in the Museum of National History now housed within it, though I'll have to go back at some point to see the chapel (cathedral?). Will likely try this during a Sunday service, as it is still very much in use- proven by the fact that it was off-limits today because there was a wedding taking place while I was there! Later that afternoon, spotted a second wedding party taking photos in the gardens, so it's a matrimonial hot spot.

Rather than posting more photos here, I'll attempt a public link to the Facebook album I already created for the purpose.

"You seem embarrassed by loneliness, by being alone. It's only a place to start." -Sabrina ...and yes, the movie is pretty much as corny as the quote suggests.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Because I promised a photo...

The promised photo of downtown Hillerød, followed by some further wanderings around Frederiksborg Slot on the way back from the office this afternoon, including hunting lodge (Danes really rough it, eh?) and a mysterious/slightly creepy boarded up cabin I have yet to learn the story behind.

Smørrebrød, smiling, and a pita kebab

Alrighty, we're going to try to do another relatively quick update here, particularly for the sake of my hitting the hay a bit earlier- still trying to wrap my head around the 6hr time difference, and must be at the office by 8am tomorrow morning as Lars, Lars, and I head out to the National Centre for Visual Impairment in Kalundborg, where I'll be helping with their summer program later this month. Looking forward to it, but our departure time + threat of rain (which means I plan to walk rather than bike ride; call me crazy) means waking up bright and early. So, without further ado...

The internship: Going well, though I'll be interested to see if we find enough for me to do for the entire summer, honestly. Everyone at the office is great, which is a major bonus, recall that my commute takes me past Frederiksborg Castle every morning and afternoon/evening, and things are pretty relaxed (eg no dress code- woot!). Thus far, my days have involved familiarizing myself with the company, websites, and tools like RoboBraille, editing and providing suggestions for a new brochure in English, looking over the English version of the website, writing up some step-by-step instructions to use RoboBraille, etc, and trying smørrebrød for the first time- a very Danish open-faced sandwich sort of creation with a heavy bread base (they love this stuff) and meats or whathaveyou on top. The table was covered in various possible toppings, ranging from meats (pig, beef, or fish based, generally) to tomatoes and cucumbers to dressings. I awaited advising and observed others, as it's tricky to create your own- someone might tell you that you can mix and match whatever you'd like, but they don't really mean it. For instance, apparently fish goes with a different kind of bread, and mayonnaise versus another similar dressing are disastrous to mix up. Ah, and when in doubt, eat it with a knife and fork; it may be sandwich-like, but I've been informed that pretty much only plate-less construction workers eat it with their hands... ahem.

Thought for the day: I've heard that Americans smile too much, which is completely possible (though I believe we also recently won the reputation as funniest nationality, so at least we're consistent there). And no, I'm not the sort to smile mindlessly... but even so, I just have to say, Danes simply smile too little, and not just by American standards. Think about it, Denmark: you're amazingly developed and organized (and proud of it), you're statistically one of the happiest countries in the world, you apparently have the best work-life balanceand some of you are biking past a Baroque garden and 17th century castle on your daily commute. Going by those, you should all be cracking smiles far more than you do. Those Danish smiles are lovely when you allow them to show themselves- which I've caught you doing, at least in private. Besides, just think of all those facial muscles you work in the simple act of smiling, eh? You'd seem quite a bit more welcoming and less daunting if you put them to use more often. ...So I've kind of set aside my goal of testing my ability to blend in, for the sake of now trying to get a smile out of random Danes. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

Also: Discovered a kebab place down the street from the office - which street, by the by, is restricted to pedestrians, a few bicyclists, and plenty of street vending sorts, so I'll have to post a photo at some point.... In any case, the 20kr (about $4) pita kebab won me over, largely for the sake of diversity in both food and people. Another way in which I might be displaying my non-Danishness: my friend group tends to include a fair number of various nationalities, many of whom are not Caucasian... which, unfortunately, seems uncommon in this more homogeneous, reserved society. Planning to align myself with the kebab fellow. haha 

...well, for those who didn't already know it, verbosity is a weakness of mine. Goodbye for now

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

So begins the Denmark saga: arrival!

Here!! and now with my suitcase, which is a recent improvement- I went through Buffalo, JFK, Reykjavik*, and Copenhagen; my bag, on the other hand, hesitated at JFK and followed my path a few hours later. 

This ought to be a quick post, as I have a bit of grant writing to do. The basic rundown: arrived in CPH shortly after 6am local time (midnight EST), my supervisor for the summer, Lars, picked me up there and we drove to Hillerød, first stop was for breakfast at his house and meeting his family, then off to the office for a Danish phone and SIM card (which, unfortunately, is still in Danish), meeting a few of the folks in the office, and a quick tour and receiving of keys. 

The tour continued/expanded as we did a bit more driving around town, stopping at Frederiksborg Slot for a leisurely stroll- there's something. The planned brevity of this post deters me from going into detail here, but: northern Ren. castle built in the early 17th century, complete with chapel, hunting lodge, and impressive Baroque grounds and garden, all free and open to whomever wants to pass through- older women on their morning power walk/gossiping (some things are universal), joggers, tourists, locals biking through en route to the town center, dog owners, etc. Tables turn slightly if you were to go in to the castle (haven't done that yet), which now hosts a museum- the only feature of the whole plays that requires your hard-earned money, I believe.

Next up was meeting my host for the summer, a very sweet older woman with a relatively sizable room to rent out... so here I am. Deal also includes internet (thank goodness), a half-bathroom of my own, and a small kitchen of my own with the basic utensils and whatnot. Certainly survivable- especially upon finding that my suggested route to the office (Lars has procured me a bike- pink, and with a basket. woot... ha) is to cut through the aforementioned Baroque gardens and take a path around the edge of Frederiksborg Slot. Quite the commute, eh? Tested out this route on foot later in the afternoon to meet up with Lars' daughter, Karolina, for lunch, a mini tour, etc, back for an unintentional nap (fight the jet lag!), settling in, welcoming my suitcase and further settling in... which brings us fully up to date. More soon!

*I will have to go back to Iceland again someday, by the by- not because I was impressed with what I saw, but because I know I didn't see the best side of the country as we flew in. Bare, brown, total lack of vegetation, and Jared-Diamond-and-deforestation reminiscent, which doesn't help when vegetation already had to put up with the destructive forces of lava and volcanic ash. The fellow I was sitting next to was Icelandic (and stuck up conversation by asking me twice if I was Icelandic- but asking in Icelandic. My lack of comprehension answered his question.) and I had this terrible urge to ask him what would possess people to stay in such a seemingly barren land. ...but the question would be difficult to ask without coming off as rather ignorant and offensive, and, as previously noted, I know I missed out on all of the more touted qualities of the island.