The Castle

Posted: September 23, 2011 in Uncategorized

I think I should say something about the castle, and the day I started this post was a good day to do it because I’d just been. The castle is Koldinghus, which was first built in the 13th century as a border castle between Denmark and the Duchy of Schleswig and sits at the center of our town. It was a royal residence and rebuilt a few times to reflect the fashions of the times before it burnt down in the early 1800’s during the Napoleonic Wars. (Some Spanish mercenaries were camping out there, found it a bit chilly and really fired up the fire in the old fireplace.) When I was a kid, the castle was pretty much in ruin; but it was still special to us, and it’s were we’d take our case of beers and go hang out on the last day of senior grade in high school. But it’s the restoration of the castle that I really like.

Refashioning the crumbling rubble of a long-since burnt down brick castle into something resembling its former glory proved a bit of a challenge. What was left of the walls couldn’t carry any weight, yet nobody wanted to get rid of it. The solution was to hang the whole reconstruction on wooden pillars set inside the building; and the results are rather stunning.

The last picture is from the church hall, which is sometimes used for events like weddings.

The castle is also used for art exhibitions, and our visit was prompted by by the “Crafts and Design Biennale 2011”, a major nationwide competition for craft workers and designers. The ultra modern artwork – clothes, ceramics, videos, furniture, jewelry, you name it – was out of this world and looked fabulous in the ultra ancient building. I find it mind-bending that artists continue to come up with things that are so interesting and beautiful and utterly different from what’s already been done.

I was a bit confused when I first got here and everybody was talking about take-away when they meant take-out. It turns out the expression is taken directly from the English language – just not U.S. English. I don’t think it’s news to anyone that English speakers from different parts of the world have a history of confusing each other; but as English terms and expressions become increasingly common in foreign languages a bunch of unsuspecting aliens are joining the ranks of the baffled. Of course, I could just ignore this particular term. I haven’t had “take-away” once since I got here.

Less in keeping with the original sense of the word, spas and spa treatments are called “wellness” around here. It would be nice, of course, if you could gain health and prevent illness by getting a body scrub or a facial peel; but I’m pretty sure the scientific evidence is lacking.

There is “wellness” at the pool where I swim. On the spa’s website , the staff “asks kindly all clients to meet half an hour prior to the treatment. That will allow time to explore the Spa Lounge and shower.” I think they mean you’ll have time to shower, not explore the shower.

One of my favorite words in the German language is “Handy”, which means cell phone. Having at least two different English terms actually used for the device to choose between, the Germans thought they’d use an entirely different English word. They usually pronounce it with an “a” so flat it sounds almost like “hendy”.

That’s All History Now

Posted: June 9, 2011 in Uncategorized

Ascension Day is a Thursday which makes for a four day weekend for all Danish school kids. Since just hanging around isn’t really an option in this house, we went on a little trip to visit a couple of places loaded with history. We packed the wagon with sheets and weekend bags and food for 3 days and drove to Roskilde where we checked into the hostel. Hence the sheets. You can either bring your own or rent them. Either way, you get to put them on yourself.

Our first stop was the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, right next to the hostel, which is built around a handful of boats that were discovered in the fjord where they had been sunk purposefully to create a barrier to keep enemies from reaching the city. The blockade was in place for about 1,000 years before the boats were brought up in the 1960’s. I guess they built things to last back then.

Erik takes a run on the Sea Stallion from Glendalough, a replica of one of the 1,000-year-old boats found in the fjord. Below is video from its voyage from Roskilde to Dublin and back with a crew of over 60.

We spent the next day at ‘Lejre – Land of Legends’, which has stone-, bronze-, and iron age exhibits and activities. The kids got to sail hollowed out logs, split wood, make wooden nails and shoot with a bow and arrow. Apart from the shooting, the activities were unsupervised and without instruction save the off posted note (such as ‘please grab a life west before you go sailing’). Go ahead kids, sail the lake and swing the huge old axe – no need to sign a release of liability.

Needless to say, we’d brought our lunch. Everything has to be a picnic. We weren’t the only ones who had gotten that idea, and the lunch tables were full of happy people who had brought table cloths and real silverware and what looked like delicious homemade meals and glasses with stems for their wine. I thought of all the people who can’t even be bothered to do this sort of thing when they’re home. They don’t know what they’re missing.

On the final day of our trip we checked out the Cold War at Stevns Fort. Being basically on the eastern front of NATO, Denmark had dug out a nice little nuclear proof position into the cliff facing the Baltic Sea and Sweden. Out of use since 2000, the place is now open to the public. A few hundred soldiers could have survived about three months underground if they could handle the freezing cold and incredible dampness. Of course, there would almost certainly be nothing to get back to once they came out. Swell.

This was the place where the nuclear missiles headed for Cuba in 1962 were first spotted and the information relayed to America. It is rumored that the U.S. President subsequently took to asking whether there was any news from Stevns when he entered the Operations Room at the White House.


Posted: June 6, 2011 in Uncategorized

One of the things that make Fanø special is that entire sections of its little towns, of which there are two, still look pretty much exactly like they did when they were built in the 17- and 1800’s, not because they are under historical protection or preservation but because this is how people live.

Another special thing is that it’s the only place I know of where some locals still wear traditional clothing for special occasions such as weddings and confirmations. The clothes were always specific to the island as each area had their own way of dressing.

I met Jakob and his class at the ferryboat after they arrived on the island, and we all walked to the bike rental shop where 24 kids and 2 adults were fitted with bikes rather painlessly. Then we biked some 3 or 4 miles to the amazing forest playground in the middle of the island where the kids ate their lunches and played. The weather wasn’t great and when it started raining the teachers decided to call it a day and head back with the bikes. I left the group when they were done biking.

Jakob and a friend eat their lunches.

Another Trip to Fanø

Posted: June 6, 2011 in Uncategorized

My bike and I are on a train to Esbjerg right now. We biked ourselves to the train station in Kolding, bought our tickets at the Seven Eleven inside the beautiful old brick station building and hopped on the regional. My bike had to pay less than a third of what I had to shell out. Call it a senior discount. I bought the thing when I was in college.

When we get to Esbjerg, we’ll get out at an even beautifuller old brick station and bike ourselves to the ferry boat, passing the statue of the Fanø girl looking to sea, awaiting her man’s return, and the flood pole, which shows the levels of previous floods, reminding you to have respect for the ocean. The crossing to Fanø will take about 12 minutes. Then we’ll pedal it to the beach house, where I’ll turn on the water, the electricity and the water heater and open all the curtains to let in the view and what’s left of the day while my two wheels take a snooze under the grass roof of the bike shed.

The station building in Esbjerg

The Fanø girl awaits her man's return from sea by the ferryboat crossing to the island.

It’s 7:30 pm right now, and it looks like it’s the middle of the day. The train isn’t exactly busy. It’s a very smooth ride and quite speedy; but internet access is only available on certain lines between major cities and this one doesn’t qualify. I’ll have to post this later.

My old bike takes a ride on the train.

I’m going to Fanø because Jakob’s class is on a field trip that will take it biking on the island tomorrow. That’s Jakob, his Danish teacher, his math teacher and 23 more kids of about 10. No other chaperons. That’s completely normal in Denmark, but the teacher none-the-less broke out in a huge smile when I said I could meet them and bike along.

It also gives me a chance to go off and be – ah – alone for a bit.


Posted: June 5, 2011 in Uncategorized

Much of London is old (some of it very old) and quite dirty. Chunks of it are rather dilapidated. It’s also exceptionally charming, I think. Even as seen from the railroad tracks, which is usually not a city’s most advantageous angle.

Arriving in London, I was all proud that I could navigate the train and underground and the indispensable “London A to Z” map book, getting Erik and myself from the airport to the British Museum. The fact is, it’s a pretty logical system in all its hugeness. You don’t need to be a genius to figure it out, and I already had some experience in the field since I lived in London for about a year once. It’s been a while (Erik was one), but I’m not sure anything has changed.

The British Museum is a fabulous place even if you’re not a sucker for history. It’s free and inviting, and they didn’t even check our bags. You walk through a gallery with amazing ancient statues before you get to an information desk. It made me feel like the place belonged to us.

We spent the afternoon on the Romans, mostly, and left to meet a wonderful old friend at one of London’s train stations as he got off work. Well, really he’s comparatively young, but he’s been a friend since Brian and I lived in Germany at the beginning of time. We were invited to stay with him and his family. – No better place to stay than with friends, and no better friends to stay with than Gordon and Anne and their daughters.

One of the things I love about London: In the foreground, the Tower of London (circa 11th century). In the background, the City Hall (circa 21st). Living in the present, embracing the past.

Saturday we spent the afternoon at the Tower of London, and Sunday we made it to the Imperial War Museum before we headed back to the airport and off to Denmark. I started missing the city before we’d even left.

On a footbridge across the Thames.

Getting to London

Posted: May 26, 2011 in Uncategorized

Erik started talking about going to London when he was learning about ancient Egypt in school a couple of years ago and heard that the British Museum has a fantastic collection of artifacts. Last Christmas, he got a trip to go see it as a present from my parents. He and I went over the weekend, which was long thanks to a unique Danish holiday. Called “Great Prayer Day”, it’s a sort of cumulative holiday from back when people took their religion seriously – or used it as an excuse to be lazy – and the king got tired of all the productivity lost to minor religious holidays and summarily lumped them all into one.

We flew out Friday morning from Billund Airport, which is conveniently located only a good half hour by car from where we’re living but is somehow missing a decent connection via public transportation, creating the much less convenient need to borrow a car or beg a ride. Erik worked on his homework while we were waiting at the gate.

Typical for public spaces in Denmark, the chairs at the gate are high-end design pieces that cost a small fortune.

This was our first experience flying Ryanair, and it was a different experience all together. I’ve never before flown with an airline that closes the gate a half hour prior to departure as a rule, requires you to check in on-line (or pay a fee), and has a strict one carry-on item policy (i.e. your PC, your purse, your book and all that have to be inside your one bag). The turn-around at the gate looked to be incredibly fast aided by the fact that the plane doesn’t have to get connected to the terminal – you just walk on the tarmac to enter and exit. For that, you get a relatively inexpensive flight.

The biggest culture chock, however, happened once we were in the air. The flight attendants turned out to be street vendors in disguise. They were constantly selling food, drinks, gift items, scratch cards, train tickets from the airport to London, tickets to tourist attractions… For credit card payments, they were using the little carbon paper booklets intended for old-fashioned, hand-operated imprinters, but they didn’t have the imprinters. They were transferring the information by rubbing with a pen. Weird, considering that everything else seemed so well geared to saving time and being efficient.

The next big surprise came when we landed. Since Erik isn’t a citizen of the European Union, he had to fill out a landing card and get interviewed by an immigration officer and all that. I’m used to the kids getting a stamp in their passport – and perhaps a chat about the weather – when we come to Europe.

When you fly to London on a discount airline, you don’t actually fly to London. We landed at London Stansted, which is so far out that putting “London” in the name is a bit misguiding. From the plane, we saw nothing but countryside. Getting to the center only took about 45 minutes on the Stansted Express, though.