Monthly Archives: July 2014

Libertarianism and body fright

Aversion to the naked body was not a problem for the Danish sculptor Thorvaldsen in the early 1800s - Mars and Amor, 1810. Photo: Lone, 2013

Aversion to the naked body was not a problem for the Danish sculptor Thorvaldsen in the early 1800s – Mars and Amor, 1810. Photo: Lone, 2013

The free spirit has been a trademark of the Danes for some time. Danes treasure their ‘frisind’ or their liberalism – even libertarianism – that lets each chose for themselves what suits them, without regard for convention or dusty norms from a bygone era. But this is probably a paradox of self deception, just as the Australian identity as pioneers in the bush, in a country where the vast majority of people live on the seaboard. The Danes are at once anti-authoritarian (protesting vigorously against the nanny state and laws that rule their lives) and authoritarian (have you ever waited, slightly wondering, at the red pedestrian light with Danes when there are no cars in sight?). They abhor big government, yet live in one of the most celebrated welfare states in the world.

At its most extreme the Danish ‘frisind’ (free spirit)  is credited with the legalisation of porn and abortion by choice because sex was freed from its bourgeois chains – gender and sexuality were separated in the name of equality (note I consider porn a particular nasty from of oppression of women, so very potently expressed by Oscar Wilde: Everything in the world is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power). In the everyday, this ‘frisind’ manifests in ways that are much less outrageous and much more mundane than that. Little children play naked on the beach and under the sprinkler in the garden. Sunseeking Danes fill Copenhagen’s parks as soon as the sun’s rays warm up the place. You know they are Danes for the girls lie topless to avoid bikini lines (though note the code: you don’t see topless women walk around in the city. Topless is for lying down, sunbaking, not for interaction; and they are not to be looked at, so hide your eyes or risk social outcasting as a pervert).

In 1990, when I first arrived in Australia, I took up swimming at the University pool. In the change room, young women struggled holding their towels around them to undress and put on their bathing suits in complete modesty (looking a tad like Mr Bean at the beach), while I freely stripped naked in front of them. It took me a little while to notice this different attitude to the body – that my culture was different. I first thought it might have something to do with British prudishness á la Mr Bean, but it seemed much more widespread across the Australian cultures. From my Danish childhood visits to the public pool, I was used to communal change rooms and showers with a guard in a white smock and clogs, making sure everyone – young and old – showered naked, cleaned armpits, groin and feet with soapy sponges and rinsed thoroughly before putting back on the swimsuits and going out into the pools, through the hyperchlorinated footbath. While this was for hygiene reasons, it also meant there was no room for modesty or being shy about one’s body – we were all the same when we went swimming in the public pools and it was normal to be naked in front of other people of the same sex.

Similarly, following our regular sport and gymnastics lessons at school, the teacher would make sure we stripped off our sports gear and showered before redressing in our normal clothes. I think this practice must have reduced the smell that accompanies so many school children here in Queensland where showering after school sport is entirely unheard of.

A few days ago I recieved a lovely video message with my young Danish nephew doing a dance to Pink Panther music – stark naked. It was cute and I smiled. It saddens me that I had avoided taking photos or videos of my own – now adult – children in their birthday suit. In Australia, we have been scared off documenting our children in their most natural state so as to avoid being accused of child pornography or pedoephilia. Breast feeding my children in public was accompanied by awkwardness. People thought I was crazy – and rather revolting – exposing myself like that. The most natural thing a woman can do to sustain her offspring is to breast feed. There is nothing better for baby; it requires no equipment, no sterilisation, no chemicals or de- and rehydration processes – everything baby needs is there just as nature intended. But the same body fright I experienced in the change room somehow makes this natural act become perverse. Showing any nakedness is somehow shameful.

Beautiful AND Indecent? 'Amor og Psyche' by Thorvaldsen,. Photo: Lone.

Beautiful AND Indecent? ‘Amor og Psyche’ by Thorvaldsen,. Photo: Lone.

I recall my puzzlement when our New Zealand friend from London who visited us every xmas in my childhood would ask if I was ‘decent’ before entering. I associated decency with good – and therefore lack of it with bad. Whether I was naked or not was somehow a question of bad or good in his culture.

I read that the Danish liberal attitude to the body may be changing – with children actively avoiding showering together and young people covering up more. An annual debate rages about whether it is ok to sunbake topless in one of the graveyards in the centre of Copenhagen, which is also one of the popular green spaces of the city. I don’t really have a view on that one, but I do think our Australian cultures would do well to take a more relaxed attitude to the outfit we were born in – and embrace nakedness as natural, not something to be avoided at all cost.  Perhaps then we could have people familiar with, not ashamed of, their body? Perhaps we could avoid the rape excuse that ‘the way she dressed, she asked for it’? Perhaps we could get a more realistic attitude to body shape – how do we know what a normal body is when we never see one?

Waterfalls, whales, wedgetailed eagles……. and bad food

Whales frolicking in Moreton Bay. Photo: Mick 2014

Whales frolicking in Moreton Bay. Photo: Mick 2014

This week has been full of impressive experiences in South East Queensland. My brother and his family from Denmark visited, in conjunction with celebrating his 50th birthday.

Our home in Brisbane is neighbour to breath-taking natural environments with exquisite opportunities to experience unique flora and fauna. South East Queensland lets you get close to authentic nature in ways Danes are unused to: in Denmark very little land is left uncultivated.

Moran's Waterfall, Lamington National Park. Photo: Mick, 2014

Moran’s Waterfall, Lamington National Park. Photo: Mick, 2014

During the week, we’ve lived high up in the thin mountain air of Lamington National Park at O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat, where we spotted birds and wallabies on bush tracks, had colourful parrots vying for our outstretched food bowls at the bird feeding station, enjoyed breathtaking sunsets, interacted with birds of prey from the humble, yet clever magpie, Jackie, to the large and ferocious wedge tailed eagle, Stella, who spread her wings over the valley, but then had to walk back up through the bush because the wind direction was wrong. We’ve also been out on a catamaran in Moreton Bay where we were treated to a playful show of humpback whales on their migration up north, including a young male jumping right out of the sea and spinning around his large body. We walked on the beach of Moreton Island, fed dolphins at Tangalooma and marvelled at the sunset over the mainland. Finally, we’ve been up the Sunshine Coast to the home of the late Croc Hunter, where we scratched lazy kangaroos between the ears, padded koalas and marvelled at crocodiles at Australia Zoo.

We are all full of great impressions – with a little help from Mountain Villa luxury, rangers and zoo keepers, nature has generously given us experiences that remind us that life is bigger than our small concerns and insignificant lives.

While these experiences have been fantastic and will stay with us for a long time, from the tourist’s point of view they have not be excellent. Consistently, what let them down were the very people who try to make a buck out of the riches of nature because they fail to provide a whole experience at consistent quality. And most of this could be fixed easily: providing better customer-centred service and food experiences that match the experiences nature offers.

Feeding the wild birds seems to be easier than feeding the humans. Photo: Mick, 2014

Feeding the wild birds seems to be easier than feeding the humans. Photo: Mick, 2014

For my brother’s birthday we wanted a special meal, so we went to book a table at the only restaurant at O’Reilly’s. That was not possible. But the manager would tell the kitchen that a party of nine would arrive at around 6.30. So we did, yet they were out of tables and had a couple of parties waiting already. We were directed to the bar, where we would be called down when a suitable table became available. Once we were seated, next was the menu. The ranger conducting bird of prey show had lectured on the consequences of eating beef and lamb, and promoted the idea of consuming kangaroo and other meats that can be harvested sustainably and preserve habitat for birds of prey. But there was no kangaroo on the menu – no option for sustainable eating at the restaurant. We placed our order and were treated to abject confusion over the drinks order, with two reminders required before the beer was served. The whole chicken stuffed with chicken farce turned out to be a very small cylinder-shaped chicken piece – and a bit of a farce – and the grilled salmon was rather cold and quite raw. The tandoori pizza turned out to be pizza bread with curry on top and the beef and salami pizza was rather dissappointingly without any vegetable matter at all. It was not cheaply priced and we expected better. And when we went to pay, the manager forgot to press some button so that the attempted eftpos transaction was nearly 500 000 dollars!

On the day we went whale watching we were stuck at Tangalooma for a while before the dolphin feeding at six pm, after which the catamaran would take us back to the mainland where we would arrive after eight too late to go to dinner. So we had to eat before dolphin feeding. However, the only food place open was a canteen with an uninspired menu of pies and sausage rolls, uncomfortably close to a noisy construction site. The proper restaurants opened too late to let us eat there. The cafe did open 1 1/2 hours before dolphin feeding time, but its menu was limiting. When the beeper told us we could pick up our dinner, the bredcrumbed fish was either cooked twice or baked for too long, its breadcrumbed skin extremely hard.

At Australia Zoo the ‘Feeding Frenzy’ area consisted of long queues before various types of fast food outlets. Not seeing anything we felt like eating for lunch, we lunched on muffins and coffee This was disappointing. One might be naive to expect a zoo to deliver a proper dining option, but it would certainly enhance the overall experience.

Would it be too difficult to provide a range of food choices that respond to a range of tastes and deliver a whole experience that is positive from one end to another? In spite having world class natural experiences to offer, all three experiences were tainted by the poor service and consideration of visitors’ whole experiences.

Emperor’s new clothes

Photo: Jim Lamberson, 2008, Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Jim Lamberson, 2008, Wikimedia Commons

This week I saw a live ballet for the first time. An arts experience for me yet to connect with, I had anticipated ballet for some time, wondering what made some people speak fondly, and others snivelling, about the artform. From my provincial, tomboy beginnings, I was not one of those girls in a tutu, dreaming to be the next ballarina. As a child, I used to quite enjoy snippets the xmas televising of the Royal Danish Ballet’s Nut Cracker – but that was in the 70s and 80s when daytime tv in Denmark was at a premium (so an attraction in and of itself), yet during the xmas break where time was filled with family visitors, food and goodies, card games and board games. So snippets at best.

My first live ballet was a well-known story, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, a story I have engaged with – and enjoyed – in many different iterations over the years, in writing, on the screen and on stage (though it does not feature in the Danish high school curriculum).

As I sat in front of the draped stage in the deep seats, subdued conversation all around me, I enjoyed the curtain’s artwork; ochre and blue colours in the image of hills with two fortresses, complete with ramparts and spears, signalling a different time with different ways of expressing the deep and enduring distinction between ‘them’ and ‘us’. The art was a kind of naive art style that indicated playfulness. I waited in anticipation as the lights dimmed and curtain was raised (to an unseemly clunk!) to uncover an imagined 16th century Italian town square.

Ballet is a form without words. The performance is full of graceful movement and colour to well-performed classical music; I could see that attention and inventfulness had gone into the set and costumes, full of velvety reds and brown hues. And, actually, I felt some envy of those shoes the female dancers wore. The dancers are exceptionally fit, young people, able to use their bodies with grace and precision. The girls paper thin and tiny, fluttering across the stage like butterflies in their flowing costumes; the boys bulky in all the right places and with tights that sit right up the backside, so when the tights are flesh coloured it looks like the emperor’s new clothes.

And I felt a little bit like all the adults in Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale watching the emperor walking proud, but stark naked, under his marquis through his marvelling subjects. I felt like all of those adults, who saw nothing but naked skin, but dared not say anything because, they had been tricked into thinking they would expose themselves as stupid if they did: that the emperor’s new clothes was so fine and magical that only clever people could see them.

Unlike the fairy tale, no innocent little child spoke up. Around me was excited clapping in all the right places. The reviews proclaimed this the best performance ever by the company. And that may very well be so. But it still did not speak to me. I did not connect. I was not enraptured, not transformed. Even the playfulness promised by the naive art on the curtain only shone through in awkward in-jokes on the stage, delivered unmistakably in mime.

I respect that other people are fond of ballet – including a large number of little girls with ballarina dreams – but I hope you will forgive me for not understanding why. Some might suggest I lack culture, to which I say that I have plenty of culture, just not of that type.

I don’t think I have the patience to learn the language of ballet to ever appreciate it: there is so much else happening on stage which is more enjoyable and challenges my thinking in new ways. Perhaps this emperor’s new clothes is so magical that it is visible only to some, of particular social status and education, leaving the rest of us forever wondering what this European heritage art form is all about.