Category Archives: Memory

Reflections on the gap

Mind the gap. Photo: Lone. 2015.

Mind the gap. Photo: Lone. 2015.

Normally, the gap year is reserved for the young, fresh out of high school, ready to conquer the world. But like youth, the gap year really is wasted on the young.

For starters, at that age you have very limited means. This means you have to work a shitty job in a shitty café – or worse – to fund your fun year out. At 48, I have accumulated a certain amount of wealth from many years of working really hard and living quite frugally, as well as an amount of long service leave I could use sensibly for the purpose. I compare this with the time when I as a 16 year old also took a gap year to attend an English language course at Cardiff University for three months. I really had very limited means and no steady income. I am sure Cardiff would have been much more fun with dosh.

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Fire, evil and tradition

Enough to scare the witches on their broomsticks. Photo: Mick. 2015.

Enough to scare the witches on their broomsticks. Photo: Mick. 2015.

When politicians talk about preservation of Danishness, I often wonder exactly what they mean. Perhaps Danishness is most clearly expressed through the traditional celebrations. The Danes do love a good celebration. At one point the calendar had so many holy days to celebrate that a whole host of them had to be combined into just one holiday, Store Bededag or Great Prayers Day. Far from all Danish celebrations are of the religious kind. Many, including those appropriated by Christendom, have their genesis in pre-Christian traditions and beliefs.

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Joy and pursuit of unhappiness

Six grey cygnets are out. One egg remains. Swans at the Lakes in Copenhagen. Photo: Lone. 2015.

Six grey cygnets are out. One egg remains. Swans at the Lakes in Copenhagen. Photo: Lone. 2015.

The bird life on the Lakes in Copenhagen is surprisingly plentiful and diverse. Each time we walk around the lakes we notice new nests or – even better – new tiny baby birds in the coot’s nest, striped young ones on the back of great crested grebe or ducklings paddling with their mallard parents. If the weather is good, we stop to watch their funny antics and take photos. Today, mother swan was busy with six little grey cygnets, fussing to add feathers and other warm materials to the remaining grey-green egg. With spring comes new life, fresh and full of opportunities. It gives me moments of unbridled joy, following this happy addition to the abundant bird life in the middle of Copenhagen.

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‘Hygge’ and December

Candle light is ubiquitous in Denmark at xmas. Photo: Lone. 2014.

Candle light is ubiquitous in Denmark at xmas, in window sills and on the tree. Photo: Lone. 2014.

I love December. It heralds time with family and ‘hygge’. ‘Hygge’ is that Danish concept that escapes English translation: ‘cosiness’ simply does not capture the feeling of warmth, friendship and good conversation associated with the Danish concept. From old Norse, its etymology denotes comfort and encouragement (as in comforting and encouraging someone). In my mind, ‘hygge’ conjures up images of candlelight against dark windows, a big pot of tea and rustic ceramic mugs, held tightly to warm the hands, while sitting with a friend in a deep soft couch, the legs drawn up under us, absorbed in gossip and secrets with laughter ringing. “Oh is that the time? I better go. It has been so ‘hyggeligt’!”

But hygge can also be outdoors, during long light summer nights, gathered with friends on a patio, the grill cold again after the slightly burned sausages and steaks have come off – dirty dishes still in front of us and plentiful red wine in our goblets. And the lark singing as the sun refuses to be completely overwhelmed by the night and the children have fallen asleep on the couch in front of the tv inside. “Thank you for the other night. We really enjoyed it. It was so ‘hyggeligt'”

The ‘hygge’ I associate with December is both indoors and out. The outdoor markets in Tivoli, plentiful with food stalls and merchendise, snow and darkness by 4 o’clock. Long walks in newly fallen snow and coming back inside with red cheeks and that fresh feeling in the entire body.

Making marzipan confectionary is part of 'hyggen'. Photo: Mick. 2014.

Making marzipan confectionary is part of ‘hyggen’. Photo: Mick. 2014.

But best are the indoor pursuits leading up to the evening of 24 December. Here in my brother’s house we have been drinking a lot of tea and coffee, while sitting around the long dining table making confectionary. With marzipan, nuts, melted chocolate and hazelnut nougat, hands sticky with the sweet almond mass, yet some amazing and delicious creations achieved. And with bellies full of nuts, figs and marzipan, we made decorations. The woven hearts and 3D stars are particular favourites, though both can be challenging for the smaller children, who prefer to just cut shapes and glue them together. With plenty of glue.

‘Lille juleaften’ – the 23 December – the old box with decorations was retrieved and its contents combined with newly made ones on the recently erected fir tree. Plus the live candles. Candles on a tree may seem foolish to firefighters, Australians with plastic trees and anyone else who fear a fast xmas fire. But here it is unthinkable not to have live candles everywhere, including on the tree. They add so much to ‘hyggen’ on ‘juleaften’ on 24 December.

The xmas tree comes in on 23 December, 'Lillejuleaften' and is decorated with home-made hearts and stars. The live candles may seem foolhardy, but there are very few serious xmas fires in spite of them. Photo: Lone. 2014

The xmas tree comes in on 23 December, ‘Lillejuleaften’ and is decorated with home-made hearts and stars. Photo: Lone. 2014

When I grew up, we almost always held ‘juleaften’ in my father’s childhood home, often with another clan of cousins. Our ritual was of piling presents and children into the station wagon in the afternoon, my father driving carefully on 20 kms of small, slippery roads to be welcomed by my grandmother – Farmor – at the farm. She had been busy in the kitchen with the feast to be devoured – roast pork, caramelised potatoes, red cabbage and ris-á-la-mande – before the tree would be lit.

After the feast my grandfather – Farfar – ushered everyone into the kitchen, while he and a chosen child lit all the candles on the tree, complete with hearts, angels, stars and fairy hair, glittering up and down the tree. When he finally opened the low kitchen door and let us into the living room, all of the electical lights were off and the tree lit up the room in warm golden light. We would link hands and walk – dance – around the tree, singing the familiar songs, with Farmor sitting in a seat with a small songbook to lead the singing, with her high voice which gradually degraded over the years. After the last loud and fast song that we knew all the words to, even my English speaking cousins – ‘Nu er det jul igen’ – the lights would come back on and the gift orgie commenced with its soundtrack of ripping paper and excited screams. Then, exhausted from the anxious wait and the adrenalin rush from singing and dancing and opening presents, we would pile back into the car, now with the presents in an unopened state and distributed to the right child, to drive back home through the dark night. It was nothing, if not ‘hyggeligt’.

In my childhood we often went to my father's childhood home for xmas. Plenty of children and presents - and of course the tree with plenty of live candles. Photo: Andreas. 2014.

In my childhood we often went to my father’s childhood home for xmas. Plenty of children and presents – and of course the tree with plenty of live candles. Photo: Andreas. 2014.

‘Juleaften’ on 24 December is the night of celebration in Denmark rather than xmas day. The following holidays are just that: days off with family and doing things together. ‘Hyggelige’ things, always involving too much food.

I love being with my Danish family during these days. And I love being in Denmark, where Christmas makes sense in ways that Australian marketeers could only dream of, what with their fake snow on shop windows, polar bears and warmly dressed Santa Claus, all in 30 degrees of humid, sweltering antipodian heat. The holiday season is still ‘hyggelig’ in Australia – and with my Australian family we have created our own traditions and rituals to make it so. Yet to me real xmas is what I recall from my childhood memories in cold wintery Denmark. Thank you to my family for making it happen this year.

Stuff and memory

Stuff can remind us of things we would not otherwise remember. Photo: Lone 2013.

Stuff can remind us of things we would not otherwise remember. Photo: Lone 2013.

There is only so much you can fit into the luggage limit of airline carriers. When you are packing your bags for a year-long sabbatical in Denmark you have to make harsh choices. Luckily we’ve secured a furnished apartment just outside the lakes in Copenhagen. This does reduce the amount of stuff we need to bring or acquire.

For years we have been trying to get rid of stuff – to declutter our lives. Somehow stuff just seems to accumulate and fill every surface, like dust whirling up in the swoosh of movement or encouraged by south easterly winds – and settling in the corners and on the skirtingboards until it is disturbed again.

I find that I hang on to stuff because it has a meaning for me. It may be a present given to me by someone I love. It may be something someone was made especially for me. Or it may be something useful one of us bought. The best stuff is stuff that is designed well and used often. These are the objects that last and also bring lasting memories.

Farmor in the house in Solbakken. Photo: Lars 2014.

Farmor in the house in Solbakken. Photo: Lars 2014.

Each time I sit in one of the Børge Mogensen Spanish Chairs I am thankful that these beautiful chairs ended up in our house in Brisbane. My parents bought these chairs in the 1970s when we moved to Gjellerup. They sat in the tiled lounge room in the middle of the brand new house, together with the clunky, soft and deep modular couch. Like a casual prop in photos of my grandmother comfortably sitting at a family party. When we moved to the next house in Gjellerup on top of the hill, the chairs were incorporated into the combined kitchen and tv room – much more frequently used, but less elegant because they could not sit side by side in the space. Finally in my father’s last house in Herning they sat in the corner of the swimming pool room together with the buffalo leather couches, inviting one to perch a cup of coffee on the wide arm rests and pick up a book from the overflowing coffee table while listening to music blaring from the Bang&Olufsen sound system installed to fill the large room.

This corner has stuff to remember by. Photo: Lone 2014.

This corner has stuff to remember by. Photo: Lone 2014.

Now, in the early hours of the morning, the chairs let me catch the weak rays of morning sun before they gain power and blaze onto the solar panels on the roof. The chairs sit with the cedar coffee table that Mick created from the beams left-over when we built the house on the hill in Bunya in the early 2000s. Inspired by a large, rustic coffee table from my childhood home, it is a robust table that is both functional and beautiful. On the other side of the table is one of the green Natussi leather couches we bought, one at a time, as a present from my parents when our boys were born. Those couches have been tough enough for babies, toddlers and teenagers, finally giving in to the direct sunlight on the deck, causing the leather to crack.

Over the table hangs a PH lamp – the classic lamp that was a wedding present from my parents’ business partners. It was second hand then, surplus to requirements, when they decorated the ground floor flat of the home that also housed the publishing business and my family. On the table sits a small dish that Mick wove out of tie wire during his first year of the fine arts degree. It accumulates stuff: ear phones, coins, a card. On the wall hangs Mick’s Takemine guitar, so often picked up by our younger son to strum a few chords or pick a few Spanish notes. It hangs next to a painting by artist Joanna Underhill, ‘Cellular Intelligence’. Following a bout of cancer, she studied cancer cells during a residence at the Brain Institute. The result is a series of work that explores the structure of cells which provides inspiration for quite intricate imagery and colour.

I fondly remember the story behind this work when I look at the green and pink scratches on the first board. Photo: Lone 2014.

I fondly remember the story behind this work when I look at the green and pink scratches on the first board. Photo: Lone 2014.

On the other side hangs a piece my older son did in Year 12 Visual Art, ‘Waiting for skating’. Three skate boards form the canvas and three faces in various states of patience adorn them. Clearly, my son is not particularly patient. One day he screwed the wheels back on to one of the boards: he wanted to skate. When I realised, I promptly bought him a fresh board and the piece was restored to the wall. He promised to touch up the scratched board. However, in the intervening period I have grown quite fond of the authenticity of the green and pink paint that shines through and the edges that are worn down to the timber core of the board. Besides, it is a good story.

None of this stuff will fit in my suitcase. And this is part of the point. These objects are integral to the life world I have created in Brisbane with my family. This life is part of me, but only one part. With the chairs and the lamp – and many other objects – I have integrated my Danishness into my Australianness in physical manifestations. I have invented a self that combines my experiences, language and memories. One reason for going back is to refresh and reconnect with the Danish part. Together we will find new inspiration and create new memories for the next period of our lives, which integrates more of my Danish heritage.

My self is indivisible and when we are away, there will no doubt be things that I miss from this sunny part of the world. Stuff that I have grown used to.

Time, language and war

200 years ago, in 1864 Danish soldiers fought and lost a bloody war at Dannevirke - Denmark commemorates with a new drama series, 1864. Photo: Mick 2007.

200 years ago, in 1864 Danish soldiers fought and lost a bloody war at Dannevirke – Denmark commemorates with a new drama series, 1864. Photo: Mick 2007.

Reckoning of time is an arbitrary thing. The way we have arranged the days and months follows roughly the seasons, though the messiness of the natural world require us to make adjustments like leap years and daylight saving. Despite the word’s relationship with ‘moon’, the month never aligns with the lunar cycle and one can never rely on the length of the month. We count the years from the purported birth of a little boy in Bethlehem. Yet, what is a year in the timescale of the human species, the planet earth, the universe? Completely insignificant.

Imperfect as our reckoning of time is, we use time as markers to celebrate or commemorate events of the past. This year, 2014, has seen some important ones come around.

Thanks to the early Icelandic tradition of recording and writing down stories, the first edition of Saxo’s Chronicles of Denmark, Gesta Danorum, was first published in Paris 500 years ago in 1514. This amazing work covers Danish history from the ‘beginning of time’ with the mythological king Dan and his brother Angel to Saxo’s contemporary times when the Danes defeated the Wends of the Baltic in 1185. Written in the 12th century, Saxo’s manuscript showed great command of language and linguistics and hence he was given the name Grammaticus for the publication. While he probably had access to other historical sources, like the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, the first many chapters cover the kings of Viking folklore rather than historic fact.

Though written in the 12th century, Saxo's Danmarks Krønike was published in 1514, 500 years ago. Photo: Mick 2014

Though written in the 12th century, Saxo’s Danmarks Krønike was published in 1514, 500 years ago. Photo: Mick 2014

Earlier this year I followed Michael Hirst’s historical drama, Vikings about Ragner Lodbrok. My son and I had already studied Saxo’s writings about Lodbrok when he did an assignment on the Viking king in grade 4 and was keen to go to Europe to study Medieval history when he finished school. Vikings is amazingly good drama, though Hirst probably exercised as much artistic licence as Saxo.

Fast forward three hundred years and 1814 was the year when Denmark ceded Norway. Since 1397 Norway, Sweden and Denmark had been in a union, the Kalmar Union. While Sweden and Norway remained separate countries, they were ruled by a single monarch, Queen Margrethe I of Denmark. In the 1520s, the Swedes got so jack of King Christian II – the tyrant king – that rebellion resulted in the Stockholm Bloodbath and the Swedes elected their own king, King Gustav of the Vasa. In 1536 the Danish Privy Council declared Norway a province of Denmark – an aggressive move indeed, which meant Greenland, Iceland and Faroe Islands came under Danish control, rather than Norwegian. In 1814, the Treaty of Keil forced Denmark to cede Norway to Sweden, but the Norwegians never accepted Sweden as their ruler and approved its own constitution and its own king, Christian Frederik, 200 years ago this year.

Wanting to shake off the shackles of the Danes, Norway set to change the official language from Danish to the two forms of Norwegian that are the official languages today. In a parallel across the world, 1814 marked the first time when missionaries in New Zealand tried to document the indigenous Māori language. Today New Zealand has two official languages: English and Māori. Language is indeed power.

The bold decisions about imposing Danish language on Germans in Holstein led to the bloody war of 1864, 150 years ago. Photo: Lone 2013.

The bold decisions about imposing Danish language on Germans in Holstein led to the bloody war of 1864, 150 years ago. Photo: Lone 2013.

The once mighty empire continued to shrink through the 19th century. 150 years ago in 1864, Denmark lost a war against Prussian soldiers – and the reason for the war was simplistically speaking: language. Emboldened by the victories against German sympathisers in the Duchies of Schleswig and Holstein in the Three Year War (1848-51), a nationalistic government not only formalised the inclusion of Schleswig into the Kingdom of Denmark, but also imposed Danish as the official language across the kingdom. This was as a provocation gladly accepted by the Prussian emporor and Bismarch and an uneven and swift war was fought at Dybbøl Mølle – which Denmark lost, together with the Duchies. The Danish-German border was drawn at Kongeåen and it was not until the referendum after World War II that northern Schleswig became part of Denmark again and the current border was established.

Perhaps the memory of this devastating war of 1864 was what caused Denmark to stay well out of the Great War, which has its centenary this year. World War I was the war to end all wars. Its comnemoration is a big deal in Australia. Only recently independent from the Mother Country following the 1901 Australian Constitution, Europe was still the centre of the universe and young Australians joined up in droves to serve alongside with the British against the Germans and the Turks. Australian slang for soldiers are diggers – thanks to the endless harrowing experience in the trenches. We remember up to 62,000 Australians who died in a senseless war that killed 16 million people.

Even if time is arbitrarily reckoned and a lifetime is insignificant in the history of the world, the markers we create to remember are important to our self-perception and identity. Danes proudly espouse their viking roots, verifiable in early literature, and perhaps our fallen soldiers are having a great time in Valhalla. Australians identify with the larrakin diggers who bravely fought hard in someone elses war – and remember those that the years will not weary. We count the years so that we remember and make meaning of it all.