Category Archives: Expat Parenting

Nobody is taught language.

The perils of raising a bi-lingual child (when you are not)

Your child will engage adults in conversations you are not capable of following.
This is especially fun when the adults then turn to you and you just have to leave them hanging, or mumble something you hope makes sense, but judging from their reactions usually doesn’t. But don’t worry…

Your child will explain things
They will learn to carry on the conversation by explaining ‘my Mum doesn’t speak good Danish’. They will also occasionally pass on this factoid to other children at their daycare. As for the woman who said hi to them in the supermarket, why not tell her too? How about that guy who just happens to be sitting in the bus stop at the same time as you, it’s probably good information to pass on to him.

Auto-correction is always at hand
No need to go look at phonetics in a dictionary. Your three year old will be ready and willing to correct your pronunciation at any time.

Don’t forget they are only three
But don’t take their word for it. This can lead to embarrassing errors. After mixing up fro and frø, my son told us he had eaten bread with frogs in it. Seeds, he meant seeds.

Reading is a great way to learn
Reading together will boost both your vocabularies. It is great bonding and snuggling time. Just don’t forget the auto-correcting. Reading will suddenly turn stressful as you are unable to produce the desired level of fluency.
‘Kan du finde kurven?’
‘No. Kurven.’
‘Kurven.’
‘No. K-Uurven.’
‘Whatever.’

Enjoy children’s TV together
There is no better boost to your ego than being able to follow the plot of Postman Pat/Per. You can almost convince yourself you have the language skills of a three year old. As long as you are only listening and not trying to join in the conversation that is. And if you get a bit lost by the intricacies of why exactly he misdelivered the post (again), and why he is still considered a local hero just for sorting out the mess he started, don’t worry. I’m sure if you watch it often enough you’ll understand the complexities of Greendale society eventually.

Worry about children’s TV
But beware, if you leave the TV on for something you don’t know well, you may find yourself sitting there wondering if this show really is age appropriate? It can be hard to tell sometimes. If this happens, don’t panic, just switch it off abruptly, and deal with the following tantrum in a calm and respectful manner.

Sometimes you will have to explain things to them
They won’t understand everything, so they may still call on you for help. Leaving you with the conundrum of whether or not to translate ‘lort’ so they can keep up with the other pre-schoolers. Hint: it involves bodily, uh, excretion.

Pass the buck
When your child calls names at daycare, be sure to disapprove. But secretly console yourself that they definitely only learnt that word in one place. And it wasn’t at home!

Dance. Dance. Dancing your sorrows away.

Last weekend two really magical things happened.

On Friday night A slept from 9ish to 6am. That’s like all night! Not only was that her longest sleep by a reasonably long shot, it coincided with her brother’s best night’s sleep in a long time. It is amazing how different the world seems when you have some sleep in your system.

Saturday was kinda drizzly, but we got some chores done, and I made pizza for tea. We fed the kids first and put them to bed. We do usually eat as a family, but it is nice, every now and again, to have some time that is just my husband and me. We drank wine and watched TV and it was lovely. It ended up being a late meal, and a late night. Of course the kids didn’t repeat the sleep of the night before. But two nights sleep in a row would just be greedy, wouldn’t it? (Would it?)

But that wasn’t the second magical thing. The second magical thing was we took my son to his first concert, featuring his favourite TV host, Rosa, from the Danish children’s channel Ramasjang. Rosa hosts a show about baking cakes; M Loves it. So we thought it would be special for him to see her show.  Also M is quite obsessed with asking if things are real or not. So seeing his hero Rosa in real life, for real, on a real stage, singing real songs, was quite exciting. Really.
DSC01149
We approached it with a small amount of trepidation. M is quite sensitive (for lack of a better word) and doesn’t always cope well with large crowds and loud noises. But the thrill of the occasion was enough to compensate. Sure he spent some of the show with hands over his ears. Sure he was only brave enough to get off my lap towards the end. But I don’t think that mattered to him.

This is what mattered to him: M and I watched the show together – just the two of us. My husband sat far off down the back with A, who ended up falling asleep. And just like parents need time to ourselves, it was a reminder he needs time with just me as well. Lately we’ve spent a lot of time together, while he has been too sick for børnehaven, but always with his sister present. It was good for him, and good for me, to be able to devote my attention to him. To have me to himself. And Rosa. And cuski, his cuddly, because it was a cuddly animal themed concert. And cuski is not really an animal, but cuski is very loved and an integral part of our family. He sits with us at breakfast, so there was never any question of ‘who’ would go with us.

As we waited, my son giggling and bouncing with anticipation, a teddy polar bear wandered through the crowd. The band arrived on stage, but where was Rosa? To pass time they invited the bear up to dance. Then, the mask came off – the bear was Rosa! A gag as old as time. My son’s genuine surprise and delight was magical to watch.

There are no cliches in childhood. They haven’t learnt them yet.

And that is one of the joys of being a parent. Seeing everything through their unjaded eyes.
DSC01114
It has been hard lately. When it is hard, it is easy to question yourself. To wonder if you are doing the best for your children. The world is full of articles about the perils of modern childhood inflicted by inadequate/over-bearing/distracted/lazy/busy parents. Sometimes you just have to tune out the world, and look at what is in front of you.

And so for forty-five minutes, while the sun shone in Aarhus and we could believe it was summer, while the band played and the teddy bears danced, while Rosa sang and we waved our hands and sang along to tunes we didn’t know, in a language I don’t actually speak, while all the sleepless nights and battles and stress faded away, while we laughed and listened, we found it.

The magic of childhood.

We’re going where the sea is blue

It has been a stressful time recently, so we decided what could be more relaxing than a holiday with kids? We decided to take advantage of a long weekend and traveled to Ebeltoft for a night. For the most part it was fabulous. Fabulous. But it was also testing and tiring.
DSC00945.JPG
We don’t have a car, so travelled by bus from Aarhus. On the way there it worked perfectly. But on the way home, tired after new exciting experiences, M decided to be – difficult. I’ll take some responsibility; we did briefly lose track of time, and then we realised we needed to rush to make the bus home. They are only hourly, and waiting for the next one was getting too late. Have you ever tried to rush our son? After working hard to keep the holiday calm and relaxing it suddenly turned into GET YOUR CLOTHES ON! GET YOUR SHOES ON! While he yelled NO! NO! And then we really only had 15min until the bus, with a 10min walk to the bus stop. So I said WE JUST HAVE TO GO EVEN THOUGH YOU DON’T HAVE SHOES ON!!

He went from uncooperative to hysterical. It was awful. I realised that he hadn’t seen me shove his shoes under the pram, and so thought I meant we would leave his shoes behind. Hysterical, but also cooperative. Shoes on, M dumped down on the buggy board, and I raced off; my husband grabbed the bags and locked the door. We made it. But my son spent almost the entire walk crying. It was not the end to our holiday we had hoped for.

* * *

Nobody has asked why I chose the name I did for this blog. Perhaps some vague assumptions about Scandinavian design, and innovation. The behemoth of furniture shopping that shall remain nameless. Of course that was on my mind. But it is also how I feel about this nomadic-expat lifestyle my husband and I have fallen into. This year will be our tenth wedding anniversary, and we have lived in four countries during those ten years. Not by design, or even strong desire. Life just kinda worked out that way.

Every time we move we have to dismantle our lives. Pack the boxes. Choose what to take, and what to sell. Say goodbye to friends and places and routines. And then arrive somewhere new. Reassemble our lives. Unpack the boxes. Fit our old belongings into a new house. Try to make new friends, find new places, make new routines.

And like flatpack furniture, things don’t always fit together the same as they did before. It is always a little different, the angles have shifted slightly.

The folk-wisdom of expats is something like this: the first year is either exciting or depressing. Then you know your way around, but you don’t really feel like you belong. Three years feels like maybe you could stay. Five years to feel like you really belong. We’ve never managed the five years.

We have gained a lot, and had such wonderful experiences with this life we’ve led. But I also know that every time we leave somewhere we lose something too. There is a part of me that will always call Wellington, Cambridge, Canberra ‘home’. And my childhood homes too – Lower Hutt, and Germany. Some parts of me will never be at home again.

If there is one thing I’ve learned it is that even when you know you are leaving eventually, you can’t live in a state of impermanence for long. You have to make yourself a home. Dig your heels in and build a new life. Make new friends, find new places, make new routines.

* * *

Ebeltoft is situated on the Djursland peninsula which juts out in to the Kattegat; the strait between Denmark and Sweden, that eventually opens out into the Baltic Sea.  The Kattegat – around here at least – can seem strangely calm to a New Zealander, who has grown up near coasts where winds blow straight from Antarctica. Ebeltoft was particularly idyllic. Nestled into a bay, the opening of which is tucked in under the peninsula, the seas were very calm. It would be spectacular in summer. We’ve had a couple of cold weeks, sleet and hail, wind and rain. They say in Denmark you always need to be prepared for any kind of weather. Well, we were not prepared for the amount of sunshine we got.
DSC01001
On that stunning Saturday afternoon we walked out to the end of the harbour pier, where in this peaceful place the cannons are still fired weekly. Ahead of us was blue sky and blue sea, green hills curving in to mark the entrance to the bay. Somewhere behind those hills, further down the coast lies our home, Aarhus.

Our home. Hjem. It feels like that to me. And certainly to my son.

I stood at the edge of the sea, feeling these northern winds blowing gently on my skin, the hush of a calm northern sea. The Dannebrog waving above us. And I knew, then, one day we will leave a piece of ourselves behind. One day we’ll ask our son to lose something much bigger, much more important than his shoes. Maybe a different child would take it easily, but we have to deal with the child we have; he is not going to find it easy.

We have a good life here. We are able to give him some wonderful experiences. But we also have to teach him how to uproot himself. This isn’t something that can be done in a rush. It is going to be hard to say goodbye to our life here. To start again, somewhere else. But wherever we end up, we’ll do it. Make new friends, find new places, make new routines.

I also know, we’ll carry a little piece of Denmark with us when we go.

der har jeg rod, derfra min verden går

Kære Aarhus,

It has been two years since we arrived. An unbelievable two years.

Making the decision to move here was difficult. Saying good-bye to my mother at the airport was heart-wrenching. I know a lot of people were surprised to see us move so far from home, but as my wise cousin said to me that was a decision that could only be made by those affected, and we didn’t have to justify it to anyone. Those words have given me more strength than I think she knew. I made my peace with my decision; though I won’t lie, there are moments of regrets. But I know my mother didn’t want her illness to hold us back. Like any mother really.

We stepped off the plane in Copenhagen, out into a taxi rank, tired, stressed, bewildered at the magnitude of what we were doing. Our son, M, then 18months old, produced two new words that first day, “windmill” and “cold”. Perhaps he understood what this country was about.
DSCN9029
It turned out that a free online course and the first season of Borgen were not great preparation for the reality of getting by amongst Danish speakers. I’ve come a long way since selvfølgelig seemed like the biggest tongue-twister out there. We went for a walk just after Christmas on a day with bitterly cold winds. My cheeks and lips were so numb I struggled to shape them into consonants. Perhaps this why Danish sounds the way it does. Though this would not explain why Norwegians speak so beautifully.

But the language barrier is not so great since virtually everyone speaks fantastic English. Even those that insist ‘only a little. Not very well’ before launching into complex sentences with multiple clauses and only making a mistake when they have to pronounce a ‘v’. Anti-waxers had me stumped for a while. But really Danes, you are very patient with our fumbling attempts to learn your language. At least you know nobody ever arrives on your shores with a high school level of Danish. So you welcome all these beginner level speakers.
image
Or do you? It seems, based on your recent elections, you are becoming less tolerant. I think the stress of being more welcoming than most of Europe has become too much. You shouldered a larger burden of migrants while other countries turned their backs. And it has been hard for Denmark. When for so many centuries nobody wanted to come here. To this ‘lille land’. So for centuries there has been only one way to be Danish. All us migrants are changing that, and some of you want that to stop. But I think that horse has already bolted. And perhaps the greatest threat is not people who don’t eat flæskesteg for Christmas, or people who don’t celebrate Christmas, but your growing intolerance.

And we do try to be less ‘udansk’. I realise now we made some grave errors in decorating our apartment. We hung our lights in an incorrect way. You are right, they are not very hygge. Our furniture is not minimalist enough. But I have a Kähler vase now, so I hope that counts for something. I confess that two years here has not taught me to understand all your ways. Like the obsession with the light wood floors. Tell me Denmark, how do you keep them clean? Especially in winter, when the streets are salted and gritted and you have a pre-schooler? Is it possible? Or do you all sweep multiple times a day too?

Often the locals ask me ‘why?’ Why did we move here? To this land of winter, rain and wind. I admit on paper they seemed quite daunting. But looking closer Aarhus, you have half the annual rainfall of my home town. And while your wind is cold, it is hardly ever gale force. To my surprise it is easier to take a pre-schooler out here, in a cold, dry snow than in a boggy soggy Wellington winters’ day. Sure the summer is hardly spectacular, my Australian friends would be very unimpressed. But I find much to admire in your fierce embrace of what summer you get, – sun bathing on your decks at the first rays of sunshine, regardless of temperature.
DSCN0657
I love the seasons. The silver frosted trees -winter blossom my son called it- replaced by tiny green buds. The clichéd red, orange and brown cascades of leaves in autumn. It is the variation of light that I have learnt to enjoy the most. The long, long summer days with nights where the sky never goes truly black, only a deep blue, a promise of sunshine only a few hours away. To the grim grey of winter. I am always amused to find myself staring at a patch of cloud, only to realise that, yes that is the sun hiding behind it. I never understood that the sun would stay so low on the horizon that even day would be so dim. Or that the cloud would be so thick that the temperature does not vary from midnight to midday. But shift slightly either side of that grey, you have whole days where if the sun makes it out from behind the clouds it casts that beautiful magic hour glow you usually only get just before sunset.
DSCN9546
You’ll never win any beauty contests Aarhus, but there are places, views I have learnt to love. The dinosaur sunrises down at your industrial harbour. The Rainbow perched above the city. Those particular shades of orange and mustard yellow stucco on old cottages. Our nature walks along the Brabrandstein. I’ve learnt where to go to get a great coffee, and a pastry. Where to buy decent fish. Where to pick blackberries.
image_3
These are perhaps the greatest achievements to me. That after two years I feel I have solved some of the great challenges of expat life. They are not just good coffee shops, but my favourite coffee shops. My favourite walks. My local shops. We have managed to turn the unfamiliar into the familiar.

I’ve written before about my wish to give my children turangawaewae. At times I have misgivings about our choices. I wonder if the costs have been too high. But today I think we have made roots here. We know our future here probably does not extend further than 2017, so they will never be deep. But this will always be the city my son spent his preschool years, the city my daughter was born in, the city I grieved my mother in. So I know I will look back and be able to say:

Aarhus, for a time at least, you were home.

K.H.

You’ll always be a kiwi if you love our Watties sauce

When my son was born we were pretty sure we would only live in Canberra another year or so. We used to joke about where we would move to. What accent should we pick? Should we stay in Australia? How about the UK: possible work opportunities in Leicester – bit Midlands: back to Cambridge – so he could pronounce ‘th’ as ‘f’? What aboot Canada?

It is actually a serious question for us. Where will our children belong? Where will they find turangawaewae?

Will it be Denmark? Hard to say, probably not. Not forever. And being an immigrant in Denmark is not the same thing as being an immigrant in NZ. Or the child of immigrants.

I know I’m not particularly qualified to write about that experience. But I’m also not entirely unqualified. I was born in NZ, but actually lived the first four years of my life in Germany. We can tell you about turning up in a school environment where the only thing children know about Germany is WWI and WWII. So I know NZ is not perfect. (This is an excellent article on life as a Chinese New Zealander)

It’s hard to deny though that it isn’t better at dealing with immigrants than many countries. The results of the last general election is proof of that. During my language classes I was the only person in the class surprised to learn that there is a specific term used for the child born in Denmark to immigrants, even if the immigrants have become Danish citizens. It seemed bizarre to me, that the country of birth of your parents can determine your place in society. I sat there, pregnant, and realised that even if we stay, in the eyes of Danes my children will never really belong. My daughter, born here, will always be called ‘efterkommer’. That, even stranger, my son’s children would be ‘efterkommer’. That only a child who was born in Denmark to a parent born in Denmark, can call themselves a Dane.

Sometimes I can feel that we spend so much time trying to assimilate to life here, trying to fit in, trying to just get by outside our doors, that we can forget who we are. My children are New Zealanders. Officially. Even if one of them has never actually been there. Sometimes it can be sad, and even slightly daunting to think that if we don’t take them back, take them home, they will not be New Zealanders in the sense that R and I are.

I miss home. I miss watching the light fall on the Orongorongo ranges. I miss the noisy tui and the darting fantails, the kererū whomping as they land heavily in trees. I miss fish and chips, and lamb chops. I miss walking down a street and seeing foods from a multitudes of cultures, skins in a multitude of colours in this country which is white, white, white. I miss all the intangible things. A love for a place that I cannot put in a box and give to my children. It is a love that grows from familiarity. I miss familiarity.

One thing, I haven’t had to miss is the Rugby World Cup. We have managed to watch nearly every game via (legal) streaming. M was at first baffled, as we hardly watch TV with him around. Suddenly there was this ‘rugby’ on all weekend. It’s been lovely to introduce him to what was such a mainstay of my childhood. Just listening to the on-field play takes me back to watching the Hutt Old Boys with my father. M got the hang of the game pretty quickly

‘The men and women jump into piles, and then the referee blows the whistle.’

He is quite taken with the referees. I’m not buying him a whistle.

He does have an All Blacks t-shirt that he loves to wear now he knows what the All Blacks are. He likes to check what the women’s rugby team is called (Black Ferns). He liked seeing some games played in Gloucester, as we have a book about the Tailor of Gloucester. He likes to watch the Haka, he asks every game if they will do one, even though we try to explain only the Pacific Island teams have them. He likes to haka with his father, but ‘only the bit I know…He!’. He likes to watch goal kicking, as he can understand that bit. He likes to eat his tea watching a game, yup television dinners have entered his world. Rather sweetly, he cannot comprehend what ‘winning’ means.

On Saturday night the All Blacks played early enough for M to watch. I made my Grans signature ‘toasties’. M put on his shirt. I tried not to rage as the game was being played, while A slept on me. If you knew my father, you’d understand how hard I found it. At 72min I sobbed ‘we’re going to lose.’ At 76min I woke the baby. At 80min R and I were on our feet. There are New Zealanders who don’t want their country to be defined purely by our ‘rugger thugs’ as they are wont to say. But when a stadium and a nation come together, that collective holding of breath, then the joy of victory, I find that to be a beautiful thing. Watching the cup has bought us pleasure, a sense of home to our life here. Now, if only they played ads for Cydectin at half time.

Can I have another/ piece of chocolate cake

The big supermarkets here give free bread rolls to children while their parents shop. M loves getting his ‘bolle’ when we go, and we’ve been teaching him how to ask politely for one – Jeg vil gerne en bolle. A couple of weeks ago we struck a queue at the bakery, and while we waited M admired the nice looking cakes on display. Finally it was his turn

‘Jeg vil gerne en kage’

Cheeky sod.

We’ve noticed a huge increase in the amount of Danish M is speaking in the last few weeks. As well as an expanded vocabulary he is speaking in quite complex sentences. We figured he’d reach this stage at some point, but it is quite remarkable to watch it all happen. When A was born my husband and I both stopped Danish lessons. It is pretty clear that we are going to be overtaken in our ability very soon. He can already pronounce the tricky vowels, and impossible ‘blødt d’, like a local:

At dinner the other day he chatted away to us in Danish about eating ‘jeg skal spise, but du skal ikke spise’ (I’ll eat, but you won’t eat. Clearly the word for ‘but’ is not part of his vocabulary). His instructions and patter about eating went on for quite some time. Until he suddenly leant towards me and said ‘Pirates have torches’.

It can be hard to keep up with the brain of a three year old.

I don’t know how we are going to manage when he is fluent in more than one language. Especially if his little sister is eventually able to join in.

He is also better at distinguishing between the two languages. While my father was staying M asked him to read one of the Danish picture books, and my father gamely tried. The performance was clearly unsatisfactory as after that he took to checking if his book was in English or Danish before reading. Now we get less mixing of languages, unless he doesn’t know the word he needs in which case he is happy to borrow it from his other vocabulary. As his proficiency has increased, so has his ability to translate himself.

‘Flyvende balloner’ he cries, pointing to the ceiling. Then he whispers, for our benefit, ‘flying balloons’ with a little knowing nod.

So if all goes well he’ll be able to translate for us soon. Yes! We’ll be the stereotypical immigrant parents ‘M. We need you to translate our rental lease for us.’ ‘Can you call the bank for me, I need to ask them something’. He is going to be so useful.

Also his incessant questioning ‘cause?’ is now accompanied by ‘why?’, and the Danish ‘hvordan? hvorfor?’ Variety is the spice of life after all.

Children do have this amazing capability to learn just by osmosis. We’ve spent months going to lessons. Looking at vocab lists, and learning the rules of grammar. And we live in a ‘language immersive’ environment. But we just can’t compete with M. He has learnt both his languages in the completely opposite way. Building his way up from pointing and single words, not giving a damn about grammar. Who needs verb tense anyway? Until suddenly he gets the rules. OK, his use of singular and plural nouns still needs work. Yuss, one win to us!

We’ll just have to keep trying to keep up. And we aren’t always going to get it right. I was telling M we were having chicken for tea, because he kept saying ‘vi skal spise omelette’. Until I realised he was actually saying ‘vi skal spise om lidt’. (We will eat soon).

It isn’t just some vain parental boast ‘Quintus can speak five languages, and is learning to read classical latin and greek’. Actually M needs to learn Danish if we are going to stick around here for any length of time. The older he gets the more other children expect to be able to communicate if they are going to play. One friend I’ve made here has a daughter of a similar age to M. They are from Benin, and speak French at home. As my husband says, this is probably the first time in history a French speaking Beninese child, and an English speaking Kiwi have played together in Danish. But they have really enjoyed playing together since their common language improved.

And, I think I am allowed to admire M a bit. It isn’t easy for children to adapt to daycare. It isn’t at all easy when you don’t speak the predominant language. And it’s not as if the last few months would have been easy anyway, between a new sibling, and a parental hospital stay. We’ve thrown a lot at him. More than I’ve felt was fair at times, but that’s just the way things worked out. We’ve seen some of the anxieties played out in tantrums. It’s been hard on all of us. Now, I feel a little like we are coming out on the other side. And not only has he coped, he has learnt and grown during those times. I’m quite proud of him really. As I should be.