Friday, 26 December 2008

White Christmas

Back to Madison, Wisconsin. It feels as if it was only a few weeks ago that we were here last, but the total changeover of the landscape reminds us that this is not the case. We get another chance to enjoy the legendary extreme climate of the American midwest. On earlier occasion we experienced an extreme heat wave in October, last time we tried tornadoes, spectacular summer storms and flash floods, and this time we are wading through real deep snow - when it is not too cold to venture outside.

Madison is on track to match last year's record 101.4-inch snow accumulation. So far there have been 31 inches this season, and 10.3 of that fell on Friday 19 December, the day we arrived. Luckily, the authorities were well prepared, so there were no major hick ups, although schools had to be closed because of the arctic cold.

The low temperatures only allowed us once to take the kids sledging. It was a moderate success. Tristan did not seem to mind it too much, and may even have enjoyed it - in any case, he had the same laconic expression as last time in the zoo. His twin cousins, however, were much less impressed. But they will get a chance to get used to it, as there is new snow on the way.

Monday, 15 December 2008


Isn’t it unbelievable that it was already a year ago that Ane and I sat there in the hospital and looked at this little creature for the first time? He was totally helpless as he was dragged through the initial health checks - and now, as I write this, he’s crawling around in the sitting room at an astonishing pace, playing with the new toys he got at yesterday’s birthday party.

It is truly amazing how far has come in a year. He can’t quite walk yet, but took his first few independent steps during the party yesterday. Unfortunately I just happened to be out of the room. He can’t speak yet, either (it usually takes a bit longer when one has to master two languages) but his communication skills are excellent. He can express just about everything he wants to by pointing, hitting, biting and uttering various vocal calls. He has also started to attach words to their referents (he can point at a number of objects when we call out their names) but somehow he got the meaning of ‘no’ totally wrong. In other words, he is developing a very definite mind of his own.

In the middle of October he began in day care, which has been a mixed blessing so far. Socially it is definitely a success: Tristan adjusted quickly to the new setting and is happy to be there, apart from a 30-second ritual protest every morning when he gets dropped off. But unfortunately his attendance has been quite erratic, due to a series of various illnesses from the flu to ear infection. Hope his immune system will benefit from these in the long run.

Apart from looking at dogs and feeding birds, Tristan’s main interest is being together with other kids, especially his twin cousins Cecilie and Isabell who are only three weeks younger than him. He is also quite keen on books, although that interest is mostly gastronomical.

With his two extended trips abroad Tristan is already a very experienced traveller. Right now he’s getting ready for his third long journey; in a couple of day’s time we’re off to Wisconsin to celebrate Christmas with Ane’s “American” family. So this blog will go dark for a short while – but before that here are a few pictures from Tristan’s very first birthday party:

There were no fewer than three different types of birthday cakes: the official one by Ane (first picture), a super brunsviger kagemand ('cakeman') by Kristine (second picture), and the famous Hungarian Dobos torta by Orsi.

Of course Tristan took a very active part in the preparations and tasted everything, raw, half-baked and ready.

All in all we were 15 people, so we couldn't fit at one table. Here is the larger of the two tables.

Unfortunately only one of Tristan's three grandma's, Ing-Britt could be present, but she made a good job of trying to substitute for the others. Nevertheless, we were missing Inge and Ilona a lot, not to mention all other friends and family members abroad.

It looks good - but let me TASTE IT!

Orsi and Tristan - and, most important of all, Orsi's camera.

Checking out the presents.

Not only the kids had fun - Meile and Orsi in party mode.

Getting tired of opening all those boxes.

Finally, on behalf of the three of us, thank you to all for the many presents, cards and e-mails. They really made it a very special day.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

In the Zoo

Last Sunday we took Tristan to the local Zoo for the first time. It was an interesting experience for us from the point of view of child development. He got very quiet and contemplative, not showing any overt sign of interest or excitement, though he clearly soaked every impression in.

The thing with small kids is that one can never be sure what catches their attention. This time all the animals were in top form. Anna, the huge orangutan (picture) was doing her bits about a yard from us, the baby chimps were playing like crazy, the penguins were feeding noisily, but the only thing that got Tristan really agitated was a plain domestic cat walking by.

Another example of the same thing is from Saturday, when we went to a toy shop to get some new toys for Tristan. After what to me felt like several hours of careful searching we selected three pieces of the best and most educational pieces ever produced. On the way out, as kind of an afterthought, Ane threw a cheap plastic toy mobile phone into our cart. Well, try and guess which one of the four toys has enjoyed Tristan's undivided attention ever since we got home?

Back to the zoo: we also visited the petting zoo, where Tristan very nearly managed to tear off a baby goat's ear. He does the same to me from time to time (although, strangely, never to Ane) and it is really not much fun for the victim. At least the poor goat didn't wear glasses.

We finished the trip in the cafeteria. Much good can be said about Aalborg Zoo. It was the world's first ecological zoo, the animals have reasonably decent living conditions, their educational displays are first class - but the food is simply appalling. The worst kind of junk, without a trace of anything green and healthy. This did not trouble Tristan, though who really enjoyed eating Ane's French fries with a BIG fork.

Monday, 17 November 2008

Tristan at 11 months

I’ve been keeping a low profile for a while, due to illness, travel and general autumn inactivity. In the meantime our life has become rather more hectic, as Ane returned to work and Tristan began his career in day care over a month ago. We were lucky to find a suitable place for him relatively close by. It’s a smallish one of its kind: apart from Tristan there are only two other kids (both older than him). Jette, his child-minder is employed by Aalborg municipality, which gives a bit of extra security compared to private care. For example, when she’s off sick, the authorities arrange for an alternative placement.

Tristan had a relatively smooth start, but then launched into the usual succession of flu-like illnesses. Therefore he stayed home for several days, during which he got sufficiently unused to the whole idea of not being home with mum or dad all the time. Apart from the slight disappointment it caused, he’s doing very well. His latest favourite pastimes are pointing at various objects, studying photographs of family members and feeding birds in the nearby park. Since the latter interest he shares with several other kids in the neighbourhood, an average duck in our park must have a calorie intake significantly higher than that of a smaller African village.

Tristan is also getting better and better at understanding words (still relying heavily on context) and his vocalization is ever more expressive and varied. He is very happy to be with other kids, especially his twin cousins. Eating is another favourite activity. After a short spell of being rather fussy, his appetite is back to normal. He eats just about everything, and is very interested in new tastes. Ane and I simply can’t understand where he got that from. As for his physical development, he is now very steady on his feet but does not seem to be particularly keen on standing without support or walking. It looks as if for the time being he were satisfied with the means of locomotion he already masters. They certainly get him to most places he wants to (and to some we think he shouldn’t get to).

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Århus University - the first 80 years

Århus University, where I work, celebrates its 80th birthday this months. Back in the 1920s several Danish towns in Jutland were competing for the right to host the country's second university. Århus triumphed, and in September 1928 the first 64 students began their studies under the guidance of 5 permanent lecturers.
The first year conditions were somewhat rough. The university had no buildings yet, so teaching took place in rented rooms, and the budget was a very modest 33000 DKK, provided by the town council. Later the city of Århus and the Danish government agreed that the state would be financing the administration of the university, while the municipality was responsible for raising funds for building expenses.

The building of the university campus began in the 1930's, and to a large extent was financed by private donations. The uniform yellow brick buildings, designed by the local architects Kay Fisker, C.F. Møller and Povl Stegmann, are gathered in and around the picturesque University Park. The hills, ponds and old trees of the park provide a very atmospheric backdrop to academic work. (Click on the pictures for larger size.)

Currently the university has 35 000 students and 8500 staff, and its annual budget is 4,5 milliard DKK. Among its students were Queen Margrethe II, who studied political science and archaeology, and her son, crown prince Frederik, who got his MA here in political science.

I work at the Linguistics department in one of the old buildings at the northern edge of the park:

Our department in the evening:

My office, which I share with a young Polish linguist. My desk is the one in the foreground:

My 'roommate' Kamila:

The university's central building, with the Main Hall. Our building is right behind, on the right:

The Main Hall:

The view from my window, overlooking the University Park:

In the first picture: the University's logo. For further details on the history of Århus University see here.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

The haircut

Another milestone passed: Tristan had his first haircut today! It was done at home, by Karen Inger, a hairdresser in our extended family. Tristan didn't seem to mind it at all, or rather, he failed to notice that something extraordinary was going on. He might have thought that people were simply fiddling with his hair, as usual. Anyway, here is the result:



Are we soon done here?

Does it REALLY have to take so long?

Is that really me?

Hm, it's not so bad, after all...

Well done, Karen Inger!

Otherwise Tristan turned 9 months old this week. Since the last update he has learned to clap (and has been practising it very enthusiastically, see the last picture), got his fifth tooth out, and become much steadier on his feet. His vocalizing is also getting more and more varied and expressive, slowly getting ready for that first word his parents can't wait to hear.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Fatherhood redefined

Soon it becomes easier to be a father in Denmark - at least if the parliament passes a law proposal by the largest opposition party, the Social Democrats. The law would fundamentally change the Danish child care system, mainly by earmarking a 12-week chunk of the 32-week parental leave for the father. In the present system (see my earlier entry), parents can divide the 32 weeks between them, but statistics show that only a tiny minority of men actually use this opportunity. On average Danish fathers take only 3, 4 weeks parental leave, while the mother stays home for 42, 3 weeks. Social democrats and their parliamentary allies, The Radicals hope that the new system would trigger far-reaching demographic, social and cultural changes in society, as was the case in Norway and Iceland after similar legislation came into force.

The Icelandic system

As the first country in the world, Norway introduced the special paternal leave back in 1993, and Iceland followed steps in 2002. The latter system divides the 9 months parental leave into three equal parts, reserving 3 months for the mother and 3 months for the father, while the remaining 3 months can be used by either parent. The expectations toward the new system were fourfold: (1) to better integrate fathers into the life of their families, (2) to increase birth rates, (3), to improve the economic status of Icelandic families, and (4) to provide more equal opportunities for women on the labor market.

Daddy with a feeding bottle

The new law soon turned out to be an unqualified success. Already in the first year 82% of fathers took leave for the full 3 months reserved for them, and by last year the figure hit the 90 % mark. This has clearly had a positive influence on family dynamics. Fathers who took parental leave become much better integrated in their family, and take greater responsibility later on, for instance when their children are sick. Another positive outcome is the dramatic, 30% fall in the number of divorces in young families. This may have to do with the fact that 83% of fathers on parental leave reported a stronger emotional attachment to their children, and many feel that they understand their partner much better than before. Apparently, the key to these positive effects is whether fathers get a chance to spend a longer period (at least 2 months) alone with their children, without the mother looking over their shoulders.

New baby boom

As for the second area, the new legislation has resulted in a spectacular increase in birthrates which exceeded even the most optimistic expectations. In 6 years, the number of birth per woman increased from 1.8 to 2.1. With that figure Iceland, together with Turkey, can boast about the highest birth rates in Europe. Clearly, women are much more motivated to give birth to child number two and three, when the father was involved in the care of the first child. This finding is also strongly supported by an independent Danish study, which forecasts a 20 % increase in childbirths if the new system is introduced in Denmark.

Women on the job

The positive changes are also obvious where gender equality on the Icelandic job market is concerned. Employers no longer have the incitement to favour men over women, since men and women are equally likely to take parental leave at some point in their lives. Finally, the new law has also improved family finances. In the old system the economic compensation of parents was too low (often below the minimal wage). At present parents who are active on the labour market are paid 80% of their average salaries during the leave and the payments come from a specific fund, financed through an insurance levy. The unemployed or those on low income receive a minimum payment.

The modern father

And as if this was not enough, the new system seems to have triggered subtle but far-reaching changes in the way Icelanders look at gender roles and the traditional family model. More and more young men define themselves as a father before all else, and proud young men pushing prams have become an essential ingredient of the townscape all over the country.

Any hope for Danish fathers?

However, those young Danish men who become fathers in these weeks shouldn’t start clearing their desks yet. The law proposal meets considerable resistance among the governing liberal and conservative parties, who think that such a radical intervention into family life would go against the principal of personal choice. They also point to several unresolved issues around the financing of the proposed system. On the other hand, the law is warmly supported by the main employer organisations and the media, as well as the majority of voters, which might well force the government to reconsider its resistance.

Pictures: Icelandic children by Hiroshi Ichikawa, Icelandic flag: from the Internet

Saturday, 30 August 2008

Tristan's new room

This will mostly be of interest for those closest to us - and those who know our flat. After several weeks of hesitation we finally made up our mind and moved out our old bedroom, turning it into Tristan's room. It took the most of Friday afternoon and some of this morning, and Tristan took a very active part in the process, in particular in assembling his new bookshelf / room divider:

All three of us are rather pleased with the results, and last night Tristan slept alone for the first time in his "new room". He slept very well, which made us think that he may not have liked my snoring quite as much as I had thought. Anyway, for now the room looks like this:

Of course, this triggered a whole lot of changes in the rest of the flat. The middle room (a.k.a. 'The Study') now doubles as the parents' bedroom, and that too turned out to be a good decision. It means we're making much better use of the available space without losing the functionality of the room:

Finally, from now on guests will be offered accommodation in the sitting room, on a newish (and very red) sofa which we inherited from my friend Paula, who's returned to her native Finland after many years in Denmark. We've tested the new sofa, and found it more comfortable than the old one - so we're ready for the first guest. (The old white sofa will go soon.)

On other fronts, Tristan now has four teeth, and in the course of the last three days has learned to stand up by pulling on anything available. Unfortunately he is not steady enough on his feet, so we are facing a nerve wracking few weeks with plenty of bruises. Will keep you posted.