Monday, January 28, 2013

The End of the World, or How Not to Do Petra with Kids

The sign said, 'The end of the world'; as did the look on my three-year-old's face. Below us, the dusky pink desert canyons and dimpled, rocky mountains of the Jordan Valley stretched west towards Jerusalem. And somewhere, far, far below the precipice we'd scaled to 'Sacrifice View', a bright blue cap was now swirling away, whisked off my son's head by the sharp wind that greeted us at the summit.

It was already late in the day, and here we were, five-month-old strapped to my chest, standing at one of Petra's remotest points, with an inconsolable small child. What had possessed us, not only to climb up 1,000-odd slippery sandstone steps to the monastery, which at 50-ish metres tall is the largest of the ancient city's vast edifices, but to continue beyond it to reach a peak?

The answer, of course, is the same reason we'd braved a two-day drive from Jerusalem, where we were living, with a car- phobic baby: for the chance to see Petra. All of Petra. Or as much as was feasibly possible to cover in a day while keeping donkey rides strictly for emergencies, which did not, incidentally, include climbing up to the monastery, but did include getting the aforementioned, now cap-less, son back to our hotel in Wadi Musa for his dinner.

Before it all went so wrong, it had all gone so right. Our trip, in December 2011, came at a bad time for Jordan: tourists were shunning the country out of misplaced fears it had been caught up in the Arab Spring. This had made Petra our own, give or take a few horse-drawn calèches weighed down by overweight visitors. And all we had to do to avoid those was clamber up to explore some of the many rose-red structures carved at neck-craning height, or higher.

Every visit starts, however, with the Treasury, the building immortalised in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. This columned marvel, seemingly superimposed on the jagged mountainside, bursts out of the cliffs as you exit the Siq, the 1km-long winding gorge through which all visitors must enter. Ropes bar you from going inside these days, although plenty of the other 800 buildings and monuments that the Nabateans carved out of that famous pink sandstone some 2,400 years ago are still accessible.

We'd mulled over bringing Louis's scooter, but the Siq's cobbled pathway is quickly replaced by the ancient city's sandy streets, so it was just as well we hadn't. A buggy would have been similarly useless, for anyone tempted. But the baby carrier, or carriers, for I packed a spare in case Raf faced a change of perspective, was just the ticket and made taking a baby around Petra a doddle.

It's the sense of isolation that awes you, once inside, as well as the immense scale. Climbing that peak really did have an end-of-the-world feel to it. As I trudged the 6km or so back to the entrance, I felt I'd short-changed the Nabateans by sacrificing just the one cap. But it turned out I needed not to have worried. The vomit-strewn sheets of a sunstroked child combined with the news that our London home had been burgled almost exactly while we were looking at that view, meant I ended up more than paying for my Petra experience. Not that I had any regrets.

(This was something I wrote for the Independent, but as I'd never posted from our side trip to Petra while living in Jerusalem in 2011 I thought I'd add it.)

Friday, June 29, 2012

LEGO lessons - by Daddy J

WHEN A child-oriented Scandiplan was first mooted, LEGOLAND was the first place on my hit list. A huge fan of Lego ever since my underage urban planning days, I've always assumed Lego towns to be faithful replicas of Nordic city life: thoughtfully laid out streets, old-fashioned shops, and ubiquitous emergency services. When Londoners moan about London it's normally because it's not Lego enough. And travelling around Scandinavia, it's clear that if the ideal small town or manageable-sized city life that we idealise so much still exists anywhere, it's up here. 
Yet ironically, for me, our visit to LEGOLAND actually threw the limits of the Nordic model into sharper focus. Because what lies at the heart of LEGOLAND, amid the pint-sized monorails and nobbly-bricked replicas of Hanseatic streets? LEGOREDO: the plastic piece people's homage to the harsh individualism of the Old West, complete with right-angled Rushmore. 
And which ride did Louis (and all the other kids) want to do most (alas he was too young this time)? The Lego driving school of course. Bikes and buses might turn on enviro-snobs like us but everyone from the Beatles to the Beach Boys to the good people at Volvo (hi guys!) knows that the car is still the most exciting invention in the history of mankind. Pootling around Copenhagen with the kids up front in the Christiania bike was fun for sure, but the biggest thrill of the trip for me was a stunning 300km meander along the snowy hairpins high above the Norwegian fjords. I really hope the well-planned cities of Scandinavia do offer a model for future urban life in favouring buses and bikes but LEGOLAND made me wonder if that's the case. 
Above all, the place is an exercise in nostalgia. It's not just the grown ups groping at memories of childhood happiness with every entrance fee or box of bricks they shell out for. The replica landmarks themselves seem to be the faded project of a more innocent time. LEGOLAND has now expanded beyond the street scenes and famous feats of civil engineering rendered in plastic bits that made up the original park. The newest sections feature two giant rollercoasters of the kind found in theme parks the world over. And the two coolest Lego models I remember seeing as a kid - Concorde and the Shuttle - are weather-beaten and a little forlorn, their real-life counterparts discontinued. The greatest inventions of my adult life - the Internet, GPS, the mobile phone - are already miniature if not invisible and certainly beyond replication in pimply rectangles. 
So the irony is that while the ciabattaring liberals of London like ourselves fawn over everything Scandinavian, viewed up close Nordic life and it's Lego replica are both deeply old-fashioned and, whisper it, conservative. And while life here is certainly good and possibly the best, it took a wannabe-actor waitress in Copenhagen to perfectly express the downsides of the Scandinavian way of life which we'd started to wonder even existed. Because people are so genuinely happy here, she said, nobody ever wants to do anything differently, to stand out, to strike out on their own. For that, she added, you need to go to America. In Copenhagen a waitress will always be a waitress, only in big old gas-guzzling America can a waitress talk of future movie stardom without being told to get a contented life. 
We admire Scandinavian society because of its equality, but only those who know they will never be the best stand to gain from an equal society. What if inequality - and its (cloakroom) attendant unhappiness - is not such a bad thing? Inequality breeds restlessness and restless people learn, explore, invent. Before coming on this trip I was pretty sure of at least one thing - I want my children to grow up happy. I still do, but now I'm less sure. Maybe they need to be a little restless too.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Bornholm: an underwater pearl

I SHOULD have known better than to moan about camping. Not because bitching about how miserable it was would force me to issue a retraction once we hit theoretical canvas bliss on the “Baltic pearl” that is the Danish island of Bornholm. But because with camping there is always worse to come.

For starters, there was the disappointment of rolling off the ferry into 14C and heavy drizzle as we drove off in search of our campsite. The only thing pearl-like about Bornholm is that it's also under water. I can’t believe I bought into the myth that it's Denmark’s sunniest spot. Had I not spent hours watching the horizontal rain in The Killing? Not to mention fixated on Sarah Lund's attachment to that sweater. 

That said, I’d kill for mere drizzle now: I’m lying in our tent, a storm raging overhead. It’s a moot point what’s loudest: the rain thundering down on the canvas overhead, or the tent blowing in on itself with every new gust of wind. I’m not sure how both boys are still asleep but I am quite sure that they won’t stay asleep for long. The fact that I’m here solo, with DJ ensconced in a dry bar down the beach watching the footie isn’t helping.

It’s his toilet I’m most jealous of: the cruel irony about being stuck in a tent in the pouring rain is the pressure it puts on your bladder. And that’s without even drinking anything this evening for fear of having to trek half a mile back across the sandy pine forest for the loo. 

I should be glad Bjorn, the Dane who runs this campsite with exacting precision, at least lets me pee for free. Precious little else is included in what’s a fairly hefty nightly charge given that we brought our own four walls. There’s even a 20kr fee to watch each quarter final, on a telly he removes at the end of each evening from what is allegedly a communal dining space next to the kitchen. Hence why DJ’s elsewhere. 

It’s 5kr a pop to charge a phone or similar, although I snuck a few extra percentage points on mine earlier by unplugging the microwave. He earmarked us as trouble makers after we mistakenly left our dishes in the kitchen for ten minutes on our first night while we finished setting up the tent and putting both kids to bed. And as for Louis parking one of the toy cars outside our tent while he played on the beach, well, it turns out Bjorn would rather they were all lined up, unused, outside the reception.

What with the fee to shower, to use the baby bath, etc etc, we might as well be staying in a hotel. Which, if this rain continues (which is what’s forecast), is exactly where we’ll be come tomorrow night. 

Cycle not-so chic


IF HELL is other people, then hell for babies is other people’s ideas about happiness. Especially if they involve two wheels. Or three wheels, in the case of a Danish cargo bike. Or, possibly, in the case of our car-adverse child, four wheels.

This I proved after our day cycling around one of the world’s best bike cities was less living the dream, and more living the nightmare for the 11 month old. To be fair, it got off to a bad start when having strapped them both into the front of my three-wheeled Christiania bike I couldn’t even manage to steer out of Baisikeli’s parking lot. Those things are heavy! Even without two extra people on board. So much for my plans of peddling the kids effortlessly around town, their Scandi-esque blonde bouffs blowing in the breeze.

Things only got worse when the squall that blew in after I’d reluctantly switched saddles with Daddy J meant we had to abandon ship (bike?) until it had passed. We were now well into lunchtime territory, and for a growing nearly 1 year old, a slurp of milk just didn't hack it. Plus it's a safe bet neither child enjoyed getting togged up in their Scandi POP raingear as much as I enjoyed – finally – getting some use out of the damn things even if the rain meant I’d look more Copenhagen cycle shit than chic in the Sindy pics.

In retrospect, I should have twigged that sitting up front in a Christiania bike was always going to be murder for a baby who hates being strapped in anything that isn’t also strapped to me. And the stormy skies meant that each time Raf was in the slightest danger of getting into any sort of groove, we had to stop to take shelter. He couldn’t even nod off come naptime because there was nowhere for him to lean his head, his big brother being accommodating, but only up to a point.

Where Raf really suffered, however, was that although he’d clocked up his Scandi telly hours in front of The Killing and Borgen while nursing of an evening, he hadn’t taken in any of it. So he couldn’t share in what ended up making us happiest of all about our cycle tour: peddling through Borgen itself. Or clocking Troels Hartmann’s Rathaus (Copenhagen's town hall, and the other star of the Killing along with that sweater), which is possibly the city's prettiest tower. Perhaps the key to happiness is just watching more TV, especially if it’s Danish. 

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Wonderful Copenhagen?

At Louisiana, by Louis

HAS ANYONE ever thought about the downsides to living in the world’s happiest place? Because that’s where we are, according to the UN’s survey of global happiness.

What if you wake up in a bad mood? Or on a campsite with the rain thundering down on your tent (see previous post)? Or maybe you’re childless and stuck in a job you don’t like, paying exorbitant taxes to fund the amazing nurseries that allow Scandi mums to live the feminist dream. Heck, maybe you’re a petrol head who hates bikes, or potentially worse, given the city’s reputation for two-wheeled glamour – the Copenhagen cycle chic blog is now a Thames & Hudson book for goodness sake – perhaps you just like cycling in a fleece.

Two days in and the pressure is on, I’ll admit. Yesterday’s wet start was a challenge but a run along the sea front from Charlottenlund Fort helped me out (if not Daddy J whom I left battling the baby’s morning nap). Not least because I ticked at least three boxes on my Scandi stereotype scorecard: naked Danish man emerging from a dip; modernist architectural gem of a service station; and a PH lamp dangling in someone’s front room.

And with enough breaks in the clouds, I’d defy anyone to feel miserable after a trip to the stunning Louisiana modern art museum, half an hour’s drive up the coast. Then again, perhaps I’d have been happier had my bank account stretched to more in the shop than a Copha watch for Father’s Day. I know DJ would have smiled more if I’d allowed him to feast on the café’s Nordic buffet rather than picnic on my rotting avocado and Camembert rolls.

The real test, though, would be today and the cycling trip we had planned around one of the world’s top cycling cities for an Indy on Sunday photo op. Would the baby live the dream in the Christiania bike I’d lined up from the guys at Baisikeli? Or would he reveal his London roots by grumbling his way round? What’s more, could I be happy peddling around in a scratch outfit pulled together on a campsite?

Screw it up and I might as well be in the UK where at least there’s no pressure to smile all the time.