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. 

Camping: the lowdown


 FOR THE record, while hatching our plan to come away I was adamant about one thing. We couldn’t keep moving around because the constant packing up would drive me mad. This much I knew from the two weeks we had spent road-tripping in the US, back when “we” was just the one extra small person. At the very least, we’d need an RV or its Euro equivalent, even if that put us in the same bracket as German retirees. And there was no way you’d catch me camping. Not on a traditional campsite. With two children, including a small baby. In northern Europe, for goodness sake.

But then I dreamt up the Scandiplan. Only somehow I’d forgotten to factor in the cost of living in countries where the only reason residents get so much back from the state, such as fabulously cheap childcare, is because everything is so darn expensive due to sky-high taxation. My dreams of a Sodermalm flat swap remained precisely that, dreams, so rather than bankrupt ourselves with hotel bills, a tent was bought. Not by me, I hasten to add. That would have made me complicit in the camping part of the plan. And that might have meant I couldn’t complain when things, inevitably, didn’t go as envisaged.

It’s hard to narrow down exactly what’s worst about camping: the rain; the cold; the not having a clue where anything is; the looooooong walk to the loo in the night; the claustrophobic sleeping bag; the lack of sleeping bag as I discovered after Arctic temperatures rendered useless my plan to sleep under only an Ikea duvet; the light; the dark; the sick baby with a fever of 40C despite the aforementioned night temperatures…… Shall I continue?

Even DJ pitched in with his own bete noire this evening: the smug gaze from within a – dry – campervan awning as two wrinkled pensioners, who ran out of anything to say to each other back in the 1980s, watch our attempts to pitch a tent at gone 8pm with two feral children on the loose. That said, shortly after he said that, the Danish campervanner opposite came over proffering a thermos of coffee “because you both look so tired”. Which almost made it all worse!

Then there’s the horror of watching the battery percentage tick down on the various pieces of thirsty electronics I own. And that’s forgetting my biggest camping casualty: the Kindle I trod on while trying to locate my mobile phone so I could turn it off to save the battery. Oh, the irony.

To be fair, camping has the odd plus. But I’ll need to warm up – and dry out – before they trip off the tongue.  

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Lax understanding

Fjallbacka at dawn

NOW THAT we all think we can speak Scandinavian (and by “all”, obviously I mean all those who’ve lost 50 hours of their lives to The Killing, Borgen, and The Bridge), mastering the lingo for this trip should have been a doddle. But beyond “thanks”, which is helpfully something approximating “tack” in all three of the Nordic languages we’ve encountered, our Scandinavian remains embarrassingly sketchy.

Given how well everyone here speaks English, that shouldn’t matter. (So well, in fact, that one of the writers behind the BBC’s next Scandi show Lillyhammer – the Norwegian comic drama starring ex-Sopranos’ Steven van Zandt that will air this Autumn – told me local TV audiences didn’t mind characters speaking Norwegian and English because they could understand both languages.)

But I’ve run into trouble here in Fjallbacka because I can’t find what I want to read in English. The pretty coastal town is home to Sweden’s premier crime writer, Camilla Läckberg, whose detective series has outsold even Stieg Larsson on his home turf. She was born and brought up among Fjallbacka’s red clapboard cottages, and despite now living in Stockholm uses the town as the backdrop to all of her novels. A lack of British tourists, thus far at least, means that the local ironmongeress-cum-celebrity (Berith, the owner, is one of just two locals to feature as themselves in Läckberg’s books) only stocks the author’s original Swedish versions.

I’m told that this will change once the latest Läckberg TV series hits the airwaves. It’s being filmed now, and has already been snapped up by the French. My money is on the Beeb following suit, given its quest to mop up Nordic noirs. 

My lack of Swedish means I can also only guess at the recipes in the cookbook I found today in Berith’s store. Penned by Läckberg herself and her childhood buddy Christian Hellberg, who just happens to be Sweden’s top chef and another Fjallbacker, the book is a Nigella-esque tome that combines the requisite lifestyle porn and enough glamorous friend envy to make it an immediate hit in Britain, were it to be available in translation.

Perhaps the Beeb should stop looking for Scandi thrillers and get Läckberg fronting her own Nordic cookery show. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Fiskpudding and fun

Swedish fiskpudding
 “ARE YOU having lots of fun?” someone asked me on Twitter today. Fun? On a six-week gruel-a-thon of a holiday-cum-extended work trip? Knocking off three countries in a car? With two small children? Now there’s a question.

What’s odd about being away for so long, and trying to squeeze so much out of such a large chunk of time off, is that sometimes it seems as if fun is about the last thing you remember to have. Experiences, yes, by the bucketful. But fun, when the Volvo’s speaky lady keeps telling you the time it will take to reach your campsite halfway across Norway is increasing; or when yet again there’s no hope of glimpsing any sun, let alone midnight sun; or when you realize it’s gone 7pm and the only restaurant in sight for under £100 a head is McDonalds; well, that’s a tricky one.

It’s not that I don’t adore being away. And certainly not that Scandinavia isn’t living up to my – admittedly exalted – expectations. And most definitely not that I’m not loving the chance to be with both small people, and their Dad, 24/7. But sometimes it seems like we’re so busy being on the road that simply having fun falls by the wayside.

The beauty of this trip, though, is that magical moments just creep up on you. Some, like today, are pretty clear-cut. Our day out on the Weather Islands, Sweden’s most westerly point, reachable by boat from the coastal town of Fjallbacka, was always going to be special. And despite the unpromising weather, we all had a ball: the highlight being a tie between the unfortunately named “fiskpudding” for lunch, and a rocky scramble around the largest of the 365 islands in the archipelago.

Other times, though, creep up on you. Like a pitstop by a snowy road in western Norway, when the half-hour it takes the saucepan of water to boil for tea is the perfect opportunity for a then still three-year-old boy to magic himself into Lightning McQueen out for a drive in his snow tires. Or that time when two brothers are so engrossed in the wonder of each other that they’re utterly absorbed while you pack up camp. 

Those, yes, are the moments when you realize that this trip is special for a whole mountain of reasons, fun most definitely being one of them. And that’s before we hit Legoland, our next destination – provided we make our 9am ferry from Gothenburg tomorrow. 

Saturday, June 9, 2012


NORWAY: LAND of fjords, fish, ferry boats and..... Tripp Trapps. Which, to the uninitiated, are highchairs. But not just any highchairs. Somehow Tripp Trapps, made by the Norwegian firm Stokke, stand like a parental badge of honour in middle-class British kitchens: owning one catapults mums and dads into some kind of super league. Or so I used to feel, strapping Louis into his Ikea hand-me-down while quipping that if we really loved him, he'd have had a Tripp Trapp (rrp £159, excluding the baby bar, cushion, harness, tray, etc etc).

Not so in Norway, where to have a child is to have a Tripp Trapp - or Tripp Trapps when numbers two and three come along. This was something I got to witness at first hand in Alesund, the coastal Art Nouveau gem that just happens to be home to Stokke, when a Norwegian family we met over a Lego session on a rainy Sunday in a local museum ended up inviting us back to their house for dinner. Salmon and Stokkes. Two kids, two Tripp Trapps. 

Indeed, my fact of the trip may just turn out to be that Tripp Trapps are used as standard in Norwegian nurseries. Well, that and the fact that Norwegian mums get something called breastfeeding leave AFTER they return to work: for ten months they can spend two hours of their working day nursing, meaning they get to arrive an hour later and leave an hour earlier each day. And that's after taking ten months off at full pay (or 12 months at 80 per cent). I shudder to imagine what Tripp Trapps round a table at a London nursery would do to the fees (£1,000 minimum per month compared with £320 maximum in Norway). 

Norwegians, it seems, just suck up the cost of stocking up with Stokkes. Perhaps because they don't seem terrible value in a country where a beer and fish snack at an Oslo street market costs £20. Or I guess they may just love their kids more. It goes without saying that my top interview to date is Mr Tripp Trapp himself, aka Peter Opsvik, who designed the chair back in 1972. Be still my beating aspirational mummy heart! No prizes for guessing my souvenir of choice were we actually driving our Volvo estate back to London. 

Monday, June 4, 2012

Snow joke

ASIDE FROM Daddy daycare (Pappi playtime?), living the Scandi dream for kids means swapping an indoor existence for an outdoor one. And I don’t just mean frolicking about on lakeside beaches when it’s sunny. No, Nordic babies toughen up from birth by taking all of their naps outside, even in winter. If Pappi wants to warm up with a coffee, he leaves the sprog in buggy outside the café. This continues at nursery where toddlers play and nap outside in anything down to minus 10C.

The trick is in the clothing, for as the old Russian saying goes: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes.” To be fair, this meant in “olden times”, to coin Louis’s phrase, children pretty much sat out winter, snoozing their way through the long, dark days in countryside cabins because their home knitwear wasn’t up to the task. But it was all change in the 1970s when Polarn O Pyret, the iconic stripy Swedish kidswear brand, hit the scene with its durable, weatherproof overalls and trousers.

This made the Nordic feminist revolution a happy triumvirate of working women, warm children, and proliferating nurseries, which expanded rapidly from the early 1970s to give mums somewhere to dump their kids. Indeed, Polarn’s MD, Maria Oqvist, told me the main reason the company churned out so much outerwear was so Scandi mothers could earn a crust happy in the knowledge that their children were snug. Not to mention stylishly clothed.

Given our camping plans and northern European summer weather, I figured I’d need to waterproof both boys before setting off. As it’s annoyingly cheaper to buy Scandi in London than shop locally this meant a trip to the Polarn concession in House of Fraser rather than a fun shop in situ. Having the right gear somewhat eased the pain of driving into winter as we clocked up the kilometers north. But I somehow still managed a walk in a Roros blizzard, in JUNE, with both small people woefully underdressed because I’d forgotten to pile on the layers. You can take a mum out of London......

Friday, June 1, 2012

Scandequality - by Daddy J

NOT QUITE 48 hours into our trip and we’d already been offered the forest sauna. Two days after that Sweden douze-pointed it to Eurovision glory. So by the time it got to Monday morning in Stockholm we were on a hatrick for national stereotypes. Safe to say what’s drawn us to Scandinavia isn’t the chance to sit starkers in a hot room or reach euro-disco nirvana. For work-life tightropers like ourselves it's the idea of Scandinavia as Mecca for gender-bending metro parenting that really thrills. It was time to take to the equality streets.
Having lunched in a suitably trendy deli in suitably trendy Sodermalm I thought I was in the perfect spot to find kindred daycare Dads when Working Mum left us to go bag an interview. When the time comes to write the guidebook on hipster playgrounds the one on Nyagatan will be right up there, but even so I was the only Dad there for at least 30 minutes and when one did turn up he was American. So much for Scandequality.
By the time we caught up with WM at the Nordiska Museum, Boy 2 who'd been peaky overnight had taken a worrying turn for the worse and so did our pretence at Modern Parenting when it fell to Mum to jump in a cab in search of a doctor post-puke.
That left me and Boy 1 killing time in a museum dedicated to Swedish folk history. Among the empty exhibition halls we did find other Dads out with their kids at last – perhaps they knew better than to take a sickly infant to an outdoor playground in the chill of a Nordic May. So for a brief hour or so we lived the genderless parenting dream cruising exhibitions on dolls houses and interior design. Male bonding, Scandi-style.

The car's the star

As taken by Louis

ASK THE soon-to-be four year old about his trip highlights and barely a few days in I know what they’ll feature. The car. Or, to be precise, “the Vol-vo car” as he calls it. And who could blame him. Not only is the car a joy - even for a passenger a four-hour stint zips by - but a session on the open road affords the perfect opportunity to cross several stereotypes off the master checklist.

First up has to be conformity, from the number of fellow Vol-vo drivers out there, to their absolute dedication to conform to what is expected of them on the roads. Chiefly, sticking to the speed limit. Even when it’s set at an absurdly low 80km/hr on a deserted road north that passes through never-ending forests. And never over-taking, not even when crawling after a log carrier for kilometer after kilometer after kilometer.

Brushing 110km/hr on the motorway (speed limit 100km/hr) west out of Gothenburg instantly earned us the raised eyebrows and a glare from a motorbike-riding policeman, who just happened to pull up along side us.

Then there’s the nagging voice of Vol-vo, which butts in to interrupt your driving reveries if your attention so much as falters for a second. Cross the dotted white lines between lanes without indicating and it will beep: “Don’t do that, don’t do that, don’t that”. Get too close to the car in front and the engine will slow down for you, and as for swerving, momentarily, into the hard shoulder: an image of a coffee cup flashes up on the dashboard, warning: “Driver alert, take a break.” If only it could brew up a cup on the spot.

Ultimately the lack of speeding underlines Swedes’ rationality: it’s bonkers to risk one’s life for the sake of arriving somewhere five minutes earlier. Or not at all, if all goes wrong. But mankind isn’t designed to be rational, especially not when cosseted inside the comforting frame of a Vol-vo car.

Not that Louis is fussed about national stereotypes. He mainly likes the electric windows, and the button on the key that lifts the boot automatically. Not forgetting “speaky lady”, the authoritative voice of the in-built GPS that must have saved countless marriages the world over by taking the rap for dodgy directions. I guess kids just defer to authority, much like the Swedes, or so it seems. 

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Land of the Midnight Sons

EXCUSE THE (London-based) hiatus, but babies who brunch is back, for a while at least. After surviving our three-month stint in Jerusalem, life back home seemed a little tame, so we've headed up to Scandinavia to eke a few more adventures out of my maternity leave with a Nordic roadtrip. For once, Daddy J isn't working: instead, he's making like a Scandi pappa and has taken some time off unpaid.

Our six-week trip will take in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, starting and ending in Gothenburg, where we're picking up a Volvo, naturally. In true Borgen fashion (for non-Scandi TV obsessives, that's the one about the Danish mum-cum-PM, this time I'm the one working. If you call traveling round, visiting cool places "work". (Although with two small kids in tow, it really is....) I'm writing a big magazine piece about why Brits love Scandinavia so much. Unless it's just me, which I don't think it can be considering Britain awarded the Swedish Eurovision winner Loreen the full 12 points the other night.

With two non-sleepers along for the ride, Scandinavia is proving less the land of the midnight sun, and more the land of the midnight sons. Did anyone say "fika"*?

*Scandi for coffee and cake