Bring on the Blahs

Today it’s cold, damp, and the sky is the color of a dirty sock. It’s been that way all day. Yesterday too. Blah. So here, then, are some pics of what it looked like around Billund this summer, when we did have pleasant weather…

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…when everything was in bloom…

…when we would ride our bikes after dinner and explore the trails and fields around town…

…and when it didn’t look like this until 11:00 at night…

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Meh. I’m gonna go make a cup of tea.

Burn the Witch!

For the world’s happiest people, Danes sure have some morbid holidays. In February, kids bang on a barrel or piñata for the carnival holiday of Fastelavn. The barrel has a picture of a black cat on it. It used to have a real cat inside. Bang the barrel, drive away evil spirits, kill the cat in the process. Today only candy pours out.

Same thing with Midsummer, or Sankthansaften (St John’s Eve). It’s the summer solstice – the longest day of the year, where it won’t get dark until after 11pm. Families walk down to their local park to sing folk songs, light a bonfire, and burn a witch. Maybe drink some beer too.

Used to be a real witch back in the 16th and 17th centuries. After the screaming and burning had stopped, the witch was supposed to have “flown away” to Bloksbjerg, a mountain in Germany where the rest of the covens were rumored to have congregated. Today it’s just a straw and cloth effigy, stuffed with firecrackers that squeal and shriek when they go off.

Yes, we explained this to our kids. Things are just matter of fact here. You’ve also probably heard about how famously pragmatic Danes are about parenting. The midsummer bonfire is a perfect example – it wasn’t cordoned off, and kids could run circles around it if they wanted. They were just trusted not to get too close. We made sure our boys gave it a healthy berth anyway – and good thing too, because the bonfire collapsed within a few minutes and came tumbling down in a fiery heap of logs. The witch was trapped under there somewhere. No shrieking, but the crowd sang anyway.

The songs were surprisingly placid and peaceful – one of them translated to “We Love Our Little Land.” I wonder if people sang Christian hymns back then as the real witches burned? Given all the black leather jackets on the teenaged boys and girls alike, maybe some doom or black metal might have been more in line nowadays. Maybe that wouldn’t exactly be hygge.

Den Fynske Landsby

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There were a couple of spring holidays in May, so on one of them, we drove down to the IKEA in Odense. We forgot that, unlike in the US, when it’s a holiday, everything is closed. Including IKEA. No meatballs for you!

We weren’t about to turn around and drive the hour back to Billund though, so after a scan through TripAdvisor and a phone call, we headed over to Den Fynske Landsby, or Funen Village, a “living museum” that recreates a Danish village from the 18th century.

It was a singularly beautiful day – blue skies, vibrant green, flowering bursting in bloom. We spent the day just wandering around and poking in and out of each building until we’d seen the entire village. Although the entire site is a recreation, it’s still a very thorough and detailed one. We got a very good idea of what life was like thanks to the authentic staging and decor in each building, plus thorough plaques and documentation. We learned about how a typical home was run, what school was like for the children, and a variety of trades, jobs, and crafts like blacksmithing, weaving, thatching, farming, how the village preacher lived, how the mill was run, and even toured through a gigantic kiln where the bricks were shaped and fired.

The kids enjoyed the freedom of exploring what each next building and house contained, as well as some hands-on activities – feeding rabbits, practicing walking on handmade stilts. Lots of animals to watch as well – sheep, goats, chickens, ducks, geese, and a cow that was milked by one of the staff (in period garb of course).

On the way back home, we stopped and took some pictures by a canola field. Denmark looks like someone has painted half of the countryside yellow during that part of the year. Come December, when it’s pitch black out at 4pm and we’re tired of the cold and rain, we just need to look at these pics and remind ourselves of what we have to look forward to!

Kartoffelferie

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What’s Kartofler, precious?

Kartofler means potatoes. Po-ta-toes.

And ferie is the word for holiday. It’s pronounced fer-ee-yay.

It has yay in it, so it must be a good thing, right? It is if you’re a kid, because it means that you get the week off of school! But only for kids now. Up until the 1950s or so, kids also used to get time off of school, but that was ’cause they had to stay home and work in the fields, helping their parents to pull the kartofler out of the ground so that they wouldn’t rot. It was cold, wet, hard work, and when potatoes were first introduced to Denmark, people didn’t even like to eat them all that much! They were considered pig food.  (Guess potato chips hadn’t been invented yet?)

Anyway, today it’s just an excuse to have some time off, because Danes like to have time off. Oddly enough, there’s no national culture around doing fun things with potatoes on Kartoffelferie. No potato sack races. No french fry eating contests. No potato potlucks with shepherd’s pie or carmelized potatoes or poutine or potato donuts. (Yes, they are a thing). Maybe that’s ’cause in most of the country (i.e. not rural Jutland), they call this week Efterårs Ferie instead, which simply means Fall Holiday. Bah.

Anyway, I made some kartofler goodness tonight to celebrate. Potato leek soup. Really good w/ a splash of smoked Tabasco.

And no there’s no Leek Holiday, because leek is ‘porre’ in Danish and Porre Ferie sounds sad.

Copenhagen, Day 3: Helsingør

I guess we didn’t have enough of castles the day before, because on Saturday, we hopped in the car and drove an hour north of Copenhagen to see Kronborg Castle, in the quaint seaside town of Helsingør. That’s the Danish name – the English-speaking world knows the castle for its more famous moniker, Elsinore, as immortalized by William Shakespeare in Hamlet. Contrary to popular belief, Hamlet did not live here – he’s a fictional character, remember? – and we smelled nothing rotten in Denmark (aside from some stinky seaweed on the beach).

The castle sits out at the northeastern tip of the entire island of Sealand – important location, as it once prevented ships from crossing from the Baltic through the sound, back when Denmark controlled both sides of the water. Now the other side of the water is Sweden, and the two countries get along fine. They didn’t at one point, of course – but more on that later after we get into the castle.

Kronborg literally means Crown Castle, a name it didn’t receive until 1577, about 150 years after it was first constructed as a smaller fortress. Over the centuries, the castle grew larger and more fortified, until it was finally encircled by huge battlements, cannons, outbuildings, and walls – which means that in 2015, it’ll take you a good 20 minutes to walk from the parking lot to the main gate. Nice stroll though, and time for the boys to inspect the cannons and get chatty with some of the local swans. Once we got close enough to the castle and its massive stone gate, we could finally see how gigantic and impressive it really was.

Inside, it was even more impressive – a central square surrounded by imposing towers and Renaissance-style masonry. Some of the guides were wandering around the courtyard in medieval garb, though we opted for the self-guided tour. It took us awhile to figure out where to buy tickets and get started! (You have to go through the gift shop – don’t do what we did and start going up one of the staircases, or you’ll be doing the tour backwards).

Although the castle is massive, with huge rooms and an absolutely enormous main banquet hall, it’s much more sparsely decorated than either of the castles we saw the day before. No big surprise, as Kronborg has weathered a couple more centuries than Rosenborg Slot, plus some back-to-back catastrophes in the 1600s – a fire that destroyed most of the castle in 1629, and then a Swedish siege and occupation in 1658. Today, that means that most chambers are fresh with white paint, wooden floors, and a few hulking pieces of furniture (most of it not actually from the castle), making it difficult to picture what life was actually like in the castle. Given that it was more a strategic fortress and not a summerhouse like Rosenborg, or the royal family residence like Amalienborg, it probably was never all that hygge to begin with anyway.


There were, however, some incredible and very, very old tapestries hung on the walls. They were fascinating to inspect, not just for their size and detail, but also their imagery and context. My favorite was the one depicting a rhinoceros, then considered a very exotic and little-seen animal to the rest of the world. Not many people on Earth, and certainly not in frosty Denmark, ever got to see one in the pebbly flesh, but if you were the king or part of his court, at least there was Tapestrygram.

The castle was also used as a prison from 1739 until the early 1900s, and the inmates certainly didn’t get to stay in the upstairs chambers. So down to the dungeons we went, to explore the dank, chilly, and dark labyrinth of tunnels below the castle. Somehow, B and I always wind up doing this kind of stuff wherever we travel. I’ve always been fascinated by caves and crypts and oubliettes and tunnels. (I once spent a happy hour alone in the Parisian catacombs, with only my headphones and 6 million Parisian skeletons for company.) Lucky for me, she likes it too. And it’s great fun and adventure for the boys, even if there really wasn’t a lot down there to see. But it was huge, and I think we saw almost all of it. Certainly not the kind of place you’d want to be stuck in at night, after the guards and crowds had gone home!

After we had seen most of the castle, we collected a few shells down on the beach, and then drove back into town to explore some more and find some dinner. Helsingør the town is much more charming than Helsingør the castle, all cottagey and colorful with narrow cobblestone streets and a central shopping and dining promenade.

We poked our heads into a few of the cafes, but decided we wanted something a little more out of the ordinary than your typical Danish fare – lucky for us, TripAdvisor showed a Thai restaurant in town! It was a tiny, unassuming place, but it was open, and tasty, and cheap compared to what you normally pay in any restaurant here. Plus we just sometimes have to remind ourselves how random life can be – a year ago, we might have been enjoying Thai takeout at our house in the East Bay/SF. Now we were having it in a tiny seaside town on the northeast corner of Denmark.

And that was it for our trip! Three jam-packed days, and a quick drive home the next day. Still tons to see in Copenhagen, I’m sure. Give us your tips and tell us what we missed for next time!

Here’s part 2 if you missed it: https://witzaboutus.com/2015/10/11/copenhagen-day-2-castles-coasters/
And part 1: https://witzaboutus.com/2015/04/14/copenhagen-canal-tour/

Copenhagen, Day 2: Castles & Coasters!

We spent Easter weekend in Copenhagen, and B did a post on our first day there back in the spring which you can read about here: https://witzaboutus.com/2015/04/14/copenhagen-canal-tour/

We packed a lot into that weekend, so here’s day 2!

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Friday was the best day of the entire weekend, and I think one of the most memorable days we’ve had all year. We did both the Rosenberg and Amalienborg castles in the morning, walked around the city a lot more, and spent all evening at Tivoli Gardens with some friends.

First, Rosenberg Slot, or Rosenberg Castle. It’s a short walk from the Norregade metro station to Gothersgade, and the castle is in the center of the Kongens Have (or The King’s Garden) park. It was built in 1606 by Christian IV, and used as a summer residence for the royal family, and then only for the next century. Quite a bit larger than most of the summerhus you see around Denmark!

We did the Crown Jewels and treasure vaults first, as B and I knew those would keep the boys’ interest for longer. Like all other kids their age, they are obsessed with Minecraft (I taught them well!), and so anything to do with gems and gold and all that glitters is sure to excite their imaginations.

The treasure vaults did not disappoint – room after room of lavishly gilded weaponry and armor, exquisitely carved ivory, and fabulous royal Danish bling. It took us about an hour to thread our way through the rooms, gawking at all of the detail and wealth. The lowest and most heavily guarded area of the vaults contained the Crown Jewels and collections of massive gems, so the boys liked those the best. M wanted to know if there were enough diamonds in the entire building to make at least one diamond pickaxe.

Afterwards, we toured through the rest of the castle and living quarters. Most of the furniture and tapestries in the rooms were still intact and on display. Big difference from the candlelit white walls and whitewashed wood ceilings that characterize modern Danish homes. Can rooms this cavernous and decor this opulent still be considered hygge?

It was difficult to really picture what life would have been like in the castle – were all of these rooms actually used as living spaces? They felt so huge and impersonal. Was the family constantly entertaining visitors and guests? Were they just hanging out and playing parlor games? And after all of the money spent on the lavish interiors, couldn’t the King have sprung for a better toilet cover than just a hole in a wooden plank?

After the castle tours, we wandered up through the Kongens Have and found a delightful playground on the north side of the gardens, with a variety of unique balance beams, pylons, and notched posts for the kids to clamber across. I’ve noticed that Danish playgrounds offer much richer and organic play options than the traditional ones we are used to back home – they feel part of their surrounding environment, and the structures and elements invite play in more than one way.

Although our next stop was Amalienborg Palace (the current royal family’s winter residence), there were very few lunch options open because of the holiday. (There just aren’t a lot of cafes in that area anyway.) So we doubled back down towards Nyhavn, which was absolutely slammed with fellow tourists. Lots of sidewalk cafes and restaurants there, but no empty tables. Luckily, we found a small homey cafe with a few open spots. We split a few dishes (sorry, can’t even remember what we had!) and enjoyed a quiet, sunny hour away from the cold and crowds. E fell asleep on the bench and missed out on lunch altogether, but woke up in time for ice cream afterwards. It’s never too cold for ice cream!

Then we circled back around towards Amalienborg, just in time to see the changing of the guards in the massive plaza. There are four palaces here, originally built for four different noble families, but the royal family have resided in them since the late 1700s. Today, Crown Princess Margrethe and Prince Henrik stay in one of the palaces during the winter months.

We got to tour inside the palace that belonged to Christian IX and Queen Louise, and after the tour through Rosenborg in the morning, it was much easier to imagine life inside these rooms. Well, kind of. They are now overstuffed with photos and paintings and furniture and collections that show off he family’s various hobbies and interests, but you can still tell that people have spent time and enjoyed themselves and their guests here.

The kids were toured out after that, but they knew that they had a big treat planned for the evening – we were going to meet our friends from Billund at Tivoli Gardens to spend all night on rollercoasters and rides!

Tivoli is one of the most famous destinations in Copenhagen, and rightly so, as it’s also one of the most beautiful amusement parks we’ve ever seen. It’s the second-oldest amusement park in the world, and even though it’s regularly been updated since its opening in 1843, it still feels like it’s from another century. You know the nostalgia you feel when you walk through some of the older, original, and largely untouched areas of Disneyland? It’s like that, except with a wondrous Victorian feel throughout instead of Main Street, Frontierland, Adventureland, Tomorrowland, etc. No surprise that Walt Disney was so inspired by Tivoli that he wanted to ensure that his guests at Disneyland would enjoy the same wondrous atmosphere.

There are some exotic elements and sights throughout Tivoli – a pagoda and Japanese gardens, an Indian palace topped with domes and minarets – but the overall aesthetic is somewhere between turn-of-the-century World’s Fair and 1960s pop-art. Geometric patterns and splashes of color, both verdant and architectural, catch your eye and ignite your senses, and then when the sun sets, the park erupts in twinkling light.

One of the most amazing things about Tivoli is that it’s in the center of the city, so when you get a grand view of the entire park, like from atop a coaster or the ferris wheel, you’re also taking in all of Copenhagen as well. Truly special, and something you don’t get at many amusement parks anywhere in the world.

Two worlds

Two worlds

And best of all, the park wasn’t that busy – especially for a Friday night! We were able to run through the lines to get on the same rides over and over again. The large majority of the rides were also fine for the boys, so we had a blast doing coasters and the ferris wheel and bumper cars and underground minecart tours complete with singing moles. M wanted to keep doing the Odin Coaster so we must have done it 5 times. We ended the night with cotton candy (or candy floss) for the kids, and left when the park closed before midnight, tired and happy from a very full day.

One last thought before closing out this (epic) post: found this in a store window and I think it captures our year in Denmark quite well!

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London Visits and the LEGO Hub

LEGO opened a new hub office in central London last year, and I’ve been out twice this summer for meetings and to conduct some focus testing on one of our games. It’s an amazing space with incredible views, and it’s as clean, well-designed, and playful as you’d expect. I’ll let the pics speak for themselves…

LEGO is also experimenting with a new office culture out of the London hub. There are 4 floors, and each one has a different purpose. The main floor has the lobby, a cafe (w/ free coffee and full-time barista!), and general meeting areas and tables. One floor features more meeting rooms and private conference spaces. The other 2 floors are for work – one is for quiet work and one is more relaxed/social.

However, no one has their own desks as we do back in Billund. There are so many different people from across the organization coming and going that you just pick a desk in the morning and work from there. The folks who work out of the office full-time likely sit at the same places each day, but you don’t have the same departmental divisions as we do on the main campus. On the positive side, you potentially get to meet and chat with lots of different folks from across the org, but on the downside you don’t get to display your own models and builds on your desk and personalize your workspace. First world problems!

Here’s one last cool display in the office – a huge lenticular sign on one of the boardroom walls, which changes as you view it from one side or the other. One side features the LEGO company motto, which translates to “Only the best is good enough,” while the other features our company mission, to inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow. The entire display is built from colored 1×1 ‘cheese’ bricks. An incredible creation for an incredible workplace!

Okay, out of the office and out into the city. I’ve always loved visiting London. There’s a constant juxtaposition of history and modernity. Every building has possibly centuries of history and stories, and if not, it’s ultra-sleek and you have to wonder what once stood there 100, 200, or 1000 years ago. Even the oldest cities in the US are 400 years old or so – most are far more recent.

It’s also the little stuff – everything feels like it does back home, and it’s easy to get around because there’s no language barrier (aside from the superfluous u’s), but it still feels like you’ve stepped into a bizarro version of the US (and they would say the same about us). Different TV shows and music, different flavors of chips (sorry, I mean crisps), different beers, different candies and chocolates in the shops. Obvious stuff like needing to look right instead of left when you cross the street (the crosswalks handily point this out so you don’t get squashed). Also, you can always get killer Indian food in London – something we don’t have a lot of back in Denmark! Here are some of the random shots I snapped around the city in May and July.

Helsinki

I had a quick 2-day trip to Helsinki in the spring for work. Although most of the time was spent at the offices we were visiting, I did get a chance to walk around downtown one evening and had a meal that more than met my expectations of hearty Finnish cuisine.

Like other Scandinavian cities I’ve visited, Helsinki is very clean. Wide streets, not a lot of traffic. The architecture I saw downtown had the classical look I’ve come to expect from European cities, but there was a minimalism and simplicity to the buildings as well. No big surprise that the city used to double for the USSR in movies shot during the Cold War!

My co-workers are as food-adventurous as I am, so we found a restaurant called Lappi which serves traditional Lappish food. Lapland is the northernmost region of Finland, so we were expecting real stick-to-your-ribs-cause-its-way-below-freezing type food. And reindeer. And alcohol. And we got all three!

The restaurant looked like a cozy wooden lodge inside – meget hyggeligt, as you’d say in Danish. Rustic wooden decor, exposed beams, and the whole place warmed up with woolen blankets and fires in the fireplaces. Sven and Kristof from Frozen would have been right at home.

There were 6 of us, so we started with a couple of sampler platters which featured: salmon tartar; salmon mousse topped with fish roe; reindeer carpaccio; reindeer heart jerky; a hunter’s salad of wild mushrooms; pickled fish; various cheeses; and something like cranberry sauce, expect made with cloudberries. We all drank cocktails called ‘Reindeer’s Tears,’ which were shots of Finnish koskenkorva (similar to vodka) with a few cranberries dropped in. Strong stuff. Everything was delicious, though I seemed to be the only one at the table who liked reindeer heart and fish roe, so I was half-full even before the meal showed up.

The other guys opted for the grilled fillet of reindeer – think venison steaks. I got the sautéed reindeer, which came out like shaved beef piled atop a mound of mashed potatoes. I don’t know how I finished the whole thing – I really shouldn’t have! Luckily there was time to walk it off afterwards, though we were all so full that we just headed back to the hotel instead of checking out the many bars downtown. Next time!

Will hopefully make it back to Finland one day – this time with the family, or at least to see a friend out there and check out the Tuska metal festival that’s held there every summer. Some of my favorite metal bands come from Finland, so here are some videos. \m/

Insomnium

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Men at Sea

After our trip to the Viking market in Ribe, we weren’t quite ready to head back to Billund yet. I got a quick recommendation from a Danish co-worker (thanks Facebook Messenger!) to find the Men at Sea, a monument just west of the city of Esbjerg. It was only a 30 minute drive from Ribe, so we all headed down there (we were with our friends from Australia), and I’m glad we did, because it’s a memorable and bizarre must-see sight.

It was built in 1994 to celebrate the municipality’s 100-year anniversary, though I’m not sure what the artist’s intent was, or why there are four of the statues. Looks like something from a Pink Floyd album cover.

Anyway, we had fun checking it out and snapping some pics before heading into Esbjerg for some dinner.

International Viking Market in Ribe

One weekend in May, we headed out to the west coast with another family to see the International Viking market in Ribe, one of the largest in Europe. It’s held at a permanent fairground on the outskirts of town, in buildings, houses, and tents no different than what you would have found there a thousand years ago. Vendors showcased everything from blacksmithing to woodcarving to weaving, and everyone was wearing homemade clothing and leather, just as you’d have seen back then as well. Lots of fun activities for the kids, plus authentic Viking food and ale – Ren Faire had nothing on this place!

First stop was the Great Hall at the entrance – it looked like a scene from the Vikings TV show inside! Dark and smoky, but with many beautiful artifacts and fineries to inspect. The boys loved getting suited up for battle with swords and helms just perfect for their size! They’d have a chance to go berserker a bit later…

Afterwards, we wandered around and did some crafty-type activities. The boys were obsessed with the peg-making station! You selected a stout square wooden peg, and then used a mallet to pound it, bit by bit, into a series of holes in an iron plate. Each time, the edges would get shaved off, and then you’d graduate to the next smallest hole. By the time of the process, you had a narrow wooden peg, useful for cartwrights, shipwrights, etc. We must have spent 30 minutes at the peg station and then again later in the day! I should just get one for the backyard…

We all also enjoyed the area where you got to use a handheld blade to shave sticks down into sharpened stakes. (I know, it’s the simple things in life.) You sat astride a low wooden bench, and pressed down with your feet on a wooden brace meant to hold the stick in place. Then you just bore down with the blade and whittled away until the stick was of sufficient sharpness. Bears and vampires beware!

At noon, we headed over to the combat area so the boys could try their hands at archery and sword fighting! They each got a few shots with a wooden bow – it was much tougher then they’d assumed! Then M got a “sword” and lined up with the other kids to get shouted at for 10 minutes by a burly bearded Viking (who was kind enough to bellow in Dansk and English). He got to do some light sparring with sword and shield, and then joined in on a battlefield rush afterwards.

The men hosting the station did a great job with everything that little boys and girls would want from “combat training”: lots of shouting, banging, and fighting. Even though it was toned down, they made no attempt to cover up that battlefields were where men went to fight and die – doubt you would get quite the same show in the US! (We saw a similar show a few months later at the Jelling Viking market, and the choreographed fighting there was even more intense, right down to the men stalking around the battlefield after the fight, using their swords to ‘finish off’ the fallen enemies. Then again, there was also a tussle that ended in tickle-torture.)

After the exercise, we went off to find some food for our ravenous warriors. A typical Ren Faire might have lots of treats and meals set up in decidedly non-authentic stalls – including the ubiquitous monster turkey leg – but not here. There was only one place to get food, and it was inside one of the stone huts. You could choose between two types of meat pies – minced lamb and mushed peas, or beef baked into dense, chewy bread. Doubt there was even a veggie option (not surprising, considering that most places in Denmark will give you chicken instead of pork if you say you’re vegetarian). We got both, and they were delicious – the boys even asked for seconds, guess they were hungry! We washed it down with water for the boys, and øl (ale) for us. You had to pay additional kroner to ‘borrow’ the pots, just to keep people from walking off with them. My favorite thing about the meal wasn’t just how authentic it was, but that we ate it inside the chilly house – the cool temps made the warm food all the much better.

We spent the rest of the day wandering around the stalls, admiring crafts and handiwork. B was interested in a lot of the jewelry and beadwork, while I coveted some of the drinking horns (didn’t get one). I also just enjoyed watching the vendors and craftsmen and women, impressed with the time and effort it must have taken to fashion their clothes, assemble their gear, and create their crafts to sell. They were all very much into the culture and community – bet there were fun parties in the evenings!

I did manage to pick up one treasure on our way out of the market – this picture of a silly horse rolling around in a field like a dog. It’s been my cover photo on Facebook ever since. Happy horse, happy day!

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