Border Run

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A Brit, Aussie, American, and Korean walk into a mall… haha! No, not a bad joke, just time for another Billund to border run for turkey, booze, and over the counter meds.

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We hit up Citti-Park in hopes of finding just the right snow boots, turkey for American Thanksgiving, cut-rate alcohol, possibly stocking stuffers, and more. We did well. Thankfully, the turkey we came for was purchased. Sadly we didn’t find the cute snowboots half of us were after.

I do recall several flats of Christmas Beer and an obscene amount of nutella.

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Here we are, headed down the escalator with our goods. Had to check the top floor and try out more boots.

Oh geeze! Look at the time! We have to leave Germany and get back to school to pick up the kids!

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I had a fun day with the gals. Racing and riding carts through the parking garage may or may not have happened with cheers and squeals. Looking forward to another girls day shopping no matter which country we’re in.

xo

 

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!

Rainy Spring Walk

This morning I took a walk between rain showers to explore some of the same spots I walked when we first arrived. I wanted to compare the autumn dampness to the spring. If you remember some of the pics I snapped last autumn, it may be fun to compare the brown, feathery foliage to the fresh and bright greens that are finally making an appearance.

Today is about 50*F and rainy. We are enjoying a cozy day inside, other than a walk or two. Happy weekend!

6 Months in Denmark!

Wow, how has it been 6+ months already? After more than a year of wondering, hoping, planning, packing, and then finally moving over in October, we have settled into our new life here in the small Danish town of Billund, and we are happy we made the leap. There were challenges at first, of course, but you expect that whenever you move somewhere new.

It also helps that we are now into the best time of year here in Denmark – green grass, buds on the trees, daffodils and tulips popping up everywhere, and blue skies on most days. (Well, sometimes). The sun doesn’t go down until around 10pm, and in midsummer it will be even later! Quite the change from when we arrived in late fall and all through the winter, when it quickly turned gray and gloomy, with lots of rain and wind and hail – and unfortunately not as much snow (which helps to brighten things up for the short time it remains on the ground.)

I’ll be honest, it’s not pretty around here in the dark season – everything is drab and mucky and it’s just cold and meh. The Danish tradition of hygge certainly helps – we really got into the feeling of “coziness” that the Danes use to ward off the winter blues: warm drinks, rich foods (roast pork, herring w/ curry sauce, caramel potatoes, æbleskiver w/ powdered sugar and jam), time spent with friends, and lots of candlelight glowing off of white walls. Still, all of that is months away, so we are going to enjoy the summer for as long as it’s here. It never gets hot, at least not compared to Pennsylvania, Texas, or certainly not Arizona. Right now it’s in the mid 60s and breezy, which is perfect.

We’re finally settled into our house, which we’ve also fixed up to be nice and hygge (though the boys’ rooms need serious organization). We purged most of our furniture and belongings when we left California, but we’re still getting rid of stuff. No closets and limited storage, but to be honest, we are finally happy to have less stuff weighing us down. (We still have more to get rid of!)

The house is also a short bike ride from the kids’ school and my office. I haven’t even driven a car since we left California, since we have a manual and somehow I’ve made it to manhood without ever learning how to drive one. No matter, as I really enjoy going to and fro on the bike – much more enjoyable than being stuck and crowded on the BART from San Francisco to the East Bay. Plus it takes all of 10 minutes to get home from work – which promptly ends at 4. (Work/life balance is a big deal here.)

I can’t say too much about my job at LEGO, but I will say that I am loving it and it is everything I hoped it would be. Working on a few very exciting game projects, one of which will hopefully be announced soon. Love my team – lots of bright, funny, passionate and experienced professionals from all areas of the videogame industry and from within LEGO. We’re all super busy juggling the LEGO games portfolio and are rarely all in the office together. I’ve traveled more in the past 6 months for work than I ever did at any of my previous jobs: trips to New York, LA, Munich, Manchester (5 times so far), and Helsinki, with more trips planned for London, Oslo, and New York (again). However, we all still make time to hang out, do the occasional group building project, and play games online (current fave: Helldivers), or our Friday lunch at the pizzeria down the street, which is affectionately called “going dirty.”

B, the boys and I have also done some travel and exploring together, mostly within driving distance so far: Hamburg, Aarhus, Ribe, Copenhagen, plus our trip to Spain over Christmas. If you’ve been following this blog, you’ve already seen all of that.

I’m also really happy to see how quickly B and the boys have settled in as well. We’ve moved a lot in the past 10 years (3 houses in Phoenix, then to Boulder, then to San Francisco), but this was the easiest transition so far – despite being by far the largest move. This is not only because we’re in the “Expat Bubble” here, but also in the “LEGO Expat Billund Bubble.” Life is smoother in the bubble than it would be had we moved to a small town without many internationals around. It’s been very easy to make friends here, since most people here are also from elsewhere. We regularly hang out with friends from Iceland, Australia, South Korea, the UK, a few Americans, and some Danes of course, and the boys have made lots of pals as well.

They also really enjoy school – sometimes it is difficult to get them out of there at the end of the day! They are always deep into some kind of art or design project, getting completely filthy out on the playground, or inside building LEGO (the company sponsors the school and there’s a heavy LEGO/Mindstorms presence in the classrooms).

It took B and I a bit to adjust to the curriculum and education philosophy at the school, since it’s not only a Danish school, but also an International Baccalaureate program as well (which I did during my jr/sr years in high school, so at least I was a bit familiar). It’s similar to the Montessori school of thought where kids are encouraged to pursue interests and do hands-on projects, within an overall structure that the entire school follows.

The kids have done units of inquiry (as they are called) on signs and symbols, housing through the ages, and are now focusing on lifecycles and biology. Each UoI presents opportunity for discussions, lessons, and projects in a variety of disciplines, so that the kids get a more holistic experience rather than switching between individual subjects. Hardest thing for us to get used to is the lack of homework – we appreciated the organized structure and weekly homework folders at the boys’ school in California (which was in an advanced and competitive school district). It let us stay informed on what M was doing each week, and gave us opportunities to track his progress and help him out. Here, the academic pace is more relaxed, and there’s no homework at all – it’s all handled at the end of the school day. We do receive emails about the weekly class lessons and projects though, so that helps us stay involved at home with discussions and supplementary reading or videos.

As for B, I’ll let her cover her days in her own post, but she has good friends she hangs out with often. She frequently gets out and about, popping over to nearby cities like Vejle, Kolding, or sometimes Odense. (IKEA!) Although she has only just started to look for work, she has recently started a networking group in town with two friends, and it’s already getting a big response. Go B!

Finally, we are both taking Danish classes twice a week. It is correctly considered one of the world’s most difficult languages – omg why don’t they pronounce half of their consonants? We are doing well, though. We have the same teacher, who we love, but B goes in the mornings twice a week and I go in the evenings. Usually only 6 to 8 people in class, and we are all from different countries: Iran, India, Greece, Portugal, Australia, S Korea, the UK, and two of us from the States (and we both grew up 30 min away from each other!) I don’t know that B and I will ever be fully conversant – plus we never get the chance, as the Danes like to switch to English as soon as they hear you mangling their words. Maybe within a year I will at least be able to translate most of the mail I get from the kommune (local government) and the bank without painstakingly typing it into Google Translate.

There are of course things we miss from life back home – convenience stores, take-out Chinese, closet space, a garbage disposal, being able to shop on a Saturday past 3pm, a tax rate below 50% – but those are small prices to pay for adventure, travel, a quiet, clean, and safe place to live, and the experiencing of being part of an international community. (Oh, and 50% off LEGO at the employee shop.) We miss our family and friends of course (and our dog!), but Facebook and FaceTime have made that very easy to stay in touch and talk often. And hey look, we’ve even kept up this blog for 6 months! (Though I am overdue on a few other entries).

After work today, I rode my bike over to LEGOLAND to meet up with B and the boys and some of our friends. On the way home (they drove), I stopped and took some pics of our town, so here’s a little tour:

Cykling til Bageren

One recent Sunday we decided it was nice enough to hop on our bikes and ride down to the bakery in town for breakfast. ‘Nice enough’ means “not gray and miserable out” and also “not so cold that our ears won’t freeze and fall off of our heads,” like it is outside right now. Not that this stops most folks around here – getting around on your bike is a way of life, no matter what the weather. We’ve just been too soft to deal with it until now.

Anyway, Billund is not that big, and it’s criss-crossed with bike trails that cut through parks and forests and through all of the neighborhoods. Part of the fun of our ride was figuring out the optimal way to get to the center of town.

E hasn’t started riding his own bike yet, so he trailed along behind B. Max was off and zooming around, no problem. Both boys like their new mohawk helmets! It was a pretty short ride. Maybe 10-15 minutes?


Town, of course, was dead quiet on a Sunday morning, but the bakery was open – and very warm and cozy. And yes, we got “Danish” – though here it’s just called wienerbrød, or “Viennese bread.” And yes, it is delicious – soft and flaky outside, dense and gooey in the center. Not sure what the boys got but it disappeared quickly.

Anyway, it’s fun to live somewhere so small and bike-friendly that we can get around this easily. (In fact, B rode her bike to the bar last night… but that’s a different post 🙂

Rundhøj

Went for a walk in our new neighborhood a few weekends ago and noticed that the path out back encircles a large mound.

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Doesn’t look like a landscaped bed, plus it had this sign posted on it:

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Translation: Dogs must not dig in the mound.

So, yep – that, plus a nearby street called Gravhøjen (burial mound), means it’s one of the ancient burial mounds found all over Denmark – there are more than 22,000 protected sites. I just didn’t know we had one so close to the house!

Some locals (via one of the Facebook groups we belong to) gave us some further info. It’s called a rundhøj, and is at least 1100 years old (the Viking era ran from the late 8th century until the late 11th, after which point the Danes’ ancestors started burying their dead in the Christian fashion). Archaeologists searched this particular mound in 1896 and then again in 1952, but it was found to be empty.

Guess that means we won’t be seeing this guy hanging around our backyard one misty night…

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Godt nytår!

Happy 2015 from Denmark! It’s our first year here, so we were curious about some of the Danish traditions.

We spent the evening with our friends and their family at their house (American & Danish). Dinner, boardgames (Sequence and Blokus!), lots of different Danish and Belgian Christmas beers. Danes traditionally eat cod for dinner on New Years, but we had roast beef (our friend Peter is an excellent cook!).

Shortly before midnight, everyone gathered in the living room to watch the Queen’s speech on TV – wishes for a prosperous New Year and smart but welcoming solutions to the new immigrants joining Danish society (I guess that counts us too?). And in the last few minutes of 2014, we all stood on chairs, perched and ready to jump down into 2015! Hop! Then everyone shared a special hoop-shaped marzipan cake for a sweet new year.

Next, we all bundled up to head outside, because the sky was exploding! Back in the States, it’s typical to drive somewhere (and sit in traffic) to watch a big fireworks celebration (especially on July 4th), but here in Denmark, fireworks are legal, so everyone puts on their own show! Boomboomboomboomboomboomboom – everywhere we looked, in every direction, huge displays were going off in the sky. It lasted well over an hour – B said they were still going off at 2am, after the boys and I had already passed out at home. And this is just a sleepy little town – I can’t imagine a larger city like Aarhus or Copenhagen! Our friends had to sedate their dog that evening so she could make it through the barrage without a nervous breakdown. Our landlord had done the same thing for his dog too, so I expect it’s pretty common here!

This is also apparently a big night for tricksters. We saw lots of toilet-papered trees on our drive home, but that’s mild compared to what the hooligans will do if you haven’t taken down or chained up your mailbox. They apparently like to set off explosives in there too! (In fact, this is specified on our new lease – the mailbox will be removed 12/31 and put up again on 1/2). So much for Danes being inveterate rule-followers!

Thanks again to our friends for hosting a memorable night! Godt nytår!

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Spain, parte dos: Bienvenidos a Malaga!

Here’s part 2 of our trip to Spain during Christmas vacation – you can read part 1 here!
https://witzaboutus.com/2014/12/30/spain-parte-uno-a-donde-vamos/

Our afternoon flight from Billund to Málaga was around 3 hours, and it was a balmy 62 degrees when we stepped out of the airport. Everyone else was bundled up in winter coats and scarves, but to us, it felt like a typical summer day back in San Francisco. Meanwhile, it was gray and gloomy back in Billund, so we already knew that a week on the Mediterranean – even a cool, off-season week – was a smart pick.

After getting some Euros and finding the right airport bus, we rode the 15 minutes to the Alsa bus depot, close to the city’s main train station and our AirBnB rental. Unfortunately, we took a bit of a scenic route, as I assumed that we could use a pedestrian overpass above the train tracks as a shortcut to the apartment. Turned out to be twice as long (and passed through a dumpy looking part of town), but the boys enjoyed the clackety-clack of their suitcase wheels along the sidewalk, and we also happened upon some bright green native parrots nesting in an abandoned warehouse.

Our apartment for the night was on the 13th floor! I guess triskaidekaphobia isn’t a problem in Spain (well, not quite – nothing bad will happen to you on Friday the 13th, but apparently a Tuesday the 13th is muy malo). Our host was about our age, and although some of the AirBnB reviews had said he spoke little English, we communicated just fine. B and I both took Spanish in high school, though we’ve had little occasion to use it (even after living in the Southwest and California for the last 14 years). In any case, his English was better than our Spanish!

The apartment was big and roomy, with a room for each of the boys and one for us, a kitchen with a washing machine (clothes get hung out the window on a line – a dizzying experience for B when she washed a few items), a bright orange-red bathroom (with a bidet! the boys were confused), a nice TV, and most importantly, a good wifi connection! Our host showed us around the place, pointed out the pedestrian and dining area of town on Google Maps, and then left us to settle in.

It was only a 15 minute walk to the downtown area, and although our apartment was located in an average, not-terribly-pretty part of town (typical when you’re close to the major transit hubs, I guess), the city center was much nicer. Palm tree lined streets, sunset on the horizon, a big park running down the main boulevard, and throngs of people all heading towards Calle Marino Lario, which runs north into the pedestrian and shopping district.

We’d arrived in town during siesta time – and yes, stores do close in the middle of the day – but by now, people were starting to come out again for the evening, and with these downtown shopping districts, it’s not hard to see why. Aarhus, in Denmark, has a similar area, and I wonder why there aren’t more in American cities. Once you get into the shopping district, there are no cars – just endless promenades and streets and plazas where you can find cafes and tapas bars and restaurants, tons of shopping – and tons of people. Very easy to explore – or get lost, if you don’t mind that. (And with Google Maps in our pockets, not really hard to do that anymore).

We stopped at a few restaurants where I could ask, in my limited Spanish, if their kitchens were open – they all said no. What I didn’t understand is that this just meant that they weren’t preparing meals at the moment (not until around 8pm), but you could still get some tapas from the bar.

The boys were getting hangry by this point, so we just picked a place called Tapa’s Bar (lame pun or unnecessary apostrophe?) in a nice wide plaza dotted with orange trees. They seemed to be really understaffed though – the two waitresses were surly and unhelpful, and many of the items on the menu were sold out. After a long wait to place our order, we finally got some bread and cured ham, a dish of olives, a Spanish tortilla (a delicious cake/omelette made with eggs and potatoes) and beer and wine for B and me. It was just enough to whet our appetites, but we didn’t want to stick around. The boys had fun climbing a nearby orange tree though, and we also chatted with a little Spanish boy at the next table, who was eager to show off his tiny toy gun collection (stored in a belt pouch that read USA, of course).

We got a nice surprise when we left the plaza – beautiful, ornate light displays all the way down the promenade, and leading out towards an even bigger main plaza. I guess we arrived in Málaga on the right evening, because there was a big party kicking off, with a band, singers, and parades of musicians tromping and tooting through the narrow lanes and cobblestone alleyways for the next hour. Great people watching too – the Spanish have style, even when they’re bundled up against the cold. Lots of belted waistcoats and jackets and scarves. The women all had their makeup and hair done (tasteful, not too much), and I noticed a lot of young men with brightly colored sneakers and piled-up pompadour hair. Also, not a single logo or branded clothing item in sight. Quite different than what you’d typically see at a mall in the US.

After wandering around through the streets and shops for awhile, we found a tiny tapas place in a narrow alley and grabbed a table. Within minutes, another marching band paraded past, as if to say “Welcome to Spain! Now have some more tapas!” So we did. E must have worked up an appetite too, because not only was he hungrier than usual, he also wanted to try the most unusual items on the menu. Seriously, this is the kid that won’t even eat some of the basic meals we’ve been making in Denmark, and here he’s asking for fried octopus, and snails, and small red snappers with the heads still on. We got almost all of it – plus some neon-yellow, saffron-rich paella – and had a merry seafood feast.

After dinner, we walked off our meal and got the boys some little explosive snappers so that they could join in the merrymaking. Then there was only one thing left to do before we turned in for the night. Yes, more food! Chocolate and churros, to be exact. B and I had had this when we were in Cartagena (Spain, not Colombia), and we knew the boys would love it. The churros are not the kind we are used to from ballparks and zoos (or Costco) – they’re not sugared, and barely even sweet. Which is fine, since the hot chocolate is plenty sweet enough. I’d hardly even call it hot chocolate – hot pudding is more like it. Needless to say, the boys devoured theirs.

We trooped back to the apartment, happy to have found some pleasant surprises during just a few short hours in town. Here is E, crashed out on the couch – the boys were so zonked from their big night out that they slept through the night without a peep. Come to think of it, we were out hard too, thanks to what was possibly the most comfortable bed in all of Spain.

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Tomorrow: adios to Málaga, and a trip to Granada!

And oh yeah, one more important thing to point out: Taco Bell in Spain sells beer?!

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