30 March 2008

Bollywood Film Festival

There is a Bollywood Film Festival in Copenhagen at the moment. Although I go to the movies quite often I had never watched a Bollywood movie until this week. The closest I have been was about five years ago when I went to see the Danish movie ‘Halalabad Blues’ which has a Bollywood inspired dance sequence. I’ll have to apologize to the couple of billion Bollywood experts out there who actually know what they are talking about for the following spontaneous impressions from the complete Bollywood novice that I am.
My friends and I bought a pass for the whole festival. The first evening we were there was a small culture shock for me. The auditorium was very much alive during the movie. There were wolf whistles, cheers and shouts to the actors and what took place on the screen. Some people had smuggled in hip flasks and were having a small party, etc. This kind of anarchy in the auditorium reminded me of the Sunday afternoon ‘school cinema’ from my childhood. I can’t remember much about the movies we saw then, except I know that it was all a contributory factor to my great love of the movies today, but the circumstances, the whole atmosphere in the cinema and the rows we made I do remember very well. We used to stand in line outside looking as angelic as we possibly could, because the order in which they let us in depended on how calm and well-behaved we looked. But once we had passed that entrance we all stampeded through the corridors, into the hall, and took whatever short cuts we could find to the seats we wanted regardless if there was actually an aisle or if we climbed across the rows of chairs like a hurdler. During the movies, there would be children making their own sound effects to whatever took place in the movie and there would be paper darts and paper balls flying around. All that stopped when video arrived. But the lively auditoriums at the Bollywood Film Festival made me think back at these childhood Sundays with great nostalgia.

During the first Bollywood movie we watched I think I was being much too analytic. I was trying to understand. And I got caught up in technical stuff such as the fact that all the sound seemed to be dubbed afterwards – I assume by the original actors. The lip/sound synchronization was a little out of synch, and background sound/noise was extremely scarce. It made big, outdoor scenes with a couple of hundred people sound as if they were being recorded in a soundproof shoe box. And I suppose I also tried to make sense out of the extravagant music numbers. I have a great love for the 1930s and 1940s Hollywood musicals, and the musical numbers in those could either carry the plot, visualize a certain mood or the character’s thoughts and wishes, or sometimes just be pure dance apparently without any deeper meaning. In the four Bollywood movies I watched none of the musical numbers seemed to carry the plot.

We went again the following evening and I was determined to just lean back and enjoy it and not really think too much about it. It was beginning to be fun. I didn’t even mind that towards the end something very unexpected and highly unlikely suddenly occurred and solved all the problems. Sort of a ‘deus ex machina’ effect. During the third movie I was beginning to warm up to this genre. Why take it all so seriously? The song-and-dance extravaganzas, the over the top special effects, arranged marriages, love triangles, a lot of suffering young people, really bad villains, distressed women, heroic men, a lot of courting but very few kisses, slapstick comedy and the abundant colour orgy was great escapism. It wasn’t until about halfway through the fourth movie in three days that I began to feel the symptoms of an acute overdose, and I doubt I’ll watch anything else during the festival week. But this festival was still quite an experience!

26 March 2008


One of my sponsor children asked me about snow a few months ago. What was it? How did it feel to touch it? And did we get a lot of it in my country?
Mariam is seven and comes from a small village in southern Mali where it gets close to 40 degrees centigrade in the summer, and during the coldest months rarely gets below 12-15 degrees centigrade at night. I tried to figure out how I could explain the concept of snow to a child who had never seen snow or ice, or even experienced anything really cold. Then I heard they had a refrigerator at her local community centre and managed to organize for someone to show her the ice box in there. I explained that snow fell almost like rain, that children would play in it, and I found some photos of the snow covering everything in our back yard. I also managed to track down a children’s book in French for her, in which white was the predominant colour because the story took place in winter. Thinking I had done what I could to explain about snow, I sent it all to her. A few months later I received a letter from her. One of the things she wrote was, “Thanks for the colouring book” …..

25 March 2008

Linguistic quirks

When living in a small country it seems like a necessity to learn foreign languages if you want to communicate with people outside your own country. From the first grade we were taught to understand Swedish and Norwegian. Not necessarily speak it, just understand it when you read it or listen to it. Later it is compulsory to learn English and at least one more foreign language, usually German. The three Scandinavian languages are somewhat similar, but I think you both need to learn about the basic differences and also try to make an effort when listening in order to understand. This used to work fine, but the last time I was in Norway, the young people immediately started speaking in English to me when they heard I did not speak Norwegian to them. I am sure it’s the same in Denmark, as there has been less emphasis on Scandinavian languages in ground school for a number of years. I think this is sad, as it was quite a gift to be able to manage all over Scandinavia with one’s own language. Like a “buy one get three” deal.

The hard part is not really the words that are completely different in the Scandinavian languages. The tricky words are those that seem alike but really have different meanings. A Swede asking for a “rolig” [Swedish=fun] place in Copenhagen will sometimes be pointed in the direction of a “rolig” [Danish=tranquil] place such as a cemetery by a well-meaning Dane. In a shop a Swede will sometimes ask for a “kasse” [Swedish=bag] and be given a “kasse” [Danish=box] instead, which seems a bit of an overkill for the two apples and a chocolate bar they just bought. Some years back, when I was visiting a Swedish friend, we took a walk by the coast and found a nice little café called “Café Måsen” down by the water. “Café Seagull.” Very idyllic. I do know what it means in Swedish, but somehow it was quite a distraction for me that the same name had a completely different meaning in Danish. Hardly a bad word, just a little childlike and funny: “Café Botty”.

Some time ago another Swedish friend, whose knowledge of the Danish language (even below the waist) is excellent and knew I would appreciate the picture, e-mailed me this photo taken in a Swedish tennis hall. The text says it’s forbidden to [play] ball against the walls. However, in Danish the exact same words mean it’s forbidden to screw against the walls.

Then there is Norway…. When I was about ten and on holiday with my parents I made friends with a local Norwegian girl. On a nice summer day, we went swimming in a mountain lake. Wenche had already waded out into the water and as I was ready to get in, I shouted “How is the water, Wenche?” and she answered that it was “fresh”. I ran to the end of the jetty, jumped into the water and learned the hard way that there must have been nuances in the meaning of that particular word in our two languages, because she meant ‘ice-cold-so-your-blood-will-freeze’ and I heard ‘refreshing.’ I must have been close to getting a heart attack right then and there and ending my life as a ten-year-old! But now I’ll always remember that mountain lakes are cold, even on a hot summer day.

During a train travel in Norway I looked out of the window as the train stopped at a small town called Hell close to Trondheim. A lot of people rushed out of the train in order to get their picture taken with the sign at the cargo handling/godsexpedition. I stayed on the train. I mean, what does one do, if the train leaves and one gets stuck in Hell? And yes, it can get quite cold in the winter, so Hell does in fact sometimes freeze over.

Finally, there is that much publicized name of a small town in Upper Austria. No joke, no hoax, it is a real place. And actually not that far from Petting, Bavaria. The beginning of the word is pronounced like the beginning of ‘food’, but still. It seems tourists constantly go there to take pictures, and sometimes to take the sign itself. There is a ‘drive carefully’ sign below the name of the town, but literally translated from German it means, “Please, not so fast!” which does not make the whole thing less amusing. The local people are fed up with having to replace the sign constantly and even had a vote about a name change a few years ago but decided to keep their 1000-year old name. You’d think the local people might try to cash in on this tourist pilgrimage, but there are no souvenirs. They have no F***ing postcards and no F***ing T-shirts for sale!

Update August 3rd 2008:
The other day I was walking through the Latin Quarter in Copenhagen with my American friend Paul, who understands Danish but still turned his head to have a second look at this sign and had to smile! In Danish it just means finish. And the poster refers to the end of a sale.

23 March 2008


The year before the final collapse of the Soviet Union I was invited to stay with a family in Petrozavodsk, Russian Karelia. A friend of mine, Torben, a Danish doctor, had visited some colleagues in the USSR the previous year and gave me some good advice about the travel.
There was so much extra paper work because I was going to stay with a family and not at a hotel, and Torben had also prepared me for the very thorough security check I would have to go through in customs. Everything was unpacked, opened and scrutinized. Down to removing the cap of my toothpaste and examining the contents. My Russian friend had arranged that I could visit a school during my stay, and I had asked the teachers I was to meet if there were any teaching materials from Denmark they would like to see, and they had asked for three things: maths books for the first grade, beginners books for learning English and material for sex education. I tried to find the most ‘sober’ book I possibly could regarding the last subject. But I still anticipated problems at the customs because of this. On the other hand, Torben had managed to get through customs with 150 packets of ten with condoms for the hospital his colleague and friend worked at by insisting they were for personal use. “How long are you planning to stay?” “Two weeks!” How I would have loved to be a fly on the wall during that conversation. But no, when seeing the book on sex education, the customs officer froze for a second and then picked up the book. I’ll swear he looked through every single page of the book before he called over another customs officer who also ‘inspected’ the book thoroughly. Both officers went over to a secluded area and passed the book around to 3 or 4 other colleagues, and they took their time looking though the book, while taking turns keeping an eye on this ‘pervert’ who was trying to smuggle it into the USSR. I managed to keep a straight face through the whole procedure. Finally, they decided to classify it as ‘pornography’ and confiscated it. They put it in a sealed envelope along with a Danish crossword puzzle they had also confiscated from me. They told me in no uncertain terms that this material was strictly illegal but they would let me off with a warning, this time. I could pick up the envelope when I left the country again.

I finally met my friend in the arrival hall, and I guess he had started to worry as hours had passed after my flight had arrived. During the next week and a half I would meet a lot of wonderful people in St. Petersburg (back then, it was of course still Leningrad) and Petrozavodsk and experience a lot of interesting things. I had noticed that when my Russian friend introduced me to his friends and acquaintances he said my name, and then said something else, which made people look at me with a rather wry smile. My Russian vocabulary is less than 20 words, so I had no idea what he was saying, but after this had happened a couple of times, I asked him what he was saying about me. It turned out he had said, “This is Millie. She’s the enemy!”

Of all the places I have travelled, I have hardly met people (friends of my Russian friend) more eager to invite me home or take me out somewhere. An Armenian friend of Victor’s insisted on taking us for a full day excursion by car up into the taiga. Great! I was really looking forward to that. He did warn me that his car was small, and old, but that didn’t matter to me. The next morning, as we were waiting outside the house, we heard some loud bangs – sort of like Onslow’s car in Keeping Up Appearances – and there they were! One of the side windows at the back was partly missing. Instead they had tried to cover it with corrugated cardboard and tape with limited success. It was October and freezing cold, but who wants to make a fuzz over a little ice-cold turbulence in the car. After going a few miles, the bonnet blew up. I am sure my heart skipped at least a couple of beats. The driver simply stuck out his head through the side window, so he could see where he was going, and pulled over. He managed to tie the bonnet in a closed position with a piece of string, shrugged and mumbled, “it happens sometimes”. To this day I am impressed that the hinges didn’t break and the whole thing blew off, not just up. Through all this the left side of my brain tried to convince the right side of my brain (which was terrified) to calm down. I would either have the time of my life, or we would end up killing ourselves, and I had absolutely no influence on which way it would go, so I might as well relax. Luckily for all of us, it was the first. The almost literally endless forest up there was extremely beautiful in the autumn. Maybe 15-20 different kinds of trees growing wild among each other and had every colour from green, through yellow, orange, red and purple to brown. I’ll never forget that day.

The visit to the school was interesting. I taught English in an 8th grade and assisted the teacher of the first grade in the art class. The pupils didn’t have to wear school uniforms anymore, but most of them still did. I wonder what my Russian colleagues thought of the change of rules I practised that day. E.g. the students were used to having to stand up when they spoke in the classroom. I explained that in Denmark you remained seated when you spoke, so that was what we were going to do during my class. Most of the students seemed to enjoy a change, but there were a few who nervously glanced in the direction of their regular teacher as if to ask, “Is this really OK?” before they remained seated while speaking. Another thing that seemed to shock some of them was that I would sometimes address someone who had not raised his hand. They were definitely not used to that.

The first graders were great. They had collected leaves and moss outside and were making collages of their findings. The sad thing for me to see was that they were all given the exact same colours of crayons to work with and specific written instructions (hand written by the teacher): paint a sun in the upper right hand corner of your paper. Put glue on your leaf. Place it in the lower left hand corner, etc… One of the children I was working with was Sasha. We exercised a little disobedience together, disregarded the instructions and stuck the leaves and moss wherever we liked on the paper. I sincerely hope I did not get him into trouble concerning the assessment of his project afterwards! before I left he came over to me as I was packing my bag, held out his little clenched fist, released it to let his boy scout pin fall into my hand and raced out of the room before I could say or do anything. I still have the pin, have often thought of him and hope he has a good life!

I am also a computer teacher, and they showed me their computer room. Back home, we had PCs in several classrooms and here they showed me a room with a huge computer in the middle, and several monitors along the walls. The computer was the size of a medium sized refrigerator. Not without sarcasm, the teacher said, “Soviet computers: The greatest in the world!”

Time to go home. At the airport I got back the envelope with the items they confiscated upon entry. I.e. I got a sealed envelope with my crossword puzzle. No trace of the book…….

22 March 2008

Travelling through Europe by train

I do not even want to get into exactly how long ago that was, but back in the last century some time when I was in high school, my friends and I always travelled all over Europe by train during the summer holidays. Literally all over. As far as the Interrail passes were valid, anyway. Decreasing prices for plane tickets as well as perhaps increasing indolence may make such long train travels seem rather anachronistic to students today. True enough, I have spent very many hours in trains during my youth, but sometimes it was just as interesting getting somewhere as actually being there.

Some of these travels I wouldn’t have liked to be without. Such as going by train all the way through Italy one summer and experiencing the huge differences in the behaviour of the people we shared compartments with. In the north of the country they did not seem very different from people we would meet in Scandinavia. Nice, but slightly reserved. South of Rome people seemed to talk a lot more to the other passengers, and we all shared whatever food and drink we had brought. South of Naples was when all the fun began. Our compartment was meant for six people, but with a little goodwill and effort you could fit in eight people, which we did when the train got very crowded. The corridor was extremely crowded as well, so it was easier for people to push their luggage in through the windows than carrying it with them to their seat. Consequently, we assisted in getting bags off all sizes, a couple of folding push chairs and at one point a homemade cage with a live chicken in through the windows. All in all quite an eventful trip to Sicily. Very hot and very smelly, but we had fun.

I remember another train travel which ended up not being much fun, though. At a point my friend and I felt slightly bored and also needed to stretch our legs a bit, so we decided to ‘go for a walk’. This was the kind of train with corridors going all the way through the train at one side, and closed compartments usually seating up to six people each leading out to these corridors. We started walking towards one end of the train and got to talk about how often we actually met someone we knew while we were travelling. Waiting in line at the Gare du Nord right in front of us would be someone we knew from school. Someone’s cousin would be crossing the street right in front of us in Verona, etc. Like I said, ‘everyone’ went Interrailing at the same time. We both played sports quite seriously at the time and when going to and from games in the weekends we usually met someone we knew on the ferries in Denmark. (Now there are bridges everywhere and I suppose nobody talks to each other anymore). Anyway, as far-fetched as it seemed, we started glancing into the compartments as we walked the length of the train and back. You never know. Naturally, we didn’t see anyone we knew, and we didn’t think about it anymore until two hours later, when we were addressed by two uniformed French policemen who asked us to take our things and come with them. Uncomprehendingly we tried to explain that we were on our way home and would miss our connecting train if we left this train, but there was no mercy. Downcast, slightly crestfallen and very confused we followed them. They kept us for three hours at the police station as we were questioned and they went through all our stuff. Not having done anything except taking a walk in the train, it took us quite a while to figure out what had hit us. It turned out that things had been stolen from a lot of compartments in that particular train, and when talking to the police several people remembered these two girls walking around, looking into all the compartments! They finally let us go. I felt about two inches tall and really just wanted to call my parents and say I would be home later than expected. (But this is what I don’t understand: if we had really stolen something, wouldn’t we just have left it in the train when the police turned up and asked us to leave the train? Maybe they checked the compartment after we left....).
Finally, I can’t think of train travels in Europe without thinking of a trip back from the former Yugoslavia once. In the same compartment as my friend and I were two young men, who were extremely tanned and all they were wearing were shorts. One of them also had an Indiana Jones type of hat and they were carrying their wallets pushed down behind the waistband of their shorts. We could hear they were Finnish but could not understand anything they said to each other. We tried to steer clear of these two young men, whom we simply considered ‘too much’! We basically ignored them. After many hours in that train, and the weather not being that hot anymore, these two half naked men seemed more and more out of place, somehow. Long story, but we were well into Germany before we tried speaking Swedish with them. It turned out that they had been camping, one morning they had gone to get breakfast and when they got back their tent was gone. In it had been their backpacks and everything else they had brought with them. They only had the shorts they were wearing and their wallets. Since they had money, and a valid Interrail pass, they had decided to travel back home and pack again so they could continue travelling. They just caught a train with no time to spare, and there had been nowhere they could buy some clothes, yet.

We had been prejudiced and convinced that these two men were parading around showing off their bodies as if they were god’s gift to women. And they had really had all their clothes stolen. Another lesson learned for me. Don’t judge. And maybe a lesson for the two men as well: if you need help – ask for it! So, Juha and Pekka from Jyväskylä in Finland, I wish I would have known about your situation earlier, and we would have lent you some clean T-shirts long before we actually did!

18 March 2008

Fáilte go hÉireann!

”A grand day it is!” an elderly Irishman said as he nodded in my direction when we were waiting for the local bus early one November morning last year. There we were, in the pouring rain, and I was basically trying to cling to a pylon in order not to risk being swept away by the frequent blasts of wind. After spending about three seconds in utter disbelief, I looked at his face and realized there wasn't a trace of irony in what he had just said. So I took a second look at the view of the sun rising in the horizon - local rain or not - over Cork during the fury of the elements and simply had to agree with him. No reason to be slightly depressed just because of a little "soft weather". It was indeed a fine day with lots of opportunities. I really love that unfailing good spirits and optimism most of the Irishmen I know have. "As long as you're above ground, you're doing fine!"

I had been to Ireland twice before but never in the SW part of the country. I soon found out that almost all the boys, and a lot of the girls, carried around wooden clubs which seemed to have quite a potential striking power. It sort of reminded me of a time, about 20 years ago, when we had a subject on Australia at the school I was teaching at back then, and I walked around all day with an Australian wiradjari (a hunting boomerang which is asymmetrically shaped and looks more like a club than a traditional boomerang - about 28 inches. See picture) sticking out of my bag. For some reason I don't remember any students - or colleagues for that matter - willing to get into any serious arguments with me that particular day!

Of course the clubs the Irish kids were carrying around were hurleys, used for one of the major Irish sports: hurling. I watched a game once. 35,000 enthusiastic spectators, 8 officials, 2 goals and 30 players each equipped with a hurley, and I estimate that every player must have got around 40 or 50 bruises during the course of the game, as the small, hard ball was hurled away and hit them. It looked somewhat like a cross between hockey and rugby to a layperson like myself. Miraculously everyone survived.

We went to a pub afterwards, and as people were singing along with the music of the live band, all 398 verses, it struck me that maybe they actually burned more calories than they consumed when they went to the pub.

Yes, I love the Irish. And I may even learn to understand Hibernian English some day. I am not a native English speaker and still need to remind myself that the shop assistants are not really concerned about my well-being when they ask me "Are you OK?" Nor can I just take all the time I want when they say, "That'll be € 7.50, when you're ready!"