Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas Eve morning

It is all quiet and dark when I wake up, no sound apart from Zoe's calm breath next to me. I am in my teenage room, the room my parents have converted into guest room and let me and Zoe stay in when we visit. It is full of book cases along each wall, storing my dad's inherited book collection. Each time I am there I discover a new book that I have never seen before and contemplate reading it. I rarely get to read anything here though because Zoe wants my attention 24/7 and because I enjoy my family's company very much; our evenings with coffee and knitting, chocolate and interior magazines and conversations about our lives. I turn to the chair doubling as a side table next to the bed and pick up my phone, hoping not to wake Zoe with the light. It is 6:30 and I see text messages from last night when I went to bed early. Facebook notifications. Nothing important. "I'm on this number" I reply quickly and turn to Zoe. She will sleep for another couple of hours, her 'schedule' is much later when we are here, which I like, I enjoy having her up with us in the evenings although she sometimes gets overtired. I get up, dress quickly into comfortable but warm clothes and go into the living room where a half-decorated Christmas tree is waiting for presents and more decoration. It looks almost pathetic with one side bare and another side of sporadic glass figurines. I start picking out more decoration from the boxes and put them on, poking my fingers on the needles. I remember Zoe's surprised annoyance when she realized that pine trees hurt. She had quickly lost interest in putting any ornaments on the tree after she got poked the third time.

I give up quickly too and take the long walk through the hallway back to the kitchen. My parents' apartment is one of the 1890s upper class European apartments with all the period features intact: The kitchen in the way back, the maid's room behind the kitchen, the dining room with an oval wall and a bathroom that has been renovated because all it was initially built with was a narrow wash room with a sink and a tub. Toilets were downstairs in the back yard. Even the little buttons in each room for calling the maid are still there although the only one that is still working is the front door. I make myself a cup of coffee, the nutty one, with their nespresso machine. I still cannot use the large restaurant-grade Italian espresso maker that my mom has, or perhaps I just know that my coffee would never live up to her creations.

I take the coffee back to the sitting room, another room from the living room, one next to my dad's office which was originally the "gentleman's room". It is 7 am now. Still pitch black outside and no sound from anywhere. This is my Christmas eve morning. To a Scandinavian this is the same a Christmas morning is to the rest of the (Christian) world. We celebrate the evening of the 24th and today is the magic day. Presents have been wrapped, food prepared. I am not sure how much Zoe understands yet but this will probably be her first 'real' Christmas. Her vocabulary has expanded rapidly the past week: juletrae (Christmas tree), rensdyr (reindeer), julemanden (Santa Claus), julepynt (christmas decoration), just to mention a few. I suspect she knows the words in English too but haven't checked not to confuse her.

In an hour or so I will go and wake her up. We have so many things to do. We have to wrap the last present, put them all under the Christmas tree. We have to make 'konfekt', the marzipan and chocolate pieces that are an integrated part of Danish Christmas. We will watch the Disney show on television, the very same show they broadcast each year on this day. And tonight we will eat duck, potatoes and cranberry sauce, the latter being an inspiration from my many years in the US, no Dane would know what that is. We will light the candles on the Christmas tree and sing songs before handing out presents. I am so happy that I get to spend this day with Zoe and I get teary eyed when I think about how she is sorely missed somewhere else. I cannot even begin to think about next year. I promise myself to take one day at a time. Just like Zoe does.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Passport Please

"Did you remember to give Zoe her own passport", I texted her dad, just making sure we would have it when we return to Stockholm after Christmas. For some reason you need your passport if you're traveling with plane from Denmark to Sweden and are checking in luggage (and possibly the other way but I have not tried this yet). I was surprised one time when we did check in one suitcase and they asked for Zoe's ID. Normally I would just have checked in in advance or printed out boarding passes in the machine, taking only hand luggage and go straight to the plane without having to show ID any place on the way. The Scandinavian countries have had a passport union for like 100 years and I really only bring our passports with us because with our lifestyle we never know where we might have to go on short notice. "Oh shoot" was his answer, or that is my censored version of his Scottish cursing, because he had not given it to Zoe when he dropped her off in Copenhagen airport and it was now in Edinburgh with him. Luckily Zoe is the owner of two passports and all I need is to go and pick up her US passport at his place tomorrow before I leave so we can get back into Sweden. Because after Christmas we certainly will be checking in luggage.

The logistics of the last few days have been rather insane, there is really no better word for it. I was in China when Zoe's dad left for Christmas in Scotland and he had generously offered that she spend Christmas and new years with me in Denmark (next year we will probably switch, something I don't want to think of right now). This meant that he had to drop off Zoe in Denmark with my mom. But having 50 minutes between planes meant he didn't have time to take her out and go back through security, similarly to another time where I was going to Munich. After trying to get a plane ticket so my mom could get in to pick up Zoe and realizing that around this time of year they are at least kr1000/$150, I started looking into other possibilities. It turned out that a friend of a friend is working in the airport and after a bit of back and forth emails he volunteered to come pick up Zoe at the gate and take her down to arrival where grandma would be waiting. All this was taking place when I was on a plane from Shanghai back to Sweden and I called them the minuted the wheels of my plane touched the ground. "Everything went well" my mom reassured me and I sighed in relief. Zoe was happy to be there but apparently now speaks a lot of Swedish and more English than Danish. We will get that sorted out I said and went home to my cold and empty apartment.

Today I had dinner with a friend (my only friend in Stockholm) who gave me a present for Zoe. Packing was easy because all I needed to do was repack: take out my formal presentation clothes from China and put in all the presents. Now all I need is to pack some clothes for Zoe because apparently, she was sent to Denmark with only a snowsuit, her big doll and the clothes she was wearing. But the important part was that she made it and that she is happy. I can't wait to see her, this is the longest we have ever been apart. But I gotta remember that passport, or she will be stuck in Denmark with grandma. 

Monday, December 17, 2012

Looking for Coffee

And then I found myself sitting in Marks and Spencer's* cafe, having a cappuccino and a lemon muffin, British music in the speakers, looking out over the buzzing and messy Shanghai streets. Having survived the first week in China without pretty much any coffee at all, I needed this break. Not only for the caffeine and pretty interior fix but to get back into my western easy-life bubble that I realized even more apparently now that I belong to. Having travelled to India and China the past month reminded me and accentuated my knowledge that I am among the few privileged people in this world. I can afford everything but also have a built in right to be here in this sub-part or upper-class area of the world that is Shanghai right now. I have never been ignorant of my own privilege as some westerners, even as an adult my thoughts frequently turn to how my particular situation would look from another person's perspective, in a less privileged situation. How would I deal with a limited set of resources that we take for granted, like electricity and water? How would I have known about infant care if all the information I had was from the other mothers in the village? (I'm not saying that China or India is specifically this, but exemplifying characteristics of 'less privileged' as I view it)  I knew what China looked like before going here, yet I was positively surprised about the infrastructure, the kindness of people and the availability of goods (and yes I mean availability in terms of affordability too, for the people who make a couple of dollars per day). But just as these people who live their life on limited resources and in a tight-knit community of settled cultural customs very foreign to me, just as they don't even dream of stepping inside Marks and Spencers, let alone having a cup of coffee, I find it difficult to walk around and immerse myself in their cultural customs, social structure and simply their neighborhoods. If I don't focus and keep my eyes and ears constantly open, people surprise me with their honking (tooting a horn here, and in India for that matter, means "I'm behind you, watch out" not "Get the h*** out of the way, you idiot" as in northern Europe and the US), they surprise me with their invitations into the shops and offend me by approaching me unsolicited. I constantly have to have an open mind and interpret little actions anew instead of going with my solidly established western social norms. And this is tiring. Exhausting. I am perfectly capable of having a week without coffee, I'm not addicted to the caffein. But I am addicted to my social culture just like most of the people here are settled into theirs.

The other cup of decent coffee I had in China

Tonight I will be flying to Taiwan for our last university visit and then I'm off home to Stockholm. I can't wait to see Zoe in Copenhagen on Friday where she will have been dropped off.

*Marks and Spencer's is the essential traditional solid middle class department store.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

China via Paris

I am in China on a tour of 6 universities with a mini-deligation of my colleagues. We are promoting and  nurturing research collaboration as well as exchange student agreements with these universities and I was selected to represent my sub-field. Or that is, I was available to go to China for 12 days because I negotiated myself out of teaching a course. At first I had crazy plans to bring Zoe but with flying each evening and sleeping in a new hotel each night, such rock-star life style is not fit for a two and a half year old. She was left in the capable hands of her dad and they seem to have a grand time playing in the Stockholm snow when she is not in daycare.

I had particularly been looking forward to my plane ride from Paris (where I was at a committee meeting) that would fly me on Lufthansa's new Airbus 380. If you do not know what I am talking don't bother, if you do, you have perhaps a vague idea of just how excited I was. But as plans go, well, they don't always go the way you plan. I was well on time for my Paris to Frankfurt flight when I entered Charles de Gaulle airport a couple of days ago, only to see the big fat red "cancelled" sign next to my small first flight. Already then, I knew I was not going on a 380 anyway. I was then instructed to line up by the service desk to get rerouted. Except the line already had about 50 people in it. So I waited. And waited. And waited some more. And asked the French woman who was on her way to Istanbul if she could look after my suitcase while I went to get a sandwich, came back and waited some more until I had waited, standing up for 5 hours. Finally, I reached the counter and the flustered, overtired (remember, she had been dealing with nasty passengers for over 5 hours) blond woman said "I can give you the direct Air China to Beijing in 2 hours. Last seat". I counted my luck and didn't ask to get upgraded. 

So I flew the worst seat ever on my most despised airline ever, but I got to Beijing, only 4 hours later than I had planned. And the best part, the thing I kept thinking, for all those 5 hours was how lucky I was, not to have Zoe with me. That was indeed very lucky.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The youngest committee member

Yesterday Zoe attended her second academic committee meeting*. Her first committee meeting was when she was just under a year and her dad and I had scheduled travel on top of each other by mistake. It was rather complicated back then even though I had a babysitter and tremendous help and understanding from the other committee members. But I had at least planned it for months and had warned my fellow researchers ahead of time.

Yesterday, on the other hand, was completely unplanned and did not show me from my most professional side. But the best laid plans sometimes don't pan out the way you want them to and this was one of the times. I had arranged, after having Zoe looked after by a friend of mine the full meeting day of Saturday, to hand her over to her dad, who was also attending the meeting but was able to skip the last day. Zoe and I arrived with all our luggage (one small bag for Zoe, one suitcase for me, a laptop bag and Zoe's stroller) at the downstairs reception where I had arranged for Zoe to be picked up. Except her dad was nowhere to be found and did not answer his phone. As the meeting time approached I really only had one choice because I knew my opinion was needed for three papers and that I would be wasting 20 people's time if I didn't show up. "Zoe, do you want to go with mommy to work?" I asked and explained to her that she had to be very quiet and a good girl. That got her a bit excited and on the way to the meeting room she eyed the trolly with coffee and orange juice that the service people was distributing to the rooms. "Appelsin!" she said happily and I knew this was the answer to at least 20 minutes' silence. As I reached for the orange juice still on the trolly an angry French woman told me in clear French that I could not take the juice since it was for the other room and that I had to wait for her to get to my room. I then walked a crying Zoe to our meeting room, while she continuously sobbing and asking for her appelsin. I sat her on the chair next to me and decided to take affair as the meeting was starting. I went back to the trolly and when the lady looked away I snatched a juice from the tray. Except I got caught and she started yelling at me in not so clear French. "My daughter is 2! Deux!" I said just as heated, at this point I was desparate and frankly annoyed; we were the same large group divided into subgroups and there were about 10 juices for each room. Everyone inside the room was now starring as our heated French/English argument got louder, and at one point she tried to take the juice out of my hand. I finally pretended to walk away but ran back as she walked into the room, snatched one and ran back to Zoe. All flustered I gave it to a happy little girl who sat there and behaved exemplary while I argued my way through the meeting, getting my way in two out of three cases.

After an hour I got a text that Zoe's dad was downstairs, he had simply misunderstood the time, and I took her down. She waived bye bye to the committee members and everything was good. But it is hopefully the last time in a long while that I bring Zoe to a committee meeting again.

*Committee meetings, for me, are an essential part of my academic career. It is always an honor to be asked to be on these academic committees where I take part of discussions around research publications.

Saturday, December 1, 2012