Friday, July 26, 2013

Sleeping all the way to Copenhagen

Though I have taken my fair share of sleeper trains with mixed experiences (too hot, too cold, too rumbling to sleep, getting up at 3 am to go through immigration), I have always thought this would be fun to do with Zoe. And as I was booking our journey to Copenhagen for the summer holiday, I found fairly decently priced tickets, with the caveat that where Zoe is usually free of cost on the regular train, she cost a 'bed' on this one. I splashed out anyway and thought about it as a fun experience and one that actually fitted this exact journey well: I needed to work all of Thursday but really wanted to be in Copenhagen by Friday morning when my brother and his wife arrived from India. 1300 Skr for oneway tickets in our own little cabin. Not bad.

I picked up Zoe from daycare and immediately told her the surprise: Now we go home, pack our bags and take a taxi to catch a train where we will sleep. When we wake up we will be in… Malmo... (then we take a quick 40 min train to Copenhagen, I quickly added) Zoe was her usually excited self: Now? She asked, Now go see Mormor? Yes, almost now. On the way home we stopped in a new noodle restaurant that deserves a shout-out for its yummy noodles, fair prices, kid-menu and amazing play room: Noodles Mama. We managed to kill the two hours needed.

The train left at 9:30pm, a bit on the late side for Zoe but she was a darling due to all the excitement and graciously held the door for the family entering the train carriage after us, leaving me to haul our luggage down the long hall way. We found our three layered bunk-bed compartment and settled down. Luckily the higher beds had good support for the sides to prevent people from falling out. Still, I wasn't comfortable letting Zoe go up on the top one. I had imagined her sleeping in the lower one and me in the middle one but it was clear that we could fit together in one; besides, the lower one had a hard back cushion that took at least a quarter of the bed width away. We went to brush our teeth in the hallway bathroom which was surprisingly clean. Zoe tossed and turned and pulled the curtain to look out the window three times, insisting on me going down to pick up her doll that she had forgotten in her bag. How could she sleep without? Finally around 10:30 she feel asleep and I decided that I needed my Zs as well. After all the main problem with this train was that it was only 8 hours, barely enough for a full night's sleep. We would get kicked off at 5:40am.

The other problem is that the normal journey is actually only 5 hours. This means that the sleeper train chuckles along at a cow's pace and take lots of breaks. They artificially make it 8 hours for people to get a good night's sleep. I woke up many times as the train halted to a stop and as faster trains rushed by with lightening speed right next to us. But Zoe slept like a baby. And when I had gotten up and dressed around 5:15, she was hard to wake up. She finally sat up and I dressed her in bed. "Come on", I said as she dragged her rucksack down to the exit door. "We need to get off and get on the other train". The other train left from a platform a short walk away, but a walk that was very long for a very tired 3 year old. Zoe sat down and cried at one point but I managed to get her up again. I couldn't carry her because of our big suitcase and two other smaller bags I had to carry too.

We got on the next train and ended up at the local station at my parents'. Both of which were not about to pick us up at 7am, so we walked the 10 minutes home, this time with Zoe being more energetic now that she could see the end of the journey. She told her grand parents with excitement in her voice of the sleeping train and I hope this is not the last time we have been on such travel adventure. Flying does get a bit old sometimes, doesn't it?

Monday, July 22, 2013

Two parents

Most children have two parents, a mom and a dad or two of each. A lot of kids also have bonus parents who have parenting roles and parenting responsibilities but who are not the children's "real" parents, instead this is someone who has entered the child's life a little later as the one of the parent's new partner. I was a lucky winner in that department, growing up with not only two parents but also two bonus parents, except I had a hard time thinking of my "bonus mom" in any terms of mother figure; she was only 13 years older than me. My bonus dad on the other hand made my nuclear family complete with two parents and three kids, me and my two brothers, who I always laugh with when we have to talk about us being "half siblings", because we are as whole as whole brothers and sisters can be. In fact I think I have a better relationship with each of them than they have with one another. So despite me being from a so-called broken family since my parents divorced when I was one, I grew up in the most amazing, tight-knit family, as occasionally dysfunctional as any other. And as most children, from tight-knit to dysfunctional families wish, I always dreamt of a family of my own. I loved children and could not imagine a life without, preferably more than one. It took me all of my twenties to find a decent guy who didn't bail out on me and my demanding career goals (and, I sometimes thought, high intelligence; I scared a fair share of guys away just mentioning I wanted to be or was a PhD student. Ironically my girlfriend's husband got a first date with her telling her he was a meter maid instead of telling the truth, that he was a CEO of a large international company. Silly me never thought about dumbing down).

But as I approach the latter part of my 30s I find myself as one of those two parents Zoe has, not living as a nuclear family, but as two separate individuals. Zoe might tell people she lives with me in Stockholm but she also lives with her dad half the time. That leaves many days and especially evenings for me to just be by myself, a nice thing for most part since I get to work long hours and read books. Oh and I am crocheting again, trying to finally finish that throw I started five years ago. But as any parent, I miss her terribly when we are not together. The feeling is numbed by me listening to loud music, reading non-melancholic articles and take yoga classes. I think about how difficult it is not to have her around, hear her talking, asking, playing and hugging me, telling me I'm the "best mom" there is. I miss her temper tantrums and her drawing on my students' assignments.

My favorite movie of all times: My father had it on
video and I must have watched it over 50 times.
But I take a lot of comfort from my own childhood; after all I turned out a whole person, despite my parents (the 'real' ones) never speaking a word to one other, as far as I remember. And here is what I realize: parents are different. They give you different things. They each teach you different things, if they mean to or not. They talk to you differently and they give you different answers. And that's a good thing. They might give you different limits and they might provide you with different tools for handling life. I fondly remember my father telling me all about the sky, the stars, the moon and explaining planetary science, seeding my eternal interest for science fiction and anything space. My mom could probably not name more than two planets. My father listened when I asked math questions before I started school and explained the basics, recognizing my keen interest in numbers. My mom taught me to write letters neatly and I took on her very special cursive lowercase r, written in a way nobody else do; it is our bond, expressed each time I write an r. And my mom explained patiently the notion of "gay" when I was almost too young to understand, just in so much and so little detail that it made sense to a 7 year old. I'm still so impressed with this and now I know exactly how to talk to Zoe about this topic. They each gave me very different skills, knowledge and personality.

So this comforts me in my missing Zoe when we are not together. She will learn things from her dad that I could never give her and she will know diversity to an extent one parent can't provide. He is around people I would never be and Zoe has more play 'uncles' than any kid I know, each of them unique in their approach and play with her. So this is the approach I'm taking, because after all, the most important thing I got from my father was his undeniable optimism, and optimism so prevalent that my mom and I both started laughing loudly when a psychologist who were evaluating him during a particularly rough time of his illness asked if he had a tendency to be depressed. An optimism he had until his last days where he couldn't see anymore, couldn't walk but still listened to the radio and told funny stories about him and me. An optimism he still had when holding tiny three month old Zoe for the first and last time during what would turn out to be my last visit to his island.

But I also hope that I can be just a little bit better than my own parents and make sure that Zoe gets to do things with both of us together, even if that is just playground visits and occasional dinners. I'm that optimistic.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Trilingual conversations

Zoe was called in for her three year check-up at the so-called "BVC", the child health center that does all the checkups, vaccinations etc. from pregnancy through the daycare years here in Sweden. I got a few questionnaires to fill in in advance but I couldn't really do that because they asked about Zoe's language skills in Swedish. I thought she was due for another shot and I explained this for her but it turned out this was purely a developmental evaluation.

Zoe was difficult to coerce into the examination room when it was our turn because of all the exciting new toys in the waiting room, but after being promised stickers she reluctantly followed. I explained in my accented Swedish that we were Danish but that she also spoke English because of her dad and because she is in English speaking Daycare. In fact I was very curious as to how much she was going to understand because it was obvious that the nurse was not about to switch language. Instead she did what many people do when encountering people not fluent in the language spoken: She slowed down and spoke oddly loudly and articulated. To me. And she continued to dumb down each piece of information as we went along, to the effect of me having to do my best to hide my irritation and put on a fake smile. "No we don't do an MMR vaccination at this point *here in Sweden*", she repeated three times after I explained why Zoe was pointing in her arm and saying "stik, stik [poke, poke]". In fact she talked a lot about how things were going on *in Sweden* as if I was fallen down from the sky just minutes earlier.

Meanwhile Zoe did an impressive job at her test. The nurse had a few picture cards and she asked in Swedish Zoe which one you can eat. Zoe quickly pointed at the apple even though eat is a different word in Danish from Swedish. She also pointed at the card with the car when asked which one you can "go/drive with" [åka med], a Swedish expression that is not translatable to neither Danish or English. When she was asked what you can do with a ball, she hesitated and did a throwing motion while mouthing "throw". I could see she knew that word was the wrong one but she couldn't find the Danish/Swedish one. She kept doing the throwing motion and looking at me for hints. I asked her in Danish and that triggered the 'correct' answer: "kaste!", which is luckily the same in Swedish.

She was excited to be measured (101 cm) and weighed (15.6 kg) and carefully picked out her sticker afterwards. I laughed when the nurse asked if I had any concerns about her language and tried to joke about how of course I was worried about her actually becoming fluent in all the languages, but the nurse took this concern to be lack of knowledge on my part and resumed to give me a long and slow lecture on the importance of me always speaking Danish to her, and her dad always speaking English (where I again tried to joke that this is the only language he knows, but merely got a snort here) and then she will easily be fluent in all three languages. I wondered how any parent of a three year old trilingual child would never have researched these things and would really consider this information as new and useful at this point. But the nurse probably sees all kinds of people and had a hard time judging education level.

But what really bothered me was the slow, enunciating talk, which I recognize from many other native speakers (of all languages) when talking to people with accents. The division between understanding and the ability to express oneself in a language is often great, particularly for Swedish/Danish. Adjusting the language ends up seeming like they think you are a bit dumb and is deeply frustrating for someone trying to learn a language. But then again, who says I'm trying to learn Swedish.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

How to book accommodation

I was frantically trying to book our accommodation in New York City for two weeks in the end of August and complaining over dinner at my parents' that staying in Manhattan is actually going to blow my budget (I have a grant for doing research there), when my helpful dad, who have actually travelled more than me in his lifetime, started to come up with suggestions. It sounds very expensive with 150$/night for an apartment, he said. Have you tried hotels dot com, he suggested. I tried to explain that I don't want to live in a hotel room for two weeks with Zoe since I want to be able to cook meals and have a fairly normal life. Also trying to avoid the obvious: getting a hotel room in NYC in August is always going to cost more than 150$. Oh but they often have suites or apartment type accommodation, he continued. We got something very nice in Thailand once that wasn't very expensive. I didn't point out the obvious difference between the two countries and just smiled. Yes, dad, I'll try hotels dot com. So I'm still frantically trying to book an apartment through airbnb. If people would just reply to me and accept my inquiries, that would be nice. And after a bit of debating with myself I decided that it is worth the extra money to get a decent place on lower Manhattan though. 

Sunday, July 7, 2013

New York, New York

As much as my job sometimes put me in rather complicated situations, I have also been very fortunate: I got two internal grants that fit very well together, a grant for a teaching free semester (this is a lot since my normal teaching load is around two courses per semester) and a grant for travel and accommodation for a research project, four weeks in total. I will be working with a colleague at Cornell University, upstate New York for two weeks and then go down to New York city to collect data for another two weeks. I am planning to go to New York in August because that fitted the schedule of my colleague. Obviously I have to bring Zoe but I'm used to travel with her for work by now so I'm arranging for her to go to a daycare there for a week and I'm hoping to find a babysitter for New York city. Her dad will also be there to look after her for five days while I am at a committee meeting. I don't expect to be able to work full time for the whole month but I hope to be able to collect a lot of data and have interesting meetings with colleagues. And then I look forward to pretending to live in New York city for almost two weeks, something I still dream of.

I am very used to arranging these things and I'm also prepared for bumps along the road. My first bump was when the daycare who agreed to take Zoe in, needed a medical and vaccine record that included a vaccine against chicken pox. This vaccine is not given here in Sweden (and most of Europe) but it is required in the US. My doctor friend tells me it is because it is not 100% and that chicken pox is not deadly or even as dangerous as many of the other deceases that children are vaccinated against. But because we moved from the US when Zoe was 18 months, she doesn't have it. Luckily she is going for her last round of MMR in two weeks time and I can ask to have the chicken pox vaccine too. Then I have daycare.

I go her plane ticket on my miles, which means she won't make silver next year again, but I will not be financially ruined. I was lucky to get the only available flight in August to Newark on the 7th, ironically from Copenhagen via Stockholm. It would have been nice with the direct flight but saving 9000 SKr (~1300$) is even nicer.

I am hugely excited about the prospect of being in New York for two weeks where I can pretend that we live there. I hope to see friends, colleagues and spend time just living there with Zoe. Maybe one day it will be real.