The Road to Norway

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Saying a final farewell to my Grandmother this week was also a final closing of a chapter. And it was a journey of mourning to a destination that used to be filled with joy.

There are many ways you can travel from Denmark to Norway. And being half Norwegian, I have tried most of them growing up, as we would visit my maternal grandparents for summer and Christmas holidays, and more.

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I have flown to Fornebu, and later Gardermoen Airport. I have twice taken the train from Copenhagen. I have travelled by ferry, Copenhagen-Oslo, Frederikshavn-Oslo, or even Hundested-Sandefjord, where an infamous trip on a ship named Gelting Nord had many of us seasick. On that trip, I would have been younger than my oldest daughter is now. What are the memories that will shape her life?

For me the memory, despite the alternative routes, will primarily be driving on E6, the main road through Sweden from Copenhagen to Oslo. This is our family storytelling, and we have travelled the route often enough to recognize and appreciate the waypoints and notice the changes.

The first section in Sweden would resemble Denmark: flat and uneventful. But before long we would scale the massive Hallandsås, bigger than any hill in Denmark, and with long queues of trucks in the old days before freeway standards.

North of Varberg we would reach the first tunnel: an early harbinger of the mountainous land which was our destination. The number and length of tunnels would intensify as we proceeded north, and has also increased over time. As kids the sport was to hold our breath for the duration of the tunnel.

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There was Gothenburg, the big city we only knew from the freeway: heavy traffic, a tunnel under the river, a high bridge across it, and potentially a pit stop at Burger King.

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There was “the siren in the tree”: a resting area somewhere in Sweden where we once stopped to sleep in the car. During the night there was a break-in at the shop next-door, with police sirens waking us up. We were untouched by the event, but the location became a family landmark.

To pass time, my brother and I would have fun with the place names on the way, such as Mastemyr, Dingle (a giant lived here), Sarpsborg (with an obscure animal called a Sarp featured in its coat of arms), and later the signpost to Åmål (made famous by the Swedish film Fucking Åmål).

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Later, on the very day I obtained my driver’s license, we were on the road again, and my first experience driving without an instructor was somewhere on the E6. Hills were something I had not been trained for.

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As we came closer to our destination, the anticipation would grow: crossing the stunning Svinesund to enter Norway, passing through Oslo, seeing signposts to Drammen, exiting the tunnel near Lier with a view of the city, passing over Drammen, catching the first glimpse through the trees of the house, and driving up the last stretch of gravel to the end of the road and my grandparents’ house.

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It was a wonderful place, with ample opportunities to play inside and outside. But more importantly, it was a place filled with love, warmth, hospitality, generosity, and fun, which my grandparents created for us and for many others.

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The house was sold long ago, a few years after my Grandpa died in 2012. And the final years of my Grandma’s life were such that death came as a blessing. At 97, she had had a long and good life, and will now rest until the grand reunion at the end of time.

The E6 is mostly freeway these days, and while the journey may have lost some of its allure and now its previous primary endpoint, the memory will remain forever in our hearts.

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Flying to Chicago

Tomorrow night I will celebrate a silver anniversary: crossing the Atlantic Ocean for the 25th time. And no route has more significance than Chicago-Copenhagen (ORD-CPH), a journey that has impacted my life. This is a story with several chapters.

1986 (CPH-AMS-ORD-SBN)
I am six years old and have never before set foot in an airplane. The world as I know it is changing: we are moving to America. I will have to learn a new language and am somewhat worried of the great unknown, but flying is certainly an experience.

We are in KLM business class, sitting on the upper deck of a 747. My brother and I each have a window seat, and are treated to a visit to the cockpit. Security worries were fewer back then.

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Our final destination is not Chicago, but Berrien Springs, Michigan, which will be our home for four years. We are there temporarily, living in a basement apartment for much of the time, but as a child temporary means less. This is our home, and this is in no small measure where I grew up. The city of Chicago is huge, with as many people as our home country, but several hours away – the place we go for school field trips, occasional Christmas shopping, and most importantly the airport, our connection with the old world.

1990 (ORD-AMS-FBU)
I am ten years old. No business class this time, and the flight itself is less memorable. But after four years in Michigan we have been looking forward to returning to our native Denmark, bringing back a larger world-view and amazing memories. My connection to America remains, but the memories begin to fade as I grow older.

1997 (BLL-FRA-ORD)
I am sixteen years and in high school. My parents have gone back to Michigan for a nine-month period, while I remain in Denmark in boarding school.
This trip brings up many feelings, missing my parents an important one of them. Once again there is a fear of the unknown, since I have not travelled alone before. “Landing card – what is that?”

But more than anything else this is a trip of nostalgia. As a teenager, seven years seems a lifetime, and coming back to America also means coming back to a lost childhood. Seeing the Chicago skyline from the airplane (“skyscrapers!”) is something I will never forget. (For some reason, I listened to Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto for the first time during that flight and will forever link this heart-breaking music to that memory.)

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This trip and a consecutive one a few months later rekindle my connection with America, make me feel somehow different from my Danish peers, and also teaches me the pain of distance. A few years later, my parents will move to Australia, settling the fact that long-distance is here to stay.

2010 (CPH-ORD)
Many years have passed, and the third chapter of this story has my parents once again living in Berrien Springs, Michigan. But this time with more permanence, here to work, not study, and with a house of their own. Not very far from where we lived in the 80’s, and with a basement which resembles the apartment which was our home.

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Since then flying has become mainstream and cheaper, and with a direct Copenhagen flight visiting for just a week at a time makes sense. I have also married, and my wife joins me on her first trip to America, enjoying the sights and attractions of rural Michigan in winter (you don’t need more than a week for that).

2014 (CPH-ORD)
Several trips later, this one is different yet again. My first-born daughter is with us on this her first flight, for an extended Christmas vacation. Flying long-haul with a baby is indeed possible, and we manage fairly well, but it’s not quite as relaxing as going by yourself.

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The trip once again brings back memories, and singing “O Come, All Ye Faithful” in my childhood church my daughter on my arm is probably for me the most sentimental one.

2017 (CPH-ORD)
We have come full circle. Now I have two daughters. Flying to Chicago in February means not a lot of other passengers, so the trip itself is easy.

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But this trip is also the definitive end of a chapter. My parents will finally move back to Denmark later this year, which means that I will have no reason to visit Michigan again in the foreseeable future. This prospect by far outweighs any sentiment I may have had to this place. And with the current political climate in the U.S., it is with some relief that I sever the connection for the time being. America has shaped me, and will continue to be a part of my story, but closing the door as others open up is not a bad thing.

What hath 2016 wrought?

Lily Edith Christmas 2016
Dear Edith,

Everyone is saying 2016 was a terrible year. Yet years from now, your mother and I will look back at 2016 as one of a single significance: the year you were born.

Yes, right now we remember 2016 for the conflict in Syria, Donald Trump’s election, and the death of celebrities such as Prince, Muhammad Ali, George Michael, Carrie Fisher, and others. But when you are old enough to understand, I hope that these events will no longer give any cause for worry.

For your father, it has been a turbulent year. I began by saying goodbye to my employer of nearly five years, with a promising new start. That new start brought, for one thing, a shorter commute which gave me more time with your sister and mother, and eventually with you. It also brought me the stress of adapting into a new environment. And ultimately, although through no fault of my own, it led to termination, which is why I have been there to play with you every day the past eight weeks. While this has been good family time, I enter 2017 with the burden of finding somewhere else to employ my skills. As the sole provider, you really need a job.

As for your arrival, it has been a joy to see you grow into the smiling and cackling 6-month-old you have become, and witness the mutual love between you and your sister. I do also remember how the first two months were especially tough on me, as I adapted to our new situation and came to know you as a person. You will not and should not understand this until one day you become a parent yourself, at which time I will probably be too old to remember myself.

On a lighter note, we planted the berry bushes and fruit trees which I hope you are enjoying. Before you were born, your sister and parents made a short break in Bologna, Italy, our first proper holiday in several years. And we enjoyed a visit from your paternal grandparents, with the prospect of them moving back to Denmark very soon. We have missed them, and are happy to know that they will be larger part of your life as you grow up.

You celebrated your first Christmas gracefully among family at home, and tonight you will (we hope) sleep through your first New Year’s Eve.

Edith, you have blessed our family beyond measure. It is my prayer that you will be a highlight not only of 2016, but of our entire lives to come. Happy New Year!

Love, Dad

What’s in a name?

Our second daughter now has a name. I had been looking forward to the selection process; my wife had not. I’m starting to get her point: we had known her for less than a month but had to make a huge decision which will impact her identity forever.

It’s not a decision to be taken lightly. And we certainly did not. In the end we came to accept that some randomness is unavoidable. Where you come across a name doesn’t matter if you happen to like it. My father, for instance, was named after the first player to score in a local football match. We wanted a different approach, however.

We started with a long list, which became shorter, only to become longer again as the list of finalists didn’t quite give us a clear winner. For each name we considered ad nauseam criteria such as:

  • Sound of the name, in Danish and English and potentially others
  • Meaning of the name
  • Popularity: not too popular, not from the ‘wrong’ generation: preferably a not-yet-discovered rising star (all of this in Denmark as well as other countries)
  • How it matches the name Lily (her sister) – in sound, style, and meaning
  • People we have known bearing the name
  • Risk of bullying

We didn’t want a name that was too normal, nor too weird. It shouldn’t be a ‘statement’, although of course to a degree it will be. We didn’t want a ‘concept’, so it shouldn’t be too close to Lily by being another flower name or another name beginning with L.

I think it is with names as with finding a partner: there is no destined one and only, but once you have made your choice it will come alive. We have now found a name which matches our criteria, is pretty and versatile,  and works well with the rest of the family. It also turns out to have been the name of her great-great-grandmother, a fact we only discovered after making our decision. So much for thorough research.

Then there was the question of a second (middle) name. As the only person in Denmark Lily bears the name Mayrah: an Aboriginal name meaning the wind that brings spring, chosen to mark our connection to Australia. Choosing an Aussie name again would be another ‘concept’, but we also didn’t want her sister to miss out. So instead we found a second name which sounds nice, may be used as an alternative if she wants, and signifies not a geographical connection, but one of interest: as the name of the patroness of musicians.

So, finally, let me introduce: Edith Cecilia Mollerup Birch.

I hope she will bear it well.

Do you remember 1998?

It’s not a traditionally round-number one, but my birthday today still stands out for its number: double 18 (you do the math). I have now been officially of age for exactly half of my life. Which, given my penchant for nostalgia and numbers, made my mind wander back to that wonderful year of 1998.

1998 was the year of the Monica Lewinsky affair and the peace agreement in Northern Ireland. It was the year the Great Belt Fixed Link opened in Denmark. We would learn the significance only later, but it was also the year Google was founded, and the first Harry Potter book published.

It was the year of the FIFA World Cup in France. I still remember the quarter-final between Denmark and Brazil (2-3), watching the match along with a huge crowd in Copenhagen’s Town Hall Square.

Back then, we were listening to Celine Dion, Aqua, Aerosmith, Shania Twain, and Backstreet Boys. We were treated to films such as Titanic, Armageddon, There’s Something About Mary, The Truman Show and The Big Lebowski. On TV (all broadcast, mind you), we enjoyed Friends and Frasier, and for some reason also X-Files and Jerry Springer.

50-17aIn my life, coming of age meant that I could finally vote (which I did for the first time the following day) and get a credit card. Within a month of my birthday I would graduate high school AND get my driver’s licence. Oh, the freedom! Having finished school, borrowing my parents’ car to drive around the country and visit friends in a wonderful Danish summer.

1998 was the year in which I chose baptism and church membership, a decision which has shaped the course of my life, although perhaps less so in recent years.

1998 for me was also the beginning of a still-enduring passion for East Asia. Visiting Beijing on a class trip had a profound impact on me, leading me to later study a full term of Chinese Studies. Since then I have been fortunate to visit several other countries in the region, and every time it is with a joy of reunion.

Although I remember the year 1998 vividly and fondly, thinking back now it is also safe to say that a lot has happened since then. In the world, and in my life.

I no longer count as ‘young’, but I am satisfied with what I have achieved. My world has expanded – geographically, intellectually, spiritually and gastronomically. In 1998, for example, I still didn’t know how to cook, now a major interest and pastime. I had never had a girlfriend. In 2016 I am still myself, but arguably a wiser and more experienced version of me. I have a growing family of my own, own a house, and have a good job.

18 years is a long time, but I take comfort in the fact that 18 years from now I will still not yet be ‘old’, regardless of what my children will tell you. And if I get to experience as much in the next 18 years as in the last, I will count myself a lucky man indeed.

Farewell to Maersk

Today is my last day working for Maersk Line. Four and a half years is a long time, and my longest employment to date.

It has been a fantastic journey, and I have come to cherish the unique world of shipping and the history and values of this company, one of Denmark’s oldest, largest, and most prestigious. The famous Maersk Mc-Kinney Moller was still around when I started, and I got to see him a few times before he passed away, 99 years old, during my first year with the company.

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I count myself fortunate for having come this far, for the people who have had faith in me and for the many experiences and wonderful people I’ve come to know across the world. Symptomatic to modern-day work I’ve had 5 different managers and 7 different seats. More interestingly, I’ve made 7 overseas trips, with probably the most memorable being attending the naming ceremony of the world’s largest ship in Korea.

I look forward to my new role and challenges as Senior Communication Consultant in Novo Nordisk, but of course I will remember fondly the many good experiences and people in the world of Maersk.

Highlights of 2015

Another year has passed – busy, but somehow less dramatic than last year. How do you top 2014’s first child, first house, and first car? Simple: you don’t.

Spring 15-66But 2015 has brought something different: a cementing of values, not least provided through prioritised family time. In the first months of the year I remained at home to take care of Lily while her mom went to work; a memory I will cherish forever. Later her grandma came to visit and babysit for a month, and in July we took a leap of faith in deciding to keep Lily at home instead of opting for the public day-care option which has become the standard. I am now the sole breadwinner; a decision we have not regretted for a second, when we see how she thrives and develops in the safe haven of our home. It is remarkable how what was the norm just a few generations ago has become counter-cultural.

2015 has not, for a change, been a year of travels. In fact, I will soon have completed a period of 12 consecutive months within the borders of Denmark – for only the second time in my life. Instead we have continued to enjoy our house and garden throughout the seasons.

Much of my spare time has been spent with Camerata, who have had a busy golden jubilee year in 2015. Choir experiences include many splendid concerts, a summer tour of Denmark, a celebration weekend, and of course ending on a high note with another round of Messiahs in December.

For all its harmony, 2015 will pale in comparison with 2016: the final months of this year have seen decisions and developments which promise to make next year eventful indeed. In February I will start my new job in Novo Nordisk, saying goodbye to the world of shipping after 4½ years. This will bring new challenges, a shorter commute, and hopefully many good experiences. And in July, we look forward to welcoming our second child to the family, also altering our in ways we cannot entirely fathom yet.

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On that happy note, I wish you all a prosperous and interesting 2016! Happy New Year!