A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words

A coworker put out a call on our office intranet recently asking about people’s favorite souvenirs from abroad. This was my contribution to that question… I liked it, so I thought I’d cross post it here. (By the way, I love that in French, “souvenirs” means “memories.”)


When I was little, my parents did a lot of traveling due to my dad’s job with Northwest Airlines. They brought many cool souvenirs back for me– I remember a wooden cow from Denmark (I think) and a big stuffed panda bear from South Korea (no, not China, strangely). The souvenir I remember the most, though, was a book from Japan, written in Japanese, in the traditional style (back to front and bottom to top). My mom used to “read” it to us by looking at the pictures and making up a story to go with it. It was something about a man who drops a rice cake into a hole in the ground inhabited by some sort of gnomes. To this day, I have no idea  what the story was really about, but I still remember it very clearly.

As an adult, a friend of mine who works in the children’s publishing industry got me interested in collecting children’s books, often gifting me with picture books for birthday or Christmas. Integrating the hobby with my love of travel, I began buying children’s books as souvenirs when I visit other countries (and anywhere, really). This began way before I had any children on the way, and I did worry for awhile that I’d never have anyone to read them to… but I still bought them, because if nothing else, I enjoy them myself. I love going to a bookstore and looking through the fun, colorful books, trying to pick out something with an inkling of the country’s culture. When I’m in a country where English isn’t the majority language, I typically look for books in the local language.

My collection has grown to be rather significant over the years, so it’s impossible to pick just one favorite. Instead, I narrowed it down to four:

1. A book of Russian fairy tales… in Russian. I love the intricate illustrations and the way the Cyrillic script looks. Even with some knowledge of Russian, I can barely read any of it, but that doesn’t really matter.

2. Les chose cassées d’Octavio (Octavio‘s Broken Things). A story about a boy who can fix anything with glue, nails, wire, etc, but who has to learn how to mend the sad heart of the girl next door.

3. Grandma Joins the All Blacks. From New Zealand, obviously.

4. An Strae Beagán (A Bit Lost). I thought it was originally written in Irish, but I recently saw it at a bookstore here and learned that it was apparently written in English by an Irish author and translated into Irish… kind of a bummer, but still a cool book. It’s about a little owl who gets lost and can’t find his mother, so a friendly fox takes him around to all the different forest animals and asks, “Is this your mommy?” Each time, the owl replies in the negative, and describes an aspect of his mother not met by the current animal. “That’s not my mommy; my mommy has big eyes!” So the fox takes him to see a frog. It goes on like this until the owlet does indeed find his mother. And then they all eat cookies. Happy endings for all.

My collection to date includes books in French, Spanish, Russian, Irish, Danish, Japanese, Hmong, Catalan, and of course English (hailing from France, Red Balloon Bookstore, Moscow, Ireland, Copenhagen, Midway Books on Snelling and University, Hmongtown Market in St Paul, Barcelona, and Australia/New Zealand/the US, respectively). Looking for books has taught me some things, as well– for example, I wasn’t able to find a book in Swahili in Tanzania, or in Spanish on Cozumel. I didn’t look that hard in Tanzania– perhaps in Arusha City I’d have found something– but my spouse and I spent a lot of time wandering around Cozumel’s main (only) town, San Miguel, looking for a bookstore. It didn’t exist. All of the librerías we learned about from the phone book or natives were actually paper supply stores. We did visit an actual bookstore in a larger town, but the only books in Spanish were obviously translated from English, and completely devoid of Mexican culture. (Which, admittedly, does say something about the world in and of itself….)

The average children’s picture book contains about 500-1000 words. They say a picture’s worth a thousand words, and while I love to take pictures while abroad, I think it’s worthwhile to bring words home, too.

Copenhagen – Vikings, Pirates, Ships and the Sea

I have this very romantic notion about ships and the sea. They always just captivate me for some reason. So of course, I loved the old port are, Nyhavn:

A ship:

The Danes are generally very proud of their Viking history. We got to go visit the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, and see some actual Viking ships that were recovered from the sea and reconstructed. This next photo isn’t mine– I forgot to charge my camera the night before and it was completely dead the day we did this outing.

Copenhagen – Cuisine

Denmark isn’t really known for its cuisine, but I sure ate a lot of good food there!

For lunch one day DIS provided the famous open-face sandwiches, which were very pretty. I wish I would have taken pictures, but I didn’t. I tried 2 different kinds, and one was very tasty, but one had liver pate hidden underneath a slice of ham. I did not like that. Yuck.I think that one was called Veterinarian’s Treat or something– well, the dog would have liked it.

We also went to a traditional Danish restaurant one night. I had cabbage, very salty meatballs, and yellow potatoes. It was pretty good, but not terribly interesting, and it was very salty. I liked the potatoes the best.

But like I said, I did have some very yummy food in Copenhagen. One of my great food experiences was at this place:

Yummmmm! Tapas. On the left is squash, then beets, which I usually hate but this was really good, then scallop, then beef then some kind of ham, I think, with bleu cheese. I ate everything, and there was also lots of wine. Apparently Christel, the woman who planned the workshop, was afraid that “small plates” would not be enough food. Uh yeah, there was totally enough food–I was soooooo full!

Copenhagen – Modesty, equality, taxes, etc

Another thing I found very attractive about Danish culture, aside from its introvert-friendly values, is that it’s a very egalitarian society. The income gap between the richest and the poorest Danes is relatively small, Danes are notoriously modest and don’t lie to show off, and they genuinely care about the good of the collective. We had a visitor yesterday from the psychology department at DIS (who I met in Denmark, and now she is here for a week) who gave a lecture on why the Danes are consistently ranked the happiest country in the world. One of the things she said is that collective societies tend to have higher suicide rates but lower happiness, where as individualist societies tend to be the opposite – more happiness, but also more suicide. Denmark, she said, is what’s called a individualist collective society (or something like that), meaning that they pursue their own hopes and dreams, but feel that one shouldn’t pursue one’s personal happiness at the expense of the collective.

That’s probably why, in general, they don’t mind paying the high taxes that they do. The average tax rate in Denmark is 50%. That’s right, half of your income goes to taxes. The highest earners pay up to 75% – I talked to one woman who said she pays 70%, and she was complaining a little bit, but really not too bitterly. Even those who make minimum wage pay around 30% income taxes. But the minimum wage, AFTER TAXES, is still the equivalent of about $18-20/hour– more than I currently earn at my job. Of course the cost of living is higher than in Minnesota, but in general I think Danes earning minimum wage probably live a lot more comfortably than Minnesotans earning minimum wage, which is $6.15/hour here (BEFORE taxes).

Copenhagen for Introverts

I spent last week in Copenhagen, Denmark, visiting one of our study abroad partners, the Danish Institute for Study Abroad (DIS). Every semester, they hold a workshop for international educators. My university gets to send two staff and/or faculty members each semester, because DIS’s North American office is on our campus, and we’re their school of record, so we have a pretty close relationship with them. I was supposed to go in April, but due to the infamous ash cloud, everyone’s flights and subsequently the entire workshop were canceled. But I finally got there, and I’m so glad—it was GREAT!!

First of all, Copenhagen is a great city. It’s very walkable, but also has good public transportation. Everyone speaks English wonderfully, and they don’t mind doing it, but you are still surrounded by a different language in print and in conversations around you. Not to mention it’s just a beautiful place!

Denmark Trip! – Pre-Departure

I’m leaving for Denmark on Sunday! I am going for an international educator’s training workshop at a study abroad organization we work with, the Danish Institute for Study Abroad. I was supposed to go in April, but because of a certain volcano that decided to spew ash all over the European skies about 2 days before I was supposed to depart, the trip was canceled. I’m thankful that I got stuck at home rather than abroad, but I’m really excited to finally get to make the trip!

It should be a lot of fun. Of course I’ll be working, but the workshop contains a lot of fun stuff in addition to the work stuff. Here are some of the things I’m looking forward to the most:

-Danish lesson! I love languages, and I’m excited to learn some “survival Danish” (although from what I hear the Danes speak excellent English, so I’d probably still survive with out it.  )

-Field study in Nordic Mythology, which means I get to go with the students to visit the Arnamagnean Institute within the Department of Scandinavian Research at the U of Copenhagen, where we’ll get to view the manuscript collection on Medieval vellum, and paper originals of the Icelandic sagas and Eddic poetry.

-Attend classes on Positive Psychology, Muslims in the West, and Human Trafficking in Europe (will be good, as I’m in the middle of reading The Girl Who Played with Fire, which deals exactly with that subject!)

-Visit to the old city of Roskilde, including visit to the Roskilde Cathedral and the Viking Ship Museum. SO excited for this!! I really like ships, so going to the Viking Ship Museum will be awesome!

-Visit to a folkehøjskole, which is a specific educational institution for young Danes between the ages of 19-25. The Danish students live at the school and participate in a wide spectrum of courses and extracurricular activities. The idea is to ‘educate for life’, and Danish students attending a folkehøjskole do not take any exams nor receive grades or credits. Our students don’t take courses there, but they can live there and be part of the social life there.

-Concluding banquet at Kronborg castle, otherwise known as the Hamlet castle. Wheeee!