Deaths in the Afternoon

Jun. 16 - The DMB and I went to a picnic at some friends' kolonihave on Saturday. The day served as an introduction to some new Danish rituals that were mercifully light on singing and poetry but characteristically dependent on beer.

First I should explain the concept of a kolonihaven, or "colony garden." These are fertile little enclaves, usually no bigger than a few city blocks, owned by the city or town in which they're situated. The town divides them into little lots and leases them to its residents at a trifling price—our friends were paying about sixty dollars a year for their lot—giving them a kind of disembodied back-yard. That's what a kolonihave really is: a hundred backyards in search of a home.

You can build a little hut or cottage on your lot, although it's illegal to build permanent structures and there's no plumbing or electricity. It's also illegal to live on your lot. So most Danes seem content to tend a little vegetable patch, erect a little cottage, and use the garden as an accessible sanctuary. (Most gardens are well-wooded, so you feel as though you're way out in the country even when you're ten minutes from central Copenhagen.)

There were about twenty-five adults at this particular kolonihave picnic over the course of the afternoon and evening, most of them with young children. Not long after the majority of us had arrived, it was announced that we would be walking over to the nearby park to play a game of rundbold, or "roundball."

I had the rules explained to me, repeatedly and with unflinching patience, by more or less everyone at one point or another, but these so often contradicted one another and were at such odds with the actual experience of playing the game, that it's probably better if I describe the game not by its rules, but by the practice of playing it.

There are two teams, each of which has a large and roughly equal number of players. Once assigned to a team, a player is expected to remain upon it for the rest of the game, except to wander off for more beer or into the woods for a pee. Players under the age of ten must spend the game alternating teams until no one can remember the team on which they'd started.

Persons on hand but choosing not to play seat themselves outside the playing area and are designated as umpires. It is the duty of an umpire to delegate his or her responsibilities to three- and four-year-olds, angry at being too young too play, who then use their power to inflict random acts of retributive vengeance on the players.

Any broad expanse of park will do for the playing field. There are four bases and a "Now Plate". The Now Plate is a crushed plastic two-liter bottle of Fanta; the bases are small plastic orange cones. The four bases are set up in a perfect square, about one hundred feet apart, and the Now Plate is situated between fourth and first bases.

The "Upgiver" from the defending team stands on one side of the Now Plate and tosses a tennis ball straight up into the air, preferably in such a way that, if left to fall to the earth without interference, it would land directly on the Now Plate. The batter—but there doesn't seem to be a Danish word for "batter" or "hitter": the DMB says the position of batter is referred to as "the person whose turn it is," and whoever's on-deck is "the person who has the next turn." Anyway, the batter swings a short stick or narrow paddle at the ball, hoping to send it soaring over the heads of the swarm of defenders loitering around the the field, drinking beer, and smoking cigarettes.

If the ball is caught on the fly, the batter is —dead. Otherwise, he or she advances to first base. There is no requirement to leave first base once you've achieved it, but eventually you're expected to succeed to second base, then to third, and finally to the fourth and final base, at which point the three- and four-year old scorekeepers giggle and wiggle their fingers and you get back in line for another at-bat.

There's no limit to the number of people that can congregate on a single base, so a string of dribbling grounders inevitably results in a kind of party on first—a party that becomes a mob panic scene as soon as someone hits the ball deep enough to allow some baserunning.

The only way to stop baserunners is to kill them. To kill them, you must throw the ball to the "Upgiver," who will ideally catch it, step on the "Now Plate," and shout Nu! ("Now!"), at which point any baserunners between bases are . After three deaths, the teams switch places, presumably for purposes of mourning.

(If you hit the ball deep enough to round all four bases, the come back to life. It's like a home-run that saves lives.)

As the game progresses, more and more adult players will excuse themselves for beer runs and more and more children will begin doing cartwheels or playing soccer in the outfield. The game is officially over when everyone loses interest.

Afterwards the umpires will be asked to declare a winner. They will giggle contemptuously, wiggle their fingers, and ask for more juice.

* * *

I spent a lot of the afternoon and evening making small talk with the under-five set. It's nice to talk to children here because their vocabularies are only a little bigger than mine and they're just as bewildered by everything.

One girl, a sweet little four-year-old, couldn't understand my Danish at all. She accused me of being a crazy Swede. I insisted I was an American speaking English, but her mind was made up: I was from Sweden, English was Swedish, and that was that. She amused herself for ten minutes just trying to get me to say "tree" in Danish, but in the end I won her grudging respect by distinguishing between shoes (skoer) and sandals (sandaler).

It's humbling to have to fight so hard to achieve intellectual parity with a four-year-old. But she wasn't so superior—she sure as hell couldn't hold her beer.

* * *

It wasn't fully dark until about 11:30 or so, at which point a handful of us rode our bikes to a bar in Frederiksberg Alle. It wasn't too crowded when we got there—they don't really hit the bars here until about midnight—but not long afterward it was packed.

There was a guy at the piano—a pianist, I suppose, but you can never tell—playing weird arrangements of classic British and American rock in medley form A patron stepped up to the piano and sang the Doors' "Whiskey Bar" in operatic style—the whole song. It actually worked pretty well.

Eventually a Superior Ugandan sat at our table and tried to endear himself to us by insulting and belittling us. I'd never encountered somebody so witheringly superior in my life. He handled his contempt the way Rodin handled his chisel and it was fascinating to speculate about his motives, but eventually the novelty wore off and we went home.

By the time we got to bed the sky was already light. It wasn't even 3:00.

* * *

Only five more days until Midsummer's Eve—nights will then get longer for six months, at which point there will only be about four or five hours of daylight a day. With all this light making me insomniac, I can't help wondering if winter will make me narcoleptic.

I'm hoping it doesn't work that way.

Jenteloven Update

(This won't make sense unless you read this and this.) The Standing Man showed up again Sunday morning while I was drinking coffee and misunderstanding the newspaper out on the patio. He asked me if I knew who had used the courtyard hose yesterday. I knew—but I didn't want to rat anyone out, especially to the Standing Man, so I said, yes, a bunch of people had used it, but I couldn't remember who. The Standing Man was skeptical. Couldn't I remember at all? No, I apologized, not at all. He said there had been some serious leaking down in the garage under the courtyard—leaking caused by inappropriate use of the hose.

"I don't know," I said. "Undskyld."

"Mm," the Standing Man said. Then, inevitably, he glanced at our gas grill, and with a vaguely menacing smile he asked, "Have you been having fun with your little toy?"

"It's nice," I said. "Of course, we've only used it once or twice, but we were careful to wheel it out into the courtyard."

"Mm," the Standing Man said. "Good."

And he walked away.

* * *

June 16, 1904, is the date on which all the events depicted in James Joyce's famous novel Ulysses take place. To celebrate this literary holiday (called "Bloomsday" in honor of the novel's protagonist), all of the book's fans gather each year on this day to drink until they both pass out.

Today is the birthday of Tupac Shakur (1971), Joyce Carol Oates (1938), Erich Segal (1937), and Stan Laurel—who is not Clint Eastwood's father (1890). It's celebrated as Imre Nagy's Death Day in Hungary and Youth Day in South Africa.

Happy Monday!

© 2003, The Moron's Almanac™

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