Frisk Luft

Jan. 14 - I mentioned earlier this week that an American friend and I had taken our babies for a stroll and concluded by taking them to a bar for a beer. It's January and the bar had no outside seating, so we left our strollers out on the street and brought the babies inside. Had there been outside seating, or had the babies been asleep, it's quite likely we would have left them in their strollers. (With one fiat: we'd be sitting where we could see and hear the babies at all times.) Only retrospectively have I realized how odd this may sound from an American perspective. It may actually sound like child neglect, if not downright child abuse. It's not—it's simply Danish custom.

All Danes and most New Yorkers know the story of Annette Sorensen, the so-called "Stroller Mommy" of tabloid fame back in 1997. If they don't know her by name, they know her by anecdote. Here's the anecdote as you most often hear it from New Yorkers:

Some Danish woman was in the East Village with her baby in a stroller and she parked the stroller outside a bar with the baby still in it and then went in without the baby! The cops busted her and she was like, 'But that's what we do in Denmark!' Great! A whole country of people that get shitfaced while their babies are out alone on the sidewalk. What the hell are they thinking?

Here's the anecdote as you most often hear it from Danes:

A Danish woman on vacation in New York went into a restaurant in New York city and left her baby in the fresh air just like she would have here, but the police came and took the baby and arrested the woman for child abuse! For leaving the baby in the fresh air! What is wrong with New Yorkers? What kind of city has so many baby-stealers that you can't leave a child in the fresh air?

The facts (I'm relying on a couple of reports, the best of which is from CNN) go something like this:

In May of 1997, a 30-year-old Danish actress was in New York visiting the father of her 14-month-old daughter. At some point they parked the baby's stroller in front of the windows of Dallas BBQ, an East Village restaurant, and went inside for a drink. This alarmed some of the customers and waitstaff, who summoned the police. When the police arrived, they took the baby into protective custody and filed criminal charges against the mother.

As someone who has lived five years in New York and two in Denmark, I think I can appreciate both sides of this issue. I'm therefore going to use it as a springboard for my own moronic observations.

First of all, this is absolutely unextraordinary behavior in Denmark, although contrary to what Americans tend to think, it's not about the drinks or the parents' desire to be rid of the baby while they enjoy a nice meal. It's about frisk luft ("fresh air") which Danes consider one of the most important things you can give a child.

I've had problems with this myself. When it began to get cooler last fall, I was surprised that Trine kept letting Molli nap in her stroller out on our patio.

"Kind of cool, isn't it?" I'd say.

"She needs the fresh air," she'd say.

The days got darker and colder, and still Trine insisted on leaving the girl out on the patio. I found myself running in and out of the patio door every few minutes to check on her because I was convinced Molli would. . . well, I don't know. But I sure didn't expect anything good to come of it.

"It's snowing out there," I'd say.

"She needs the fresh air," she'd say.

I'm ashamed to admit I even went behind Trine's back: when I was visiting a doctor for my sinus problems, I snuck in a question about the wisdom of leaving a baby outside in a stroller in winter.

"But they need the fresh air!" the doctor said.

Our new apartment has no patio, because we're on the third floor (or, by European measurements, the second). I was secretly relieved when we moved here in mid-December. Finally I wouldn't have to worry about a child left out on the patio in winter weather!

Instead, the weather is now the least of my worries. Trine insists it's perfectly safe to leave Molli in her stroller in the courtyard three floors below us, so long as we leave our windows open to hear her wake up.

Now, it's a locked courtyard with no public access, we're in Denmark anyway, where the only recent case of "child theft" was actually a case of "stroller theft" (the child was found about a hundred yards from the place where the stroller had been stolen). A 69-year-old Dane of my acquaintance can recall only three incidents of child theft in his lifetime, including the one just mentioned. There are lots of other parents in our building leaving their own babies out in the courtyard. So on the one hand I'm reassured, but on the other hand it still feels damn strange to me. In fact, I only just did it myself for the first time yesterday, and I was nervous as hell the whole time she was down there.

But she needs the fresh air.

This fixation of frisk luft is why you'll see Danish mothers and fathers pushing their strollers around the city in all but the very worst weather. And a culture where that's the norm develops some very nice corollary norms. For example, public transportation here is all completely stroller-accessible. The new Metro line actually has a couple of flip-up seats in each car that are designed to be flipped out of the way to accommodate strollers. Every bus has room to accommodate one stroller.

And keep in mind that these frisk luft babies eventually grow up into frisk luft adults. Danes crave the open air. Virtually every restaurant, cafe, and bar in the city spills out onto the sidewalks and terraces of the city from spring through fall.

It's therefore not surprising that when there's no outdoor seating option to be had, Danes should feel perfectly comfortable leaving their strollers outside a restaurant, cafe, or bar, for a cup of coffee, a beer, or a little lunch while their babies sleep. (And Danes aren't idiots: if you were to park your baby stroller in front of a bar, go in, and start slamming boilermakers, they'd react just as those concerned citizens in New York did.) You can also safely leave a stroller in front of a greengrocer or butcher, for example, while you run in and make a quick purchase, without worrying in the least.

It's just how things are here.

On the other hand, it's not how things are in New York. One can forgive Ms. Sorensen for not knowing this was inappropriate behavior in New York—until you realize what most Danes think of our great city. Cesspool of slime, intergalactic headquarters of crime and depravity, and all that. If you're going to claim Danish culture as your defense, your defense is going to bite your ass: that's because if Danes have one misapprehension about the safety of New York's streets, it's that they overestimate the danger.

Furthermore, "the father of her daughter," the man dining with her in that restaurant, was himself a New Yorker and ought to have known better.

On the other hand, I think the anecdote itself suggests that the problem in New York isn't one of safety, but one of habit. After all, it was the disapproving waiters and customers that called in the cops. That means they were aware of this child and what was going on. That means if some stranger had come along and tried to steal the stroller, baby, or both, they probably would have intervened (the whole "I-don't-want-to-get-involved" myth about New Yorkers was finally revealed as the lie it always has been on one sunny September morning in 2001).

And that's an important point. People tend to look out for babies wherever they are. The people who called the cops in New York were only thinking of the baby's welfare, just as the doctor who told me to leave Molli out in the freezing Danish winter was only thinking of her welfare.

So as far as I can tell, the culture gap isn't about whether or not you can leave a baby out on the street—that's just a safety question, and no one's going to approve of leaving babies in unsafe circumstances.

No, I honestly think the culture gap is just about fresh air.

Another frequently cited faultline in the Danish-American culture gap is Americans' tendency to sue one another. Danes find this comical. Ms. Sorensen was pretty quick on the uptake with that particular American norm, however, and sued the New York Police Department—twice—for ten million dollars in damages.

She lost both lawsuits.

Birthdays and Holidays

Friday the 14th is Coming of Age Day in Japan, and the birthday of Faye Dunaway (1941), Andy Rooney (1919), Hal Roach (1892), Albert Schweitzer (1875), and Benedict Arnold (1741).

Friday the 15th is the birthday of Charo (1951), Margaret O'Brien (1937), Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929), Cardinal John O'Connor (1920), Lloyd Bridges (1913), Aristotle Onassis (1906), and Jean Baptiste Moliere (1622).

January 16 is the birthday of Aaliyah (1979), Kate Moss (1974), Sade (1959), Debbie Allen (1950), John Carpenter (1948), Ronnie Milsap (1944), A.J. Foyt (1935), Dizzy Dean (1911), Ethel Merman (1909), and Andre Michelin (1853).

January 17 is the birthday of Jim Carrey (1962), Andy Kaufman (1949), Muhammad Ali (1942), Shari Lewis (1934), James Earl Jones (1931), Vidal Sassoon (1928), Eartha Kitt (1927), Betty White (1922), Al Capone (1899), Mack Sennett (1884), Anne Bronte (1820), and Benjamin Franklin (1706).

Enjoy the weekend!

2005, The Moron's Almanac™

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