The Promise Tree

Feb. 12 - I've got a little extra time on my hand these days so I've been trying to get out more. As a work-from-home kind of guy, it's too easy to spend these cold, dark winter days shuffling around the apartment and convincing myself I need to finish ripping my CDs, organizing my photos, or harassing the cats. Confining myself to the apartment all the time, I decided recently, is idiotic. I have therefore resolved to be more of a tourist while I can—hence the touristy Monday I wrote about on Tuesday.

And so it came to pass that in the midst of some errands yesterday I decided to veer off my itinerary and take a stroll through Frederiksberg Garden. Why not? I had my camera with me, it was a beautiful day, and I don't want to end up living back in Chicago a year from now wishing I'd spent more time in the beautiful park just a few blocks away from my apartment.

I strolled into the park at the Smallegade entrance and walked right into a mob of ducks. These entertained me for a while, until some herons that were perched in a nearby tree caught my attention. Eventually they, too, became a little boring—they were, after all, herons—and I ventured further into the park. Pretty young mothers and handsome young fathers walked by pushing strollers, young couples walked by oblivious to anything but one another, an old man threw crumbs to the ducks in the canal, and the occassional jogger or power-walker went hustling by, their breath crystalizing in the air behind them and giving the impression of locomotive steam power. In other words, same old shit.

I was about to turn around when suddenly a tree just around the bend before me caught my eye: something was dangling in its branches. Not just something: a lot of somethings. Brightly colored somethings, it appeared, secured to the barren boughs with bright ribbons and bows. Leftover Christmas ornaments? Memorials to someone who'd died under the tree? I proceeded to investigate.

I remind you yet again of Denmark's fairlyand reputation as a mythological and phantasmagorical country of fairies and magic and legend. I also remind you that despite my occassional frustrations with Denmark, it has never lost its fairytale appeal to me. I've begun to take the magic for granted—it's like living in some arctic version of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Macondo. Social-magic-realistic democracy. A sudden squall of rose-petals on the first day of spring wouldn't surprise me.

So when I got up close to the tree and saw what was hanging from its branches, I smiled but was not surprised. Here's what I saw:

I took a lot of photographs and inspected some of the pacifiers close up. "3 år," (3 years) had been incribed on one. Names and dates had been inscribed on others. Some dangled alongside postcards with handwritten messages on them. A whole baby bottle dangled off the end of one branch.

I didn't bother trying to understand why a tree in the middle of Frederiksberg would be dangling thousands of pacifiers. To ask why would have ruined the moment for me. Or so I told myself until a couple of sixtyish-looking women strolled by.

I couldn't help asking them about the tree. The explanation was as lovely as the tree itself, the only deciduous tree in the park bearing such colorful fruit at this wretched time of year.

Frederiksberg Garden is, like all parks, a favored place for pushing strollers. It is thick with infants and toddlers at any time of year. At some point, some Danish mother must have said to her child, "Skat, you're old enough to stop using your pacifier now, aren't you? Yes, you're all grown up, now! But I don't want you to give it to me. I want you to give it to that tree, and I want you to promise the tree that you'll never use a pacifier again because now you're a big grown up!"

Maybe that's not how it started. In any case, that's what happens now, according to the women I spoke to. The babies of Frederiksberg are weaned off their pacifiers by giving them to the tree and promising the tree never to use them again.

At least, I think that's what they do. The only problem with all this is that the women who were kind of enough to explain the tree to me kept talking about "napping." Their English was good, but rough, and my Danish was apparently too sophisticated for their coarse ears.

"When the child is done napping, the parents bring the child to the tree and it promises to quit napping," one of them said.

"Yes," the other agreed, "when they quit napping."

"Yes," the first repeated.

I'm only the father of a fetus to this point, so I don't know anything about the connection between napping and pacifiers. Maybe she meant nursing? I'd like to think so, but don't kids use pacifiers long after they quit nursing? I'm thinking of that "3 years" inscription.

Whatever the exact purpose of the Promise Tree, it strikes me as a sweet and quintessentially Danish tradition.

When I asked how old the tradition was, the women merely shrugged and suggested it was relatively new. In Denmark, that can mean anything from 800 years to a couple of weeks.

* * *

Even at the height of European "anti-Americanism" in 2003, it seems, they just couldn't get enough of our sweet, sweet stuff in Norway. McDonald's had a banner year (English, Norwegian).

Incidentally, there's a bonus to learning Danish: I can kind of read Swedish and Norwegian now, too. Can understand them both in spoken form, too, a little, if the speaker talks very slowly and uses simple words. That's pretty cool. Before we came here I spoke English fluently, was close to fluent in French, and remembered about a fifth of the Latin that was crammed down my throat in high school. When I go back to the states next year, I'll be able to add marginal competence in Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian to the list. Won't I be cool?

Well, no.

I'll still be me, and no matter how cool I get, I'm always just a little behind.

Oh well.

* * *

Christina Ricci turns 24 on the 12th, and shares her birthday with Arsenio Hall (1955), Ray Manzarek (1939), Judy Blume (1938), Bill Russell (1934), Joe Garagiola (1926), Franco Zeffirelli (1923), Lorne Greene (1915), Charles Darwin (1809), and Abraham Lincoln (1809).

February 12 is Union Day in Myanmar or Burma, possibly both, and used to be celebrated as Lincoln's Birthday in the United States.

Happy Thursday!

© 2004, The Moron's Almanac™

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