Monday, November 23, 2009

Emerald City Theater's A Nutty Nutcracker Christmas

On Sunday we hit Emerald City Theater for A Nutty Nutcracker Christmas. The everlasting story of ETA Hoffman's perennial Nutcracker ballet has been reimagined from the point of view of Fritz, the naughty brother who breaks Clara's beloved nutcracker. In this version, Fritz joins forces with the Nutcracker-come-to-life to battle the Mouse King and save Christmas.

Emerald City Theater has produced a charming and rollicking show and playwright G. Riley Mills shows a great understanding of children's logic and fun. The show is sure to please just about the whole family, from kids three or so on up. My girls, who moments before were fighting the whole experience tooth and nail, sat on the edges of their seats, transfixed by the sight of Fritz refusing to go to his sister's "boring ballet." Halfway through the show, seven year old Mia was whispering explanations of the actors to me: "He's wearing a monkey head because he's a toy." "Those are elves." And by the end, my completely won-over girls cheered, "That was good!" They beamed in the lobby as cast members signed their special kids version of the playbill.

The show features some adorable puppetry, but the real stars are Ralph Covert's songs and Shea Coffman as the hilarious Mouse King. Coffman, who reminded me Will Ferrell in a kid-friendly mode, brings great timing, mimicry and fearlessness to his comic villainy. "I'm a CRAZY mouse!" he sings out before doing a little Beyonce-flava jig. I was cracking up and so were the kids. Like all great villain performances (I'm thinking Larry Yando as Jafar in Aladdin on Navy Pier last summer; I'm thinking Frankenstein's monster in Mary Shelley's novel I'm reading), there's a risk of upstaging the hero or at least exposing his/her namby-pamby underbelly. A small price to pay for this many laughs.

Multi-talented Ralph Covert of the Bad Examples (for the grownups) and Ralph's World (for the kids) wrote a Christmas stocking full of fun songs for the show. Covert creates infectious hooks and fun grooves that had me and my four year old bouncing in our seats.

The show runs through January 2 at the Apollo Theater on Lincoln Avenue.

Friday, November 20, 2009

You Only Turn Seven in Sweden Once

Thursday morning, October 1. Malmo, Sweden

Mia is cooing and puttering over her new Swedish toys. She's wearing her PJ's (it's 8 a.m.) and a gold crown and a ribbon proclaiming "Birthday Girl" taped to her chest.

Nora plays along. She hasn't had a trace of ego during all the planning and discussion in the days leading up to Mia's overseas birthday ("I'm just worried there won't be cards or toys," Mia confessed, as if we were traveling to a desert island rather than a fertile and highly civilized one.) Nora's wide-eyed wonder without thought for herself broke my heart a tiny bit so I told her last night, "We'll make just as much fuss over you for your birthday!" and you could see the idea dawning on her.

We're in a hotel room in Malmo (they pronounce it with a gargled "r" sound in there, somehow), Sweden. Our room overlooks an anonymous mid-century low-rise wing of the same hotel, but below, there is a pretty courtyard with conifers and lavender and trees going bare. Winter is closer here. Our clothes are too light for the wind off the ocean. We all have coughs except for the birthday girl.

I only have one glove. In the interest of time, in deference to your patience and with all due respect to sanity, I will refrain from describing my fit yesterday morning over the lost purple glove as we packed to leave lovely, beloved Copenhagen and the sweet comforts of the Guldsmeden Bertrams hotel for the unknowns of Sweden. Our Bertram room had a huge bath with organic soaps and lotions, an organic honor bar and a balcony with sights of high pitched red tile roofs and the sweet green backyards of our neighbors. Below was the Bertrams courtyard and its thick willow bushes, teak chairs and de rigeur heat lamps (every cafe has them as people cling to sitting outdoors - red blankets printed with the cafe name are often folded over each seat as well.)

My favorite place to read and write in the Bertrams after the kids were asleep.

I wept when we were checking out in the lobby after Mia signed the guestbook with a huge full page flourish and two dragonflies, the translation of Guldsmeden. Pimella, Meta and Christina were the helpful beauties at the front desk, holding our heavy gold keys while were were out and offering patient advice on bike routes and bus fares.

Now we cab it the few blocks to the Central Station with all our luggage (minus one pink monkey suitcase that we left at the airport on the day we arrived. We don't tell the girls it has probably been blown up in Obamafeber security.) Our cab fare costs more than the quick train ride over the strait to Malmo. Strangely, no customs, although security guards walk the aisles, asking all passengers if the suitcases overhead are theirs and checking abandoned plastic bags.

The train is swift, the water views are pretty and we're in Sweden in 20 minutes or so. Amazing graffiti on the last kilometers into the station. Giant cartoon faces, spectacular tags. The girls have gotten used to pay toilets by now. I'm still amazed at how clean and cute they are and how sweet and professional the staff. We hike a few blocks to the SAS Raddisson, part glassy modern, part 1600 era half-timbered ye olde.

In the main tourist square we have pasta (by this time I'm ready to throw in the towel and just search for Italian restaurants all over ScandInavia - luckily they are everywhere.) The waiter is in no rush to hurry us along and Nora spills her second glass of milk all over her jeans. She cries loudly and I hug her and shush in her ear. I hadn't had my run.

But Dad puts the girls down for a 4 p.m. nap while I walk down to the fortuitous party shop we passed earlier. Banners, balloons, a cellophane fountain to hang from the ceiling and way too many little paper tchotchkes on toothpicks to stick in her cake. I get directions to a toy store, refreshingly Barbie-Dora-Disney free. Sweet Findus the Cat, Prinzessa Lillefree, Barbamama and Barbapapa are the rage here.

I stand transfixed in front of a Christmas crafts display at a hobby store. I think Sally mentioned the all-out decorations Danes put up for the season. I can suddenly understand. When you have hours of darkness to kill in modest apartments, making cunning little snow people seems the perfect way to spend a winter afternoon in Sweden.

They call this the Princess Cake. It would have been perfect for Mia but I miscalculated that she would prefer chocolate. Oh, well.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Olympic Cakes and the Round Tower

Was it presentient they gave Chicago the zero?

Wednesday, September 30. Copenhagen, Denmark

Monday night was bad. Randy went out for drinks with the clients and I couldn't sleep, then when I could, he knocked on the door at two a.m., wasted, and I couldn't sleep again, worried about both of us being grumpy and irritable with our girls who deserve better in the morning.

I had just decided to ignore his pre-bender promise to "take the girls in the morning so you can get a run" and detach with love and take them out for a ride on the Ferris Wheel when I drifted off.

A nice plan but his snores in the a.m. wouldn't let me leave well enough alone and I yelled, "You promised!" And took my run around the lakes. Big swans, bright sun, strange black and white ducks and glimpses into woodsy backyards with roofed fire pits. Cool in the shadows.

I grabbed a vegetarian Vietnamese sandwich on French bread for lunch with what I assume is a birch beer soda. The bottle has a cute gnome on the label that I want to show Mia. After a shower, when I meet Randy and the girls at the Ferris Wheel just north of Central Station, he looks wiped out and pissed off and Nora is exhausted and underdressed for the cold wind. I send them home and perky Mia and I go exploring.

We stop at a tacky tourist store so she can get little gifties for her classmates and I can check out the Royal Family on postcards.

"How about this place for ice cream?" I ask her and my wise one says, "There's no scoops taken out of it. That means people aren't buying it because it isn't good." I look at the untouched mound of gelato and give Mia a big laugh and a kiss. We stroll on until I find La Glace, the famous 130 year old cake and sweets shop. Cakes fashioned into the numbers 2,0,1 and 6 dress up the front windows, each number representing one of the four bid cities. Little marzipan athletes compete in summer events on another set of cakes. Adorable.

A nice woman sees us eyeing the cakes and advises us to go in. We tell her we are on the hunt for good ice cream and she kindly directs us to Paradise across the way, which turns out to have fabulous organic gelato with plenty of telling scoops taken out.

We amble from square to square, stopping at windows we like, ("How many brides can you count, Mia? Now how many when you include the headless ones?") laughing at a drunkard's song to a piece of dog poop in the street. A Spanish jam session serenades us from their cafe seats. We pass a stand of Mediterranean treats; a vat of boiling sugar waits to bathe almonds.

Mia has plenty of energy to climb the Round Tower. We have a few magic moments here - the narrow bricks curving under our feet in a constant ramp that seems to transport us. We're three flights up before I know it. Tiny child-sized alcoves with rounded tops carved out of the stucco walls must have been used for lamps. Now the walls are white-washed, all ancient smoke long gone. The outer curves have larger spaces with seats. Light streams in from the large windows - it's a wonder of simplicity and atmosphere.

We only peek through a door at the church attached to the tower (the entrance is one curve up) but the former library space above the church (another two curves up) has been transformed into an airy gallery with minimalist shop and cafe. Gorgeous and so Danish, but the modern art that resembles children's work without the joy scares Mia.

More curves up, past a funny old loo and the bell room to finally reach steps and the roof. Tycho Brahe had a gold nose and studied the stars here. The heavy apparatus required horses to haul it to the top. I also tell Mia the story of a lazy king who wants to ride rather than walk to the top. A beautiful view but windy. Mia is cold. Students hang out here; the tower is open until ten in case you want to stargaze a little yourself.

It was the climb itself, the circling the center, through the blocks of light streaming in that enchanted me more than this payoff view of the city. "Thank you," I tell the ticket man when we reach the bottom. "That was fun and beautiful."

As we descended, we could hear echos of a band playing in the square below. Now we see they are Hare Krishna sitting on a blanket on the ground. I am transported and ready to convert. Tinkly bells, strumming guitars and a harmonium toy piano with hand-worked bellows accompany the six singers in a lilting chant that I completely understand as the basis for a transcendent spirituality. Mia has to drag me away.

Our last stop is Candy Planet, not a planned visit, but Mia is so pleased to be able to scoop up her choices from the dozens of bins into a little bag that the experience is the first she tells Dad about when we return.

Our last dinner with Ken, who the girls call "Mr. Ken" and Randy calls "Tex," before he flies home in the morning, is at a French bistro on Vaemedamsvej called Cafe Viggo. After a lovely afternoon of exploring with my dear companion of seven years, the day is balanced out with an overlong dinner, overtired parents and kids up way past their bedtimes. Tex is a trooper but I don't know how Job could have stood the never-ending Movie Game as we wait and wait for our entrees (delicious as my butterfish in cream sauce with carrot souffle eventually is.)

Mia drew this face on the butcher paper that covered our tablecloth while we waited for dinner. She copied the image from a cartoon painted on the wall and imitated the emotion when her food arrived.

"When you think of a movie, no one can take a turn until you say the movie clue," instructs Mia which means the grownups sit in suspension, too tired to fight the rules, while the children look upward for inspiration, fingers to chin. The restaurant was described as cartoon-themed French, which sounds kid-friendly, right? And it really was, to a fault, perhaps. The super-kind waiter goes in the back to check if they have pasta when the menu (three choices of starters and five of entrees scrawled on a chalkboard) fails to ring any bells with our children. (See note above about hanging up my dreams of exposing foreign culture through cuisine to my kids)

The chef comes out of the kitchen twice to confirm: "Any meat?" "No, thank you." "Cheese?" "No, just butter."

What appears is a gorgeous dish of fettuccine with a vegetable studded ratatouille sauce, topped with a melty pat of the famous butter. Absolutely delectable and absolutely intolerable to my little demons.

"Yucky!" Mia says before being hushed, then cries at being hushed. The girls eat bread and butter and we sneak delicious bites of their abandoned pasta, spreading some noodles on a plate as if sampled, in hopes the chef won't feel rejected.

Monday, November 2, 2009

A Family Reunited, Plus One

Gefion Fountain

Monday, September 28. Copenhagen, Denmark.

The day dawned rainy but the skies cleared into pretty tattered clouds in time for us to return to Plan A. Randy would do the final clean up at his work, then meet us after I biked the girls to the Little Mermaid statue and the changing of the guard and returned the bike that was due by one.

All worked like clockwork although I could feel Nora's cold in my lungs and had to breath through my nose to keep cooler air out of my throat. I smile as I pedal, despite this. What a city. What a country.

As I take our last bike ride through the city, I worry the puddles will splash up at the girls from my rear tire but they are happy to be out of the hotel room and sing "Potato Butt, Potato Butt!" until the song is interrupted at a stop light by their roller-coaster screams. I look behind me and the plastic rain cover that they refused at the beginning of the ride has flopped down over them. They punch at it and scream happily while the Danish man on the bike behind us smiles.

I do slip in the wet at the Radhaus though, second guessing a yellow light and nearly take a tumble off the bike. I manage to stay upright, straddling my fallen Wonder while the trailer scarcely shivers.

"Are you alright??" asks the Danish woman who rushes to help. "What happened?"

"I stopped too quickly," I reply and explaining to her and knowing she understands as so many of these intelligent Danes (more Nobel Prizes per capita than any other nation, same with candy consumption) is as comforting as her question.

We pass the closed Tivoli Gardens on Hans Christian Anderson Boulevard and catch glimpses of the pleasures waiting inside for our next trip. Ny Carlsberg Glyptoteck has a mask exhibit from the late nineteenth centure to Picasso. Sally said the garden cafe inside is one of her favorite places in Copenhagen. Will we get here later?

Near the Parliment building, Daddy passes us in a taxi and waves. Later, at lunch he'll tell us he thought, "Why that Danish woman looks a lot like my wife." We'll boat together later after lunch in this canal we're passing now. The captain will navigate the low riding tour vessel under a bridge that clears mere inches overhead and to the sides, then negotiate a pivoting turn in a corner only slightly wider than the boat.

"It's a Willy Wonka city," I tell Randy and Ken, his coworker who joins us in the afternoon. "We've got the boat ride through the scary tunnel and a candy factory and even a glass elevator." The last was a tiny three-person round capsule of windows that the girls and I rode at Duckling, Randy's work. It rose through the middle of the spiral staircase all the way to the top of the building, then dropped us with a bouncy thrill on the second floor.

But we aren't there yet. We're still on the bike, heading for our mermaid. The rain spits a little but the girls are tucked in and I have my warm gray beret. I'm wearing a dark dress and textured tights and my purple coat and my lovely Naot Mary Janes so I'm feeling comfy and Euro.

We pass the Royal Theater that displays a banner for the West Side Story Suite ballet - oh for more days and a trusty babysitter.

It's 11:30, half an hour to see Den Lille Havfrue before the changing of the guard at the queen's residence. I plow up to the surprisingly beautiful Kastellet park - a star-shaped set of ancient ramparts are now grassy hills surrounded by a picturesque moat. The magnificent statue of the goddess Gefion plowing the channel between Sweden and Denmark with the four sons she transformed into oxen has Mia begging to get out.

"Look at the snake!" I tell her. Its fanged head is bigger than mine. When we pass the fountain on the way back, water will be gushing from the oxen's heels as Gefion whips them on. Spectacular.

Further, further, the girls are cold and asking when we'll get there and we put on coats and hats and gloves and when finally beyond the huge National Geographic Explorer ship and a curve, I spy her, tiny figure on a rock near the shore, I burst into tears. I'm so happy and relieved and she looks so small and defenseless and the movie got it all wrong cause she failed to win her prince's love.

As we get closer we can see her face is forever turned toward the sea and away from the hordes of tourists taking her picture. Mia climbs down onto the smooth and wet rocks with my helping hand because she wants to get close to the girl.

We go back to Amalienborg Palace and watch a few minutes of the black hatted soldiers presenting arms and clicking their heels. The guard who waits in the rain to be replaced stands in front of a a tiny guard house that resembles a giant upright red crayon - round with a pointed roof and most enchanting and Danish of all, tiny heart-shaped cutouts on the side.

Goodbye bike! Goodbye Wonder, the Amazing Rental Bike, with your single powerful gear and your ratty little trailer! Thank you for your faithful service and speed and ease. Riding you showed me so much of this magical city, up close and personal, and made our last three days an adventure. Thank you for the warming and steady exercise, that stirred my jetlagged blood and cheered my foreigner's heart. Thanks for the intimate views of the city at our own pace. Thanks for floating us past anonymous blocks whose beauty would be too subtle and length too arduous for my little ones.

We take the bus from the Central Station to Kongens Nytorv (costs 21 Kroner, about $4, free transfers within two hours) then I carry Nora to Randy's work. We meet up for lunch with Randy and Ken, who's been my husband's great help through the four day sleepless marathon of cutting and recutting. Ken's easy-going, relaxed about my sometimes demanding girls and funny.

"We must have seemed like machine-animals to the Danish," he said over lunch at an Italian cafe on Nyhaven, the canal-side street lined with bars and restaurants that must be Copenhagen's most visited spot. "We trashed their rooms and broke their espresso machine and never stopped working."

"Did you have sleep deprivation effects?" I ask.

Ken says, "I had to avoid soft surfaces. I would pass out."

When I tell him my wallet story, I include the bit about asking the help of the woman at the front desk to translate the recorded message on the art museum's phone. She had listened for herself, then told me the museum would be open on Sunday, but no one would be answering the phone. Ken says, "that would never happen in America. We'd answer the phone but you'd never get your wallet."

Everyone's elated after lunch. The girls get ice cream. Nora's cone is topped with unsweetened whipped cream that I lick off when she says she doesn't like it. The richness catches me off guard. "I'm licking whipped fat," I tell Randy and Ken. Their adult and familiar companionship feels good.

Randy says, "I finally feel like I'm on vacation" and asks if I want to stay a few more days. Sweeeeeet! I'm jumping up and down and hugging him. Who knows where we'll sleep. The original plan was to leave town before the Olympic delegates arrived since they had booked the town solid. Perhaps they'll leave by Sunday so we'll find a room when we return from Sweden.

Randy and Ken and the girls and I take a boat tour. Fun and interesting, but a bit long for the girls who only want to go back to the toy store I had promised after a visit without any purchase. I'm amused at how the tour guide describes the Nyhaven channel as being dug "by Swedish prisoners of war" with a tone that is so unapologetic it approaches pride. We see the mermaid from another angle, an eye-popping immense yacht that looks like it was designed by Donald Trump for Captain Nemo, the opera house, the new "Black Diamond" library and a crazy twisty church steeple in Christianshavns that Ken wants to climb. He has the opposite of Randy's fear of heights. He does it, too, in a couple of days, climbs the tiny metal staircase that spirals around the outside of the steeple with barely room for one person, let alone the other brave tourists coming down the opposite direction.

After the tour and a visit to a spotless underground pay toilet, it takes us two cabs and one wrong destination before we're all reunited at Gammeltorv Square.

We have dinner at a generic buffet on the Stroget (once again, the wait staff treats us as gently as loved family) and cab home. The girls walk with us through the rain to get dessert of candy at the quickie mart across the street from the hotel.