The ‘little town’ of Copenhagen
COPENHAGEN—I missed her! Before flying to this city, I made up a scenario of me kneeling before the tiny (so people say) statue of the Little Mermaid, and silently asking her: “Little Mermaid, what happened to my country?”
A friend of mine, always keen to burst my fantasy bubbles, asked skeptically: “And what would you do if she answered you?”
Well, I didn’t even get to “converse” with her. Another friend, Indian journalist Aarti Dar, and myself stepped off the “Hop On, Hop Off” bus at the embarkation point for the canal tours, planning to finish the rest of the city tour when we got back. But then midway through the canal tour, we learned that some reimbursement money was waiting for us but that the office would be closing by 5 p.m. So we decided at the end of the boat ride to take a bus back to our hotel at the Bella Center on the outskirts of the city.
I did get to see the Little Mermaid, but only from the back as our boat swung by the little rock on which she sat in a pretty park. I said goodbye to my plans of a selfie with the sea creature, as well as putting my plaintive question to her. Besides, I knew (know!) exactly what happened in the Philippines: Millions voted to the presidency a man who is now becoming the talk—if not the joke—of commentators the world over.
Here in Denmark, a Filipino has to swallow a lot of humble pie. It is a small country, one of three of the Nordic countries—the other two are Sweden and Norway—which are setting records in terms of the health of the general population, their welfare, the “cradle to grave” social protection programs for citizens, even the happiness of people.
All these, of course, are bought with the high taxes that citizens must shell out. But, Denmark also being in Europe, it is not exempt from much of the turmoil gripping the continent. This is code of course for “refugees,” thousands of whom have fled their homelands like Syria and other war-torn countries of the Middle East and Africa to cross the Mediterranean and seek asylum and a new life in Europe. Outside Copenhagen, we are told, there is a large refugee camp for the Arab refugees. Just outside the old train station, men approach passengers with hands held out, begging for coins. From the horrified expressions on the faces of Danes, it seems the beggars are a new phenomenon.
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Also taking part in the recent Women Deliver conference here is freelance journalist Ana Santos, who’s on a project for the Pulitzer Center to write a series on the “au pair” program. Part of a wider project on the Filipino migrant worker experience, Santos’ au pair series stems from her friendship with a Filipino woman, since married to a Dane, who came here as an au pair.
From what I know, the au pair began as a program for European young women to travel to other countries, most notably the United Kingdom and the United States, and there get some form of “cultural immersion” while working part-time as nannies.
But, says Santos, for the Filipino au pairs here, the “cultural exchange” factor makes little sense. “What use will we have for Danish when we get home?” they ask. Instead, for an average allowance of $600 a month, they become “unofficial” domestic laborers, not covered by any relevant labor laws in Denmark or the Philippines, or any contractual relationship with the families they live with.
Mothers who resort to hiring au pairs face a lot of prejudice here, says Ana. “So many cannot grasp the concept of having a child but not having the time or energy to care for the child constantly,” she says. But even more stigma is attached to the au pairs, who are seen by ordinary Danes, it seems, as migrants skirting the law by some technicality.
And so these women—mothers at the end of their rope and au pairs in search of additional income and travel—struggle on with the skepticism of a society which prides itself in self-sufficiency and independence.
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Copenhagen presents itself as a tiny jewel box of an old city amid the rising icons of modernity. The “old town,” with its palaces, soaring church spires, and charming dwellings is but a small area of cobblestone streets and winding canals.
The “social night” of the conference was held in Tivoli Gardens, which has become somewhat of a touristic myth. One is bound to be disappointed with it, since it resembles little else than a perya at home. But, to be fair, it IS the world’s most famous perya.
The requisite rides (the screams give them away) and attractions can be found, but equally thrilling are the flower beds which, in this early spring, are planted to tulips of different colors, gradations and even shapes (curly-tipped tulips?).
To meet with Danish NGOs and international aid bodies based in Denmark, the Women Deliver participants were herded to “Andersen’s house,” where they gathered in a hall and exchanged tales or caught up on each other’s lives and work. Entering the hall, I caught sight of Crown Princess Mary exiting, surrounded by sober-looking security personnel.
But the other Danes in the hall were far less formal and intimidating, the HIV/AIDS organization giving away stickers with bright red lipstick marks which they humorously slapped on passing cheeks, symbols of solidarity and friendship.
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