Attend a multi-cultural event and critically evaluate your views during and afterwards.
I went shopping today: breast-shells for my wife. Oh la la.
My task for today was to attend a multicultural event. I’m not sure what that means, but I have done my best to find some multicultural happenings. I have e-mailed the local mosques, even e-mailed an old Muslim friend of mine in Oslo — a Muslim living in Denmark must be multicultural, right? But they haven’t answered, and I can’t blame them. “Hello, I am looking for a foreigner in Denmark, someone who is multicultural, does anyone want to have a coffee with me or something so that I can be with you foreigners a while?” I know I would have been sceptical if someone had asked me that question.
So, since e-mailing didn’t lead anywhere, I decided to take my bicycle and go to Nørrebro, the most multicultural area in Copenhagen. I didn’t know what to do: perhaps find a sign with Arabic letters, perhaps see some foreigners, or immigrants, or perhaps just soak up the atmosphere, smell the strange and exotic food, marvel at the diversity of humankind, and maybe even feel at home here, a foreigner among foreigners.
I could of course go the easy way and just call my home a multicultural affair. But I have already done that once. It would be too easy to do it again. Besides, there are many cultures I don’t know anything about — the point of this task must surely be to seek something unknown? Something you don’t understand already?
Like hijab. I don’t understand hijab. Wearing something on your head, fine, occasionally wearing a hijab, fine — but wearing a hijab all the time because your religion demands you to? Or even worse, because your husband or father demands you to? Feeling the need to hide your hair because… what? The mere sight of it would turn men into rapists? Because it is written in some old book? Because it is a duty? Or something else entirely?
All these reasons make me feel uneasy. I don’t turn into a rapist whenever I see a woman without hijab. The “written in an old (holy) book” – argument doesn’t hold water whether it comes from Muslims or Christians or Jews or anyone else. And duty? Duty to whom?
To me, it has become a symbol of religious oppression and inequality. Perhaps, I thought to myself, perhaps a trip to Nørrebro might change my view. I doubted it, though. How can a hijab be anything but a symbol of oppression of women?
Anyway, I needed to find breast-shells for my wife, and the closest baby shop is smack in the middle of Nørrebro. On my way there, perhaps half of the people I saw looked foreign — as in, they, or their parents, or at least grand-parents, were obviously not born in Denmark. I saw lots of hijabs and lots of men with various variants of skullcaps. There are much fewer skullcaps on my side of the lakes. I drew my own conclusions.
I started looking around in the shop. I was the only man there, but no matter, I’m a modern man. I went over to the breast thingies. Some were of wool, some of silk, and they came in all different sizes. She wanted one of these as well. Bu which size should I get? I took one of the packages, held it in my hand, weighed it, put it back and tried another.
Now, any man knows the size of his woman’s breasts, right? It’s not like you haven’t seem them before. And didn’t even Derren Brown approach random woman on the street and tell them their size? And he’s gay!
But if there ever was a minefield… For one thing, breasts change during pregnancy. They swell, as they prepare to do what they were made for. Another thing is that you wouldn’t want to guess wrong — neither too small nor too big. Too small, and she gets irritated. Too big, and she gets annoyed.
My wife is from the Balkans. I’m sure you can imagine how she will react yourself.
As I was standing there, weighing my options and looking confused, the shop clerk approached me. May I help you, she said softly.
Yes, well, I said, what size… ?
I turned around, my hand fondling the air to give an approximation of what size I was after, and saw that the shop clerk was a young girl with an enormous hijab.
Oh, wait, I’ll have to call my wife. Hang on.
I would have used an L, the shop clerk said. Or perhaps an M/L. It depends how much milk you produce. You see, women vary…
Yes, yes, I cut her short, my wife needs an L. She’s your… ahem. L, it is.
But do you want silk or wool? SIlk is softer and more delicate, it smooth against the skin, and that can be an advantage when your nipples are sore. Wool, on the other hand, is warmer and cozier… that’s what we say in Danish, anyway, I don’t know if you have the same word in Norwegian? Dejlig?
Yes, yes, I’ll have wool. She’s always cold.
Indeed there was something else. The breast-shells. I hadn’t seen them in the shop, though, and the easier way out would be to leave it at that. “I didn’t find breasts-shells, dear, but I found these wooly thingies, they’re nice, right?” Bu I have done that before, only to have my wife go in the very same shop the week after and instantly find several models of whatever it was she wanted me to buy. It’s slightly humiliating. And what if they really had breast-shells and I had come all the way here only to miss them and go back?
Breast-shells, I said. Do you have breast-shells?
She looked at me. Breast-shells, she said, I don’t think I have heard about that. What is that?
I tried to explain using words. I really did. I tried to explain it in English and Danish and Norwegian and even tried a few German words.
She didn’t understand. That’s when I started miming. Something like this, I said and cupped my hands, and you put them here, and they collect milk.
Just a moment, she said, I’ll get a colleague.
She went away and came back with another woman in hijab. Please show us again. And I showed them again, mimed my way through the entire thing, but for some reason they seemed to understand less and less. Hang on, they said, we’ll get another colleague.
Another colleague came, without hijab this time, and I went through my routine once more, this time almost without words, no words or Norwegian words seemed to amount to the same thing. Hands cupped around my nipples, or thereabouts, pretending to have a baby at one nipple and this thingy, this breast-shell, at the other.
But they didn’t understand anything. That is, they must have understood something, they stifled a smile now and then, but there was never enough understanding to produce something resembling a breast-shell. In the end, I left the shop with only one of those wool thingies and the sound of stifled laughter from behind me.
Out on the street, a woman in hijab passed me. A victim of religious oppression? Or someone who can can openly discuss her breast size with an unknown man and laugh about his embarrassed attempts at miming breastfeeding?
On my way back, around 50% of the people I saw looked foreign, many in skullcaps and hijabs. I didn’t know what conclusions to draw from that.
Except perhaps that my wife should ask a female relative about buying these breast thingies next time.