Tag Archives: travel

My dress-up rules: no to feathers, yes to weapons.

As I sat in the schoolyard of my kids’ school in Berlin last year, a blond boy wearing a feather headdress walked past me. Then another one. Then several girls in buckskin dresses with face paint and headbands. It was Karneval – a dress-up day – and these costumes made my stomach lurch. White kids dressing up as ‘Indians’? Haven’t we already figured out that that’s not ok?

We had left our home in Toronto to spend a year in Berlin so this was our first Karneval and we didn’t know what to expect. In the end, the kids said it was just like Halloween but without the candy and the costumes didn’t have to be scary.

It looked pretty scary to me, however. And before I even noticed all the feather headdresses, I had been nearly run over by a mob of cowboys, Jedi knights, ninjas and police officers brandishing every manner of gun, sword and sabre. They shot and slashed at each other. They aimed at innocent bystanders. I witnessed one pretend suicide.  My reaction was one of deep distaste. ‘No weapons!’ was the Halloween rule at the kids’ Toronto school where pirate swords and ninja nunchucks are confiscated by teachers and returned to parents at the end of the day with a look of righteous admonishment. Here in Berlin there was the unmistakable whiff of caps being shot off in the school yard. I felt like marching directly to the principal’s office and giving her a piece of my mind. How could they condone this level of violence?

Then a new wave of armed children swept past me and I saw the absolute glee on their faces as they chased and ambushed and shot each other. I decided to watch for a little while and take this in rather than try to stop it. I sat surrounded by the happy mayhem and started to relax. This was a good lesson for me. Things are different in Germany and even when I see something that strikes me as wrong, perhaps I should seek to understand it before taking action. I toned down the indignation.

When I looked around again I could see that there was no question this was just a game. The things in their hands were just toys. I thought of the tragic stories you hear about kids with real guns and the real damage they do, either intentionally or by accident. But that only happens in places where real guns are available. These kids can’t holster their cap guns and wander into a department store to buy real weapons and ammunition. Here, a kid with a gun isn’t going to be mistaken for a shooter and get one between the eyes from a police sniper. While we Canadians aren’t nearly as well-armed as our southern neighbours the proximity of a gun-mad culture has rubbed off on us and we’ve whisked toys out of children’s hands in response. But in Berlin gun play is still play. Shooting isn’t harming and as I watched the kids I began to see how obvious this was. There was no fear on the faces of the children who were taking bullets or being de-limbed by light sabers. The popping of caps was echoed by laughter, not screams.


I had walked into the schoolyard and been horrified to see both feather headdresses and an arsenal of weapons. But in a matter of moments, my horror at the toy weapons had fallen away. If I sat and watched some more, would my discomfort at seeing white children dressed up as ‘Indians’ fade too?

They’re just kids in costumes. And one could argue that they were not really dressing up as First Nations people; they were dressing up as well-known characters from German storybooks like Winnetou from Karl May’s books set in the American West. Couldn’t the kids dress up as their favourite storybook character? There were plenty of kids running around as movie characters, mostly from Star Wars. But the Star Wars universe isn’t real – it’s made up. Jedi knights and sentient droids don’t exist. But Native Americans and First Nations people do exist. The storybook story felt awfully thin.

I looked around and put the costumes into different categories. First there were the characters that don’t exist in real life: mermaids, Jedis, zombies, skeletons (yes, I know we have skeletons but they don’t usually walk around on their own like that). The second obvious group are animals: cats, rabbits, tigers. Fine. Then there were the kids dressed up as someone doing a particular job: police officer, pilot, cowboy/girl, pirate, flamenco dancer, soccer player. The princesses could arguably go here if one allows that inherited positions are also jobs. The last category were costumes that depict a whole people. There was only one example of that category on the schoolyard: Indians.

It’s ok to dress up as things that are not real or as animals or as a person doing a job. But dressing up in a costume that depicts an entire people – invariably an essentialized, stereotypical version of a people – that’s not ok. And the reason it’s not ok, even on this schoolyard in Europe where there weren’t any First Nations people around to offend, is because it perpetuates a view of indigenous people as stuck in a moment of time – in this case, the moment of westward expansion of European settlers into North America’s central plains. It erases the vast diversity of indigenous cultures and disregards their presence in, and contributions to, contemporary life. It allows these German kids to believe that indigenous people are just characters from the past or from storybooks; all sharing the same look and pretty much the same outfit.

I stayed quiet in the school yard. I didn’t march into the principal’s office and demand that the toy weapons be confiscated and that the mini-Indians be reprimanded and made to change into their gym clothes. But I did come away thinking that, for me, dress-up day had turned out to be much more than it first appeared. It had taught me something very unexpected: that a realistic looking plastic rifle is less dangerous than a soft leather headband gilded with feathers.



We undertook some fieldwork on the highways and in the towns of south-western Ontario and the American midwest. Some might describe it as a road trip from Toronto to Normal, Illinois to visit friends over March Break but that would seriously underestimate the deep analysis that the voyage entailed. In brief:

Quantitative Findings

From the vantage point of the back seat of an old but reliable car, one can spot many more water towers than flags:

The final tally was flags: 37, water towers: 58. These data are unlikely to hold up to scrutiny by future researchers due to the fact that I stopped pointing out flags and water towers when I started getting “you write it!” as a response.


Number of States spotted on license plates: 14: Alaska (bonus points!), Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Wisconsin.

Number of Provinces spotted: 2. Alberta and Ontario (shout out!)

No one played this game with me so I got bored and stopped keeping track. K was reading and the kids were watching a movie and they can’t really see or read the license plates as I speed past in what Malli hopefully describes as the fastest car on earth.

Qualitative Findings

By the kids:

Observation 1: The USA is really big. It’s not bigger than Canada but it has way more people in it. And there are parts of Canada and parts of the USA that we haven’t even seen yet !!!

Observation 2: The USA has four names: USA, United States, the States, the US.

By me:

Observation 1: A private health care system means that fees that patients pay go in part to paying the rent on enormous billboards on the interstate. Sick people and the people who love them are consumers and their health care dollars are sought after. We saw billboards advertising cancer care clinics, hospitals and hospices. My doctor says it’s cancer… now what? … Think any hospital is good enough for your child? Think again. … Don’t die with your teeth in a glass! This last one was for teeth implants. But the others seemed particularly cold. I had visions of people facing tremendous adversity – a cancer diagnosis, a very sick child – being cast adrift to search the phone book or drive the interstate looking for billboards to choose their next level of care.

The ads are not only for health care providers; they’re for diseases too. Joint pain? Might be lupus! Ugly toenails? Could be cancer! Savvy health care providers can’t sit back and wait for patients to just show up on their doorsteps, diagnoses in hand. It makes much better business sense to go out and make some customers. That’s what brings home the bacon so families can afford their health care premiums, I suppose.

Observation 2: Passing Michigan-bound truck after truck after truck filled to the brim with Toronto’s garbage is embarrassing. Sorry, Michigan.

Collage Collage is great great!

We’re in Vancouver and have been back to Collage Collage for several visits. It’s simply fabulous. Akka can’t get enough of it. This is the child who never wants to go anywhere but she popped her thumb out of her mouth and found reserves of energy whenever a trip to Collage Collage was mentioned. Malli used up all his sit-and-draw powers on the first two visits so we left him with Granny for our last drop-in class.

Akka is an artist. She spends hours at the arts and crafts table on her daycare days and brings home dozens of pieces of artwork. At Collage Collage she explored new materials, methods, and media.

At each class, the teacher reads the kids a book – often (but not always) about a famous artist. Then the kids use the images in the book as their inspiration for their own piece of art. Thus, we can now adorn our walls with our own versions of Georgia O’Keeffe and Frida Kahlo:

Thanks Erin! Still pushing for that Toronto franchise…

Vancouver trip

The kids and I just got back from a trip to Vancouver to visit Granny (and to save me from ten days alone with two kids while K. went to conferences). It’s cliche to complain about the weather in Vancouver but come on! It rained on fourteen out of sixteen days. We visited all sorts of friends from my Vancouver days – many of whom now have children and my two played quite happily with different new kids every day.

And, we finally got to visit Collage Collage! My artistic and entrepreneurial and brave friend Erin did what she’s been talking about doing for the past ten years: she opened a shop where kids can make stuff, parents can buy stuff, and everyone can hang out in a beautiful bright (yes, even in the rain!) space surrounded by weird and inspiring things. We dropped by one afternoon to check it out (it was all-day-pajama-day for Akka):

We came home with a few new treasures including this roll-up pencil case:

A few days later we were back for a drop-in class where Erin led the kids in a book-making activity, complete with story time.

Plus, the shop has a little tucked-away play area that kept Malli entertained long enough for Akka to finish the whole class and not need to be dragged out by a frazzled apologetic mother with crayon-throwing brother under her arm. I’m pushing for a Toronto franchise.

new things in old places

We’re home. We got back from Berlin (safely!) and turned around and went to my Dad’s cottage for two weeks. Now we’re getting used to being back at home with a few small but significant changes:

Malli is out of diapers and finished with breast feeding. I’m thrilled about the diapers and sadly content — contentedly sad? — about the breast feeding.


K. shaved his beard and revealed his face for the first time to anyone he’s met since 1989. The kids kept stroking his cheeks and Malli repeated “it’s the same dad, it’s the same dad” a few times to reassure himself.


Akka has a new confidence in the water and, although she’s not swimming yet, she’s becoming more and more adventurous. We opened a pile of mail and found some forms to fill out for kindergarten starting next month.


And, the cottage has a new kitchen which means that now that I’m home I see renovation opportunities at every turn…


train trip

K. had to give a talk in Frankfurt so we went along for the train ride. Malli’s enthusiasm for trains cannot be over-stated. He knows all the train varieties by sight: trams, u-bahns, s-bahns, “double-decker trains” (Deutsche Bahn regional trains) and “airplane-trains” (Deutsche Bahn Intercity-Express trains). We rode an airplane-train to Frankfurt.


I had some flashbacks to 1993 when my sister and I backpacked by train around Europe. We used to plan our routes to take advantage of overnight trains so we could save the cost of a night’s hostel bed. We also used to fill in our Eurail passes with erasable ink to extend the life of a 10-ride ticket. This trip wasn’t quite like that. We bought our tickets and paid a bit extra to reserve seats and we rolled our suitcase on board instead of lugging a sweaty backpack. But some things were similar. I remembered to stuff a few plastic spoons into our bag for yogurt-eating on the go. I brought a jack-knife. In 1993 I was a picky eater and scoured Europe for rare jars of peanut butter which I carried with me and spread on baguettes with my jack-knife because I didn’t yet like cheese. In 2009 I’m traveling with two less picky eaters who are happy to eat cheese with their brötchen but who do require that their apples be both sliced and “naked” (ie: sans peel). Jack-knife again.

In 1993 I didn’t travel with a sally-rag because they hadn’t been invented yet. They were invented in 1997 by my mother, after whom they are named. A sally-rag is a small piece of cloth. A handkerchief, perhaps, or a swatch of fabric from, say, an old sarong. Visiting me in Malawi in 1997, my mother always had one. When we traveled around the country, the uses for the sally-rag multiplied. Wipe off a dirty bus seat. Wipe off the top of a pop bottle you’ve just purchased through the open bus window. Collect eggshells from hard-boiled eggs procured by the same fashion and later shake those eggshells out the window too. Thin, small, versatile and quick-drying, the sally-rag does it all! By the end of the first leg of our Malawian journey, my friends and I were all carrying one. On the Frankfurt journey, my sally-rag held apple peels, provided a clean(ish) surface for picnic lunches, and, when wet with a few drops from the water bottle, wiped an astonishing amount of chocolate ice cream off of Malli’s face, hands, neck, collar, shirt and pants.

Malli enjoying the view:


Frankfurt Römer (city hall):


There was a band playing in the square. So we listened to oom-pah-pahs and ate giant soft pretzels with the beer-drinking crowd. How German is that?


Cool u-bahn entrance. Akka was concerned about the people in the sinking building until we showed her it was a staircase:


Turning the hotel luggage rack into a bunk bed (no, we didn’t make them sleep there):


Back to the train station to catch the airplane-train home to Berlin:


road trip!

We drove 9.5 hours there and 9.5 hours back and I hate being in cars and it was still fun! A trip to Burlington, Vermont to see our old friend.

Stickers and brunch:

Admiring the hallowed halls of UVM (or rather its impressive puddles):

A walk along lake Champlain to see the aquarium and the boats (Malli’s constant refrain: “the boats! the boats! the boats on the lake!!!”)

A quick stop for Akka to breastfeed Foofoo:

A pit stop to eat dinner and wave across the St. Lawrence at Canada:

And finally, finally, post-McDonalds rest stop grossness, post-border crossing, post-highway 401 rage: sleeping kids, and several CDs of CBC podcasts to carry us home: