Saturday, 12 May 2007
Viking or Cornish?
Owen Powell - 12th May 2007
Ann is the youngest person in her household, the youngest at her work, and, at 20, one of the youngest national representatives we have found so far. She finished her Danish equivalent of A-Levels last summer, achieving an average score of 8.2 (“Out of ten?” I exclaimed. “No. Out of thirteen. It’s middling,” said Ann.) She took Danish, History, English and Chemistry – the science aspect is compulsory for all students, though perhaps not that helpful if you want to go on to study something else. Ann is keen to continue in a linguistic direction at University, “English perhaps, or even journalism”. I glance down at the hurriedly-scribbled notes in my falling-apart notebook, and not for the first time feel an impostor. She’s applying to start a course this autumn, as the strict entrance requirements of the Danish University system meant that her “middling” 8.2 wasn’t quite enough to gain her a place directly after her school career finished. “One good way to boost your application is to prove you have experience living and working overseas,” says Ann, “Which is one reason why am I here.”
She chose London out of a combination of practicality and attachment. Firstly, English was her most developed foreign language, having studied it since she was twelve (although her French and German aren’t bad either). That left a choice of the UK or the US, and as she wasn’t sure she would get on with American culture, and had also “fallen in love” with London on several family holidays in her teens, the choice was simple. Those holidays also allowed her to do all the touristy stuff, seeing all the sights, so by the time she arrived here in January this year, she was ready to become an inhabitant rather than a visitor. She also rather ruefully notes that most tourist attractions in London are ruinously expensive, despite the cost of living comparing quite favourably to Denmark.
Ann first stayed in a Danish hostel in Finchley Road, sharing a dormitory with five other girls. “I think it was good that my first experience of living in London was with other Danish people,” she explains, “as it allowed me to settle in better. The people at the hostel were very supportive and kind, quite Christian and quite pure – so there was no drinking and partying. I did find it difficult when I started my job, as I was working till late at night and wanted to sleep longer in the mornings, but the girls I shared with were getting up very early, and using hairdryers, waking me up – you know how girls can be.” I nod sagely, immediately hoping this isn’t misinterpreted as betraying intimate knowledge of sharing a bedroom with five Scandinavian teenagers.
“I was there three months, and to be honest it was a relief when I left – it’s nice to have my own room now. I looked at hundreds of places, and chose Bromley by Bow just because it was cheap, really, but I’m very happy in the house. I share with two English guys, a girl from Malaysia, and a girl from Korea.”
“North Korea?” I blurt out, excitedly. (These days, whenever anyone mentions Korea, Alex and I usually get very animated and say “North” a lot until someone calms us down.)
“No. But I work with lots of foreign people. In fact, there is no-one English there. I’m a waitress in a Mediterranean restaurant. The owner is Persian, and my colleagues are from Brazil, France, Italy, Turkey, Mauritius, India and Pakistan. Occasionally, we’ll get a Danish customer – it depends what mood I’m in, but sometimes I’ll speak to them in English for the whole meal, then at the end say something like, ‘Shall I take away these empty bottles?’ in Danish, and see how they respond. That can be quite funny. One customer, he couldn’t place my accent, until eventually he said, ‘Ah, got it. You’re from Cornwall.’” Ann laughs. “I suppose my accent has changed, even in the few months I’ve been here. I only call home twice a week, so now I’ve left the hostel I can go days without hearing Danish. It’s awful, but sometimes I’m on the phone to my mum, and I’ll get my grammar wrong. I think in English a lot, nowadays.”
I ask about Denmark, and how mixed it is there. “Not so much as London, of course. Here you can go down Brick Lane and you’re in India, into South London and you’re in Africa. In Copenhagen, in particular, we have a growing Muslim population, but nothing like London.” I mention the controversy that flared up last year when a Danish newspaper printed some cartoons purporting to show the Prophet Muhammad. “Ah, yes,” says Ann. “That was problematic. Perhaps we don’t quite have the experience of dealing with minorities that England has.” Maybe it’s because we had an Empire, I suggest, and Denmark didn’t. “Well, we did have one colony, I think, a small island in the Caribbean. And of course, we once had England as part of our Empire, in the time of the Vikings.” Well, that certainly puts my perhaps rather boastful earlier statement into its proper context.
Ann is enjoying being in London. One of the most amazing things she says – indeed, it’s one of the most amazing things anyone I’ve interviewed so far has said – is that “the people in London are so friendly and polite.” I boggle my eyes, but Ann goes on. “Oh, yes - compared to Denmark, certainly. Here, if you tread on someone’s toes, they will apologise to you.” (I have to admit, that is true. It’s what I’d do). “I’m going back in July, and I’ll be sad to be leaving. But it’s easy to come back. Denmark’s really close, and you can get flights for about thirty pounds, so it’s not like I’ll be gone forever.”
Like many of the people we had met, Ann wasn’t ruling out a future stay in London, maybe as part of her degree course. In the mean time, her evening shift at the restaurant was starting. We wander through Leicester Square, and go past the Haagen-Dazs café. “Oh!” I say, “We should have met there, rather than Starbucks.” (Just like Alex, I seem to be meeting people at Starbucks by default). “It is Danish, isn’t it?” Ann looks a bit quizzical. “I don’t think so. I think it’s an American company that decided to have a made-up European name.” (I check this when I get home – it’s true). “It’s quite funny,” Ann goes on. “Lots of Americans, when I meet them, think that Denmark is the capital of Sweden. Here, most Londoners know what Denmark is, lots of them have been there." Rachel, my girlfriend is one of them - she went a couple of years back and came home raving about the cycle lanes. “Yes,” says Ann, “It’s much friendlier there. Here, I don’t think I would like to cycle. One thing that is so exciting about London is that there is lots happening, but I think if you’re on a bike, that is perhaps a downside.” Hmm, I think, as I wave goodbye to Ann, and once again unlock my bike. Here’s hoping for a relatively unexciting ride home ...