The Only Brits in the Kommune

Behind Husband, as he waited for a barman to appear and furnish him with a beer, a giant of a German loomed. This was on North Germany’s coast-a strange but likeable portion of seaside, stripy, canopied, wicker seats for couples dotting the grassy foreshore and a jolly collection of recycled, metal containers standing in as ice cream booths and beach bars. The portly German sported a bristling moustache and wore a checked shirt stretched around his girth, baggy shorts, bulbous, reddened calves and feet splayed in plastic flip flops. He clapped an arm around Husband’s shoulders, leaning over him as if to swallow him up.

‘VOT’, he bellowed, ‘Are you doing HERE?’

It was a good question. We were, as we have been for the last few weeks, the ‘only Brits in the village’. We were in transit to Denmark at the time, wanting only a night’s stopover before the crossing. Having travelled for miles in the quiet countryside it was a shock to find the sites full to bursting with holidaying Germans, their receptions closed by six pm. We’d been lucky to get a place.

As we’ve continued north through Denmark and into Norway we’ve been almost the only British visitors, except for once or twice spotting British plates amongst the traffic and once meeting a British couple on a desolate piece of waste-ground by a lake, [posing as a site] in an anonymous Swedish town as we travelled south again.

At the top of Geirangar Fjord, as we prepared to descend via the series of hairpin bends that is the road down, a miniature cruise ship, plastic-white against the green water dominates the view. That is where the British tourists are-enjoying Norway ‘best seen from the water’ as Brother [the cruise addict] informs me by email.

In Scandinavia, road tourists are dominated by Scandinavians themselves, followed by a heavy German presence, a fair number of Dutch [as usual], some Swiss, a few Polish and Czechs, the occasional Finn. We’ve seen a Russian, a couple of Austrians and French, one or two Lithuanians. But only one other British couple to speak to, briefly as we perused a piece of wasteland masquerading as a town site. We moved on to lovelier surroundings [not because of the British couple!].

As something of a novelty, many are keen to chat to us, perhaps to demonstrate their [undeniable] prowess in English or they are eager to tell us where they’ve been in the UK. A Danish couple stop in their attempt to attach an awning to their new, dinky, teardrop caravan to eulogise on its attributes and to share their touring adventures. A German couple tell us of their visits to England-Cornwall, Bath, Salisbury, Wales-everyone has been very helpful to them. I am startled by this revelatory snippet-the same as an American told me en route from Harwich to the Netherlands. Kind and helpful? We Brits? We of the stiff-upper-lips and standoffishness? Who would have thought it?

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When You Know you are Out of Your Depth

Amongst the plethora of entertainment, leisure activities and sports events organised by our town, which besides being a place of residence, I should add, is also a seaside resort and  tourist magnet, is a ‘long swim’. I was treated to a preview of this phenomenon yesterday evening during a ‘shortish’ cycle.

I am an admirer of those who are adept at swimming; those who are as at home in the water as they are with their two feet planted on the land. I envy them. They can dive carelessly from boats into the Aegean whilst enjoying their day cruises in Turkey while I can only watch from the safety of the deck and pretend I’ve a water allergy. They can fling themselves wantonly into the waves and disappear into the froth as they submerge, reappearing without spluttering, coughing, shrieking in terror or vomiting up the seawater they’ve ingested. This expertise all looks cool and elegant. Even in a hotel swimming pool fellow guests complete slow, unhurried lengths from shallow to deep and back, flipping over to view something or undertaking that mysterious ‘treading water’ thing that I’ve never mastered.

It isn’t that I am unable to swim. I can. In my twenties I spent all of one winter learning in a class of adults, shivering in an Olympic sized pool, taught with great patience by swimming teachers who understood the panic experienced by those who have lived all the way to adulthood without having mastered the aquatic arts. I kicked, I glided, I even dived with enough encouragement. But the incontrovertible fact remains: I do not enjoy the water. I do not like to have my face submerged. I cannot throw caution to the wind and submit my stature to depths deeper than its height.

In circumstances where the temperature is so hot I need to cool off I may climb laboriously down a ladder into the shallow end of a swimming pool, providing there are no more than about two other adults there-[no children-children splash ]. I might hang there, clinging to the ladder for a few moments before climbing out. I might even undertake a cautious flap across the width at the shallow end, within reach of the side, executing my undignified, unorthodox version of breast stroke which involves numerous, panicky gyrations with my head stuck above the water. On reaching the other side I grab whatever ledge is there, make for the ladder and thence to the safety of the sun-bed.

Most people can swim these days, having learned at school or from holidays abroad. But I was raised in a small village by non-swimming parents. Our holidays were camping jaunts taken in farmers’ fields and a day at the seaside was an occasion involving buckets, spades, sandwiches, rolled up trousers and knotted handkerchiefs on heads.

There is one positive outcome of my land-lubbing childhood: it is that as soon as my own children could walk, and long before they started school, I ensured beyond any doubt that they learned to swim, so whatever sins of parenthood I may have wrought upon them they have no qualms about taking to the water.