Vikings, Lego and Bacon (2005)

Back in the day – when I still regarded Journalism as attainable a vocation as Astronaut or Ghostbuster – I met a beautiful girl who, rather than take me to bed, distracted me by introducing me to her father. He was the editor of the soon to be defunct second local paper of a small Danish island and was keen to get the low-down on what the foreigners really thought of the place.

He asked me to write a piece for the final edition but back on the mainland my flat was burgled; I lost the draft and missed the deadline. A month or so later the Police arrested a junkie who still had my laptop – he couldn’t get past the BIOS password so hadn’t been able to sell it. The HD was undamaged but my mojo was, so here, for posterities sake if anything, is the untouched snap-shot I was working on:

Old Norse poetry spoke of Samsø. Your island was said to hold the long awaited bay of love or longing where one could find shelter and tranquility. 

Back home, people are always asking me: ‘Why do you keep going back to Denmark?’

I am English, but these days I live among you, as one of you. You might ask me why, but not nearly as much as I, and others like me, ask ourselves.

I wouldn’t be here if almost ten years ago a good friend hadn’t convinced me ride a bus across Europe to pick strawberries. I, like many other foreigners, had no real image of Denmark but something happened; we fell in love with Samsø, and we came back again, and again and again.

I would always wish the cool grey British autumn and the dreadful long winter away so I could come back, reborn in spring, to be woken by a tractor to scramble on my knees for fruit, hungover in a wet field. It was almost as if I lacked the imagination or skill to try anywhere else, or maybe, just maybe, I was like those old Vikings who used the island as a true refuge.

I wasn’t alone.

Before any of us came to Denmark we looked in guidebooks to try to find out about Samsø; they told us very little, if anything at all. So we came here naive and without preconceptions; others that came here knew nothing either so we experienced and discovered it together, energised and charged by the place.

To the warm and welcoming we were interesting and they were glad to see us; the trouble is, now to them it seems we’re just foreign workers that abuse and condemn, criticise and complain; these days people don’t go out on missions like we used to – they stay on the farm and whine about the work.

You’ve seen us walking down the street, riding bikes, driving cars, buying a crate of beer or some rolling tobacco. We are the ‘foreigner’

And maybe if we’re not your usual humourless German stereotypes arriving in Mercedes estate cars then we’re ragged French faux-anarchists making a fuss in Netto, although maybe we’re miserable British hooligans drinking class-1 pilsner on the grass outside? Fresh-faced youngsters looking at the world with naive wonderful eyes? Or maybe, just maybe, we’re jaded wrecks, broken and reborn in one of the most friendly and beautiful places we’ve ever seen.

The first time I came to Denmark wasn’t when I crossed the border from Germany nor when I asked for my ticket to Samsø in Copenhagen. My first time in Denmark was with when Nick and Chris walked into a kiosk on the road from Sælvig to Tranebjerg, wet from the rain, lost and hungry, and bought something cheap and heavy to eat.

The woman looked old and frightened – like we’d just pushed through that thin door with horses and guns – yet she was confident in herself and sure of her tiny, well stocked island kiosk. She greeted us in a friendly manner and managed to give us what we wanted, despite the language barrier. We were more afraid of her than she was of us.

For many, that season and the following two were the golden years of Samsø, a time when we were either young and fresh or wise and hopeful, and it’s these first years that maybe I’m trying to recapture or evolve into something better.

There were many of us those first few years, all ages, all nationalities – some fresh faced and new to travelling, others old hands who had seen a bit of the world already – but we all got along and lived communally, banding together in a spirit of community, eating together, playing together, and working together.

Who am I? Who are the other complicated foreigners that come to your island? I’ve spent 8 of my 26 summers on Samsø and lived and travelled all over Denmark but I’m still not sure. Lets be honest for a moment, just how many of you over the ages of 17 crawl around in the straw, come rain or shine, for 5kr per kilo of strawberries? It’s obvious that you need us, but why do we need you?

Back home, people are always asking me: ‘Why do you keep going back to Denmark?’

And that’s a difficult question to answer, unless I come over all mysterious, lowering my voice a tone and leaning in as if to deliver some precious secret. It’s a closed minded and unimaginative question from the English but from the Danes, does it imply the belief that nobody else but a Dane can truly appreciate and love Denmark or do you just really not know what you’ve got?

Around here, people are always asking me: ‘Why do you keep coming back to Denmark?’

I usually try to think of an answer that would give the many poor decisions I make in my life some kind of fresh reasoning and purpose. I try to think of something to say that doesn’t make me sound like a habitual drunk, user of women, and a bad and lazy worker. I say something like, “Because the skies aren’t always grey, strangers are friendly, and I don’t feel the constant threat of savage violence every time I leave my house.”

When I was first asked to offer a perspective of Samsø from a foreign brain I was scared, and unconfident that I could adequately put across in words the reaction to a place that conjures up so many passions in so many minds.

I am an Englishman, and it’s in my nature to think whatever I do inadequate but still be fiercely proud, so in time I came around to the idea of trying to give the good readers of this paper an idea as to just what was going on in the minds of the masses of unwashed itinerant foreigners that descend annually upon Samsø carrying tents and stupidly large bags on their backs or driving noisy, undoubtedly dangerous cars onto the roads.

WHY did we come here? WHY do we keep coming back?

I could ask all the hundreds of people that have come here, the ones that came once an d never returned, and the ones that came many years ago and still come, and I doubt any would give you the same answer – but some people’s reason for loving Samsø, is another persons reason for hating it.

Some come for money, others for experience; some with friends, some alone; some are chasing a dream, others seek to hide away from a familiar society that threatens or doesn’t accept them. Some have a real life, a job back home – to them this is a working holiday but to others it is a way of life.

This story isn’t about why we come for the first time, but why we visit again, why we tell our friends to come, and why, year in year out, you’ll find us on our knees in the rain or in the sunshine, picking away, hungover and maybe in love, and why you’ll see us next year too.

“It’s one of the few places in the world that will give me a job… the beer’s cheap and the women will sleep with me… oh, yeah, and it’s a beautiful island full of wonderful natural history and interesting people from many corners of the world… but these days mostly France.”

David Rickerby first came to Samsø in 1996, and like many of the old-school pickers he heard of Carl Christian’s farm in the guidebook, ‘Work Your Way Around The World’, but although he loves the island, he still thinks the atmosphere has took a turn for the worst:

“Whereas the first pickers came to experience new culture and people, with money as a sideline, new pickers now only here for money and money alone, just another job, they make no attempt to understand Denmark because they do not believe it has anything they could possibly use, they show no respect. They ask me how I came to have Danish friends, and I tell them, ‘By talking to people – that’s how you do that…’.

“I feel sorry for those who have never been to Samsø, but I feel even sorrier for those that have, yet have missed the point.”

1996 was also Charles Memeteau’s first year on the island:

“I wanted to look after this mythology about Danish girls… which turned out to be true. The island is so beautiful, so I can escape, Nordby for example and have some walks about, and see old friends, but with the thieves and the capitalism, the tradition has been lost.”

This lost tradition is something felt by a lot of seasonal workers who have come to think of Samsø as something of a second home

“Life has changed on Samsø – very much so,” says Christian Etheridge, who has been on Samsø every summer since 1996, “In some ways for the better some ways for the worst – attitudes amongst the pickers have changed incredibly, now the farms are bigger so there’s less communication.

“Before there was a wide diversity of different nationalities, now there’s just large groups of one nationality that form cliques; because of these cliques they don’t have any respect for the island or it’s inhabitants and this has created a ‘them and us’ mentality. They stay on farms and don’t go out into the nature or meet people – and they have a very narrow perspective.”

Back when Christian first came to Samsø, the strawberry pickers were seen as something of a curiosity. Perhaps the familiarity of years and numbers has bred contempt on both sides, but contrary to what a lot of pickers seem to think, Christian finds the Danish to be: “One of the friendliest peoples on the planet – I have had nothing but good times and incredible generosity from the Danish people and I’d be quite happy to live in this country. All the things we’ve had, we had because we approached the Danish people, we didn’t see them as ‘the other’.

“The point was never to make money, and few make very much on the strawberries anyway, it was to be communal with friends, campfires, music, dancing, bike rides, nature and the sea, real freedom, people come here because this is one of the few places in Europe where you can be really free.”

But from an outsiders view Samsø is changing. It seems that as the years pass the small farms disappear to make way for big profit. One big company seeks to conquer and define the island’s economy, and rag wearing hippies drinking beer outside Netto don’t seem to fit in with this. As Europe opens up, more and more Eastern Europeans come to Samsø to earn far more than they will back home, even though they may well be paid less than their western counterparts.

And when there’re well-behaved and friendly people who will work far harder than me, for longer hours than I could manage, and for less pay than I would demand, it’s little wonder why this season it’ll be them out on the fields.

Maybe I’ve moved on, or maybe Samsø has, but good luck to them I say; I’ll wave when I come back to visit, just one more time.

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