It was 1978. I was a student in need of some money. Somehow, I’d heard that there were people who would pay me to pick strawberries and even provide me with food and accommodation. And so, I went to work for an international purveyor of jams and preserves based in Essex. Yes. That one. The one with the little jars you get on posh breakfast tables.
So, I joined the International Farm Camp, sleeping on bunk beds in Nissen huts, making new friends, generally having an interesting time and even making a little bit of money. It was a warm dry summer, they did have an awful lot of strawberries to pick, and so I met this classy American girl called Colleen from New England in the USA. I was definitely out of her league, but we were still friends. And it was due to Colleen, that I unfortunately insulted an entire nation.
One day, news came that the local Women’s Institute were putting on a special welcome evening for all the international students at the camp. Note the word ‘International’. Yes, we Brits weren’t invited. It was OK if you’d come from Turin or Bangalore or Helsinki, but if you came from Surrey? Tough. This seemed a little unfair to me, as I even then, had a strong liking for tea and cake.
So, I decided to go along anyway, masquerading as a foreigner. I couldn’t speak a word of any other language, although I could speak English in a Swedish accent. Well, at least I thought it was a good Swedish accent, because I was surrounded by foreigners who sounded a bit like that, and the Summer Sun had bleached my hair to the point where I could have posed as a backing singer for ABBA. Assuming they ever needed one.
So, the evening came, we all trooped into the village hall, tea and cakes were passed around, and I was having a brilliant time lying my head off, answering questions about where I came from, and how did I like England?… when somebody came up with the clever idea of everybody singing a song from their homeland.
Guess who? Yup. Colleen. She was more evil than I had ever thought. And so, all the other students began sharing folk songs in their own languages from India, France, Spain and Zimbabwe. Finally, all eyes turned to me.
‘Would you like to sing us the Swedish national anthem?’ asked Colleen.
So I did. In church , we call it singing in tongues. Well, this wasn’t quite in that league. But I just made up a verse of some gobbledygook-anthem sounding song, and delivered it with gusto, even repeating the last line with a powerful crescendo as if it meant something deeply moving. Which it didn’t, of course. When I’d finished, it got the loudest applause of the night.
So, I got my tea and cake. Colleen continued to be out of my league, although I had certainly impressed her with my sudden wit. Next morning, an Indian student approached me to say he didn’t know I was Swedish- and when I told him I wasn’t, he shook my hand and went away, laughing his head off.
So, who do I seek forgiveness from?
Not those sweet old ladies, who I’m sure have all gone to their heavenly reward for giving hospitality to travellers from afar.
Not to my fellow International Students, most of whom had probably twigged it anyway.
No, I beg forgiveness for insulting the entire country of Sweden, for turning their (no doubt) glorious national anthem into the aural equivalent of a neutron bomb.
Do you think they will finally allow me to have a sense of closure?