Today marks the twentieth anniversary of the day the IRA interrupted me cleaning a Danish hotel room. My best mate and I stopped whatever we were doing and stood jaw-dropped in front of the television. We looked at each other in disbelief. Oh. My. God. At last. Someone speaking English.
I don’t remember a job interview, but I recall precisely how we landed on the idea of Copenhagen. We stuck a pin in a map the previous May. That’s how fast and loose we played with earning our college keep back then. Oh yeah. Get us. Backpacking our way to one of the most expensive cities on the planet. We didn’t bank on pints costing over a fiver a pull (a tenner in today’s dosh), and me accidently flushing my favourite trousers down the toilet on our first night in the youth hostel. Or hostel, as I called it until my eligibility to stay in these bunk-bedded communes expired. Funny how the word ‘youth’ only appears in the lexicon of folk middle-aged and beyond. I digress. How I mourned those trousers. Bought from the erstwhile second-hand shop, Flip, in Temple Bar, which did a respectable line in second-hand silk pyjama bottoms originally designed (and possibly worn by) the more refined older gentleman. I hope. The draught never bothered me anyway.
By the time the IRA was bragging about graciously laying down their arms, we had managed to shave an hour off our working day since our arrival in June. We were contracted to be paid for twenty-two minutes per double room, eighteen for a single. For the first month, we could be seen shuffling out of the building hours after the others had left, occasionally carrying bags of empties under each arm signalling a good day for leftover bottles from departing guests. The returns on enough of those babies would guarantee us half a beer, or an ice-cream, or one-third of our relentless daily diet of pasta, veg, and sausages. A pair of Irish gombeens among a gang of Filipino women chambermaiding their way towards their respective versions of a more exciting life. Two women unaccustomed to cleaning at any speed other than at their leisure. We needed to get a move on. (Warning: don’t ever drink from a glass in a hotel room).
At some point during the stolen coffee breaks, we learned our colleagues were being exploited by our employer. Underpaid and held to ransom by expired working visas they refused to extend. Memory of the revolutionary meeting with the union is sketchy, and distance and nostalgia has inflated our cameo appearance into a starring role in the re-telling. But looking back, it was a summer of political awakenings for us both in many small but significant ways.
Shortly after Trousergate, we secured a room in the halls of a university campus on the outskirts of town. Here we collided with Somali refugees newly arrived in their host country impressively leading the charge in European immigration and integration. I never required healthcare during my visit, but that my tax bill included a specified amount towards it added up. Recycling, an informal approach to queuing, the lack of vocabulary or need for ‘excuse me’ … all (eventually) made sense. Everything except The Little Mermaid. Squint or you’ll miss her.
“Any chance one of you could get me a BigMac?”
Then there was Greta, a German trainee doctor working as an intern in a city hospital. What we lost in translation and the endurance test otherwise known as her boyfriend (she appeared to find him equally insufferable), we gained from her vivid accounts of life as an East Berliner where she lived her parents, both prominent figures in The Communist Party. Four years on, she still lamented the fall of The Wall, but strangely found solace in The Hoff’s sensitive performance (not really). They had looked after each other there, she sighed, unable to conceive of a lasting fair society under reunification and liberalisation. “Don’t worry”, I whispered solemnly, “Angela Merkel will see yiz right”. (not re..what do you think?)
What they thought of us was anyone’s business but ours. Everyone displayed an interest in knowing more about Northern Ireland. Except us. We found the easiest way to scratch heads and move the chat along was to explain we hailed from the South, but from the most northerly county on the island. In the middle but really on the edge. Neither with them nor against them. Sounding like them but speaking a different language. Sharing a geographical hinterland but not a currency or culture. Shopping in the same places but only we were obliged to hide ours under the car-seat going through customs. A sort of smorgasbord of bits and bobs from one and the other. A take it or leave it.
The remainder of that day twenty years ago was given over to raising a beer (maybe two) to the most significant event of the day – my best mate’s birthday.
Happy Birthday M xx