|And so we moved to Denmark ...
My story is proceeding apace now and I plan to publish three more posts, leading up to an announcement on Christmas Day.
I got on a ferry at Harwich in England on September 12 , 2001, with most of our worldly possessions packed into a van. On the overnight crossing to Denmark people crowded around the TV screen in one of the restaurants watching news unfold of the happenings in the US. The mood was tense, fearful – how would America lash out? What blood price would be demanded?
On Danish soil I drove the van to Copenhagen and Michelle’s brother’s apartment, which we were borrowing for six months while he was away. The same week, the prime minister of Denmark called a snap election, hoping to ride into another four years in office using the fear factor derived from what was going on in the US. It was a gamble that failed dramatically and decades of social liberalism vanished overnight as the ironically-named Venstre party (meaning ‘left’ – although they might more accurately be described as ‘right’) took office with coalition partner the popular nationalist Danish People’s Party, who vowed to make life for foreigners a whole lot tougher.
But despite all the charged rhetoric I enjoyed my first few months living in Denmark. I signed up to learn the language at school while I hunted for a job. When it seemed that there were no jobs to be had by foreigners who didn’t speak the language (which could take several years to learn, I was told) I decided to bide my time and study. I chose to do a long-distance Msc. in Environmental Policy and Philosophy, thinking perhaps that I might be able to get a job in something that was more in line with my professed values.
During that time Michelle’s elderly grandfather, who had been a resistance fighter against the Nazis in occupied Denmark, slipped on some ice outside the supermarket and bumped his head. At first he seemed fine, but then he suddenly developed swelling on the brain and died. Given that we would soon be without a place to live (and there was no rental market in Denmark at the time) we bought his house off Michelle’s mother and aunt.
It was a medium sized terraced house on a busy road but with a nice back garden. Situated next to the airport, it had been used by the Nazis as a barracks during the war, although this fact was more of a curiosity and I couldn’t detect any lingering sense of evil.
I immediately dug over the back garden, creating an area to grow vegetables, and also dug out a pond to attract wildlife. It was great having a small parcel of land to call my own for the first time and I grew as much as I could in the space that we had. What’s more, we renovated the house, knocking down walls and putting in a modern kitchen. It wasn’t a bad place to live.
My course proceeded and I continued to find it enlightening and interesting. I was sent core texts by some of the original deep thinkers on ecology and ethics: Henry Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, Albert Schweitzer, Rachel Carson, to name but a few, and I became sold on the concept of biocentrism i.e putting the biosphere at the centre of our ethical considerations rather than ourselves.
Towards the end of it I went on a residency at Reading University in England with some of my fellow students. Perhaps expecting them to be there for similar motives to me I was surprised to find out that I was the only one doing the course for personal education and fulfilment. Nearly all of the others were there on behalf of the PR departments for the big companies they worked for, learning new material for their
greenwashing activities. One woman said she did her coursework on the ship she worked on, scanning the Gulf of Mexico for new oil deposits. She might have worked for BP, I can’t remember. Another man said he his job was to worry about emissions from the engines his company, Rolls Royce, manufactured. He didn’t have to actually do anything, he explained, aside from worry about the problem and understand the issues in case anybody enquired.
I still have the course material on my shelf. Plucking a book off, Environmental Ethics (by Joseph De Jardins), I can see that I highlighted a section of text on one page that must have appealed to me as I read it. It says:
We seem to lack the language for expressing intrinsic value. Many people think that such value is merely subjective, a matter of personal opinion: “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Thus, when a measurable instrumental value (such as profit) conflicts with intangible and elusive intrinsic value (such as the beauty of a wilderness), the instrumental value too often wins by default.
After a year my course finished and I gained a distinction – something that I had never achieved before - but I still couldn’t get a job. To make matters worse I seemed to be suffering from some form of malaise that had come over me two years before when I had got sick travelling in the tropics. It was getting steadily worse and after a while I began to convince myself that I had some form of parasite growing inside me.
Various visits to the doctor, who initially thought I was imagining it, yielded nothing. I used the internet to do research and became even more convinced that I had picked up something nasty. I could feel things moving around in me in the night – and not just my stomach but my chest area too. I developed blinding headaches, lethargy and general malaise. My hands started trembling and my sight dimmed in my left eye.
I kept booking appointments with the doctor and was referred from one to another, all of whom insisted there was nothing wrong with me. I think I went to the doctor and various specialists literally dozens of times. I had blood tests regularly and was told at one point that I should start eating meat (I had been a vegetarian since working with animals in Guatemala). I began to think there was something seriously wrong with me but the doctor, who had found out I had been using the internet and was unimpressed (to say the least) that I should question medical authority, referred me for psychiatric counselling. This was my first taste of the Danish Janteloven: ‘Do not think you are cleverer than us’.
By now we were expecting our first child. I really didn’t know what to do about my worsening condition and so, half-desperate, I got on a plane for England, went straight to the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and asked to see someone who could help me. I had brought a sleeping bag with me, fully intending not to leave until someone had given me a thorough check.
I was lucky, and within a few hours I was being probed and questioned by one of the world’s best parasitologists. Blood tests were taken, as well as various other samples, and sent off to a specialist lab in Thailand for analysis. Within a week I had a call from the specialist who told me that his hunch had been right and that I had contracted a parasite that, if left untreated, would kill me. I was to get myself to hospital immediately, he said.
In Copenhagen’s austere Rigshospitalet the young doctor was eager to see me. “Congratulations,” he said, a little too excitedly “you’re Denmark’s first case of gnathostomeisis.”
“I like to be unique,” was my meek reply.
The gnathostoma parasite incubates in the flesh of pigs and is easily transmitted to humans through water infected with pig faeces, some of which I must have drunk – or perhaps it was the one-off burger I had eaten? It grows in the human gut and begins to roam around the body, munching away at will through tissues. Often it will follow neural pathways and end up in the brain, where it will eat away contended as the victim goes crazy and dies screaming in agony. Sometimes it will appear under the skin and it can be removed with a scalpel, assuming the doctor can catch it as they can move quite fast.
The doctor clearly didn’t want this to happen to me and hopped in his car and drove to Germany, where he purchased some pills for me to take. Many different types of medicine (and food) were not available in Denmark, so this was very generous of him.
After popping a couple of pills I felt much better and made a full recovery, although I maintain that I suffered some permanent nerve damage. The numerous other people around the world who contract this are not so lucky, but the parasite doesn’t get much mention, perhaps because it tends to affect people with no money in the Third World. Incidentally, the condition is rare in Denmark because a) Danes tend not to eat local food when they go abroad (much less drink from streams, which I had done) and b) Third World immigrants to Denmark tend to be from Islamic countries where the consumption of pork (which is usually the transmitting vector) is forbidden.
|Gnathostoma worms: nasty critters
In the spring of 2003 our first daughter, Jasmine, was born. Suddenly I was a father, with all the joys and responsibility that brings with it. But what kind of father was I when I couldn’t even get a job? I was desperate by now, applying for anything. I walked around Copenhagen, enquiring after bar work, cafe work, truck loading work ... anything. But nowhere would have me. Eventually I struck lucky and managed to get a job as a cleaner, and thus I started the worst job I have ever had or am ever likely to have.
I had to get up before dawn every weekday and drive out to the concrete wasteland of a suburb where I would have to pick up my boss. He was a morbidly obese man who smoked a lot and farted and spoke not a word of English. Then I had to drive to a huge soulless area of apartments used to house asylum seekers from various Middle Eastern countries.
My boss hated them, said they were devils and parasites. In fact he was full of casual anti-Muslim sentiment and warned me that they would spit on me from their balconies while I was cleaning the steps in the stairwells, which was my job. When we got there I would sweep and then mop the staircases while my boss stood around pointing at bits I had missed with his fat cigarette hand, occasionally going away to buy slices of pizza which he would then guzzle noisily, making filthy jokes about the ham toppings and Muslims.
Nobody spat on me, but I did endure plenty of insults from the teenage boys who hung around smoking and kicking balls in the stairwells, and, once, when I spoke to a little girl, asking her what her name was, a door opened and her father pulled her inside, giving me a fierce look that said ‘back off’.
It was such a depressing place. I had heard the boast of people saying that Denmark took in asylum seekers and treated them well, but here was the reality: families crammed into dark apartment blocks and given no opportunities to exist outside of them, all the while enduring the taunts and casual racism of the locals. I only lasted a month and was refused my pay, with the boss saying I had to work a month in hand to earn pay. I considered going to his office and lobbing a brick through the window, but then remembered that I was now a father, and fathers weren’t supposed to do things that would likely land them in prison.
I spent a few more months of job hunting, also writing a science fiction book. The book was aimed at kids, although with practically every adult having read Harry Potter I knew who I was really aiming it at. It featured a boy in Copenhagen who falls into the icy harbour and ends up on another planet populated by space age Maya.
It was execrable. I sent it off to over a hundred agents and publishers and got rejection slips from most of them. It was no good, I had to find a proper job.
I found one in the form of taxi driver. Not a petrol powered taxi but a muscle powered one. I spent the summer trundling around the streets of Copenhagen in a rickshaw with my fares. Usually they were tourists, but sometimes they were businessmen. One day a German woman got on and said ‘Take me to the soul of the city.’ That’s when I realized that Copenhagen wasn’t the kind of city that had a soul. Nice architecture, happening bars, cosy restaurants, pretty funfairs and a great bicycle path network – it had all of these things, but I was darned if I could show somebody its soul.
I quit the bike taxi job. Most days I hardly made the rental fee (we had to rent the bicycle rickshaws from the company) and I was coming home completely exhausted from the effort. I began to give up hope of ever finding a job in Denmark.
My new degree, it turned out, was useless in finding me a job as well. I had hoped I might be able to get work at the European Environment Agency, which was headquartered in Copenhagen, but when I enquired about vacancies they told me there were only ten employees and no new posts were on the horizon.
Instead, I went to Prague and trained as an English teacher. I lived on a boat on the river for a month, doing the high-pressure course. Bizarrely, during the first week, we were made to learn Welsh. The idea was to teach us how difficult learning a language could be, but I suspected it was just a sop to the course director's friend, who happened to be Welsh. I practiced teaching English to Czech people in the evenings. The Czech Republic was overrun with American business consultants at the time and it was a big task training up the citizens so that they could be communicated with.
I came back to Denmark exhausted but at least I had a diploma in my back pocket that could be used to get a job. Amazingly, I managed to get one within a few weeks, teaching business English to professionals. At first I was very nervous but after a while I became less so as the material became familiar. I didn’t enjoy it, but by now I was resigned to the idea that work was not supposed to be rewarding or enjoyable, so I did it anyway.
But then even that job disappeared and I was left at home again looking after the baby while Michelle worked as a kindergarten assistant. I wrote another book. This time it was a dystopian story set in the middle of this century in a world bent out of shape by war, global warming and uncontrollable technology. The central character was a clone exiled on a Mediterranean island with all the other unwanted genetic freaks created in lab experiments. In a word, it was bleak.
I was quite proud of the book. It was much better than my first one but still the rejections slips came back through the post one after the other until they formed a thick pile on my desk. I felt depressed. It seemed that everything I tried was destined to fail.
It had been three years of unemployment. As a non-working foreigner in Denmark I had no rights and no way to claim any benefit from the system. I felt unwelcome and was at a loss as to where to turn. Every day I scanned hundreds of job adverts and every day the jobs on offer made me further depressed. Most of them involved working at one of a handful of giant companies involved in biotech or engineering or technology – this is the way Denmark earns its money.
That Christmas, as the grey rain beat down outside and the television was blaring out its endless cry for us to consume more and be entertained more. I picked up a paperback book I had bought. It was written by a man called Chris Stewart – the former drummer of the band Genesis – and it detailed how he had escaped the greed and hubris of Thatcher’s Britain in the 1980s, moving into a ruined farmhouse in Spain’s Andalucía region, and becoming a shepherd. The book was called Driving Over Lemons and I read its powerful spell in a single sitting.
When I finished I put down the book and turned to Michelle, who was pregnant with our second child.
“Let’s move to Spain, buy a farm and live self-sufficient lives in the mountains among people who really know how to enjoy life and where our kids won’t have to grow up with all this consumerist bullshit.”
“Okay,” she said.
And so we did.