Friday 2 May 2008

Swan Song

The telling of the Swan story began, oh who knows, years ago probably. It began for me, as a migration story, about those ‘other’ Romanians. The ones who aren’t us. Who aren’t ‘real’ Romanians. We always argued about that, if we had the energy. Anyway, let’s go back to January. I’m feeling desolate because some kind soul just kicked me in the teeth over a funding application. My new Romanian friend, Vali,’s feeling the same because he’s been abandoned by his housemate and is now homeless. So he turns up at 1.00am, direct from Budapest, with a 2 litre lemonade bottle of plum brandy, and some truly gross-looking sausages. I supplied the bread and the spring onion, and somehow, the depths of self-pity and despair were transformed into a pretty good-natured swapping of scurrilous tales. The next day and at least 150 pictures of his girl-friend later, still in the first week of January, the sun shone warmly, no sign yet of the late snows or frosts that would soon annihilate my jasmine buds, we went for a walk in Finsbury Park. Vali was captivated: ‘We just don’t have places like this in Romania, we don’t have “parks”.’ ‘These birds, just look at all these birds,’ he repeated, endlessly, genuinely amazed. ‘What do you call those ones, those white one?’ ‘Swans’ I said, ‘with a double-u, suuaans.’ I didn’t know if Romanian had a ‘w’ sound. ‘Swans,’ he repeated, faultlessly, as though he’d been discussing them with the queen all his life.
‘You know when Romanians first started going to other countries, Austria was the first we went to, in large numbers. Well, some Romanians went to Vienna, and they have these big parks there, full of birds like here. Well, those Romanians, they started hunting the birds. One day, they hunted, and caught and ATE a Swan.’
‘No’ I shrieked, peels of laughter,
‘Yes, well, you can imagine how famous we were after that. Oh my GOD.’
‘But they taste disgusting,’ I say, still laughing, ‘they taste fishy.’
Vali looks at me, quizzically, frowning, ‘You’re laughing, Claudia. You think it’s funny?’
‘Well, yes,’ I say, feeling slightly guilty now, ‘ok, so it’s hard luck on the Swan, but… yes…’
Pause. ‘The Austrians they did not find it so.’
With utmost confidence I assured him that English people would find this story uproariously funny and would be impressed with the enterprising Romanians bringing their rural skills to the city.
I hadn’t, of course, reckoned with the Haringey Independent, The London Evening Standard, or the Daily Mail, all of whom suddenly developed not only a sense of humour by-pass but also, in the case of the latter, an unusual lapse of memory concerning the ‘right’ of people to hunt. A week or so ago, I found a copy of a Romanian free newspaper, its front page graced with a picture of a swan, and inside, the full story reprinted not only from the Haringey independent, complete with RSPCA phone number, but also the Austrian story. Whether there has ever been any verification that Romanian migrant workers really did eat the Viennese Swan, I have no idea, but the idea has certainly caught on to the extent that most Romanians believe it, but with one important caveat.
We were contemplating the reasons why the Austrians didn’t find the swan-eating saga funny, and I was cheerfully explaining that the English secretly admired a good hunter, when a teenage boyfriend-girlfriend couple with a dog walked past. ‘She’s gorgeous,’ I muttered, ‘But what the hell is she doing with HIM?’
‘That’s EXACTLY what I was thinking’ gasps Vali, ‘EXACTLY.’ We’re looking at the beautiful young woman, with her scrawny, seriously unappealing boyfriend. ‘He looks like a gypssssy,’ hisses Vali, ‘Bloody swan-eaters.’