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The International Writers Magazine: D is for diplomacy
Century-old village churches rises above the old houses, perched on the island’s softly rolling hills, in what the locals cheerfully call the “Alps of Fyn”, rising no more than a few dozen meters above sea level. The area is a peaceful paradise of hard-working friendly people who have lived in peace for generations…
The Four Cygnets
Erik Cleves Kristensen
The villages in the Southern part of the Danish island of Fyn are beautiful; like taken out of a fairy tale ; large oak trees surround old low-roofed thatched houses, with colorful flowers adorning the fronts.
Almost the entire village had assembled at the “forsamlingshus”, that is, the local meeting house, used for community meetings and events. Today’s meeting was called in by Henrik Mortensen, the owner of the inn, and Tove Rydsbjerg, the newly arrived local priest. The young priest wanted to meet more of the community (hardly anyone attended church any more), and had found this a good occasion, where community issues would be discussed.
The main point on the agenda was a happy one: on the small local lake in the middle of the village, four new cygnets had arrived! Like all villages, proud of their heritage of - and attachment to - the “ugly duckling”, they were fiercely protective of their new inhabitants. And in this meeting, they would decide the names of their new fellow citizens.
Tove Rydsbjerg had already discussed the issue with Henrik Mortensen, and wanted to suggest naming the four ducklings after the four members of the local church council. This would both bring her credit as well as be a way of getting all of the community more involved in church affairs.
Although Mr. Mortensen responded positively to her suggestion, he did not tell her that other community members had already discussed possible names for the ducklings.
Mr. Mortensen started by welcoming everyone: “it is clear that with the many people having come here today, that this is an issue of the utmost importance for the whole community!”
After some initial discussion on some of the other issues on the agenda, came the main point on the agenda; the one everyone was there to discuss. Mr. Mortensen cleared his throat and took another sip of the Albani-beer on his table:
“Well, we all know that our dear swan Margrethe has arrived with four new cygnets. So here we are to discuss what their names should be. Does anyone have any suggestions?”
Many people raised their hands before Mr. Mortensen clarified that they would first write the suggestions down on the board and then proceed to vote.
Old Mrs. Hansen, who had lived in the village her entire life, and was widow after the dairy manager, immediately signaled her intent to give a suggestion, as she did every time this was up for discussion: “I suggest we name them after the Royal family; Margrethe, Frederik, Joachim and Henrik”.
There was a dissatisfied mumble and someone in the crowd said: “we already did that last time!”
Mrs. Hansen sat down while Mr. Mortensen wrote the proposal down on the board. “Ok”, he said; “any more?”
Numerous hands went up and Mr. Mortensen was busy writing down the names on the board.
The local party member of the Liberal party, Tim Hagen, wanted to give the cygnets the names of leading liberal politicians: “Uffe, Anders, Birthe and Soren.”, he said to some ‘Boos’ among those present, and added graciously: “to show the great liberal spirit of the community!”
The mechanic Kim Andersen, an avid football fan of the island´s leading football team, Odense Boldklub (OB), suggested again (as he did every year) of giving the cygnets the names of some of the OB footballers who had defeated Real Madrid in the UEFA Cup in 1994: “Lars, Steen, Morten and Michael”!
Two older widowed ladies who lived next to each other in small beautiful houses in town, Mrs. Geertsen and Mrs. From, suggested naming the ducklings after the first family of Muslim immigrants which had recently moved into the village, to show how the town welcomed foreigners of all races and religions. There was some assent among the assembly, but the old ladies were cut short when Mr. Mortensen asked them what the names were:
“I don’t remember… Hassan!? I am sure Hassan was one of them… Or was it Hussein…?” Mrs. From said and looked pleadingly at Mrs. Geertsen, who signaled that she actually didn’t know a single one of the names.
Everyone laughed, and since the newcomers were not there, Mr. Mortensen graciously just wrote “to be clarified”, on the board.
As a few more suggestions, relating to the names of female handball-players and characters in Donald Duck (In the Danish version these were: Anders, Andersine, Uncle Joachim and Fætter Højben), were written on the board by Mr. Mortensen (who had in the meantime already started on his second Albani-beer), someone else got up. It was Mr. Jakobsen, the old and respected caretaker of the local Brugs, the only grocery shop in the village.
Time had been unkind to Mr. Jakobsen’s shop: increased competition from big supermarkets in the nearby towns had almost forced it to close down. But with a common effort, mobilizing the community on behalf of their shop, the place had just barely managed to stay open. Things had improved, but the threat of closure was always looming in the distance.
“I would like to suggest the names of the four employees in the shop: Las, Christian, Gitte and Klaus.” He looked around and saw them all in the crowd: “without their support, effort and help, the shop would be unable to remain open.” He then looked at the crowd with some accusation (he knew they all shopped in the big supermarkets in town) and added: “And we all know how important that is for the whole community…”
Nobody said anything while Mr. Mortensen wrote down the proposal on the board.
“So, are there any more proposals?” Mr. Mortensen asked, knowing that Tove Rydsbjerg was still to make her suggestion.
Tove Rydsbjerg signaled her intent to talk and got up a bit nervously. Being a priest in the Danish Lutheran Church, she had seldom spoken in public for more than 10 people, so she was a bit nervous. She got herself together though and said to the assembly:
“I am new here, and happy to be here, hmmm, but, hmmmm, would still like to suggest four names of four very important people in the community, hmmm, namely the four members of the Church Council: Gitte, Christian, Claus and Las.”
She looked directly at the crowd and added a bit more confidently: “the members of the council have done very important work for the church over the last 30 years. I am only a new priest, but can see the importance of their efforts, which to many of you may seem irrelevant. Nevertheless, let me underline the importance of the church, not only for the community, but for the whole area!”
The young priest sat down, happy and relieved, seeing that she had obviously made an impression.
“All right”, Mr. Mortensen, sipping his third Albani-beer, said. “If this is the last suggestion I declare the board closed for more proposals, and let us proceed to the voting!”
There was a break as people mingled, gossiped and had some more Albani-beers and Jolly-Cola’s. Some people were making fun of the suggestions, others were discussing about how to vote. All agreed that this was not a decision to be taken lightly: this was about the spirit of the village; this was what the whole community was about!
Since there had never been any major conflict in the village, voting was done by simply raising one’s hand. No need for secrecy. And so, Mr. Mortensen started to go through the proposals and count the raised hands for each one of them.
A few proposals only received the one vote of the person who had suggested it, to the amused laughter of the crowd. Tim Hagen’s proposal, which he had carefully lobbied people for, received 5 votes.
Kim Andersen´s proposal received the 2 votes of the OB fans in the village.
Mrs. From and Mrs. Geertsen’s proposal to welcome the new arrivals got 5 votes, although nobody knew what the names were.
As the voting ended, Mr. Mortensen made the final count: “hmmmm, it seems we have a tie: 15 votes for Tove Rydbjerg’s proposal, and 15 votes for Mr. Jacobsen’s.” People looked at one another in surprise as Mr. Mortensen added: “I guess we have to proceed to a second round of voting…”
But as people were preparing to vote again, Tove Rydsbjerg noticed something: “Wait! Is this necessary? Aren’t the names the same?”
Everyone looked at the board and compared: “Christian, Gitte, Las and Klaus” and “Gitte, Las, Christian and Claus”.
Mr. Mortensen, looked at the board and started saying, “well… indeed…”, but was suddenly interrupted. It was Klaus, the employee in the grocery shop: “No, I am Klaus with a ‘K’!” he said loudly.
“Well, that can surely not be an issue…” Tove Rydsbjerg managed to say, but noticed that nobody was listening to her as a heated discussion broke out among people: the peaceful Danish villagers were turning into what other Scandinavians referred to as ‘the Latins of the North’.
Mr. Mortensen, having resolved many conflicts in his inn, asked people to quiet down and declared that a new round of voting would take place, and added cheerfully that people should get another drink (he was getting another Albani-beer, and since they were running low, he called his son at the inn to bring over another crate).
“This will take no time!” Mr. Mortensen declared and wrote the two proposals on the board. However, being an experienced man in these things he also told people that the next round of voting would be by secret vote. There was some mumbling at the extra time this would take, but agreement in general nevertheless, as everyone knew what others had voted. Some people started lobbying Kim Andersen, Tim Hagen or Mrs. From and Geertsen, knowing that their votes might make the difference.
Tim Hagen was obviously enjoying what he saw as a political game, while Mrs. From and Geertsen were just confused, asking people if they couldn’t consider Hassan, Hussein or whatever…
As the secret vote was about to start, there was a tense atmosphere in the hall. When the voting ended, Mr. Mortensen took yet another Albani-beer before proceeding to the counting of the votes.
Danish democratic traditions at their best.
Mr. Mortensen, already quite tipsy from the prolongued meeting, proceeded to open the box and started counting the votes in view of the assembly: “the Church Council”, and he would raise it to all to see and put it on one side, and “the Brugs”, and raise it for all to see and put on another. As he had finished, he made the count twice before reluctantly giving the result to the crowd: “21 votes for the church council; “21 for the Brugs…” (and as he was doing this, he quietly sent another phone message to his son at the inn: “send more beer”).
There was great disquiet among the crowd which erupted in a heated discussion. Mr. Mortensen seemed confused (and drunk) about what to do. But Tove Rydsbjerg, feeling more confident got up and asked for people to quiet down:
“Is this really such an issue? Can’t they just be named after both?”
“Not if it’s with a ‘C’” someone said. Surely Klaus from the grocery shop.
“Well”, Tove Rydsbjerg answered a bit surprised that she was finding herself in this situation, “…I am sure the church council member won’t mind it is with a ‘K’…”, and smiled broadly, looking down at the old church council member, Claus Madsen.
Everyone was looking at Claus Madsen and he looked back at Tove Rydsbjerg with some resentment at having put him in that position, and replied: “Not really… Claus with a ‘K’, then it wouldn’t be me…”
He had barely finished his sentence as the discussion erupted again. Tove Rydsbjerg didn’t know what to say any more and looked pleadingly at Mr. Mortensen, who was in the middle of opening one more Albani-beer.
Mr. Mortensen looked at the crowd and after a while made them quiet down sufficiently: “Look, we don’t want to stay here forever. I am sure we can find a compromise!”
“Yes!”, Tim Hagen said from the crowd (he was loving this); “let us name them after Liberal politicians as a compromise!”
Mr. Mortensen didn’t mind Tim Hagen and continued: “Let us see; the issue it just about the ‘C’ or the ‘K’…”
Mr. Jacobsen interrupted him: “No!!! It is about whom we honour by naming the ducklings! Who has contributed to the community…!?”
As he said this, the crowd erupted in shouts, claps, cheers. There was no real control as people were furthermore digging into the fresh crate of Albani beers being brought in from the inn. There was some pushing and shoving among some of the younger men and only the presence of older ladies made them hold back from more violent measures.
“No! Wait!”, Mr. Mortensen shouted, and added: “… we can find a solution. Hey, what about a change of names!?”
He looked at Klaus, who was sitting proudly in a corner, obviously flattered that the was the cause of such turmoil in the community. The entire crowd quieted down as Mr. Mortensen addressed him: “What if we contribute to a name-change? And not really a change… Just a ‘C’ for a ‘K’! You would still be Klaus to all of us! (and may I add, that I didn’t even know how either of your names were spelled!)” Most of the crowd didn’t hear the last part, as all eyes focused on Klaus who suddenly didn’t feel as confident. He cleared this throat a bit nervously, and said firmly:
“But I just had a new door-sign made for my house, real copper, engraved inscriptions, and it is with ‘K’!”
The crowd, who for a fleeting moment had eyed a solution, threw its head back in desperation. But Mr. Mortensen turned his head towards Claus Madsen: “And you, Mr. Madsen? ‘C’ for a ‘K’…?”. He said it less confidently, seeing Claus Madsen’s arrogant attitude.
“I have been Claus with a ‘C’ for 74 years, and I do not intend to change it now!”, he said in absolute terms.
The discussion continued way into the evening. It had become an issue of the Church Council versus the Brugs although everyone kept saying it was about the ducklings. Some people had decided to leave, but the most stubborn remained, negotiating, discussing, and forming silly little alliances, while more and more beers were being flushed down.
Mr. Mortensen was trying to bring people together; Mr. Jakobsen was not giving in while his employees were quietly supporting him; Mrs. Geertsen had gone home to feed her dog, but Mrs. From remained not understanding half of what went on; Kim Andersen and his friends were drunk, ready to give their support to anyone who may offer a beer; Tim Hagen was still there, not knowing where he could get some advantage for the Liberal party; and Tove Rydsbjerg didn’t know what to do, as this was completely alien to her: was this really about the name of the ducklings…?
As they got past midnight Mr. Jakobsen announced that he was leaving, and that he would consider no decision had been taken.
There was a tired, tense silence, but all agreed. Some new young men had arrived from the area, with the promise of free beer and a possible fight. But they were disappointed, as Mr. Mortensen’s son had come to pick up both him and the beers.
People were tired, but nothing was forgotten.
The village became a tense place as no final decision was taken. People who knew how the other had voted stopped talking to one another. Mr. Jakobsen and his employees suddenly became very popular, and even though some customers stopped coming altogether, others would now only shop at the Brugs.
Tove Rydbjerg noted the difference too: a group of people, whom she distinctively recognized as having voted for the Church Council during the meeting had become more willing to volunteer their work for the church, while others seemed to avoid her.
She could clearly see the dilemma but she hardly understood it. She would still go to the Brugs to shop, but there was always a palpable tension when she did: to them, she was of the mother of the ‘C’ proposal. The young priest didn’t know what to think about this whole situation she had landed in. On the one hand, she was happy about the increased number of people in the church, but at the same time (in a very missionary spirit), she regretted the ones she felt she had lost.
But no solution was reached.
And the ducklings? Well, they did receive names, because everybody in the village started calling them Gitte, Christian, Las and Claus/Klaus. You really can’t hear the difference. But depending on who you asked about the names you were sure to get a passionate reply of “Claus, with a ‘C’!” or “Klaus, with a ‘K’!”.
But one year later, Gitte, Christian, Las and Klaus/Claus brought a whole new batch of cygnets to the village. This made everyone so happy that everything from the previous year was totally put behind them. In fact, for the next meeting, there were numerous suggestions for names; even Mrs. Geertsen and Mrs. From, who had spent enough time with the new immigrants to learn their names, had their proposal passed to the names for four swan-ducklings: Hussein, Irfan, Salim and Sadaf.
Nevertheless, as the new young priest would always remember, and as everyone in Fyn already implicitly knew: there are just some things you don’t want to mess around with.
© Erik Cleves Kristensen April 2011