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Gone Viking by Helen Russell


Alice is about to discover that her sister, Melissa, has booked something rather unusual for their ‘relaxing’ break. Finding her inner Viking was not exactly what Alice had in mind…   

‘I’ve got us a great deal,’ she said.

‘It’s better value to go for a week,’ she said.

‘Bring your passport,’ she said.

I had assumed that this meant we were staying somewhere swanky. Somewhere the concierge needed extra security and liked to take down your particulars, swiping a credit card before your stay in case you raided the minibar for nuts that cost £500 or stole the towels. I hoped that this meant ‘five stars’ and ‘luxury’ and embossed complimentary stationery with the word ‘bespoke’ scattered liberally around the in-room literature. I laboured under this misapprehension and kept on dreaming of infinity pools and massage chairs until our day of departure, when the muddy white pick-up truck pulled off at the junction for Heathrow’s Terminal Five.

‘A plane? We’re going on a plane?’ I bleated.

‘Uh-huh.’ Melissa responded with a dimpled smile, glimpsed in profile from the passenger seat.

‘You never said . . .’

‘You never asked,’ she retorted, still grinning infuriatingly before assuring me that she’d let Greg know and that, ‘Scandinavia’s great at this time of year’.

‘Scandinavia? Wha— Why?’

‘Don’t worry, you’ll love Denmark!’

‘Denmark?’ I squawked. ‘Wait, and you’ve been before?’ This was the first I’d heard of it.

‘Oh yes, loads! Copenhagen’s wonderful – better than the song, even!’ Melissa enthused.

‘Right. OK, then.’ I tried to stay upbeat and reconcile myself to a city minibreak. ‘So you can be our tour guide—’

‘Oh no, we’re not going to Copenhagen,’ she corrected me.

‘We’re not?’

‘No,’ she said. ‘Not quite . . .’

We had already checked in our bags before she revealed our final destination. But by then it was too late.

‘WHAT ?’ I struggled to contain my ire on learning that we were headed as far from the style-saturated Danish capital as it was possible to travel. Melissa tried to placate me with the biggest coffee they sold at Costa, before breaking the news that not only was there unlikely to be a fluffy towel in sight, but that there were other people involved. ‘Group travel?

“Roughing it”? That wasn’t what we agreed!’ I hissed, trying not to make a scene.

‘Wasn’t it?’ Melissa adopted her best ‘innocent’ expression.

‘I must have remembered it wrong. That or you were still drunk . . .’ she’d added, tartly. Then, in an attempt to appease me: ‘Here, I got you a present.’ Rummaging in her rucksack, she pulled out what looked like the costume for a hen do: a bulleted silver plastic dome topped with two comically large horns.

Slowly, and through gritted teeth, I asked: ‘What the flying fuck is that?’

‘It’s a Viking helmet!’ She beamed, ramming it on so hard that the rough plastic moulding scraped my forehead and the bulleted rim dipped below my eyes, obscuring my vision.

‘Whoops! It’s a bit big. You always did have a pea-head!’

‘At least I haven’t got a swede-head,’ I countered once I could see again and spotted the matching hat perched atop her cranium.

Melissa, unperturbed, continued. ‘We’re going on a Viking retreat! This is what they wear!’

There were so many things wrong with this statement, I wasn’t sure where to start.

‘OK, firstly: Vikings never wore horned headgear—’

‘Yes, they did! I’ve read Asterix the Gaul!’

Apparently she wasn’t joking.

‘That was a cartoon! Drawn by a Frenchman!’ I half spluttered.

‘Horned Viking helmets are a myth!’ Melissa looked sulky on hearing this. ‘And you know Vikings don’t exist anymore, right? They’ve been out of action for a thousand years!’

‘Have they though?’ Melissa countered.

‘Yes!’

I’d watched enough History Channel output with Greg to feel fairly confident on this one.

‘Or is that just what they want you to think?’

‘What?’

‘Otherwise everyone would want to move to Scandinavia!’

‘Would they? Would they really?’ Exasperated, I removed my scratchy hat, at which point Melissa put it back on me.

 

'In a rain-sodden no-man’s-land on an island somewhere in the North Sea, I finally wave goodbye to the last shreds of my dignity. And as someone who’s been stooped in the trenches of early parenthood for years now, this is a new low'

There ensued a very unbecoming tussle between two grown women over an item of fancy dress until our flight number was called and we passed the duration of the journey in silence.

It had been arduous enough explaining to Greg that he was going to be in sole charge of himself and two children (essentially: three children) for a whole week, with only an arsenal of takeaway menus for backup.

‘But you never go anywhere?’ had been his response.

‘Exactly!’ I’d told him. ‘That’s why I’m going away now. I’ve earned this.’

I bought up as many ready meals as our freezer could handle, then instructed Charlotte and Thomas on how to defrost them if necessary. I briefed the childminder that we might need extra hours in case Greg ‘forgot’ to pick up the kids (again) and asked her to call me in case of emergency.

‘Because I’ll only be an hour or so away,’ I’d told her. ‘I can easily come home’.

Ha! What I hadn’t banked on was travelling 1000km to spend a week with strangers.

I hoped that the kids would be OK.

I hoped that Greg could keep them fed and watered and generally alive and unbroken.

For Seven Whole Days . . .

Now, I’m crouching in a field with a wet bottom and knees that feel as though they’re going to give way at any moment. It’s raining. Again. That kind of persistent drizzle that makes the world smell like a portaloo. And we’re being shouted at. Again.

‘Squat down: get low! Channel your inner primate!’ the man-bunned hipster in harem pants is barking at us as he walks up and down, supervising our attempts at ‘chimp walking’. ‘This is natural movement,’ he tells us while scratching at facial hair in a manner that screams ‘monkey’.

‘You’re relearning basic mobility skills!’

That’s as may be, but I feel like a fool. I’m also cold, fed up, and inherently suspicious of people who substitute a beard for a personality. I’m already pretty sure that this trip is A Bad Idea.

‘See? No horned helmets,’ I hiss at Melissa.

‘Maybe they only wear them for special occasions,’ she responds mid-squat, unwilling to meet my eye.

‘Right. Sure. That’ll be it,’ I mutter and do some grade-A swearing under my breath.

Man-bun tells us to call him ‘Magnus’ and that he’ll be our ‘spiritual and physical guide’ for the next seven days.

Well, that sounds like a lawsuit waiting to happen . . . I think.

‘Now I want you on all fours!’ he demands, prompting sniggering and a side-eye from the busty, older blonde next to me.

‘I need your legs wide and your butt low!’

Cue guffawing.

‘I want you crawling, chest to the ground!’ he says.

And by ‘ground’, he means ‘mud’.

In a rain-sodden no-man’s-land on an island somewhere in the North Sea, I finally wave goodbye to the last shreds of my dignity. And as someone who’s been stooped in the trenches of early parenthood for years now, this is a new low.

I want to stand up and shout, ‘What are we doing here? Surely nobody is enjoying this?’ But I don’t. Because I’m me.

Stupid old ‘me’.

More about the author

Gone Viking

Helen Russell

Every woman needs some viking in her...

Frazzled mum Alice Ray likes to think she’s on top everything – she has FOUR bags-for-life in the boot of her car for heaven's sake. But after spectacularly embarrassing herself at work, she finally gives in to her sister’s pleas to take a much needed break.

But this is not the luxury spa holiday Alice hoped for – instead, she finds herself in Denmark, in the middle of nowhere, on a ‘How to be a Viking’ getaway.

Can the two sisters finally learn to get along or will learning to embrace their inner warrior just make them better at fighting?

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