Last Friday morning, I had just finished reading the newspaper, biased and poorly-written like every day, and was wondering how I should spend the remaining seven hours of the day, when our director walked in.
"Maaret. We've been invited to the Danish embassy for a formal lunch. It's their development aid programme, which is turning forty as a project, and they're having a party."
"A party? Today?" I said, and looked down at my old T-shirt, and rubbed my eyes, trying to remember if they had any traces of make-up left. I had a slight flash of panic. Everyone else would be in polished high heels and in lipstick that never smudged, and I would stand there, in my grubby sandals and shorts that had worn thin and colourless from the constant washing and drying in the sun. "Why didn't you tell me about this yesterday?"
He waved his hand indifferently as though this was a totally unjust and ridiculous question.
"If you want to come along, it starts at two. These are Danes, so they'll probably party it up until quite late." He was enthusiastic, and took great pride in having visited Denmark and was excited about the prospect of meeting what he called "the Vikings".
"But anyway", he said, looking at me up and down, "we have plenty of time. You are free to go home and get changed". Wow, thanks.
I took a taxi home and back, and wondered about the Danish dress code. I had no idea, really. I knew formal was, of course, formal, and embassy people even more formal compared to normal formal. But in Zambia, traditional dress was usually OK too, so panicking and not really knowing what to do, I changed into my chitenge dress and slapped on the make-up I hadn't yet managed to lose, before racing back to the school.
Of course, in a true Zambian style, we arrived an hour and a half late, just as the drama performances and speeches were finishing. I made it directly over to the open bar, and it wasn't until I was holding on to a wonderfully cool glass of white wine that I looked around. And noticed something. I tapped the director on the shoulder.
"Hey. No one else is in formal dress. In fact, they look like they've just finished digging a ditch in the Northern Province." It was true; everyone was in shorts and T-shirts and holding up sticky babies and pints of beer. And I noticed something else.
"This is not the Danish Embassy. This is a Danish charity of some sort. Charities are always far more informal."The director didn't seem too bothered, despite his suit and tie. I looked around for food. There were some scraps lying around on a few plates, but there was nothing to suggest a formal lunch had been had. I turned back to my colleague. "What exactly did the invitation say?" He just kept staring into the distance, lazily, and suddenly I felt so irritated I wanted to smack him. I asked him again, a little more forcefully. He sighed.
"The invitation said they have a programme and they're having a lunch and a party for it. I can't remember. Lunch or dinner." I grabbed a sweet-looking Danish girl and asked her. She told me they had two functions, an informal lunch and a formal dinner, with different crowds. Great. I had no idea which one we'd been invited for, so I decided to quickly grab another glass of (free) white wine before we'd have to leave. People were drifting out, and suddenly, the director decided it would "probably be OK" if we waited until the dinner started at 7pm. I looked at my watch; it was 3.45pm. I felt mortified- we looked like two scavengers who were willing to wait three hours for free food, as everyone else left, the music was switched off and tables and flower arrangements were being scurried back and forth. I gratefully accepted a glass after glass of wine, and tried to make myself as unnoticeable as possible. Unfortunately it's very difficult when you're wearing a bright red, hugely flared traditional African dress.
Finally, embarrassed enough, I disappeared into the function room, and found a library, mostly full of books in Danish, but also, oddly, European travel guides. I found a Lonely Planet Britain, from circa 1980, and was shocked to see they still recommend the same pubs and bars as they did when I was born; proves what I thought- these guides never get updated, or if they do, it's always by some twat from middle of nowhere America or Australia, who's only been to the place for a week and gets a kick out of being an authority on it. I flicked to the description of London, only to get more irritated- "A dirty, expensive and crowded place, albeit with a few sights." I shoved it back in it's place, noticing that one of the authors had a Finnish surname. Bloody Anglophobes, I thought, and felt a small but particular bang of homesickness.
People finally arrived, we watched some more dancing, a comedy show and I had one last drink for the road. This was the first wine I'd had since leaving London, and it tasted fantastic. The dinner was quite grand (or maybe not so grand, but I've been in Zambia for three months, and anything that is not maize or a maize by-product tastes pretty wonderful to me). I felt tempted to photograph the buffet table for Marianne, but resisted. The table was full of meat, mainly pork; bacon, ham salad, pork chops and sausages of all sort. I giggled to myself, the crazy girl in the huge dress. There was something so Danish about the food that just by looking at it, it would've been possible to determine the nationality of the organisers. When the last ambassadors started winding down their dancing around 10pm, we called a taxi to take us back to our respective compounds; it seems that even hard-core party animals such as the Danes find Lusaka less than inspiring.
Our director doing a dance. It was a bit like watching your dad dance. Cringe-worthy.