Oct. 7th, 2012

joebelknapwall: (Default)

I studied Swedish in college.

I studied Swedish partly because I like to take the road less traveled, partly because I had a beloved hunchbacked Saab 96 sedan at the time, but mostly because in my major, you had to take either a math track or a language track as a way of "supplementing" your arts and humanities degree. Despite the fact that my SATs were ten points shy of getting me out of math altogether, I took and failed MATH 001 five times (and had to pay extra for the "remedial" class, to boot) and would have had to take it at a community college had I not gone to my faculty advisor and bawled my eyes out about how I was working a full-time job, a part-time job, and moonlighting as a stripper to pay for college. Had almost the same experience in MATH 110, so the math track was out.

Flopped in Latin, experienced serious schadenfreude in Deutsch, couldn't even make out the words in Spanish, but Swedish—well, that was a truly wonderful thing. Swedish is grammatically as simple as languages that aren't Esperanto get, but most people couldn't handle the pronunciation. The most elemental Swedish tongue-twisters, little ditties about seven sick nurses and such, would kill most mortals, but I spent my teen years phonetically learning to sing Zarah Leander and impersonate Kraftwerk singing about calculators in Japanese, so my tongue was already relatively twisted.

It helped that my Swedish professor was an absolute gem. She was onto me and how, when I couldn't remember a word, I'd svenskafy English or Latin root words into Swedish because that would work, astonishingly enough, at least five percent of the time. Still, even though she knew I was hopeless, she enjoyed my company and enthusiasm, and would be extra patient.

Fortstå?

Where I was less than I could be with language, I made up by getting obsessed with Swedish culture, politics, and of course, cars cars cars. I'm a gearhead, and Sweden was a country of eight million people with two world-class automakers. Besides, I love clean, simple, elegant design, and the Swedes concur.

My professor also had the funniest mouth I have ever seen on a living human, and I've been to The Black Eagle with Scott Thompson. That lady—usch usch usch. I think I went out of my way to rile her because Swedish expressions of despair and frustration are just...stunning spectacles of off-kilter vowels and impossible combinations of S, W, H, and the way a dolphin arcs its spine in mid-leap, as rendered in unvoiced sound.

"Can you go over the vowels again?"

I knew them. She sort of knew I knew them, but oh my, how I loved to watch her say them. So many vowels, so similar, and so alien—sigh.

I'd make her laugh all the time, and a laughing Swede manages to go through a hell of a lot of vowel sounds if one's just lip-reading. I don't know how deaf people manage in Sweden, to be honest. I offered her a neatly wrapped gift one Christmas, and explained that I intended to put poison in her vagina.

"You want to put poison in my vagina!?" she exclaimed, and it was a natural mistake. Svenskafying "gift" into Swedish does not equal "present." It equals "poison," and the worst part is that the Swedish for "present" is "present," not "gift." I was on the right track, but so very, very wrong. I don't even know how "fitta" got in there, but my teacher was kind to say "vagina" instead of a more literal translation.

She corrected me, I blushed, and she laughed and laughed. I was content.

I nearly killed her later that Christmas, though. Where I sucked at scholarship, I excelled in going native, and I was going to Swede the hell out of myself in place of always having the right word. For Christmas, I made Lucia buns and made myself a kick-ass candle hat to do the Lucia procession. Learned the song, albeit the simplified kids' version, and even though it was gender-bending for me to wear the candle hat, I didn't want to be a dumb stjernespill, because star boys are lame. Excused myself from the classroom, lit my candle hat, got into gear, prepared my sack of candy and buns, and reached around to extinguish the classroom lights so I could burst in, all gloriously lit in the spirit of the holidays—

Sadly, the end result of a homemade candle hat and the physical action of leaping into a room was not good. Real candle hats have little wells that catch the extra wax, but my candle hat did not. Real Swedish children wearing official Lucia candle hats also don't tend to jump around, because of the obvious potential for disaster. I was instantly covered in a cascade of burning hot wax for the second time in my life, which abruptly halted my Lucia song and set me into a frenetic dance of agony. This had the effect of sharing my agony with the rest of my very small class, because when one dances in agony in a homemade candle hat, one is shockingly effective at dousing the rest of the class in burning hot wax. The viking obsessed bisexual hippie in the front lurched backwards and fell out of his chair, and I managed to dislodge the homemade candle hat.

My professor was absolutely silent, but her eyes were clenched tight, as if she was having a heart attack, and her perfectly amazing lips acted out the silent death cries of every fish on Alderaan in those last reverberating seconds. I stood there, surrounded by wax and irritated classmates, and watched tears roll as she doubled over in sweet agony.

When her composure returned, all she could say was "usch, usch, usch," but that pretty much said it all. I passed Swedish, and for a while, I could read it fairly well, could write like a grade school kid, and could watch Mitt Liv som Hund with a piece of masking tape over the subtitles, but it's slipped away from me. I last spoke it with confidence in a diner on the Taconic State Parkway in the mid-nineties, and then it just faded. I'd learned a language, though, which made me right proud.

On my last day, knowing I probably wouldn't see her again, I brought her a little present.

"I have some poison for you, though I'll just put it in your hand if that's okay."

"Tack. Det är mycket vänlig."

These days, the residue of a language learned is mainly used annoying people by pronouncing the names of things in Ikea properly.

"It's smOHlahnd, not 'small' land."

"Only you would learn a language to annoy people at a department store, Joe."

"Hey, I learned it so I could yell at my car."

"Sure you did. Doof."

"I believe the word you're looking for is 'knasboll'."

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January 2013

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