I wasn't allowed to speak Swedish as a kid. My father forbid it. I figured it was just because he was a jerk, but when I first visited Sweden and told my mother's favorite cousin Carin this, she gasped, and said she knew where it hard probably started.
It was about 1971. Carin was flying in from Sweden and my parents were there to pick her up in California. Back then, many planes unboarded right on the tarmac, and Carin, her usual happy and hyper self, ran off the plane and hugged my mother. My father apparently was very angry about something, we're not sure why. Maybe because he hated relatives, or he had an argument with my mother right before. Carin looked at his sour face, and proclaimed in a stern tone, "Vi mosta dricka ol och kissa!" That's literally, "We must drink beer until we piss," but sort of means, "We shall discuss your troubles over beer until we're too drunk to care anymore." Like the 6-martini diet (you don't loose weight, but you stop caring about it). My mother, upon hearing this rather ribald statement, burst out laughing, which REALLY made my father mad. See, to him, Carin came off the plane, and when my father wouldn't speak with her, she said something stern in Swedish, and them my father laughed. Neither one of them could convince him that Carin had not said anything insulting about him. To my father, Swedish meant his past, and his past relatives, and he HATED them, so from then on, Swedish was forbidden in the house.
My mother still spoke it with her mother from time to time. She knew enough to sound "grandmother fluent," as my Korean-American friends called it (to grandma, you were speaking their language, to others, you sounded like a clumsy foreigner). She did teach me a few words, like "Jag aelska dig," (I love you) and "God Jul," (Merry Christmas)... and a few swear words... because she was naughty.
Carin wanted to know what those "swear words" were, and I said "skit" and "fitta" which are ... well, poop and vagina, but REALLY coarse words for them. That's when Karin, another cousin, said, "We know eenglish word like that... ah... what was it... oh... boolsheet! HAH HA HAAA! BOOLSHEET!" The rest of the night, Karin and her husband of 35 years, kept going "boolsheet" to each other with peals of laughter. I have really fun relatives, I must say. I guess swear words in any foreign language are gems to learn, no matter where you are from.
I have been trying to teach myself Swedish here and there, but it's pretty funny, I can speak and read it better than I can listen to it. The trouble is with tapes and news broadcasts, people are always speaking like... well, professionals. Swedish "sounds" Swedish this way, which is how my grandmother and mother spoke it. But everyone else sounds like they are speaking French or Russian. I can barely pick a word out of their speech unless they talk to me like a child. I could say, "Vem aer det der?" (Who is that over there?) but the response, no matter how basic, sounds like a muzza-muzza-ja-muzza to my ears. Having a hearing problem makes it worse. It's not just my family, when I watch Swedish TV, it's like that, except for News broadcasts.
"Tala till mig lik ett barn, tack," I could say (please speak to me like a child), but that draws a confused look. "Varfor?" they ask, partly because that phrase is not grammatically proper, on purpose. "Var saa god, Kan du prata saktare? Min svesnka aer inte saa bra. Forlot..." (Can you please speak slowly, my Swedish is not so good. Sorry...)
Of course, this is what usually happens with Swedish strangers, especially up north:
Punkie: Hej! Hur maar du? Hur mycket costa det haer? (Hello, how are you, how much does this cost?)
Shopkeeper: That's 5 crowns.
Punkie: Fem kronor? Jag skulle vilja ha tva, tack. (Five crowns? I'd like to have two, please.)
Shopkeeper: Very good. Will there be anything else?
Punkie: [sigh] Aer min svenska saa dalig? (Is my Swedish that bad?)
Shopkeeper: [embarrassed] No. I mean, uh... well, I never get to practice my English...
I can relate. Of course, I have learned to speak with an accent because of the first time I came to Sweden. See, before I went, I had learned to speak some useful phrases, but they sounded flat. Now, I used to mimic accents for various comedy I have done over the years, so I tried it in a "Yumpin' Yimminy" accent associated with Swedes, and hey, it worked! Whattia know...
But everyone spoke English all through Stockholm. I mean, they took one look at my passport, and said everything in *perfect* British English. But when I got on the flight from Arlanda to Kallix, everything was not as I was used to. First, there was a sort of "festival seating" thing on the smaller plane, which meant no overhead storage. I didn't quite understand this as explained to me, so when I got on the plane, I had to stuff my luggage under two seats. It turns out no one paid attention to the sign, and people were bringing all sorts of things onboard.
One older guy who sat next to me brought a computer monitor that didn't quite fit under the seat. He looked sheepish, and laughed at himself that he might get into trouble. But the stewardess helped him with it, and finally, he turned to me, in a jovial mood, and started speaking a huge stream of Swedish that seemed to be like he was saying, "Oh, what a day! Ha ha! I am so glad to be flying now..." Finally, I broke in with, "Forlot, jaag fostor inte. Jaag tala inte svenska." (I am sorry, I don't understand. I don't speak Swedish.) He looked at me for a second, waved me off with a laugh, and a smirk. "Nej!" (No way!) he said with a laugh, and kept talking. I just let him, because I figured he needed to talk to someone, and he seemed like a good guy.
Then the stewardess came by the seats, going "Kaffe eller tea?" (Coffee of tea?) and I said, "Kaffe, tack." Then she asked something very long in Swedish, which made me panic and say, "Forlot, jaag fostor inte. Jaag tala inte svenska." She replied, in perfect British English, "I asked if you'd like sugar or cream in your coffee?" I sheepishly asked for two sugars and two creams.
After that, the man next to me turned to me, red in the face, and said in broken English, "Ho ho... I think you make joke before... ho ho ho!" He thought that was VERY funny. He didn't speak much English, but he tried his best, and we learned about each other for the rest of the flight. What a cool guy.
Later, my cousin Sven said I had such a lack of an accent with that phrase, it would have been like someone saying, "I am terribly sorry, but I do not speak a word of your language" in perfect English. You'd think it was a joke, too.
I speak Spanish a little better than I speak Swedish, and it's a bit more useful, since a lot of Hispanic people live around here. You'd think I was great at it; I spent three years of school learning Spanish, and I also used to be a Spanish tutor. I blame the lack of conversational skill-building during those years. I had one good teacher who taught me 90% of the Spanish I know today, and then I had a bad teacher who did everything from tapes. That came in a little handy when I had to ask a maid for 4 towels in Cancun, but I didn't need to know where the library or Pepe's house was, so that was a waste.
I recall a comedian who said he studied Spanish in school, and graduated knowing only two phrases: "Mis tocadiscos es descompuesto" (My record player is broken) and "Que lastima, hay dos chicos en la cocina" (What a pity, there are two women in the kitchen). My phrase was, "Que cocina mas moderna!" (What a modern kitchen!), which was on my final exam, and I laughed out loud at the stupidity of such a phrase. That's like, "Es no importa que cualquier persona dice, pienso que usted es bonita," (No matter what anyone says, I think you are pretty). How to give backhanded complements in Spanish. Caray! I would hope that some person would then reply, "Boolsheet! Ha ha ha!"
This entry was originally posted at http://www.punkwalrus.com/blog/archives/00000409.html