A Curmudgeon Abroad: Part One
I didn’t have to know any Swedish to get along in the country. But forcing the Swedes to speak to me in my language made me realize how intellectually fat and sluggish life in the U.S. has made me.The first time I noticed it, I was standing on a train crossing the Kattegat Strait between Denmark and Sweden. I was exhausted, the eight-hour trip over the Atlantic having all but worn me out. But I was also worried. When our train had arrived, the set of cars we needed to board—the ones bound for the little city of Växjö (pronounced “Vay-Quh”)—were closed. So, we got on the open set of cars in front of them, and we hoped for the best.
Standing by the train door, my hands sealed around the pole in front me, my mind scrambled. Above me the name of one foreign city after another scrolled across the electronic marquis. Some of them I knew. Stockholm (obviously), and Malmö (the city across the water from Copenhagen…the first bit of Sweden we were going to touch). But the others…? Lund? Hassleholm? Hoor? Kalmar? Where the hell were these places? Surrounding me stood a half-dozen people, all of whom who knew where they were going. These folks were more than comfortable with their own Terre Haute’s and Vincennes’s and Evansville’s.
And they spoke with each other in this effusive, bubbly tongue which I couldn’t decipher. Swedish is a “full-mouthed” sort of language. You open up the cheeks when you speak it, and it rolls off the fat of your tongue. It’s beautiful. It’s peaceful.
On the Other Side of the WallMy first experience with foreign speakers happened in Bloomington, Indiana. Growing up a half-hour west of the Big Ten city, our family hopped over there often for all things “not-hillbilly.” Amid any school year, IU teems with international students, and when all those incomprehensible sounds of far Eastern and Mideastern syllables bounced off my ears, I turned to my parents with a youthfully perplexed expression. They shrugged. It was IU.
Back in Sweden, as I worried myself sick on that train, I thought about all those people I’d overheard decades ago. They were strangers in my home. They, of course, knew some level of English…probably knew it better than many of the native Hoosiers around them. Now, the tables had flipped, and suddenly this Scandinavian tongue, which had first enamored me, started to suffocate me instead. The enormity of my isolation hit me full at that moment. I realized the degree to which I cued onto peripheral conversations in order to navigate my way around strange places. On Boston’s “T” or Chicago’s “L” all I had to do was lean my ear, and I’d catch a snippet or two letting me know I was on the right wagon.
Learning a LanguageWhen we had firmly decided that we were going to Sweden, I picked up my iPhone and signed onto Babbel. The lessons were well structured, and I made steady progress. But I also figured out in short order that learning a language doesn’t happen in a handful of weeks, and it sure as hell doesn’t come easily if you’re a half-century old.
That’s not to say that I didn’t try to learn a language when I was younger. Like a lot of American teenagers, I took Spanish in high school. Like a lot of American teenagers, I largely blew it off. I was—as I’ve written about many times before—more interested in girls and in trying to make my junk car look as sexy as possible. When I went to college, I worked at it hard enough to earn the grades I needed, but I didn’t chase the language with any urgency.
All the Swedes Speak EnglishThe only reason we found our way to our daughter’s town was because everyone we spoke to knew English*. Everyone. To a soul. A few garbled it: inverted syntax here, thick accents there. But the majority—an overwhelming majority—mastered it. As if they were from Queens or St. Paul, Minnesota.
*For a host of reasons (all of them historical and geopolitical) English has become the “common tongue” for much of Europe. Consequently, Swedes begin studying English as second graders.
I knew all of this before I left, of course. I knew every moment of that first train ride, that help would come. But once we had sorted out our stops and settled ourselves for our first relaxing ride into the belly of Sweden, the guilt hit me.
Reading the MenuBy the second morning, on my daughter’s advice, I downloaded Google’s translation app and flashed it on every sign and marquee I happened upon. Near the end of the first day, I was able to recognize a few words. English is originally a Germanic language—one which the French savagely bastardized thanks to that 11th century invasion from Normandy—so several words required no translation at all. Despite those exceptions, however, most of what I read was gobbledygook. Umlaut-laden gobbledygook.
Sometime during our walk along Växjö’s tree-lined path along the north edge of the Växjöson (Växjö Lake) Wendi, my fiancée who teaches special education to elementary students, hit me with a stunning revelation: “This is what it’s like for people who can’t read back home.”
The Vehicle of ThoughtOne of my favorite professors in college once told us that “language is the vehicle of thought.” It was a simple declaration, but it has always remained profoundly embedded in my observation of the world. I think about Dr. Sweazy’s comment every time I watch my dog stare at me. My goldendoodle recognizes the basic words all pooches respond to—eat, walk, go outside, sit—but does she process them? Does she square herself up against the side of the ottoman and slip into Pirsig-level renumerations on the relationship between well lubricated motorcycle chains and a happy state of mind?
Sweden made me feel like my dog. Every pub, every restaurant, every coffee-shop fika session—God! Fika!* How I miss it already…those moments found me sitting there, like my doodle, listening less for specific words and more for tone. I don’t know why the three well-dressed dudes were laughing over their pints, but I knew they were having a good time, and that comforted me. I don’t know why the older couple in the coffee shop grumbled over their cinnamon rolls, but they did…and that made me feel discomfort.
*Fika is mid-day coffee break where, as I witnessed it, happy people walk their amazingly well-dressed asses into the nearest coffee shop, sit over a latte or mocha, nibble on wafers or a roll, and somehow becoming increasingly happier. If we had that here, I’d never dread a single day of work…never.
And the three young, blonde college students who stood behind Wendi, stared at the back of her head and muttered to each other in a tone best described as “a full Lindsay Lohan”? Well, that simply irritated the hell out of me.
In each one of those cases—every single one—I could have tapped one of them on the shoulder and asked them what they were talking about. I didn’t. Obviously. Instead, I wagged my tail and assumed the best. I figured that everything was fine. That’s pretty much the only thing you can do when you don’t know what all the people around you are talking about.
Europe’s Common TongueThe irony that English has become Europe’s defacto language was not lost on me. Since the Robert McNeil documentary from the ‘80’s, I’ve always known that English was the rest of the world’s go-to lingo. I didn’t consider the degree to which my birth had isolated me, however. As the week unfolded, I kept imagining an America where most of the states spoke a different tongue—a world where, as a Hoosier, I would have begun my education in “New York” or “Californian” as a grade schooler.
Instead I grew up in a nation where all 50 states speak the same language…mostly. I grew up in a country listening to folks prattle off nonsense such as “If they come here they need to learn the language.” I thought of this as I signed my first dinner bill after that long, stressful train ride to Växjö.
“Sorry,” I said as I scribbled my name. “We do a lot of things backwards back in the states.”
“Yes,” my teenaged server said (of course in perfect English), “I know you do.” She smirked as she said it, flashing a knowing (yet weirdly reassuring) sense of “Swedish Exceptionalism.”
I never was one to buy into all that “conservative” silliness about America’s status as the greatest country, but I never considered just how ordinary we were until I went abroad. I would love to take a couple dozen of my countrymen with me and let them experience my week there. Most of them, however, would simply speak to the natives in English without an iota of guilt. It takes a special kind of hubris to walk into another person’s land and all but demand that they accommodate themselves to you. If there’s one thing for which Americans are exceptional, it would be that.