You know what’s weird about living here? Besides the fact that the trafikkskole lets 18 year olds learn to drive on a brand new Mercedes, I mean. I have just this moment realized that I have NEVER lived in a country where people expected me to speak the language and I couldn’t. After living in 3 Asian countries,(obvious visual difference) and 2 or 3 European ones, (my ability in English and French coupled with a totally unfounded confidence in Spanish and Italian got me through) this really is the first time I have had to look like a complete linguistic moron. As an ESL teacher, this is the ultimate humiliation. Until just this moment, I have always been met by rounds of applause when I attempted a language other than English. Ordering a beer in Thai? Giggles and smiles from the Asians and impressed eyebrow raises from my fellow Anglo diners. Navigating complex questions from a French speaking customs agent? Pas de probleme. Been told my slight accent is “cute” and that goes a long way on that side of the pond.
So here I am in a brand new situation, and one which I'll admit I did not foresee.
Curse this blonde hair. I really look like these people and I know precisely 2 and three-quarter words in their language.
How can one function using only 2 and ¾ words you ask? This is where my artistic flair kicks in. I have been doing this awkward dance at cash registers and reception desks…don’t look them in the eye, they might ask you something…if you move quickly enough and mumble, they may not notice that you have no idea what it is they’ve just asked you. I am seconds away from jazz hands and doh-see-dohing my way out the door as a means of distracting from my pitiful communication skills.
Now I know perfectly well that practically the entire country speaks flawless English. And while this is infinitely convenient and most obviously to my advantage when trying to find the mayonnaise or the merlot, it does not make me feel any more at home. It’s like listening to a joke but missing the punch line. The mere fact that their English is so flawless makes the whole humiliation thing worse, so I choose to live in silence.
Many years ago, I was told by my mother that my first words in English were not the usual, “mumma” or “dadda” like most infants. It seems I sat around in my crib for the first year, listening to adults speaking and taking in entire chunks of language until I was ready to construct proper requests and respond in a manner befitting my 12 months of life experience. So you see, I have experience with this silence thing.
If the ultimate compliment for any expat is to be mistaken for a local, I got that sorted on day 2. Norwegian OAP’s in some kind of camper van hit me up for directions to…well, if I could answer that question I wouldn’t be writing this. Here I have had to recognize that I am not “other” until I open my mouth. So for now, living in my silent world I will practice my “mummas" and “daddas" to myself until I get it right.
Let’s just hope it doesn’t take 12 months.