Monday, January 27, 2014

Scandinavian, is that a language?

I was running late for a meeting with other senior colleagues from different universities and art schools because the administrator had simply emailed an address for the meeting place and I, in my naivety and foreignness, had just entered the seemingly central address (based on the post code) into my phone 45 minutes before the meeting started. It turned out that the place was on one of those little islands that Stockholm consist of, which was connected through a 20 min walk or a bus leaving every half hour. Obviously everyone knew where this was but not me and I arrived after almost falling on the uncleared paths 10 min after the supposed start. Now Sweden consist of painfully punctual people, punctual to the degree that makes anyone else nauseous because we realize only too late that they all make sure to be in the meeting room 15 minutes before just to have time to take off coats and take out laptops. I therefore entered a circle of people waiting for me (since I was one of the senior people) to start the meeting. My two close colleagues immediately switched to English as I made my way to the remaining chair. "But isn't Louise Danish?" one blond middle aged woman said in Swedish, in a hostile tone and I knew I had lost. My colleague tried to save me by explaining the weird situation but the blond just turned to me and said loudly in Danish "I also speak Danish!". We ended up arguing, me consistently continuing in English, her insisting on speaking Swedish. "I don't speak Danish anymore", I said, trying to make them understand my attitude. "I don't have an academic vocabulary in Danish". I finally gave in and said that of course they could conduct the meeting in Swedish and I would ask if there was something I didn't understand, but I would contribute in English. As it often is with academic settings, it turned out that there were two other non-native Swedish speakers which would complicate the "Scandinavian" meeting; non-natives do not understand other Scandinavian languages than the one they have learned. The languages are simply too far from one another.

The meeting dragged on with no decisions made as all Swedish meetings, with me contributing about 50% of what I would have done in a meeting conducted in English. I hope the others made up for that lack by being comfortable in Swedish. We agreed on another meeting (as is most often the outcome of Swedish meetings) and went for lunch. When I finally left with my colleague and friend, whom I have no communication problems with whatsoever, I turned my eyes together with her in annoyance over what had happened. "I wish I could just lie", I said, "like I do when I'm out. Just saying I'm American".

I hate living in Stockholm. I hate having to explain myself all the time, having to either lie or giving my life story, which most people don't understand anyway. Because most people will always be more comfortable in their *native* language (whatever that actually means). Well, guess what. I'm not. I'm most comfortable in English and I think that since my research world is in English, it is not far-fetched that we speak English, unless every single person in the group has a solid native language in common that they feel more comfortable with. As much as I agree that we should all be able to speak Scandinavian to one another, it does not work in a meeting where you are trying to find common ground and are talking about issues that are *always* talked about in English (i.e. we write academic articles in English). And that whole Scandinavian thing is bullshit anyway, I tried so many times to speak Danish out in shops and Swedes get this look of desperation and switch quickly to English. If I speak accented Swedish, they are very short with me because I'm a nasty foreigner but if I speak English they treat my like if we are all actually in New York. Because all Swedes have traveled to New York and know how friendly Americans are so they want to pay that back. If you are American.

I left that very afternoon for Copenhagen to spend the weekend there. Already as I landed I felt included into society again. I was able to joke with ticket counter people and shop people. Not as well as in New York but at least not as awkward as in Stockholm. No, Scandinavian is not a language. 

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