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. 

Monday, January 13, 2014

Winter is finally here

Zoe woke up about half an hour after me on Saturday and immediately ran to the window. She had seen snow on the roofs. "Mommy, mommy, look, snow!", she proclaimed, "let's go outside" (I cannot explain how cutely she says 'udenfor' the Danish for outside, but instead of using a u, she uses a y, which makes everyone around her laugh, not the least me, because it sounds slightly snobbish). She resolutely put on her boots and her jacket, all on top of her too small cupcake pajamas. Zoe, I said still half asleep, your mom needs a shower and a cup of coffee. She waited patiently although at one point between me dressing and finishing my coffee she opened the front door and tried to call the elevator. We finally went outside with the tool she had missed the most this past year: her sleigh. Because our street is the tiniest street in Stockholm it is never cleared and I could drag her down to the playground at the end of it on the sleigh. At first we tried building a snowman, but I realized that not only am I clueless when it comes to doing anything with snow, it was also to powdery and we only managed to do a 40 cm hill with a tennis ball sized head. Then Zoe saw a boy riding down the hill on the sleigh. See, this was a new thing to her. So far the sleigh has been used to actually transport her around when the stroller couldn't get through the snow, but she was not really big enough for downhill sliding last year. Or at least, I hadn't thought about it.

We started with the small hill, got ourselves dragged up there and I pushed Zoe down. It was perfectly Zoe-sized and she had no problem dragging the sleigh up again like the boy, as long as I helped her the last meter by grabbing her hand. But after about ten times we went on to the other side of the playground where it turned out that a lot of other kids had taken use of another hill for downhill sliding. It was less steep and ended up in a larger area, but on the other hand there were a lot more kids. And as it turned out a lot of younger kids who couldn't drag up their sleigh themselves or whose parents were a bit more protective (not something I have ever been accused of when it comes to Zoe, if she wants to stay on the slide in Ikea at 2 years old, I let her), which gave Zoe the brilliant idea: "Mommy, you run with me like the other parents!" she dictated and after a bit discussing back and forth she won. "Okay, once", I said but did it twice. After yet another argument I said (and meant) "Last Time". Which was exactly when and how I slipped right on the hill, falling backwards straight on my tailbone. I sat there for a couple of seconds wondering if any of the other parents would come and ask if I was okay but this is Sweden so of course nobody did. Then I went down to Zoe and said we had to leave. It hurt like **** and I really had to leave. She actually understood the severity of the situation and went with me without much complaint. We went to the pancake house where she played and we had pancakes, me sitting on the side of my behind on the bench, wondering how much it should ache before I had to go to the hospital. I decided that it shouldn't ruin our wonderfully planned day and we went to the puppet theater we had bought tickets for the previous day where I could luckily lie half way down while watching. It probably looked like I was just making sure that the kids behind me could see, but the truth was that this position was the only one I could sit in without being in excruciating pain. But the puppet theater was fun and with a bit of translation (Zoe still don't understand Swedish),  she enjoyed it.

Zoe and I had a wonderful first snow day but I was glad to hand her over to her dad late in the afternoon and after a Sunday on pain killers I'm now trying to get back to actual work. My colleague helped me carry a bar table from the common area into my office today so I can stand up working for the next week or so. I would probably be a lot more annoyed about the fairly serious bruising if it wasn't because Zoe and I had such an amazingly fun day, if I hadn't thought at the end of it: If I could do it all over again, I would do exactly the same, with the falling and everything. Because that was a pretty wonderful day with a pretty wonderful girl.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

New Year realizations

Zoe was playing a pretend game where she was visiting with her doll. Her play is often now done in English, which she has finally realized that I speak and understand too. "I'm visiting you here in Copenhagen", Zoe said, and as the most natural thing in the world added: "we live in New York". I laughed and asked her if she knew how much longer we were going to stay here and she held up a full hand, "this many days". I corrected and told her we were going back to Stockholm in just three days, something she was excited to hear.

The conversation made me ponder (yet again) of the way Zoe is growing up with several homes, several cities and countries, several languages. She adapts easily and seem very much at home at my parent's place (which is the only continuous home she has known) but she also longs for being at home with me, which I like to see as her main home. I hope that I can provide for a secure childhood by being a stable person and make sure she has stable people in her life (in addition to her parents), like her uncles and my girlfriends, not to forget the obvious people like her grandparents and her family on her dad's side. But I have several friends who grew up in many different countries due to their parent's job relocations and their candid portrayals and sometimes psychological issues are not solely positive. The talk about issues of having no roots, of being the odd one out always, and not being able to have deep relationships. I sometimes wonder how I can do this to Zoe? I know that having a base, both culturally and geographically is core for a happy and secure childhood, at least the books say so. On the other hand, I don't socialize with anyone from my childhood apart from family; my best friend I met in high school. The only reason we are still friends today is that we (particularly her) were diligently writing letters to each other across the Atlantic for the three years I spent in college in Florida after graduation (yep, I'm that old, the internet was not readily available to us). But one thing is people, another thing is place. How much does place mean for growing up? How much does stable friends mean? Are friendships more valuable when they wane themselves as opposed to being interrupted through forced separation? Perhaps not in the overall picture but a disruption is never healthy for kids. I often recount Zoe's explanation of why things were okay when I was hating my job a couple of months ago: "But mom, I don't work, I go to daycare and I really like my daycare". It was that simple in her world. And it made me suck it up and realize that I might hate my job occasionally but Zoe's happiness is just as important to my happiness.

After playing visiting Zoe went back to her normal story telling and singing and dancing. I comforted myself with us going back on Tuesday after a very successful long long holiday at my parents house where we all got along brilliantly. Hopefully that will be a good memory for her too.