Friday, November 29, 2013

An awkward moment

Living in another culture and language means that I live in a series of awkward moments. Some are small and significant only to me, some scream out so loudly that people a block away sense the awkward and turn away in embarrassment.

Recently we were sharing a car with a friend. He was driving and we were sitting in the back as the radio played. Suddenly he turned to me and asked "What does this song mean Michele? What does this mean?"

The deeply thoughtful lyrics in question were "I'm up all night to get some. She's up all night to get some. They're up all night to get some. We're up all night to get lucky." (repeat twenty more times than you can tolerate)

His eyes in the rear view mirror were serious. He really wanted to know what it meant. (Or he was messing with me, also entirely possible, he's one seriously good actor)

I tried exchanging glances with Leif but he just looked out the window innocently, leaving the English translation to me. The chicken.

So I took a deep breath and tried to explain it without any specifics whatsoever. Which I discovered was impossible.

"They're out know....with friends and meeting new people. Ummmm......well..........." He still looked confused and I was sounding either like an idiot or a prude, that would be a point of view thing. I tried again.

"It's a song about dating. Speed dating."

The eyes in the mirror didn't look convinced. I gave up.

"It's about sex. (big sigh) When you say 'you're getting some' or 'I got lucky' what you're talking about is sex."

The eyes got big so apparently I finally had explained it so he could understand.

You're thinking that was the awkward part, aren't you? You'd be wrong.

The only thing more awkward than translating and explaining song lyrics about sex is doing it next to a fourteen year old girl who is getting top marks in English.

I probably don't even need to tell you how silent the car was for the next several kilometers, do I?

Wednesday, November 27, 2013


My  Thanksgiving ritual is slowly (or quickly, depending on your point of view I suppose) winding down to a single event; a skype session with my family that will start out very organized and end up in a tangled heap of ten different conversations from which we all emerge feeling drained and filled and loved. Those who've had turkey probably also feel tired. I only feel tired because I've had to wait all day to talk to them after they finish dinner. (which is only called dinner on Sundays and holidays, the rest of the time it's lunch)

I'm not really on board with the practice people have started of publicly stating what they're thankful for during November, only because I hate that many people truly believe this practice can be sequestered into a single month and still make their lives different all year long. I hope that they enjoy the practice enough to set aside time each day to find one amazingly awesome thing about the day or the people in it.

That being said, I've realized that the distance between me and Minnesota means that if I don't come right out and say something (or as with most of you, write something) then you don't know at all what I'm thinking or feeling. You don't tune out my endless chatter or hear my profound silence. You don't see that the smile is real or there for show. You no longer know the two weeks leading up to my colossal meltdown and don't know if I'm over or under reacting. You just don't know. If you don't know those things, you might not know other things; important things.

I love my children to pieces. I don't know if they always knew that but I hope that they did. Zach and Jess are such fine humans and rich personalities that it's hard for me to believe I had any part in raising them. I didn't do it alone. Their dad has been amazing throughout their lives and we all need to thank him for that. He didn't have to be present; many fathers aren't, even those who share the same house. I miss Zach's ability to take a short story and turn it into a novel. I love his intense passion for the things that matter most to him. I miss Jessi's hugs. I miss her absolute faith (hard won on both sides) in my opinion. I love her adventurous spirit and take-no-shit attitude.

My parents have always been incredibly supportive of their "different" child. (that would be me) I really did listen to everything they told me growing up. Somehow though, 1+1 doesn't always = 2 for me. Sometimes it = blue or dog. I suppose it's little comfort to know that I actually do start with 1+1. All those lessons I learned from them have made my journey here easier. The majority of my little decisions are solidly straight out of my growing years. How a toilet works, how to ask the right questions to get the answers you need, how to be happy. I love them for accepting my decisions, as crazy as they seem sometimes. I hope they know that my craziness is preceded by a lengthy period of good old fashioned consideration.

I miss my sister, brother and sister-in-law terribly here. There is so much comfort in talking to someone who knows you so well that sentences don't need to be finished for them to understand how you feel or think. It's been hard living in another language, but harder still to find myself so distanced from the ex-pats here. Not many Midwesterners come here and if they do they're from a different socio-economic group. (to put it baldly, they're wealthy and I'm not) Even when we speak the same language, we don't speak the same language. So I miss talking to someone who knows me so well that I never, ever have to provide background. I miss being inside a family that doesn't have a list of topics to avoid at holidays or people not talking to each other. I miss the absolute acceptance we give to each other, although I think my move here has tested that acceptance pretty hard at times. I miss them.

I miss my nieces. I miss Emmy so much I bought a pair of socks with cows on them so I could think of her on a regular basis. She has forever changed my world view on socks. She's not just a sock expert, but also committed to saving our world. If anyone can, she's the person to do it.  I miss Carly's hugs and her voice. Like a magic trick, her voice can be anything at anytime. And like me, she can find the humor in just about any situation. I love her for that. I'm sad that I'm missing the part of Sidney's life where she is becoming. I want to hear her sing, play the piano. I want to watch her face while she tells me about the things that most excite her about life right now. I left before she had a chance to discover stuff. I miss Tasha. Lord, I miss Tasha. I miss her directness, her intelligence, her love. I miss my nephew James. He's crazy smart and rather talkative and very sure of himself. If you listen long enough (don't worry, he'll talk as long as you listen) you'll hear everything you want to know without ever asking a single question. Yes, I miss that.

I miss my friends, old and new. There is great comfort in knowing that there are people you can call and say, "Let's get a cup of coffee," and they will agree without question because they hear in your voice that coffee isn't what you need. They break diets if chocolate is what you need. When you call out of the blue they say "Gosh I haven't seen you in years....of course come over so we can make wedding invitations!" They ask the hard questions and listen to the answers. They truly would help you bury a body and instantly forget it ever happened. It may take decades for me to forge friendships like that here. If I live that long....

I''m grateful for all those things and more, but I'm also afraid. I know that doesn't fit into the Thanksgiving celebration comfortably, but there it is. I'm afraid of becoming a stranger to all these people I love so much, and of being estranged from them. I'm afraid that when I can finally come back for a visit we'll all perch on the edges of our seats in an uncomfortable silence wondering what to say the the person sitting nervously in front of us. My goal is to prevent that from happening. And to take every opportunity, like today, to tell them how much I love them. If I was there you'd be getting a real hug, not the typical Minnesota hug; only from the side and only for a moment. THAT'S how much I love  you.

Friday, November 22, 2013


I wrote this post the week after we got back from Sweden in August and it's just been sitting here waiting for the right moment to be published. I think the right moment is now for several reasons. We'll be going back to Sweden in December to spend Christmas and New Year there so I can hopefully re-enter the Swedish  language without too much trouble as long as I can remember the things I learned the last time around. And maybe more importantly, I'm too lazy to come up with something new and exciting to write about. So here it is as written the first week in September.

I've spent the last month living in Swedish. Sure, people who knew me talked to me in English (when they could) but not everyone speaks English and naturally every sign is in Swedish. Unless I carried my address around on a piece of paper in my pocket I had to learn to say a few key phrases. Street signs turned out to be great practice for me.

We spent 4 weeks driving around Sweden and all I did was make very lame attempts to read the signs out loud. Leif would patiently correct me. I do mean patiently...I don't think I could have maintained my cool after (X) hours of listening to someone butcher my mother language so brutally and then expect a cheerful correction or even a hearty brå! Which is Swedish for good.

I dare you to try. Go ahead.




I bet you get every one wrong. I know I did the first ten times I tried to pronounce them. I still can't quite get my tongue around the Ö. It's an "o" and an "eh" and a "u" at the same time, but not. If I get everything else right, people will always know by my Ö that I'm not really Swedish.

I can live with that. I mentioned my difficulty to one of our hosts and he started in on a dissertation about the vowels that left me speechless and a little glassy-eyed. Swedish has like 3 extra vowels and of course they're called as they sound so every time he mentioned a vowel I thought of the English ones which of course have nothing to do with the Swedish ones in sound. Somewhere between all the ah, eh, aoh, ee, and other sounds I got lost.

On the other hand, as we walked and drove around I continued to read the signs out loud and at one point he said to me that I sounded just like a train conductor. I took that as a compliment. I spent days on the Stockholm subways repeating every stop as the cheerful recorded voice carefully enunciated each stop, which I could also read on the little displays in the car. Yes, I got a lot of strange looks. I'm getting used to  it.

I do feel like I've mastered a few of the pronunciation rules. So does Leif, enough that he started giving me the dialect pronunciations. Like technically a word is said one way, but in this region they skip one letter or even a whole syllable. I had to get firm with him. No dialects unless I need them to talk to his dad. I'll speak the kind of Swedish that TV newscasters have to speak....clear and as unaccented as possible. I hope.

About halfway through our trip I started to flag in every language. I couldn't come up with the word for anything in English, Italian or Swedish. I was slowly becoming mute. Luckily this too passed and I was able to speak in full sentences again.

But of course I don't need Swedish for a couple of months again. Now I need to take my new-found language focus and get my Italian a little more fluent. Like being able to answer in a short but complete sentence instead of simply responding si.

I didn't exactly blossom in the Italian department on our return, but that will come. I'm almost looking forward to reading Swedish again (which, I repeat, shouldn't be confused with actually speaking Swedish) and working on making it less of an interpretive dance. Leif says I sort of throw my whole body into it sometimes. He's right, I do, but that's because it's the only way I can remember that nearly every syllable is stressed (not the measly one stress that most English words have). I'm also working on sounding more Sven & Ole without actually being more Sven & Ole. Here's hoping it's possible.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Happy birthday to me

It's been awhile, I know. I've been working waaaaaay to hard. Or maybe it's best to say that I'm working too hard at something that isn't my passion? That may be more accurate. I feel like one of those old people you see in movies who seem to attract children in droves but quite frankly don't know what to do with them. I walk down the street and every kid in a stroller smiles and waves, turns around in the seat to watch me walk away, like I'm denying them this perfect moment to play. Babies smile at me. It's a mystery.

But after multiple naps and a succession of nights with uninterrupted sleep I'm starting to feel human again. And just in time because....that's was my birthday!!! Let's just gloss over the fact that I'm 53 and don't really need to celebrate birthdays publicly to know they have happened and get to the important stuff.

This is the fourth birthday I've celebrated without my Minnesota family. While I've gone years without hearing (in excruciating detail) about the day I was born from my grandmother I've not gone this long without a good old-fashioned Hauck party or the first-thing-in-the-morning birthday song call (in parts, no slouches my family). It's one of those things you don't think about missing except for that one day, then you wish you could remember that you miss this when someone asks what you miss most. I know that eventually there will be a new birthday ritual, but this in-between period is a little unsettling. I know it will get better.

My first year here we celebrated at a small vineyard where we were practically the only people there. They put a candle in my tiramisu and sang Tanti Auguri to me. It was sweet but a little surreal, I'd only been here a month and nothing seemed completely real yet and I had to have tanti auguri translated for me. The second year we were in Sweden. I think Leif's dad made us meatballs. The Swedish birthday song (sung by the rest of his family at some point) has never actually been translated for me, sounds nothing like Happy Birthday, and ends with roof raising Hurrahs!!! His dad got me flowers, because he manages to find some excuse every time we visit to get me roses. Sweet man. Last year a friend who lives part-time here and part-time in Sweden brought shrimps back from Sweden and we totally pigged out on them and four bottles of outstanding brunellos. It took me awhile to recover from that celebration.

This year was different yet again. It's the year of cakes. We had friends over for dinner and I made pumpkin ravioli (from scratch, it mostly worked) and a pear cake with prosecco and honey sauce. I have to assume the cake was a hit as everyone had seconds. The next day one of my moms gave me another cake. A beautiful Italian cake with crunchy layers between creamy layers. This cake I carried home in a foil-covered bowl on top of the basket on my bike. I fully expected to arrive home with a bowl full of cake crumbles, but this is one tough cake. Other than some disarrangement of the powdered sugar on top it still looked perfect after 3 kilometers and numerous stretches of cobblestoned roads and random potholes that made the bowl jump around like a kangaroo.

And let's not forget the ride, because no (birth)day would be complete without a ride. 35 miles with a pastry and coffee stop in the middle, because I don't do rides that don't include food. I'm not a professional and I have nothing to prove to anyone...I require food. The weather was mild so it was a beautiful ride.

I think we're well on our way to constructing our own birthday ritual. A ride is practically mandatory, whether for my day in November or his in April. I will naturally make something I've never made before and hope that it works. There will always, always be beautiful wine. I'm all in favor of naps, call it something  special like The Nap of the Year so it seems more epic and important. And there will be the greatest gift of all, every year, time spent together doing something or doing absolutely nothing at all. Yup, I think this has the makings of one fine birthday ritual....

Friday, November 15, 2013


Iäm I'm working on a Swedish keyboard and tired from working entirely too much and feeling the effects of my superior happy hour, so this won't be the most gripping reading you will do this week. I just didnät didn't want to let more time go by without writing, or I might stop altogether.

Does that opening statement need explaining? The Swedish keyboard is mysterious. Punctuation randomly placed (in my humble opinion) and those extra vowels (öäå) where my most cherished and used punctuation normally sits. It's unnerving to type it's and instead see itäs. Over and over again, because I never learn, apparently. I could, I suppose, change the keyboard to a virtual English keyboard but that seems a little defeatist to me. I have no idea what the extra keys might hold and not enough curiosity to find out. I could just be lazy.

I worked more hours than a human being reasonably should in the last two weeks. Why, oh why, is the word no so difficult? I say no to lots of things and lots of people, but some twisted part of me just can't say no to the chance to earn money. On the upside, I earned two and a half months worth of salary in those two weeks, so January and February arenät aren't looking quite as bleak as they have in past years.

And finally on the topic of happy hour. Oh my, what to say. Iäve I've tried the cheap brand of brandy. It was disappointing, to say the least. Mostly at our supermarket they sell pretty top shelf stuff so I bought rum that comes in its own little suede bag and probably cost as much as the Phillips brand (conveniently bottled less than 40 miles from my parents house) half gallon jug. Possibly more. And Iäve ack! I've decided I donät don't care.

Because Iäm I'm worth it.

Well, that and happy hour happens rather infrequently so this small bottle could last me six months or more.

Probably best to call it a day and attempt this again on a computer more compatible with my language and cognitive abilities. Some days you just aren'ät (see how close I was there?) aren't gonna get me at my best. But Iäll (sigh) I'll never stop trying.