Will you relax? The Helsinki ugly photo collage is coming soon. These kinds of intricate works of art don’t just appear from the ether. And for now, since I’m on my 1987 HP desktop personal computation device at the office, and this thing has never even heard of Adobe, I can’t do anything to speed along the Photoshop process. So I’ll tell you a story instead.
It was Friday, November 6, the eve of All Saints Day. Swedish children traditionally have this holiday off from school, but we, the Bonnier faithful, did not have the day off this year, and so there were kids hanging out and coloring in the office break room all day. Now, I’m officially on cappuccino detox this month, so I went to make my afternoon earl gray tea — a lousy taste substitute, but I find that these caffeine shakes are more manageable than the espresso-induced seizures have been. Entering the break room, I exchanged a quick “hej hej” with the little five year old sitting at the table. She looked at me shyly, and I was grateful, because you don’t have to attempt conversation with the quiet ones. But I must have really nailed the accent on my greeting, because this little lady suddenly launched into the longest story ever told, in Swedish. I looked around and, yep, I was the only person there, so she was definitely talking to me.
Tens of seconds went by — what felt like a solid minute of this Swedish story (long enough, in fact, for my tea to steep) and I didn’t want to interrupt her, but I had no idea what to retort. Normally I would just pick a word from her story and repeat it back as a question (vänner? eh?), which usually buys some time, but I truly didn’t catch a single familiar word in the whole diatribe. So when she finished, I just smiled and said in my cutest, sing-songy, kid-friendly voice, “oh sorry, I don’t speak Swedish!”
Blank stare. Crickets.
“Do you speak English?” I continued, remembering that they’re taught the language in school here. Smart little cookies! I’ll invite her to speak it with me, and that will work. We can get by with a quick broken-English interaction and then I can go. But, as it turns out, they do not know any English by the tender age of 5, and this poor kid thought I was insane. You know how when you hear a language you don’t speak, you can usually at least tell roughly which language you’re hearing? It’s familiar. You don’t have to speak German, but you can recognize the sounds because you’ve heard it before, right? Based on that assumption, I can safely say that this particular child had never heard the sweet twang of English in her entire life. She cocked her head to the side, staring with eyes and mouth wide open, and I truly might as well have been saying “blargitty blarg! bloopity? blip blop? blorp!”
Even worse, I couldn’t make it right. All of the basic Swedish I’d practiced and stored in my brain for just such an interaction — ursäkta, jag pratar inte svenska — was just totally gone, and the kid and I both had to resort to five or six seconds of awkward charades instead. Later, I heard her telling her mom about the weird blarpity lady and I was ashamed. At least I think that’s what she was talking about, and I think that was her mom.
But never mind. I returned to my desk to find a mass email from one of my Swedish coworkers — a forward filled with funny signs in muddled Engrish (they have their own special brand of it here, too, called Swenglish). This really has nothing to do with the break room story, except that everyone shared a group chuckle about language barriers, and of course I ate it up. Because after my run-in Little Miss Judgypants, I felt entitled to a good old superior haha! at someone else’s expense. Take that, five year old! Now let’s all look at funny foreign signs and laugh at small children who don’t speak our language yet.