"Nice to see you again!"
Roman and Nina and I are talking. We don’t know how to say How are you yet, so we’re trying other things. Like and, yes, and no.
My folded sheet of legal size paper is in front of me and my chicken-scratch handwriting tells me what to do. I have so many of these sheets; I fill multiple folded pages every day. Lists and crossed out things and exhortations to myself for the things I need to work on but probably won’t.
There are 13 of us including the teacher and we’re all in little boxes on the computer screen. There’s Peng Zhao from China, Roman from Russia, Nina from Latvia, Guillermo from Spain, Iman from Italy, and more. Our teacher is Sidsel.
When I’m not paging through my notes trying to find the word for what or I don’t understand anything I am looking at everyone’s spaces and trying to imagine their lives in Norway. Guillermo works in the salmon industry, so he’s way up somewhere above the Arctic Circle. Peng Zhao’s background is all wood-paneled and I am fixated on trying to guess if that is his room or a basement or an office. Dzinja from Belarus has clicked “blur background” on Zoom so I can’t really see, there is always this incredible golden light falling on her and I think, oh what a beautiful sun I wonder where she is and then realize it can’t be the sun because it never changes and we’re in Norway in November so it must be a sunlamp.
But mostly we’re trying to learn Norwegian. I’m the only American in the Beginner Intensive A1 class run by the Folkesuniversitet, which I guess might be the equivalent of community college. But it is also different. It’s the “peoples’ university.” It’s like the German language class I took years ago in Berlin at the Volkshochschule That one was taught by a Hungarian native whose knowledge of German was exceptional; she’d been through it all, language-wise. SIdsel is from Norway and is a kind and patient teacher. She only speaks to us in Norwegian and I don’t know where she is located but her background looks cozy.
The class meets from 8:45m to noon, four days a week.
Of course at the beginning I think it’s easy. And I’m looking, as always, to show off. Knowing some German and some English helps immensely because the vocabulary and structures are so similar. I laugh a lot in class because so many words are like earlier forms of my own language.
It’s a pleasure to see how words like skal (shall), or hvorfor (why) continue to have a very banal and useful life whereas in my mother tongue they are antiquities. Hvorfor is probably my favorite. It looks impossible to say but once I hear it, all I can think about is the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet and that delights me. There’s a lot like that.
And then there is the way the words look and how they are pronounced. Because I have only learned languages that sound the way they are spelled (even in Russian and Czech it’s basically like that), encountering that difference between sound and image is confusing and hilarious. So say you need some bread you go out to kjøpe for some. Which is pronounced “shop.” Another favorite mashup is the word gift in Norwegian, which means married. And in German it means poison. I can’t help but wonder about the story over time that led to those shifts.
Now don’t tell me that isn’t fun.
Geopolitics plays its part in the class as well, and I find that as compelling as the phrase Hyggelig å de deg igjen! (Nice to see you again!)
In the first couple of intensive days, when we were all effectively mute in the Norwegian tongue, we’d be put in Zoom breakout rooms to practice reading and answering questions from the tekstbok.
At first I was put with Nina and Roman a lot. Roman is from Murmansk, a city way above the Arctic Circle in Russia, just across the border from Finland and Norway. He works in the oil and gas industry in Stavanger on the west coast of Norway (note: several of the people in the class work in oil and when we have to practice saying what it is we do for a living, I note they say it with what I sense or imagine is a measure of embarrassment).
But it’s all kinds of people, students, retirees, fish people, people I don’t know what they do, oil people, people here because their partner is here, people who have clearly come from far away and are very much alone. And me. I say I am working at the art school because that is all I can muster in the language. And when I have to say where I’m from, first time I say “America” but after that I emphasize “New York.” Because.
Which brings me back to geopolitical things. When Roman and Nina are in the Zoom room with me none of us have a clue what we are supposed to be doing. After about a week, our ears tune in to the language and then we don’t have to guess. But in the first days, Nina (from Latvia) and Roman (from Murmansk) explain things to each other in Russian. I studied Russian for a few years and always like to show off, as mentioned above. So I am all excited and throwing around those Russian phrases I know and I’m getting happier than ever when I can understand a little bit of what they are chatting about.
But then things get weird. Nina says something about being a Russian from Latvia that gives me a strange idea that she is trying to connect with Roman on some level of national identity. And instantly Roman pulls back and disengages from the language and only will speak English or Norwegian from then on. Being the showoff that I am, I try to put some more Russian into the conversation and then realize that as an American that isn’t the best idea either. I almost make a joke I’ve made for years about how when I was a kid I wanted to grow up and be a spy, but then I (thankfully) think better of it. The whole thing is starting to get weird. Somehow Nina and Roman and I also don’t get put in breakout rooms together anymore.
The week before I found myself at a flea market in the 5pm pitch darkness. I’m rummaging through cardboard boxes using my phone as a flashlight and searching for ladles for Emma’s ladle collection (not going into that here). I’m also learning how to use the Norwegian equivalent of Venmo to buy things, so when I get to chatting with Ernst who is selling me the ladle, he asks where I’m from. “America” I say. He says, oh. And I buy the ladle.
I continue to check for anything I’ve overlooked in the boxes and Ernst calls me back for a minute to say: “There are some nice Russian ladies here at the market selling things, one sells honey, over there, and the other is selling hats and used clothes.” He looks at me meaningfully. I don’t really know what he is getting at, but maybe he is telling me not to pick a fight with the little old Russian ladies. “That’s great, I say, I’ve been to Russia a few times and I know that so many people there are really nice. I’ll be nice too.” Ernest looks relieved and I go buy a hat from the little old Russian lady selling hats. There too, I try to say one or two words but she won’t respond in Russian. Neither will the lady selling honey. Maybe I’m reading into things. Maybe my Russian is that bad.
Every day I try to say one sentence or a phrase I have learned in Norwegian. At the cafe, where the young women know I am trying to learn their language, I shyly order my espresso in the morning. They say something back and I crumble. Then they switch to English: “for here or to go?” The following day at a different cafe, I try again. The young man says something back. I stare. “Single or double espresso?” he says, trying to hide his amusement. The coffee is delicious, and only slightly acidic.
I had to miss my Norwegian class today for some meetings at the art school (where, apparently, I work). But the last time we met we played the game Kahoot, an online competition and curriculum review game. The first time we played, I got third place. This time I got second place and I won’t lie, the adrenaline was coursing through my nerdy little veins.
Roman always gets first place.
We’ll see what happens next week.
Thanks for reading.