Over the summer I went to a wedding in Los Angeles. During the reception, the groom’s second cousin was asked to sing her favorite hymn. The song began pretty well if a little clichéd, but it was a wedding so everyone smiled politely. A minute into the song the microphone started to make strange humming noises and suddenly one of the speakers blew out. Rather than gracefully finishing the hymn and spending the rest of the night getting drunk on champagne and telling everyone how great the song would have been she said, “fuck it,” under her breath and sat down.
Although I am not normally the kind of person who is shy or easily embarrassed by speaking in public, Swedish class has occasionally been terrifying. The combination of a new language, new faces every other night and the stress of knowing that learning this language is really important to my current situation has caused me more than a few sweaty palms and dry throats.
Until I met Miriam, the Assyrian woman who joined the class a few months after I did, I considered paying for a private tutor.
I often choose to sit next to Miriam because she is beautiful. While I will admit that I have not grown out of the urge to sit within three feet of beautiful women whenever possible, this is not the reason I choose to share a table with Miriam. It is because I do not like being called on to answer questions and her overwhelming good looks seem to take care of this problem. They grab all of our teacher’s attention in a tractor-beam like the Millennium Falcon to the Death Star.
During the breaks in class when I am not busy hiding behind Miriam’s perfect facial structure and sizable bust, we often talk about our very different homes and about living here in Sweden. I tell her about California and in exchange she tells me all about how she got here and how it feels to be a person without a country.
Two months ago, she asked me if Alcatraz was still used as a prison and if so, what kind of criminals did they put there.
For the last few weeks the class has been stressful. The National Test is approaching and for most of us a passing grade will mean opportunities to continue at one of the Universities or to get a new job.
The two most heavily weighed sections of the test will be the written and oral sections. The rest of the exam is all multiple-choice so no one seems too worried. As far as I see it the problem is that the Swedish we have learned to speak only resembles real Swedish in the sense that it uses the same letters and occasionally a similar intonation.
Our teacher, Christer, is starting to worry that we might not pass. This of course would reflect poorly on him so the last weeks have been pretty intensely full of practice. Last Monday we practiced the oral examination for the entire class.
Christer had each of us stand up and talk about a subject of our choosing for 10 minutes. We were supposed to try and start a discussion with the class by answering questions and asking for opinions.
The problem is, at our level of Swedish, we don’t so much discuss things as we take turns performing short bits of mime theater. Not always without the crying and the glass boxes, either.
Grace, a 40 year old Kenyan, who despite her big hair and sparkling fingernail polish somehow manages to be more Ike than Tina Turner, was the first to speak. I am not really sure what she talked about. I think she talked about her children, but it could very well have been about boats or dogs or volcanoes. Christer interrupted her after a few minutes and asked her to sit down.
Ahmud, a Tunisian DJ, talked for longer than 30 minutes about his fondness for “Canal +” the French cable channel that shows soft-core pornography after 11:30 every night. Amazingly, he managed to tie this into a longish rant about the cost of calling Tunisia every week on his cell phone. It was a beautiful little speech.
Jeremy, an Englishman, climaxed after two or three minutes of talk about his favorite war strategy computer game the last part of which was filled with him stringing together a series of noises that may have been, but hopefully were not, sound effects.
Seraht, an industrial diver from Ankara, told a funny story about an old woman at his apartment building who refused his help in trying to get past an icy patch near the front door. She slipped and fell.
It wasn’t so much the topic of the story as it was his dramatic arm gestures that made the story funny. Everyone laughed. Percy, a Peruvian who talks endlessly about the differences between South American and Swedish women, punctuated the story with this disturbing little outburst: “my friend he is Colombian and punches his wife.”
Miriam talked about a soccer team that a group of Assyrian immigrants put together. They played in the Swedish Cup Final the week before. They lost. Apparently they are not even in the league that is supposed to play in the final so the fact that they got in was the source of pride for a lot of Assyrians not just in Sweden but in countries like Iraq, too. They beat the season favorites for a berth in the Cup only to lose by two goals. I know almost nothing about soccer, but the way Miriam talked about the team even I was disappointed they lost.
She then performed a fight-song that involved a lot of jumping about and yelling. Christer was unusually enthusiastic about the jumping part. He clapped his hands and smiled. His face betrayed all kinds of unsavory thoughts about breasts and other bouncing, shaking body parts.
I spoke for an unimpressive one minute about my job. I work in warehouse. I pack boxes. Sometimes I unpack them. It is a computer company. All the words are English anyway.
The test is next week. After we take it, no matter our results, our time in the state sponsored language school is over. We’re on our own to apply to schools or jobs or the welfare program. In some ways that is scarier than actually speaking Swedish in public and having to prove to myself that I learned something.
I heard a rumor that if you fail the test, you only have to wait another month before you can start over in the class. That doesn’t sound too bad actually. I’ve been thinking I might just do like the groom’s cousin; sit back down and forget the whole thing.
I’ll let you know.
[Forever after at http://eyeshot.net/stockholm.html]
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