It hasn’t just happened once. It happens every time I try to put together a sentence in Icelandic, a language I have studied for almost a decade. I’m going through the checkout line in a grocery store. The cashier asks, “Poka?” which I know means, “Bag?” (Iceland, being European, sensibly charges for plastic bags, so they always ask, and I always bring a book-bag to put my things in.)
Of course I could just say “nei” and be done with it, but what if I want to explain by saying, “I can put it in my book-bag”? The inner monologue goes something like this:
“I’ve got this. Okay, I can is ég get. I don’t know put, so I’ll say setja (set). But get takes the past participle of the main verb, so is that setað or setið? Let’s say setið. Now: it. Should I use the neuter það, or is the thing I’m referring to masculine, or maybe feminine? Forget it, let’s go with það. In is í. Hey, that was easy! My book-bag. I don’t know book-bag, so I’ll just say bag. What’s the accusative for poka? Is poka a feminine noun or a neuter one? Let’s go with feminine, so it’s poku, and the article attached to the end would be…-na? Pokuna? Have I ever heard that word before, or am I making it up? And what about my? Do I use the strong or the weak form of minn? What IS the strong accusative ending for a feminine adjective?”
And, of course, long before my tortured brain has figured out how to form a half-comprehensible sentence, the cashier sees the panicked look on my face and asks in bored English, “Do you want a bag?” Can’t let the line back up behind me while I map the entirety of Germanic grammar in my head.
Of the many things that embarrass me about being an American abroad—that we’re so loud, that we take up so much space, that we’re so high maintenance—what most embarrasses me is my functional inability to speak anything but English. This shortcoming particularly pains me because language is at the heart of all my passions: literature, writing, research, teaching. I have studied many languages and am incapable of having a conversation in any of them. And Icelandic is one of my worst.
I have had probably two successful exchanges in Icelandic. The first was on my second day in the country. I was on the search for a bed linen store, having discovered no pillowcase in my room (I hoped the person before me did use one). Wandering toward Hallgrímskirkja, I came across a very old man with very few teeth and a very big coat. He was either homeless or an alcoholic; I’d see him often in the year I lived there.
He totters toward me, and I give him a polite nod (a very American and specifically southern thing to do, I now know) before he stops and points at me.
“Þú ert kona.”
At this point, the extent of my Icelandic language instruction has been a free online course from the university where I’ll be studying. Still, after he repeats himself several times, I realize he is saying, “You are a woman.”
“Já,” I agree, feeling like I’m in a slightly creepy Dick and Jane book, “ég er kona.”
Thank you, intoxicated homeless man, for recognizing that I am female. To his credit, he did better than many other people with higher qualifications. Upon landing in Heathrow on my last trip to England, I was called “Sir” twice within five minutes. Maybe it’s the short hair.
Besides designating male and female, the only other successful exchange I can conduct is ordering a hotdog, one of Iceland’s specialties. “Ég ætla að fá eina með öllu,” the books tell you to say: I’ll have one with everything. Only “everything” includes ketchup, remoulade, mayonnaise, raw onion, and fried onion bits. I don’t like raw onion, but I keep forgetting how to say “raw,” so I order one “með öllu nema lauk” (with everything but onion) and sacrifice the fried variety that really makes an Icelandic hotdog worth the four bucks.
On the other hand, I am routinely shamed by the fluency of my Icelandic interlocutors. Once, I took a walk in a residential neighborhood near Kringlan shopping mall, and a young brother and sister called to me across a playground. I called back (to my minimal credit, in Icelandic) that I don’t speak Icelandic, and, completely undeterred, they came right across to me. Maybe seven, the girl was on a bike, the boy on foot; he was perhaps a year older—I’m not good at guessing these things.
“Can you…” the girl said in English, pulling at the strap of her bike helmet.
She wanted me to unbuckle it so her brother could have it for his turn on the bike. Now, I may have appalling linguistic skills, but I do have adult dexterity and grip strength. I unbuckled the helmet.
Not satisfied with this exchange, the girl asked me, in English again, where I was from. This I could answer in Icelandic, having practiced often in my language class: “Ég er frá Bandaríkjunum.”
She noticed the water bottle in the net pocket of my book-bag—the bottle they give you on IcelandAir flights to make up for the fact that they don’t feed you anymore.
“Mine,” she said, touching it with a finger. “Mine.”
Is this little kid seriously going to steal my water bottle? I thought. Then she said something to her brother.
“Grandpa,” he translated into English.
“Mine grandpa…” the girl tried again. “Ölfus.”
That’s where the water is bottled.
“Your grandpa lives there?” I guessed. “Or he works there? Hann verkir…?” I didn’t know if this was the right version of the verb “to work.” I might have been asking her if her grandfather was functioning.
Whatever she thought I’d asked, she answered in the affirmative. Then deciding that the interview had reached the end of its useful life, she said goodbye and ran off as her brother pedaled away.
I continued on my walk, blushing at the thought that after years of study, I spoke Icelandic worse than a seven-year-old spoke English.
Probably I would speak the local language better if, like those children, I couldn’t rely on my conversational partner to fill the gap. In, say, rural China, I’d put words in the wrong order and mangle all the tones, but we’d figure it out because we’d have no other option. In Iceland, the first time you make a foreigner’s mistake, like putting a masculine ending on a feminine noun, the average local will switch easily into English. It’s either an act of mercy or an attempt to keep you from butchering their lovely language; I’ve never been sure which.
It’s the same throughout most of Europe. I have a Czech friend who repeatedly asks if I understand her when the wonderment on my face actually comes from the fact that she knows words like “rudder” and “buckle.” Even after all my studies, I can’t even ask someone to pass the salt. So I bumble through a life abroad apologizing for my ignorance with a sheepish smile that hopefully says, “I’m not trying to be obnoxious, I promise,” and an attempt to pronounce names correctly. This I can do, and it seems to puzzle Icelanders that I can handle all three foreign sounds in “Auðr” and all six syllables in “Skólavörðustígur” but can’t conjugate a verb. In moments of frustration, I want to tell them that no language has any business being as complicated as Icelandic. But then again, how many letters do we really need in “through”?
In the small South Carolina town where I live when I’m not in Iceland, I once went to a Mexican restaurant with a group of friends, among whom was an octogenarian for whom the world was moving far too quickly. “I’ve never eaten Spanish food,” he said helplessly, turning to my Bolivian colleague for an explanation of the Mexican menu. The waitress had to repeat herself twice—with flawless grammar and only a slight accent—when he asked her what tamales were. When she moved down the table, he said to me in a stage whisper, “I wish these people would learn to speak English.”
I wanted to snap back, “How many languages do you speak?” But I’m a coward and he was an old man, so I didn’t. Besides, I already knew his answer: it was the same as mine.
BIO: Christine Schott teaches at Erskine College. Her work has appeared in Dappled Things, Casino, and the Gettysburg Review. She holds an MFA from Converse College.
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