Small Victories In A Big Nordic Land.

My planned article has been cast aside, momentarily, to bring you an important announcement:

I have experienced a major breakthrough in my journey toward Norwegian cultural assimilation. And not only have I broken through, I have declared myself victorious – even if only briefly.

Those of you travelling with me though these uncharted Nordic waters, know that I loathe and fear the Norwegian tradition of quiz night or the “pub quiz”. If you haven’t read about my hytte (cabin) quiz experience, I humbly suggest that you have a look back at something I wrote called “I’m not Dumb. I’m Just Not Norwegian“. Reading it will allow you to better understand the following self-congratulatory excitement regarding my breakthrough.

I’ll wait for you.

Ok. Ready?

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Or as I read it: Nope. Never. 19h00
So, my husband goes to a pub quiz night most Thursdays and I have never gone. I figure it’s a good time for him to have time with his friends (sort of true, but mostly an excuse) and I also, quite frankly, think it sounds revoltingly stressful (totally true). I don’t need to be crammed into a bar with 100 other people and then have questions fired at me, while I try to look like I’m casually sipping on a pint. Especially not in Norway (land of many smarty-pants people) and in Norwegian (it’s hard to have an answer to a question when you’re still muddling your way through understanding the question itself).

Yesterday my husband sent me a text to say he’d be going to quiz night and asked me if I’d like to come. (Kudos to him for always asking – he hasn’t given up on me.) My first response was “no” but then I realized it was a choice between staying home, and working on my taxes and packing, or quiz night. Remember the tale from Greek mythology of being stuck between “Scylla and Charybdis”? Both choices were hideous. But given my innate skill – or perhaps “gift” – to procrastinate wildly, I opted for quiz night. Apparently I would rather humiliate myself in a public competition of intellect, than do what I have to do.

We arrived at the pub, a good 90 minutes before the quiz started, to get a table (or, in my case, to get increasingly nervous). The rest of our team were already there – 3 friends – looking smart and ready.

“So, should I just have a quick read through the whole of Wikipedia?”, I joked (but not really joking. Nervous laughter).

These are an easy going, friendly group of people, but it didn’t stop me from feeling enormous pressure. All I could think was “PLEASE. No questions about Canada”. I’ll save you the agony, on my behalf, of assuring you that there weren’t. (Thank you quiz gods.)

The quizmaster arrived (to a full house) just before 19h00 and the quiz began. There were 2 rounds of 15 questions each. Usually the quiz is 3 rounds but it was being pre-empted by a Liverpool-Dortmund football match. This ruffles a few quiz-nerd feathers, but lots of the “quiz-ies” are also football fans, so… fine.

As much as I am tempted to take you through every pain-staking moment of the 2 hour quiz, I can’t contain my elation in announcing:

WE WON!

This is a big deal in Oslo pub quiz-night circles. I will proudly say, if I may, that I did make a significant (enough) contribution to my team. The following questions, which I answered, helped bring us to quiz victory. (I won’t write the answers because I know many Norwegians reading this will appreciate a mini-quiz in my article):

  • Who composed Madame Butterfly and Tosca?
  • How many stomachs does an octopus have? What colour is it’s blood?
  • What is the middle key, of the middle row, of a Norwegian keyboard?

and finally, we listened to a music clip and had to identify the song that was a duet between:

  • Aerosmith and Run DMC. And the year the original song was recorded. (I had a bit of a leg up on that answer given I may well have been the only one on the team who was actually alive in that year.)

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My answer to a question about a Norwegian physicist.
Of course there were many questions that we collaborated on and also MANY questions where I did not have the faintest clue. During those moments, I usually doodled pictures of fish on my paper because it made me look busy and contemplative.

When it’s all over, it seems to be the norm that you clap politely for each team as the final standings are announced. I don’t think it’s very Norwegian to hoot and holler when you win. But, amazingly, one of our team mates stood up and high-fived us all in our moment of victory. It was a defeat for “Janteloven” and a brief victory for unapologetic pride. I loved every minute.

(If you aren’t familiar with Janteloven, I highly recommend having a quick look at the above link. If you grew up in North America, especially in the USA, it is the opposite of everything you were taught. I think a middle-ground between Janteloven and “The American Dream” would be a good place to reside).

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Proof of victory: 1 large pizza and a round of drinks – a jackpot in Norway! (And yes, our team is named after an obscure fish – “Bergylte”)
Prior to quiz night excitement, I had been intending to fill you in on my Norwegian language progress. I will say that I understood some of the questions during the quiz but it was still tricky to get it all of it. This moment of reflecting about how far I have progressed with my Norwegian, came about about because I am going back to Canada on Sunday for almost a month (I haven’t started packing, of course). I am worried about forgetting a lot of my Norwegian, which is a bit disheartening given how hard I have been working.

I have actually been reading about languages, in general. And our ability as children and as adults to learn second, or even multiple languages. (Another fine procrastination tool – reading about learning a language instead of doing homework in order to actually learn said language.)

cutup-kitchen-sponges-568x480
These are children.
So the verdict, not surprisingly, is that children have the easiest time learning languages. There is a prime window-of-opportunity when they can suck up the words like little linguistic learning sponges. There is debate as to when this window closes, but I’m quite sure mine was shut tightly many, many years ago. It’s not just casually shut. It’s been covered with many coats of paint. It’s perhaps glued too. And nailed. Even welded? Let’s just say I was pretty convinced it was never opening again.

Of course adults can learn new languages too but it comes with more effort. For me, learning Norwegian has been like taking a sledge hammer and smashing that language-window open again. Much against it’s will. (If windows had wills.) It has not been easy. My brain feels like it’s constantly on fire. But the good news is that I am finally improving. It’s been two months since I wrote the article I mentioned above (about quizzes and learning Norwegian) and I must admit that I still often feel pretty dumb, but I think my Norwegian skills may have edged up from toddler-level to maybe Grade 3, or Grade 6 on a really good day. It doesn’t sound like much, guys, but trust me, it feels like winning a Nobel prize.

ordbok
Please, words. Get in my brain.
My virtual language-age does vary depending on the day and situation. I still feel very much the dummy when I visit my husband’s family. That, for me, is the final frontier. On those visits I am contending with many people speaking at once, speaking quickly and speaking with a west-coast dialect. Once I can fully participate in a post-dinner discussion at the cabin, I will have conquered my language demons.

As an aside, I have a bad habit of just subbing-in an English word if I don’t know it in Norwegian. But here is a tip for all you Norwegian learners: If you are offered a second helping, after a lovely family dinner, do not say:

“Nei takk. Jeg er full”. (No thanks. I am “full”.).

(“Full” in Norwegian means “drunk”.)

“Jill, would you like a little more lamb and potato?”

“No thanks. I’m drunk.”

Classy.

My parents-in-law are so kind and always insist that I should interrupt and ask, if I am not understanding what’s being said. But honestly, I just can’t bring myself to be that person. It’s like being at a great dinner party and then someone says:

“Hey guys, let’s all change seats for the next course”.

What!? No. Why do you want to wreck a perfectly good time by making us do something like that? So that’s how I feel about asking for help at the cabin. I might as well just say,:

“Listen everyone, why don’t you take 15 minutes to completely lose this great flow of conversation, while my husband explains what the hell you’ve all been debating so enthusiastically.”

Nope.

Those are the harder moments. And those used to be the only moments I had. Now there are good moments too. The other day my husband and I were watching a Swedish show with Norwegian subtitles. This is much easier than watching a Norwegian show because of course it is far easier to read the words than to hear them all. It occurred to me quite suddenly that I was actually following along very well, with no English in sight.

“Hey!” I shouted excitedly to my husband. “I understand what’s happening!”

This, obviously, makes a TV program more enjoyable to watch and it can keep my attention. (As opposed to not understanding a word and inevitably staring out the window wondering how often seasgulls land and why the ones in Ontario don’t move to the sea – true story.)

Every now and then I have to fire out a word to my husband and he quickly says it back in English, so we don’t disrupt the flow of the show:

“Utpressing!”

“Extortion.”

“Forsettelig drap!”

“Premeditated murder.”

“Politietterforskning!”

“Police investigation.”

“lik!”

“corpse.”

nordic-noir
The plot of every Scandinavian TV show.
It’s like an intense game of “Nordic Noir” TV language ping-pong.

I also try harder now not to fall back into English at any given opportunity, but rather to persist with the Norwegian. I still practice what I am going to say on the way to the store, or wherever I am going, but it flows a little more easily. I don’t have to break into a sweat just ordering coffee. Small victories – but they feel enormous.

I know that the key with any language, especially when you are still learning, is to use it all the time. You can’t retain it if you don’t practice. I notice it with my French, even though I learned it at a young age and have been fluent. It seems to be slipping away bit by bit. Of course, I rarely have the chance to use it here (unless I visit the cheese man at Mathallen) and when I try to think of something, it seems to be in a dark recess of my mind that is hard to pull forward. But then all of a sudden, in Norwegian class, French words will pop out unexpectedly. Sometimes I don’t even realize. It’s like linguistic turrets. I feel like my brain is only capable of holding one foreign language at a time, so right now French and Norwegian are battling it out for supremacy.

While I’m in Canada, my teacher has suggested that I talk to myself, in Norwegian. I have gotten pretty used to being a weirdo, so why stop now. This may be my only hope in retaining what I have learnt.

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Back to the land of brain-rest.
I am looking forward to being in Canada for a bit. Obviously I am eager to see my friends and family. But I do also like the idea of giving my brain a little rest – to be able to walk into a cafe or restaurant without having to pre-think what I’m going to say. And, watch out Toronto, I am going to unleash such a torrent of small talk on all of you… you have no idea.

The funny thing, though, is I already know I will also miss Norway (and her burgeoning spring) and speaking Norwegian. When I get back to Norway in May, my resolution is to speak more Norwegian all the time – with my husband, with store clerks, with random strangers. Basically with whomever will listen. I still get nervous about sounding dumb or about boring people, but I am also tired of being apologetic. It’s so unnecessary and just too Canadian for my new Nordic persona.

I also plan to be a regular attendee at quiz night. I’ll be the one in the corner doodling fish and occasionally high-fiving my team mates.

 

P.S. I think I will be taking a small hiatus from writing to soak up my time with friends and family over the next few weeks. Thanks to all of you for reading and commenting over the last 2 months. It has been such a pleasure sharing my life with you. See you in May!

En spesiell “takk” til mine Norske lesere. Det har vært så hyggelig å høre fra dere. Takk for å være utrolig snill og forståelse av mine historier. Og takk for å dele dette vakre landet av deres med meg. 

20 thoughts

  1. I just thought I would let you know that I nominated you for the Liebster Award. 🙂 The details are on my page. Don’t feel obligated to participate, but it’s just a way to give and receive a bit of recognition. 🙂

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  2. Love your posts!
    I’m sure your norwegian will “pop out” regularly at inconvrnient times whilst you are home in Canada ☺
    My husband and I are English but set up home in Norway 18 years ago just as we were turning 30. We spent a long time becoming fluent in the language. Our boys were born there and use Norwegian as if it is their mother tongue (in fact their English was broken until we were seconded to Canada two years ago. Of course I was thrilled at the chance to speak English at every given opportunity whilst here (in fact I never stop talking!) I have also taken the opportunity to learn Russian whilst I’m here (long story) and it’s going well however, whenever I fumble or make a mistake I break into Norwegian 😯 rather than English as a default. Another point to mention is that our boys constantly use Norwegian at home and make fun of me when I speak it. I guess I must be losing my touch at the language and dialect.
    I really miss Norway and speaking the language daily. I can’t wait to move back home next year. Thanks for your posts that remind me of why I love the country and it’s people so much.
    Kos deg masse sammen med familien og venner. Og akkurat som nordmenn liker å si … “Borte er bra men hjemme er best”
    God tur!

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  3. I am sure that you are way more clever at learning languages (especially Norwegian) than I would be, so for me what you are learning impresses me. I have no doubt you’ll be fluent and winning Pub Quiz’ regularly!

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  4. Oh, the two foreign languages thing! I’m American and my husband is Belgian, so we’re raising our daughter with French and English. My French is decent enough, and I’m learning Norwegian because why not. 😉 So I’m constantly running into the same thing, like coming up with sentences like, “Est-ce que du har en bok?” And then I go, “Wait, no.” And just like you stated, French words pop up at the stupidest times, like

    Me: Wait, what was the Norwegian word for kitchen again?
    French part of my brain: La cuisine.
    Me: DID I ASK YOU???

    Safe travels and enjoy your visit! 🙂

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  5. oh I so wish you had been doing this when I was living in Mexico and desperately trying to learn Spanish. Everything you say makes me chuckle remembering all the times I felt the same. I really laughed reading about your gazing out the window when not understanding what was being said. I had so many of those moments and I recall feeling really isolated from the conversation. It felt horrible. I so wanted to be a part of it. My hat is off to you Jill for what you have done and continue to do….I admit that living around folks who spoke English and did so often that it was so easy to fall back on that and my Spanish never really became that good. Keep it up lady…you are my hero.

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  6. Jil! I am also learning Norwegian, and I think I’m at the toddler-PreK level myself. I have installed so many apps, have downloaded Norwegian folk tales onto my tablet and am trying to soak it up. If you ever want to practice chatting norwegian with someone, I’d be glad to chat with you. I’m moving in September, and I’m trying to get as much knowledge as I can before I hop on that plane. When I was last there, I found it is much easier to soak it up in the environment (reading ads on buses, stores etc), but once back over here, it wasn’t a necessity so I got kinda lazy.. LOL..

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  7. You’re not the only one whose brain only wants to hold one foreign language at a time… Whilst staying in rural China, myself and my (British) husband have both addressed our host in Norwegian! It’s like, since we were abroad, our brains rejected English and picked “foreign”, for all the good it did us 😉

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  8. Be brave with the small talk! I do it all the time. (granted, in English..) Today while buying tickets at the Oslo Opera House I had a great chat with the ticket window lady. Found out about her exchange year she did in high school, and where her mum lives..I refuse to believe that Norwegians are unfriendly and/or unable to do small talk.

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    1. Thanks for the encouragement Esther! You are totally right… Norwegian are certainly not unfriendly… I just have to stop worrying and start to talk 🙂

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  9. Have a great time in Canada! If you want to practice your Norwegian while you are gone, you can just write to me! 🙂 Jeg må også begynne å trene opp norsken min igjen, siden vi flytter tilbake til Oslo i August…. Kos deg hjemme i Canada! Det har vært veldig morsomt å lese bloggen din! x

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