Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Souls that Inhabit Us (1)

I don’t remember how I’d chosen the hotel; it may have been a Fodor’s guide or I may have even contacted the nearest Swedish embassy to have them package me a “spend your money with us” brochure. There was a time in my life that I was just that clever, or driven if you prefer. In any case, we picked up our teeny tiny car at the Arlanda airport where I studied a roadmap before jumping on a freeway and racing in the direction of Stockholm and the old world, 4 star Birger Jarl Hotel.

For weeks I’ve attempted to find the right words to explain how I felt at the time, and I can’t seem to nail it. I wasn’t ‘scared’ really; I felt completely competent, moderately confident and somewhat calm, on the surface. But my insides were churning. I was trying to adapt at light speed to what seemed to be new and different in every way. I didn’t understand many of the road signs, yet I needed to absorb, interpret by guesswork and decide actions based on the information I assumed I was getting. I was the captain of a ship setting sail in the arctic ice flows, one big mistake could ruin the trip and perhaps even change my relationship with my dad.

Suddenly I heard a beeping and scanned the dash for an indication as to the cause of my impending doom. I imagined the vehicle splitting in half because I’d loaded great big stuff into a teeny tiny car. I thought maybe I need to tell it I loved it in Swedish so it knew I wasn’t a Russkie, stealing it away to St. Petersburg to sell it to the Russian Mafia. I finally found the culprit. I’d driven about 30 miles and was already out of gas. So much for customer service.

Luckily, the fuel pumps in Sweden look just like the ones in Minnesota, tall, overpriced and surrounded by tons of extraneous crap the owner of the station wants you to buy, like Gatorade, marzipan snacks and leather jackets with “Husker Du” emblazoned on their backs. I pulled in, on the wrong side of course, and stepped from the vehicle as my father asked “are you alright?”

“Of course” I answered; “We’re in Sweden, home of our ancestors, what could go wrong?” That was my first mistake. I’d been in country for an hour and already I was too pleased with myself.

When I’d concocted the great idea of touring Scandinavia I thought I might want to learn some rudimentary language, just in case. I knew a little from my environment, phrases like “happy Christmas” and “in Jesus name” and “please pass the blood sausage”; but I figured I’d eventually run into someone elderly that hadn’t learned English in grade school and wouldn’t be able to converse in anything but Swede, Norse, or hand puppetanian.

It was the hardest part of the journey for me. My brain is like a sieve, with big holes in place of the little ones, its mesh covered with little arrows pointing toward the openings that read “Sentience! Get out while you still can!” I can’t even remember my phone number when I need it for God’s sake. Yet I took on the chore as an altruistic gift to my wonderful father who I loved and respected so much… that I knew if I didn’t do it we were screwed cuz he wouldn’t do it, ever.

60 words per language I figure, that’s what I had memorized in 3 weeks. Sure, a few cross over, the Swedes and Norse only hate each other in a moderate way so they share words like telephone and egg. I wasn’t so sure I was pronouncing any of them correctly anyway, but I ignored that part and made up an accent to go with each. If I hit it by accident, the locals would be astounded at my fluency and buy me a beverage of my choice. If I screwed it up… well, I’m an ugly American, what else would you expect?

I actually thought 60 words would be enough to get by. I didn’t know any sentence structure, but I figured if I could interpret a Greek relative saying “Shall we have many swimmings in your home?”, the Swedes could interpret my saying “Gasoline I need toiletries and much how is she?”

I couldn’t read the pump. I pushed every button offered me, I stroked the top of the box, blew it a little American kiss, kicked it ever so lightly at it’s base to show it who was boss, and still, nothing came out of the damned thing. So I went inside the building.

“Taler ni Svenka” I inquired cleverly. The cashier laughed. I had asked if he spoke Swedish. He spoke back to me, or at least in my general direction. It was like hearing a waterfall, or someone pounding on a piano soundboard with a hammer. It was fast, as if all the words were one giant word strung together like the freaking Germans do when they invent something and it needs to have the entire meaning of its existence in its name. And then he stopped and smiled. I’m not sure I even blinked, I was in awe.

“Taler ni Engelska?” I asked after I’d caught my breath. “Ni” he replied with a wave of both hands meant to emulate the digging of my early grave.

It all became clear to me in that single, simple moment. I am an introvert. In order to travel within these countries I would need to be an extrovert and not take a failure to communicate as a personal attack on my ability to lead a tour bus full of grumpy old men in wheelchairs.

I spun around, looking for a friendly face. Surely the Swedes of Sweden were friendly in that undeniably Swedish way. They’re neutral, they’re socialist, they get to eat meatballs every day! There couldn’t possibly be a Swede so preoccupied with his idyllic life that he wouldn’t rush to a poor tourist’s aid, what the hell would any Swede be less than happy about? And yet, all the people in the convenience store were busy inspecting their shoes, or reading the local newspapers I couldn’t possibly hope to understand. I didn’t catch a single eye and would need to actually interrupt someone’s deep thought in order to ask whether they knew English well enough to tell me how to pump gas in Sweden.

I thought “what if the first guy I ask shakes his head no? And then the people within hearing range of my question move away from us as if to say ‘don’t bother me I’m busy doing Swedish things that you couldn’t possibly understand’. I turned back to the cashier in desperation. He smiled again, and then shrugged. I was ready to drive back to the airport, get on a plane and go back to the good ole US of A; but instead I just went back to the car and got in, started her up and pulled back onto the freeway while the little ‘just about to run out of gas’ warning bell behind the dash sung it’s merry tune.

I’m sure my dad was just as boggled as I. “So, umm, we gonna get gas somewhere else?” He didn’t smile so much as grimaced.

“I’m sure there’s another station just down the road. Why Swedes drive just as much as Americans, and we’re damn near in the city already” I rationalized while staring straight ahead, hoping he wouldn't see me chewing on my lower lip as I spoke; “Maybe the next attendant will be more friendly!”

I held my breath. It was a perfect time to turn blue. Why, blue's part of the Swedish flag, betchu didn't know that!

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