16 March 2006


Það kemur, they all say, but living somewhere with a new language is still a daily challenge, and it's hard to see the progress when you're still not "getting" it so much of the time. Some days I really feel like I'm getting somewhere, but then other times I get so frustrated because so many everyday things are still a huge challenge. I'm not a tremendously outgoing person either, so sometimes it gets really tiring to always be living on the edge like this. Plus, everyone that lives here doesn't think it's particularly amazing when an instruction sheet in Icelandic is understandable to them. Of course it is, if you've been speaking the language for your whole life, but I've been here for six months, people! Before that I had never thought I'd be trying to learn this language of so few people.

At work, the official language of the company is English, something that's been imposed due to the many foreign offices we have (not all my fault, people!). Understandably, this is often overlooked for things that only apply to the office space in Iceland. Inevitably afterwards, someone will send an email saying that there's a foreigner in our midst who won't understand a word (in Icelandic of course), so best be translating that, folks. I always respond with a summary of whatever the offending Icelandic item was, and then it turns out that the reason for the English translation request was more as a gentle reminder that we're not supposed to be writing in Icelandic. So I get to be the whipping boy, the scapegoat, whatever you might want to call it. It's mostly ok with me, since it doesn't seem the Icelandic way to confront these things directly, but sometimes I hate the reply-to-ALL-senders reminder that I'm the odd one out. I know that no matter what, if I decide to stay here, I will always not quite fit in, but sometimes I don't want it to be so publicly shared.

One place I do feel like I'm occasionally making Ice-progress is at choir rehearsals. Everything is Icelandic there, and fortunately, the director is the kind of animated person who speaks half in body language anyway. Last Saturday he gave us a history of the different improvisational styles of the 18th versus 19th centuries, illustrated with lots of pantomime playing and conducting, and I got almost all of it (internally I was thinking, "wow, music history in ICELANDIC!! and I completely get it!" but I had nobody to share my triumph with). The instructions are all pretty obvious too, although whenever we're supposed to all start from the beginning, he throws in a "from the tops" for my benefit (I don't want to tell him I don't need the translation because I love his "from the tops" instead of "from the top"). I followed the fast-paced discussion of our weekend æfingahelgi (rehearsal retreat) including the discussion of what we were eating, who was bringing what, and the details of where we were staying (bring a bathing suit, no need for linens, and so forth) but there's always the quick quip that makes the room erupt in laughter that causes the internal dilemma. Do I laugh like I understood? Do I sit there and let the laughter flow around me? I'm not going to very well pipe up and say, "so what was so funny anyway?" and have them translate. It's strange enough to be the new kid already without adding joke-translation requests.

Whenever people do throw me an English bone, it's often to translate something that I understood quite well already. For example, I'm good with the times. Say the rehearsal is at hálf sjö and I'll be there at 6:30, no worries. If you're explaining that something is over in the cupboard there, accompanied by much gesticulating, I'll probably get that too, and if you give me a chance, I might even understand more.

Ship sighting: Haven't seen much on the horizon lately, but there's a new guy in partial sandblast state in the slippur, called Eldborg. The registration number is of a kind I haven't seen before (what is the EK- prefix?), but it seems to be owned by an Icelandic company, as this site shows. I also found the section of the harbor website that has the list of the 72 cruise ships scheduled for arrival this year. This is the first one, due in May. So many things to look forward to!


carmen said...

Relly great post. I love "From the tops"! :-)

You are also really lucky to have a native English speaker to come home to, so you can turn off the Ice portion of your brain and relax. I've always wondered how people in a marriage of mixed languages are able to get along without feeling alienated and frustrated every now and then.

JB said...

I couldn't have said it better! I never know how to handle the humor situation, either... and I am sick of people translating things for me, like times, dates, food, and names of Icelandic bands, but then leaving me in the dark on important and complicated things. I have a friend at work who has the terrible habit of saying, in English, "you getting this?" in the middle of a 3-person conversation in Icelandic, and usually about something simple.

What's the worst is when people refuse to slow down their Icelandic one iota (or lighten up just a bit on their Reykjavík mumble) so that I might understand (I usually do understand the people who speak clearly) but then force me to listen to slowed-down awkward English instead. Icelanders in general don't seem to be able to modify their speech habits when someone with lesser ability is in the conversation, something I feel that Americans do instinctively all the time.

See, I didn't say it any better. :-)

SB said...

You know I went through EXACTLY the same stuff as you are now when I was in Holland. It was tough and I could at times just scream, because I didn't understand the instructions, I didn't get the jokes, sometimes thinking the joke was on me when they all turned to me. It was rough the first couple of years and my god it was isolating at times.

I hear you E, loud and clear! It's not easy, remember though you'll get passed it.
If you don't understand the jokes, just have the courage at times to just ask. It's better in the long run to let them know you want to be included, rather to play along with it.

More power to you!!!!

Anonymous said...

Sigga says she knows what your going through - having been in a similar situation a couple of decades ago herself.
She also wanted to let you know that your contribution to the choir is very very important and is a great addition, but you probably already know that yourself.
El Kapitan

ECS said...

Wow, Cahmen, we're always feeling like being two native English speakers together is a hindrance, because we don't have the built-in practice potential that half-Icelandic couples have, but you're right, it is a relief sometimes. I spent the whole of Friday evening and most of Saturday in an Icelandic-only atmosphere, and afterwards it was great to come home and be able to explain myself properly.
Jaybee- thanks for the reinforcement!

S & el kapitain- thanks for the encouragement. I guess it's a pretty universal experience, and it helps to know that.