September 17, 2013

A language worth learning

Turns out my name is really hard to pronounce in Swedish. It just doesn't work. The Swedes have the same problem as Americans and almost always think it's Michelle at first. Even with my actual name confirmed (once, twice, thrice sometimes: "Rachel. RA-shell. RiCH-elle? RIchhhelle? RichELLE. RichELLE), for some reason they always ask me if it's French. I've taken to saying yes. Due to this ongoing pronunciation challenge, some of my friends at school have started calling me Kjell (pronounced "shell"). That's actually a name here in Sweden. Granted, it's a man's name, but... I'm already the bizarre American. Why not add in some gender confusion fun?

I suppose the fact that people seem to care about saying my name correctly (and/or christening me with endearing Swedish alternatives) means I'm making friends, little by little. There are so many lovely girls here in particular. Lova is a vegan and so beautiful (I'm not sure if she knows it). Her name in Swedish means "to promise." Agnes is as sweet and patient as can be. Katarina speaks marvelous English in a really charming South African accent. She has encouraged me again and again to join the Expo class because she's convinced I'm smart enough. Beatrice makes me laugh the most. I only see Linda in the matsal (cafeteria) here and there, but she has been a huge supporter of my blog and my ability to actually learn Swedish. Jennie just told me yesterday not to feel stupid if I don't understand things; just ask. She likes to bake and work out. I could afford to be better at both.

Come to think of it, I could probably use some improvement in the asking-for-help part, too. It's really hard to admit that I don't understand what's going on around me. Since when has that ever been a problem in my life? And not to mention, since when am I the shy and silent type? My family and friends probably wouldn't even recognize me here. I can go an entire meal without saying a single word. It's hard to be assertive (or even present) in conversations when you are always reaching for a word you may never find. And that's only if I even understand enough of what other people are saying to contribute in the first place. I realize this is my own issue and no fault of the kind and generous people around me, but it's really hard going into every single day knowing that it will be riddled with mistakes and misunderstandings.

Being forced into my own sort of quietude has produced its own little miracles, though. One afternoon last week during lunch, one of my friends smiled at me from across the table (subtly, of course, as is his way) and it was like we had a whole conversation. I felt so much happier about that than I would have if I had my normal arsenal of words at my disposal. Body language is a language worth learning, too. It is a precious, precious thing.

There is a boy here who is always on the edge of a smile. He tends to quietly observe what is going on around him with an energy that seems eager to burst forth. It's always teetering. On the brink. That sweet, happy energy. When he does smile, it's magic. I've noticed this about a number of Swedes, actually. Many are reticent to laugh too loudly. In our entire class roster of about fifteen, I am the only student who is showing my teeth in my school picture.

The Swedes. Their smiles are generally modest, but it's heaven when, at long last, the radiance can't help but break through.

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