I’m standing at the bar by a very large jar of peanuts. The barmaid in front of me is about 102 years old. I go for a polite form. “Må jeg bed om nogen jordnødder?” I ask amicably.
“Hvad?” comes the reply. I repeat myself several times pointing more and more theatrically at the peanuts.
Slowly driving one nuts
“Nå … jordnødder!” she says eventually, beaming at me, and I utter what has begun to be my catchphrase: “That’s what I said …” I glance around briefly in an attempt to gain confirmation from a witness that I had indeed said I wanted peanuts. Alas no witnesses are forthcoming. It’s her word against mine and since no-one understands mine …
But then, aside from the challenges of understanding me, I sometimes wonder if Danes understand each other. The most common reply to anything in this country seems to be: “Hvad siger du?”
Irritable vowel syndrome
I shouldn’t blame others. The dire state of my Danish has shown little improvement since about six months after I arrived – roughly when I dropped out of language school to take up a job that required no Danish.
Since then, like most foreigners, I have lurched from being misunderstood to misunderstanding and lapsing into English out of sheer apathy. Understanding takes concentration and it’s so tempting to just relax and allow the language soup of strange vowels and barely articulated consonants to wash by.
Part of the problem is that there’s virtually no opportunity to practise. We live in a fairly well-heeled area where Nordic-blond parents (wearing shades of dove grey and beige – hey it’s spring, let’s get frisky) usher children (dressed in beige and grey) between their tastefully decorated houses (mostly white) and the high-achieving local school. People speak English.
A game of Poobaloo
The one beacon of linguistic opportunity is the corner shop and the guys who work in it. I’m on first-name terms with one of them, Aykut. He has mostly called me Jennifer, which is a first name, even if it’s not mine, so we still qualify for ‘first-name terms’.
Aykut is the only person in the whole of Denmark who ever attempts to conduct a conversation with me in Danish. He seems to understand me, although I don’t always completely understand what he is saying.
When I first started coming to his shop, he’d always say this weird thing at the till. It sounded like: “Poobaloo?” I would say “Poobaloo?” back and he would take that as a reply. It worked, but I didn’t know what it meant. Eventually I figured out it was “pâ beløbet”. He was asking me if I wanted cash back or not.
Lost in the Milky Ways
A few days ago I popped in to buy some milk and have a chat. There was a new person at the till standing next to Aykut and a delivery guy was there too. Affably, Aykut introduces me to the new cashier. I greet her smiling and launch into a longish (considering it’s in Danish) introduction. I tell her the ‘poobaloo’ story.
Aykut and I are chuckling away, but I realise she is looking very blank and the delivery guy is pretending to look at the Milky Ways. I sense I’ve lost them.
Aykut leans over the counter and says in Danish: “They don’t understand you.” We shrug shoulders and grin. I skulk off into the night.