The following conversation took place recently at a burger joint in Finnish.
‘Can I have a cheeseburger meal and a portion of chicken nuggets, please?’
‘Oh yes, I’ll take two of those juices. Can I have a raspberry and an orange?’
‘We don’t have any raspberry left.’
‘Okay, I’ll take two oranges.’
‘No, that’s all thanks.’
‘What drink would you like with your meal?’
Distracted by my 16 month old son trying to make a break for the the arcade machines outside for a couple of seconds, I turn back to her and say ‘Sorry, what did you say?’
‘WHAT. DRINK. DO. YOU. WANT?’ she repeated to me like I was a total moron, IN ENGLISH! She actually spoke to me like I was a dim, hard of hearing child IN MY OWN LANGUAGE. She then gave me a sickly sweet condescending smile and one of those encouraging wide eyed nods, akin to that you might give to a baby learning to crawl or take their first steps, whilst I ordered my drink.
I managed to refrain myself from throwing anything at her, but only just.
Yes, I am foreign.
Yes, when I speak Finnish I do it with a funny accent – that’s on account of being foreign, you see.
Sometimes I don’t understand everything you say, especially when you speak fast or use stupendously long words (of which there are about a gazillion in the Finnish language) but it is just possible that when I say ‘I’m sorry, what did you say’ I might not have heard you. Even more likely is that if you do chose to speak to me in my own language because you are a smug twat want to be really sure that I have understood everything, I will probably understand you if you speak at a normal pace and volume.
But still, this encounter was mildly better than the lady in the material shop later the same day.
‘Good afternoon, can I help you?’ says a helpful looking woman coming towards me through the isles of material
‘Yes please. I need to buy something but I’m not sure what it’s called in Finnish.’
A look of horror replaces her previous hospitable smile and my heart drops but I blunder on anyway.
‘It’s like paper, but you iron it onto material to make the material stiffer.’
Still horror combined with confused head shaking.
‘Erm. If I wanted to make this material stiffer,’ I said fingering a very thin cloth, ‘I would iron this paper stuff onto it?’
Continued horror and head shaking with a little mouth flapping.
Beginning to doubt I have any of the words right I start to blush and revert to minimal word usage that I am 100% sure is correct and lots of hand signals.
‘This’ I say waving the thin material. ’I want stiffer,’ err no maybe that’s not the right word. I scramble through my brain for other possibilities. ‘Err, thicker,err, more, erm, hard? I put paper on.’ Mime for placing paper on something. ’I iron. ’ International hand signal for ironing. ‘And it is now stiff.’ I pull the material taught in my hands.
Horror, head shaking, mouth flapping and a little hand waving.
My cheeks burn, I am filled with humiliation. Have I been kidding myself all this time? Is my Finnish really so terrible? Has everyone else I have spoken to just been really good at guessing? Oh God, maybe that girl in the burger joint was talking to me like that for a reason.
I feel myself growing smaller and smaller with each new confused head shake she gives me as I stumble on, desperately trying to string words together to make her understand what I want. I can feel my vocabulary shrinking, I’m beginning to stutter, my palms are sweating. Fear and shame engulf me. How can I live here? How can I stay living in this place when I can’t even speak the language? I can’t buy anything. Is this what the rest of my life is going to be like? Tears prick at the backs of my eyes and I blink them back staring at the floor as I imagine years stretched ahead of me with me having to drag my poor daughter around as my translator.
I start to shuffle to the door. ‘I’m sorry, it doesn’t matter, I, erm, bye.’
Just as I reach out to open the door another woman assistant appears from the back room and notices my obvious distress.
‘Can I help you?’ she asks with a friendly smile.
I mutter something about paper to make material stiffer, not looking her in the eye.
‘Oh yes, of course we have that. How much would you like?’
I want to kiss her!
And such is life as an expat, a foreigner in a strange land. People either seem to believe you are thick or a terrifying alien. Occasionally you meet people like the second assistant that treat you like ordinary folk, but you immediately put sway to that idea by grabbing a hold and kissing them.
This was a writing workshop piece for the gorgeous, marshmallow stuffing, Josie, at Sleep Is For The Weak.