Sunday, September 02, 2001

Last night we had dinner with H., the husband's aunt of sorts - she's known him since he was 10 or so. It was a farewell dinner for her daughter, who's moving to Manhattan to work for the Swedish delegation to the U.N. in New York.

At the dinner was Sweden's version of Barbara Walters. Well, she's maybe a bit more sophisticated than old Barbara, but she does interview all kinds of bigwig types, from the maudlin - Elton John - to the vilified - Qaddafi. And, while I could follow the conversation, mostly, and throw in a few comments here and there, and answer questions put to me - ''Är dina fördäldrar religiösa?''* - still I was unable to take full advantage of the situation, what with my fumbling Swedish.

I couldn't ask the Swedish Barbara Walters about, well, I don't know, what is it like interviewing all these people, for instance. Who is most interesting? Who is a boor and who is a bore? Is it hard to maintain some semblance of subjectivity all the time? Who has infuriated or disgusted you? Who has charmed you against your will?

I suppose even if I could ask them, I still would have felt as if I was imposing, asking such questions. Swedes hate to appear nosey, it's very bad form. Plus, the Swedish Barbara Walters is a reporter after all, and most reporters get really uncomfortable when someone else starts asking the questions.

Still, she talked some about herself - happy months spent in Cuba and Colombia studying Spanish where she didn't really learn a thing but loved the people, for instance, or that Leonard Cohen was very intelligent and charming when she interviewed him. Yet she was curiously unassuming but with a certain commanding presence.

In short, I liked her considerably.

These dinners with H. used to be my sole real practice in speaking Swedish because H. is my only friend here who doesn't really speak English, it was no doubt difficult enough for her to learn Swedish when she moved here 20 years ago from Chile. And she understands English reasonably well, she just doesn't quite speak it.

When I first met her, we spoke Spanish but somehow despite my clumsy grammar and lack of vocabulary, we soon switched to a peculiar mix of Swedish and Spanish, and then to Swedish alone as I've gotten to the point where while I can still understand quite a bit of Spanish but if I try to speak it, that pathetically inept part of my brain responsible for languages other than English will only allow Swedish out of my mouth.

Anyway, the dinners used to consist of my speaking English to everyone but H., and everyone speaking English to me. Then sometime over the past six months I finally made the switch over to speaking Swedish with everyone. And if I'm hopped up on enough red wine, I can get pretty chatty.

Last night was not one of those nights, however. - by Francis S.

* ''Are your parents religious?''

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