…because some thoughts are worth remembering
Being in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language and can’t drive*, every aspect of your life becomes amplified. When we had to move from a furnished apartment to an unfurnished one within Aarhus, Denmark, we counted our blessings that there was an IKEA store in town and that it was on the bus route. I even survived my (first!) IKEA experience, although the IKEA-Gravity parody didn’t seem too far from the truth. We successfully arranged for our purchases to be delivered to our new apartment.
The circus started when the delivery did not include the most important item: the bed. The delivery guy understood very little English and kept telling us we just need to call IKEA. So we did. Please, who among our friends reassured us that moving to Denmark was not a problem because “everyone speaks English here”? Well, the phone menu did not, and there was no “Press 2 for English” option. I thought I was so smart to press 0 to try to get to a real person, as most of the menus are programmed in the US, the call just terminated.
Determined, I called back. I started guessing what number would lead to a real person. “How about 4?” Bingo! A lady answered. I had no Danish language instruction yet, so I abashedly asked if they spoke English. “No!” she said, but she clearly understood me, so I braved on.
“Um… I’m sorry, but I don’t speak any Danish yet, so what am I supposed to do? I have a delivery problem.”
“You just have to call back.” <click>
We really need this bed because I’m too old to be roughing it on the floor. I try to remember the extension I dialed to get to a real person. Whew! This time a younger voice said it was fine to speak in English. I explained the problem, and she said,
“Yes, we can deliver your bed on Monday.”
Wait, that would be 4 days from now, and we would already be kicked out of our current apartment. I pleaded with her.
“Well, because it’s a bed…not like a door, I see you really do need it. We will deliver it Saturday. Let’s just make sure we have your address.”
!? Apparently, the Danes are so trusting, they don’t need doors, but try not to get distracted.
Me: “Yes, it’s Søgade…”
Her: “? Syd?”
Me: “? Um… I’m not sure what you are saying.” (Or what I’m saying, if that matter… Only after I started my Danish lessons later that month, I learned that the “D” in “GADE” which means street, does not sound anything like a D, but a cross between a T and an L while you are suffering from a bee-sting on your tongue.)
Her: “How do you spell it?”
Me: ” S, O with a slash, G, A, D, E.”
Her: “S what?”
Me: “The letter ‘O’ but it has a slash? It’s a Danish alphabet that doesn’t exist in English?”
Her: “So, it’s S, O, X? G..”
Me: “No, there’s nothing between the O and the G, I mean the O with the slash, it’s just 6 letters, not 7”
Her: “Do you mean South Street? or Lake Street?”
Me: “I know it’s not south (I saw the sign on the map for south and it didn’t say ‘sø’), but I have no idea what ‘lake’ is in Danish so I can’t tell you if that’s what the street name is.”
…This goes on for a while. I wish there was a transcript of the call. My husband’s concerned look seems to vacillate between the fear of having to sleep on the floor and the humor he starts to find in my impromptu Danish lessons with the IKEA customer service representative.
Finally, the representative concludes it’s “Søgade”, which does in fact mean lake street, an odd name given that there is no lake to be found anywhere near our apartment. She types in “S, Ø, G, A, D, E,” she pronounces the alphabets in Danish (which sounds nothing like the English pronunciation), “Copenhagen.”
Me: “No! Aarhus, not Copenhagen!”
The experience scarred me. In many languages, you learn the alphabets first, and I couldn’t even master it when my bed depended on it. When I started the Danish lessons, I was determined. I went to the volunteer tutors after the class and asked for their help with my pronunciation. “Sure, I can help you,” one of the volunteers said. I carefully wrote out the following syllables on a sheet of paper and asked her to read each one so I could repeat them after her:
So, Sø, Su, Sy
I wasn’t quite getting it, because it seemed like she would stop and repeat the same word again. At some point, I wasn’t sure which word she was pronouncing, so even if I could mimic her accurately, I had no idea if I got the ø sound or the u sound right.
She stopped and asked why I needed to learn how to say these words. “Some of them aren’t really words, so I’m confused,” she said. I told her my experience with the IKEA customer service, and that at least I should be able to say my street address. She nodded. “Ok, then we try again.”
Her: “So, sø, su, sy…”
Me: “Sow, sö, seu, sew…” (is probably what she heard back).
After repeating this process several times, she sighs and looks up at me: “I’m sorry, I think you need to move to a new apartment.”
Thanks to the Danish frankness and government sponsored language lessons, my ø sound may not be perfect but the Danes understand it enough to deliver it to the right address. No more moves for us.
*US license is not valid for residents: we must take the Danish drivers’ exam both the written and the driving tests (in Danish)