He’s Not a Communist: Adventures in Conversation

Well, dear readers, I’ve made it. My final exam was yesterday (it went quite well, thank you) and I am officially on jólafrí (Christmas break) until January. (I actually just found out that there is one more week in January that we have off than I thought. Win!) I am thrilled at the prospect of this long brain break–the better for some around-town excursions that we’ve been waiting to have some free time for, and the better for some reading/writing/and jelly impressions (that’s me, doing my best physical approximation of jelly, most likely while in ankle-length flannel PJs and watching (the BBC mini-series version of) Pride and Prejudice over and over and over). But I am also hoping that the long break doesn’t push me into total regression and allow me to forget all of the grammar and Icelandic that I have been working so hard to acquire over the last three some-odd months.

Which is why, among other worthy reasons, I will be visiting a local nursing home once a week to talk with at least one, and maybe more, residents there. I had a conversation with the woman who directs my grant organization a few weeks ago and it came up that I had not made tons and tons of Icelandic friends who were just thrilled to talk to me in Icelandic yet. So she wrote to a colleague of hers who happens to be a pastor/activity organizer at a large nursing home in Reykjavík and arranged for me to come and talk to someone who lives at the home. Ideally, this is good for both me, the learner of Icelandic, and the resident, who perhaps would enjoy having some regular company.

I had my first visit this week, sandwiched in between two test days. I would say it was successful on most levels, save maybe the linguistic one, but never fear–I shall trouble through!

I had a quick conversation with a nurse in Icelandic upon arriving, which helped settle my nerves a bit. It went like this:

-Her: You’re not Icelandic?

-Me: No, I’m American. I’m a student at the University and I’m studying Icelandic.

-Her: A student. Okay. My daughter is a student. She is in Japan now studying Japanese.

-Me: Japan? Wow.

-Her: Yes! For a year. You are both very hard-working! (I think that was what she said at the end, at least, and it was nice, so let’s go with this guess.)

Not too shabby, eh? Feeling a bit more confident at this legitimate exchange of information in a language not-my-own, I proceeded to join the pastor, who, after serving me several cups of coffee and an apple juice box, deemed me ready to meet my new conversational buddy. (We will call this buddy Páll, and the pastor will be Jón.)

The pastor brought Páll over and–all in Icelandic–introduced us to each other. He told Páll that I would be visiting him once a week or so and that we would speak Icelandic, which I was new at, so he (Páll) should be sure to speak very slowly and clearly. Páll looked as though this was the first he had heard of such a scheme, which troubled me a bit, because I don’t want to force my company and bad Icelandic on someone who isn’t up for it. But with the assistance of Pastor Jón, we made our way through general introductions: I’m from America, and was born in Arizona, which is near Mexico. (This is generally how I place Arizona on the map for people who may not know exactly where it is.) I live in New York now. After this, Páll asked me something–not very slowly, and not very clearly–and I didn’t catch it. He said, “you don’t understand, do you?” and I said no, not now, I’m sorry. So we sat quietly for a little bit while Jón talked to someone else.

Shortly, Jón came back with a nurse, a woman about my age from Croatia, who has been in Iceland for a few years. She was supposed to take some information from me so that I’d be allowed to come visit Páll ever week. The information consisted entirely of the spelling of my first name (Jón had been calling me something along the lines of “Lovisa”) and that I was from New York. We also briefly returned to the The Great Icelandic Name Conundrum when Jón asked me who my father is, which is, I think I’ve successfully determined from watching Icelandic movies, how you ask someone’s patronymic. So I said that my father’s name is Karl. This satisfied him–Karl is a good Icelandic name–so I was suddenly reannointed “Larissa (Lovisa) Karlsdóttir.” (This sort of irked the nurse, who mentioned that she is also called something that is not her actual name, because it is easier for people to pronounce. “What’s with all the pseudonyms?” she asked the pastor. No reply to that one.)

No one could remember what room number Páll lived in, so it was decided that I should go with him and the lovely nurse to find his room on the other side of the building. But not before we had a quick, mediated exchange about the current president of the U.S.–I told him Obama (he thought it was still Clinton). Páll asked if Obama was from Africa, I said no, he said something about he president being “blended,” which was translated by the pastor, very matter-of-factly, as “part black.” Páll then tried to make a point about there being lots of money in the U.S. (He emphasized this with that finger-tip-rubbing gesture that you make to indicate cold, hard, cash.) He pointed to me and said something about “a lot of money.” I laughed and said no to this and told him that I was a librarian (I was summarizing) which equaled “ekki peninga” (no money).

So then we were off to Páll’s room which, no joke, involved, among other turns and twists, going down one hallway, up an elevator, over an indoor footbridge, down a flight of stairs, up another elevator, and around a corner. Hmm. In my humble opinion, it is just mean to lay out a nursing home in such a fashion that a 28 year old woman with all of her faculties intact cannot navigate the various hallways without several people’s assistance. Or maybe my faulty sense of direction is showing itself.

But anyway, we arrive, Páll opens the door, and then looks at me with trepidation and at the nurse with something akin to desperation.

-Páll: I don’t speak any English!

-Nurse: That’s okay! She’s learning Icelandic. You have to help her. She will talk with you for a half hour and then you’ll go to lunch.

-Páll: Lunch! Is she eating here?

-Nurse: No. She is not eating here.

-Páll: She doesn’t speak Icelandic!

-Nurse: That’s okay. She is learning.

-Me: Is it okay that I am here?

-Nurse (to me): It’s okay.

-Me (to Páll): Is it okay that I am here?

-Páll (unconvincingly): It is okay.

-Nurse (leaving, to me, in English): Don’t worry–it will get easier.

So our mediator gone, Páll sits down on his bed and I sit down in a chair and he just looks at me, looks at his watch, and says something about lunch. I ask if he is hungry. He says no. Looks at his watch again. I point to some of the pictures on the wall and ask him to tell me about them. This is reasonably successful–he shows me a picture of his grandchildren, his wife’s parents, and a picture of him and his wife and tells me that she is dead. Then he sits back down and looks at me, looks at his watch. No more than two minutes can have passed. It is a bit awkward.

He starts pointing at things in the room and naming them. There’s a lamp. There’s a TV. The TV is a big, fancy flat screen and he has a lot of VHS tapes under it, so I think maybe we’re onto something here. I ask him what his favorite movie is. He says he doesn’t remember, but gets up to pull a few tapes out of their cases–they all look like they are tapes which were used to record things from TV. Then Páll turns on the TV and we see that RÚV is showing the current session of Alþingi (parliament) live. There is some sort of vote happening and each MP gets up and makes a statement to the group in turn. The woman behind the speaker occasionally dings a bell and the speaker has to go sit down. I manage to ask what is happening and Páll tells me that each speaker has only one minute. After that, the bell gets rung and they have to sit down.

As it turns out, Páll knows a few English words. One of which is “money.” He tells me that they are talking about the “peningamaður” (spelling?) which he then emphasizes by saying “money men.” He then tells me about each person as they get up and I try to ask questions:

-Páll: Hann er Republican. (He is Republican.) Peningamaður. (Money man.)

-Me: Já? (I am not sure if this is good or bad.)

-Páll: Já. (Makes the cash gesture again. Looks at the next speaker) Hún er kommúnisti. (She is a communist.)

-Me: Já?

-Páll: Já. Ég er ekki kommúnisti. (I am not a communist.)

-Me: Hvað ertu? (What are you?)

-Páll: Ég er ekki kommúnisti. (I am not a communist.)

After establishing this important fact about himself, Páll proceeded to point out the various hairstyles of the people on the Alþingi podium. She has stripes in her hair. He is bald. She has dark hair. I was pleased to be able to point out that a guy on the side was just sitting there reading, seeming bored and ignoring everything that was happening. (Ok, I was able to say–“he is reading” and the rest of it was implied.) Páll thought this was rather funny. Then, he checked his watch, determined it was lunch time (I think to both of our relief) and directed me out of the room so that he could get to the dining room on time. In the elevator he introduced me to another resident as a student learning Icelandic, so I must not have been too big a disappointment. I wasn’t able to actually say goodbye to him until the doorway of the dining hall, when I was, mercifully, able to say “I have to go home to study. It was nice to meet you.” He shook my hand and was off.

I got lost on the way back–found a hair salon and a pool, for reals–and had to get directions from a nurse, who laughed when I asked her how to say “maze” in Icelandic. (It’s “völundarhús,” for the record.) And before I left, I ran back into the nice nurse from earlier, who suggested that maybe she should try to find someone who also speaks some English for me to visit as well, so the person could help me along a little. She also invited me to come to the impromptu Icelandic lessons that the other nurses give her in the afternoon each day, which was super nice. “You will spend your Christmas break with us!” she said. And so I just might.

3 thoughts on “He’s Not a Communist: Adventures in Conversation

  1. I love this post. I’ve never been great interacting with strangers for longer then a minute or two and have never attempted to do so in another language. You are brave.

    Suggestion: maybe bring some pictures of your own next time, so if you get stuck you can show and tell the amazing places you’ve been to in Iceland so far. And hopefully they will have been to those places to and can share anecdotes.

    Happy winter break!

    • Thank you, lady! I was thinking I should bring props next time, but hadn’t actually figured out what. Pictures of places that I’ve been and he might have been, too, is a really good idea! You are so smart.

  2. You know, I used to volunteer at a nursing home in college and I think the conversation hurdle is universal. Some people would talk my ear off and other ones would just sit there and I’d blather on and on and on. Just keep at it and you’ll get there. Also – good idea about bringing your own pictures.

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