How I learned Swedish: Puss, Upphetsad, Simbassäng and other memorable words
“A word is dead when it's been said, some say. I say it just begins to live that day.”― Emily Dickinson
The way a language is learned, word by word, whether over many years or few, is largely through a collection of moments. I recall doing hundreds of hours of Spanish homework in high school and college, that was the groundwork for my proficiency, but I’ll never forget the moment I first saw the seaside off Baja California in Mexico, and someone told me what a “playa” was. The word is so much more beautiful than beach.
Swedish has never come to me through a classroom, but through years of moments and personal study. Here are some of the words that I’ll never forget and how they came to me.
Dansa... Santa Barbara. Five years ago.
It was some lazy southern California winter afternoon. Probably raining outside. We were laying down and he was showing me old photos and videos from his phone. Still doing some of the getting-to-know-you stuff, of which there is a lot when you meet someone from another country. He came across some songs saved on his phone, and started playing one. The title was “Dansa på min grav.”
“What does that mean?” I ask.
“Dance on my grave," he answered. I was quiet and listening. The guitar and piano melody was gentle and melancholy. What could the song be about, I wondered to myself. The lyrics sounded beautiful. The word dansa, at least... like dance, but better. When the song ended, he started it over again. Then he started speaking, but not really to me... it sounded like he was telling a story to beat of the music. I quickly realized that he was translating the song for me on the spot, telling me each line as it was sung. No one had ever done that for me before. The song was indeed melancholy, as I'd thought, but interesting. I didn’t learn any of the other words in the song that day. But I learned dansa.
It’s strange to hear this song now, and understand every word, when I remember so clearly when it was just the first song in the foreign Swedish language I had ever heard. Just beautiful unknown lyrics.
Puss/kram ... Santa Barbara. Five years ago.
I had gotten the text when I was just leaving a friend’s house. It was mostly in English, but the last part was in Swedish. “Fun!” I thought. I didn’t have a clue what it said. With no smartphone back then, I had to wait until I got home to type in the words on Google translate. I studied the words at each stoplight. But seriously... these were weird words. Puss??!? Um. Odd. Is he talking about cats... or? Then another odd word next to that: Kram. Kram and puss. Kram Reminds me of cramming something into something. I finally got to my place and plugged the words in. Oh.
I smiled at the sweetness of the words and that he’d texted them, knowing I’d have to look them up. They were odd words to me then. They mean as much when I see them now as they would in English.
Läget... Queenstown, New Zealand. March 2009.
A friend and I sat in a van rumbling our way down to a river, along with some guides and others who’d signed up for riverboarding. Riverboarding meant we were going to go down some Class IV rapids with just boogie boards. It was my main big adventure thing I’d scheduled for the south island of New Zealand. Near the shoreline, as we put on wetsuits, one of the guides and I started chatting. He had a New Zealand-like accent, but he was actually from Sweden. “What Swedish do you know?” He asked when it came up that I'd been hanging out with some Swedes recently in California. What I could recall was random words, many of them silly or dirty.
“How about this one,” he offered. “Say it after me: läget?”
“Lagget,” I said. “What does that mean?”
“It means ‘how is it going?’” he said. “Surprised you don’t know that one!”
Well yeah... I thought. Me too. That was the most useful thing I’d ever been taught, after months of knowing Swedes. Thank you, stranger.
Then proceeded a couple of the most cold and difficult hours of my life, where the wetsuit seemed to not keep out the glacier water, where I was banged up against rocks and pulled underneath rapids, experiencing myself sucking at and hating an activity that I had fully thought I’d be great at and enjoy. Few things piss me off more. After I got over the last, biggest rapid, literally fearing for my life, I paddled the board to the side of the river and kicked my weary legs hard to stay in place as everyone finished clearing the rapid. Swedish riverguide boy came paddling by.
“Läget?” he asked.
My lips were blue. My hands were white. My semi-warm hostel bed seemed so far away. I didn’t know how to say, “Shitty.” So I just shook my head to indicate my answer. He smiled, knowing I understood him. Never forgot the word for “how is it going?” after that.
|Smiling was a mistake. I take it back.|
Höger/ vänster / Sergels torg / Sandhamn... Santa Barbara. Fall 2009.
I was in the process of applying for grad school in Sweden. I had purchased a Swedish lesson podcast, and took my iPod down to the beach. Besides loving the language, I’d be damned if I showed up in Sweden without some idea of what was going on when people spoke Swedish. I lay on the sand and soaked in the words, and repeated them out loud when it seemed that no one was close enough to hear me. Höger means right, vänster means left, I murmured. I pictured myself navigating around cobblestone Swedish streets. Höger, vänster, höger, vänster... I ran my hands through the sand. Would I be running them through snow in a year or so? I hoped so. That’s a strange thought when you’re sitting in the sun by the ocean, to hope for snow, as a girl who was always so afraid of the cold. That podcast also used places in Sweden to teach you how to ask directions. Sergels torg was one. Sandhamn was another. These place names tumbled their way down my tongue and out to no one in particular, and back then, I had no idea if they were well-known or worth seeing. They are.
Springa... Santa Barbara. Spring 2010.
Two of my dear Swedish friends had joined a kickball team with me and some of my friends. Kickball is like American baseball but with a big bouncy ball that the pitcher rolls and you kick, and you can have the ball thrown right at you to get you out when you’re running bases. E had made it to first base. The guy on our team after her kicked a ball that screamed towards right field. He took off sprinting. E looked a bit unsure, though the guys shouted from the sidelines, “run! run!” since they could tell his kick was a winner. She seemed worried that the ball might be caught, so she wasn’t really running.
“Ah!!! What’s the Swedish word for run?” they asked S.
“Spring” she blurted out.
Then five big jock American guys all started yelling that dainty and sort of goofy sounding word all at once across the field. “Spring! Spring! Spring!” E began 'spring'-ing... as if her life depended on it. She made it to homeplate. I was laughing so hard on the sideline. I hadn’t known any other Swedish words that are also in English with different meanings. I still think it’s a fun word for run.
|Our team right after winning the championships. We knew how to spring.|
Upphetsad...Lund, Sweden. January 2011.
I was texting my thesis partner to tell her that I was super excited for the Australia Day theme party coming up that week. I looked up the Swedish word for excited and used it in my Swedish sentence. "Jag är så upphetsad för festen!!" Well done me, I thought.
After about ten minutes she wrote me back in Swedish.
“Um, did you mean to say upphetsad? That word is used more to mean, like, sexually excited. You can feel that way about the party! But just wanted to let you know ;)”
I died laughing, alone in my apartment. That kind of suggestive mistake was bound to happen sometime. Surprised it took that long! Never made it again though.
Simbassäng/simma... French Riviera. July 2012.
It was the next to last night that I and 14 Swedes were spending in a lovely house on the coast of southern France. We went to a restaurant that sat in a very local quiet little cove, with tables right by the sand. We toasted someone’s birthday and ate lots of seafood and drank many cocktails. After dinner, I went down to the sand with a boy. We held hands and listened to the waves. When we remembered that the rest of the world existed, we went back up to see what the gang was up to. They had come across a sort of bar connected to the restaurant that had a pool. Locals were partying like it was Vegas. Our friends had bought bottles of wine and were jumping in and out of the pool with their sun dresses and khaki pants on. I shouted in delight, and grabbed a glass of wine as I jumped directly into the pool with it held high. We yelled and swam races and drank more wine and had tug of wars with the French partiers seeing who could throw who in first. The air was warm and we were high on the Mediterranean summertime.
I don’t remember who told me, cause I probably asked, or if the words just surfaced in my brain, never conciously fixed until that moment. Simma means swim. Sounds like a tiny kid having trouble saying swim. Simbassäng. Pool. The Swedish word is more lovely, I thought. That night was lovely. One of the loveliest there ever were. Better than words can say.