This week in 1985 I’m working hard on my Swedish, ready for a mid-year exam once I’m back at university in a week or so’s time. I’m reading a book called Barnens Ö by PC Jersild, but since I learned my first words of Swedish just a few short months ago, it’s pretty slow going.
Given that speaking Swedish is about as close to a secret superpower as I’m ever likely to get, it’s worth recording just what all that studying left me capable of in the intervening 28 years. After all, these days a single click and a nano-second of Google Translate is all I need to Swedify followthehumming.
Here’s a quick summary for posterity.
1. I can surprise beautiful Swedish women when they least expect it.
Sadly, this is far less exciting than it sounds – and in fact I have only ever used this aspect of my superpower once. I was an anonymous twenty-year old sitting opposite a couple of blue-eyed, blonde Swedish girls on a train somewhere in Greece in the late eighties. Naturally I was trying to pretend I wasn’t staring at them. They started guessing at my nationality, presuming I couldn’t understand what they were saying. I took a deep breath and decided this was my big moment. “I’m English,” I said in Swedish, “Nice to meet you.” I was then immediately informed – in a fluent English rich in colour and idiom – that I shouldn’t be such a nosy bastard.
2. I know an unfeasibly large amount about the history of Swedish canals.
No, really, I do. Like the fact that the Göta Canal (construction dates: 1810-1832; length: 190km; manual excavation: 87km; principal labour: 58,000 soldiers) which links Sjötorp on Lake Vänern to Mem on the east Swedish coast was designed by our own Thomas Telford. And that it became known as the ‘divorce ditch’ because of all the arguments that couples were supposed to have navigating its 58 locks. I could go on. But mercifully I won’t.
3. I am perfectly positioned to know what it’s like to feel untall, unblonde and unhandsome.
I once had a job cleaning dockers’ changing rooms on a Swedish dockyard. I wore a bright red jumpsuit every day with a logo saying, ‘We clean anything, anywhere, any time.’ Even with the perk of the jumpsuit, the job was less than glamorous. At the weekends, I spent my spare time wandering the streets of Gothenburg wondering how a race of people could possibly be so unattainably beautiful. I’m pretty sure I’ve carried that feeling with me ever since – along with a keen sense of appreciation for a nicely-tailored jumpsuit.
4. I can correct people who think that the Swedish Chef actually spoke Swedish.
The Muppets have a lot to answer for. Tell someone you can speak a little Swedish and I guarantee they will find it impossible not to start saying ‘bork, bork, bork’ or ‘hurdy gurdy,’ and generally impersonating the Swedish Chef. It doesn’t end there: Google even offers a version of its service in the language ‘Bork, bork, bork.’ The act of reassuring deluded Muppet fans that this is not a real language never gets the thanks it deserves, but it seems like the right thing to do.
5. I can translate the furniture names at Ikea.
Possibly the most useful aspect of my superpower, I can inform dazed Ikea shoppers that they are standing next to a three-piece suite called cliff, holding a cup called humble, or sitting on a chair called point. It almost makes it worth the 3-hour round trip and 2-hour queue to get into the car park.