29 September 2006

No easy sausage

In my Survival Finnish class the other day, our teacher, Milla, asked us whether the lesson we had just completed was helppo (easy) or vaikea (hard). She’s still trying to gauge exactly where our language skills fall on a scale that runs from abysmal to simply incompetent.

One of my fellow Survivalists answered, in English, “piece of cake.” Milla, ever the opportunist, corrected him. “In Finland, we say, Se on helppo nakki.” Literally, “It’s an easy sausage.” Well, that was pretty much worth the price of admission, I thought to myself at the time. Perhaps you have surmised that Survival Finnish is at times a little like Reality TV.

I try to stay at the office as long as I can every day, in part because I have no internet connection at my flat, and now that the Finnish baseball season seems to be over (it’s not on TV anymore, anyway), television is a vaster wasteland than ever, which is too bad because I have a state-of-the-art TV that is attached to speakers that provide “surround sound.” It’s nice, but it takes up half the flat (my landlord is a 31-year-old single guy).

I think we get 120 channels on cable in the States. Here, I get nine or ten, to pretty much the same effect. Most nights, there’s nothing on. One station offers programming in French, another in German. I get the BBC and a couple of English-language stations with Finnish subtitles.

The BBC is a godsend, of course. Their talking heads are by far the most exotically beautiful of all the talking heads in Televisionland. You can tell that all of them have come to the BBC from the most remote corners of the late, great British Empire, by way of Oxford or Cambridge. Every one of them is expensively decked out and coiffed, and has straight, pearly white teeth, an erect posture, and an impeccable accent. Clearly, they have been home-schooled by Christiane Amanpour herself.

I force myself to watch YLE, the state-owned TV network, because I think it helps me with my Finnish. I watch the news, which seems far less grim than what we have come to expect in the States. I watch the sports, which is about as mindless as in the States, except with more ice hockey and more NASCAR. I know my numbers pretty well, so if Kuopio beat Tampere kolme to kaksi, I know the score was 3-2. Of course, some scores are harder than others. For example, a plausible American football score such as 35-21, would translate as kolmekymmentäviisi-kaksikymmentäseitsemän on YLE. Weather reports also, are fairly intelligible, mainly because of the graphics. When I heard last night that the high today would be plus neljä (+4 Celsius), I knew I’d better bundle up. I watch the financial news to find out whether the Dow is ylös (up) or alas (down).

Last night, as I was channel-surfing, I saw Jacques Chirac’s mug fill up the screen momentarily as I clicked my way past the French channel, which I customarily do at break-thumb speed. Out of idle curiosity, I went back. Chirac was being interviewed by three journalists, one of whom was outrageously sexy, though neither wholesome nor exotic enough for the BBC. She seemed to be asking tougher questions than her colleagues. I inferred that from the way Chirac squirmed when she addressed him. The thing is, I was getting something out of it--not much, but something. For instance, I could tell when Chirac was talking about foreign affairs—diplomatique. I knew it must be campaign season when I heard him refer to la campagne électorale. Next he was talking about le monde, though maybe it was La Monde. At another point he spoke of la tension in the Middle East. I didn’t understand it all, but at least it didn’t seem completely alien to me.

I studied Spanish in high school and college, though it doesn't show. In my lifetime, I have studied French for exactly eight weeks—in 1968, nearly forty years ago—during a summer when I had mononucleosis and could barely get out of bed, let alone study a foreign language. By contrast, I have been working pretty diligently on my Finnish at night and on weekends for about a year. Starting in January, I faithfully attended a language class that meets on Saturday mornings at a Lutheran church in Arlington. In May, I went to a week-long intensive language camp in northern Minnesota. I’m surviving Survival Finnish. My teachers have been excellent. My Finnish, minimal though it may be, is at least fresh. And after all that my Finnish is about on par with my French.

Finnish is no easy sausage.