denmark, words, work

Learning Danish: Soft Ds and Red Porridge


Faced with the realization that I’d be staying in Denmark longer than I originally intended, I knew it was time to try and fully embrace the language I’d been half-heartedly hugging for over a year. It was time to learn the Danish.

Most Danes and expats tend to give the following advice to those moving to the country: there is no sense learning Danish unless you’re going to stay in Denmark for at least 5 years. This is absolutely terrible advice. Not only has learning some basics helped me in my day-to-day operations (ie. getting coffee, politely refusing a receipt, pointing at bread), more importantly it’s been a way to get even closer to a culture that tends to politely keep its distance.

Reading Danish is one thing. When it comes to that alone, I feel like a bonafide polyglot. Listening to Danish is really hard, but once you learn basic vocabulary like verbs, nouns, and numbers, you can pick up a fair amount during even casual eavesdropping. But speaking Danish is something entirely different. Speaking Danish makes you feel, for lack of a more refined term, like a total spazz.

Basically, nothing sounds like what it looks like. See a ‘g’ or ‘t’ at the end of a word? Just ignore them. That d? That’s a ‘soft d’, which sounds kind of like a ‘d’, an ‘l’, and a ‘th’ got together, paralyzed your tongue, and then used it as a breakdancing mat.

Here’s a great example of a small phrase the Danes say to make foreigners feel silly: Rødgrød med fløde. Forget the direct translation–red porridge with cream–which is a real thing people eat here. Trying to pronounce this ridiculous (but delicious) dish is like someone taking your language confidence, crushing it up into a tiny ball, and shoving it directly back down your throat. It’s fitting because that’s what you actually sound like – like someone crammed a ball into your mouth and then made you talk. It’s humbling.

All these ‘complaints’ aside, learning Danish is really fun. The Danes have some wonderful words and phrases that can’t be directly translated into English. Hearing them used and knowing what they actually mean only bring me closer to understanding this country and its lovely, mumbly-mouthed people. And sometimes I’ll get the rhythm and pronunciation JUST right and totally nail it. It doesn’t happen too often, but when it does the bright eyes and encouraging smiles from my Danish coworkers only make me want to keep on trying.

books, interweb, people, science

Remembering Oliver Sacks

Though I was only peripherally and more pop-culturally familiar with his work, neurologist and prolific writer Oliver Sacks’ was hard to miss these past days, as the creative community began publishing beautiful tribute and remembrance pieces in the wake of his death from cancer at age 82.

Sabine Heinlein’s lovely Swimming with Oliver Sacks, recalls her encounter with a bathing-cap-clad Sacks at a writer’s retreat in the Adirondacks in 2012.

RadioLab aired an extremely touching sit down between Robert Krulwich and Sacks, who had been a dear friend and constant inspiration to the program since its inception. The episode touches on some of Sacks’ most painful memories of love, loss, and loneliness. It’s a tear-jerker.

Starlee Kine reposted a piece she wrote in 2013, remembering the kindness Sacks displayed one summer in the late 90s, when he responded to a letter she thought he would never read.

I’ve begun digging into the archives of Sacks’ writing. To say there is a lot is an understatement. He wrote right up until the end of his life, and a note on his personal site says the latest pieces will be released posthumously in the coming weeks. Face-Blind, published in The New Yorker in 2010, is a fascinating story about Sacks’ lifetime of dealing with face blindness, or the inability to recognize familiar faces, sometimes even his own reflection. What was often mistaken for social ineptitude, rudeness, or even Asperger’s by acquaintances, was in fact just a misinterpretation of his difficulty recognizing faces.

Next on my list is his book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for A Hat: And Other Clinical Tales, in which he recounts case histories of various bizarre and fantastical neurological disorders. Sacks was an amazing storyteller, and though he’s gone I’m much looking forward to spending some more time with him.