DAILY BRIEFING
Pressure

May 12 - In a hastily-written, disjointed entry on Moron Abroad last night, I mentioned that Tuesday's tabloid headlines had made a fuss over the Mary Donaldson interview and documentary that had appeared on television the night before. One headline even broke it down into familiar terms: "Mary's TV Exam. PASSED. Yes, she can talk."

I mentioned that I had interpreted this as a positive omen because I first noticed the tabloid headlines at the 7-Eleven beside the entrance to Studieskolen as I was on my way in for my own oral exam.

I've been modeling my Danish after that of the princess-to-be. She speaks Danish slowly, cautiously, and without too many big words—sort of like my own president speaks English. I'd been thinking about Mary as I prepped for this exam. It helped me overcome the natural urge to speak quickly, to overreach on vocabulary, to try to sound more "native" by mumbling over the ends of words.

For the oral exams we had been split into pairs. Each pair was scheduled for its own forty-five minute slot. Over the course of the exam, each individual would be randomly assigned one of six possible subjects for discussion: three books we had read and three "field trips" we had taken. We would be required to hold forth on that subject for ten minutes. After that, we would have to maintain some kind of conversation with our partner, on subject matter that would be a complete surprise to us.

Those were the points on which most of us agreed going into the exam. In fact there was a lot of uncertainty—the natural result of our teacher describing the exam to us in detail in rapid-fire Danish. Some students thought we would be performing in front of a panel of three teachers, rather than merely our own. Some thought we were going to be asked to improvise exchanges between, say, a doctor and a patient, a pharmacist and a shopper, or a job-application and a receptionist. Some thought we were going to be hooded and wired with electrodes. It was all a big mystery.

I had paired myself up with Japan, whose Danish is at about my own level and who also seemed to appreciate the importance of sticking to short, simple, uncomplicated language.

The Scene of the Crime

We entered the classroom (pictured above) at 11:30. We were each directed to select a folded piece of paper on which our topic for discussion would be found. Japan got the book "Where Is Bo?" I got "The Medallion."

Japan was all smiles, and for good reason: "Where Is Bo?" is written at the four-year-old level. It's the story of a young boy (the eponymous Bo) who gets lost while running an errand for his parents. They look for him, they report his absence to the police, and eventually they get a call from a police officer who says Bo can be found at the house of some old lady just down the street from them. They go and fetch Bo, who observes that maybe he shouldn't run any more errands by himself until he's seven years old. I'm sorry for the spoiler, but that's the entire dramatic content of the book.

I myself was not all smiles. "The Medallion" was a problematic draw. It was the longer, more involved story of a Polish immigrant named Peter Kowalski, who wakes up one day to find himself in a Danish hospital with no memory of his past, or even how he ended up in the hospital. As the story evolves, we learn he's a private detective with some questionable ties to the narcotics industry. He falls in love with his nurse. There's a secret microfilm. Hardly the stuff of monosyllabic discussion—and what's worse, the author was our teacher.

After we'd selected our topics, the teacher asked which of us wanted Queen Margrethe. We looked at one another blankly. She repeated the question: which of you will have Queen Margrethe? This was clearly one of those "surprise" moments of the exam. I shrugged and I said I would. The Queen then entered the classroom and—

No, that's not what happened. The teacher just withdrew a coin from her pocket, flipped it, and it came up not Margrethe (her face is the "heads" on Danish coins). Japan would go first.

He rattled off an admirably succinct precis of the plot. The teacher asked him a follow-up question or two, and that was that. Brilliant. Fantastic. She was so proud of him. And so on.

She turned to me. I choked.

"The Medallion," I said (it will be understood that all our conversation was in Danish). "The book is about a man which his name is Peter Kowalski. One day he opens his eye and he is in the hospital. He does not know why he is in the hospital. He has pain. His head has pain, and his stomach, and his. . . in his hand there is a hole from a pistol. Also there is other pain. He does not remember what has happened or why is there all of pain. He remembers, maybe, I feel, that he was in a taxi, and the taxi-driver. . . the taxi-driver. . . was not so good. There is a nurse. Peter Kowalski likes the nurse."

The teacher laughed and observed that all men liked nurses.

"Yes," I said. "It is their clothes." (I don't know the word for uniform.)

Things only got worse as I began grappling with the nefarious criminal forces at work against poor old Peter, and the unlikely discovery of his mother's medallion in his hospital room, after he's been discharged from the hospital—let alone the thematic notions of guilt, innocence, and moral responsibility. I struggled horribly, wanting at every moment to go flying into complex sentences with subordinate clauses but finding myself trapped with incompatible pronouns or verbs for which I only knew the present tense. It's tough when you want to say "Peter Kowalski is struggling with his own identity, but at the same time he's struggling to delineate the moral universe in which he exists," and the best you can do is, "Peter remembers nothing about him. He does not know is he good."

Finally I played the only card left in my hand: transparent flattery. I observed that I had enjoyed the book immensely and thought the author was fantastic.

"Very good," the teacher (and author) observed. "Not as good as Japan, but you obviously didn't prepare for two hours at home like he did." (In fact I had.) "You only made two grammatical errors, but I realize this was hard and you were trying to use some difficult and complex language. You're not at that level yet. You need to keep it simple and use short words."

Then Japan and I were instructed to draw random photographs from a pile and we took turns asking and answering questions about those photographs. That lasted another ten minutes or so, and suddenly the teacher was telling us that although she hadn't yet graded our written exams, the Module One exam was so heavily weighted on the Oral side that she already knew we would both pass.

"Welcome to Module Two!" she exclaimed, smiling.

Japan and I high-fived.

I'm not entirely sure why. Module Two begins on Monday, and it's only going to get harder from here.

Dagens Ord

The word of the day is hovedpine, or "head pain," meaning "headache." Aspirin and Tylenol are hovedpinepiller, or "headpainpills."

Fennomania!

Today is a national holiday in Finland, where they celebrate the 1806 birthday of philosopher, scholar, patriot, and journalist Johan Vilhelm Snellman.

Mr. Snellman spent his entire career fighting to change the official language of Finland from Russian (and sometimes Swedish) to Finnish (and sometimes Swedish). He was responsible for "Fennomania," which was a lot like Beatlemania except that it centered on a guttural semi-Turkic language instead of pop music.

The slogan for Fennomania was "Finnish Finland Now," and although this helped accellerate support for the movement it was also misinterpreted by Russia with predictably unhappy results.

Today is also Limerick Day. The two holidays seem made for each other:

There once lived a Finn named J. Snellman
Who said "Finland's going to Hell, man."
   He then agitated
   til Finnish was rated
the Finn's formal tongue (which was swell, man).

(Other) Birthdays and Holidays

Mr. Snellman shares his birthday with Emilio Estevez (1962), Steve Winwood (1948), George Carlin (1937), Tom Snyder (1936), Burt Bacharach (1929), Yogi Berra (1925), Katharine Hepburn (1907), and Florence Nightingale (1820).

Happy Hump Day!

2004, The Moron's Almanac™

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